The hard work begins now, says BAAS Early Career Representative Ben Offiler, over the next two years I will be looking to implement ECR writing prizes, research / travel grants, and widening participation events with the help of BAAS.
Buoyed by the wonderfully collegial and intellectually stimulating atmosphere at Northumbria University during this year’s annual BAAS conference I decided to put my hat into the ring for the role of Early Career Representative on the Executive Committee. Having completed my PhD in December 2013 and as Co-Editor of U.S. Studies Online since April 2014 I figured I was in a good position to act as
an advocate for American Studies scholars at an early stage in their career. I was delighted therefore when, after a hard-fought but scrupulously managed campaign, it was revealed I would be the Early Career rep for BAAS for the next two years.
It turns out that the cliché proclaimed by politicians the world over that “the hard work begins now” isn’t far off the mark. While the 2015 BAAS conference, not to mention the forthcoming Postgraduate BAAS conference in December at Glasgow and next year’s joint BAAS conference with the Irish Association for American Studies in Belfast, showed without a doubt the continuing vibrancy and innovation of the American Studies community the bigger picture isn’t necessarily so rosy. Recent developments in the HE sector, including the increase in tuition fees, has led to higher expectations from students and a tightening of purse strings in many American Studies departments. These two factors have combined to see even greater pressure on teaching staff to take on considerable workloads, potentially deteriorating the working conditions of many academics. For many early career researchers trying to get their foot on the academic ladder, limited departmental funds and pressure from senior management has in turn resulted in a reliance on short-term, casualised teaching contracts. It is the norm for early career researchers across disciplines to be forced to balance the job insecurity and instability that comes with casualised contracts alongside the pressure to publish in order to make themselves attractive when applying for research grants, Teaching Fellowships and Lectureships. While there are certainly jobs available in American Studies at the moment (I should know; I’ve written enough covering letters in the last 12 months), the competition is naturally fierce, reflecting both the quality of the applicants and the relatively limited number of opportunities.
Despite these wider issues within Higher Education, it is not all doom and gloom. Although American Studies departments are rarely the largest or wealthiest at most universities, we are fortunate to be well represented by the British Association for American Studies. Just as Rachael Alexander has done a fantastic job representing our postgraduate community, Zalfa Feghali has worked incredibly hard these last few years to ensure that ECRs are recognised as a distinct ‘category’ from PGs and established academics, facing as they do a different set of unique challenges in their careers. I am extremely grateful, therefore, that I am able to follow in Zalfa’s footsteps in representing the interests of ECRs. We are also lucky to have Sue Currell as the Chair of BAAS who, alongside the rest of the Executive Committee, continues to show a serious and welcome commitment to providing support for ECRs, postgraduates, and the American Studies community in general.
For my part, I see the role of Early Career Representative as one that seeks to create opportunities and provide support for ECRs. Along these lines, a few of the ideas I will be looking to implement include projects such as writing prizes, research/travel grants, widening participation events involving ECRs in BAAS outreach programmes, and training symposia offering professional development guidance. It is too early to tell how these things will develop over the next two years but I am sure that with the enthusiastic support of the Executive Committee we will be able to make good progress defending and furthering the interests of early career researchers within the American Studies community.
With that in mind, I welcome any comments, concerns and ideas that ECRs have about the current situation facing American Studies. Please feel free to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from and working with you!
Ben Offiler completed his PhD at the University of Nottingham. His research focuses on American foreign relations, in particular US-Iranian relations, modernization, development, and philanthropic NGOs. His first book, US Foreign Policy and the Modernization of Iran: Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and the Shah (Palgrave), will be published in July 2015.