…no-one really wants to know the true answer.

At least that’s what my fiend said when I told him a few months ago that I’d decided to be honest about my precarity.

Well, maybe people don’t, but maybe we should tell them more often.

One of the difficult situations that I face when attending conferences is answering the question ‘Where are you from?’ In academic circles, this rarely means what it would appear to mean. The answer is not Longridge, because the question is not where do you live, but where do you work? I’ve written before about being ‘academically homeless’ (having no institution to support my research, or give me access to a library and essential research databases), but I now face a slightly different problem: do I tell people I’m from Lancaster, where I currently do most work; Southampton, where I am a visiting fellow; or Liverpool Hope, where I have worked, albeit only for a few hours, for the longest period? None of these contracts is permanent. At the time of writing, my only ongoing position is that of Honorary Research Fellow at Lancaster – an unpaid post.

This is no way to live. I have little or no money coming in over the summer. All three of the paid jobs have come to an end with no guarantee that there will be any work for me anywhere in September. It does nothing to improve my mental health, and makes the summer a very stressful period.

What’s more, over the summer I’m working for free. It’s not as if I can stop and take an unpaid break, spending weeks on end with my children (much as I might like to). No. Instead, I’m frantically trying to finish articles that have been gathering dust for too long and work on book number 2, trying to build the publication record that might, just might, help me land a permanent job.

I know I’m not alone, either in feeling this stress or in my increasing anger at the system. Twitter recently went mad when a 3 year cover position at a major university was advertised, blatently stating that the successful applicant’s pay would be suspended over the summer months because there was no teaching – as if the preparation and admin (and the poor mug’s own research) stopped over the summer too. And woe betide that successful applicant if they wanted to pay rent or a mortgage during that time, or if they had the audacity to want to eat…

No-one that I have spoken to outside academia can believe that someone with a PhD can be employed in a university for just over £15 an hour and earn only a few thousand pounds for teaching on 4 different courses at one institution. 2018-19 is the first year I’ve paid tax on my earnings since completing my PhD, and even now

  • I have only just passed the Lower Earnings Threshold and
  • I have only reached this point through topping up my work for 4 different PAYE employers in the year with extra freelance work.

I’ve got three children to support, and they are rapidly approaching their own entry into the university system. So while I teach other people’s children and help them get their degrees, I don’t know if I can afford for my own to go to university. I have no pension to speak of, so my future isn’t looking that bright either.

The system is broken. While it can get away with employing lecturers on zero hours contracts, it will, because it’s cheap. And those of us at the bottom end of the food chain can’t afford to turn down the crumbs that are offered.

The system is broken. There are lovely people at all of the universities that I’ve taught at, and none of this is either their fault or, realistically, something that they as individuals can hope to change. I know that they feel bad about it too. And I know that many of them have done their best to ensure that I get any extra bits of work that might help me out.

But I’m fed up of pretending that everything is okay. That I’m not being taken advantage of by a system which is happy to bleed me dry working for hours to prepare courses that I might only teach once, but doesn’t value me enough to pay me through Christmas, Easter and summer, or if I’m sick (which I never have been – who as an ECR can afford to be ill?!), and will throw me to the wind the moment it’s convenient.

So if you ask me where I’m from, forgive me if I give you a blunt answer.

Nowhere really.

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 An interesting headstone is caught by the evening sun. Beedon Manor behind. © Copyright Graham Horn and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

An interesting headstone is caught by the evening sun. Beedon Manor behind.
© Copyright Graham Horn and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

It’s almost a year since I handed in my PhD thesis, even though it’s only 6 months since it was all done and dusted. Since then, I’ve written some local history and investigated my family history; sent off an article and a book proposal; attended a couple of brilliant conferences; given some advice about ballads to the BBC; had a short article accepted by Notes and Queries; and I’ve been commissioned to write an article on epitaph ballads for Literature Compass. It’s this last item that I’m working on at the moment, and I’ve spent the last few days updating the secondary reading that I did a couple of years ago when I was working on William Elderton’s ballad about the dead Lady Marques. I’ve by no means finished the reading – I’ve still got a shelf-full to be getting on with – but I wanted to share some initial thoughts, not so much about what I’ve read as about the way it was expressed.

