Early-Career Life in 2015 – Christopher Phillips

Dr Christopher Phillips is currently a Visiting Lecturer at Leeds Trinity University, having been awarded his PhD in History by the University of Leeds in April 2015. He is in the process of preparing his thesis for publication under the title Managing Armageddon: Transportation on the Western Front, 1914-1918, and is pursuing funding opportunities for a new research project to investigate the development of railway towns in England between 1870 and 1970. Here he reflects on 2015, his first post-PhD, and the uncertainty of 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @DoctorCPhillips

The genesis of this blog was an, on reflection, somewhat bitter comment posted on Twitter in response to the History Lab Plus’ call for contributions on life as an early career researcher. It focused on the negatives which have largely dominated my professional life over the second half of 2015, and which ultimately overshadowed my experience of the year as a whole. Having been offered the chance to elaborate on the initial 140 character response, however, I realised that my knee-jerk reaction did not adequately reflect the range of experiences which I faced over the course of the year. What follows is not an attempt to right any of the perceived ‘wrongs’ of academia, or an attempt to comprehend why I find myself at the start of 2016 with only one task – the supervision of five dissertation students to completion in May – guaranteed to pay me an income for the foreseeable future. What it is, I hope, is an attempt to document what may (or may not) be a transitory period from PhD student to academic without the usual happy ending that other such discussions that I have read tend to conclude with.

2015 actually began rather well for me. I received broadly positive, constructive feedback on the full draft of my thesis which I’d submitted to my supervisors before Christmas, and news of the acceptance of a journal article (subject to a few wrangles over the title) within the first week of January. By the end of the month, a book review had also been accepted for publication in a highly respected journal in the field, and all 100,000 words of my thesis had been soft-bound and sent off to my examiners. In March I delivered a really well received seminar paper at my undergraduate university on a chapter of my thesis, was invited to speak at a public event at Leeds Industrial Museum in May, and despatched the final proofs for an article which had been finished almost two years before. In early April, two hours of viva examination resulted in the award of a PhD (subject to correcting a few spelling mistakes), and encouragement from both examiners to publish. In the same week as the Graduate Board confirmed my doctorate, I was invited to interview for a three-year research post.

And then the handbrake was applied. The interview did not lead to anything. Nor did any of the other thirty plus applications I submitted for various roles during the academic year 2014-15. I applied for permanent lectureships, three- and five-year research fellowships, teaching fellowships ranging from three months to two years, and a number of non-academic posts. I received no invitations to interview, and in many cases no response whatsoever. In no cases did I receive any feedback on my application, and on one specific occasion I remember the rejection email stating – in bold type no less – that no feedback would be given to ‘unsuccessful applicants’. I received only a handful of rejection emails, the majority of which were not even personalised but began ‘Dear applicant’. Some, of course, hurt more than others. The one for a permanent lectureship at a very prestigious institution which doubtless received a shedload of applicants was unsurprising. The one for a two-year fellowship where I’d done my PhD was utterly humiliating. Aside from not being deemed worthy of addressing by name, the rest of the content of these emails was equally discouraging, impersonal, and demotivating. There was nothing constructive upon which I could improve for future applications. Friends and former colleagues, including an incredibly supportive supervisor, could offer no further suggestions to improve my cover letters. Was my intended research deemed unimaginative and uninspiring? Was the relatively narrow band of teaching experience I gained during my thesis (not for the want of trying to gain more) what was holding me back? Was it the lack of a book contract that meant my applications were being consigned to the ‘no’ pile? I have no idea.

I have tried to rectify all of these, but without success. After four months of no contact whatsoever, my first choice of publisher for my ‘book of the thesis’ finally got in touch to essentially say ‘you should have proposed an entirely different book’. A second never responded to the proposal at all. I am currently awaiting the result of the latest attempt. Throughout the summer I emailed my CV to various Heads of Department to enquire about the availability of sessional teaching, without success (although, to my eternal gratitude, every single department I contacted in this matter responded quickly). The last attempt to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship with the research proposal I had developed during the final year of my PhD foundered when the academic I had contacted at a potential host simply stopped responding to my emails two weeks before the deadline.

In the middle of September, I got a job. Two weeks before the start of term I was offered the chance to teach a survey course on British History from the Roman Conquest to the Industrial Revolution, and to supervise a number of dissertations. Halfway through the term, I took over the delivery of another module – this time on US civil rights. I did not get this work through any application process, but as a result of being in the right place at the right time, and thanks to the recommendation of a former colleague who had originally been approached to do the job. Although the majority of that contract is now finished, I have been put on a database of potential teachers for another university (again at the recommendation of a former colleague) which may lead to some more teaching experience in the upcoming semester to add to my CV. I’ve also created a new potential research project which I have received encouraging feedback on prior to submission for funding through the Leverhulme Trust. Whether any of this work will lead to anything or not who knows. I am under no illusions as to the competitiveness of such schemes, but perhaps if unsuccessful on that avenue it will intrigue someone on a hiring committee for a job yet to be advertised for next year. Perhaps the extra teaching I have undertaken this term outside my area of expertise will shift me from one pile of applications to the other. Perhaps a publisher will take a chance on my thesis and offer me the chance to write the book, and that will be enough evidence to convince someone, somewhere, to offer me an interview.

