Blogged Over and Out

The ‘blog’ aspect of my website is coming to an end. I haven’t felt able to write in blog-form in a meaningful way for some time, so I am making the conscious decision to bring it to a conclusion.

I began blogging as an undergraduate, sharing my drafts of my dissertation. I blogged throughout my PhD and was most frequent in my posting during my ‘early’ career. Parenthood and additional responsibilities have made this quite a bit harder. I am hoping to pursue other means of sharing ideas online. This page will be renamed ‘news’ and be a means of sharing infrequent updates about things you may find of interest. Please do ‘subscribe’ to receive these updates via email:

Call for Participation: Lockdown Locales

I would like to invite you to participate in a documentation of the places we are working. This is intended as a snapshot of the ‘mundane’ material conditions of academic labour during the pandemic. The place that has become at once our classrooms, our offices, the meeting room, the ‘common room’. I will collate a gallery of images and turn these into an audiovisual artwork at a later date. There is a page that will be the ‘hub’ of the project here.


Many of us remain at home and some of us yo-yo between a ‘COVID-secure’ office and working from home. We ‘see’ one another’s presence in various forms – through the lens of a webcam, through text on a screen – in social media apps and so on – and perhaps meet up outdoors, standing two metres apart. This has affected us in all sorts of ways that may both be predictable and surprising in equal measure. We are almost constantly ‘online’, very often – whether we intend it or not – ‘available’. As Mel Gregg so aptly has it in her wonderful book ‘Work’s Intimacy’:

Presence bleed captures both the behavioural dimensions and professional expectations in communication- and information- heavy jobs. For the middle-class employees this condition affects, […] when online connections allow access to work beyond office hours, the possibility of being willing and able to work can manifest as a compulsion that has to be monitored.

Gregg, M. 2011 Work’s Intimacy. Cambridge, Polity, p. 2.

Our ‘presence bleed’ throughout the lockdowns and various forms of working from home has meant that we have all had to variously renegotiate (to varying degrees) how and where we work. Even if we already worked from home, that may have had to change (due to childcare, other people in the house and so on). These arrangements may be temporary, they may endure. However, as we pass the anniversary of the beginning of the first UK lockdown and contemplate the end of a tumultuous academic year, it seems worthwhile at least trying to capture something of the nature of how and where our work has taken place.


Give Stupidity a Chance – 10th December

“Simple liars, damned liars and experts”

We cannot ‘fix’ everything and that should be ok, but it increasingly is not. As a colleague said to me earlier this term: there is a violence to bringing students back to campus. Universities need money so we brought students back to campuses. Yes, there is lots of hand wash, one-way systems etc., but we continue to be unable to deal with the complex & significant mental health issues made worse by COVID. Lots of individual students told me me they wanted/needed the contact but I still got very variable attendance. We have bullish communications from above, almost all about reputation cloaked in soft soap about welfare. There are appeals to ‘evidence’, or ‘evidence-based’ decisions, drawing on differing data sources (PHE, ONS, local track & trace, 1st hand) and different emphases (e.g. COVID risk vs. student satisfaction). As we limp to the end of the final week of term and are invited to fill in yet another form by our employers to confirm for themselves that, in fact, there is ‘no problem’ with staff wellbeing we might very well reflect upon bullshit.

Like many other employees across a number of sectors, throughout this term, many academics have been on the receiving end of emails from senior managers telling us that: we are doing ever so well (“hooray for us”); the COVID case statistics are nowhere near the levels feared; our students are all happy (but you MUST do more); we have a ‘moral imperative’ to conduct face to face teaching for the sake of the wellbeing of students.

The problem with many of these emails is that they appear to be prime examples of what Frankfurt identifies as bullshit. The assertions, pleas and statements from university senior managers are deliberate deceptive misrepresentations that stop slightly short of outright lying. They are sort of like bluffs. Sprinkled with allusions to ‘government advice’, selectively citing cherry-picked statistics and drawing upon (frankly laughable and shoddily designed) student surveys, the bullshit serves to both attempt to reassure and put us firmly in our place.

