All posts by Charlotte Mathieson

Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century English Literature, University of Surrey

Some thoughts on precarity

In October I spoke at History UK’s plenary event, which this year focused on mental health, on the early career researcher perspective. Much of what I focused upon was the structural issues that impact upon ECRs, and I decided to write up and expand upon some of what I talked about, as for the last 8 days many colleagues across the UK have been participating in the UCU strikes on issues including pay equality and casualisation. Many have been sharing their precarity stories, and the below draws upon my experience, in the context of the observations I have gained in working with many ECRs in similar positions. I write this now from the privilege and security of a permanent position, of which I am very aware of how fortunate I have been; I offer this in solidarity with those who are currently precarious, in the knowledge that it is important that permanent staff speak about these issues, and in the hope that it might help in a small way towards developing understanding and thinking about effecting change. At the end I have some brief suggestions for what permanent staff can do, as well as links to the resources mentioned throughout.

Last Saturday (30th November) it was 9 years since I submitted my PhD; nearly 6 of those were precarious. For the first 2 years I had something in the region of 12 contracts of employment, including hourly paid teaching, academic writing tuition, separate contracts for marking and invigilating, one-to-one tuition, proofreading, work in the library, and anything else I could find. I then spent a year on a 0.6 FTE contract focusing on public engagement and ECR support, topping up with additional hourly paid teaching; a further 2 years in which the 0.6 contract went to 100% FTE; a relocation across the country for a ten-month teaching fellowship; and then, during that year, I was fortunate to get my current position and moved to Surrey in August 2016.

My experience is not uncommon: longer than some, shorter than others. For those finishing the PhD and going into an academic career, a period of precarity is common and increasingly longer, involving successive fixed-term and/or multiple simultaneous contracts within/across institutions; these are often teaching-heavy; often hourly paid or short fixed-term; and can leave gaps in employment e.g. vacation periods. A report this year by UCU on “Counting the costs of casualisation in higher education” found that 70% of research-only and 37,000 teaching staff are on fixed-term
contracts, many hourly paid, and a further 71,000 employed as “atypical academics” often as “casual workers”. There are no easily available consistent figures on the numbers of permanent jobs available or number of people applying for them, but my sense is, and I think many would agree, that there are fewer permanent jobs available and competition for them increases every year.

But what do we mean when we talk about “precarity”? It is a state of mind; an embodied feeling; a constant, impacting upon and intersecting with every other aspect of one’s life. A non-exhaustive list is as follows:

Structural: lack of job security/proximity of unemployment; lack of payroll continuity; limited or
no access to annual leave/ sick leave/parental leave; employment overlaps and constant start-up
time invested in learning new systems and structures; uncertainty over whether contracts will
be offered/extended/renewed until close to term time; lack of workspace or other infrastructural facilities.

Academic impacts: impact upon research continuity; time spent on securing employment rather
than research; disrupted access to research resources e.g. library Journal access; disruption to
academic networks and continuity of mentors/supportive figures; limited or no resources to
fund research trips/conferences.

Personal impacts: difficulty in making long-term plans for personal life e.g. family plans and
financial commitments; expectation of mobility as practically and financially possible/viable;
financial insecurity and impact upon e.g. housing; disruption to personal networks and
relationships; impact upon existing family and care responsibilities; disruption in accessing continuous healthcare.

And then there is the impact upon mental health: the UCU report on casualisation recorded 71% of respondents stating that mental health had been affected by working on an insecure contract, and 43% reported impact on physical health. Again, a non-exhaustive list of these impacts might include:
◦ Imposter syndrome
◦ Isolation and loneliness
◦ Anxiety, panic attacks
◦ Sleep disruption/deprivation
◦ Depression
◦ Physical health impact
◦ Exacerbation of previous/existing mental health problems
◦ Reduced capacity for dealing with difficult life events – bereavement, supporting and caring for family and friends.

The transition from PhD to ECR can be particularly disruptive in regards to mental health and for my own part, it was the aspect I was least prepared for. I had experienced significant issues with mental ill-health during my PhD, including a period of treatment for an eating disorder. I was fortunate to have professional, personal, and institutional structures in place to support me through this: access to health care, understanding supervisors and departmental systems in place, and personal support networks of friends and family. But as an ECR, these networks can be fractured, disrupted, or fall away completely: the intersection of aforementioned issues can introduce a range of impacts: the issues of disclosing mental health problems while in precarious work; access to mental health services can be difficult when waiting times are longer than precarious job contracts; and personal friendship and family support networks are disrupted by mobility.

