Working in Mud Time

I am on strike today.  As a member of the UCU, I am neither manning an open day drop-in session nor attending a classification meeting in an attempt to get across to university management that the gender pay gap in academic salaries (over £7500 at Leeds) and the ever-increasing casualisation of academic labour (51% on temporary contracts at Leeds) are things that really matter and need to be addressed to ensure sustainability of the sector.  To my third-year students, I apologise. You have worked hard and deserve to have your scholarly achievements properly ratified and acknowledged.  But nothing can take away from these achievements and, if we collectively learned anything from studying men and masculinities in Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is that gender hegemonies need to be challenged at all levels.  To prospective students, I am sorry if you feel if you had a wasted journey, but there will still be time for you to judge for yourselves if Leeds is the right place for you to study, knowing that it can only be a better place to do so if those who are teaching you are fairly rewarded for their labour and don’t suffer from the vagaries of job insecurity.

So instead of sitting in foyers and meeting rooms, I am sitting in the garden typing this.  As urged by my union rep, I am staying away from the university, not answering emails, not preparing for next week’s Somme 100 commemoration events, or the talk I am giving in mid-July, or reading applications for the two jobs that I am on the shortlisting panels for.  But on the table beside me is the chapter of my book which I am going to spend the afternoon editing in preparation for sending it to a publisher for consideration.

But surely that is doing academic work, you say.  This book is Research, the result of work done as an employee of the university (and only able to be done because I was a university employee).  If published in good time and of sufficient quality it will be submitted for the REF, by which the university as my employer will be judged.  Working on it today is, must be, strike breaking.

Which is one way of looking at it, but there is, inevitably another perspective.  Because this book as a product of my labour is mine and not my employers, however much my colleagues might have contributed, however important an office and official email were for getting the research done.  All books are, as Matt Houlbrook has noted, co-written or collaborations, but once published this book will be in my name.  It will be my calling card for the rest of my life.  If I leave the university, I will take that credit with me to wherever I go next.  The value of the book as a product accrues to me (and to my putative publisher) not to my employer.

It can be easy to forget this fact under the pressure of meeting deadlines and hitting targets.  It is even easier to forget, in the welter of work created by teaching and public engagement, that writing this book, shaping my original research into a form that communicates both the data and my analysis of it clearly , accurately and engagingly, is what I do best and why I do what I do.  I was able to come back to academia because of good fortune and the support of others, but I chose to come back because  I could not not write history and doing so in an academic setting made the most sense.  While working in publishing I spent large parts of my ‘leisure’ editing a collection of essays, writing articles and finishing my first book.  Writing history wasn’t my job, but it was my work, and it will remain so whatever paid employment I have in the future.

Such a sense of vocation is not uncommon in academia and it is, of course, dangerously exploitable by employers who use can use it to excuse poor rates of pay and exploitative contracts.  Yet just because it can be used this way does not mean it can be denied either.  To fail to acknowledge love of one’s work, to view its value solely as reflected by the pay levels and working conditions it attracts is to cede the value of the labour to the paymaster.

So this afternoon, after months of attempting to fit my writing around all my other work, both paid and unpaid, I will be reclaiming the value of my work not for my employer but for me, because this is who I am and this is what I do.  The same applies to the work of my colleagues; our work has value for the university but also for us and it deserves to be acknowledged as something more than the purely instrumental.  Fair pay and working conditions would be a decent place to start, although only a start.

Serendiptously, I reread Robert Frost’s poem ‘Two Tramps in Mud Time’ this morning (I was sidetracked in my hunt for ‘Mending Walls’ in an attempt to demonstrate the dangers of quoting out of context in political debate).  Frost’s eloquent anthem to the joys of manual labour (and Vermont weather) acknowledges the priority of claims to work for pay over labouring for love but nonetheless concludes:

But yield who will to their separation

My object in living is to unite

My avocation and my vocation

As my two eyes make one in sight.

Only where love and need are one,

And the work is play for mortal stakes,

Is the deed ever really done

For Heaven and the future’s sake.

In giving into the impulse of love on a day when the claims of need are being so strongly asserted, I am seeking, like Frost, not to dismiss the priority of that need but rather to unite with it in hope for a better future.

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