What I do

This isn’t going to be a response to the recent Andrew Adonis discussions, at least not directly.  I’ve put in my direct tuppence ‘orth on Twitter already. It is, however, going to be a response to one of the more obscure byways that the discussion trickled into over the course of the day arising out of two comments. The first, from an academic, pointed out that academics really aren’t very good at communicating what it is we actually do. Listing all the jobs we have to do in a way that can give an impression of competitive business, yes; actually communicating to non-academics what our job entails, not so much. Which was reinforced by the second, from an anonymous Twitter user who, agreeing with Adonis’s argument about the laziness and unproductiveness of academics who don’t teach during the summer, stated that academics had never done a ‘real job’.

So the following is my attempt to explain what it is about my work that feels like a ‘real job’, one that bears comparison with other white collar professional and service jobs which form a significant chunk of the British economy.  It comes with all sorts of caveats, to whit:

  • This is a reflection of my own experiences. Other academics do other things in different proportions. It reflects the stage I am in the academic life cycle and my own rather original route to a permanent position in academia. It reflects that I am on a research contract and hold an external research grant.
  • I am not attempting to engage in competitive busyness with this list. It is a list of roles I do or have done. I don’t do them all at once, although there have definitely been occasions when I have attempted to multi-task too much, at the expense of my own health and happiness, and those around me.  I am still working my way towards a work-life balance that works for me.
  • There is an important case to be made for ensuring that academics have the necessary space for reflection, about research, teaching, public engagement and everything else that we are asked to do. This is not the case I am making, but it is an important one.

All that being said, this then is what my job as a senior lecturer with an external grant entails:

  1. I teach. Not in the same way as a school teacher (primary or secondary) teaches, but I spend time in a classroom communicating my subject to students and I have done almost every teaching semester of every year since 2015 (plus for two years in 2005 and 2006 when I was on temporary contracts). This involves devising modules, creating reading lists and ensuring that the works they contain are available to students (in conjunction with library professionals), organising assessments (essay questions, exams, oral presentations, research portfolios, posters), assessing, marking, providing feedback, writing and delivering lectures, preparing and delivering seminars, identifying or creating materials to use for in-class analysis and discussion.  For postgraduate students (PhD and MA) whose dissertations I supervise, I offer regular one-to-one or two-to-one (we co-supervise PhD students) supervisions, a minimum of ten supervisions per student per year.  I prepare for these by reading students’ work in advance, up to a complete thesis draft for PhD students approaching submission.
  2. I write grant bids. These are of various sizes, from £70 to cover the permission costs of some images from an internal research fund to over £1 million for a five-year externally funded grant. I do this with the support of our research office, who can advise on what needs to be or can be included in the budget, and of my colleagues, who give their time to read and comment on my drafts. But I am the one writing and rewriting, devising and justifying the budget and, in some cases, presenting the project to an interview panel.
  3. I manage budgets. Again, various sizes, from £500 pa to organise events for a research cluster to that £1 million+ over five years. Again, I have support from the university finance office, but I sign off on my team’s expenses; I am the one with the calculator, working out how much we can afford to spend on that unexpected piece of equipment, and justifying it in the subsequent report; and it will be my name in the frame when the project is audited.
  4. I manage people. It is my responsibility to make sure that members of my team not only contribute appropriately to the overall project but also achieve career development goals of various types (successfully completing their PhD; securing a publishing contract/post-project position/etc.) I need to make sure that they work together as a team and that they thrive as individuals.
  5. I am involved in recruitment. I write job specs, sit on short-listing committees and have even chaired interview panels. I help recruit undergraduates by contributing to open days in various ways.
  6. I am a publicist. I present on my project at conferences, design and present posters, populate project websites.  Yes, I use the university’s WordPress template, but it is still my responsibility to provide content and ensure it is kept updated.
  7. I organise events – seminars, conferences, public lectures.This involves fund raising, scheduling, sorting out the room booking, publicity, travel and accommodation. I usually do this in collaboration with others, but I have organised a few on my own.
  8. I research. This means reading books.  It also, in my case, means identifying relevant archives, traveling to them, exploring them and collecting and recording relevant information, if any. I don’t have a PA, so I arrange this myself within the spending limits dictated by the university. I am incredibly fortunate to be on a research grant that provides me with a budget to do this. I then sort through the information I have collected and reflect on it, working out what argument it enables me to develop.  I read other scholars whose work provides the context to which that argument will contribute something original.
  9. I write.  I construct sentences, paragraphs, chapters. I try to make them coherent, engaging, literate. I need them to convey an original and convincing argument that will contribute to knowledge and/or methodology in my field. Again, I am indebted to colleagues who read and comment on drafts, making my writing better. I write proposals to convince publishers that what I am writing/have written is worth publishing and can be sold. I revise and edit. I source images and get permission to use them and other copyrighted materials. I copy edit. I index.  Some of this can be contracted out, but at a price, one that, to date, I have not been a position to pay.

