Out of the tunnel

So, those overtaking events which I wrote about when I posted last week…  We’ll get to that in a minute. Firstly, a quick word about those deadlines that got in the way of posting my blog for most of January.

The biggest of these was a mid-January interview at the Wellcome Trust for a University Award, a hugely prestigious award which would fund five years of research and ensure me a permanent job at the end of it.  The interview was friendly but very, very tough.  At least one question caught me on the hop and I answered it to the best of my ability although not, as it turns out, terribly well.  Because the following week I found out that I had not succeeded.

This news flattened me, almost entirely literally.  I lay on the table in my office and howled about it for a good three minutes.  Over a year of effort, involving two two-part applications (one a detailed revision) had gone into getting to the interview stage.  This was a project I believed in passionately.  The criticisms of my project were directed at what I felt were two of its fundamental elements.  I was left wondering whether or not I had any sort of future as a professional historian.

The prospect was terrifying. My current grant from Wellcome enabled me to return to academia after a five-year break.  Given that this was my second act already, I knew there would be no comeback if I was forced to leave academia now.  But reverting to the status of temporary lecturer at this point in my career seemed equally unthinkable. I am, as my by-line states, a wife and mother as well as a historian. Two young children make me much less flexible than when I finished my PhD, in terms of time as well as geography.  The sort of commuting to make ends meet discussed by Cath Feely simply isn’t an option for me any more.

The problem was that there was no time for me to assimilate any of these emotions of grief or fear.  Because more deadlines loomed – a resubmission to the European Research Council and an all-day interview for a prestigious academic fellowship at Leeds – both on the same day.  Both in their different ways were equally vital. Both required very different things from me in terms of communicating my research plans coherently and, above all, with passion and conviction.

So, while the previous 15 months of applications might have felt like something of a tunnel, they were nothing to those last three weeks of January.  My life was haunted by these two projects – the written application and the oral presentation and interview.  I ate and slept them. On the Sunday before the deadline my husband and I went for a three-hour hike; I rehearsed answers to interview questions the whole way up and revised the role of the postdoctoral research assistant on the ERC proposal the whole way down.  I rehearsed and revised my presentation daily, explaining slides to imaginary audiences as I pounded the pavement on my morning run.

And in the end…

Reader, I got the job.

As of 1st May I will be University Academic Fellow in Legacies of War.  It is (subject to probation) a permanent position as member of the School of History. It is, in all sorts of ways, my dream job and, in obtaining it, I have not only established that I have an academic career but finally, definitively made that transition from early to mid-career. I have come out of the tunnel and into a landscape at once deeply familiar and strangely new. I am delighted, terrified, exhilarated. And no, the reality, the permanence of it all, and what that means for both me and my family, still hasn’t quite sunk in yet.  I still keep getting small shocks of amazement and happiness, at a comment from a colleague, at the sight of my library card.

So there you have it. Now I too have my own particular story of the path I took as a young academic.  It has not been an easy path so far, although yes, unequivocally, it has been worth it to get here.  I am profoundly grateful, to more people than I can possibly say without sounding like a very bad Oscar’s speech, that it doesn’t end here. So I repeat what I have been saying, if occasionally through tears and gritted teeth, since December:

Onwards! And this time, upwards as well!

Now, about that book I need to write…

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Seventeen Soldiers

With the new term upon us, the Legacies of War seminar series is about to resume.  Our first talk will take place on 10th October at 5:15 in Banham Theatre, University of Leeds.  Professor Anthony Fletcher will be speaking on ‘Seventeen Soldiers: Life and Death on the Western Front’. (For early modernists among you, yes, this is Professor Anthony Fletcher, formerly of the University of Essex. His new book, upon which his talk will be based, applies his expertise in the history of gender and childhood to the subject of the soldier’s experience in the First World War.)

Anthony Fletcher

Back to School

This blog has had a bit of a summer holiday.  Not a complete holiday, lazing in the sun and recharging batteries; two weeks of toddler illness and the start of big school for my eldest rather put paid to that.  But here we are at the beginning of the new term.  Marquees are going up around campus to help welcome the new students; language students no longer clog the lifts and staircases in the building that houses my office; my husband and I are slowly getting used to having a schoolboy in the house and to the lunacy of a morning routine that now involves a 30-minute school run and an evening routine of making packed lunches.  There is a chill in the air; I have sorted out the winter woollies (thereby guaranteeing a heatwave in the near future); I was seriously contemplating the advisability of gloves on the walk to work this morning.  Yes, autumn has arrived; the new school year has started.

I love the excitement of the start of the new school year.  As an academic I have never really left it behind in terms of the annual rhythms of my life. This year that excitement has been rather more stress-laden than usual, what with the need to help launch the first of my progeny on his own voyage of academic discovery. He seems such a frail craft at this stage, and the oceans of academe are indeed mighty from the vantage point of reception.  Winds have been set fair so far, but I am sure there will be squalls ahead.