UK Higher Education Institutions wilfully, knowingly, deliberately invited students to take up residence in Autumn in environments which were, quite predictably, from a health perspective, not safe. In part this is because of funding. Universities UK asked for a ‘bailout’, the government said ‘no’. Universities draw most of their revenue from fees and rent, so it became imperative for students to return. Staff know this. An increasing number of students know this. Yet, instead of face up to this, senior university managers and the systems in which they operate ignore this, ignore that we know and continue to treat staff and students with mistrust and distain. We are all being treated as fools; some might argue by fools. Give stupidity a chance seems to be the connotation. I’d prefer not to…

With the patronising and self-congratulatory missives resounding like Dickensian church bells as we collectively stagger into our ‘break’, there is a degree of good will between staff and students. Nevertheless, the corrosive ‘us and them’ produced by the state of affairs described above is eating away at that bonhomie. This is emotionally challenging for everyone.

What is to be done? The unlikely but nonetheless brave and honest course of action would be to cast aside the bullshit. There would be a lot of hard work to do in order to repair trust between staff and managers in UK higher education but, as my colleague Clive argues, a good start would be for those senior managers to say sorry.

Pet Shop Boys – Give Stupidity a Chance

Algorithms in politics after Brexit

dystopian city

As Clive recently shared – Kuba Jablonowski, Clive and myself have been very fortunate to successfully apply for a grant in the ESRC’s ‘Governance after Brexit’ scheme. The project, which begins in January ’21, focuses on  ‘Algorithmic politics and administrative justice in the EU Settlement Scheme’ (The EUSS is the UK government scheme designed to determine the post-Brexit UK immigration status of EU citizens and their families who are currently living in the UK under EU free movement law).

The project will run from the start of 2021 through to the end of 2023. Here’s a quick summary from the application: 

“The research aims to analyse the process of administrative reform associated with Brexit, and the intersection of this process with the digitalisation of administration and governance in the UK. It takes the evolution of the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) as its empirical entry-point. By investigating how grievances and claims of injustice emerge from the operation of the EUSS and are monitored and challenged in the public sphere, the research will seek to understand how practices of administrative justice are reconfigured by the interaction of automated algorithmic systems with rights-based practices of monitoring, advocacy and litigation.”

I’m sure we’ll post further information as the project gets underway on our websites.

Remembering Bernard Stiegler

Picture of philosopher Bernard Stiegler

I have been on an extended period of leave [if you read my last post you can surmise why] and so have not written for some time. Whilst on leave I heard some sad news. I found out a little while ago, and shared on twitter, that the philosopher Bernard Stiegler passed away on the 5th August. In spite of and perhaps superseding any criticism I have shared of Stiegler’s more recent work I think it is essential to note the importance of his work and his activities as a scholar and activist.

Technics and Time (especially volumes 1 & 2) is a profound work of philosophy that not only helps us to understand our relationship with (our) technology but also—perhaps more so—it teaches us something valuable about what it is to be human. In part this is about how we understand memory, memorialisation and remembering but it is also about sharing ideas, the nature of ‘culture’ and how we are always and already re-making and remembering what is to be human precisely through our mnemotechnical supports. There is no ‘human’ without technics.

From this insight comes all of the subsequent work around; the politics of disenfranchisement and the centrality of media to those issues; the ethics of intergenerational care and (especially) education/learning; the crisis of the ‘anthropocene’ and how we must urgently address it.

It would be easy, if perhaps tedious, to list off the concepts and ideas that are important here and how we might apply them. In some sense I think that would be simply to use the occasion of the death of a scholar to advance one’s own work through theirs. Rather I want to offer a recollection with the aid of my memory supports.

In 2010, very soon after submitting and defending my PhD thesis, I helped to facilitate a European Science Foundation- funded conference on the theme of attention, convened by my friend, and then colleague, Patrick Crogan. It is perhaps the best conference I have ever attended or participated in. We were holed up on the outskirts of Linköping in a hotel for a week, giving papers, listening and sharing ideas. There was time for discussion; time to get to know one another and time to engage with the ideas we explored together. We were very fortunate to have keynote papers from Tiziana Terranova, Michel Bauwens and Bernard Stiegler.

As many passengers on European airlines can attest, the French air traffic controllers can be rather militant in their strike action and it happened that a strike coincided with our conference. Thus we all arrived in Linköping at the start of the week, except Bernard Stiegler. Through emails and text messages with both Prof. Stiegler and his wife we ascertained that he had managed to get a seat on a plane after waiting in Paris airport for most of a night and he arrived, slightly dishevelled but in good humour late in the evening on our second day. Prof. Stiegler, Patrick and I polished off a bottle of house red and went to bed.

