Care Conference Report

This is a guest post from Ellie Murray, a first-year PhD student at the University of Leeds working on children’s learning about parenthood in Britain between 1930 and 1980. Ellie was one of the co-organisers of the Who Cares? The past and present of caring conference held at the University of Leeds on 27th and 28th March, 2017.

This two-day conference, organised by the Women, Gender and Sexuality, Health, Medicine and Society and Medieval Studies research clusters at the University of Leeds, explored the past and present of caring. As well as traditional academic papers on the histories of care, a workshop provided space to explore current issues associated with care in academic institutions. Through this session, we explored how researchers at all stages of their academic careers care for themselves and for others. Panellists highlighted difficulties currently experienced within higher education, and were able to identify workable ways the academe can help to ensure personal well-being, and further support staff and students in their varied roles as carers.

Through this report, I will draw together some common themes which arose across the two days, before providing some reflections on the future directions of these discussions.

Care in Academia

As part of the care in academia workshop, academic staff, early career researchers and students formed four panels. These addressed personal experiences of motherhood, fatherhood, caring for those with additional needs, and self-care within the academe. These conversations were emotional, intensive and at times sensitive in their nature, but I will attempt to pull out some of the main discussion points and suggested changes within academic practice, raised across these panel sessions.

Guilt: One of the more striking reflections to come out of this workshop was the widespread feeling of guilt amongst the students and academics represented on the panels. On the motherhood and fatherhood panels in particular, parents studying or working within academia reported a sense of guilt that their careers prevented from becoming the parent they aspired to be. On the other hand, many working parents felt that due to their transition to parental caregiving roles, they were half the professional they once were, and felt that in some cases, they could not commit themselves as fully to their academic careers as they would perhaps like to. Childcare routines and nursery or school pick-up times mean that some parents cannot schedule meetings at certain times of the day, need to leave work at certain times, and cannot easily attend evening lectures or travel significant distances to present conference papers. For one mother in particular, her conversion to part-time work led to feelings of isolation, as she no longer felt included in the conversations within the department.

A need for greater understanding and flexibility for working parents was highlighted in these discussions. For example, promoting the possibility of skyping into conferences, and for student parents, the ability to move seminars classes and easily extend submission deadlines, to accommodate the reality of raising small children.

During the self-care session, some panellists and attendees spoke about the pressures associated with an academic career, which can lead individuals to work in the evenings, weekends and in some cases, over the bank holidays. The perceived need to be constantly productive, either in doing intellectual work or cultural activities weighs heavily upon researchers. Academia can often be stressful and isolating, and so it was suggested that the importance of resting and switching off from work entirely should be emphasised and indeed, encouraged.

Support: This sense of guilt can be attributed in part the difficulties of achieving a good work life balance, and the lack of support received from some institutions.  The Research Excellence Framework (REF) seems to pose a significant problem for parents. It was generally felt that the requirements upon staff submitting work to the REF did not adequately take into consideration the effect maternity leave would have upon academic outputs. Permanent academic staff are required to submit four outputs for each REF. Staff can submit one less output for every period of maternity leave taken within the seven year REF cycle, but it was felt among the mothers that this does acknowledge the amount of time each submission reasonably takes to prepare. Further issues with the REF system may be identified with the opportunity of shared parental leave. The motherhood and fatherhood panels also drew attention to examples of good practice, through their experiences of dealing with certain institutions or funding bodies. Some research grants accommodate periods of maternity or paternity leave within the period of the award.

The lack of support within academia was also raised in a discussion related to the care of those with additional needs. It was felt that UK institutions did not adequately support colleagues coping with bereavement. There is no standard procedure for notifying colleagues or students of a bereavement, which has the potential to make a situation more difficult for academic staff, who often have their own office spaces and teach different classes each term. Grief has a long-term impact upon individuals, and for some, a death can change life dramatically. It was suggested that UK institutions could offer some form of individualised support, such as providing a trained professional for the bereaved to speak to, if they feel this would be helpful.

The need for self-care within the research community was raised by the participants on the self-care panel. Research can be highly emotive or sensitive, and by their very nature, some testimonies or subjects can weigh heavily upon academics. The affect that research can have upon individuals needs to be recognised and discussed more widely, and it was suggested that academics be given an appropriate space in which to talk, digest, and reflect on their emotions.

Relationship between Care and Academia:

A significant point of discussion was of the various ways in which caregiving roles intersect with academia. Caregiving in its many different forms can change working practices, and shape individual relationships with research topics or historical subjects. It was felt among some of those on the motherhood and fatherhood panels that becoming a parent heightened their empathy with the experiences of those in the past, or changed the focus a study. Participants discussing care for those with additional needs felt that academia could act as form of therapy, by providing the tools with which to reflect upon or further understand changes in everyday life. The rhythm of academic work also helped those transitioning to the role of a caregiver, and their adjustment to new routines, or ways of working.

Through discussions on the motherhood and fatherhood panels, it was felt that shifting priorities could change the ways in which new parents worked, or the time they allocated to certain tasks. Some of the fathers on the panel said their experiences of becoming parents had forced to have time away from their work, to leave the office at a reasonable hour and make time for family holidays.