In the meantime, I keep searching jobs.ac.uk and H-Net, and working on preparations for a two-day conference I am part of the organising committee for. The book is on the back burner, not least because the necessary research trips to London are too expensive, and the new research project is still in the process of conducting literature searches and scanning through what secondary material I can lay my hands on. What state either project will be in come 1 January 2017 is impossible to say right now.


Early-Career Life in 2015: Cath Feely

Our co-chair Cath Feely shares her reflection, such as it is, on 2015. You can read Cath’s post on 2014 here. This will most likely be the last time she does this because she’s all reflected out.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t really want to write this post. There are too many things that I should be doing right now, all vying for my attention and making me anxious: marking, module handbooks, planning for next semester, sorting out the admin backlog for History Lab Plus that has been neglected over a very busy semester, and so on.

But it was more than that. It was that, before I actually sat down to write, I couldn’t think of anything that I’d really achieved in 2015, my second year in a permanent lectureship. I didn’t have a story to tell about it. Nothing momentous happened. It was neither a particularly good or bad year for me. It just was.

When I started to write, however, lots of things came to mind. But I realised that what had made me most proud in 2015 weren’t ‘my’ successes. I was there, sure; I might deserve some of the credit. But they are not things that are easily itemised in a review of the year: dissertations that absolutely blew my socks off (you know who you are!), conversations with colleagues, touching and personal messages from graduating students and the like. They were all, all of them, the result of a group effort. And I realise now just how grateful and proud I am to be part of that group.

So I did do good stuff in 2015. But I did not do it alone. And the credit for any success is shared with my colleagues and our students.

That’s not to say that I don’t have personal goals for 2016, ‘the year of the book’. Now that I have done some leg work in setting up new modules, I want to write more regularly. There are plans – realistic ones, I think, too – afoot.

But I want to step back from some things too. Mostly, I want to step back from getting angry. There is a place for anger but, back in early September when the so-called ‘early career debate’ was raging on Twitter, I took some time out and drank a milkshake in a Derby café and, stupidly, fought back tears. I had taken so much of what was being said about the betrayal of early career historians by people with permanent jobs far too personally and it had tired me out. I wondered whether anyone at all cared about what we had been doing with History Lab Plus. I thought about how much, personally, I was giving and whether it was doing any good. A day or two later, I received an email from someone telling me how much difference one of our events had made to her. And that was my answer. But I also realised that it was possible to care about these issues without feeling responsible for them. I can help, yes, but I am not alone in this endeavour. I’d like to thank another anonymous scholar who, in a hotel bar, told me that it was not up to me to fix academia single-handedly. This was said with the greatest respect and I have taken it to heart, in a good way.

So there’s no advice in this post. No story. Except that it’s okay to have an okay year.

Early-Career Life 2015: George Campbell Gosling

A year ago, we published a series of reflections from early-career historians at various stages of their post-PhD lives. You can read them here. George Campbell Gosling kicked us off last year and he’s kindly allowed us to cross-post his account of 2015, one in which he felt his ‘split academic personality came of age’. Over the next few weeks, we hope to add to these reflections not just with updates from those who wrote last year, but with new voices.  If you’d like to contribute, please tweet @cathfeely or email me at c.feely[at]derby.ac.uk. Over to George (again!):

Looking back on 2015, it’s been a mix of bedding in and big changes. But the changes haven’t always been the ones I might have expected.

At the end of the year, my work life looks in some ways very similar to it did at the beginning. I’m still in the same department, even if I’ve moved up the corridor into a shared office. I’m still working on the same book, now putting the finishing pre-publication touches to the manuscript that was still coming together a year ago. Blogging about history and the teaching of it is still one of my favourite pastimes, even though I’ve started on a new research project and I’m not doing any teaching.

Yet this academic year feels very different from the last, and I guess that’s inevitable. For one thing, the second year in any institution – even if in a different position – is less stressful. You know the people and the place, the oddities and the opportunities. It’s why my only real regret from my 4+ years now of post-PhD academic life is all the moving around and uncertainty. Without it I wouldn’t have met some wonderful people and taken on some interesting and unexpected jobs, but I’d also have fewer grey hairs.

Swapping full-time teaching for full-time research is also bound to be different. Worries about how much of a student’s grammar to correct replaced with trying (and failing) to remember receipts while on archive visits around the country. The constant stimulation of mastering new topics each week with the chance to immerse myself in one (set of) thing(s). Piles of marking are out and taking minutes of team meetings is in.

