Back in April I spent a wonderful day in the company of the Post Workers Theatre and several academics working in the field of precarity and the marketisation of education. It was the culmination of the Post Workers Theatre residency at the University of Gothenburg, and the idea was that we would all contribute ideas to the writing of a new ballad – The Ballad of Goodwill. I was invited for a dual purpose – the first and most obvious being my expertise in ballad history, but the second was my lived experience as a precariously employed academic, something on which I’ve accidentally become a voice since my Precarity Story tweets in February last year.

Professor Rajani Naidoo (Director International Centre for Higher Education Management), Dr. Joanna Figiel (Centre for Cultural Policy and Management, City University of London), Dr. Stevphen Shukaitis, (Reader at the University of Essex, Centre for Work and Organisation) and myself spent the first hour or so discussing how goodwill is being transformed by the rise in competitive regulatory instruments generating anxiety for academics; how ‘the pursuits of what we love’ results in university staff sacrificing time and wellbeing without reward; and how goodwill is often biased and excludes those who are unable to perform unpaid overtime or survive on part-time or precarious contracts. It was a wide ranging discussion which gave me plenty of things to think about ahead of my upcoming keynote lecture on loneliness, academic precarity and history.

The next section of the day was where I talked a bit about the history of ballads and social protest, as well as the practicalities of how ballads work and how they can be used effectively to spread messages. I explained that they have a long history of highlighting social injustice, and talked for a while about the early modern idea of the commonwealth, in which every person had a role to play in society and it was believed that everyone needed to play their own part in order for the community to prosper. I also described the inclusive language that ballads use to bring people together or exclude those who disagree, as well as the ways in which rhyme, rhythm, metre and melody all help listeners to remember the message.

The next step was to begin suggesting ideas for a modern ballad based on the idea that goodwill in the modern university is undermined by increasing marketisation. We came up with the plan that we would use personification making characters out of goodwill, competition and collegiality who meet on the road.

At this point I had to take a back seat, because I needed to start work on my Social History Society admin role. But the good thing about being an administrator one day a week is that I finally have a job where I can listen to the radio while I’m working (normally I can’t because there are Too Many Conflicting Words in my head at once). So that Thursday afternoon, instead of switching on the radio or listening to Spotify, I was able to listen to the creation of the ballad in the background, and just interject occasionally for a few moments when I thought I could usefully help out.

At 4 I took a five minute break from the SHS to join the communal singing of the new ballad, set to the tune Packington’s Pound. I’d love to be able to share it with you, but I can’t at the moment because the Post Workers Theatre are continuing to work on it. On the plus side, this means I’ll be able to write another post later to tell you all about the finished piece. I’m really hoping that it will be ready in time for me to include some of it in my keynote!

One really positive thing to come out of the event was the way we’ve been sharing information since the day itself – I’ve now got all sorts of things that I can read to help me add some depth and scholarly credentials to a paper that was, up to now, essentially based on anecdote and personal experience. So I’m going to set aside a few days in the next few weeks to look into the literature around marketisation and precarity in the academic world.

Another was some affirmation. I raised the point that I fear my keynote is going to be fairly depressing – although there are some positive points about my fabulous colleagues, my story does not as yet have a happy ending. Rajani immediately stepped in and told me not to worry – that that is the reality and it’s time we stopped sugar coating it. People need to hear just how bad things are.