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.

Early Career Life in 2014 – Niamh NicGhabhann

In the final of our reflections on early career life in 2014 (for now), Niamh NicGhabhann writes about how her career has taken her in unforeseen directions this year and on the importance of finding focus. We hope you’ve enjoyed these first series of posts, and if you’ve written to us about doing a reflective blog, we’ll be in touch very soon as we hope to make this a regular feature of the blog. We’d especially like to hear from you if you feel like you’ve had a different experience to those we’ve had so far. Over to Niamh …

On 31 December, as I was working my way towards my 3pm New Year’s Eve essay-marking cut-off point, I saw a note on Twitter looking for ECRs to write about their life and experiences post-submission. Naturally, I jumped at the chance. Anything beats grading, after all. I was also motivated, however, by the fact the I’ve learned so much about academic life, the jobs market, publications and general good working practices from Twitter and from similar blogs, and would be delighted if my few experiences could be of any value to others in a similar way.

I completed my PhD in TRIARC: the Irish Art Research Centre at Trinity College Dublin (https://www.tcd.ie/History_of_Art/research/centres/triarc/) in 2011 and graduated in 2012. My thesis was on the preservation of medieval ecclesiastical buildings in Ireland, and was completed under the supervision of Professor Roger Stalley. My undergraduate degree had also been at Trinity College Dublin, following which I spent a year working as a tour guide, as an education intern in the National Gallery of Ireland, and finally as an administrator for the Irish Museums Association. Since my undergrad, and throughout my postgrad years, I was keenly aware of the fact that I would emerge from university in need of a job – this led me to take on a series of jobs and internships with festivals and contemporary art galleries. I did everything from writing essays for art books to sanding down gallery walls. I was lucky to have a funded doctoral position – on the IRC (Irish Research Council)-funded Reconstructions of the Gothic Past project, yet I knew that this would not last forever. The years of my PhD, therefore, were busy ones – I was working on my thesis, doing as much gallery and curatorial work as possible, and trying to attend and present at as many conferences as possible. The fact that I did my PhD within a larger funded project meant that I was more supported, with team meetings, regular working patterns, and a major conference and a publication at the end to showcase findings. A digital humanities component was also developed (www.gothicpast.com) , which I didn’t work on directly, but which did give me some insight into the world of DH. Was this strategy of busy multi-tasking successful in the end? I do worry that it made me more of a Jill of all trades, and sometimes wish that I had simply found the key to the ivory tower for those three years, hopped in and put my head down. However, when I graduated, I was glad to have had those experiences, as they stood me in good stead when it came to negotiating the jobs market.

On graduating, I found myself taking on too much. I was teaching in two universities, and got a job as a researcher on a new digital humanities project based on medieval buildings. I was afraid to let anything go, but ended up having to drop one set of teaching – I regret not being more aware of this earlier, and letting the university know in advance, as I fear I risked some of the goodwill which I had built up there. Working and teaching gave me time to recover from the final year of the PhD – I found myself being able to work from a US college for a period, which opened my eyes to that system. Around this time, I realized that I needed to give myself a bit of a kick in terms of ensuring that I was working on publications – I put a book proposal together and was accepted (http://www.fourcourtspress.ie/books/2015/building-on-the-past/) . I also started several articles, finished a few, and had some rejected. I presented at different conferences, but did not find that this was a particularly good research period for me. Bad habits are slow to break, however, and I took on further gallery and curatorial work, and not only that, founded a company with three of my colleagues aimed at providing historical project management and research skills to a variety of clients. We were successful in our first tender bid for a large government project exploring the history of a former psychiatric hospital in Co. Monaghan. This experience was, like many others, was a positive one, but took up a lot of time and energy, and brought me into yet another career direction. In setting up the company, I was involved in innovation and enterprise training, and also ran a conference and established a research project (with some small funding) on the subject of Innovation and the Humanities (http://innovationandthehumanities.wordpress.com/).

(What you don’t see here, of course, are the worries, the crappy flats, the breakups, the incredibly supportive partner, family and friends, the exhaustion and self-doubt, but they are very much part of this picture too).

The world works in mysterious ways – despite feeling increasingly worried that these varied experiences would render me unemployable, I found myself applying for the position of Course Director for a new MA Programme in Festive Arts at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance (http://chronicle.com/academicDestinationArticle/Festivals-are-on-the/233/) . This position allows me to combine my experiences and passion for curating, arts management and policy, innovation, together with my research expertise in the ritual and festive uses of post-medieval spaces and landscapes. The Irish World Academy is based at the University of Limerick, and I have taken full advantage of their research mentoring schemes – I have been advised to do what I have known all along – focus! Find one direction and work there! I have been in my new position for a year and a half now, and it has been extremely challenging and extremely rewarding. Putting a new course together, positioning the discipline, promoting the course to potential students and learning the ropes at a new university has had me jump through more hoops than I thought I could. I am now at the point where I am finishing a number of projects – I am stepping down from the company as entrepreneurship is a full-time job, and I simply don’t have time for two of those, I’m waiting for the first set of page proofs of my book, and I am tying up some final essays and projects which have been in the pipeline for a few years. I write a blog (http://niamhnicghabhann.tumblr.com/) , which I find is a useful place to put thoughts and ideas not for publication or other projects (although blog posts have often led to other opportunities).