As well as the immediate impact of precarity, there is the intersection with other pressures such as the REF. Work by Rosamond Gill and others identifies the impact of audit culture on mental health, and how constant assessment and monitoring creates a system in which metrics are internalised as “privatised anxieties that are understood to reflect on the value and the worth of the individual… A psychic landscape in which not being successful is mis-recognised… in terms of individual (moral) failure” (Gill 2010, 10-12) leading to stress, anxiety, exhaustion; as Maddie Breeze succinctly puts it, “how quickly and easily ‘my research isn’t good enough’ slides into ‘I’m not good enough’”(Breeze, 200). These effects are felt by many at whatever stage of one’s career, and in talking about the REF and ECRs I’ve often been met with responses along the lines of “but the REF is stressful for everyone”. It is: but how much more so when you are precarious; how much more so, when you don’t know if you will be employed in a few weeks time; how much more so, when the feeling of “I’m not good enough” is being reiterated on a weekly, daily, sometimes hourly, basis by repeated rejection emails.

In my report on the impact of REF 2014 on ECRs, it was evident that the REF had a huge impact on ECR mental health and wellbeing. Many respondents experienced high levels of anxiety, insecurity and uncertainty, and mental health problems stemming from REF pressure; people also noted feeling isolated and unable to articulate concerns within highly pressurised and competitive
workplace culture created by the REF; and a lack of/conflicting/mis- information from institutions was also problematic, as is navigating different ways of interpreting or advising on the REF guidelines if you are moving across institutions regularly.

The above is of course only a partial glimpse into many of the issues faced by precarious ECRs, and there is much more to say about the intersection with other factors such as health, caring responsibilities, financial situations. Solutions themselves aren’t easy, requiring sector-wide changes of the kind that UCU are campaigning for with the current industrial action, and so joining and supporting union action is one way to start to address these issues (and if you are able to, consider donating to the fighting fund which will help support precarious colleagues on strike). On a smaller scale, there are actions that can impact upon individuals within your reach: helping new ECRs to navigate institutional systems and provide resources to ease transition e.g. teaching materials, access to clear information about the REF; mentoring to help with things such as long-term strategising, supporting on job applications and interviews, publication proposals, and so on. Listening to ECRs without trying to minimise concerns or offer platitudes can go a long way, as can simply looking out for the well-being of those around you and signposting access to services for further support. Facilitating ECR networks and peer support, including ECRs in department activities and meetings, and looking at the provision and availability of training to those who are in precarious positions, can also be helpful. At the very least, trying to understand the issues involved and taking action that is within your reach, is the responsibility of everyone in permanent positions, and  I hope this may encourage a few thoughts (and action) along these lines; below are some further resources for reading more on the issues involved.

UCU “Counting the Costs of Casualisation” June 2019 report: http://www.ucu.org.uk/stampout

The New Academic by Nadine Muller: personal accounts of mental health in academia: http://nadinemuller.org/category/academia-and-mental-health/

The many-headed monster: a collective blog including Brodie Waddell’s posts discussing the history job market: https://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/tag/jobbing-historians/

The impact of the REF on early career researchers: summary of my 2015 findings: https://charlottemathieson.wordpress.com/2015/04/24/a-culture-of-publish-or-perish-the-impact-
of-the-ref-on-ecrs/

Maddie Breeze, “Imposter syndrome as a public feeling” in Yvette Taylor and Kinneret Lahad, Feeling Feminist in the Neoliberal Academy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) .

Rosamond Gill, “Breaking the silence: the hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia” in R.Flood and R.Gill, Secrecy and silence in the research process: feminist reflections (London: Routledge, 2010).

New publication: Mobilities, Literature, Culture

Mobilities, Literature, Culture is published today with Palgrave Macmillan. Edited with Marian Aguiar and Lynne Pearce, my co-editors of the Palgrave Studies in Mobilities, Literature and Culture, the edited collection is the 5th volume in the series.

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The collection came out of a conference of the same name held at Lancaster University in April 2017, which proved to be a really inspiring event in establishing the relationship between mobilities studies and literary and cultural studies, and we’re delighted that the book reflects an exciting range of topics and methodological approaches. The book covers themes of mobility and nation, embodied subjectivities, the geopolitics of migration, and mobility futures. We have also written a substantial introduction with an expansive bibliography which we hope will be a useful resource for scholars, especially those who are new to the field. The book can be purchased as an e-book or hardback on the Palgrave website.

We are always happy to receive expressions of interest and proposals for the series, which thus far has publications on the hotel in modern literature, migration and the body, automobiles in French Indochina, and memory and the life course in 20th-century literature, with more works on topics including aeromobilities and roadside spaces on the way. Please do get in touch if you would like to discuss a potential proposal!

 

 

 

History UK Plenary event talk: 19 October 2019

On 19 October 2019 I am speaking at the History UK plenary event on mental health and well-being.  Registration info is here and an outline of my talk below:

Mental Health and Well-Being: the Early Career Researcher Perspective

In this talk, Dr Charlotte Mathieson will address the challenges around mental health and well-being faced by early career researchers. She will look at how the contexts of precarity and casualisation, a competitive job market, and pressures such as the REF, impact upon early career researchers, and identify strategies and suggestions as to how best support ECRs at individual, departmental, and institutional level.

UKSG 2019 conference plenary

Yesterday I was delighted to have the opportunity to give a plenary talk at the UKSG annual conference in Telford. UKSG is an organisation connecting the scholarly communications community, and the annual conference brings together over 900 delegates from sectors including publishing and university libraries.