I was extremely nervous the following day – of ensuring that I hosted our esteemed key note speakers and of not looking a fool in front of a philosopher whose work I had only recently encountered but found captivating. I need not have worried. In contrast to stories other junior academics have related about the bade behaviour of senior and highly-regarded colleagues, Stiegler was kind, patient and generous. I remain impressed with the way he really listened and the way in which he did not presume people’s knowledge (of philosophy or his work), didn’t show off or try to belittle people but rather tried to meet them half-way (all in a second language – English). Over lunch I plucked up the courage to ask some (on reflection – naive) questions about how he theorised difference (and différance) that he patiently answered.

It is one of a few, perhaps too-few, occasions that I was shown a way of being a ‘good’ academic AND a good person. It has stuck with me and I have tried my best to emulate that spirit. In my limited experience, this is an ethos also embodied by participants in Ars Industrialis – the activist organisation that Stiegler was important in setting up.

Especially, but not only, in difficult times like the present, it seems to me, we can and should take inspiration from Stiegler’s message of taking care of each other, of ideas and of ‘culture’ and – I think – of hope for a world that can be otherwise.

There are a couple of other memorials of/to Stiegler online from those who actually knew him that are worth reading, linked here:

Yuk Hui – The Wind Rises: In memory of Bernard

Scott Lash – Technics of Memory & Life

Axel Andersson – To Inherent Thinking

Obituary in The Guardian

Everybody hurts – 2nd July

Hold on, hold on, Everybody hurts, No, no… you’re not alone.

Everybody Hurts – R.E.M

In the previous “work note”, 11th of May, I said: “I focus on one aim: help others and myself to avoid climbing the walls.” Easier said than done, sadly. I have seen in others and in myself through our various means of communication a marked increase in frustration and, I think, I detect an upsurge in what is almost euphemistically called “low mood”. Frustration spills out in mediated form: text, emojis, GIFs. Isolation tells, perhaps, in the shape of the tweets seeking affirmation: I have published, I have grant success… I exist.

Identifying an assertion of our presence, of our value, is of course not a novel observation but it does seem particularly accute in the context of the ‘new normal’ during a pandemic. We all scramble at our own private ‘walls’, or attempt to remain on level ground. As Michael Stipe laments – the days and nights can be long, but I hope that when we variously “feel we have had too much of this life” – that we choose to “hold on”.

I recently posted to Twitter that I admire the abilities of those who have been productive at work in the last three months but that I really haven’t. Since the beginning of lockdown I havent written, I havent submitted anything for peer review. I’ve been included in a grant app – but I didn’t do much for it and, to be honest, carry feelings of guilt for that. I went on to observe that, of course, we cannot all be model academics – again, not a novel observation but this was as much to remind myself as anything.

It has become fashionable to confess to a ‘mental health’ issue. I am reticent about this – opening up sometimes feels like it makes others feel better rather than actually helping. It’s good that people try to help and say things like ‘people should feel able to talk about these things’. But there is a sense that, in some respects, we are encouraged to perform our vulnerability, almost as if for consumption. As others have pointed out, we are increasingly enticed to surrender every personal detail to the attention economy. So, perhaps, we should also be permitted to invoke Melville’s Bartleby: “I would prefer not to”. For, even with government and media campaigns, I cannot help feeling that the stigma around mental health remains. And who wants to suffer more than we have to? I am not in any way setting myself up as some sort of expert, I claim no special insight and I am not a fan of public self-pity, so the words that follow are just an attempt to reflect…

I suffer from anxiety and depression. I recognise I am by no means alone – others have written things that have definitely helped me. Since March, like many, I have really struggled at work and at home. The UCU strikes were challenging but at least felt like action, but the COVID pandemic has been disabling for many and I include myself in that group. I have looked after my children and tried not to let my depression swallow me. I have been so lucky to receive the support of lovely colleagues, my family and my local GP practice. I recognise my good fortune, even when the walls loom over and I can feel the depression pulling.

