What’s so good about academia?

It has been a while since I last wrote. It has been a bruising few weeks in the academic world, from the usual exhaustion that we expect at the end of the academic teaching year and the assessment period, through to the stress of the annual job application circuit. Having had two rejections and one ignore in a matter of weeks, where last year I was shortlisted for every job I went for, I’m left wondering why whilst hoping it has nothing to do with openly declaring my disability, which I’ve never previously done. As ever I also question whether this time my academic career will come to an end after having negotiated my way through a succession of temporary contracts since late 2014 and published even when not contractually obliged to do so. I don’t want to leave academia if I’m honest but covering someone else’s teaching on a temporary basis does become unfulfilling very quickly, especially when you’ve got ideas for multiple research projects. Maybe the timing is just poor. We know that studying languages is suffering a hammering on all fronts. The value of languages is not recognized by some institutions and individuals; we know that UK Higher Ed has been being squeezed for years, with staff increasingly on temporary, teaching-only contracts and senior staff roles not being replaced like for like but with junior roles and even then only on a short-term basis. In another time academia may well have been easier to get a foothold in. So, it is easy to criticize academia – there are plenty of faults – but then there are in every industry. Having worked my way through my PhD I know that what is referred to as ‘the real world’ by anyone outside of the university sector, is far from a hallowed antithesis to all of the academic world’s shortcomings. Incidentally, the world of academia is very much real. Anyway, we cannot fix everything in one go and just complaining does not solve anything either. So, it’s time to change the tune for a bit. This blog post is about acknowledging what is good about academia and saying a few thank-yous, whilst I’ve still got the chance.

Kindness, support and solidarity are the first of my keywords; I find these in abundance in academia and more so than I’ve ever done in any other sector I’ve worked in. Sure, there are those that are anything but, there are those that piggyback on your own work, but they are far outweighed by the kindness of others, their support and their solidarity, their willingness and generosity of time. In the last few weeks alone I’ve had offers of advice, a listening ear or just a chat from a range of friends and colleagues. Some I’ve taken up already, others I will do shortly because this kindness, this instinctive reaching out is what is good about academia. It is also what I would like to promote more – employment permitting.

That support and that generosity of time also extends to the peer-review process. This is often unpaid, or paid for in book vouchers, but constructive peer-review is invaluable, and I find myself the recipient of such constructive advice and feel supported in what I’m doing, my confidence buoyed as I get on with the tweaking and refining. So, thank-you to my anonymous reviewer.

Networks and teamworking are my next keywords. I work in a number of teams. What makes each of these so enjoyable to work in is that sense of community we create, working together for common goals, to improve things, to share ideas. I have the very great pleasure of co-chairing a special interest group under the auspices of UCML (University Council of Modern Languages) and we focus on Early Career Academics working in the broad field of Modern Languages. Ever since I’ve been part of this, it has been like an anchor in uncertain times, that no matter what is happening contractually, I can put my experience and values to good use, helping others and hopefully facilitating change. A huge thank-you goes to my co-chair Dominique, and our representative on the executive committee, Liam, and to all the members of our group’s steering committee, in no particular order: Caroline, Hannah, Ashley, Catherine, Cathy, Mavis, Serena, Karunika, Louis, Sara, Alessandro, and a warm welcome to our incoming members Hui-Hua and Maria. The thanks would not be complete without recognizing that this special interest group was established by Charlotte and Dan, so our achievements are also yours; without you we wouldn’t exist. We’ve also been generously supported by members of the executive, so there’s particular shout out to James for all his hard work and knowing the answer to any procedural query we have had, and to Emma, Claire and Marcela on the executive committee for their on-going support. Here’s to continued positive teamwork and here’s to our forthcoming symposium. https://university-council-modern-languages.org/2021/06/15/ucml-symposium-for-early-career-academics-in-modern-languages/

It is those values that I also take forward into jointly representing Early Career Academics together with Corinne at the subject level through Women in German Studies. We’ve only been part of the team for a few weeks, but it is so nice to be involved, to be able to create a buzz around our subject so often mentioned in reference to the beleaguered state of Modern Languages in the UK but which is actually a wide ranging, fascinating and valuable subject area. So, here’s a big shout out to all of the team: Ingrid, Catherine, Siobhan, Corinne, Iman, Ina, and Molly. https://womeningermanstudies.wordpress.com/

Beyond working towards improvements in provisions for Early Career Academics, I also have the privilege of being a joint contributing editor, together with Olga for the bibliographic journal The Year’s Work in Modern Language Studies. https://brill.com/view/journals/ywml/ywml-overview.xml?language=en Writing can often be a lonely task but by working together on this we’ve established our own pattern and can be mutually supportive, the one taking a lead for the other at times, sharing the tasks, advising and boosting morale. Working together, knowing you can rely on someone else, and also that someone is there to help you see things differently is such a joy. Then of course, there are the unexpected bonuses. Within this role I get to read a far wider range of publications than I would otherwise have the opportunity to do, and sometimes you discover unexpected links to your teaching that really save your proverbial bacon. Whilst reading my colleague Ingo’s book on German Science Fiction https://boydellandbrewer.com/9781640140356/beyond-tomorrow/ as part of this role, I came across some pertinent parallels to the content of a module I was teaching, one that was completely new to me, and suddenly I went from not knowing how to approach something, to having an insight that sent me down a new path, making connections I wouldn’t otherwise have done. So, thanks Ingo!

Last but by no means least, thank-yous would not be complete without mentioning my students, past and present. One of the joys is watching them thrive and progress – not just when they are in your class but watching them thrive beyond their time as students. In our connected world I’m still in contact with some of the first students I taught and sometimes they get in touch, which is just lovely. So, thanks all.

As I sign off, I don’t know whether this will be my last blog post as a staff member of any UK university – maybe, maybe not.  I certainly hope to remain because for all its faults, there is so much that is good, creative and positive within academia that I’d like to continue being part of, contributing to and shaping that community.

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