2014: A Year in Review

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January 5, 2015 by Andrew W M Smith

On reflection, 2014 offered opportunities and disappointments, as it did for all. I’m writing this not necessarily for readership, though perhaps instead as a cathartic exercise. I’ve divided it into 3 sections, to make it more accessible and to help me divide my thinking: Publications and Research, Teaching and Employment, and Personal.

As I’m writing this, I’ve realised it is over-long, navel-gazing and perhaps a little pretentious. Perhaps people will find some insight in it, or find comfort in shared experience. Perhaps I’m speaking to myself in an empty room. Who knows? So, for the explicit purposes of my own mental housekeeping, here, in sorts, is a diary of the year by Andrew Smith, aged 28 and three quarters.

 

 

Publications and Research:

As ever, my research has been broadly dominated by my twin interests. I’m fascinated both by French regionalism and decolonisation, both drawing in ideas of nationalism and identity, and both alive in their contemporary resonance. Trying to keep both plates spinning can be a challenge, but certainly a rewarding one.

Perhaps the best news came as the year drew to a close. I submitted a book proposal based on my thesis, which has been returned with very positive comments and strong recommendations to publish by reviewers. I’m excited and energised about the possibility of preparing the manuscript. I’ve also seen 2 articles published in National Identities and French History (both completed in previous years, but making the paper this year), along with another chapter in an edited volume (Place and Locality in Modern France (Bloomsbury), ed. Whalen & Young) make it to press. I’ve also co-authored an article with a friend I met during my PhD study at QMUL, James Hawkey (now a fixture at the University of Bristol). It’s my first foray into co-authoring, and also into inter-disciplinary work. It tackled issues of language and identity in the 1907 revolt. We had it accepted pending revisions, and re-submitted at the end of last year. It was a really good way of working, though aided I’m sure by a talented collaborator.

My year in publishing hasn’t been entirely positive, however. I had my first article rejected from a journal. This stung a lot. For some reason I wasn’t quite as prepared as I had been with rejection on other fronts. I wasn’t happy with the review process (which introduced a new reviewer for the revisions whose comments contradicted a reviewer who had been dropped) and also felt a profound sense of failure. To be honest this led to my lowest point to date in my own confidence, challenging my perception that I was ‘good at this’. It led me to question my ability and my progress in a sharper and harsher mode than I have done before (and beyond the ‘background level’ of academic impostor syndrome that we all endure). I’m reminded here of Ludivine Broch’s fantastic post on rejection and its pervasive presence in this profession (see here). I’m substantially revising the article at the moment, and have scheduled a conference paper to present the new research I’ve undertaken to supplement it, and hope to submit to a different journal by summer. I realise that this sort of rejection is not uncommon, though still struggle to shake some sense of shame about it. I think, in reality, this will only be overcome by actually revising and resubmitting the piece elsewhere.

In the summer, I organised and staged a conference with my friend and colleague at UCL Chris Jeppesen. We were really pleased to get RHS funding, and I think that we pulled it together really well, with good papers, good discussion and a lot of interesting ideas coming out of it. We have also submitted a proposal for an edited volume that collects many of the ideas from the conference into one coherent argument. On the same topic, I gave an IHR paper on a side project (a Guinean Theatre Director whose performance in Paris gave insights into the cultural transfers of decolonisation) which I subsequently turned into an article. It was submitted to a journal in October and I’m eagerly awaiting feedback.

Jumping streams like this is, I think, a bit of a professional gamble. I frequently meet people who say “Oh, but I thought you worked on…”. Yet, I find the fields to be cognate, and intellectually stimulating in their interaction. I like working on things which cross between boundaries, and I hope that by pursuing these I can leave more of a lasting impression (on the field? Myself? My bookshelf? I don’t know). Balancing rejections with progress is, in reality, only a game with which we torture ourselves. Yet, it is also one of the few metrics with which I feel able to measure myself. Such are the contours of this uncertain terrain.

 

Teaching and Employment

Over the course of this year, I’ve been employed at a number of different places. Last (academic) year, I worked mainly at UCL and topped up a little with a module at Chichester. This (academic) year, I’m at UCL but also moonlighting at Brunel, QMUL and Chichester again. These different places teach me new things about teaching and also about people. I feel privileged to encounter an array of people who want to engage, challenge and discuss the ideas and concepts that describe our experience. This Early Career phase is a peripatetic existence, though it hasn’t come as a surprise. I still feel that I’m doing the right things and will end up employed at some point – non-traditional routes to that goal don’t make me too worried, although they can be tiring. Jumping between different places, juggling different responsibilities, jostling with different groups of people. All of these stretch you, and I do worry about burn out.

I’ve finished my first year of teaching at UCL, designing and delivering a popular module (Europe Since 1945) and helping out on another (Writing History). The feedback I received was inspiring and gratifying, and also helped me shape my course for future iterations. I also enjoyed helping out with Personal Tutees and hope I’ve had a positive effect with them. The end of last year, in particular, was emotionally exhausting. In personal tutorial meetings I spoke to students openly about the burdens they carry and the fears that abide. I’m far from a qualified counsellor, though if I can help someone air their problems, encourage them to seek help, or simply offer a shoulder in difficult times then I can feel hopeful.

I was absolutely delighted to get renewed and embark on another year at UCL (which I’m currently half-way through). I’ve found this institution to be an amazing place to work, full of positivity, intellectual engagement and friendliness. I’ve made great friends here and feel enormously supported by senior staff that are generous with their time and their advice (in particular the unstinting support of Margot Finn and Adam Smith has been formative).