But I also feel very differently about myself as an academic. A year ago I was enjoying being a jobbing history teacher. Now I feel like an historian. My appointment as a postdoctoral research fellow and the warm (yet helpfully constructive) backing of anonymous peer reviewers for publishing my first book – they both feel like more of a vindication than passing my viva. I earned the right to call myself Dr then, now I feel like I have the opportunity to put that into practice.

Put it another way – I feel like an expert now. Of course, that old friend Imposter Syndrome makes regular appearances, but through the ups and downs I do feel more confident professionally. It’s been a decade since my nan asked me why there was no NHS when she was a child. And I’ve spent the years in between thinking about the answer – even while distracted by the job hunt and trying to repeatedly refashion everything I had to say on the topic, in keeping with the latest imagined future employment opportunity. By now I know this stuff. I am an expert.

I also think I’m seen more as an expert, but often not for my research. An odd split has emerged. I feel like an expert for what I’ve been given a chance now to do full-time: researching and writing history. But I also think I appear and am seen as an expert for something else: my blogging.

I sometimes blog about my research. When I do the audience is usually many of the same people who would read a fuller academic publication, especially if I used the blog to let them know about it. Sometimes that’s the audience I want to reach and that’s fine. But the audience this past year for my blogging about teaching and studying history has  been far, far larger.

This kicked off the year before with my History Essay Checklist. I was gobsmacked by the response to what I assumed was the sort of common sense advice given by history tutors (as well as those across the humanities and beyond) to university students struggling with essay writing. It seems not. I’ve had hits again with advice on writing source commentaries, how to read for essays and why, when and how to reference in essays amongst others.

None of this is based on a greater knowledge or understanding than most history tutors, but the way it’s presented seems to be useful. This is probably because I’m useless at learning by intuition or imitation. The fact I need to analyse and learn thoroughly myself means I’m well-equipped perhaps to relay this to others. My brain works differently from most and I’ve turned that to my advantage.

By the end of 2015, over one-third of universities in the UK have now directed people to my blog from their institutional websites. The traffic from my own Warwick Uni is rivalled by Huddersfield and both Leeds and Leeds Beckett, outdone by Hertfordshire and Kent and, out in front, Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. When I meet people for the first time in my academic life, it’s by far the most common thing they know about me. For most people who come across me, my expertise lies in blogging study skills advice to university students.

There have been a lot of changes in 2015 and there’s been lots of bedding in. But I think I’ll look back on this, above all else, as the year my split academic personality came of age.

You can read George’s very popular blog here.

The Danger of Nostalgia: Historicising the Early-Career Debate by William Whyte

In a rather heated moment during the recent early career ‘twitterstorm’, History Lab Plus offered to host any responses to Matthew Lyons’ original piece that were constructive and sought to move the debate on. We were pleased, as historians, to see that William Whyte, a historian of universities, answered calls for a historical perspective on the debate. His response is below. We continue to be open to any constructive responses from all. E-mail us at historylabplus@gmail.com to contribute.

Historians need to be careful when they extrapolate from their own experience. History may be a broad and catholic discipline, but at its heart is surely a basic attempt to historicize: to relate past and present; to situate individual experience within broader, historical categories and trends.

In his article for History Today, Matthew Lyons raises an important issue, articulating some complaints of the early career researchers he has encountered, and (though he does not acknowledge it) also echoing many other voices within universities who are similarly concerned about the conditions in which temporary staff of all sorts currently have to work.
But in order to make his argument, he falls back on a fundamentally presentist, ahistorical – indeed anti-historical – peddling of myths. Like so many people writing about universities, he wholly ignores history and instead invents an idealized past – a past, which of course, never existed.

He’s far from alone in this. ‘Nostalgia is a big thing in academia’, observed Diana Warwick, head of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals in 1996; ‘everything is worse today’. And it’s true that even those who ought to know better are prey to the myth of the golden age – indeed, when the London Review of Books turned its attention to life within Britain’s universities in December 2011, it found a variety of laments and a range of dates identified as better than now, from Keith Thomas’ celebration of the mid-1950s as a ‘golden age of academic freedom’, to Rachel Malik’s description of the mid-1990s as a ‘wonderful’ time to work in academia. In the last ten years or so, a variety of different writers have favourably compared every post-war decade with the experience of life in the twenty-first century university.

If the past is always golden, the present is always dark. Hence the language of decline, of betrayal, and crisis. In his lecture to the Australian Historical Association on 7 July, Peter Mandler challenged the notion of a broader ‘crisis’ in the humanities, pointing out that ‘It is hard to take too seriously talk of a crisis in Britain when even by the narrowest definition of the humanities the absolute number of humanities students has increased fivefold since 1967, and by the broader definition almost 10-fold’. One might do the same for Matthew Lyons’s notion of a ‘great betrayal’ of early career researchers now.

