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In Search of Lost Time: Precarious Research in the UK

On a recent episode of the Modernist Podcast, I asked “What does precarity mean to you?” My inquiry came in the wake of the strike action that swept the UK in the early months of 2018, as academics became embroiled in an all too familiar fight to protect their working conditions by halting alterations that would see sweeping changes to pensions. I have returned to this question many times since and realized how flawed it is, for precarity is not an epistemological issue, but an ontological one. Precarity is affective: a way of feeling and a way of living, not a way of seeing. Precarity is a looming sense of unpredictability that wakes you in the lonely hours of the night. Precarity is a lack of job security that causes you to measure your friends’ successes against your own. Precarity is the anxiety that swells in your stomach as you remain unable to plan for the future. Indeed it is fitting that this article should be included as part of In These Times, because precarity often leaves me wrangling with my schedule to regain control over my time. I struggle to create free time between teaching time, marking time, writing time, reading time, meeting time. The list goes on.

Strikers at the University of Bristol, February 22, 2018. Photo by Chris Bertram.

Fractures: Precarity and Modernist Studies

In typical modernist style, I feel fractured, pulled apart by conflicting priorities as I wade through the PhD process. And the further I tread, the more deeply I am convinced that this sense of fracture is not just a hallmark of modernism, but of modernist studies. To overcome precarity, we are made to feel as if we are allowed to be nothing less than sheer excellence; outstripping our peers appears the only way to succeed in a rampant and unforgiving job market. Yet for all our talks of expansion, of periodicity and interdisciplinarity, modernist studies remains a materially restricted field. There persists a handful of journals where we are recommended to publish our work. I do not need to name them. I know you have already begun listing them in your head. Such restriction exacerbates competition not simply between PhDs and early career researchers (ECRs), but pits those in the early stages of their career against long-tenured academics. Moreover, within the neoliberal academy we are encouraged to forge a personal brand that is strictly disciplinary, so publishing elsewhere is seen as diluting our potential. The lived conditions of the PhD system in the UK are catalyzing this issue. Unlike our American counterparts, who have their own issues to contend with, doctoral candidates in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are working within an outdated system predicated on a three-year model. Three years may be long enough to produce a thesis, but within our contemporary market, the thesis is simply the baseline. This revolving door system churns out PhDs, chewing us up and spitting us out before we have a chance to find our feet. In particular, it is incredibly difficult to hone one’s writing style, meaning that many submit their thesis without having published in journals deemed respectable by the modernist community.

Concerns surrounding publication are compounded by issues of access to the very ephemera of modernity. It is no secret that modernist studies fetishizes the archive, with many peer reviews critiquing a lack of archival research that is simply not economically viable for precarious researchers. Though academia has become ever more internationalized, the USA still has a monopoly on the material culture of modernism. Working with vastly different funding models, UK institutions are often unable to secure the equity necessary to keep hold of archival material related to modernism and its afterlives. In recent years the papers of Vita Sackville-West, Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan, to name but a few, have been shipped to the USA. Though American institutions are doing valuable work to make these materials more widely accessible through scholarships and digitization, academics are still frequently required to travel to the USA to view papers previously held in the UK. For precarious researchers, this is of particular significance. Unable to tap into many of the resources of their tenured colleagues, PhDs and ECRs are frequently forced to self-fund their research trips, investing their unstable wages back into their careers as a potential means of securing full time employment. Once again, the short-term nature of the PhD system in the UK aggravates this issue, with students often only able to undertake one research trip before completing their thesis and finding themselves adrift on short term teaching contracts or fellowships that do not permit any serious research time. Furthermore, trips do not simply present an economic burden, but are made further for those with disabilities, those with caring responsibilities and those unable to travel.

