Continuing our reflections on life in 2014, co-chair Cath Feely shares her early career experience and her New Year’s resolution to stop worrying so much and enjoy her job …
On New Year’s Day 2014, I was packing. I can’t remember much of last Christmas as most of it was spent in a whirl of picking up house keys, surviving the hell of IKEA Nottingham and worrying about starting a new (and permanent, as much as any job is permanent) job at the University of Derby. Anyone reading this who knows me will know that worrying is, or at least seems to be, my default mode. My boss tells me that in the first few weeks he would occasionally see me from afar in the University Atrium and that my face always looked worried. A few weeks in, I had to explain to him that my worried face was just my ‘resting face’. He laughed at me (not for the last time) and I realised how ridiculous that sounded. Why was I expending so much energy worrying?
Part of it was, I think, a hangover from the previous year. Just before Christmas 2012, I had got a temporary job at the University of Sheffield, a job that required me to take over a third year Special Subject and dissertations half way through. That the group of students I inherited were the best bunch that I could have ever imagined didn’t take away the stress of the task, especially getting my head around someone else’s course based on their own research area and preparing students for an exam not set by me. At the same time, I was also in the middle of teaching my own module at the University of Durham, and so, for the first six months of 2013, my natural home was the Transpennine Express, as I commuted between my home in Manchester and Sheffield and Durham. This took a heavy toll on my health (so many station Burger Kings) and my personal life. My husband will never know just how grateful I am that he got up every morning at 6am to drive me to Manchester Piccadilly.
All of this was incredible experience, and I got excellent advice along the way, especially from my Head of Department at Sheffield. But it was always going to be temporary and, sure enough, in June 2013, I found myself at the edge of the early-career abyss. For the first time since graduating in 2011, I had absolutely nothing lined up for September, not even the odd seminar group here or there. I seriously thought this was the end of the road. I was, therefore, very relieved to get a ten month lectureship at the University of Manchester starting in September 2013. As this was the place where I had done my PhD, there was an outpouring of glee on social media from my peers and I couldn’t have been happier. But it was still temporary and I still kept on applying for permanent jobs.
When I got one, it was a bit of a shock. I had never been to Derby, I didn’t know any of my interviewers, and I hadn’t (because the interview was the week before term started at Manchester) had the time I would have liked to prepare. But I think this helped. Neither they nor I had any preconceived ideas; what they saw was what they got (so they only have themselves to blame!)
I won’t say that this last year hasn’t been hard at times. There have been significant personal compromises, and it has taken me time to adjust to a different environment and expectations. In my teaching, I have felt challenged and, as any student knows, this isn’t always a comfortable feeling. Time-management has not always been as perfect as it could (or should) be. But, overall, I think that I have grown as a teacher and scholar. I have had to go back to basics and recognise that what worked in one context, or in a 50-minute seminar, for years doesn’t necessarily work in a four hour workshop. I have learned that teaching in a team of six is very different to teaching in a team of thirty five, and that it can be as awesome as it is hard work. I have never laughed as much as I have in the last year and for that I have both my colleagues and students to thank.
In terms of research, this year has been frustrating but in a really odd way. I did far too many conference and seminar papers than was both sustainable and desirable, considering it was my first year on the job. I think I was still doing the desperate-for-a-job-say-yes-to-everything act, not quite realising that it was no longer necessary. In the coming months, I am going to say no to things that distract me from what I really want to do. I guess all I need to do now is figure out exactly what that is.
But, actually, I think that I do know what that is, and co-teaching a third year course on Material Culture with my incredible colleague Ruth Larsen has had more of an impact than she and our students know. But it has also shown me how far our scholarship is bound up in our teaching. There is a lot of talk about research-led teaching but from where I’m standing it’s all about teaching-led research. Teaching this year has stretched and forced me to clarify my ideas in an extremely productive manner. It’s not just the teaching itself that has had an impact on the way I think as a scholar, but being part of a little intellectual community where we challenge our students to do the best that they can. And, my gosh, we challenge them and they rise to meet that challenge. I will never forget the Public History conference in May, when our second year students stood up in front of 250 people and gave astonishingly good and original papers about the First World War, all of them publishable. They were incredible and made me realise just how lucky I am.
So this coming year I want to follow our students and try to be the best that I can be. But that means doing a bit more adjusting and a lot less worrying. It means focusing my time and energy on the things that matter both to me as an individual and to our team, and learning to say no occasionally. It means having high expectations but realistic ones. It means not getting overwhelmed and just f***ing doing it. And, perhaps most of all, it means looking after myself and allowing myself to enjoy a job where I go to work laughing, spend most of the day laughing and come home laughing.