Of course, for all those individuals trapped in nine-month contracts (or worse); for those who have a PhD but no job – and seemingly little likelihood of getting one, this will seem like a crisis. As Harold Wilson is said to have observed, for the individual unemployment is 100 per cent. If anyone was ever lured into postgraduate work by the promise that they would find it easy to become a tenured member of a university, then they are quite right to feel betrayed. We mustn’t, too, make the equivalent mistake of arguing that everything is fine now, and that there is nothing to complain about. That is isn’t true, either. The work of History Lab Plus illustrates just how much more universities ought to be doing for their temporary staff.

Nonetheless, it is worth challenging the notion that there was time in which post-graduate funding was easy to obtain and permanent jobs were just there for the taking. The Robbins Report of 1963 noted that each year only 300 state-funded scholarships were available for the arts, humanities, and social sciences in the whole of the UK. In the 1980s, there were only 200 funded places for PhDs in sociology and just a few more for history.
Nor were jobs easy to obtain. Far from being, in Matthew Lyons’s words, ‘a generation which benefited from free education to degree level and generous support into postgraduate study’, the most senior staff at most universities today were amongst the very few people who managed to gain employment in the far darker days of the 1980s. Public expenditure cuts after 1981 led to the loss of about 5,600 academic jobs and creation of very few new posts. Even the Thatcher government realized that this was creating a demographic crisis in which a generation of postgraduate students would be lost forever, and in 1983 the ‘New blood scheme’ was created to hire some of the very best. It is an index of just how little this benefitted the humanities that in its three years of operation, only 66 posts were created for the arts and 78 for the social sciences. An over-privileged generation, this was not.

In that sense, our current problems are not the product of cuts, or decline, much less betrayal. They are rather the consequence of success. The number of universities, university teachers and researchers, and the number of postgraduate students has simply grown and grown. Moreover, in recent years, a rise in university income, driven by tuition fees and by increasing research funding, has enabled institutions to employ a growing – not a declining – proportion of permanent staff. By 2000, one survey estimated that half of all academics were on temporary contracts; in 2010, HEFCE produced figures suggesting that nearly 90 per cent were now in permanent employment. Moreover, about half of these people would previously have held at least one temporary job.

It is this remarkable growth that causes us so many dilemmas. Last year no fewer than 539,000 people were enrolled as postgraduate students, compared to 135,000 in 1994 and around 10,000 thirty years before that. It is quite clear that, even were universities to continue to expand, there is no way in which all of these people can expect be employed as full-time, tenured academics. It would be quite wrong for anyone to promise any one of these people that their path to a university job would be smooth or easy.

But therein lies our difficulty. Twenty or thirty years ago, most of these people would not have been able to undertake postgraduate research. Many of the institutions they attend had no history department and no tradition of taking research students at all. If the problem is the overproduction of PhDs, then which are the institutions who should be stopped from training doctoral students? Who are the individuals who should be prevented from starting research? Or do we just have to accept that there is a structural imbalance and that most doctoral students will not go on academic work?

It is a valid debate, but not an easy one. And it’s not one that will be helped by bad history or accusations of bad faith.

Don’t Call It Lucky: A Personal Perspective on the ‘ECR Debate’

N.B. This guest post was sent to us by an ECR who wanted to contribute to the debate but was unsure about doing it in their own name. We are happy to publish responses, whether anonymous or otherwise.

This post is about the ECR issues that have been convulsing Twitter. It is a story of personal experience, and as such it does not contribute very sensible calls for systematic evidence-based debate. But I do think that stories of personal experience have a place in this discussion, not as an alternative to the wider trends we need to identify, but in terms of addressing how individuals are dealing with these problems, and what range of solutions might be available.

I have some ideas, all of which stem from my identity and experience, but perhaps that identity and experience is worth thinking about. I hope my colleagues can understand that I have chosen to write this anonymously, even though it is a deeply personal post.

Let me begin, then, by saying that I do not deal well with uncertainty. No need to paint a picture, but I book travel a long time in advance, arrive everywhere early, and like routine. I am a lousy gambler.

Now put this character sketch into a situation: the situation of the early-career researcher. When I was finishing my doctorate, I started applying somewhat haphazardly for junior fellowship positions at Oxford and Cambridge. In the end, I got a six-month research fellowship, and spent most of it applying for the next round of things: more postdocs, the same junior fellowships, but also teaching positions both temporary and permanent, the British Academy. I put out feelers about the Leverhulme, the Wellcome Trust, the AHRC.

I managed to pick up some teaching to carry me through another year. And I started applying again.

This was the worst time for me. The same schemes where I had had limited success before (interviews, personalized rejections) were now rejecting me outright.
Did I mention that I do not deal well with uncertainty?

Around February, things started to look up. A Cambridge college wanted to interview me for a three-year fellowship, and – to my surprise – another university wanted to interview me for a permanent lectureship.

Long story short: I got the permanent job, a year after I finished my doctorate.

