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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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.

Easing into the new year

Due to a teacher training day at my son’s school, today is my first day back at my desk since the Christmas holidays.  After two and a half weeks of combined childcare and hosting family, this comes as something of a relief, despite the fact that a misremembered date has left me with a book chapter to complete in less than a month.  In fact, January is going to be pretty writing intensive, with a couple of book reviews due at the same time, as well as my sole New Year’s resolution, to draft or redraft a chapter a month until I get my book completed and sent to a publisher.

SherlockOn the theory that writing breeds writing, I am going to embark on this rigorous schedule with a blog post about … the New Year’s Day episode of Sherlock (BBC1). (Beware spoilers from here on in.) I don’t even really have the excuse of doing this with my historian’s hat on.  I make no pretensions to being a proper Victorianist, but I am, alongside my First World War expertise, a historian of popular culture with a specialism in detective fiction and it is as such that am going to make so bold as to comment.

I am also, of course, a gender historian so let me start off by saying that, as far as the ‘mansplaining’ debate which convulsed portions of Twitter in the wake of this episode, I agree entirely with Camilla Ulleland Hoel, who articulates why this is not an example of men silencing women far more eloquently than I can.  I do, however, take one slight issue with her reading of the episode, and that is in her comments on the ‘the pointy hats of Ku Klux Klan (in order to create an echo, I assume, to the orange pips story)’.  Because I am fairly sure that the entire set up to the scene was not a gratuitous KKK reference, but rather one to the 1985 film The Young Sherlock Holmes, directed by Barry Levinson, a film which, aged 12, frightened me into nightmares for months (no, I was not very sophisticated and rather too imaginative for my own good).

And that is what I loved about the episode.  Yes, there were the many, many references to the Sherlock canon.  But there were also the references to the much wider field of Sherlockiana, including Watson’s suggestion for ‘The Monstrous Regiment’ as a potential title for the episode, one that has already been used by Laurie R. King as the title for one of her Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, an explicitly feminist reworking of the tradition.  And then there was the plot, not simply a metafictional phantasmagoria but also a spoof on Anthony Schaffer’s Sleuth (1970), itself part of a long line of spoofs on the detective fiction tradition, which Conan Doyle arguable founded, stretching back through the entire 20th century.

I picked up three references, but I am sure there were many, many more which I missed, given that it is some years since I have been properly involved with Sherlockiana and the field has developed hugely since then (a couple more can be found here).  My guess is that most of these conceits were the contribution of Mark Gatiss rather than Steven Moffat.  Gatiss’s writing, whether on Sherlock, Dr Who or the ridiculously clever clever and very funny Lucifer Box series, always gives me the disquieting if rather pleasing sense that here is a man who shares my somewhat obscure frame of reference when it comes to popular culture.  Which probably just means that my very limited and specialised frame of reference also happens to be a very small subset of his far, far larger one.  This is a man, after all, who, as Hoel points out, is as happy incorporating a Victorian music hall stage trick into his plots as he is with referencing semi-obscure mid-to-late 20th century plays and novels.

The delight of all this to me, beyond the comfortable smugness that comes from feeling that I am getting the joke, is the reinforcement it gives to my own belief in the importance of the history of popular culture, including low- and middle-brow material that is all to often dismissed as culturally worthless.  This is in part because it tells us something about the time in which such cultural production was created, always useful for a historian, but also, often, because if forms part of a much longer tradition, allowing us to read change and continuity across time.  Sherlock itself embodies this duality and, in this episode, made it the very conceit on which the plot was built. Itself a hugely popular element of contemporary popular culture, it nonetheless lays explicit claim to the timelessness of Conan Doyle’s creation.  By tipping its hat to the long tradition in Anglo-American culture of riffing on that creation in ways which illuminate different historical moments, it located itself within that linear tradition and made its own bid for immortality. Now there is metafiction and self-referentiality for you!

Taking stock

It is the last day the university is open before Christmas.  The heating is off in my office, as is the light in the hallway.  In fact, I think I am the only person left working on this floor.  So what better time to take a moment to look back and take stock of this incredibly hectic year.

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I had hoped to be doing this from the perspective of a clear desk, with all major projects completed, at least until the new year. Sadly, this is not to be.  I am preparing to place the fifth draft of an article which still needs a conclusion, a few more supporting quotations and a couple of hours of formatting footnotes before I can send it to the editor in my bag to take home with me.  Alongside that are a 350-page book and 48-page grant application, both of which I need to (re)familiarize myself with in preparation for two interviews early in the new year.  Oh, and then there is the grant application I need to redraft with the goal of resubmitting in early February. This will be the sixth time I have submitted this project for consideration by a funding body or grant-awarding committee.

So there is quite a lot of work still to do over the next two weeks, between the turkey and the Christmas cake and the two excited small children for whom Christmas is nothing but magic, a fact that makes it hard, sometimes, to remember just how much I have achieved over the past year.  But for all the lack of a nice tidy ending, there are definite signs of progress, not least the lovely folder that tops my document list bearing the working title of the book I will be writing next year.  The joy of the folder lies not just in its existence, but also in the fact that it contains two documents, a draft proposal and a draft introduction.  Baby steps perhaps, but concrete evidence nonetheless that this book is actually happening.  In the past 12 months it has gone from a vague promise to myself and my funding body to a clear outline and argument with a story to tell and a point to make.