This, then, is the labour I undertake as an academic, or rather most of it.  I haven’t touched on the work I do that comes under academic service – sitting on committees, writing book reviews, acting as membership secretary to scholarly society – or public engagement – delivering public lectures, working with museum curators and artists, replying to email queries from people who have found my name on the internet and want to know more about what their great-uncle experienced as a member of the RAMC in First World War.  But this is the bulk of what I am paid to do for 37.5 hours a week, for 48 weeks a year. Those hours are not organised in a shift pattern; I am allowed to do them flexibly, so I can take an extended lunch break and then work on the evenings and weekends. It is a privilege that I try hard not to abuse and, like almost every academic I know, I end up working more hours in any given week (particularly weeks where assessments are due) and I rarely take my full entitlement of annual leave.  Outside of those hours I commute, do my best to raise my children, sustain my marriage, support my parents, nurture friendships, enjoy a few of hobbies (knitting, gardening, hill walking and running in my case).  I spend more time than I like on hold to utility companies sorting out bills and cursing my self-assessment tax return (yes, I know I need to employ an accountant).  It is not shift work or manual labour, but it feels like a real job to me, one that I value and through which I aim to provide value to others. It is what I do.

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How I got here

The weekly convulsion of my Twitter-feed in response to the Academics Anonymous column in The Guardian is becoming something of a ritual.  Last week’s, a former PhD candidate’s complaints about the British viva voice examination system for doctoral dissertations, happened to coincide for me with a dinner discussion of the path I took getting from my PhD to my current permanent position with external funding.  Based on that conversation, and the comments below the line of the Academics Anonymous article, I’ve decided it is time for me to come clean about how I got to where I am today.  It has taken me a long time to reach the point where I feel confident enought to discuss this in a post on here, but the time has come, so here goes.

Why is it so hard for me to talk completely openly about my academic journey?  Well, based on the opinions of some in the academic community (reflected in the below-the-line comments), for the following reasons I am a failure as an academic:

1) My MPhil and PhD were both self-funded.  The practical reasons for this was that my decision to apply to do both degrees came quite late in the annual application cycle.  My options for funding were further complicated by the fact that I was applying as an overseas (non-EU) candidate.  Yes, I could have taken time out, waited a year, reapplied for funding, but in the case of the PhD that would have involved considerable complications with regards to relocating and would probably have thrown me off my academic course.  As I was in the fortunate position to be able to self-fund, that is what I did, and ended up with a degree from a highly respected institution as a result.  However, in a landscape where many believe that too many weak PhDs are being produced, self-funding is often seen not as a practical choice (even if one that isn’t necessarily politically palatable to those who make it) but as a shorthand for a project too weak to compete for competitive funding.

2) To confirm those critics who would argue my research was too weak for a PhD, my thesis was referred following my viva.  There is quite a lot of confusion around the various terms relating to examination outcomes, so to clarify, the options for examiners at my university are a) unconditional approval (pass), b) conditional approval (requiring either minor OR major corrections), c) revision and resubmission of the thesis (referral), d) revision and resubmission OR the offer of a lesser degree (MLitt/MSc.), e) offer of a lesser degree without the option of revising and resubmitting, f) outright failure.  Roughly 10% of vivas at my institution result in option c, the option my examiners went for, which means that the candidate has longer to make the suggested revisions (6 months as opposed to 3).  While it can be emotionally tough, and certainly tougher than major corrections, it can provide the necessary time and space to absorb the ideas discussed in the viva, read any additional suggested literature, and produce work of the expected quality.  In my case, this time was invaluable in addressing the key theoretical weakenesses quite rightly identified by my examiners.  Using their suggestions I was able, in this time, to produce a thesis that did not require a second oral examination upon resubmission, although this in turn has left me with a strong sense of anti-climax around my degree, and a more than usually heightened sense of imposter syndrome.