In the meantime, the map of my own voyage through the term is filled with exciting potential destinations and discoveries.  Up first is the return of the Leeds Legacies of War seminar series, this year bigger and better with additional funding from the Schools of History and Modern Languages, as well as the Leeds Humanities Research Institute.  We have even managed to be organized enough to produce a term card this term:

LoW Term Card (2)(This is slightly false advertising as at least two of the seminars are going to have to move to larger venues but we haven’t been able to confirm where with central booking yet. More details will be advertised closer to the time.)

On a more specifically medical line, I am organising a workshop on the history of medicine and the First World War in Europe on 17th and 18th October.  More details can be found here, although I am afraid I have had to close registration due to the number of people who have already registered.  Full reports will, of course, follow, and I hope the workshop will lead to more exciting projects in the future.

Further afield, the terms looks to be a busy one for travel. At the end of the month I will attending the International Society for First World War Studies’ conference on Encountering the Other in Wartime in Paris and in November I am off to Ypres for the In Flanders’ Field Museum’s conference on War and Trauma.  There will also be a trip to London in my role as postdoctoral research fellow on the Legacies of War ‘Discovering First World War Heritage’ project and various trips to Salford and around the Yorkshire region for research and (whisper it) possibly broadcast purposes.

In between, I have a fair bit of writing to do: a couple of articles, draft chapters for the book proposal and, of course, keeping this blog up-to-date.  Writing it all down is fairly intimidating on the one hand, but enormously exciting on the other.  Like my son, I am embarking on a voyage, not into the unknown as he is, but certainly to destinations far enough on the horizon that I cannot clearly discern their shape and form.  It should be quite a journey, and I do hope you will accompany me, at least some of the way.  It is always good to have traveling companions.

In which I go multimedia

It has taken some time (copyright queries now all answered) but the podcast of my talk to the Legacies of War seminar series is now available:

I admit that I have only listened to a few seconds of it, but the editor assures me that it sounds okay.  If you enjoy it, please check out some of the other talks from the series which can be found here.

 

Blowing my own trumpet

The following bit of advertising feels a bit awkward, as it is for my own paper, but the next meeting of the University of Leeds Legacies of War Seminar will take place on Thursday, 25th April at 5:15 in Room 3.11 Michael Sadler Building.  I will be talking about the conflicts between a desire for masculine adventure and religious principles among the founders of the Friends’ Ambulance Unit.  All welcome.

Jessica Meyer

Cake, biscuits and lemony pudding

Cake: It may not be obvphotoious from this picture, but on one of the post-it notes in the ‘hospitality’ section is written the word ‘CAKE’.  This, along with all the other post-its, was part of a ‘brain dump’ exercise undertaken as part of a facilitated meeting of the Legacies of War steering group aimed at defining the next steps for the project.  The process took 3 busy very hours, moving from defining desirable outcomes for interested parties (individuals, funders and audiences, both in the flesh and on-line) through the brain-dump of achieving those ends to prioritizing aims and, via a series of specific questions, suggesting practical steps for achieving those priorities.

The final result was this:

photo (2)a rather neater arrangement of post-it notes.  ‘Cake’ did rather get lost in the shuffle, with priorities being defined as the way the project is run, locating the project in the international context of war commemoration and breaking down barriers. However a few immediate plans of action were decided upon and the process, unlike anything I have participated in before, was a fascinating experience.  I am not sure precisely how useful it would be more than very occasionally, but as a focusing exercise it certainly worked in the short term and hopefully will show results in the medium to long term as well.  And cake, we all concluded, is not a bad answer to any question.

Biscuits: Following this intense morning, four of us then headed over to the Imperial War Museum North for a meeting of regional scholars to discuss the forthcoming exhibition on the First World War in Manchester and the North West.  While the (very nice) biscuits were promoted as a principle attraction, the discussion of pretty much every aspect of the war, from recruitment and enlistment to demobilisation and disability managed to distract us from them most effectively.  The scope of the proposed exhibition is vast, covering aspects relating to both civil and military experience over the course of the entire war, with the locality serving as the focus.  As a result, I suspect the museum’s researchers got more than they perhaps bargained for in terms of suggestions of subjects to be pursued.  It will be very interesting to see how the project develops.  In the meantime, I got to take away a good deal of information about the demographics of the Manchester region c.1914 and some food for thought about population mobility in the years before the war.

Lemony pudding: These were the puddings on offer at lunch on the second day of the Social History Society conference, held at the beginning of the week.  I was only able to attend two days but those were both so full that I haven’t yet been able to fully absorb everything that I learned. Highlights were meeting Carina Peniston-Bird, with whom I had a chat over said lemony puddings, and Cath Feely, whose work on conscientious objectors’ reading in wartime is intriguing.  My top paper, though, has to be Helen Smith’s on masculinity and sexuality in northern working-class communities in the years just after the First World War with its important challenge to Joanna Bourke’s argument about male intimacy as a product of the trenches.  It reaffirmed for me the importance of work and professional identity as key to understanding masculinities, something that I need to explore more in relation to my ideas about the centrality of life cycle and maturity to these understandings as well.