You could call this lucky, but it isn’t.

I know what you’re thinking, but I can get this out of the way pretty quickly: the obvious alternative to ‘luck’ in my story is not ‘hard work’.

Hard work is not optional on the lower rungs of the academic ladder.

I have known many different people from a variety of institutions and backgrounds, and ALL of them, without fail, and despite what they sometimes seem to worry, work very hard indeed.

I suspect that very few people who don’t work hard make it to graduate study and then to the end of the doctorate. (I do not mean to insult anyone who does not finish: there are many, many reasons not to complete a doctorate, and I doubt problems applying enough effort is a particularly common one (quite the opposite!).)

All I mean to say is that the problem – as I see it – is not that ‘luck’ is more important than ‘hard work’ in the current system.

So, you could call my story lucky, but it isn’t.

It is privileged.

I am privileged to have held positions and had income in the months after my doctorate, I am privileged to have worked with excellent people at prestigious institutions, and I’m not under any illusion that my journey has been tough compared to that of many others.

I freely admit it: I have had a privileged education (Oxbridge most of the way) and the support (including financial) of my family throughout. I have not had extensive responsibilities caring for family members or raising children. I have never felt discriminated against because of the colour of my skin or because of my sexual preference, gender identity, or a physical or mental disability.

My story is the story of one good-enough-person among a great many whose success – I like to think! – did require talent and determination, but also actively relied on these privileges in many complex and important ways.

I am not saying this to boast. Far from it – hence the anonymity.

There is nothing to be proud of about the fact that the system I was born into, and the place I have gradually taken in it rewards individuals not simply on merit, as we sometimes like to believe, but a complex cultural-symbolic maelstrom of identity issues.

If I’m not saying it to brag, then why bother?

Because a lot of relatively junior people I know who are in relatively secure jobs in academia seem to feel (like me) that the recent spats triggered by Matthew Lyon’s piece for History Today are not helping the discussion, but instead alienating people who should be involved.

So I did not, by any means, have the toughest transition from doctorate to relatively secure employment, but there was still transition, there was uncertainty, and I did personally deal with some of the problems that are at the heart of these arguments.
And as someone who does now have relative job security I am still deeply concerned by these problems.

I think there are structural problems with the current system, which cannot be reduced to ‘too many PhDs, not enough jobs’. The oversupply of excellent ECR is a catalyst that allows institutions and the system as a whole to exploit junior academics and perpetuate unfair disadvantages, but I do not believe that oversupply justifies exploitation and injustice.

And let’s not kid ourselves. Some people really do believe that. It’s a tenet of the neoliberal attitude, which believes the ECR situation should be ‘corrected’ when students realize that academia is not an economically attractive career.

The problems of precariousness and the role of privilege in this system should be corrected by sustained efforts by academics to pressure institutions for specific concrete changes that make academic careers fairer: by which I mean accessible to people from a range of backgrounds, accessible to people with different responsibilities as carers and parents, with different needs and requirements.

How? These are my suggestions. The value of speaking from personal experience is that I – like others – can explore the things that have helped me as I went through the harder times.

My guiding idea is that some of the privileges I have had from financial support and from prestigious institutions should be expectations.

ECR should reasonably expect they will get support of various kinds: this should not be a privilege limited to people who come from the right place and fit a certain image.

1 Get ‘em early

We could begin by going further back, very briefly. Everything I know from the excellent work of the Sutton Trust suggests that a deep cause of some of these inequalities lies way before university. We need a less unequal education system now more than ever, and of course, now more than ever, we have a government that is fundamentally opposed to the measures that would encourage a wider range of young people to arrive at the age of 22 or so and think academic research is a possibility, and a desirable one. Hell, we lack a government that is committed to encouraging mature students to feel that way, too.

These are debates (or despair?) for another day, because there are things we can be doing within academia to address these problems, too, even if the underlying issues of education and inequality have deeper roots…

2 The Code of Good Practice

I see it as part of my responsibility to ensure that the institution I work for meets the suggestions in the Royal Historical Society Code of Good Practice for temporary contracts, drawn up with History Lab plus, available here: http://bit.ly/1Ei6CB0
This, from the first page, a thousand, thousand times: “for those on short- term teaching contracts a few simple things, such as being included on email lists and invited to seminars, could make a big difference to their experience of a department.” The code goes on to suggest a short and straightforward list of things departments can do to make working in temporary jobs a better situation than it sometimes is now. Having an office, being included in meetings and research discussions, these should not be ‘perks’.

They should be expectations.

3 Making job applications less onerous

I would only add that – in my experience – some institutions could be more sensitive to the position that applicants are in when they apply for jobs. Is it really reasonable, in the situation we find ourselves, for every single institution in the UK to have a different hiring process? How much time is wasted producing tailored research or teaching statements for jobs at universities that never even have the courtesy to formally reject your application?