3) I left academia for five years.  Nope, I couldn’t hack it.  After 2 years of temporary teaching jobs and about 300 failed applications, I decided to cut my losses and try something else.  I spent a year working in academic publishing before my personal circumstances changed, after which I did some freelance editing, finished my book and had a baby.  It was in this period that I realised that historical research and writing was what I loved, what I wanted to do with my life.  But I had left academia, hadn’t I?  I was a failed academic, with a weak degree that probably should never have been undertaken in the first place…

Except, that isn’t quite how things panned out.  When my son was 6 months old I was invited to lunch by Alison Fell and asked if I wanted to contribute to the Legacies of War project she was just starting to develop with colleagues at the University of Leeds.  My answer was yes, of course, but I had no professional links with the university.  With the support of Alison and the School of History, I was able to put together a successful Wellcome Trust Research Fellowship application, a job which in turn enabled me to put together my successful applications of the position of University Academic Fellowship in Legacies of War and for European Research Council funding.

So what did Alison, the University of Leeds and the Wellcome Trust see in me to make them take the risk of giving me the opportunity to get back into academia? I’m not entirely sure, but the following probably contributed.

1) I was REF-able.  My PhD may not have met the standard of being publishable on submission, but two chapters, almost entirely unrevised, formed the basis of half of my monograph, published four years after I was awarded my degree.  I  had also published two refereed journal articles (as well as several book chapters) based on the research undertaken for my doctorate, so publishers, journal editors and referees had, independently come to the conclusion that my research and writing were of sufficient standard to be published.  I had passed the criteria for examination by publication, if you like.

2) I had strong networks.  I never really fully left academia, even in the period I stopped actively pursuing a straightforwardly academic career.  I organised conferences, edited essay collections, reviewed books, acted as membership secretary for a scholarly society.  People knew may name, were willing to write references for me, launch and review my books, endorse my work.  In other words, I had the endorsement of ‘the academic judgement of the scholarly community as a whole’, as called for as an alternative form of examination by the anonymous academic.

3) I had good ideas which I was able to put forward as coherent, fundable projects (although I currently fear that I have overpromised on my current project, a by -now familiar phase of any new undertaking).  These ideas, both for Wellcome and for the ERC, arose directly from my PhD.  They are questions I was not able to answer within the scope of that project but which now, with greater experience and knowledge of the field, I can tackle.

So what is the point of this confession other than to finally make a clean breast of my academic failures, to show some of the frantic paddling that has gone on under the surface to travel this far?  Primarily, I think, to note that the PhD, while a necessary qualification for an academic career, is not the be-all and end-all of making a success of that career.  Being a successful academic requires skills that can be reflected in a PhD, but which can also be developed over the course of and after gaining the degree. The examination of our credentials does not end on the far side of the viva door but carries on throughout our careers, undertaken by funders, publishers, colleagues, students and, increasingly, the government and the public (but that is a discussion for another post).  The prospect is a daunting one, whatever stage of a career you are at, but it is also one that, at least for those of us who started our careers with a sense of failure, also offers immense opportunity.

Letter to an Unknown Soldier

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post about the 1418Now project, Letter to an Unknown Soldier. Since then the project has been running and, as of my writing this, over 15,000 letters have been received, with more than two weeks left to run.  In my previous post, I said I was going to write my own letter.  Here it is.

Dear Bill, or is it David?

It could be either, couldn’t it: ol’ Bill, still and stoical in his endurance of all the laughable horrors that war throws at him; young David, so beautiful in his youth and ‘all the glory of his joy’ and sacrifice. You might be either, or indeed both.