My talk was in a session titled “Sleepwalking into the future“ and I focused on “How publishers and librarians can support early career researchers in a changing publishing landscape”. I spoke primarily about the changing context of higher education and the pressures that this places on early career researchers, and how this impacts the environment in which they are publishing and researching. I offered some initial suggestions as to how publishers and librarians can – and indeed are already – provide support. Some examples of best practice that I gave included web resources from Wiley, Palgrave MacMillan, and the Royal Historical  Society. My slides from the talk are here.

As a newcomer to this conference I was unsure as to how my talk would be received but was really heartened by the warm and enthusiastic response; it struck me (and, I think, many in the audience) that much more dialogue is needed between researchers and publishers, librarians, and others involved in scholarly communications, and that there is real value in understanding the pressures on all sides. I’ve previously had the opportunity to be part of similar discussions hosted by Wiley and Taylor and Francis, and have similarly found these to be productive forums in which to develop understanding of the broader and intersecting contexts. Many thanks to UKSG for inviting me and I hope this will be the start of more conversations.

Registration open: Generating New Perspectives on ‘Mobility’

Generating New Perspectives on ‘Mobility’: Problems and Paradoxes of Interdisciplinary Practice

10th July 2019

Drysdale building, City University of London

How do concepts and practices of mobility and mobilities ‘travel’ across the disciplines of humanities and social sciences? What language(s) do academics, students, practitioners use when discussing such wide-ranging ideas in their everyday work and social worlds? And to what extent are we discussing the same things when we use the term ‘mobility’?

These questions, and others, are the focus of the symposium, which aims to foster a critically-informed and vigorous cross-fertilization of the dynamic concept of ‘mobility’ as it works within and across disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Through discussing what conceptual, practical, and theoretical work ‘mobility’ does within the academy, cultural sector, and policy we will address how the concept is put to work or stretched beyond its usefulness.

Full programme and further details of registration, including bursaries, can be found here: https://www.city.ac.uk/events/2019/july/generating-new-perspectives-on-mobility-problems-and-paradoxes-of-interdisciplinary-practice

Keynote: “Wonders of the deep”; Sea treasures in nineteenth-century literature

I’m delighted to be giving a keynote talk on ‘“Wonders of the deep”; Sea treasures in nineteenth-century literature’, at  Becoming treasures of the sea: Epistemological constructions and marine resource regulation, an interdisciplinary conference  organised by 3ROcean on human-marine interactions, taking place at the University of the Azores next week (12th-14th September).

I will be contributing a paper on the perspectives on ocean ecologies afforded by 19th century literature, examining the literary and cultural “becomings” of the sea in the nineteenth century by way of setting up discussion of the contemporary situation. Building on my work in  Sea Narratives: cultural responses to the sea, 1600-present, in which I argued for a co-productive relationship between the sea and cultural production, I’m interested in not just what was known, but how that knowledge was brought into being through the cultural sphere; that is to say, less with the details of scientific exploration and study of the oceans in the 19th century, and more with the ways in which that knowledge was mediated, constructed, and relayed through the cultural sphere to the common reader. Moreover, I’m interested in the broader conceptual frameworks within which understandings of the sea as a valuable resource, or “treasure”, are situated; a variety of discursive approaches and understandings of the sea, which inform upon, contextualise, and contour this central theme.

My enquiry thus centres upon understanding what was known about the sea, how it was being made known, and crucially, tracing the co-productive relationship between the sea and cultural production/narrative form, as it impacts upon and resonates through the formation of knowledge about the sea. This paper aims not only to historicise human-marine interactions, but also to think about broader discursive frameworks within which marine resources are situated historically and to the present.

Registration open: CENTENNIAL REFLECTIONS ON WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE AND THE ARTS

CENTENNIAL REFLECTIONS ON WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE AND THE ARTS Local : National : Transnational

An international, multi-disciplinary public conference
University of Surrey, UK, 29–30 June 2018

Keynote Speakers:

  • Irene Cockroft, author of Women in the Arts & Crafts and Suffrage Movements at the Dawn of the 20th Century
  • Elizabeth Crawford, author of The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain and Ireland

 

The 2018 centenary of the Representation of the People Act (6 February 1918), which granted the vote to many women in the UK, yields an ideal opportunity for sustained critical reflection on women’s suffrage. This conference seeks to explore the artistic activities nurtured within the movement, their range and legacy, as well as the relationships between politics and art. In striving for an inclusive, transnational reach, it will at the same time seek to move beyond traditional emphases on white middle-class feminism and explore the intersections between the regional, national, and global contexts for women’s suffrage with specific respect to the arts.

Registration is now open and a provisional program available on the conference website:

https://suffragecentennial.wordpress.com/

A limited number of bursaries for students is available to facilitate attendance at this event – please see the website for details of how to apply.

You can also follow us on Twitter @Surrey_suffrage and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/SurreySuffrageCentennial/