MBS 2017 Response: Doing history within precarity

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Ben Mechen

Ben Mechen was a Teaching Fellow in Modern British History at the University of Birmingham in the academic year 2016-2017. The following blog is the text of his paper at last month’s Modern British Studies Conference. You can get in touch or follow Ben on Twitter @benmechen.

To contribute to this conversation, I thought I would just pull together some thoughts about how, as PGRs and ECRs, we might do history from within precarity.

The starting point here is that, with the job market as it stands, our status as historians and, related to this, our personal wellbeing and our relationships with each other, with more senior colleagues as well as with those at home, are precarious and will be precarious, and that we must therefore, from a position of realism rather than pessimism, think not just about the many ways in which academic precarity is disabling and disenfranchising – which it is – but also how we can make our precarity generative, both in terms of the ways we work with and relate to each other, and the kinds of history we write.

To make precarity generative, when it is us rather than the university harnessing it, isn’t necessarily a celebratory or reinforcing gesture. It is instead to use precarity as our historically or generationally-situated starting point for thinking radically about history as work and also for thinking about the work of history.

The energy for doing this, for generating something new, comes, I think – and to refer back to the framework of the Modern British Studies PGRs – precisely from our double positionality as PGRs and ECRs as both seekers of legitimacy, each trying to establish a professional toehold, and as ourselves conferrers of legitimacy, like all historians, on particular historical subjects through particular acts of attention.

So how might we build outward from precarity in these two areas?

Firstly, history as work.

This has mainly to do with how we relate to each other and the university as a cohort of precarious researchers, and the forms of solidarity we might try to build given our positions of individual weakness. I want to suggest a few things here – and I emphasise that these are just ideas for discussion.

Firstly, where we can, we must try to break the logics of competition enforced on us by marketisation. One way to do this – the most obvious way – is by joining the union and being active in it. Another is to support grassroots networks like FACE.

Sharing information, feelings and ideas, though, is yet another, and one that can go alongside and outside these formal affiliations and acts of resistance: information, feelings and ideas about working conditions at particular institutions, about real rates of pay, about teaching loads, about bad days at the office, about failed as well as successful applications.

Let’s have honest conversations, publicly when we can, privately when we need. WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook, shared Google docs: these can be good weapons of the weak. A move from precarity to security sometimes feels dependent on communicating to the outside world a constant narrative of success, industriousness, happiness, in which we’re completing a redraft, a conference proposal and a lesson plan by lunchtime, when really we’re struggling to keep going and keep smiling.

Everything is not always “fine”. We might think about the utility for us, as well as more senior colleagues looking to be our allies, of Sara Ahmed’s concept of the ‘killjoy’, vocalising frustration, indeed anger, at the status quo when rubbing along would be more painless, as well as Jack Halberstam’s notion that we should reclaim failure as a powerful and liberating form of critique. Harry Stopes’ recent blogpost about pay at the New College of the Humanities, or Rachel Moss’s on the unruly body in modern academia, are excellent examples of this, but put one’s head above the parapet like this would be less risky were we more inclined to kill joy – or to fail – together.This doesn’t have to be our permanent stance but it should be one we’re all ready to hold when needed. Let’s keep our precarity visible. Let’s make our presence awkward.

Secondly, and following from this, if we move from a precarious position to something more stable, let’s not pull the ladder up. Instead, let’s remember our former precarity and try to leverage our new security into shaping the profession in ways that alleviate precarity’s worst effects and most pernicious manifestations.

To accept as part of this that academia is not a perfect meritocracy is not to discount your own right to be there: one problem is that there are too many good people and not enough good jobs. Another is that this is a profession struck through with deeply-embedded forms of inequality.

Finally, and following this, when doing history from within precarity we need always to think about precarity in the plural. My precarity as a fixed-term teaching fellow, and as a cis straight white male, might be different – might be far less precarious – than your precarity, even if at some level precariousness unites us.

Before we even get to the question of academic precarity, meanwhile, there is the question of academic access: we are here, within the university, whilst others are not. Intersectional analysis and awareness is a condition of our generational solidarity as precarious academics and as members of a larger, multi-layered precariat, not a danger to it. In every encounter with each other, we must remember this.

Secondly, from history as work to the work of history, because doing history from within precarity must be more than just navel-gazing about our place in the profession.

What can precarity be generative of here?

The key point is this: that despite our precarity we remain in positions of authority as historians, and that in fact our appearance as “serious” historians depends on this exercise of authority over sources, subjects and audiences in order to make claims – plausible claims – about “the way things were”.

Like all historians, we tell stories about the past that we hope others – other historians, the public – will believe and we do this because we care about and are interested in the past and what we, and what others, know about it. Like other historians, we make decisions about what needs to be brought to light and what remains in the shadows.

We must therefore recognise the authority of the postgraduate or early career historian at the same time that we recognise our relative weakness within the profession. By embracing the duality of this position, we can make histories that better recognise other, and no doubt more extreme forms, of marginality and precarity across time and space.

In doing history from within precarity, we can as a cohort continue to reanimate the study of history from below, as others have already called for; to consider with fresh eyes how precariousness and other forms of marginality were developed, sustained and lived in the past as well as how they stretch into the present.

In my current research project on pornography in postwar Britain, to take a personal example, this is partly to centralise, where I can, the experience of the sex worker. To take examples from our current political moment, Grenfell, creeping Islamophobia and environmental degradation similarly present to us stories of marginalisation and precariousness rooted in history and demanding further historical work, some of which is already underway.

This is not to draw equivalences between our precariousness as academics in a rich country and the precariousness of others, now or in the past. It is simply to say that we have a particular vantage point on these questions and that we should consider how this might inform the questions we ask, the sources we use, and the histories we do.


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