My role as HUK’s ECR representative

Dr Simon Peplow is the new ECR representative on the History UK Steering Committee. He is currently Lecturer in History (Education and Scholarship) at the University of Exeter, and tweets as @simpep.
In this blog post, Simon sets out his views on how he sees this role and his plans for the coming year.


 

As another teaching term begins, I return to my busy calendar having actually been able to have some ‘downtime’ over the Christmas break, away from the usual teaching/marking/research pressures – albeit this being enforced downtime, due to developing a particularly nasty cold. Debate has raged (on Twitter, as it often does) over the hours that academics work, and whether you are ‘failing’ at academia if you either work on evenings/weekends or maintain a strict 9–5 working week. However, the point I wish to make here is simply that the ability to take some time off, safe in the knowledge that a job (and salary!) awaits our return, is for many of us not something we are able to enjoy during the summer months.

Having completed my History PhD at the University of Exeter in 2015, I have since remained here on short-term teaching contracts. While I have been, in many ways, fortunate that such opportunities were available, the pressures (both financial and psychological) of fractional temporary contracts and the inability to plan further than the short-term is something with which I have battled. An increasing amount of my time has been spent on job applications, chasing potential funding opportunities, and being unsure what the next academic year will look like until just weeks (or even days) before it begins.

archive-1850170_1920

Prior to commencing my PhD, the one issue that I was repeatedly warned about was that it was a lonely existence; that the duration of my PhD years would be spent alone in empty libraries or dusty archives, only occasionally seeing others when we periodically emerged blinking into the light for a monthly research seminar or supervision meeting. Fortunately for me personally, the PhD experience was far from that, being a generally enjoyable period – with the usual intellectual/other challenges – and I consider many of those whom I met during those years to be among my closest friends.

However, I am aware that my positive PhD experience is not necessarily the case for others. I was reminded of my privileged position in this sense when reading Laura Sefton’s recent excellent comments on mental health and academic structures, demonstrating the often unacknowledged pressures of PhD study and the need for academia to become a more ‘accessible, inclusionary, and caring space’. Unfortunately, in my experience, many of the same pressures exist when transitioning into a more precarious ‘floating’ ECR position, when you might even have lost access to some of the support systems that previously existed.

Working Together Poster Edit

The History UK plenary and AGM in November 2017 focused on collaboration, and that is very much the spirit in which I see this ECR representative role. As I have previously noted in discussion of the ‘Academic Boot Camp’ event, it is all too easy to see academia as a competition against peers in the race to obtain a permanent job, and to consider yourself a ‘failure’ if one is not forthcoming. However, it is of vital importance that PhDs/ECRs/academics of all levels support each other where possible, and it is often through bodies such as History UK that such support can really make a difference. Indeed, in the last year, History UK has organised another instalment of the Academic Boot Camp to help equip PhDs/ECRs for the job market, further New to Teaching events have provided invaluable advice and support for those beginning or developing a university teaching profile, and other events and activities have supported historians at all stages of their careers.

It is in this vein that I hope to use my role to provide helpful advice and support for history PhDs/ECRs in the coming year. This will involve writing blogs and encouraging friends and colleagues to contribute posts and advice on a range of topics, such as balancing teaching and research, finishing the PhD, creating and obtaining a position on postdoc projects, the benefits of engaging with the public through research, and the many options available outside of academia. This is, of course, in addition to acting as a voice for PhDs/ECRs in History UK meetings and discussions – and I please encourage anyone to get in contact with any thoughts or suggestions. Due to a variety of factors, the pressures on academics at all levels are arguably higher than ever before – but, as always, the best way to get through them is with the help of support networks that can be provided by bodies such as this one.

Academic Boot Camp 2017

Simon Peplow is the new ECR representative on the History UK Steering Committee. His AHRC funded PhD was on the 1980/81 disturbances in England, examining the perception and role of public inquiries and local Defence Committees. He is currently Lecturer in History (Education and Scholarship) at the University of Exeter. Simon tweets as @simpep.


In May 2017, History UK ran the second instalment of their ‘academic boot camp’, which provided valuable interview experience for PhD students and Early Career Researchers (ECRs). A number of academics had kindly donated their Saturday so that around twenty of us, who had been shortlisted for an imaginary lectureship and subsequently travelled various distances to the Institute of Historical Research, could participate in and observe interviews and presentations, receiving detailed feedback and advice.