Akin to this, the internationalized yet fiercely unbalanced nature of the academic job market affects precarious researchers’ ability to attend conferences. Once again, many of the conferences that are seen as key to our success as young scholars carving out personal brands are held stateside. This is creating a deep imbalance, whereby those who have the means to rely on savings are able to plough personal funds into conferences with hefty costs attached. Entrenching this issue further is academia’s proclivity for reimbursing students rather than paying costs up front, meaning many are cut off from applying for scholarships at all, especially those who are self-funding their PhDs or currently holding short-term posts. Attending conferences in the UK rarely allows one to circumnavigate costs, as registration fees, hotels, dinners and travel require researchers to have a large budget immediately available to them. When we talk of globalization, transnationalism, internationalism and exchange, we need to ask who these processes are benefitting, and to what end. As it stands, our internationalized market still primarily serves to platform scholars with highly rarefied kinds of cultural and economic capital, creating a divide between those who are researching and the subjects of their research. Look around the conference hall or the management meeting: what kinds of researcher do you see? More importantly, who is omitted? The answer might be an uncomfortable truth, but it is one that elucidates the relationship between precarity and the academy.

State of the Nation: Precarity and the UK

The central concerns of precarity feed off one another. Siphoning our wages into research trips inflates our sense of economic unease. Abstaining from such trips amplifies deep-seated anxieties about not performing to the best of our abilities. On a broader scale, the state of academic wellbeing in the UK reflects these concerns, and this issue is not a new one. In 2014, Academics Anonymous discussed the “culture of acceptance around mental health issues in academia,” while the McPin Foundation stated they were “concerned about the mental health of PhD students.” In 2017, a paper in Research Policy found that PhD students are 2.4 times more likely to develop mental health problems than degree-holders in the general population, while 51 per cent of PhD students suffered from at least two of 12 symptoms that are indicators of psychological distress. We give these conditions a euphemistic name that covers the symptoms and masks the depth of the issue: “Burn-out”. We are burnt-out, we have shone too brightly, used our energy too quickly. These are things we should learn to “balance,” a code meaning “mitigate” or “cover up.” Within modernist studies, anecdotal findings reflect similar concerns. In a survey conducted by the British Association of Modernist Studies (BAMS) and presented at New Work in Modernist Studies in 2017, researchers found that scholars had considered leaving academia for better stability, a suitable work-life balance and greater personal wellbeing. Follow-up case studies collected in 2018 continue to illuminate the depth of the issue: responses show that precarity has exacerbated pre-existing disabilities, deepened feelings of exclusion for migrant scholars and worn self-funded PhDs thin.

Strikers at the University of Bristol, February 22, 2018. Photo by Chris Bertram.

Here it is crucial to note the trenchant intersectional implications of precarity. As a disabled working-class scholar, precarity cuts at my ability to work in multivalent ways: I am not offered paid sick leave to support my mental health condition, I often have to pay for costs up front and delve into my overdraft before I am reimbursed at a later date, I was not able to take paid compassionate leave when a close friend of mine died suddenly last year. Yet as a white scholar without caring responsibilities, I am also steeped in privileges that allow me to navigate academia more easily than many others. I do not have to worry that my stereotypically white name will cause my job application to be rejected, as research has shown scholars of color do, nor do I have to find childcare in a system that consistently does not provide for those with dependents. These issues are replicated at the top level of scholarship. Under 25% of UK professors are female, not even 1% are black, and there are just 54 black women professors. Time and again on the Modernist Podcast, scholars have highlighted how modernist studies in the UK is overwhelmingly comprised of white researchers, a point reiterated by delegates at the University of Oxford’s recent Queer Modernism(s) conference as they discussed the microaggressions, discrimination and feelings of exclusion that researchers of color face. Once again, precarity stitches together the material with the emotional. If scholars speak out against systemic issues, they risk isolation, job opportunities and financial security, yet in not speaking out many are effaced from processes entirely. Once again, precarious researchers find themselves in search of lost time: the hours scholars of color spend carefully crafting job applications compared to their white peers; the hours scholars with caring responsibilities miss at conferences due to a lack of available childcare; the hours working-class scholars labor at part-time jobs to support their studies.

