Welcome back to ‘Voices of Early Career Researchers’, a monthly feature on the French History Network blog. Each month we’ll post a short interview with an Early Career Researcher of French History, giving you an insight of the different paths that ECRs are following after their PhDs in and outside of academia: what do the lives of recently appointed lecturers, teaching assistants, post-doctoral researchers or teaching fellows etc. look like? How does one transition from PhD to the post-doctoral years? We invite our interviewees to share their experiences and we hope that the conversation carries on in universities, conferences and social medias.
Andrew Smith is currently a teaching Fellow at UCL. He shares his thoughts on post-graduate studies, his experience of juggling academic and non-academic jobs, and tells us about all the exciting projects he’s been involved in since handing in his thesis in 2012.
Can you tell us a little about your PhD thesis and your current research? How did you come to this field (did you do something else before considering PhD/teaching) and has it affected you as a teacher and researcher?
My research runs down two tracks that often intersect: the first looks at regionalism and minority nationalism, the second looks at decolonization. I’m really interested in centre-periphery relationships, and contested identities and nationalism. My thesis was called The Comité Régional d’Action Viticole (CRAV): Regional identity, violence and the challenges of modernisation in the Languedoc (1944-1992). It looked at wine, violence, and identity in the hotbed of the South. Since then, I’ve spent a good while revising and redeveloping the material for publication with Manchester University Press, and my book, Terror and Terroir: The Winegrowers of the Languedoc and Modern France, is due in September this year. Likewise, I’m working on an edited collection (with my colleague Chris Jeppesen) called Contingency & Entanglement: Britain, France and the Decolonization of Africa for UCL Press (manuscript due in April).
I discovered my research topic at St Andrews, and pursued it thereafter. It has meant that I’ve been able to do some wonderful research, wandering round the vineyards of Southern France and spending time in beautiful regional cities visiting Departmental archives. My Dad had been a wine merchant, and so I became interested in the trade through him. One year, during the school holidays, I did a WSET qualification, and kept my hand in by offering tutored tastings at university. I actually had an offer to manage a wine shop when I left university, though I eventually turned that down to undertake postgraduate study. That said, it was a difficult choice. That decision was one of the last things about which I spoke to my Dad, who died suddenly and unexpectedly in November 2006 aged 48 (the last year of my undergraduate study). In that conversation, he encouraged me to develop what I thought my best attributes, and not to jump at the first offer of employment. Value, he said, was better defined personally than economically, and that drove me on to define my own. Advice from tutors at St Andrews vaunted the public mission of academia, and I saw in that personal fulfilment that would be scarce elsewhere.
I was sold postgraduate study as an intellectual form of apprenticeship; a description I now resent owing to its implied trajectory. In reality, there are moments when the demands of pursuing an academic career have felt incommensurate with its rewards, though I’m engaged enough that I have filled the gap with enthusiasm and energy. I am, however, conscious of how privileged I am to remain in the game, and conscious too of how the hurdles for participation reflect and perpetuate unequal power structures. The motivation I was sold is, I think, a dishonest reading of the balance between training and employment, and belies a functionally inconsistent flaw in the Higher Education sector. That said, academia is constantly stimulating and creative in a manner which I love, and which brings out the best in me, I think. As a result of this, I’m very passionate about providing engaging teaching and writing engaging history. As a result of my approach I see my job very clearly as having a contract of public service bound to it, and much of my research is about finding and understanding voices subsumed by dominant narratives.
When did you submit your thesis; what did you do in the months following submission/the viva?
I submitted my thesis in March 2012. I managed to put it out of my mind completely in the interim with a pretty nifty strategy: I got married. My wife Holly and I were married on Bastille Day in St Andrews, then went on Honeymoon thereafter. I have to say, there’s nothing like cocktails in a luxurious environment with my wife to banish fears of impending exams! Or, at least, to momentarily displace them.