Staying off those ‘walls’ and keeping the depression in abeyance takes effort. I chose to take antidepressants. I recognise they are contentious and not for everyone but they have helped me. I say this only in a sort of attempt to de-stigmatise. Even-so, I also need other strategies too. Perhaps one the best, if improbable, resource I have found for bringing momentary light relief has been TikTok. Prof. David Beer noted in the latest email from his always excellent newsletter that Ofcom figures show a significant increase in adult users of TikTok since the beginning of the pandemic. I can appreciate why.

The snippets of visual communication, of comedy, of ‘memes’, of dance, are, perhaps, a ‘spectacle’ in Debord’s terms – we are in some ways capitalising on our own capabilities – but they are also whimsical and joyous. TikTok trends, for doing silly dances (much harder than they look), physical challenges, tricks on others or simple jokes in visual form can make connections, however fleeting or ephemeral, that bring meaning. When many other platforms, such as Twitter, seem to be almost consumed in rage and ill will; it is a relief to share in the whimsical joy of others.

For me, looking for the positives takes conscious effort when my ‘natural’ inclination is to drift towards seeing things negatively. Mindfulness techniques help me make the effort. As does my family. I think the thing it took me a while to realise is that I cannot always trust what ‘feels normal’. As others have highlighted – Carrie Fisher, who suffered the far more serious illness of bipolar, offered this great insight:

“Imagine having a mood system that functions essentially like weather—independently of whatever’s going on in your life. So the facts of your life remain the same, just the emotion that you’re responding to differs.”

Carrie Fisher in her book Wishful Drinking.

So what? Well, I cannot claim any great insight here. If you are down the closest thing to advice I can give is: find a way to ask for help. If you’re anything like me then that may be pretty hard. But I honestly think it is worth it. Beyond that, I would simply like to suggest that in especially hard, or weird, times like these maybe it is worth trying to act with more empathy. I have been trying to bear in mind the insight Fisher offers when dealing with others – colleagues, fellow parents at the school gate, friends.

Care can be a collective act. But it does not need to be grandiose. It might simply be acknowledging others – showing them that someone is listening, or someone can see them and that they matter. Maybe that is what is so compelling about the whimsical snippets of video on TikTok. Simply watching and laughing and sharing seems to me to be an ‘ordinary’ sort of affirmation. Perhaps we could all benefit from a bit more of that kind of affirmation.

Funded PhD: British Telegraphic work and spaces

A glitched image of a telegraph worker up a telegraph pole

My colleague Richard Noakes, Anne Archer and James Elder at BT Archives and I have a funded PhD position that will commence in September. Please see all of the relevant information below. Please also circulate widely and feel free to get in touch.

The duration of this studentship is 45 months (or part time equivalent) plus additional 3 months for professional development opportunities

Closing Date for applications is Monday 1st June 2020.

Applications are invited for a PhD studentship on British telegraphic work and spaces, 1846-1950 at the University of Exeter in partnership with BT Archives (London).  The studentship is awarded by the Science Museums and Archives Consortium under the AHRC’s Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme.  The project will commence in September 2020 and will be supervised by Prof Richard Noakes and Dr Sam Kinsley at Exeter and Ms Anne Archer and Mr James Elder at BT Archives, with further support from the Science Museum.

This project is a revisionist study of the largely forgotten operators of Britain’s inland telegraph network from the foundation of the first private telegraph companies in 1846, through nationalisation of the service in 1870, to 1950 when the service was in sharp decline owing to competition from telephony.  It plugs a considerable gap in the historiography of British telecommunications – the need for a systematic and detailed understanding of telegraphic work and the spaces within which it was pursued. The project will yield new insights into such key developments as the entry of women into telegraphy and the foundation of telegraphic workers’ unions.  The project involves the study of a wealth of largely unexplored primary source material, the bulk of which is held in BT Archives.  The systematic study of these materials will enable the CDA student to make a highly original contribution to historical scholarship and to help BT Archives in several important ways, including significantly enhancing the detail in its catalogue, producing website content and curating physical exhibitions.  The CDA’s research will also help enhance the Science Museum’s catalogue of telegraphic instruments.

A preliminary survey of BT Archives catalogue reveals an immense amount of material that can support this research.  It holds complete runs of periodicals dedicated to telegraphy and a wealth of unpublished documents relating to such issues as station organisation, employee recruitment, training, health and working conditions, and the experiences of female and male telegraphists. It is possible that the project will also uncover materials revealing the experiences of BAME and other under-represented telegraphists. The richness of the archival material that the student will be exploring means that there is much flexibility within the project for them to build on their own intellectual strengths and follow their own interests.

