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Which part of a (Norwegian) job application do I fear the most?

The cover letter? – Nah, bring it on! I’m interdisciplinary; that means I can do ANYTHING, right?

The full academic CV? – Easy! Which version would you like? I have a choice of three, at least.

The accompanying materials? – Hah, just look at all the peer-reviewed articles/compositions I have to choose from these days!

The obligatory gender declaration? – I’m pleased that Norway is (apparently) taking the trouble to count.

Do you fulfill the requirements for special consideration as an applicant with an immigrant background? – No, because coming from the EU is not classed as ‘immigrant’ in this sense (and rightly so).

Do you fulfill the requirements for special consideration as an applicant with a disability? If so, please give details below. – Uh, um, well. Er, do I have to?

 

No, I don’t have to; it is a choice. And do you know what? For the last three years – and sometimes before then – I have chosen not to declare, even though I could (should) have done. Even though I do require some adjustments to a work environment. Even though, clear on my face for all to see, is the very fact that I have a disability (well, either that or a pretty bold sense of style and/or a love of the colour pink which makes my five-year-old daughter’s how-many-shades-can-I-possibly-wear-today? attitude seem positively reasonable).

I suspect that many people reading this would not believe the number of times I’ve had to say, ‘actually, I don’t wear these glasses for fun.’ I may well have said it to you. You probably replied (as most do), with a surprised, ‘really? I thought they were just really cool!’ And yes, they are pretty funky. And yes, I do dress to match. And yes, I have a (public) personality that sits well (I hope!) with bright colours. And no, I was not offended by your comment. It takes more than that to offend me, I assure you. In turn, I did not wish to cause you offence with my well-rehearsed answer: sometimes delivered in a mock whisper; sometimes with a slight downward glance (or long blink), descending voice pitch, and shake of the head; sometimes with a jokey raising of the eyebrows, tilt of the head, and maybe the ghost of a wink; only occasionally with a warning tone.

'I don't wear these for fun, you know.'

‘I don’t wear these for fun, you know.’

I am spurred to write today by Dorothy Kim’s (@dorothyk98) excellent post on the (equally excellent) medievalist blog In the Middle, entitled ‘Divergent Bodies and Medieval Studies‘. I don’t know or mind whether Kim counted mine as a ‘non-normative’ body at IMC Leeds – it makes no difference whatsoever to her argument, which contains three points bordering on the genius. (I don’t remember whether or not we discussed The Glasses, but we certainly righted the world over a glass – hmm come to think of it bottle – of wine, as you do, regarding issues of diversity in academia more broadly.) My three takeaway points from Kim’s piece are these:

 

1. She made me realise how #Ferguson is relevant to all walks of life.

2. If anyone expresses surprise at my (or anyone’s) ability to do research then I will sock it to them – hopefully gently, firmly, and politely, but if otherwise then too bad.

3. I will tick that box on application forms from now on.

 

Let’s take each of those points in turn, in a little more detail.

1. Institutionalised discrimination is everywhere. It is not enough to treat everyone equally regardless of looks, background, ability, gender, mental and physical health, beliefs, and all the other things which make us unique; no, we have to be more proactive than that. We actually have to speak out, point out, and stamp out what Kim and others term the ‘microaggressions’ that take place on every level. It must start today. It must (re-)start every day. This is something concrete, real, and effective that we can all do in our workplaces, in our communities, in our centres of education, and in our families. Silence is not an option.

2. My grandmother always used to say to me, ‘if you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all’, because: ‘If you write something, you can erase it. But if you say something, it stays said.’ That was good advice for a loudmouthed child with a gob too often engaged before brain. But to my grandmother’s advice I will now add the following: ‘If your silence would be more hurtful to a victim of abuse than your less-than-carefully planned response, then speak up regardless.’ Silence is not an option.

