An old friend, Constantina Katsari, has just announced that she’s leaving academia, perhaps for ever. I’ve known about this for a while, simply because we had been corresponding about the possibility of developing a collaborative research project on the ancient economy, which now has to be shelved [attempts to disguise fact that he’s talking through clenched teeth…]. You can hear more about this move, as well as getting a sense of Constantina’s personal and intellectual biography, in a recent interview from Radio Leicester (starts at about 12 minutes in, just after Shania Twain). I know a bit about some of her reasons and some of her plans, and I’m sure we’re going to be hearing more about the latter in the near future – there are already some hints in the way that she’s revamped her Love of History blog:
Now, I am looking at my life and my passions, while I am trying to redefine myself as a historian. For years I have published for the few academics who are interested in economic history, comparative slavery and identities. Probably a few dozen scholars dissected, scrutinised and reviewed my books and articles mostly in constructive ways. I participated in debates, I promoted the subject in conferences and participated in large projects.
Now, I am ready to take the next step. There is no reason why a professional academic historian cannot turn into a public/ popular historian. I certainly have the knowledge. It is time to share it with the many (hoi polloi). This blog is the first step towards that direction and will open new horizons to entrepreneurial activity in history.
My sense is that there’s a lot more to this than simply a wish to reach a wider audience in a conventional manner – after all, the shift from writing academic books to writing more popular ones (that make a lot more money) has been a goal of very many ancient historians (I seem to hear of ever more colleagues who’ve signed up with literary agents…), and some have made the step to making a decent living from such writing rather than having it as a handy supplement to a regular academic salary. In the radio interview, Constantina talks about her developing activities in advising business start-ups using neuro-linguistic programming, and the phrase “entrepreneurial activity in history” is definitely significant.
I suspect that many academics, when they’ve been in the profession for a while and the sheer relief and delight at having obtained a permanent position has worn off, feel some of the same frustrations that Constantina talks about; for example, the sense that, however hard we try to make it accessible, our work appears to be of interest only to a tiny number of fellow specialists, many of whom fail to understand it. Ongoing developments in the neoliberal transformation of the UK university system (see the recent review article by Stefan Collini for a summary, and even better read the books by Roger Brown and Andrew McGettigan that he’s reviewing) simply accentuate this; more and more it can feel that we’re not able to do the job that we thought we signed up for, we can’t teach the students in the way that makes most sense to us, we can’t pursue research in the way that seems best but only according to externally-imposed timetables and expectations. This can be the case even in relatively secure and successful departments; I am very happy not to have experienced the sort of stress that must be felt in the various departments that have been or still are threatened with closure, down-sizing or radical reorganisation over the last few years.
How many of us have a Plan B? I mean a serious alternative; not just the idea of moving to another university position, somewhere less doomed or at any rate different, and not just a vague idea of what we might do to fill the time if our department was suddenly shut down, but the sort of Plan B that we could pursue right now, if we actually took the step that Constantina has. Very few, I would imagine. I know I don’t, not really; yes, I have my various home-craft activities, brewing beer, making sausages, smoking meat and the like, that I refer to as what I’ll do when the global economy collapses and/or Bristol Classics gets shut down, but they are really just things that I do to get myself out of my own head for a bit, that make me feel that I’m not just an unproductive academic but can, or could, work with Real Things if necessary. Yes, given a suitably large redundancy payment I think I could set up some sort of business in this area, but I’m not for a moment contemplating giving up the day job to do it. It’s a means of recharging the batteries and staying sane in the face of some of the more stressful aspects of the job, of making the prospect of the decline of the humanities and the possible personal implications slightly less terrifying; it’s not a serious alternative.
So, seeing Constantina actually take such a step makes one think. Is it that she is much more courageous and I’m too much of a coward? Is it that my position is simply less stressful and burdensome than hers was, so there’s still a long way to go before I hate it so much that I’d want to quit? Or is it that I just don’t have the vision or imagination to see an alternative path, that goes beyond the crude daydream of “why doesn’t someone just give me lots of money for doing the bits of the job I really like?” (the classic version of a wish to engage a more popular audience)?
I think there are two other, slightly more positive factors. The first is that I do actually like writing ‘academic’ rather than ‘popular’ stuff, even if it’s read only by the proverbial half dozen specialists; when it comes down to it, what really interest me are different ideas about the relation between past and present, the nature and purpose of historiography, the workings of economy and society and so forth, and to do many of these ideas justice it is necessary to discuss them at a relatively high level of abstraction and specialisation. Yes, various of my books strive to present such debates in a relatively accessible form, but they still end up at a level best suited to the more advanced undergraduates, rather than being accessible to a wider audience; I don’t think I’m actually capable of making the further compromises in content and language that would be required.
The second is that I do love teaching and lecturing, still, even if it now more often involves a struggle to clear away all the stuff that gets in the way of teaching and lecturing in a way that feels right for both me and the students. I don’t want to give this up, and as long as that remains the case I’m not going to quit, nor apply for any of the research-only positions that tend to proliferate in the run-up to REF. And if the worst comes to the worst and the Castle Cary Smokery has to set up in business properly, then I’m likely to be pestering all the possible local organisations to get them to let me give a lecture or two. Or, maybe, just blogging a lot…