Charlotte Faucher detailed the first event of this type last year, including the range of questions she was asked, and some advice given on how to respond. My experience of this aspect of the workshop wasn’t hugely different, other than facing questions regarding how I might contribute an impact case study – emphasising the importance of effectively demonstrating the public significance of research. So, rather than simply repeating her thoughts, I will focus more on the presentation aspect – both of participants, and Dr Sara Wolfson’s ‘10 tips for getting an academic job’.

Participants were asked to produce a short presentation on ‘How Does your Research inform your Teaching Practices’? This type of question is standard for job interviews, inviting introductions to research, what applicants can offer in terms of teaching, and what form such teaching might take. Unfortunately, due to suffering from a cold, my own presentation could have gone better…but learning to adapt to things outside your control is itself an important lesson! Academics and other participants provided written feedback for each presentation, with recurrent themes appearing to be regarding structure, relation to the question posed, and ensuring that historians of other periods/topics can appreciate what is significant about your work.

After the traditional academic coffee break, interviews and presentations were followed by Sara Wolfson’s tips for securing an academic job, which included targeting conferences to increase your profile, obtaining funding to organise conferences/workshops, and the benefits (and potential risks!) of an active twitter profile. Having provided advice articles for jobs.ac.uk, Sara was also awarded the Times Higher Education’s ‘Most Innovative Teacher of the Year’ 2016, and her presentation included the importance of maintaining high-quality teaching; refreshing for those of us uncomfortable with advice obtained elsewhere essentially suggesting ‘putting the least amount of effort possible into teaching and focus on building your CV’. Whilst implementation of the Teaching Excellent Framework (TEF) has been at best controversial, universities should certainly consider teaching ability more so than they have in some previous cases.

Sara’s presentation was followed by discussions where other academics also provided suggestions and answered questions, and both sessions were extremely helpful. The main takeaway from these discussions was that there are many different pathways to obtaining jobs, both inside and outside of academia, and you must follow whichever you believe best. As Charlotte concluded about last year’s event, the knowledge that there are many different paths to success is indeed a reassuring reminder and key value of this workshop.

A subsequent pub trip and meal for those who could make it was only slightly ruined by my having to rush off mid-food to catch a train. This ‘networking’ (a word I personally hate) aspect was just as useful as the rest of the day in reminding that, whilst at times it may feel like you are the only one struggling with the difficulties of late/post-PhD life, this is most definitely not the case. Whilst we are conditioned to believe that ECRs are in constant competition for jobs, academia has been criticised for its tendency to ‘eat our young’ – and we shouldn’t be adding to that.

The value of this workshop has been echoed by those who attended it, variously described as ‘super useful’, ‘a great day’, and ‘very helpful’. It personally helped me to obtain a number of interviews this summer, as well as preparing me for what to expect when it came to actually arriving at various different university campuses on interview days!

Dion Georgiou described the value of the 2016 academic boot camp event.
Dion Georgiou described the value of the 2016 academic boot camp event.

 

The main training required by post-PhDs appears to be the ability to ‘hang on in there’. It is all too easy to be disheartened by a lack of success in job applications, particularly in the early days whilst often receiving the standard response that your application hasn’t been taken further and, ‘due to the high number of applications received’, no feedback will be provided. Ben Mechen recently explored the precarious nature of PGRs/ECRs, considering how such a position could affect the kinds of history we write. The lack of job security is one of the main reasons for more-than-qualified colleagues to move outside of academia, and will undoubtedly continue to be the case in a world where there are far too many excellent applicants for the jobs available.

For those determined to obtain an academic job; whilst it may appear to be a particularly bad time to be coming out of a PhD, it is important events such as this Boot Camp – and the confidence and relationships that can be obtained through attending – that, to continue the military theme, prepares PhDs/ECRs for the battles to come.

History New to Teaching, September 2016, Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, London

On the 15th September around 40 postgraduates and early career researchers attended the New to Teaching event at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) at Senate House London; which was co-sponsored by the IHR, History UK and the Royal Historical Society. The purpose of the day was to allow those new to teaching history in higher education, the opportunity to gain advice on different pedagogies from established academics from institutions across the UK. It also provided an opportunity for the attendees to meet peers who were also new to teaching, and share experiences, hopes and fears about the path ahead. A number of attendees (including ourselves) were granted travel bursaries sponsored by History UK, making event attendance possible to those from outside of London.

For the first session of the day, Dr Marcus Collins, from Loughborough University spoke about curriculum design, quality assurance and the student experience. Marcus asked small groups to design their own curriculum for an undergraduate history degree, encouraging us to think about how we would strike a balance between what modules students may want, with those that are less desirable but nonetheless essential to their understanding of history.

