We are currently planning another half-day workshop for postgraduates and early career researchers as part of our preparations for the 2017 Modern British Studies conference. Based on the positive feedback we received from the PG/ECR session at MBS 2015, we know that this time was valuable to our community and that much of it helped frame subsequent conference discussions on academic labour. However, we are not sure it achieved all that it set out to do.
In 2015, we aimed to continue the conversation we began in Working Paper Two about how the conditions of academic labour (both in terms of physical and emotional toil) impact the histories we write. Given that there are simply not enough jobs in academia for all of us, it is not surprising that most of the 2015 workshop centred on our uncertain futures. However, despite the anxiety that these challenging conditions create, we cannot allow discussions between PGs and ECRs to always collapse into group therapy sessions. While emotional support and affective networks are vital, we are missing a trick if we do not use our time together to talk productively about what our place of precarity means for the future of our discipline.
We have so far failed to talk at length about the intellectual implications of negotiating a challenging job market. Papers at our recent PG/ECR workshop Seeking Legitimacy explored how impact agendas, tough funding competition and short-term contracts alongside the pressures of researching, teaching and publishing have implications on the intellectual and historical choices we make. Ben Mechen, in a paper on the legitimacy of writing the history of pornography, reflected on how his subject matter may be considered sordid, frivolous or even offensive to some funding/employment panels, while others may find it innovative or engaging. Should the job-seeking researcher play it safe and tick the boxes to land a permanent position? Or should we take risks and write the history our subjects deserve?
This is not to say that we should stop talking about the way these pressures affect our health and wellbeing. They need to continue. But debates about the intellectual implications of our patterns of labour may emphasise the structural causes of poor mental health in academia. The rhetoric around mental health support aimed at postgraduates (in our institution at least) revolves around coping strategies rather than examining the structural causes. The onus is therefore on PGs and ECRs to discuss their own problems and to find their own solutions.
This is why we want to make exploring the relationship between academic labour and the histories we produce part of the agenda at MBS 2017. However, we remain unsure as to whether our PG and ECR workshop is the best place for this dialogue. Indeed, the spatial dimensions and divisions particularly concern us. We have been working hard in MBS to resist hierarchical structures. Restricting these conversations to new researchers potentially reinforces damaging hierarches and ensures that we miss out on the insights of more senior staff. While a distinct platform may help us feel confident in speaking openly amongst our peers, we cannot help but feel troubled that a separate space may now be a pre-requisite for new researchers to say difficult things.
Moreover, only having these discussions amongst ourselves implies that our community has to find a solution, just as we are responsible for our own mental health and wellbeing. This is not only a huge burden, but requires access to networks that we are not yet part of. Although many commented on the way the postgraduate workshop at MBS 2015 spilled over into the conference ‘proper’, this in itself is problematic. While we were delighted that we helped to frame MBS 2015, it was certainly not the two-way conversation we would have liked. Instead, the academic community were able to pick up on some of the tropes of our broader points without fully engaging with us or our debates.
Segregation also prevents us from sharing knowledge that comes from our unique vantage point. For example, we are the first generation of historians who have been encouraged from the start of our training to engage with other disciplines. Some of us who are funded by Doctoral Training Partnerships regularly meet with students from other disciplines via this network. Similarly, those of us who share offices with other schools and colleges are keenly aware of the value of speaking with non-historians. If MBS 2017 is going to focus on questions of cross-disciplinarity, surely we should be part of that conversation – from the centre and not from the edges!
What’s more, although fear of interview-and-funding-panels-to-be loom over our imaginations, Seeking Legitimacy demonstrated that our creativity has not been completely stifled. We are tackling challenging and exciting subject matter and are using interdisciplinary methodologies in our interventions. This is not history à la mode but a way of innovating from the margins. At MBS 2015 it was repeatedly noted that new researchers are doing some of the most exciting work. This can only reinforce the value of our voice in the debate about what Modern British history is and where it should go next. We hope that it will become part of the norm to discuss our subjects in more reflexive ways, to be transparent about our privileges and to be open about the context in which our work has been produced.
Precisely because the material conditions of labour determine our intellectual outputs, a conference that does not locate new researchers at the centre of discussions cannot claim to fully engage with the intellectual shape of our discipline. Our precarity should not just be a point of entry for a conversation about the neo-liberal university. Rather, the very future of our discipline is at stake.