In addition to the 36 months spent on research, the CDA student will also spend a minimum of 3-6 months on professional development opportunities at BT Archives. How and when this time is used will depend on the student’s interests and goals and this will be agreed with them early in the project.  The time will be used to develop the student’s professional archiving and cataloguing skills.

Further information about the funding scheme and the institutions involved in this project can be found at the following links:

AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership Scheme

BT Archives

Postgraduate Research at the University of Exeter

Science Museum Group Collaborative Doctoral Awards

UKRI research training

For more information about the project and informal enquiries, please contact the primary supervisor, Professor Richard

UK/EU tuition fees and an annual maintenance allowance at current Research Council rate of £15,285 per year.  Award holders will also receive a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership maintenance of £600 per year and a partial London weighting of £1000 per year.  The partner institution, BT Archvies, will also provide the award holder with up to £1000 per year to support travel and other research expenses.

Climbing up the walls – 11th May

Literally millions of words have been exhausted in the ether about the current circumstances of life in the (Global North) world altered by Coronavirus Disease 2019. I hesitate to add any. What can be said? We express our collective and individual despair, hopes, rage and a myriad other responses, more-often-than-not, quickly. We look for ready answers. We look for analogies, metaphors and similies. We attempt to find certainty. Unfortunately, none is forthcoming.

“The search for the means to put an end to things, … is what enables the discourse to continue.”

The Unnamable – Samuel Beckett

Closeted, imperfectly, in a bedroom at a small desk, all of the attempts to concretise, to render things certain, as normatively positive or negative, wash past me on-screen. Mostly it is in the column of the phone screen as I frustratedly monitor a bigger screen and wait for student work to download, or feedback and marks to update. Not-so-quietly I may swear as systems stall, efforts are lost or in vain. The window is a constant distraction, as are the cries of laughter or tears from our children.

A vacilation between distraction and uncertainty seems to be the only rhythm to the time I spend working. I mark, I check the news. I mark, I check social media. I attend a ‘meeting’, my children shout. I reply to emails, the doorbell rings for yet another delivery. The negotiation of new norms of communication draws on pre-existing expectations but there are, as Nancy Baym has noted, moments of jarring difference when moving between contexts. We remain uncertain. For example: faces are (sometimes surprisingly) hidden or visible. I sometimes don’t know what is ‘polite’.

There are, of course, bigger uncertainties. Our governments appear not to agree on what is for the best. Universities do not know where the money will come from, if students will return, how that could happen safely, or when any of this might be possible. The rhetoric of the UK Prime Minister’s speech to the nation on Sunday 10th May was imbued with this conditional uncertainty. There was a striking repetition of the word “if“. It was perhaps an attempt to borrow the formal logic exemplified in the controlled uncertainty of the conditional statements we see in programming languages “if — then — (else —)”. Nevertheless, I confess, I remain uncertain even about that.

Holding several competing, perhaps mutually exclusive, possible eventualities at once in our minds appears to be what is asked of us. If the rate of transmission drops below the desired threshold and if we can track and trace infections then some things are said to be possible — more shops might open, children might return to schools. Some semblance of certainty to the risk is attempted through a ‘COVID Alert Level’ of 1-5. Lending the certainty of an integer value to a largely unseen risk. The visualisation of that level employs colour, attempting to convey threat through the perceptual cues of the colour spectrum – just as Brian Massumi diagnosed in relation to the even more abstract Terror Alert System of the Bush Administration.

It is all too easy to slip into another form of certainty, though – the certainty of critique. The temptation is to point the finger, to judge. To highlight the failings or mis-steps of a government, institution, or official is relatively easy. To say what is ‘wrong’ is relatively easy. The challenge for us all, whether we remain in work at a care home, hospital or supermarket, whether we are in our makeshift home offices, or whether we are in government, is to collectively find what is ‘right’. I do not flatter myself to think that I can help guide national policy, that is for others far more capable. Nevertheless, we all need both in conversations ‘at work’, in our homes and with those we rely upon or who rely upon us to negotiate what is ‘right’ in how we behave now. How much should parents and teachers expect of our children, or ourselves, when ‘home schooling’? How much should employers and colleagues expect of us as we navigate different WFH contexts? These negotiations appear to be really demanding, exhausting even.

