February 2019


I’m pleased to say that the first review of Singing the News appeared in the Folk Music Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society at the end of 2018. It was noticeable that the reviewer, David Atkinson, had read the book in detail, and I really appreciate the time he must have taken to shape his review. I’m happy to say that it was very positive, finishing with the comment ‘This is a significant book’.

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The UCU is currently running a questionnaire on casualisation and precarious contracts in the university sector.  I filled in my return over lunch on the first day.  Although it is meant to be anonymous, I decided that I would share some (although not all) of my responses.  In places these have been edited in order to make sense to a non-academic audience, or to remove information which I daren’t put in the public domain.

How many academic jobs have you held in the last 12 months?

7 (each course that I teach on at one institution has a different contract…!)

How many jobs have you held in total in last 12 months?

14

Use this space to tell us more about how working on an insecure contract affects your work, whether positively or negatively:

I am unable to turn down work that comes up at short notice, making it difficult to plan my own research days – it plays second fiddle to finding paid employment.

I am unable to supervise MA and PhD students working in a field directly related to my own because my contracts do not allow for it – this is not detrimental to the students’ work because I feel it is morally wrong to deny them my support – so I do the work for nothing.

I am unable to reschedule teaching to enable me to go to relevant academic conferences, nor am I able to access the departmental research fund to support my own career development.  Likewise, I can’t afford to spend money on expensive conference travel as I have to save, because I don’t know whether I will have any income at all in 6 months.

A substantial proportion of the time I should spend on my own research in fact goes on unrelated work to pay the bills, or trying to create unrelated work which will pay the bills.

The stress is almost unbearable, particularly during the summer when there is no money coming in and no guarantee of any future work.  This has a negative impact on my ability to concentrate on my own work.  Furthermore, the stress is in itself tiring, and has a negative impact on my sleep patterns, which in turn means I have less energy to teach.

Use this box to tell us more about your employer’s support for your career development:

My institution, as a whole, has no interest in my professional development because I cannot contribute to the outcomes on which they are rated – the REF and TEF.  When I was an honorary, unpaid member of the department, I had my own page on the research portal.  Once I was employed on casual contracts, this was archived and I can no longer keep it up to date.

That said, individuals within the department have been very supportive of my professional development and independent research, suggesting appropriate sources of research funding and helping me with applications.

I do, however, have access to internal training courses.

Please use this box to give details of how your mental health has been affected:

Severe periods of stress and anxiety, especially over the summer when there is no guarantee of any work in the autumn or after Christmas, and while having to set up and prepare courses that I haven’t taught before, which takes a significant amount of time over and above what is paid for.  As I am unable to take anti-depressants, dealing with this can be very difficult.

I had a breakdown after a year of being unemployed post PhD, and although it was not  entirely related to the work/financial situation, it was certainly a contributory factor.

Please tell us more about how your contractual status affects long-term planning

I have children and own my house outright – I did not take the conventional route into academia – but I simply cannot think about how we are going to put 3 children through university, pay for driving lessons and car insurance for them…

As for my own long-term financial future, I have no pension to speak of and no prospect of attaining one.

Would you prefer a contract that guaranteed you more hours at the cost of less flexibility?

Yes.

I could quite happily combine an admin role with teaching/research if it meant stability and a secure income.

Likewise, I don’t crave flexibility – I just want to be able to teach and research without worrying about where the next pay packet is coming from.

One of the pleasures of working at Lancaster has been putting together a new MA module on the early modern world. It is a small group of students who are very interested and engaged. After discussing what makes the early modern early modern (rather than medieval or modern) during our first session, our second seminar was on print culture. We talked about print, orality, reading aloud, audiences, news, transmission of information, networks… It was a really enjoyable session.

Other topics still to come include religion, patriarchy, trade, colonisation… And I’m looking forward to them.

I do a lot of talks for Sovereign Education, speaking to groups of 6th form students on A level study days. But a couple of weeks ago I agreed to step in and speak for Lancaster Royal Grammar School’s History Society. They meet at lunchtime and there are members from the whole school community from year 7 to 13, which meant thinking on my feet a bit in order to make sure it was accessible to everyone. I even managed to get them to sing.

I gave an updated version of my Singing the News talk. I’ve separated out the Pilgrimage of Grace section so that I can use that as a different talk in its own right, and instead I’ve incorporated some of the material I put together on news ballads for the Turku EDPOP workshop last year. It means that I can talk more about ballads in the context of other news media, and some cases where there is significant overlap between ballads and pamphlets.