Category Archives: Teaching

Careering: Precarity & Solidarity in Higher Education

Many thanks to Dr Tom Cutterham for this report on the forum event we held on Wednesday 8th March 2017.


It’s always been the case that the most precarious and vulnerable workers face the greatest barriers to organising their labour. In a career like academia that often seems to promote isolation, the challenge of precarity is all the greater—overshadowed as it is by competition for permanent positions. Those are the conditions faced by early career researchers (ECRs), be they graduate students, teaching fellows, research assistants, or newly-employed lecturers.


How do those circumstances influence the teaching and research environments of the university? How can we—as institutions, individuals, and as a community—take action to overcome these barriers and transform exploitative structures? At the very least, what can ECRs share with each other, and how can we work together, to make things a little easier? Those were the questions under discussion at the first ECR forum held last week under the auspices of the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History Research Seminar series, and co-sponsored with the Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures.

Sharing their stories and ideas, early career historians at every level from MA students to new lecturers joined in the conversation. One lecturer recently hired at another Midlands university told us about the three phases that characterised the time between his PhD and first permanent job, emphasising the variety of experiences that can make up ECR life. One moment you’re unemployed and living at home, wondering if you can afford the train fare to take up a part-time job that might not pay you for months; the next you’re on a 95% teaching contract, expected to find time for your own publications while writing and teaching four new courses.

Indeed, the question of fractional contracts and their relationship to career expectations was a substantial part of our conversation. A Teaching Fellowship is supposed to be a stepping-stone to permanent academic jobs, but without paid time allocated for research and publications, such roles are hardly calibrated to develop good job candidates. Fractional contracts allow employers to fill teaching needs at minimal cost in salary—but the real costs are passed onto young academics. In turn, access to housing and transport can become a big issue, which means structural privilege comes into play too. When universities like ours pay out big bucks for some salaries, the situation for Teaching Fellows seems hard to justify.

But even where reliance on fractional teaching teaching staff is being reduced, there’s a question over who will take over their work. It seems likely part of the university’s solution lies in Postgraduate Teaching Assistants on zero-hours contracts. Graduate students who attended the forum agreed that teaching experience is valuable, and the money is useful too—but that comes with a fear that valuable research time can be sacrificed to departmental demands that are hard to turn down. They reported, too, that Birmingham’s “Worklink” system often leaves them unpaid for months at a time, increasing financial precarity and raising barriers to academic life.

These questions of pay and working time are often rendered invisible by the prevailing culture of polite silence. And so are some even more insidious problems, like the fact that non-EU citizens face draconian rules around personal mobility (like being told to report to central office whenever they leave Birmingham!) and prohibitive visa costs borne out of their own pockets. Meanwhile, we heard how the often-hidden emotional labour through which academic work is supported falls disproportionately on the female workers who already suffer structural disadvantages. Such unequal structures of surveillance and support help maintain the existing balance of power and privilege.

Working together, though, there are things we can do to improve the situation—and to fight worsening conditions. With the help of student allies, and a creative approach to publicity, Warwick University’s anti-casualisation group successfully fought off an attempt to outsource teaching to a spin-off company. Here at Birmingham, we can develop an agenda for change that both ECRs and senior colleagues can push for. That includes full-time, year-long contracts for Teaching Fellows, and perhaps representation for ECR workers on Departmental and College committees. On issues like visas and Work Link too, we’ll need the union to help us fight.

There are also ways we can help early career historians move through the phases of their career. By sharing CVs and cover letters, organising mock job interviews, and creating fairer, more transparent structures of support (perhaps including writing groups), we can build a better environment for young careers to flourish. Doing so would deepen our own professional community, too.

Creating spaces for open discussion, like this ECR forum, constitutes one small step towards building solidarity and collective initiative on the problems that face early career academics. In the next steps, we’d like to build that beyond the confines of History and Cultures, and start linking up with the rest of our university and with institutions across the West Midlands region. We have learned how difficult it is to resist the silo-effect of separate departments, colleges, and institutions. But we’ve also learned that inspiration can come from crossing those boundaries.


Métier d’historien

Here’s our colleague David Gange giving an open day talk on why you should study history. Watch it and find out why #gange is trending on Twitter.*

*1. People who are very high and want the world to know it. 2. Francophone tweeters who are visiting India. 3. Young women in the third year of a history degree at Birmingham. Must try harder, third-years!

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Picturing refugees

I’m putting together the handouts for one of my classes next term, on the module we use to introduce incoming first-year undergraduates to doing history at university level. I have two groups, and I’m doing a different ‘intensive study topic’ for each of them (so as to avoid fights over scarce library resources…).

Christian refugees from Asia Minor, LoC ggb2006010957

Although I’m a Middle East historian by background, finding topics in Middle East history that have a substantial body of secondary literature is a bit tricky, and finding ones where the literature isn’t highly politicized is even trickier. So I’m turning to my other teaching area, refugee history, instead, with one class on the Greek-Turkish population exchange (admittedly a not unpolarized body of literature, but the worst of it is in Greek and Turkish; in English there’s a fair range of less tendentious material) and another on German Jewish refugees.