A further conditional uncertainty: If we can negotiate our differing expectations, if we can find a way through the ongoing difficulties of ‘social distancing’, if the measures work to restrain ‘the virus’, then… what? Like many people I find it hard to imagine ‘what next’. Can we ‘return to normal’? What does that mean? Is life on campus now irrevocably changed? Should we expect the ‘online pivot’ to be a part of the ‘new normal’? I suspect that, for all the speculation and argument offered out there, what eventually comes about will be more ramshackle and less catastrophic than some might expect. This ongoing uncertainty, even as we (hopefully) pass the milestones to leave ‘lockdown’, seems like a challenge that will remain a part of working life for some time to come.

Like it or loathe it, this is perhaps the condition of life represented by ‘the anthropocene‘ – the abstract, multifaceted threat of profound if partially unknowable but wholly undesirable change. The experience of the, perhaps naïve – often privileged, pontificators like myself may simply bring us to realisation that nobody is immune from complex and uncertain changes. This is what is meant by that near-catchphrase of ‘an interconnected world’, this is what that can feel like.

There are no easy answers. That is my only realisation from this. Not profound but fairly solid, in the face of stultifying uncertainty. We can vomit words onto our digital platforms, as I am doing here, but they are unlikely to provide more than momentary solace. As a sufferer from anxiety for all of my adult life the feelings brought about are familiar if unwelcome. So I focus on one aim: help others and myself to avoid climbing the walls.

Climbing up the walls – Radiohead

More than their share. 27th February.

A glitched image of Oxbridge dons processing

As a member of the UCU I have been on strike a frightening amount this year. During the strike action, a colleague sent a tweet pointing out that much of the dispute we have with the employers’ organisations around fair and equal pay and precarity is figured in terms of ‘management’ being in dispute with ‘management’ but that many senior academics are involved in the recruitment of early career staff, from who’s precarious labour they then benefit. 

To elaborate: the rhetoric of the dispute could be understood as figuring ‘management’ as a ‘them’ and the unified mass of ‘workers’ as ‘us’. However, I am inclined to agree with my colleague that things are rarely that simple.

Responsibility for early career academics’ precarious contracts and the often-unfair nature of remuneration for anyone in a university that is not white and male is shared. 

Responsibility is shared by those of us that bring in grant income and attach PhD studentships or research assistant positions to them.

Responsibility is shared by those of us that request post-graduate teaching assistance.

Responsibility is shared by those of us that benefit from any kind of teaching ‘buy out’ or relief that comes from temporarily employed staff. 

No doubt (given my far-from-comprehensive experience), I have failed to identify other ways in which that responsibility might be shared.

Responsibility is shared then, but the ability to effect change in relation to that responsibility is a little less clear. The forms of ethical reasoning we might variously make in relation to how our responsibility works are difficult.

I want to work through a couple of the cases I identify above. The responsibility for the precarious working conditions and (potentially) unfair remuneration and/or workload of an early career researcher (ECR) is shared by the principle investigator (PI), the employing institution (departmental management, HR and others) and the funder. 

If a senior academic wants to do some research the cost of buying themselves out is very high, the cost of employing a junior colleague is less. The PI wants the research to be done, they may feel it would also be valuable experience for an ECR. A series of compromises ensue, hence the difficult ethical reasoning.

A prospective PI pulls together an application. They identify the work they want to do. Then, they look at the funder’s requirements and try to translate the ideal into the ‘fundable’. The funder might: only fund for a particular length of time; only cover some of the costs (e.g. pay = yes, expenses = no); have specific requirements about expertise; and other things I cannot think of.

So, the PI compromises. They want to do the research, but due to budget constraints and funder requirements they can only employ a research assistant part-time. They submit the grant with a part-time post because may believe an ECR will also compromise for ‘experience’, that there’s other valuable things they’ll get as a result, or because they hope to ‘top up’ the post with other funding.

Who bears responsibility? The PI seems to be making the active decisions here. Nevertheless, they are compromising because they face constraints. The funder will not pay enough, or for long enough, perhaps. The institution has increased its ‘overheads’ which increases the cost of employing someone. For a specific grant application, the PI has to decide how to negotiate their constraints to arrive at a ‘fundable’ project that (in the terms of this discussion) is also ‘fair’.

