Last night I drank Pimm’s, played Giant Jenga, and relaxed in a deck chair while a band played 80s classics on the quad. Provided free of charge by the university as part of an initiative to make staff feel valued and reduce stress, the Pimm’s, the games, and the music were the perfect end to a tough morning reading about people who kill their loved ones and a productive afternoon building new research collaborations.
Last week I played hostess when a friend came to Exeter for a job interview. I took him on a tour of the town and introduced him to all my favourite colleagues. I have since been sending pictures and text messages, as he decides whether or not to accept the job, extolling the virtues of the place I now call home.
Today I checked my privilege.
It’s easy to enjoy a Pimm’s and some live music, when you have a permanent job. It’s easy to put down roots and say how wonderful a place is, when leaving is a choice not a necessity. It’s easy to commit to new collaborations, when you know you’ll be around to see them through. And although exploring difficult topics in research is never easy, it’s definitely easier to step away for some self-care when you know you’re playing the long game.
A recent report from the UCU documented the number of staff on insecure contracts at universities around the UK. At my university it’s nearly 70%. So I am definitely one of the privileged few.
But it wasn’t that long ago that things were very different. I’ve written before about my experiences of doing research on short-term contracts (see here, here, and here) and it was less than a year ago that working in a pub in Wollongong was looking like the most viable way to make a living. But what I realised today was how easy it is to forget. How easy it is to embrace a life of privilege and dismiss the concerns of others because they are no longer my concerns. How easy it is to dance to a bad cover of My Sharona, while somewhere a postdoc is crying in their office.
Of course, to co-opt Tim Minchin’s great lyric, a permanent job in academia’s not all wine and roses; sometimes it’s handcuffs and cheese. I’m currently paying off a $6,000 credit card debt because the university’s relocation allowance didn’t cover the cost of the move. I haven’t slept in my own bed since November. I haven’t held my nephews or hugged my sister since Christmas. And I won’t be able to attend my godson’s christening. I’m also having to build an entirely new network of research collaborations and navigate new research, education, and health systems. And it’s been a long, hard road to get here.
But, in the words of Jeanann Verlee, those bruises will fall off eventually. The challenge now is what to do with my privilege. How to use it to support those around me who are still facing insecurity and instability. How to be the voice for those who aren’t in a position to shout for themselves. And how to offer guidance that is both practical and sensitive. I’m not sure what that will look like yet, but I think I’ll start by buying the next round of Pimm’s.