It’s that time of year again. As the days get longer and the sun shines down on Wales (occasionally), I’m once again asked, ‘So, have you broken up for the summer yet?’ My usual reply of, ‘Well, I’ve stopped teaching but I’m still working’, is met with a look of confusion.
I find the assumption that my job is limited to the relatively few hours spent in the classroom during term time frustrating. I know that the question is not posed in a mean-spirited way. Rather, the question about my ‘long summer holiday’ comes from a lack of understanding about what the job of an academic entails. I recognise that this lack of understanding in part stems from my own ‘I-can’t-be-bothered-explaining-my-job-when-I’d-sooner-not-be-thinking-about-work’ attitude. But here goes.
Hours. I don’t work 9am-5pm. I don’t clock in or clock out. To a certain extent I can organise my own work schedule, especially outside teaching hours. During the semester, my deadlines are weekly, and generally involve doing all the work I need to do before each class. There are also marking deadlines – three weeks for up to fifty essays or exams (per course). From my point of view, there is a great deal of flexibility in my working hours. As long as I get the work done, then I can set my own hours. This is a double-edged sword, however, and can mean working beyond what should be reasonably expected. Generally, my work day begins before 7am – yes, even during my summer ‘holiday’. It may finish around 4pm. I’m quite strict about that – no working in the evenings or at weekends (usually). But many academics do work at these times as well.
Holidays. I get as many holidays as the average person does (I believe) – thirty-odd days. I do not take them all and probably never have. Yes, my teaching may have ended for the summer and only begins again in October – how nice five months off would be! – but teaching is only part of my job. In fact, it probably takes up less time than the other parts.
Teaching. I teach classes during two 11-week semesters. I am in the classroom roughly 10 hours a week. Ten hours! Sounds like a cushy job, eh? So what do I do with the rest of the week? I prepare classes; my courses are my own. There is no national curriculum for history degrees. Yes, we have processes and committees that ensure that our modules are up to scratch, but when I sit down to write a course of lectures and seminars, that’s exactly where I start from – scratch. And once the course is completed, I make sure every year that the latest scholarship is included. So like my students I spend a lot of time reading for class. I also respond to emails. I meet with students to discuss academic and personal issues. I mark assignments. I do all the things that ensure my courses tick over from one week to the next. This is time consuming work. And so, as I tell my students, the work doesn’t end when you leave the lecture hall.
What do students learn when studying history? Well other than the content of the courses that they take, they learn how to be better human beings. They learn to think critically, to appreciate other cultures and other points of view (goodness do we need that today!), they learn not to accept what they read, hear, and see to be the objective truth, they learn that there is no objective truth, they learn to question and think.
Universities are machines for making society better. Universities improve the quality of the human beings who enter them; after three years, students are better people. This improves society, which is why university education should be free. We ALL benefit from it. If you cannot see that education is a universal good, maybe you should get some.
But what are the other parts of my job? There is a side to the job that we call ‘admin’. These are roles that are not connected to the actual delivery of teaching content to the students. It could be organising the exams and assessments for the whole department – Exams Officer; or overseeing the undergraduate degree schemes, ensuring that all students are on the right modules and dealing with endless questions – Programme Director. Or it could be looking after the recruitment of next year’s students. That’s what I have done for the past three years. This is called being the Admissions Tutor. I go to meetings, help to organise Open Days, speak with applicants and parents, sort through applications, man the phones during A-Level results week, ensure the literature is up-do-date, and so on. This is all done, like the other admin roles, alongside teaching.
And finally, research. What exactly does it mean when I say I’m doing research? It involves first of all having an idea. An idea that no one has had before. Or maybe a different idea about an idea someone else has had. How do you know if it’s a new idea? Read every book and article on the topic to find out! When you have your new idea, how do you begin to research it? Think up some more ideas about the original idea. You need questions you think are important and need to be answered. Academics are creative and innovative people. But this all takes time. When do you do this? Between teaching and admin.
Then comes the actual research. Essentially, this is reading. A lot of reading. And thinking. A lot of thinking. Imagine that you were asked to write the history of one day. Not the whole day. Just the afternoon. Say, between 3pm and 4pm. Just to find out what happened on that afternoon at that time. In your local area. What would you need to read? Newspapers – as many as possible; national, local, online, foreign. Official documents – police reports, local government minutes, memos, agendas. How about some ‘on the ground’ research? Read diaires. Most of them. Do oral history interviews. Speak to as many people as you can. How long do you think this would take (remember to fit it round your teaching and admin)?
Now imagine you are writing the history of something much bigger than one hour in one afternoon. A war; an organisation; a couple of decades; one hundred years; a minority, etc…. And add to this the fact that historians cannot just ‘write about what happened’. They need an angle, a new idea, a means of analysis and criticism, a way of demonstrating that what happened was significant. It takes time. My PhD, from the first idea to the publication of the book, took seven years! That’s how I spend the summers. Not with my feet up in the garden, but usually sat reading, writing, and thinking, until September rolls round again and teaching is on the horizon. Research is enjoyable, and rewarding, but it can be frustrating and tedious, too.
‘What’s the point in doing that?’; another question I’ve been asked about my research. Rarely is research useless. I believe that research, however narrow, has broader implications for society today. My latest research concerned political violence in interwar France. But on its broadest level it was about how citizens conceive of democratic participation and the problems that democracy cannot solve. If you can’t see why that’s important, then I could say that research is about expanding human knowledge. If you think that expanding human knowledge is a pointless endeavour, then you will not see the value in research. But if historians did not do research, and had never done so, imagine what we would be without – gender history, black history, Jewish history, essentially any history.
Eventually, our research is published. Yes, I make money from my books. About enough to buy a pair of trainers every year. I make no money from my articles. I review articles and books for free. That’s just the way it is. But that’s not why I do research. I’m not motivated by financial gain. I recently heard someone disparage the historical profession because there is no money in it. I’m in it for so much more than money. I do it because I enjoy it and genuinely believe in its higher purpose. What price should be put on learning and knowledge? It is priceless.
What I’m trying to say is that I have a full-time job and work the year round. I apologise if this post seems a bit tetchy. I’d like to add that I believe that I have the best job in the world. I work with the best people anyone could want to work with – students. I write, read, and talk about things that I love, and I encourage people to love it in return. At least now you know what I do. I’m off to put my feet up in the garden.