For research conducted in a particular university, the institution has to decide what research is ‘worth’ – do they want to invest in researchers, to develop the careers of all of those involved in any given project? Do they want to make the opportunity to do research open and equal? Do they want to support the administration and management of research-related people and resources? And as a result they will compromise. Sadly, the compromises that have been taken have become increasingly torturous. A PI is responsible for more and more complex administrative work, which may once have been done for them.

For a research funder, like the UK research councils, the political weather dictates the money available and the priorities. That politics can be unsavoury. Do they fund everything equally? Or focus resources on perceived priorities? Do they fund comprehensively or exclude some costs?

In the UK, the pot of money for research has diminished significantly in recent years. That pot is also largely prioritised. If an academic does research in a priority area they are, perhaps, lucky. Those that don’t work in such areas get weaker and weaker gruel. 

In the social sciences in the UK there is a growing pool of applicants, more grant applications being submitted and the success rate has plateaued somewhere around 13% for the ESRC. So, all things being equal (which they’re decidedly not), you need to submit over seven applications to see one succeed. 

I have seen estimates that a grant often takes up a month’s worth of work time to prepare (if the PI spent 100% of their time on the application for a month), so seven applications would be a huge investment of time and the resources and salary to which that equates.

Why bother? Well, the PI wants to do the research for a number of reasons. It is why we get into academia – (in overly-simplistic terms) to find things out. Many of us want to contribute to our understanding of the world around us, to contribute to the debates we find stimulating. Careers are also, sadly, pegged against grant income success. When I began my first ‘permanent’ position as a lecturer I had an income target set. Fortunately, it was not enforced and later was removed.

As you become more experienced and/or successful as a PI, it seems to me, you solidify a reputation and grant success breeds further successes. Research funders like to back ‘safe’ bets. We have arrived not at a meritocratic system of peer-reviewed excellence but at a recapitulation of a feudal system of ‘science’ (taken in its broadest sense) that would be familiar to 18th and 19th century academics. Careers are often contingent upon the decisions of powerful (whether they like it/recognise it or not) professors with grant success. Being written into a grant as a named researcher or co-investigator makes a career. Being alienated or ignored can break one.

Sadly, I do not have an upbeat conclusion here. None of this is sustainable. Especially when government steadily withdraws support and imposes metrics that encourage institutional behaviour that damages ordinary staff. We are already in a feudal system that exacerbates the worst kinds of workplace behaviour. This is a systematic issue more than anything. Individual (successful) professors can choose to exercise their power (such as it is) benevolently but (it seems to me) they cannot alter the system.

Faced with these issues it is incumbent upon all of us inside the system to find a way through – I suggest this involves collaborating a lot more, it involves acting in solidarity and with compassion. This may prove difficult for those of us who found our way into academia because it permits the ‘lone wolf’ worker autonomy rarely found anywhere else. Working cultures need to be rethought, collectively, with care.

Take care of yourselves and those around you, regardless of how it appears – we are in this mess together. If you are up the ladder, do not pull the ladder up – pull others up after you.

More than their share – Dolly Parton

Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space Spring Academy – PGR/ECR opportunity

dystopian city

The IRS Spring Academies are a fantastic opportunity for anyone with an interest in the theme and in an early career position (postgraduate or post-doctoral researchers).

Investigating Space(s): Current Theoretical and Methodological Approaches: Part 4 – Spaces of Crisis

26 – 29 May 2020        
Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space (IRS) in Erkner, near Berlin

The IRS Spring Academy is a yearly format similar to a PhD summer school but, as the name suggests, taking place in spring. It is an international and interdisciplinary format that provides spots for 25 participants, typically doctoral students but also post-doctoral researchers in the early phase of their careers. The overarching aim of the IRS Spring Academy is to support qualification projects which seek to explore the spatial dimension of societally relevant topics. In particular we seek to stimulate debates at the intersections of disciplines and seek to promote academics who wish to conduct research with a spatial perspective. The IRS Spring Academy is dedicated to stimulate conceptual debates around a spatial perspective and to support new methodological knowledge that is required to conduct the related empirical investigations. Moreover, the IRS Spring Academy is a brokerage event that supports participants to build up personal networks and it provides feedback from acknowledged seniors for researchers at the early stage of their careers. 