Is that too simplistic, asking you to stand for two figures emblematic in their own right? How can we ask you to embody the experiences of 5 million men, the rich and the poor, the educated and the ignorant, those who served on the front lines and those who worked behind them, those who survived and those who didn’t? As has been pointed out to me, and as I fully acknowledge, speaking of the men of this war only in terms of unity can never be a full reflection of the huge variety of the experiences encompassed by so many men over four and more years of a world war.

And yet… And yet, after a decade and a half reading the words you wrote, in letters, in diaries, in memoirs, some intended for public consumption but most written only for the loving, private eyes of friends and family, your voice speaks to me in tones at once both varied and familiar. Each fragile sheet, telling its unique story, does so in a voice so completely of its time that I could not mistake it for anything else, that I recognise it the moment I see it, scribbled in indelible pencil, poorly typed on flimsy forms, etched in elegant ink penmanship. Its tones, by turns mundane, flippant, horror and grief struck, or simply relieved, groping for words to describe the previously indescribable or relishing the simple pleasures of life as only young men can, has invaded my own, shaping my thinking and my writing as surely as the images described have shaped my understanding of war and how it was experienced.

I do not always like you. You are, inevitably, of your time, with all the attitudes towards women, class, empire that this implies. But for every statement of belief in a eugenicist solution to a predicted post-war crisis or casual patronising of those not of your class, there have been twice as many to remind me of your common humanity, your youth, your idealism, your sensitivities to sight and smell and taste, your artistic impulses, your lust for adventure, for experience, for life. You have made me laugh and made me cry, yes, even in the public space of the archive. You have moved me beyond measure and you continue to do so.

I would like to believe that, after all this time, these 15 years in which you have become my profession as well as my obsession, that I know you. Or at least that I know you better than most. I have read the counter-examples to the clichés, can cite the exceptions to any generalisation about you or your experience, even as I try to pin you down by making generalisations of my own.

Yet that sense of knowledge is as much a myth as any, isn’t it? I can never know you any more than you would understand me and my interest in your story. You remain standing there, aloof and ultimately impenetrable, leaving me, as always, with more questions than answers.

And still I long to know. Who were you? What was it like? How did war shape you and through you the society you left behind or, for the majority of you, in which you had to carry on living? These are the questions that define me as a historian, and my search for the answers, hidden in your millions of words, in those stories that made it home to the attic and the archive, waiting to be uncovered, has helped define me as a person, too. I have been shaped and changed by all that I have read and heard, by all that I now think I know. I hope it is for the better; I believe it cannot be for the worse than I might have become in other circumstances. I may not know you, but you have made me and will continue to do so until the day I stop asking questions. And for that knowledge, for all that you have done for me and continue to do, for all the inspiration you have granted me, the tears you have provoked, the insight into men and mankind that you have provided, for all the lessons you have taught me, I thank you.

Yours, with affection and gratitude,

Jessica Meyer

Looking Ahead

Happy New Year! I hope you have all had very merry and happy holiday seasons. Mine was lovely, marred only by sickness which struck on Boxing Day and has affected one or other member of my household ever since. Still, sore throats notwithstanding, we KBO.

Today is my first back at work since the holidays, although given the silence in the corridors, most of my colleagues have decided that this half a week is a bit pointless and have sensibly stayed away. With only one day in the office, I have mainly been concentrating on clearing my desk in preparation for the new year and, having almost succeeded (there is one proposal still to draft that is proving so intractable that I think yet another cup of tea will be needed to crack it), I thought this would a good opportunity to take a look ahead at what 2013 has to offer.

Firstly we have a great line-up of speakers for the Legacies of War seminar series. Final confirmation of titles is pending (and the full list will be posted in a week or so), but Adrian Gregory and Santanu Das have both agreed to speak, on ‘Did God Survive the Somme’ (!) and on ‘India, Empire and the First World War’. Both should be fascinating.

Before then I will be heading off to London, to the Wellcome Library where I will be on the hunt for memories of and about medical orderlies. Having had my proposal on the experiences of orderlies accepted for the Social History Society’s annual conference in March (see here for details), I am now looking for material to support the conclusions I have been drawing from reading Ward Muir’s Observations of an Orderly.  There is at least one orderly memoir at the Wellcome, plus a long list of potential manuscript sources, so it will be a busy.  I am also hoping to attend the IHR conference on open access, The Finch Report, open access and the historical community while I am there (there is a waiting list).