3. Here’s why I stopped ticking the declaration box on application forms. In 2011 I was called to an interview for a job because my declaration meant that by law they had no choice but to interview me. What the job advertisement failed to say was that the interdisciplinary candidate they claimed to want actually had to be able to offer teaching in a certain department, one to which it was clear from my CV that I had very little to offer. That I found out at interview. An interview which was very short. An interview which cost the hiring department (in a country significantly more cash-strapped than Norway) a fair amount of money to ship me over to attend. An interview which I and one of the panel members made the best of by getting to know each other and having as in-depth a discussion about our research as we could, but which the other panel member (and department head) clearly regarded as an utter waste of time. Instead of blaming the inevitable discomfort on a poorly written job advert and a surly cash/time-strapped HoD, I blamed myself for ticking the box which forced them to call me for interview. Since then, I have not ticked the box. From now on, I will. Silence is not an option.

(As an aside: the interview I just described had a happy ending. Thanks to being called to that interview I was sent various materials beforehand, including a copy of a successful bid to a research funding body. Before I even attended the interview I had already amended the structure of that research proposal to fit one I was writing for a call for postdoctoral proposals in multimodality at the University of Agder. Of course, I was not awarded my current postdoc on the structure of my proposal alone. But I was praised for my proposal, which did everything it needed to do and more. I am always happy to send the official proposal for my postdoctoral project to anyone who may find it useful – just ask me. It is not a public or published document so I can’t just slap it on the internet, but it is by no means an official secret so I am more than happy to share it.)

 

So, back to Norway and its job policies (which I have already written about here). As I enter the last quarter of my postdoc I am on the job hunt again. I have already not ticked the disability declaration a few times. Why? Well, as I have said, I don’t want to relive the experience of that interview (and in Norwegian to boot). After all, there are people much less able-bodied than I am – this box is for ‘them’, not me, right? To tick it when I don’t desperately ‘need’ it would be morally wrong, because my application might be promoted in favour of that of someone else, which would be unfair.

That logic is well-meaning, but ultimately drivel and nonsense (and other words that I don’t want to use on my blog). First, by not ticking that box, I am disallowing – or, worse, distorting – the ‘counting’ which the Norwegian state is implementing, and which Kim points out is so important to do. Second, I am certainly not ashamed to be one of ‘them’, and this system is in place to help ‘us’ – that is, everyone; but by not ticking the box, I am not acting on my own beliefs. To counter workplace discrimination of all kinds we need to build diverse workplaces. The fact that I am more than happy to disclose my gender shows that I am well aware that positive discrimination works: the gender rule for potential employees of the Norwegian state is that if two (or more) candidates are deemed to be equal, then preference must be given to females. (For more experience and expertise on this than I am qualified to give, you can read Curt Rice’s website and follow @curtrice; Rice works tirelessly for gender equality in Norway and elsewhere, particularly in universities.) That brings me to the question of ‘need’, which is where the St-Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus-style (or, in internet speak, #facepalm) revelation comes in: this is not about my needs, it is about society’s needs and the needs of others. To tick or not to tick is my choice, but it is a choice that is not actually about me.

 

Colleagues, forgive me for my silence and inertia up to now. Dorothy, thank you for your activism and for moving me to action. Curt (and others too numerous to name), thank you for all your hard work. Everyone, listen well and speak out: silence is not an option.

 

 

There’s one thing I regret about my PhD: handing in the day after my first baby’s due date. (Baby was conveniently late.) The fact that things worked out that way due to circumstances beyond my control – together with my determination to get one baby out of the way before the other one arrived – does not help. It was stupid to risk my (and potentially the baby’s) physical and mental health in such a way, and I suffered as a result.

This is not intended to sound negative. There is a happy ending. The baby was fine, the PhD was fine, and I recovered. But I view it now as a harsh introduction to, and as a symbol of, the struggle faced by so many academic parents, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, partnership situation, background, disability status, and all of the other factors which make up a person. How on earth is it possible to combine the demands of a life with children with the demands of an academic life, particularly in the delicate post-PhD stages?

