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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What fresh hell is this?

This post is one of an occasional series that might be entitled ‘Sorry I haven’t posted anything in a while’.  In fact, my silence on the blogging front has been something of a frustration as I have at least three posts that I want/need to write.  The problem, as always, is finding the time between grant deadlines, an overdue book review, an even more overdue article, teaching, marking and, oh yes, the research project that I am actually contracted to be undertaking!

And that is just on the formal professional front.  As a (semi-)public historian in this centenary year, I find myself juggling interviews, requests for interviews, requests for articles and comments, as well as the private demands of family life which, as my tag-line for this blog indicates, are as much a part of my identity as anything related to the histories of gender or the First World War.  So the post I had planned to coincide with International Women’s Day has been rather swamped by the fact that my son still hasn’t written his thank you cards for his birthday presents (meeting deadlines is clearly not a skill that runs in the family). Such are the ironies of working motherhood.

So yes, there is a lot going on in my life, but probably not any more than any other working parent, and I am blessed by having a job with a certain amount of flexibility built into it.  It is when I bump up against immovable deadlines, like the current grant application which is due next week and which has been slowly driving me mad with its looming urgency and terrifying complexity, that something, somewhere, has to give.  Generally speaking, it is this blog, the space where I explore the aspects of my life and work that I find thought-provoking but not necessarily immediately productive.

My apologies, therefore, if you have been eagerly awaiting my comments on the spate of recent First World War media outputs (and for once I know that this group includes more than just my mum as I did promise someone a comment on the Max Hastings/Niall Ferguson debate).  There will be, I promise, some thoughts on being a female First World War historian, on why shell shock is not the same thing as PTSD, and how I have been haunted by a (still unfulfilled) research project since I wrote my PhD, eventually.  But not until after 25th March.  Sorry.

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.

The historian wants a wife

It does seem appropriate that my son’s current favourite nursery rhyme is ‘The farmer wants a wife’, as that is precisely how I was feeling at 9:00 pm last night.

The background: my husband left yesterday for a week-long conference/collaboration exercise in France (not Sweden) yesterday afternoon.  In about an hour I will be heading downstairs to register for the Social History Society conference where I am giving a paper tomorrow morning.  This will be my first conference paper in about 5 years (I have given seminar papers, but the audiences have been fairly small), and the first on my new research.  I am terrified (not helped by the fact that the paper appears to be coming in five minutes too long).  On top of this, I now have a month to write two further 20-minute papers on two entirely different topics, and I am in the process of applying for funding and advertising a workshop.  Work is busy at the moment, to put it mildly.

So while my husband battled with a delayed flight and the language barrier of speaking minimal French, I spent yesterday evening doing the following: cooking dinner, feeding dinner to both children accompanied by my son’s interminable monologue which rather gets in the way of eating, getting both children undressed, bathed, redressed in night clothes, milk drunk, teeth brushed, stories read and into bed, putting on a load of washing, cleaning up the dinner table, washing the dishes and hoovering the floor.  I then managed to read through my conference paper (still coming in too long), tried to edit it down and read half an article.  At which point I realised my son was still awake (at gone 9) so I went and confiscated his globe, to much complaint.

Now, this isn’t a complaint about my husband’s relatively easy life.  For a start, it isn’t that easy as he hates travelling and the weather has made it more complicated and stressful than it need be.  Plus, when he is at home he pulls his weight on the domestic front (he does all the laundry for a start) and he will find himself in my position, trying to juggle domestic duties with paid employment, in a few weeks when I go on yet another trip to a distant archive. Rather I want to record my personal experience of a very old observation, to whit, that someone who works outside of the home, whatever their sex, needs domestic assistance if they are to do their paid job and run their home properly.  And I don’t just mean help with the cleaning or the childcare, but rather holistic assistance with household management. In other words, a housekeeper or, indeed, a housewife.  As I say, this is not new.  Many professional women have, over the years, argued that they need a wife in the home as much as a secretary at work to enable them to keep all the balls they juggle personally and professionally in the air. Some feminists have argued that domestic labour should be paid for and valued as highly as any other, given the support it provides to the smooth running of the economy.  And, indeed, the work of the housewife as a support to her husband’s career has, increasingly, been acknowledged in recent divorce settlements of self-made men in Britain. But coming from a home where domestic duties fall on both partners relatively evenly, as does the support given to both our outside jobs, this week looks set to be a valuable reiteration of the importance of the partnership I have with my husband in maintaining an even keel, both domestically and professionally.