I have spent a couple of days with Scott Newstok’s Quoting Death in Early Modern England (Basingstoke, 2009). It was, in many ways, a really interesting read. Newstok is particularly concerned with place: that is, locating the dead through an epitaph and especially the epitaphic phrase ‘Here lies’. Quite rightly, his book has been praised for its ‘sharp analysis’ and ‘insight’ into the way early modern playwrights and poets used epitaphs to ensure that the dead were placed by a text in the minds of the living. It was well worth reading, perhaps especially for the unexpectedly touching content of the epilogue, which described how the need to commemorate the dead continues into the twenty-first century, even when crisis undermines the social norms. As he comments, the writing of an epitaph ‘fulfils something deeply human within us, noted throughout this study as the desire to locate the body, to put it to rest beneath a text. The text itself – that core epitaphic phrase, in particular – goes beyond merely covering the corpse…; it recovers the corpse as having been a human body’. But although the content of the book opened new ways of looking at epitaphs, I had a big problem with the way in which it was written. As you can see from the quotation above, Newstok’s prose is littered with dashes, italics and (though there aren’t any in that short extract) quotation marks that made it incredibly difficult  for me to read. It’s not all that unusual for me to have to read things more than once in order to make sure that I’ve understood what the author was trying to say, though I much prefer texts where the author is able to write clearly enough for me to ‘get it’ first time. It’s very unusual for me to have to read a single sentence over and over again to work out what the significance of the italics or the quotation marks was, and how it might change what I thought I’d read. Nevertheless, I’d like to reiterate that I thought what he had to say was not only useful and insightful (as I hope you’ll see when I finish the piece for Literature Compass), but also that it might change the way we think about the early modern epitaph, and that would be no bad thing.


William Elderton, A proper new balad in praise of my Ladie Marques,whose Death is bewailed to the Tune of New lusty gallant (London, 1568).
Reviews of Scott Newstok, Quoting Death in Early Modern England: The Poetics of Epitaphs Beyond the Tomb (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) by Philip Major, pp. 838-839, in The Modern Language Review, Vol. 105, No. 3 (July 2010), p.838 and by Sarah Covington, pp. 338-339, in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 1 (Spring 2010), p.339.
Newstok, Quoting Death, p.190.

This morning I lifted my thesis from the bookshelf and looked at it for the first time since I put it there in September.  I have to admit that there is a certain amount of pride just from in holding it in my hands.  It’s a substantial piece of work and represents a good three years of my life, so I feel justified in taking some pleasure from the simple fact of its existence.

Reading through it, however, has produced some wildly conflicting emotions.  Actually, so far I’ve only got to page 57 of 328, but I can already spot the bits I worked on at 2 in the morning!  I’ve been thinking through the sorts of questions I might ask if I were my examiner and preparing to justify some of the decisions that I made in writing about ballad music in my first chapter.  But along the way there have been some occasions when I thought what I’d written would sit comfortably alongside other works of early modern history, and other moments when I cringed at the way I expressed myself!  Most of all, it has brought home to me how much easier some of my points could be made with recordings of the music, so that has to be a way forward for the future.  It’s much easier to hear what I mean that it is to see it, when it comes to the musical examples.

…wondering if it is exactly the right one to use in that particular place and if there is any way possible in which it could be misunderstood.

I love words.  I love the way there is always a perfect word no matter what you want to say, if you can only find it.  But one morning a couple of weeks ago, I realised I’d been staring at the screen for half an hour, looking at a single word.  I didn’t have this problem in the past: I just wrote.  Words came pouring out, or they didn’t, but I didn’t ponder individual ones for hours on end!  So how did I turn into that woman?

Partly, it’s down to the depression, I think, which brings on a paranoia that the people reading my work will misunderstand if I don’t use exactly the right phrase in exactly the right place.  But it’s more down to the way that I’ve been taught to consider the rhythm of the text and the precise meanings of what I say.  I found some work a few months ago that my tutor marked when I was an undergraduate and I’m ashamed to say that he was still commenting on the same sort of problems almost twenty years later.  At that point, I decided that something needed to be done, so I started to pay close attention to unpacking every detail: not assuming that the reader would instantly understand what I was talking about; changing the order of the words until I found a rhythm that I was happy with; trying to pad it out with continuity words and phrases so that the reader has time to think.  I’m not there yet.   Signposting I still have trouble with.  But I’m getting there.  I might never manage to emulate the sparkling clarity of my supervisors, of whose way with words I remain deeply envious, but I am pleased to report that at my panel meeting this week, they all commented on the improvement in the fluency of my writing.  So although I remain unconvinced that staring at a single word for half an hour is the best way to spend my limited time, certainly the attention to detail has paid off.

DSCF3139  This week has been half term, so I’ve spent quite a bit of time playing with my children.  We’ve been on a couple of walks, one round Tarn Hows in the Lake District and one from Wrea Green on the Fylde, close to where I grew up.  But this has also been the week of my winter panel meeting and a seminar at the John Rylands Library in Manchester.

The panel meeting went well.  My supervisors commented on how much my writing has improved; it is now clear and precise, which is good to hear.  We discussed the commonwealth chapter I submitted, talked about the choice of technical language for describing my musical examples and then conversation turned to the submission process.  We discussed possible examiners and I told them that I plan to submit in September.   The meeting was over in 40 minutes.

