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.

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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.