Eight degrees C this morning, and the sun has the white stone glare of a season stripped bare. October first. This morning I asked my three-year-old daughter for a hug before she and my husband walked to her nursery, and she squeezed me briefly before propelling herself across the kitchen, shouting gleefully: “BEST. HUG. EVER!” Each hug is the best one ever, of course. I am doing my best to live in these moments, especially in this time of transition – of seasons, of jobs, of identities.
This morning I stripped Leverhulme Fellow out of my twitter bio, replacing it with some of my new identities going forward. Visiting researcher at the University of Sussex. Editorial Fellow at History Workshop. Tutor at the Department of Continuing Education, University of Oxford. If space had allowed I could also have added that this term I’ll be tutoring for a couple of different Oxford colleges, and that my work in Cont Ed is also in collaborating with TALL to create a brand-new online medieval history course.
For the next few months my work is much more piecemeal, but I’m doing my best to see it in terms of opportunities rather than simply making the best of things. I have some privilege here: since I’ve worked at Oxford for several years, I got a decent redundancy settlement that means with some care I might not have to dip into my savings until Christmas. The aforesaid several-years-at-Oxford mean I have some savings, even though they were much depleted by buying our first house and having a kid. I’m in a much better position than I was when I finished my PhD and faced the problem of not having a full time job lined up. Back then I had the weekend off and then went to a temp agency, where I almost immediately secured work at an insurance company for just-above minimum wage, and felt vaguely bitter about the people I came across who talked about their holiday plans post-PhD. I may lie awake sometimes at night worrying about money – but these days it’s usually in longer term perspective, such as: what do we do about retirement if I can’t stay enrolled in a decent pension scheme? How much debt is my daughter going to accrue as a student if we aren’t in a financial position to help her out? Rather than, as I did when I submitted my thesis, carefully allotting myself £25/week for groceries, working three jobs that only just covered my expenses, and bursting into tears when we got an electricity bill that was a lot bigger than expected.
One of the worst things about real precarity is never really being able to look forward or back, instead being trapped in frantic pedalling to get through each present crisis. So the idea with which I started this post, the determination to live in the moment, is also one that is born of privilege. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t suck that I don’t have the permanent job I once thought surely I would get after I held a prestigious fellowship, that surely I’d have proved by then that I deserved one? (As I said recently, it took a long while to really internalise that it’s not about being deserving or it being my turn.) It really does suck; sometimes it feels like a terrible wound in my chest, an aching hollow place of lack. But this is the new normal; 51% of academics employed by universities are not on permanent or open-ended contracts. So, since I have a small space of time where income is not my first source of worry, I’m planning to use the next few months to try out a few different identities. I’m carrying on doing teaching and research where I can, but I’m also working in education development, getting more experience doing editorial work and using digital platforms, experimenting with writing for new venues (I’ll hopefully have some news there for you soon!), and trying to see what else I might be good at, if it doesn’t look likely I’ll move into the 49% side of things.
In the months following the end of my PhD, feeling as if I was constantly treading water just to stay afloat but not travelling anywhere, I remember miserably thinking: what if this is as good as it gets? I’m glad that the following years proved me wrong. I spent a year in Paris, spending half my slim salary on rent, being grateful for university-subsidised lunches as I worked on an ERC-funded postdoc as part of a project that really enhanced my understanding of corpus linguistics, medieval languages and how French academics do business; I had a three-year post as a lecturer at the University of Oxford, being thrown in at the deep end of convening papers, teaching in an idiosyncratic system and learning what the hell battels are, during which I did manage to publish a book; I had a three-year fellowship funded by the Leverhulme Trust where I’ve been able to dig deep into the concept of homosociality both in the late middle ages and in broader historical context, and where a flexible work schedule and benefits meant it was feasible for us to have a baby and to buy a house (far, far away from astonishingly expensive Oxford, of course).
I earned all of those jobs, but I’ve also been lucky. I think I’m still lucky. I’ve had the great privilege of doing some extraordinary things, alongside some brilliant people. I plan to keep doing interesting things with wonderful people; it just might not be in the form I’d have ideally chosen. We’ll see. This autumn and winter, I have a little bit of breathing room to figure out a way to keep building my career that isn’t just about treading water, but about swimming forward into open ocean. Uncharted territory can be pretty scary, but perhaps it can be liberating too. And I’m not alone; a lot of you are swimming alongside me. Rather than always striking out for some distant shore, I’m going to try instead to dive mermaid-deep and explore.