I had my viva in September 2012, examined by Robert Gildea (Oxford) and Richard Vinen (KCL). I was incredibly nervous on the day, and remember pacing up and down outside the Leo Baeck Institute Library at Queen Mary. Such was the vigour of my manic pacing and muttering that the librarian felt sure I was going to faint, bringing me water and a chair. Thankfully, they told me in the first few minutes that I’d passed, and while the rest of the discussion was rigorous and challenging, it was also productive and inspiring. It was a real boon to have such outstanding historians engage with my research and my writing.
Your first ECR positions:
Did you work outside of academia after the end of your PHD?
I’ve had a lot of different jobs, and it is only this year that I am finally concentrating on having one at a time. With that in mind, it’s a little complicated… When I was studying for the PhD, I worked at a restaurant, a bookies, and for a few months packing parcels at a jewellery warehouse. I taught as a TA from the first year of my PhD as someone had dropped out at the last minute. This meant I was fairly well experienced in terms of teaching by the end, but also that I was used to mixing different types of employment. I ran a Children’s Nursery in Coatbridge from November 2006 – May 2009 (after taking it over from my Dad) whilst finishing my undergraduate and doing my postgraduate degree, so was pretty used to working like this.
Basically, I submitted my thesis at the end of academic year 2011/2012, but didn’t get examined until mid-way through the next academic year. During that time, I continued working as a TA at Queen Mary. I also got wind of the opportunity to work as an Associate Lecturer at Chichester, and in the months beforehand, I worked as a Research Officer for them, preparing the information and outlines of their Impact Case Studies for the History and English Departments. I also filled in for a while as an Associate Lecturer at Brunel. Throughout all of this (about 2 and a half years), I worked as a Business Officer for a Social Housing Development company. This was an interesting mix between general admin dogsbody and helping to put together bids and tenders for development schemes worth vast sums of money. I worked there until summer 2014, when I decided to go full-time with academic only work. That meant I spent 2 years working outside academia, though also maintaining a connection through TA work.
How tricky and long was the application process until you landed in your first academic job(s)? Did you benefit from the support of your peers (senior colleagues or other ECRs) and how do you feel that impacted your job search?
My first proper academic post was as a Teaching Fellow at UCL. I got the post in the summer of 2013, and started in September 2013. It was a 0.6 FTE contract which ran for 10 months. I’m curious why I used the word ‘proper’, and I think it means in terms of esteem. This was the first time I felt that I was being treated as an academic, and not an enthusiastic student.
Others were very supportive, and many friends helped read through applications, and sent on positions of interest. Senior Colleagues were generous with references, and really helped when I was trying to pull together Leverhulme applications and so on. In particular, my supervisor Julian Jackson was very supportive, and Colin Jones was amazingly generous with this time. Subsequently, I’ve met some extraordinarily supportive colleagues at UCL, who’ve been wonderful in how they’ve discussed the foibles and the fables of the job search, helping me find the signal in the noise and make the best of my opportunities.
What were your main responsibilities?
I was in charge of a big survey course called Europe Since 1945. This was fairly challenging, as it was for 60 students and I did everything. That meant an hour’s lecture first thing in the morning, followed by 4 hour-long seminar classes. I was responsible for all of the marking, all of the teaching, and all of the content. It was a lot of responsibility, but a welcome challenge, and it felt good to be trusted with all of it.
How did a typical week look like?
I had 5 solid hours of teaching on a Monday, and was also in the office on Wednesday and Friday. On Fridays I had usually about 4 hours of teaching ‘Writing History’ in the first term (small group methods course that is compulsory in the first year). That allowed me to juggle other jobs on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Often I was mentally in two places at once, jumping between projects and responsibilities, and “time-slicing” as I prioritised and addressed competing deadlines and expectations. One of the greatest innovations for this was the ability to collate 5 different email accounts on one mobile phone, which allowed me to be extraordinarily flexible. Trying to do research around these times was difficult, though not impossible; it meant that I needed to work late into the evening and often on weekends, though I’ve worked harder in less pleasant conditions, so can’t complain (I’ve laboured on building sites and worked as a “barrel-monkey” delivering kegs and crates to pubs: both excellent ‘learning experiences’ that showed me the sort of work I’d rather avoid, and to which academia pales in its demands).
