So, “The End”, we meet. And what next for us?
At the end of this month, my eleven-month contract at the Digital Index of Middle English Verse comes to an end, and I am going to take to the road once more. Of course, it’s not really The End, capital ‘T’, capital ‘E’. It’s really only the beginning of another new chapter of my life. I am still only at the beginning of the book of my academic career and do not yet know if it will be a novella, a trudging saga, or a trilogy filled with false endings and new beginnings.
A few months ago, I took this blog in a new direction: away from being a way to disseminate my personal research findings, and more towards being a reflection of my life as a young academic. As a result, my readership numbers have spiked. People, it seems, are more interested in shared experiences of the insecure, exciting, wonderful world of academia than in the intricacies of my codicological research. Quelle surprise! This will not stop me subjecting my long-suffering friends to my newest discoveries about scribes and manuscripts in person, but it has made me think about what I write about. Coincidentally, it also made me think about how I earn my money and put food on the table. So, I thought I’d share some thoughts as I learn more about what motivates me as an academic.
I have just come back from a meeting with some colleagues. I went into it feeling very downhearted. Having spent three solid hours in the library since lunch, I’d had time to mull over my insecurities about looking for another job and moving out of my wonderful house in London. Those worries, in an environment of isolation, had been given room to grow into a massive unconsolidated cloud, which I knew that not even caffeine could dissipate. However, upon sitting down in front of the two people I was meeting, I felt the stresses start to lift from my shoulders, and a feeling of relaxation began to descend. As I began to talk about the work I’d been doing, one of my colleagues interrupted me saying, with the full benefit of his dry sense of humour, ‘you are so disgracefully positive. I really don’t know whether to smile or vomit’. This was extremely reassuring. I know well that I am animated in the company of others, so I took it for the compliment it was intended as.
I read a wonderful article recently by a professor called Eleanor Highwood, entitled ‘I’m An Academic, but I Do Other Things‘. I thought this was so good for many reasons – its emphasis on a good work-life balance, for one. However, the thing that struck deep into my heart was Highwood’s championing of pro-rata working – the part time academic. I have waited a year for a revelation to come to me, but I now know that I cannot live by research alone. I’m not an extravert by any stretch, but I draw energy from my interactions with others. This is an advantageous revelation, because few academic jobs now afford the luxury of being a hundred percent research. Teaching and administration are now the bread and butter of academic life. But I now know that if my emotional health is to survive intact, I have to spent at least part of my time in direct contact with other people (not including the person I might occasionally make eye contact with across the library’s reading room). I also now know that I’d like for the other part of my job to be outside of the academic environment. Being involved in public understanding of the past, working on documentaries or magazines, or in the education of young adults in a museum context would be ideal for me.
When I came out of my Ph.D., I was blurry-eyed and still relatively unsteady on my feet. I hoped that the year would give me the opportunity to grow in confidence and to head off in a direction that would make me happy. I was fortunate to get the wonderful opportunity of a year of library-based research. In this role, I have laid my hands on (the edges of) over four hundred medieval manuscript books. Over the course of my first postdoctoral year, my enthusiasm for books and written scholarship has remained constantly high, but my enjoyment of interaction with people has soared. I worked at the Ashmolean, with colleagues who were curators, educators of the public, and academics. I taught students at the University of Surrey, which I found exhausting but exhilarating. I published an article for the BBC on the medieval postal system and really thrived on the pace of writing for a magazine. Perhaps one of the most rewarding things about this year is the realization of how much there can be out there, under the umbrella of ‘academia’.
In October, I’m beginning a term’s teaching at the University of York, and I’m excited about the opportunity to teach undergraduates again. Alongside my teaching responsibilities I’m planning to do some volunteering in a museum, focusing on interpretation of the materials for visitors and workshop-based learning for children and young adults. I’m also exploring a newly-discovered interest in working in mental health issues and education. I’m excited about the future, and am hugely grateful for the opportunities that this year has offered to discover my strengths.