I supervised two MA dissertations for the first time (both successfully!) and enjoyed the process. I’ve got another two for the current academic year and am excited to help shape these research projects. I was also accredited as a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy through the UCL ARENA programme just as term ended. It’s a teaching accreditation that I’ve been keen to get, as many institutions see it as an essential qualification. It was also a useful way to examine and improve my own methods as an educator. Despite initial scepticism, engaging with the theory of my practice has improved how I teach.

In a more long-term ‘career’ view, I was interviewed for 2 permanent positions (both obviously unsuccessful), with positive feedback from interviewers. I was completely unsuited to one of the posts (I don’t honestly know why I was interviewed), though the other was a real disappointment to miss out on. In the end, they considered me suitable for employment, though went with a different research specialism. I was also interviewed for a 3 year post and was successful, though ultimately turned down the post. This was a difficult decision that took its toll on me and involved some real ‘strategic thinking’ about my career, my life and my plans. Looking at what lay ahead, I had to balance teaching loads during a period where I need to focus on publication. I have buckets of teaching experience by now and need to get my book out. Three years of new courses in a new place (whilst exciting) were not going to help me develop as an academic as much as alternatives. Likewise, the high transactional costs of moving for the period were a little tough to stomach.

This was the year that I gave up the safety blanket of a non-academic part-time job. I’d been quietly working in the building industry for the last 2 years, in social housing development. It was an interesting post (in a dysfunctional company) and I did feel useful at times. When circumstances changed, I had the chance to extricate myself and decided to fully commit myself to academic employment. Even during the PhD I had picked up a decent amount of hours at William Hill (and very, very briefly at Carluccio’s), and always balanced working at universities with working in ‘the real world’. This is the first academic year that my income has come solely from academia. Gulp. So far, so good, though uncertainty, whilst expected, is not exactly reassuring. In the long term I, like every other Early Career Researcher, would love to secure something permanent. Finding a place that I can pour all of the enthusiasm and activity I dedicate to ‘portfolio working’ would, I think, be a winning deal for both parties!

 

Personal

Personal reflections can seem, perhaps, a little trite and I’m not someone all that comfortable with the process. I’m very fortunate that I am not beset by problems and am certainly cognizant of the privilege that entails. In a broad sense, this year has been instructive in the ways in which I communicate and in the sense that I increasingly feel that I am ‘doing the right thing’ career wise. This was also another year in which I counted my blessings for being able to spend it with my wife, Holly, who is an inspiring, understanding and delightful partner. Without her, I feel, there would be little to me.

I began blogging, after a piece I’d written on the Independence Referendum proved popular. I was pleased that it had an impact, and it drew from my own desire to have some voice in the debate despite my disenfranchisement. I attended the Rally for the Union in Trafalgar Square in London as another small act of self-expression in this debate. Needless to say, I was pleased with the outcome. Bizarrely, after this piece went round some media sources, I ended up being quoted in the Daily Mail and appearing on BBC 5Live as a commentator. Both times I was discussing the constitutional role of the British Monarchy with reference to the Independence referendum. For a Modern French Historian, this was a little odd. Nevertheless, it was a fantastic opportunity to engage openly with the popular media and also to crack jokes on the radio.

As ever, I played a lot of Tag Rugby this year. Just about every Saturday morning on Clapham Common and then usually one night a week in our league matches. It wasn’t a vintage year for the Clapham Strokers, but once again we’ve all enjoyed it. Annoyingly, I ended the year by tearing the muscle and cruciate ligaments in my right pinkie finger. Painful, yet pathetic, as it turns out. Handshakes are still a minefield.

I also attended 5 weddings of friends and was Best-Man for my good friend James. Giving the speech was daunting but rewarding and I’m still honoured and amazed that he asked me. It’s an odd balance between gentle jibes, emotional reflection and bawdy punchlines. A bit like my lectures, really. Organising (and surviving) his stag-do was also excellent: we avoided the bawdy, ungratifying tropes of your ordinary stag whilst having a lot of fun in Berlin during an excellent World Cup.

Those sorts of occasions make you think of family, and I lost some of mine this year. My maternal grandfather died after an illness and this was a profoundly upsetting moment for me and my entire family. Loss drew my family together and both my brother Duncan and my mother Christine responded amazingly to support my Gran. My Grampa went from an active, opinionated, engaging and capable individual to a sallow bed-bound shadow of himself in a very quick period. Although in his 90s, he had continued to play golf every day, carry out more DIY than I’ll ever be capable of, and scour Glasgow for discarded bits of ‘good wood’ from which he could still make something useful. He was an old-fashioned man, a former industrial chemist and someone who remained both interesting and interested. Close to the end, I visited him and asked if there was anything I could bring, anything at all that he might want. His answer? “Contentment”. I found this funny, endearing, and tragic. Thinking about that conversation remains a difficult, if valuable, memory. I remember speaking to my Grampa about his own childhood, and in particular hearing about his memories of going to the football in the 1930s. Some of the last things I spoke to him about were the shenanigans going on in the Ibrox boardroom, and I read him football scores as he lay ill in the Glasgow Royal Infirmary. Many of these were the foundations of our relationship, but there was also admiration for a complicated, flawed man with an active mind and an unfathomable reserve of drive and focus. At his funeral, I was asked to read 1 Corinthians 13, and its message resonated: words without feeling are empty, thoughts without action are empty, and nought animates like the union of heart, head and hand.

 

Reflections at this point, then, may seem a little trite. Perhaps I need say only that my own progress is contingent on the good will and support of others, buttressed by my own determination to drive myself forward. If I can do that whilst helping others, then I’ll feel as close to success as I can figure.

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