In addition to a renewed realisation of the importance of the keeper of the home to productive employment outside it, my admiration for single parents has also reached one of its periodic peaks. I discovered this morning, for example, that we have half a tank of petrol in the car, so now I have to think about where to find a petrol station with pay-at-the-pump facilities because I will have both children in the car whenever I am driving this week. This is precisely the sort of detail that having a partner or assistant to share the burden of domestic tasks (if not take them over entirely) ensures is not forgotten.  We are at the start of the week.  I am just hoping that the end of it doesn’t find me and my children sitting by the side of the road somewhere between home and the university, desperately seeking assistance with moving a petrol-less car!

So what conclusions can I draw from my labours?  Nothing very original.  I know there are plenty of households with far more demands on their time and energy and far fewer resources than I can call upon.  But as the British government finds itself in the midst of debate over how to support working women through childcare subsidies it is perhaps worth reiterating that domestic labour is both time-consuming and vital.  It extends beyond being with children in their early years to ensuring the comfort, health and well-being of all members of a family, whatever shape that family may take, nurturing the energies and abilities of both of the economic producers of the present and of the future, as well as the comfort and happiness of citizens of all ages.  It needs to be valued as a public good, rather than dismissed as a private arrangement.  Debates over childcare are a start, but only a start and not a terribly helpful one if they alienate those who provide the domestic labour.

Now, what did I do with my daughter’s clean clothes for nursery?

Men at work

Last Thursday, as well as being my birthday, was the date of the second in the Legacies of War seminar series.  Rob Thompson gave a fabulous talk on engineers at Third Ypres.

Superficially, this looked to be a relatively dull topic, but not the way Rob presented.  First of all, he is an excellent and highly engaging public speaker.  But more than that, he gave one of the best demonstrations I have seen of how cultural and military history can fruitfully be married to create a deep analysis of particular moments in the history of war.  He argued that by 1917 the culture of war had changed from a martial one fought by warriors to a civil one worked by civilian soldiers. He pointed out that most men serving in the BEF were predominantly labouring (building roads, digging trenches, mending things) rather than fighting (engaging with the enemy) and that the landscape was dominated as much by the roads, rails, trucks and trains of logistics (sights familiar from civil society) as the otherworldly eeriness of no-man’s-land.

Having outlined this cultural shift in the way war was being carried out, Rob went on to argue that the failure of British High Command to fully grasp the implications at an operational level led to ultimate failure at Third Ypres. The dominance of civil logistics was due to the rise of artillery, yet no provision was made at the front line for an increase in manpower to serve the needs of the engineers in building/rebuilding roads for the artillery to advance over the landscape it had decimated.  The result was poorly trained, exhausted soldiers doing this work badly with the result that the advance became bogged down in its own built-in inertia.

Rob’s arguments were highly seductive, particularly given his flair for dramatic and humorous narration.  The more I think about his arguments, the less convinced I am about the dominance of civilian work culture as that of the war.  There were other cultures at play as well, notably the domestic culture which Joanna Bourke and I have both discussed and which had links to the structures of the regimental system, as discussed by David French.  There is also an entire social group being ignored by an analysis that focuses on the work cultures of manual labourers, namely the aspirational lower middle classes, the clerks and shop keepers and service workers, men whose experiences of work would no more prepare them for the heavy labour of the front than it would for hand-to-hand combat with an enemy.  This is a not-insignificant group of men, yet there has been little discussion beyond that of domesticity, as to how they retained a sense of civil identity in wartime.

There was also a question of morale that I am not sure was fully addressed.  From my own work on diaries and memoirs, the aspect of warfare that men found most morale-sapping was repetitive heavy labour and the feeling of being a cog in the machine, both aspects of this civilian culture that Rob identified.  Yet morale was maintained, even at the pinch-point of 1917.  Why the British Army did not mutiny even at the height of the manpower crisis is something that clearly needs a lot more discussion in light of this analysis.

So there are many questions still to answer, not least, for me, the effect of the manpower crisis on the RAMC in 1917.  I am starting to wonder if I might not be able to challenge Mark Harrison’s assertions about the centrality of 1916 to the RAMC and its effectiveness, arguing that from a personnel, rather than organisational, stand-point 1917 is more significant.  It certainly has given me some useful ideas to work on.

And, as a bonus, the talk served as a useful reminder that engineers didn’t spend their entire time (or even most of it) digging tunnels.  It is always good to have a few assumptions demolished occasionally!