Looking Back, Moving On

After two-and-a-half years, I’ve left Warwick University. And how much has happened in that time!
When I arrived on campus for an interview in high summer 2014 David Cameron was still the jammy PM who had found a path to Downing Street without much help from the electorate, yet to finally abandon his above-party image in the hours following the Scottish Independence referendum. Meanwhile the SNP were the only party to have won a majority in any part of the UK since the 2005 general election, and Ed Miliband’s Labour Party had decided its response to UKIP’s success in EU elections was to crack down on the social security entitlements of EU migrants. Making smaller headlines, the inexplicably-popular stint of Nick Hurd as Civil Society Minister had ended, but his successor Brooks Newmark was yet to tell charities to “stick to their knitting” or send sordid pictures to an undercover reporter on WhatsApp. The other side of Europe, fighting continued in eastern Ukraine. Across the pond Democrats were still complaining the polls were biased against them, yet to discover it was the reverse, and Jeb Bush was the front-runner for GOP presidential nominee. And now… *sigh*
It’s also been a dramatic time for Warwick Uni. Only a few months after I arrived, there was an outrageously disproportionate response to protesting students. This was not the neo-fascist group banned from campus, but the peaceful campaigners staging a sit-in while they discussed the value of free higher education who suddenly found themselves threatened with police dogs and tasers, and were sprayed in the face with CS gas. The failure of the former Vice Chancellor to show any visible concern for students assaulted on campus by police officers, his being caught on camera calling the students “yobs” and only reluctantly taking seriously the question why the handling of the incident had been so violently disproportionate were part of a depressing track record. Meanwhile, his own pay soared to £348K (before a £92k farewell bonus) as concerns raised over sub-living wage pay for some staff were met with something close to contempt, and the TeachHigher proposals attempted to further casualize the employment of teaching staff. All of which fits worryingly well with historian EP Thompson’s old characterisation of the institution as the very model of ‘the business university’. I was disappointed when his successor as Vice Chancellor buckled under pressure to ignore the clear and democratic will of the university staff to oppose the government’s nonsense Higher Education Bill and the overzealous implementation of PREVENT, but at least the atmosphere isn’t so toxic anymore.
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The first new students register at Warwick University in 1965
As the first Prime Minister of an independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, has been much-quoted as saying, by the League of Arab States in their 1970 edition of Al Arab before it became a stock inspirational quote on social media:
“Time is not measured by the passing of years but by what one does, what one feels, and what one achieves.”
I can’t deny that I spent most of my time at Warwick feeling outraged by the attitude and behaviour of those running the university. A combination of entirely unnecessary injustices that needed opposing and a grinding awareness that the university was not being run out of a commitment to education or dedication to the students. What made this so tiresome was that it was so distinctly at odds with the behaviour at department level – where academic and support staff are hard-working, dedicated and fundamentally believe in the value of education. This is what makes the university work, and deliver such high standards. Despite being consistently undermined from above, students still get a very high standard of education at Warwick.
For me, my colleagues at Warwick were my allies in resisting the consumerisation of education from above and they also provided for me a fertile environment to think my way through being an early career scholar. I was constantly exposed to new ideas, developments and ways of working. The book contract I arrived with becoming an actual book is the most obvious example of my time at Warwick giving me the space I needed to turn plans and promises into actual things. But it was also more than that.
The History Department and the Centre for the History of Medicine are lively hubs of scholarly community, where a casual chat in a corridor can turn into a job. Being part of that community enabled me to see ways I could make a contribution that weren’t necessarily what I would have done otherwise. I hadn’t planned to move on from researching healthcare before the NHS to the NHS itself, from what it meant to pay to what it means to have a ‘free’ health service. But when the opportunity was in front of me, it made perfect sense. It allowed me to embark upon a new phase of my research that drew heavily on what I’d done before but was geared to investigating new subjects and answering a new set of questions. In short, I was guided from post-doctoral to early career.
I’d previously had a number of ideas about how I might do this, but each was shaped more by trying to strategically extend my own focused expertise into an area I thought of as being on trend. Instead, I was given a space to make that transition for a much better reason – contributing to a project that is hugely important itself, with or without me. Why does the NHS occupy a special place in Britain today? How did that come about? Has it always been the case? How can I help with finding out? When I look back now on what I was planning before, it’s hard to see it not being underwritten by the question: How does this better position me for securing a permanent job?
Now, as I leave Warwick and take up that permanent job, there’s still plenty more I want to do and need to learn. I still feel a need to prove myself, and that’s a good thing, as long as it can motivate me instead of wear me down. But I no longer feel a need to position myself. I still have in mind a big picture, where individual books and articles fit into a broader body of work with recurring themes and questions. Specific projects are positioned in relation to that, but not in relation to my employability.
I’m in that funny place now where I’ve jumped from one place but haven’t yet landed in the next. Of course, there will be expectations, demands and constraints at my new university – I already know some of my teaching will be in new areas – and it’s wise not to assume landing that permanent job equals happy ever after. But, for the moment at least, I’m going to enjoy looking at my research projects and plans liberated from having to take the academic job market into consideration.
There’s a lot of discussion and introspection about early career scholarship and how it should be supported, and quite rightly so! I’d be flat out lying if I said Warwick was geared well on that front. At department level issued raised were taken seriously and improvements made, though the institution itself is set up to make exploitation the default. Despite this, Warwick features in my personal story in a positive way. While I grew into my own academic skin, Warwick provided me with something bigger and more important than myself to focus on. As so often in life, we do best when we’re thinking about something other than ourselves.
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