Also coming up is a meeting at the Imperial War Museum North for academics across the North of England to discuss plans for the centenary commemorations and I will be taking the opportunity to go round the ‘Saving Lives’ exhibition while I am there.

There are also a couple of long term plans that are starting to take shape – workshop for the autumn on the history of medicine and warfare, a journal special issue that I have been putting together for years now that hopefully will find a suitable home this year, plans for a primary school class on First World War medicine that may or may not include an accurate reproduction of a stretcher and work with some of the All Our Stories projects relating to Leeds hospitals during the war that have received funding.

And in the interim there will be reading and writing – lots of both.  There is the article on voluntary medical services and their relation to the military that I have been trying to write for a couple of months now, and the stack of books on the Territorial Army sitting seductively on my desk which will, hopefully, inform it.  There is the aforementioned conference paper on medical orderlies and the related research.  There is a beautiful (literally – the cover image is gorgeous) book from Ashgate to review.  And there is the ever-growing reading list, not including the ten books sitting disconsolate on my ‘to read’ shelf awaiting my attention.

So all in all it looks as if this will be a very busy and hopefully productive year in the annals of Arms and the Medical Man.  I will, of course, keep you updated as I go along.  I hope you enjoy the ride as much as I think I will.

Critical Ramblings

After a week in the archive last week I have been reading a few articles in an attempt to get a bit more into the correct mindset before writing my own.  With one exception, none have been directly related to my research (there isn’t a whole lot out there as far as I can make out) but two were articles that I have been meaning to read for some time as they have been cited in many other things that I have read.  The experience was enlightening, although possibly not in the ways the authors intended.

The first of these was actually a chapter in a collection of essays, Ilana Bet-El’s ‘Men and Soldiers: British Conscripts, Concepts of Masculinity, and the Great War’ in Billie Melman’s Borderlines: Genders and Identities in War and Peace 1870-1930 (Routledge, 1998). Bet-El’s argument is that British popular memory of First World War soldiers as men is dominated by the Myth of Volunteer (her capitals) at the expense of the masculine experiences of conscripts who, in fact, made up the majority of service personnel over the course of the war. While Bet-El certainly has a point, she does fall into the trap of ascribing too much meaning to the way in which a man became a soldier, the very criticism she has of the civilian population at the time, who she sees as being out of touch with the realities of warfare.  Thus the experiences of maleness in wartime as one of endurance and survival which she ascribes exclusively to conscripts surely applies as much to the experiences of volunteers once they were in the front line as to those of conscripts.  She also doesn’t play entirely fair with her sources, using public propaganda posters in relation to volunteers but personal documents when discussing conscripts.  This does bring new sources into the debate, but it is rather a case of comparing apples and oranges.

My notes on Bet-El’s articles are thus full of exclamation points and pointed asides about her claims, many of which I disagree with.  What is encouraging, however, is the date of the article.  Having wondered why she was using such a monolithic definition of masculinity (and one that tended to over-emphasize the importance sexuality, although this was clearly in response to the historiographic context she was arguing against), I went back and checked the dates and realized that almost all the more interesting and subtle analysis of masculinity and the First World War had been published after this article.  So John Tosh’s discussion of domestic masculinity and its relation to adventure and, even more significant, his analysis of ‘manliness’ as opposed to ‘masculinity’, and Joanna Bourke and Michael Roper’s work on male emotions in wartime has all been published in the past decade and a half, which is before you consider the reconsiderations of war enthusiasm, recruitment and citizenship that have also appeared.  That the field has developed so much, and introduced so many complex and interesting questions to the debate is very exciting and encouraging for those of us who are trying to take the work further.