So, lots to think about on all sorts of levels.  Never underestimate the power of dessert.

AHRC ‘Connected Communities’ Showcase: 12th March, 2013

I have been spending the last several weeks frantically writing, something that may come as a bit of a surprise to any regular readers out there.  At the beginning of February I realized that I had three months to write three conference and/or seminar papers, plus several planning documents, so I have had to get my head down.  The results of my industry are drafts of a variety of things, including a call for papers that you will be seeing a lot more of in the future, I suspect.

In between writing and the general demands of family life, however, I also seem to have spent a great deal of time in London, mainly in relation to the AHRC and HLF-funded Research for Community Heritage project that I am now a postdoctoral research fellow for (this is in addition to my Wellcome fellowship which is on-going).  The project is part of phase two of the AHRC’s Connected Communities programme which is funding some 200 projects bringing together community groups and academic institutions in a variety of ways.  After a session on public engagement for postdoctoral fellows which I attended last week, this week I found myself in London again for a showcase event which allowed me to get a much better sense of the breadth of the programme, as well as bringing me into contact with an extraordinary range of highly engaged (and engaging) individuals.

The day started with a series of short presentations from representatives of the AHRC and the programme’s leadership fellows, followed by a key note address from David Willetts, the Minister of State for Universities and Science.  This sought to emphasize the importance he, as minister, placed on humanities and social science research which he believed to be a ‘bold, significant, world-class participant in UK research’.  He also labelled as ‘unfair’ the impression that the humanities had less connection with the wider world than the sciences.  I couldn’t help feeling there was an element of the lady protesting too much with this. Should the government really need to reassure arts and humanities researchers that they are just as important as all the big scientists and their funding, ring-fenced with funding for the sciences was safe?  If so, it must be down to the impression given by the policies and pronouncements of said government.  The message was also rather undermined by the answer given to a question from the floor about how arts and humanities researchers might influence policy, to the effect that ministers might be accessed via the chief scientist of each department.  Apparently this included social scientists.  I am not sure this was of much comfort to various groups whose excellent work in the arts, often in collaboration, was on display.

The bulk of the remainder of the day was an opportunity to explore the projects whose work was showcased around the venue and participate in breakout sessions.  I missed the session which involved weaving small circlets but did go to a showing of the Imperial War Museum’s film ‘Whose Remembrance?’, based on their on-going project into the black and colonial history of the world wars.  This was fascinating, not only because it tied so beautifully into last week’s Legacies of War seminar from Santanu Das, but also because of the questions it raised about how communities can be encouraged to engage with archives which, all too often they feel excluded from by institutional gate-keepers.  Given that communities are often the very sources that these archives spring from, this is something that needs to be tackled, something that I hope to contribute to through my work with groups involved in Research for Community Heritage.  Making sure that the Liddle and Bamji Collections here at Leeds are better known and fully exploited by all interested communities has suddenly become a very important part of what I am trying to do.  And I was very excited to make the acquaintance of  Cliff Pereira who worked on the Bamji Collection when it was still held in Sidcup.  My one reservation about the session was the rather London-centric nature of the discussion of archival resources.  Given the community-based nature of the research that Connected Communities supports, local and regional archives and their accessibility to community groups really needs to form part of the discussion.

Outside the breakout sessions there were 30-odd stands presenting information about a huge variety of projects.  Many involved mapping and I had long and potentially fruitful discussions with researchers from Birmingham and Bristol about how to present images and information relating to historical geography in an interesting and accessible way.  I ended the day with a fascinating conversation with Paul Crawford from University of Nottingham about health versus medical humanities which gave me some exciting new ideas about how to frame aspects of my own research.  The focus on community activity and expertise within healthcare implicit in health humanities is something that chimes with my long-term interests in the role of families in supporting disabled service personnel.

The formal schedule concluded with round-table discussion about how the Connected Communities project  could evolve in order to achieve ends that will include, as hoped by Keri Facer, one of the programme’s leadership fellows, a change in how universities approach and structure research in the arts and humanities.  Few definite conclusions were reached, but points were raised about interactions with other funding bodies, the need for spaces to share failures and discuss difficulties as well as celebrate achievements, international connections between communities, how resources can be made visible and accessible and, again, that question of how the research being undertaken might affect public policy.

All in all, it was a stimulating, if exhausting day (not helped by the cancellation of my train ‘due to technical failure’ which made it that much longer).  Quite apart from all the ideas generated for the various research projects I am engaged with, and the potential for at least one, if not two, new sources of funding for the Legacies of War project, it was my first experiment with live tweeting a professional event.  I am still not sure I have worked out how to do it.  I certainly wouldn’t want to try at an academic conference as I think I might do injustice to a denser, more complex argument simply through lack of proper concentration.  And I owe a huge apology to my friends and family who, through the linking of my twitter feed and Facebook page, were subjected to a stream of posts of little or no interest outside my professional sphere.  Yet again the question of the work/life balance raises its ugly head in the most unexpected places.