And there are other concrete achievements.  The article I have been working on for the last few weeks may be tantalizingly unfinished, but the one I was working on this time last year is not only completed but has also been accepted for publication next year, marking the culmination of a project that had its inception nearly three years ago.  Slightly more abstractly, the piles of marking and course documentation, waiting to be filed following the completion of exams and second marking next month, bear witness to the time I have committed to teaching this year, time which has not only boosted both my CV and my confidence in possibly my least favourite aspect of the academic discipline, but also laid the groundwork for my forthcoming application to the Higher Education Academy for professional validation.

And then there are the abstract developments, such as the discovery that, despite two television appearances and a number of radio interviews, I am probably not cut out to be a full scale media don or public intellectual.  As much as I have enjoyed my engagement with broadcast media, particularly my interactions with the BBC as a New Generation Thinkers finalist and a World War One at Home adviser, I suspect I will always prefer blogging, whether on here or for collaborative blogs, as a form of public engagement.  Which brings me to my greatest regret of the year, the fact I have not been able to commit more time to this blog.  Too many subjects have slipped away from me as I have struggled to manage my priorities and keep some semblance of a work-life balance; too many comments have been made too late and in too much of a hurry.  I make no rash promises for doing better next year, but absence has made the heart grow fonder in this case, making me realize how important the process of blogging has become to working through my ideas.  With a little luck and slightly better management, I hope to be able to properly blog the progress of my book next year, as it goes from draft outline to completed manuscript.

Next year will, of course, be different.  As a colleague and fellow First World War historian has pointed out to me, 2014 has been a particularly hectic one for those of us who study the subject.  There have been more opportunities for undertaking innovative research and engaging with interested audiences than any of us could possibly take complete advantage of. Highlights for me have included the wealth of interesting academic conferences to choose from, including the wonderful War: An Emotional History which continues to inspire me and shape my approach to my work; the opportunity to help put together and teach a Massive Open Online Course, not something I could ever have anticipated or which I altogether enjoyed but which taught me a great deal; and the opportunity to engage with a range of interesting and inspiring artistic projects that have, once again, raised questions of the roles of historic and artistic interpretation in the process of commemoration. Low points include some frustratingly bad television, pointless and clichéd debates which failed to make full use of the real depth of historical knowledge about the war, both nationally and transnationally, that exists in Britain today, and the mind-numbing boredom that overwhelms me every time I contemplate the pointless unending discussions of the Christmas Truce which appear to have overwhelmed all else in the past weeks.  I think the high points more than balance out the low; at the very least they give me hope that there will be interesting discussions to be had in the future as we continue the centenary commemorations.

So there we have it, quite a lot of good, a bit of bad, a smattering of seriously ugly.  A year in which, however slowly, progress has been made and one in which much more has been promised but not yet achieved.  I enter the final week of the old year with a sense of incompletion but also of hope, a hope which I will desperately cling to as I face 2015 from a point of deep uncertainty and insecurity.  At present my current contract is due to come to an end in May.  I do have a very real chance of securing more funding after that (the interviews and grant applications I mentioned), although after over a year of pursuing them I am reaching exhaustion point.  I have spent so much of this year saying that I should know, one way or the other what would be happening to me by the end of the year.  It is not to be.  It will not, in my case, all be over by Christmas.  But for all that, there is hope of a positive resolution, something that would mean both immense personal achievement for me and security for my family.  So I will leave you with that sense of hope, to temper the anticipation of the hard work that will be needed if I am to have any chance of accomplishing the desired outcome.

Merry Christmas. And a hopeful, healthy, happy New Year to you all.

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

2 for 1

I realise it has been a long time since I have posted anything.  I am still writing a lot – conference papers, a journal article, an introduction and a couple of guest posts on other blogs.  I have just been gifted a bit of time today, so I am hoping there will be a new post later this morning.

In the meantime, in case you missed them, my guest posts on disability and masculinity and the medical evacuation process can be found here and here.

Scribble, scribble, scribble

So, it is the first week of October and I find myself faced with a series of deadlines for pieces of written work.  In the next two months I need to give a conference paper on voluntary medical services during the First World War, complete an encyclopedia entry on subjectivity and emotion in the British armed services and submit a preliminary application for a grant.  All three are fairly major, if short, pieces of writing for important and potentially (at least in the case of the encyclopedia article) extensive audiences.  They also all need to be constructed in different registers – one to be delivered verbally, one with objectivity (about a highly emotive subject) at its core and one aimed at a non-specialist but nonetheless highly erudite audience. This is going to be a unique challenge for me, both in terms of tackling new forms of written work and new research ideas, and in terms of the amount of work and flexibility that is going to be required of me.

I have been thinking about them all for a considerable period of time, including writing outlines, but it is only this week that I have started putting pen to paper to flesh out my ideas.  Already I have found myself coming up against questions about how I organise my ideas and my time.  Today’s experiment involves using very short periods of time to work intensively on several projects in rotation.  Next week, when I have scheduled a day in the library to flesh out my references, I will be able to compare my productivity with a day spent concentrating on just one piece for a more extended period.  It will be interesting to see how things turn out and to see what approaches work at different stages in the writing process.

Time permitting, I hope to blog about the process and use the opportunity to reflect on how (and why) I write history.  With any luck, by the end of the month I will have drafts of all three pieces and avoided a nervous breakdown.  Then the fun of editing will begin…