These personal experiences highlight some of the ways in which the flexibility and creative opportunities offered by academia can be made to fit around, or even complement caregiving responsibilities. At the same time, there is still much work to be done in improving experiences of a healthy work life balance.

Histories of Care

Panels on experiences of care were followed by traditional research papers exploring the histories of care. Holly Furneaux (Cardiff University) delivered the keynote lecture, discussing care between soldiers in the Crimean War. This was followed by papers on the themes of Care in Wartime, Parenthood, and Violent Care of Animals on the second day of the conference.

One of the advantages of a thematic conference is that it provides speakers and delegates the opportunity to engage with research from a wide-range of historical fields and periods, which can provide interesting questions for your own work. Several papers explored the relationship between caregivers and the recipients of care. On the Violent Care of Animals panel, Sunny Harrison (University of Leeds) examined the violent care of horses in the medieval period, while Jonathan Saha (University of Leeds) explored the care of working elephants in colonial Burma, which were captured from the wide elephant population. These papers argued that care and violence are often entangled when it comes to the care of working animals, as what could be thought of as violence was often used to instil discipline, and not intended to cause unnecessary suffering. The speakers offered thought provoking reflections on the power dynamics of caring relationships, particularly of the status of the non-human patient is unequal to that of the caregiver or handler. This raises important questions about who the care is intended to benefit in these situations, the animal or the human. As part of the Parenthood panel, Rose Sawyer (University of Leeds) examines medieval changeling motifs. The changeling often took the place of a young saint, and was characterised by a failure to thrive or meet expected developmental milestones. In these motifs, parents or guardians continued to care deeply for their infants, despite the anxieties caused. In this sense, Sawyer argues that these motifs can offer a perspective on the experiences of caring for disabled children in the medieval period.

Many speakers reflected upon the relationship between gender and care. Joanna Phillips (University of Leeds) explored bodily care during the Crusades. Care in the Crusades has often been examined through the lens of medical care, but distinctions between care and cure were very fine in the middle ages, with therapies tailored towards the senses, such as food, drink and smells. Looking for acts of care, rather than seeking references to trained medical practitioners, Phillips argues that it is possible to locate women in the Crusades, and understand the caring roles they played, which could be construed as an extension of their domestic roles.

Several papers explored themes around masculine caregiving. In her keynote lecture, Furneaux (University of Cardiff) explored the nature of soldierly heroism, and care between soldiers during the Crimean War. Soldiers were often perceived as nurturing and compassionate, with cases of unmarried soldiers adopting children from the battlefield, and male nurses caring for casualties. Furneaux argued that these men were often described by their contemporaries as being “as caring as women”, raising questions about how different forms of caregiving intersect with cultural gender norms.

The gendered nature of caregiving was further explored on the Care in Wartime panel by Laura Boyd (University of Leeds) and Rosemary Wall (University of Hull). Boyd examined the masculine identities of stretcher-bearers in the First World War. These solider did not bear arms but played important roles in attending to wounded soldiers, and Boyd argued that this form of care was not necessarily seen as feminine in the context of the Western Front. Rosemary Wall spoke about her attempts to uncover the experiences of male volunteers in the British Red Cross in the First World War, as popular memoirs such ‘A Testament of Youth’ have led to assumptions that these organisations were dominated by female volunteers providing care for wounded soldiers. On the ‘Parenthood’ panel, Nehaal Bajwar (University of Sussex) discussed cultural resources for ‘involved fatherhood’ in modern day Pakistan, while my paper explored public images of adolescent caregiving and private family experiences of older brotherhood in post-1945 Britain.

Within these papers, it was implied that men participating in care were in some way subverting or reshaping masculine ideals.  This implies that caregiving is an inherently feminine role. As made clear during the discussions of motherhood in academia, the perception that women are naturally more competent carers than men can be inhibitive to mothers balancing academic work and caring responsibilities. This has led me to question whether conceptualising gender in this way is actually useful as an analytical tool. I have begun to consider whether examining family care in a gendered way could in fact mask how individuals understood their relationship with care, and the care which they provided for others.


As a result of this conference, the participants and delegates have put forward suggestions about how we can progress our conversations from here. These experiences and discussions need to be heard as widely as possible, to promote tangible changes within academic culture. A report with suggestions for changes in academic practice, proposed as part of the care in academia workshop, will be circulated to conference participants and other groups working on related issues around equality and diversity in the academy. There have also been calls for further events exploring the particular issues faced by certain groups within academia, such as postgraduate researchers. A recently published report found that one in two PhD researchers experience some form of psychological distress, demonstrating the necessity for a discussion around mental health, research practice and institutional support for this section of the academic community.

This event, and the future plans arising from it, highlight the importance of such discussions, and of pooling experiences and ideas for improving working practice within UK institutions. Indeed, this conference forms part of a wider series of conversations taking place at the University of Leeds. In October, staff and students gathered to discuss women’s experiences within academia, and later this month, a conference organised by Jonathan Saha and Anyaa Anim-Addo will address the under-representation of Black and minority ethnic communities in the field of history, and discuss the difficulties faced by individuals working or studying in predominantly white universities.

It is likely that more events of this nature will take place within the academic community in the near future. Through raising the profile of such discussions, and circulating examples of best practice, we hope that substantive changes within academic culture can be made, to create a more equal and supportive working environments for current and future academic researchers.