My next stage is to consolidate my research, teaching and supervision, and to define a new direction that I feel combines my various research interests in a unified way, and to work in a focused way in that area. I’ve also started mentoring undergraduate students within TCD’s GradLink scheme. I want to cull some of the more eclectic jobs that I had accumulated in my very-ECR years, and to give myself more recreation time. The things that I have learned – go for opportunities (even if they seem beyond you at the time), take your own place at the table (speak up, get used to the sound of your own voice), and take time off (you can do anything, but only if you stop often enough).

Early Career Life in 2014 – Daryl Leeworthy

In the latest in our posts about early career life in 2014, Daryl Leeworthy, who was an excellent contributor to our ‘History, Heritage and the Media’ event at Leicester, reflects on a transitional year …

Academics, unlike miserly old Victorians, don’t sit up at night on Christmas Eve awaiting the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future, to show them the error of their ways; rather, they lie awake thinking of the ups and downs of the past twelve months, hoping that, whatever has happened, a peak rather than a trough is just around the corner. At times early academic careers can appear much like the Dickensian signalman: full of life, very real, and then suddenly vanished without a trace leaving only the memorial echoes of the good times in a seminar room or in the pub after work.

I must confess that 2014 has been a transition year in a lot of ways. From January to July I was still employed as a lecturer at the University of Huddersfield. I had a brilliant group of students, many of whom did extraordinarily well in their end of year exams, and a fantastic set of colleagues. Loathe as I am to draw attention to just a few, I do want to say a special thank you to Rebecca Gill, who has been the best academic partner-in-crime that you could ask for, to Barry Doyle for being a kind of guru to me, and to Jonathan Gledhill, Janette Martin, and Paul Atkinson for making life in the North so enjoyable.

I’d also like to thank my 4th grade cat, my 1st grade hamster, and my goldfish Jack who so tragically died before my picture was released.

Oh, wait…wrong blog!

Finding a new job after Huddersfield was always going to be tough. I had several interviews – only one of which was for a permanent job. All of them were in the South of England. Travelling to this part of the world was more profound a culture shock than living in Canada or spending a lot of time in Ireland. Perhaps it was having grown so accustomed to life in the North, but a big part of me was glad whenever the institution sent the email that goes “we regret to inform you”. I didn’t think this way at the time – I was too focused on the ‘now what?’ – but I’m actually quite glad I didn’t end up moving to the South of England.

Instead I moved home, to Wales, and started writing. After three months, I’ve put down nearly 150,000 words of two books and three new articles. Two articles were finished and accepted for publication just as I was leaving, too. Looking back, the time in Yorkshire enabled me to think more carefully about what I wanted to say about the South Walian Labour Movement and how it came to be (all will be revealed in the book), and long discussions with colleagues in North America (particularly Colin Howell, Lucia Trimbur and Andy Holman) have propelled my long planned, but little actioned, book called Playing on the Border into existence. Added to the book that Rebecca and I are writing and I think this ‘unpaid sabbatical’ has been enormously productive. But it’s not a job, obviously.

Then, out of the blue a couple of weeks ago, I got a phone call from Chris Williams saying that Cardiff needed someone to teach some seminars over the forthcoming Hilary Term. It is as if my luck has turned: I had been approaching 2015 with a little bit of uncertainty, but now I can move forward with some teaching and ensuring my research is maintained at its current level. It may not mean that I can move out of my teenage bedroom any time soon, but it does mean that the new year begins with a clear sense of purpose which was not there in 2013 or (being completely honest) in 2014. For that I’m truly grateful, as I am for the means of staying in Wales for a while.

And so to end on a remarkably positive note (I’m not sure I would have a few months ago), I want to reflect on the role of social media over the course of the year. It used to be said that academic research in the humanities was a very lonely experience (obviously by historians who forgot about archivists and librarians who fill the day with such enthusiasm!). I don’t think that’s true anymore. Just the other day, Cath Feely and I shared oodles of tweets back and forth blending the joins of our overlapping research; through the last few months I’ve had scores of emails and tweets from Alun Burge all about co-operatives and the labour movement; and at every moment of despair the academic community on twitter has rallied to support. Thank you never quite covers the debt. It can sometimes seem that we’re all in competition with each other – true enough when it comes to those ever diminishing jobs, I suppose – but I like to think that we support each other because our eyes are open to new possibilities, and because we can see a different way towards the future. As we move forward into 2015, perhaps it’ll be closer to our grasp.

Blwyddyn newydd dda i chi gyd!

Daryl writes an excellent blog at History on the Dole. You should make reading it one of your New Year’s Resolutions! More early-career reflections and plans for 2015 to come next week.

Early Career Life in 2014 – Cath Feely

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?

office view

The view from here. Taken out of the window of our office at the University of Derby, January 2014.

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.

MuseomixScans049 - Cath cropped

Me, looking worried and out of my comfort zone, at the Museomix event at Derby Silk Mill, November 2014. This awesome picture was drawn by the artist in residence Sally Jane Thompson. See more of her work here: http://www.sallyjanethompson.co.uk/

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.