Jamie Wood, from the University of Lincoln, then led a session on small group teaching which provided some great tips on classroom management and ideas for activities.  What was especially useful, was that we learned how to manage and teach small groups in a practical way.  Jamie demonstrated the key techniques through teaching us.  We were shown some activities to elicit discussion and encourage peer-to-peer teaching.  Overall, the session on small group teaching has enabled us to plan engaging activities and encourage participation.  We have found the tips very easily transferable to the real seminar environment and now feel much more confident in our roles as a seminar instructors.

In his session, Adam Crymble from the University of Hertfordshire, talked to us about the multiple ways that he uses digital history in his teaching. Adam explained one of these in detail; as part of his module Adam gets his students to work collectively to data mine from the Old Bailey online database and create Excel spreadsheets. The purpose of this is to get students familiar with using online resources, and to teach them how to use different software and gain skills that may be useful for their dissertation research and also in their future careers.

Marcus Collins delivered his second session of the day, this time on assessment and feedback. Marcus gave us an assessment that had been marked and asked us as groups to critique the marking. By doing this we could see the types of positive feedback that we could use ourselves, and also how feedback can be too negative and potentially demoralising for a student. The main point that we took away from this session was to try to give an overall positive feel to our feedback. To do this, we should focus on highlighting what students did well and need to continue doing, and highlight one element that was poor, but provide practical feedback on how this could be improved in the future.

Melodee Beals (from Loughborough University) gave a session on peer-to-peer teaching which provided us with great advice on classroom management and how to use digital tools to encourage students to interact with each other.  She highlighted the importance of the physical layout of the room, and the difference seating arrangements can make in delivering an effective seminar.  We now think about the layout of the class and take time to position the students in a manner to encourage talking and discussion in our own seminars.

For the final session of the day, Dr Catherine Armstrong (also from Loughborough University) ran a session on building an academic career. Catherine began by discussing ways in which PhD students can begin to develop their career, helping us to think about what we can do now to help increase our chances of getting an academic job in the future. Catherine also gave us some really useful advice about writing an academic CV, as well as some ‘golden rules’ for the interview process.

The New to Teaching event really helped us to develop our skills as seminar instructors and offered great advice on facilitating lessons and planning activities, much of which we have already successfully put into practice.  We left the event feeling motivated, confident, and looking forward to the academic year ahead.

Resources:

By Abigail Dorr, Rachel Yemm and Diane Ranyard

 

Abigail Dorr is in the third year of her PhD in the School of History and Heritage at the University of Lincoln, working with the Common Fund Accounts of Lincoln Cathedral in the fourteenth century.  Her research analyses on how the quantity and type of gifts, both given by and to the cathedral, were affected by the wider economic and social climate.  Abi is also the treasurer of the Women in Academia Postgraduate Research Group at the University of Lincoln and has co-founded a regional history network for postgraduates in the East Midlands.  She is an Associate Lecturer on a Level 1 survey module – The Medieval World and soon to begin teaching a Level 1 module at Bishop Grosseteste University on church history.

Abi’s Twitter: @Abi_Dorr

East Midlands History Network’s Twitter: @EM_HistoryNet

Rachel Yemm is a third year PhD student in the School of History and Heritage at the University of Lincoln. She is working on the impact of local media on public perceptions of immigration in the Midlands from 1960-1990. Rachel works with the Media Archive for Central England (MACE), situated within the University of Lincoln. She is also the President of Women in Academia, a Postgraduate Research Group at the University of Lincoln. Rachel is an Associate Lecturer on the Level 2 module New Directions in History.

Mace Archive Website: http://macearchive.org/

Women in Academia’s Website: http://wiapg.co.uk

Rachel’s Twitter: @rachelyemm

Diane Ranyard is a second year PhD student in the School of History and Heritage at the University of Lincoln. She is working on gendered representations of marital behavior within the Divorce Court of England and Wales, between 1909 and 1937. Diane is also the current Treasurer for History Lab at the Institute of Historical Research and has worked as a Student Ambassador on the HEA funded Making Digital History Project for three years. Diane is an Associate Lecturer on the Level 1 module Forging the Modern State, 1750-1979.

History Labs Website: http://www.history.ac.uk/historylab

Making Digital History Website: http://makingdigitalhistory.co.uk/

Diane’s Twitter: @dianeranyard

 

Subscribe By Email

Get every new post delivered right to your inbox.

This form is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.