Mentioning Mike Roper brings me two the second article which has been raising my blood pressure, Tracey Loughran’s ‘Shell Shock, Trauma, and the First World War: The Making of a Diagnosis and Its Histories’ in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences (Vol. 67, no 1, 2010, pp.94-119), which cites The Secret Battle extensively.  Again, this is an article I have been meaning to read for a while and it was definitely worth the wait.  I think Loughran’s argument about the need to locate understandings and diagnosis of shell shock in the wider intellectual context of the early twentieth century is spot-on and I am looking forward to her book on the subject which is tantalizingly in production.  What I was less convinced by was her argument for a middle way approach between those who locate an emotional truth of the war in art and literature and what she refers to as the ‘myth and memory’ school of historians who locate that truth in ‘the widest possible range of documents, representing the widest possible range of people’, citing Dan Todman’s The Great War: Myth and Memory.  I think this is a bit of a misrepresentation of the myth and memory argument which certainly isn’t about the weight of sheer numbers.  It is primarily about the very thing Loughran herself is interested in, context, and providing a counter-balance to what might be described as a hegemonic understanding of the war based on a relatively small number of sources.  Certain stories about the war have great prominence – the war poets, men shot at dawn, most recently men with facial injuries.  Trying to tell the stories of other groups, not necessarily larger but equally relevant and representative, can be difficult, especially if those stories appear to contradict the ’emotional truths’ of the better known groups. Understanding how those particular groups came to dominate the historic narrative isn’t everything, but it can help to make the case for why stories about conscripted men or those suffering abdominal wounds or those whose psyches were resilient or adaptable enough that they didn’t display symptoms that could be defined as shell shock are also worth hearing.  Yes, there must also be an ’empathetic imagining of a subject’ in order to ask ‘questions with a human meaning, which ultimately makes the practice of history worthwhile.’  But that empathy is not necessarily precluded by casting a critical eye over how particular stories come to resonate so strongly, any more than the ability to be historically accurate is precluded by the fictional form.
So, that is rather a long-winded way of me getting some first impressions and criticisms off my chest.  Working on a long-term independent project, it can be difficult to find an outlet for such ideas and critiques.  Articles are not, in themselves, subject to book reviews, and I cannot write full reviews for everything I read in any case.  But in the absence of a reading group or seminar series in which to express my ideas, this blog must serve instead as an outlet and record.  Which is, of course, the point.

The Wood for the Trees

The Wood for the Trees

 

And what, you may well ask, has been happening with my official research project in between watching Parade’s End and musical tributes to Richard III?  Quite a lot as it happens, mainly involving list making.

 

The terrifying and exhilarating part of being at this early stage of a research project is the sheer number of potential sources and useful books that emerge as you start to delve into the subject.  No one, and I really mean no one, has written about the RAMC Other Ranks.  There is plenty of stuff about doctors and nurses but stretcher bearers and orderlies and ambulance drivers get a passing mention by academics or are completely subsumed in discussions of conscientious objectors.  Which isn’t to say that they didn’t write about themselves.  Many did, most notably Ernest Hemingway and Ward Muir, as well as many, many others whose letters and memoirs were never published but are now accessible in various archives.  All of which leaves me with a book and sources list that is now running to seven single-spaced pages and counting.

 

Even more excitingly my list making has uncovered the pleasing fact that the Special Collections at the Brotherton Library now includes the recently donated Bamji Collection of medical books relating to the First World War.  Having applied for my grant on the basis of the well-known Liddle Collection of First World War documents and artefacts, to suddenly have all this directly related material at my fingertips feels like serendipity.  Part of me is aching to get into the archive to start uncovering what it there.  Part of me is also scared.  How much of this mass of material will actually be useful remains unknown and it will take a lot of very hard work to properly investigate, assimilate and understand it all.  As I say, terrifying and exhilarating.

 

So I have been procrastinating on actually digging into the archive by making other lists: lists of speakers for a seminar I am helping to organise (although one of my co-organisers has proved to be list-maker extraordinary and put my efforts shame), lists of potential contributors to a special issue of a journal that I am trying to put together, lists of related projects and the bodies that might help fund them, lists of potential topics to be included in a call for papers for a conference I want to run.  At some point I am going to have to start actually doing something about these lists – reading books, sending e-mails, writing articles and reviews.  But that will have to wait for next week.  In the meantime I am revelling in all the exciting possibilities that my lovely lists represent.