Could we have a national, standardized system (not unlike UCAS or the NHS job system)? There are obvious risks. Departments might complain that they will be swamped with even more applicants than they get at the moment and this will make their task harder.

Well, from what I can see, the problem here is not how hard it is for those of us who are looking for new colleagues. The problem is the immense pressure these potential colleagues are coming under from a variety of angles. And a standardized application system might be one way to reduce some of that pressure.

And let’s not forget that many of the same people who would have a tougher job sifting through applications in this nationwide model are the same ones who are besieged with demands for references. How would you like to write just one reference a year per candidate instead?

Of course there are other problems with this idea. Who will decide what the application should include? I suspect we would never reach any agreement on what it would look like.

And how would applicants tailor their pitch to the institution?

Well, not very much. Or rather, they would only get one shot. They’d have to pick what kind of institution in the abstract they wanted to go to, and then write a general enough pitch that those kinds of institution would be interested in them.
What else could institutions do to treat applicants better? Well I understand that personal letters to every single applicant may simply never be possible, but I will just say that every single time I got a personalized rejection, it meant a huge amount to me. Several times I asked for feedback from unsuccessful interviews and got none. I think that is broadly unacceptable. Colleagues have suggested that people worry about complaints, even court cases if they are too honest about why candidates are not good enough. I do not think this can be the main problem.

I wonder if institutions and the academics within them are very happy with a system where the criteria that exist on paper do not have to be addressed in decision-making. (I am thinking especially of Oxford and Cambridge, where the depressing spirit of academic libertarianism – both right and left wing – reigns supreme).

But let’s be clear about this: a system where departments have no accountability even to people who came very close for why they chose someone else… that is a system where privilege will continue to dominate.

4 Eliminating temporary contracts where possible

Beyond these thoughts about making life easier for people working in temporary contracts and helping job applicants, I am broadly committed to the idea that no job should be done by temporary staff that could be done by permanent staff.
Anyone who has experienced or witnessed (for instance) the misery of nine-month contracts, where staff are hardly paid to prepare teaching materials, and receive no pay at all over the summer, only to face possible renewal for another nine-months can justify the existence of temporary staff where they are not absolutely necessary. Of course temporary staff may be needed to cover periods of research leave, maternity and paternity leave, illness.

But I believe one of our goals should be to ensure that the slide of the UK system towards a US adjunct system must be arrested.
I have too many thoughts about this to contain in one post. I want to end on a positive note, although this is easier said than done.

Academia can be fantastic, and that is why so many people want to be academics. But I would hardly be the first person to point out this does not mean that any of them should have to work in financial insecurity.

Nor would I be the first to point out that the blame game turns very hurtful very quickly, not least since experiences of being ECR are clearly hugely variable.
Senior academics who feel they ARE doing their best to help junior colleagues might rightly feel pretty annoyed with recent finger-pointing. Mid-level academics with some security can quickly feel alienated from conversations because they are no longer the ones who have to deal with everyday insecurity. But as a group with BOTH 1. recent experiences (never underestimate how insulated other academics might be from what the job market is really like) and 2. a little more power within the system, surely these early-to-mid-level people must be key to making sure that change happens?

Getting angry about people who got desirable jobs without having to do X or Y blames those job-seekers (your former peers!) for systematic problems.

As the History Lab Plus Twitter account put it: ‘Let’s take the energy of this debate and channel it into working together as historians to make things better.’

So this is my declaration of hope, and also shame.

Because of course it would be easy to feel somewhat divorced from the struggle once the uncertainties are less present. My attention turns towards new uncertainties: my book, articles, the REF, research funding, teaching, the godawful Teaching Excellence Framework – to mention only my professional concerns.
I’m ashamed of that temptation and do honestly want to continue helping to reform the current situation.

And I feel bad for times I have made light of privilege in academia.

I think there is a very real problem whereby junior people are devalued in ways that make them cynical. Cynicism turns to sarcasm, and I might find myself joking about how so many jobs go to Oxbridge graduates, for instance.

It isn’t funny.

In fact, I’m ashamed of those tendencies towards cynicism in the darkest part of my between time, because, after all, I am a beneficiary of a system that is demonstrably unfair.

The only avenue for hope in the face of this shame must be: we can change this.

Teaching History in Higher Education/New to Teaching History

Here at History Lab Plus, we’re very pleased to support both the New to Teaching History event taking place at the Institute for Historical Research on 7th September and the Teaching History in Higher Education Conference, also taking place at the IHR on the 8th and 9th September. Both will be excellent events and the programme below includes some great speakers, many of whom have contributed to History Lab Plus events in the past. The New to Teaching event is free to PhDs and early-career scholars (scroll down to the link to register at the bottom of this post); there are also a limited number of conference fee bursaries for the larger conference for ECRs, but you must contact Peter D’Sena at the email address below for details. Attendance is highly recommended!