Perhaps I can provide no more elucidating an example of precarity in the UK than an anecdotal instance from a recent conference, in which a long-tenured academic exclaimed to a room full of modernist scholars how wonderful it is that so many ECRs are taking up administrative positions while still producing research that others can draw on. This is not wonderful. It is free labor. And free labor is what the market is hoping to provide. Though there is a dearth of secure roles in academia, there is no lack of short-term teaching posts or part-time positions. These are often designed to squeeze the most out of workers, who shoulder unpaid administrative tasks, office hours and meetings alongside teaching. These expectations weigh heavy on researchers, especially when considering the wide range of other tasks that academia expects one to undertake: conferences, journals, peer feedback, book reviews, edited collections. In the UK, such expectations have been underlined by the government’s introduction of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2014 and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in 2017, with a further Knowledge Excellence Framework currently being developed. A cause for particular consternation is REF’s focus on academic impact, a nebulous quality that seeks to measure how research has impacted the “economy, society, public policy, culture and the quality of life.” Apparently the impact we have in the classroom is no longer enough. And though measuring impact on society may be self-evident in fields such as medical genetics or patent law, within modernist studies it often feels like a farce. Indeed the REF and TEF are contributing to a wider devaluing of the arts and the humanities in UK academia, with the government hoping to introduce a Gold, Silver and Bronze quality rating system that ties degree subjects to graduate earnings. For precarious researchers impact is a particular problem, as we are expected to undertake yet more unpaid labor to burnish our CVs within an ever more stringently regulated system. It is clear that there is a widening generational divide between scholars, and one that we are still unsure of how to bridge. What is certain, however, is that we cannot continue expecting precarity to be merely a rite of passage for academics. We are losing some of our most brilliant minds to unstable, unsuitable and untenable conditions.

Supporting Precarious Researchers

When it comes to precarity, talk is cheap. In a field so concerned with the power of words, we must also recognize their limits. So what can be done? In the UK, options for PhDs and precarious researchers are limited. Registered as students instead of workers, PhDs cannot strike, while those in precarious labor risk losing their income entirely. And with 34% of academic staff employed on fixed-term contracts in 2016/17, competition is fierce. In turn, it is high time to consider which structural steps can be taken by the discipline to help ease the pressure of precarity on modernist scholars. In the absence of sweeping changes to the state of academia, there are no simple answers, but modernist studies can make changes as a discipline as a means of further supporting precarious researchers. In recent months, it has been heartening to see a growing body of international scholars offer their time to support one another through the Modernist Podcast’s archive share scheme. This shows what is achievable on a local level and leaves the imagination open to what could be achieved with institutional backing. We need to consider options such as targeted shortlists for positions on academic committees, scholarships for minority researchers, changes to the way funding arrangements are handled by academic societies, a more diverse approach to children at conferences, and a deepened sense of academic kindness. The last of these may sound mawkish, but it is crucial if we are to continue supporting those in precarious positions. A book review that savages an ECR may dissuade them from the field entirely, while an offer of a second pair of eyes on a funding bid can be transformative for those just starting out. In all we must recognize the disproportionate effects that precarity has on scholars and make changes to be more accommodating, or else we will see an ever-more homogenized discipline.

This is not to elide the fantastic work that has been undertaken already. Rather, it is a call to arms to continue invigorating our processes as a discipline. Certainly there are many inspirational models we can draw on in order to build a more inclusive modernist studies that supports precarious researchers: the excellent digitization projects of the Beinecke and the Huntington Library, the career training days run by BAMS, the labor of those involved in the Modernist Journals Project and the Modernist Archive Publishing Project, the services of Woolf Online and the Orlando Project, and the fostering of the international academic community by the MSA. Outside of modernist studies, our sister disciplines provide a source of inspiration. The recent introduction of a “Reading Buddy Scheme” by the British Association for Victorian Studies is a fantastic example of how academic societies can continue to foster support for those in the early stages of their careers. For a generation of new scholars, precarity is the watchword most indelibly scratched upon the surface of their careers. Recognizing and reacting to this is crucial if the field is to continue to flourish.

In late 2018, BAMS will be running a second membership survey, hoping in part to collect more data on how scholars are facing, struggling with and overcoming precarity. Collating further information specific to scholars within modernist studies is vital if we are to understand the multifaceted ways in which precarity is working, as well as produce tacit measures to overcome such difficulties. Though there is no swift antidote to the scattershot issues that precarity causes, there are tangible measures that the field as a whole can implement to remedy its symptoms. Most pressingly, we can help precarious workers recover lost time, freeing up hours for rest and research, while ensuring that access to necessary materials and networking opportunities remain economically viable. In doing this, we may begin to answer not just my original question, but quite another entirely: “How can we help one another to overcome precarity in modernist studies?”