Dr. Rachel Thwaites: Talking about the early career stage

Rachel Thwaites is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Lincoln. She has interests in gender, work, health and illness, naming, and emotions. She is also a convenor of the BSA’s Early Career Forum (@BSAECForum) and can be found on twitter: @REThwaites or http://ulincoln.academia.edu/RachelThwaites.

She co-edited Being an Early Career Feminist Academic: Global Perspectives, Experiences, and Challenges with Dr Amy Pressland (@a_pressland).

 

Deciding to pitch this book idea to a publisher came after a long period of thought, discussion, and reflection. There are many things in the contemporary academic experience that can make one pause. This might be a PhD student taking on their first experience of higher education teaching and realising that without designated office space or paid office hours they cannot engage as much with their students as they would wish, and that this lack of space and pay emphasises their lesser position in the academic hierarchy. For those making the leap into their first position, moments of pause may be had in staff meetings when students are described as ‘customers’ and discussion revolves around the need for increased recruitment to save jobs. These moments provoke reflection on what the mission of higher education now is and at what point our relationship with students became one of a provider of services to customer-clients, rather than an educator seeking to work with students to explore, understand, and – maybe even – change the world.

Amy and I had numerous conversations about these issues as we worked through our own first years post-PhD. For myself, precarity also raised particular issues, as I have worked on short-term and sometimes also part-time contracts, and the feeling of insecurity heightens tensions around power, hierarchy, and anxiety, as well as preventing a certain amount of life planning. These were concerns that began to run through conversations I had with most ECRs I met; similar issues were being experienced across the board. For feminist academics, these concerns were intensified by a set of political convictions clashing with the dominant discourse of a neoliberalizing sector and numerous questions arose: when one has a specifically collaborative outlook on teaching, what does it mean to be asked to view students as consumers? How does one work to challenge inequalities and do creative work with increasingly narrow ideas of what work has ‘impact’ and ‘value’? When gender is frequently seen as a lesser concern for research and teaching, how can one prove its importance – and must this be in marketised terms? How does one reconcile one’s politics with the fact we are all complicit in the maintenance of the system?

There seemed therefore to be an important space for this book to fill, and it has been a real privilege to read and engage with the authors of the chapters. Their experiences of teaching feminist curricula, the tensions they feel as subjects who both wish to disrupt the system and yet ‘play the game’, being an international academic in the UK setting, being a mother and an early career academic, dealing with precarity, strategizing for a better future, are all brilliant insights into the experience of feminist early career academics at the present moment. They explore gender, age, and ethnicity, hierarchies of knowledge and subject area, the positives and negatives of this career stage. The book is Western in its outlook – a limitation we acknowledge – but has input from the UK, UK/Syria, Canada, Australia, Finland, Sweden, Germany/Russia, and Japan.

We recognise that this is not the first time things have been difficult in academia, and for early career academics in particular. We also recognise each career stage has its pressures, problems, and tensions. We want this book to open up a conversation about the early career experience now, and in particular the feminist early career experience, which adds another layer of tension to this often precarious and complex career stage. We would also hope to add to strategies for change and to be part of a united academic voice that aims to defend the necessity and importance of the sector.

 

Thwaites, R. and Pressland A. (eds) (2017) Being an Early Career Feminist Academic: Global Perspective, Experiences, and Challenges. London: Palgrave. Available at: http://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9781137543240

 

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