Teaching History in Higher Education Conference

Institute of Historical Research, Senate House

8-9 September 2015


Click here for the provisional programme: PROVISIONAL PROGRAMME Teaching History in HE conference 8-9 Sept 2015

BOOKING to attend the conference is now open.  Please go to: https://teachinghistoryinhighereducation.eventbrite.co.uk

REGISTRATION FEE: £96.05 per person for both days; £53.65 if registering for only one day.  For information about bursaries for students, please contact Peter D’Sena by e-mail at peterdsena@yahoo.comFor early career academics, bursaries are available – but please contact Peter first!


On the evening of Tuesday 8th September, there will be a meal nearby at a good quality restaurant. Information will be sent to all delegates about this as soon as we have an idea about numbers.  The approximate cost will be between £40 and £50.  In the past this has always been a convivial occasion and a good way to carry on networking with delegates.

There’s also a New to Teaching event on Monday 7th September (see IHR site).  It’s free (funding to support that from the RHS). The event is now on IHR Histevents: http://events.history.ac.uk/event/show/14375

Registration to attend the History New to Teaching event at:


Teaching and Technology: Notes and Reflections

Our event on ‘Teaching and Technology’ at Liverpool John Moores University on 15 March led to a very productive and inspiring discussion. Here, co-organiser Lucinda Matthews-Jones reflects on the themes that emerged and how we can embed digital technology in the History classroom in meaningful ways.

Universities are increasingly being asked to make their courses more digitally informed. History is not exempt from this. Indeed, as a subject area, we have benefitted from the digitisation of many of our sources. Like many historians, I have enjoyed thinking about how to use these digitised sources in the classroom. But I’m also increasingly aware that we need to reflect more widely on the relationship between pedagogy and the digital. I was therefore delighted to be asked to co-host, with Catherine Feely, an event on this theme for History Lab Plus. In this blog post I will provide notes on the themes that emerged from talks by Elliot McGaffney, Bob Nicholson, Melodee Beals, Jamie Wood, Allegra Hartley and Martin Hewitt and in the ensuing conversations.

Students have a very different relationship to digital media technology then we as teachers do. They appear to be constantly connected to social media, and digitally savvy about their interactions there. But, as Helen Rogers observed, this does not necessarily make them ‘digital natives’. Melodee Beals expanded on this idea to suggest that the relationship students have with digital media technology is more complicated than the suggestion that they are simply ‘natives’ in the digital sphere. Rather, students come from safe, enclosed, digital spheres which can make the transition to the digital tools we ask them to use difficult and unfamiliar. This was apparent in Bob Nicholson’s paper on his experiences of teaching his third-year module ‘Digital Detectives’ where students are generally unaware of how to search digital newspaper archives effectively. This raises questions about how we perceive the ‘Google Generation’. As Bob Nicholson noted, many of the digital resources we use look and feel very different from what students are used to. They are more familiar with apps than databases. It’s possible that the advantage is actually with the older generation: Melodee Beals pointed out that many academics have some memory of DOS and familiarity with coding.

Our digital modules can therefore shatter the safe digital spaces that students have created for themselves. This raises interesting questions about how we design and construct digitally informed modules. Many of the digital modules that were discussed at this event are taught in blocks of 2 hours or more. These sessions are often an exclusively digital classroom exercise. ‘Digital Victorians’, a module run by Paul Ward, Allegra Hartley and Martin Hewitt, provides an innovative way to think about how to design digital modules. Balanced with fieldtrips and other offline content, students are introduced to Pinterest, Google Maps, Slidely, timeline software, Youtube and Vine. They are, like Helen Rogers’s students on ‘Prison Voices’ and ‘Writing Lives’, encouraged to use social media to share their findings. Allegra Hartley’s engaging paper discussed digital assessments. She noted how students used digital resources that had not been discussed in class, confirming that once equipped with the skills for digital research, students are capable of doing it for themselves.

One of the reasons we are being encouraged to embed digital skills into our courses is to create more digitally savvy employees for the world of work. Is it enough, then, to include digital skills only in certain modules? There was a sense at this event that many of our digital modules were free standing, viewed as add-ons to courses, and that they don’t necessarily include all students on a degree programme. Should this be the case? Should specific digital option modules be devised simply as a tick box exercise without incorporating all students and – dare I say it- staff? I would argue that digital skills need to be embedded at all levels, with a foundational first year module in digital history. Jamie Wood showed us how he uses social book marking in a first year skills module to understand how students read and engage with secondary and primary sources. By using social media book marking students would then devise seminars by providing key questions. Meanwhile, Jamie would then be able to look at how they had engaged with and understood their reading by looking at how they had highlighted and archived their work.
When we get digital pedagogy right we can enlighten and enliven the learning experience for our students and train them to be the digital historians we want them to be. As Allegra Hartley noted, many of her students found ‘Digital Victorians’ to be ‘liberating’. This was confirmed by Elliot McGaffney, who gave a paper on his experiences as a mentor on Helen Rogers’s ‘Prison Voices’ module. Having finished this module last year, Elliot assisted Helen by mentoring students, helping them set up their own blogs, proof reading student’s work and writing support material for other students. This experience, he noted, now takes centre place on his CV. It was wonderful to hear from a student about how they had benefitted from being involved in a digital module like this one.

