Dr Michael Wood was the Susan Manning Postdoctoral Fellow from September 2015 to June 2016. He is currently a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, with a project entitled: ‘Embracing “a new mode of culture”: Walter Scott and the German Dramatists’. He teaches German language and literature, translation, and theatre and performance studies. (You can find his profile on the UoE website here)
I turned up at IASH for my Susan Manning Fellowship in September 2015 and, having only recently completed my PhD in November 2014, I was initially a little intimidated about the idea of doing a postdoc. As an early career researcher, the prospect of being in a cohort of not only fellow ECRs but also firmly established and respected academics from a number of disciplines made my already acute impostor syndrome spin out of all control. That first IASH lunch, I paced up the stairs to the seminar room to see a room full of people, most of whom had never met before, standing around a table of delicious-looking food (hats off to Donald and Laura!), and I knew: I’ll be found out now.
Nothing of the sort happened. Nothing like it.
Indeed, my nine months at IASH taught me some incredibly valuable lessons. Yes, it was a great place for having the time and the space to really get my teeth into a new research project. Of course, I met a great number of people whose expertise, advice, different perspectives, and comradeship made a real difference to the ways in which I conducted my research and gave me new food for thought. Obviously, scanning the contents of its open shelves and having Susan Manning’s own collection available to me 24/7 proved that IASH’s own material resources were invaluable. Not to mention, having IASH throw the financial support of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and its own personal dedication into a symposium I organised together with a Senior EURIAS fellow, was the sort of thing dreams are made of. But it was really in the interaction with my fellow fellows and the staff at IASH throughout those nine months that left an even greater impression.
To return to the predicament of the ECR, I feel like I’m one of the lucky ones. Just before completing my fellowship at IASH, I learnt that I was to become a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow for the following three years, and I’ve just started that fellowship. Without the time, resources (both human and material), and support at IASH, I very much doubt that I would be in this position now, working on a project I love – and from a point in the process of research from which I feel like I know what I’m doing (for once). But at various points in my time at IASH, the harsh reality of the job market for ECRs would get me down. While permanent posts and funding in the humanities seem to be drying up faster than a dram of whisky spilt on the Sahara would (try having our sights on a career in MEL!), and while the Stern Review looks like it might have some negative impact on the ability of ECRs to get a job in the first place, it’s easy to lose heart about this thing ‘academia’ that you’ve had your mind set on for a very long time. It’s easy to consider giving up on it. But then, you speak to your peers discussing the necessity of spending one’s time applying for funding in order to buy them out of the responsibilities of their permanent job; you have a pint with a Professor who’s been in this job for twenty-odd years and says it’s not what it once was; you grab a coffee in the map room with another Professor who tells you that, in the old days, you applied for funding for projects you were interested in, whereas now you apply for those that will get the money. But what each of these people tell you over lunch and coffee and in their Work in Progress seminar is: yes, you think things look grim, but you’ve got one hell of a privilege here and shouldn’t pass it up. Being able to freely formulate ideas, speak to other people from other disciplines, re-formulate ideas, etc., isn’t something that everyone else in the big wide world does. Being able to discuss ideas with your students and infect them with the same level of enthusiasm for enquiry as you do, again, isn’t something that everyone else in the big wide world does. And being in a position to reflect on the significance of your own discipline can only help in achieving these two things.
As I embark on three years of postdoctoral research, based at the University of Edinburgh, I still have those fears about not only my future but also the future of large swathes of what we call The Humanities. And I still feel like I’m going to be found out. But I know that I’m not the only one. And I know that so long as institutes like IASH exist to foster new thoughts and new connections in a space of unfathomable intellectual freedom and bring together academics of every stage in their careers and from numerous disciplines, then even if it’s tough now, there’s a future. This is a future in which we can use these connections to engage our students and future generations to pursue further connections and, in doing so, provide answers to some of the most pressing questions of our time. As I was told only recently, many of these questions won’t find a solution in the lab. Or, at least, they might not posed in the first place without an adequate treatment first from our old friend The Humanities.