Maybe Ash Wednesday would have been an apposite date to blow the dust off this blog; certainly it would have been an appropriate day for my last scheduled teaching at the University of Oxford to fall. But while I’m a fan of narrative symmetries, life rarely falls out into that kind of neat patterning. So instead I sit in a cafe on the second day of Lent, having finished my last tutorial teaching at Oxford, with for once a couple of unscheduled hours before I have to be somewhere else: and here I am.
My last post here was a little despondent, and since then I’ve had good news that I’ve been keen to share. But as well as being too busy I’ve also felt strangely reluctant to talk about what comes next. Today, though, I thought I had best update my about section, so it seems a good time to share that I am now a lecturer in history at the University of Northampton.
This is a really exciting opportunity for me. I’m working on a brand-new campus, in a much smaller department where I will have the opportunity to get to know pretty much the whole cohort of students, and where as the very first medieval historian (!) I will be introducing the first medieval module (!!) to the curriculum. Exciting times!
When I announced my new job on twitter, a lot of people immediately assumed that it was a permanent post. This left me feeling oddly self-conscious. Had I misled people by not stating upfront that it’s a fixed term post (albeit one that we – i.e. me and the department – have pretty concrete hopes will become a long term job)? So many early career people excitedly said congratulations to me that I felt almost like I would be disappointing them to explain the situation. And a bit of me was also resentful that if I said “well, actually…” it would undermine my own pleasure in my achievement.
This got me thinking more broadly about the emotional labour one can end up taking on via social media, provoked by threads by Irina Dumitrescu and Amy Brown. Irina sagely reminded us that you don’t know the totality of people’s lives from their social media posts – particularly their positive, career-success posts – and Amy built on that by saying “you don’t owe The Internet your struggles.” These may seem like obvious points, but they can be easily overlooked. I ended up drawing out some reflections in my own thread, where I talked about a trend I’ve noticed online: for ECRs to feel as if they owe it to their cohort to share their “failures”, disappointments etc. Now, I will acknowledge I am a big contributor to the genre of writing about the agonies and ecstasies of ECR life. I think I do it pretty well, and I think there is a significant value in an increasingly neoliberal, marketised, monetised academy to humanising the processes of academic production: of centering the people who create academic content rather than reducing us to cogs in a machine focused on measurable outputs. But I don’t owe the sharing of my most intimate emotions to anyone – least of all the undefined wider public of the internet. Especially since, while sharing my experiences has sometimes been cathartic and has often seemed to help other people feel less alone, it has sometimes also meant taking on a psychic burden of other people’s pain. When it feels I can make a meaningful contribution to change, this is something I’m glad to do; I will always want to advocate for a better, kinder academy, and for me that means more than paying lip service to being a good academic citizen and requires some kind of sacrifice of time and energy. But I have become increasingly wary of a kind of social media experience that expects academia’s more vulnerable citizens to keep spilling their guts while more senior colleagues make sympathetic comments – but won’t vote to strike on behalf of the precariat, for instance, or make individual efforts to work for change in their institutions to protect not only their own interests, but those of their junior colleagues.
So, I will keep writing here – and there’s likely to be as much blood, sweat and tears as there was before, both in the medieval content and in the way I discuss the contemporary academy, because these are the hallmarks of who I am as an academia and I am proud of that. But I will be thinking more critically about what I am talking about and for whose benefit it is intended.
Today, as I said, I taught my last tutorials in the Faculty of History at Oxford. Forever? Maybe or maybe not; whatever happens at Northampton, my post here is 0.5, and so I am carrying on with a few other things that both bring in income and intellectual satisfaction (working for History Workshop, writing for magazines, and a few other creative projects I’m hoping will emerge in the next year or two). I certainly will be working with Continuing Education over the next year or so as I develop online resources for them, and so my final class tonight won’t be a farewell to that department at all. But today, at least, I have no plans to teach again at the History Faculty. Ending on a random wet Thursday in March could feel like going out with a whimper rather than a bang. Fortunately, my last student gave me the perfect anecdote to give me a satisfying sort of conclusion to write here. When I asked her what she’d enjoyed most this term, she surprised me by not listing topics she’d liked best, but saying she had really appreciated learning new methodologies of doing history – that I had taught her new and better ways of being a historian.
It’s been seven and a half years since I first came to Oxford: a time in which I’ve published a book, got married, had a baby, survived a serious health crisis, had more medical appointments than I can count, taken many students from first year to graduation and beyond, even seen one of my first students here get her PhD and get married. And today my last undergraduate student here said I’d given her a gift of becoming.
Not a bad way to close the book on Oxford, really. And a pretty good start to the next chapter in Northampton.