Now, one problem with teaching refugee history is the tendency to reduce the people you’re supposedly concerned with—the refugees—to a passive and nameless crowd, huddled in camps or crammed into transit vehicles like the ones above. (That image shows refugees from Samsun, Turkey in train cars at Patras, Greece, after the population exchange; it’s part of the Bain collection at the Library of Congress.) It’s always easier to approach the history of the stateless and uprooted from the perspective of the states that displaced, refused, or assisted them; the international forums where diplomats talked about them; or the NGOs—in my period more usually referred to as private voluntary organizations or PVOs—that tried to keep them alive.

But refugees aren’t a passive mass: we need to get at the experiences of individual refugees, and we need to remember that refugees are active: from the point of view of host states, they have an awkward tendency to want to control their own lives, and their own political destinies. The very image of the passive, destitute refugee is a powerful ideological construct that plays a part in states’ attempts to control refugees—which often involve forcing refugees into a more passive and destitute state. The Spanish Republican refugees who fled into France at the end of the Civil War had to be disarmed as they arrived, to make them easier to control: the picture to the left shows a stack of rifles taken from refugees at Le Perthus. Families were split up, women and children sent to camps of their own, while once the men had been disarmed they were housed in dreadful conditions, in makeshift camps made of little more than barbed wire on the beach. (If being stuck on a Mediterranean beach sounds nice, remember that it was late winter—and that you can’t dig a latrine trench in sand.) Look at this aerial picture of the camp at Argelès-sur-mer and you start to realize that encampment was a preemptive act of violence against the refugees:

14. Argeles(Want to know why states are so scared of refugees? Do my third-year advanced option module on refugee history and you’ll find out.)

So, when I thought about what pictures I could use for the front page of my module handouts, I was trying to find things that would communicate individual experiences, and refugees’ ability to control their own lives.

Markiewicz passport

It didn’t really work. For the class on the Greek-Turkish population exchange I went with the first picture, above. Class handouts are often done in a bit of a hurry, when they’re overdue—mine are, anyway—and finding good images takes a while. Most of the photos I looked at on the Library of Congress website just weren’t very good: this one is, at least, a clear and striking image. It’s a cliched one, but some of the others were worse.

For the class on Jewish refugees, the range of available photos is greater, partly because of an active, ‘collecting’ interest by major museums. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is one of the most important, and that’s where I found the picture to the right: a page from Ellen ‘Sara’ Markiewicz’s child passport, issued by the Berlin chief of police in April 1939. It allowed her to join a Kindertransport to Britain—on another page there’s a stamp from her landing port at Southampton, giving her leave to enter the country ‘on condition that the holder does not enter any employment paid or unpaid while in the United Kingdom’. So she’s not part of a nameless mass any more, even if one of her names was imposed on her by the Nazis. (All Jewish males were given the middle name Israel; all Jewish females, Sara.)

Moritz Schoenberger at Les MillesAlso from the USHMM is this picture of Moritz Schoenberger, in the internment camp at Les Milles, France, in 1941. Schoenberger had already crossed the Atlantic once in flight from the Nazis, unsuccessfully, on the famous refugee ship the MS St. Louis, which was refused entry by Cuba, the US, and Canada before returning to Europe. It docked at Antwerp, from where its 900 or so passengers dispersed to several European countries; about a quarter of them later died in the Holocaust.

Not Schoenberger, though: his wife Helene was already in the USA with their daughter, and successfully managed to get him a visa. But that didn’t come through until November 1941, by which time Schoenberger was interned in a French camp: he had travelled to France from Antwerp, and been interned as an enemy alien. After another eleven months—putting him into a fearful time for foreign Jews in France—the Vichy government allowed him to leave France, and he travelled to the US via Marseille and Lisbon. But here, he’s pictured in front of some of his artwork at Les Milles: Schoenberger, in his mid-50s by this time, was a commercial artist and window-dresser.

And here, seated second from left on the deck of the Lafayette, is Hildegard Wolff, on her way to the USA in September 1937. She looks cheerful—and who wouldn’t, as a Jew escaping Nazi Germany. Her parents weren’t so lucky.

Passengers on the deck of the LafayetteSo not all refugees are nameless and destitute. I hope I manage to communicate some of the variety of their experiences in my classes this term—especially the ones on subjects that aren’t as well served by the scholarship as Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.

All images: click for source.
Ellen Markiewicz’s passport: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Ellen Gerber
Moritz Schoenberger: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Julie Klein
Passengers on the deck of the Lafayette: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Ruth Nadelman Lynn
This is ‘fair use’ of these images under the Museum’s policy on terms of use.
Images from the Bain collection at the Library of Congress are not known to be under any copyright restrictions.

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