Obviously, there is no simple answer. Every situation is different, and I am sure that a great deal depends on the age of the child(ren) at the time of hand-in (though they do say that the grass is always greener…). Yet one thing I do know: becoming a parent changes your view of life.

The ‘baby’ metaphor was no joke. I really did think of my PhD – and my dog, for that matter – as my ‘baby’. Then I became a parent, and realised that such metaphors are comical not just because they are amusing, but because they are so woefully inaccurate. I do not wish to wax lyrical about the joys and tribulations of parenthood, for there are plenty of other blogs for that I’m sure. No, what struck me was this: having become a parent, my family became more than the most important thing in my life. They became my life. The PhD, the research, the professional life that had mattered so much to me became just a job. A job I loved, that’s true, but nevertheless just a job. It was a radical shift of perspective, and one that didn’t happen immediately. After the arrival of my first child (though for many parents they don’t come one by one), the first weeks (months, even) were consumed first by the needs of the child, and then of the parents. Basic needs: health, nourishment, sleep, fresh air, and, where possible, sanity. At some point during that time I had my viva. It took place the morning after a night of very little sleep (babies have an instinct for these things), and I remember frantically re-reading bits of my thesis on the train as I made my way to the university. What on earth had I written about? Two hours of intellectual discourse later, I realised that it was not only perfectly possible to switch mental gears, but that I really did know my stuff. Later, lunching and chatting with colleagues while breastfeeding, I felt everything was possible.

Indeed, most things are possible, though they might take longer than they would for non-parents post-PhD. My PhD corrections only took a week, but that week had to be booked in advance in order to ensure childcare with breastfeeding breaks. After weaning (and graduation) I took up a part-time teaching fellowship. While switching the brain back into ‘work mode’ was easy enough, it took me much longer to learn to quickly return to ‘parenting mode’, to move from intellectual debates back to spending a day with someone whose only word was ‘buh’ (and enjoy it too). Then baby no. 2 came along, and we did several conferences together: baby in the sling, grinning, sleeping, feeding (even while I gave a paper). I kept up the part-time work, researched alongside, and made ends meet.

There are, however, only so many hours in a day. I did not have the time (or, truth be told, the inclination) to bombard the job market as a working parent to two young children. Any jobseeker will tell you that jobhunting is in itself (virtually) a full-time job; any parent will say the same. So I took my time, and I became extremely picky about what I applied for. After all, being part of my children’s early years seemed far more important than jumping straight onto the academic job ladder and all it entails, despite the hopes, ambitions, and expectations I’d harboured as a student. Whereas I once would have taken virtually anything and made it work, I took an honest look at myself so that I didn’t waste my efforts on jobs that were either above or below my skills and needs. I only applied for those for which I had a reasonable chance of success and were close enough to perfect to justify the effort and potential upheaval. My patience paid off: when my children were four and two I began my dream post-doc, returning to full-time research with eyes very much open both to life outside the academy and within a family. The fact that it is a two-year contract is actually an advantage: it gives everyone involved a chance to assess how things are and work out what will happen next.

Throughout those years ‘on the sidelines’ I continued reading, got some publications, attended carefully selected conferences, and kept an eye on job listings. I also spoke to other academics who were parents, particularly those who had been parents for longer than me. Their advice was unanimous: take your time, things will work out in the end. They were right. The journey of parenthood is long, and learning to balance everyone’s needs takes time. So I shall finish by repeating and reiterating the advice I heard: let the rat race rush by you for a while, put aside the anxiety, and try to embrace any uncertainty as life’s way of telling you to enjoy your kids.

The future is theirs

The future is theirs

This is a post I wrote for the RMA (Royal Musical Association) blog, which you can view here (without the photo): http://www.rma.ac.uk/students/?p=1152 (published 1st October 2013).