That afternoon I took part in the Print and Materiality Seminar Series at the John Rylands Library, talking about ‘William Elerton and the Ghost of the Lady Marques’.  The topic was chosen to fit in with the seminar series’ focus on the supernatural, but it was a particularly nice subject because it allowed me to sing one of my ballads.  The other paper of the afternoon was given by my Manchester PhD candidate colleague, Sarah Fox.  Her fascinating paper was entitled ‘”Let the superstitious wife, Neer the child’s heart lay a knife”: Superstition and the domestic object in eighteenth-century England’, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to her.

I’m looking forward to getting properly stuck in to my final chapter on ballads and the news over the next few weeks.  I’ve started doing the secondary reading for it already and I’ve even made some little notes on halved index cards for paragraph topics.  I decided that on this occasion I really needed to plan the chapter before I wrote it, which is not how I usually work.  The chapter will look at the role of sixteenth century ballads in spreading news, a role that has been contested recently.  I need to look into the differences between ‘news’, ‘newspapers’ and ‘journalism’.  I’m going to investigate the role of newspapers in later periods to see how the ballad compares, as well as looking at the evidence provided by State Papers.  I’m very much looking forward to it, after the trouble I had with the commonwealth chapter.  It’s not going to be easy, but I think it should be much more fun!

This afternoon’s job is to re-read a couple of articles by Ethan Shagan, because I suddenly realised that I have my 1549 rebels all mixed up together in my chapter and I don’t know which ones are which.  This opening up of the ground under my commonwealth chapter’s feet occurred yesterday afternoon and left me feeling rather grumpy, as I’m not sure I’ll be able to get it all sorted out before I need to submit my the chapter to my panel later next week.

On a brighter note, this week saw me getting stuck into reading about early modern news networks.  All very interesting.  What has been astounding all week is that most things I read at the moment are generating ideas not just for the chapter that I’m working on (be that the commonwealth or the final chapter on news) but for some of the earlier ones too.  This leaves me itching to go back and look at the other chapters again, but if I were to do that I’d be hopelessly distracted from the task in hand so I’m having to be very careful.  I have a notebook for each chapter, so I write my ideas and thoughts in them, but I also have a diagram of the thesis pinned to my study wall so I put little post-it notes on it to remind me of what needs doing to each chapter when I come to re-write it.  I must say it feels rather strange to be only one chapter away from a first, very rough, complete draft.  There have been several moments along the way when I thought I wouldn’t get this far, let alone to submission!  Apart from reading, I’ve spent a lot of time going through State Papers and re-writing bits of my commonwealth chapter yet again.  It was nice to get started on writing the news chapter, though, because the commonwealth chapter has been bogging me down.

I went into Manchester earlier this week to raid the library, then I met up with Sarah Fox (www.thehistoryfox.wordpress.com) for a brew and we had a lovely, long chat, something I haven’t done with any of my PhD colleagues at Manchester for a very long time.  Too long.  Nice to remember that I’m not alone in this mess we call research!

I was warned on Wednesday that my luck will have to run out eventually.  That may not sound too much like good news, but the converse is, of course, that,  in order to provoke the comment, things must be going relatively well at the moment.  Work on the commonwealth chapter continues, with some quite major revisions to the opening of the chapter and smaller changes to individual sentences.  It’s getting closer.  I still need to check a couple of references and make some alterations to one of the musical examples, but it’s certainly getting closer. (And about time too, I might add, considering that it’s taken the best part of six months!)

I spent almost all of yesterday just working on the footnotes, trying to get Endnote to play ball.  Don’t get me wrong, I do like Endnote.  I used to enjoy writing my footnotes by hand, but the way that Endnote does it for me is, usually, enormously labour saving.   But for some reason, yesterday, it got its knickers in an almightly twist and started putting in references to whatever manuscript it felt like.  It wasn’t a problem with the books, or the journal articles, or the webpages: just the manuscripts.  Since the chapter is  based around manuscript collections, it caused a bit of a problem.  I have no idea  what caused the glitch, but I ended up typing in the manuscript references  manually.

I’ve also started secondary reading for my concluding chapter on the news.   If anyone has any suggestions of things I should read on early modern news, I’d be very glad to hear of them.  The reading that I’ve done this week surprised me by giving me several ideas for  my first couple of chapters on ballad music.  In fact, I had to leap out of bed at 11 one night this week to write down an idea!  It’s the first time that that’s happened for a very long time, so I think I can safely say that the thesis is out of the doldrums and on the move again.

This afternoon I briefly revisited my chapter plan, taking into account some of the comments that my supervisors made when they looked at it last and writing an abstract for the commonwealth chapter now that it’s completed.  The rest of the afternoon I spent  transcribing documents in the State Papers.  For once, the handwriting is relatively easy to read.  Unfortunately, the digital scan of one page is so dark that it is illegible in places – I suppose a girl can’t have everything.

On Wednesday evening I went to the committee meeting for the Historical Association in Bolton.  A very productive meeting and plenty of things to work on in the coming months, not least of which is putting together the programme of lectures for next season.