You are now working full time as a Teaching Fellow at UCL. Could you tell us a bit about your role?
I’m currently on a three-year full-time contract, covering for Professor Axel Körner, who is on research leave. I’m responsible for 3 courses at the moment:
- I run an undergraduate module called ‘Fin-de-siècle Europe: A Cultural and Social History’.
- I run 2 MA modules (in alternating terms) – ‘Vichy France: Between Collaboration and Resistance’, and ‘Imagined Communities: Minority Nationalism and Regionalism in Modern Europe’.
I also teach on the core course for the Transnational Studies MA. On top of that, I have 16 personal tutees, who I meet with throughout term to talk to them about their studies and progress, as well as their lives more generally.
I really enjoy the responsibility here. I completely redesigned my ‘Fin-de-siècle’ course to fit my interests, and proposed my 2 MA modules as entirely new courses, again allowing me to explore my interests and try out new teaching methods. I’ve been trying out some new things with e-learning and object based learning, and they’ve been a hit with students so far. You can read the Tumblr page from my Fin-de-siecle class HERE and a blog post written by some students on the course HERE.
This has been a great post in a wonderfully supportive and social department. The challenges and opportunities of working in an environment like this has kept me engaged and motivated to improve my research and my teaching.
Has the post-PhD life enabled you to devote more time to academic related activities (societies, public engagement, and social media etc.)?
I’ve been far more pressed for time after the PhD than I was during it. That said, now I’m only doing the one job, it has cut out a lot of travelling time. I’ve compensated for that by becoming Secretary of the Society for the Study of French History, which is a fairly involved role coordinating a national learned society. I’ve always found that having competing pressures is a positive experience for me, and helps keep me challenged and responsive.
I do enjoy blogging and maintaining a presence on social media (you can find my blog HERE and I’m @smidbob on Twitter). It’s been good for me personally, and also I hope beneficial in some intangible way. I’ve been doing more media work as a result (mostly as a pundit on Sky News), and although it doesn’t pay, it makes you feel like you are contributing to national debates in some small way. I want to develop the public engagement side of things, though it is always a challenge and requires an extra investment of time allied with an understanding of resources. This is more challenging as an ECR, especially when planning major research projects involves trying to commit yourself beyond your current employment contract.
Anything that you’d like to share?
I’m about to embark on my biggest challenge yet: My wife is currently pregnant with a baby girl, due in May. This will be the most thrilling change to our lives that I can imagine, and I’m about as excited as it is possible to be!
To finish the interview, we thought we would end on three light-hearted questions:
Red or white wine?
Either, with my only qualifier being ‘flagons of’. Every wine has its merits, though I’m forever enamoured with the wines of the Languedoc as a result of my research. A rustic Fitou or Corbières, a beautifully balanced Picpoul de Pinet, or a splash of Crémant de Limoux for a special occasion. Any and all of those are more than welcome at my table.
Favourite French TV show?
I don’t really watch TV, and am more of a cinema person, though that’s not meant to sound snooty! I’ll watch pretty much anything with Vincent Cassel in it.
Love or hate Bienvenue chez les ch’tis?
It’s daft, but it’s pretty funny, especially as a Scotsman whose accent also creates confusion in French. I do like films that play with clashes of identity, and awkward misunderstandings are always great fuel for comedy. That said, I’m used to a different regional accent, seeing as I work mainly in the Languedoc, supping “verres de vang blank”. Down there my rolling ‘R’s have frequently led to people asking if I’m Catalan… better than assuming I’m English, I suppose!