We need to remember that digital history is an expansive field. The papers at this event demonstrated that there are a wide range and variety of digital tools that we can incorporate into our degree programmes. These can range from blogs, social bookmarking, newspapers, database retrieval and social media tools. But, we also need to think carefully about the digital platforms that we use. Jamie Wood noted that both students and staff do not perceive VLEs to be the places where the best digital learning occurs. This is largely because we envisage VLEs to be lecturer led, and as repositories for lecturer created materials.

At the same time, we need to think more about the rooms we create for digital modules. There was a feeling that static PC rooms were not useful for digital modules because they prevent group work. It was also noted that desktop PCs create a barrier between students and between student and lecturer, whilst also being noisy. Universities therefore need to think more about infrastructure. Many of us were impressed by the classrooms that the University of Huddersfield have created. PCs are hidden in the tables, which are arranged in small groups in front of a flat screen TV which can show a lecturer’s PowerPoint or used by the small group. One of the reasons I really like this room’s arrangement is that it encouraged us to think more about how we incorporate digital skills into our sessions. At the moment, we separate digital and non-digital modules by the fact that our seminar rooms do not have IT provisions for all students. I believe that this needs to change.
All rooms should have computer provision these days almost all teaching involves digital content of some kind. I’m always surprised at lecturers who bemoan the lack of ‘good’ reading and ‘good’ primary material when marking student essays. But how are students supposed to define the good, the bad, and the ugly within our modules if we do not actively teach them in the classroom? I also believe that all seminar activities should include the primary source databases that our libraries subscribe to. This would not only show off what we have in our e-libraries, but also incorporate all our colleagues and hopefully prevent the idea that there are those staff members who are digital historians and there are those that aren’t. We are all digital historians.

There must therefore be greater training offered to staff in this area. We need to recognise that academics need to work in safe digital spaces. The only way we can fully respond to our students needs as future digital workers is if universities and professional bodies also start to recognise that we need training in this area. Moreover, we need to consider how we disseminate our digital teaching practices and resources. Martin Hewitt noted his surprise that we still don’t share these more fully. I’ve been pondering this questions ever since. We don’t need to reproduce the same material all the time. Perhaps with digital resources this is especially the case. More importantly, this has led me to think about how we talk about teaching more generally. It’s interesting that we all describe our modules as either research led or informed. But, we rarely offer a teaching strand in our conference calls for papers. Teaching is usually confined to teaching conferences. Academic conferences should surely start reflecting on how we teach our research. These would be a great place for us to learn how our colleagues are advancing digital pedagogy.

Catherine Feely and I plan to organise an event that picks up on these themes. Let us know if there is a particular digital tool you think we should look into.

Dr Lucinda Matthews-Jones, Liverpool John Moores University – @luciejones83

Further Resources

Elliot McGaffney’s presentation on ‘Blogging Beyond the Classroom

Jamie Wood on ‘Social Bookmarking and the Questioning Historian

Allegra Hartley’s blog post on ‘Digital Victorians

History Lab Plus Events: More Dates for your Diaries!

We have a busy few months ahead at History Lab Plus, with events coming up left, right and centre all across the country. Here are a few details of upcoming events, a Call for Papers and some preliminary dates for your diary.

First of all, we are running an event on Teaching and Technology: Making Digital History‘ at Liverpool John Moores University on 14th March 2015. A stellar line-up of historians will share their experience of engaging history students with digital technologies and will help you to develop your own course ideas. You can read more details and book for this exciting event on our Eventbrite page.

Our very popular event ‘Life After the PhD’ will again be exploring a whole range of post-PhD careers, both academic and non-academic, on 21st April 2015 at Senate House, London. More details will follow very soon.

On June 12th, we’re pleased to be sponsoring a one-day symposium on ‘Teaching World History’ at the University of Derby. This Call for Papers invites proposals for 10-15 minute presentations about how to engage students on international topics. The deadline for proposals is 31st March 2015.

Also in June, we’ll also be running our annual joint event with the Royal Historical Society and this time we’re moving out of London! Watch this space for a announcement of date and brand new location very soon. In the meantime, here’s some of the excellent advice our professors gave last year to be going on with.

In July we’re also proud to be sponsoring early-career workshops at the ‘Rethinking Modern British Studies‘ conference at the University of Birmingham and the Leeds Medieval Congress.

There are also other events in the planning, including one on becoming a freelance historian or heritage professional. So there’s even more to come! Hard to believe, I know; we do our best for you …