Each IRS Spring Academy will take four intensive days of collaboration, discussion and exchange. The program combines different elements and thereby offers plenty of opportunities to debate conceptual issues and methodological challenges as well as to engage in a critical, yet constructive and supportive dialogue.

This year’s fourth IRS Spring Academy titled “Investigating Space(s): Current Theoretical and Methodological Approaches: Part 4 – Spaces of Crisis” is supported by the Leibniz Research Alliance “Crises in a Globalised World”.

The German Red Crosswill act as a local cooperation partner in 2020.

Part 4 on “Spaces of Crisis”

There is little doubt. We live in times of crisis. Core functions of democratic societies, like the financial system, democratic institutions, the free press or human-nature relationships are under severe pressure. Global problems, like increasing social inequality and mass migration tend to escalate while those political institutions that have been built up to deal with international emergencies, like the UN and WTO, experience a loss of legitimacy and funding. As a consequence, more and more political and economic decisions are made under conditions of high uncertainty and great pressure. In other words, they are made in crisis.

In the social sciences, crisis has not yet been used as a properly defined scientific term. Rather, most typically it is used as a signifier of relevance in cases, in which “problem” is no longer sufficient to express the severity of the perceived deficiency or the felt urgency to act. In crisis management, a rather recent and strongly practice-oriented knowledge domain, crisis is defined as followings: It denotes escalating threatening situations, in which actors feel an increased pressure to act under conditions of fundamental uncertainty. Crises erupt surprisingly and once the dynamics are in place, they unfold in an unpredictable manner. Crisis is a highly ambivalent notion. It marks a turning point for better or worse. 

The term crisis is full of temporal implications. It suggests a certain dramaturgy of abruptness, urgency and surprise. In hindsight, the course of events is often arranged around the acute crisis. Crisis mangers differentiate between pre-crisis (or: the ‘primordial phase’), the acute crisis and the post-crisis. The first phase is about preparation for crisis but most often also about ignored warning signals. The acute phase is about crisis management and techniques to regain control. The latter phase is about reflecting the course of events and learning from crisis. Up until recently, the spatial dimension of crisis, however, has been neglected, despite the fact that in an era of increasing global inter-dependencies, crises have become more “trans-boundary”.

Against this background, the 4th IRS Spring Academy has the following aims:

To come to a theoretically ambitious understanding of crisis, highlighting in particular…

 the enhanced relevance of uncertainty and non-knowledge, 

 the mechanisms behind the dynamics of crisis,

 the relationship between crisis and normal, 

 the particularities of decisions made under conditions of crisis,

 the transformative potentials of crisis and

 the often implicit assumptions that underlie the idea of crisis.

To explore the temporal and spatial dimensions of crisis and their connections. Of particular interest are

  • tipping points, in which crises emerge or calm down, 
  • ways of thinking about the future in situations that lack orientation,
  • the transgression of territorial borders and the embeddedness in multi-level systems and
  • how crises affect and connect different places.

To collect empirical knowledge about crises in different sectors and domains in order to

  • explore the possibilities to compare crises and to
  • discover additional aspects of crisis.

Discuss methodological challenges and strategies. Of particular relevance are

  • ethical concerns of doing research with threatened actors and organizations,
  • access to highly confidential information and 
  • the challenges of dealing with multiple perspectives and with ex-post accounts.


The overarching goal of the IRS Spring Academy is to enable junior researchers from the social sciences to identify relevant research gaps, to encourage them to use a spatial perspective in their analyses and to learn from leading experts in the field about theoretical approaches and innovative methods for empirical work. Participants will have the opportunity to present their projects in paper pitch formats and to access leading experts for one-on-one consultancies. We therefore cordially invite doctoral and early postdoctoral researchers in the social sciences, geography and history to join us for an interesting program to discuss their own research with internationally leading scholars and their peers. 

The IRS Spring Academy combines well-tried and proven formats such as lectures and seminars with less common formats such as doing-research workshops, paper pitches, or academic speed networking. It offers various possibilities to exchange ideas, to discuss current concepts and methodological approaches, as well as to getting feedback on one’s own research projects from leading scholars in the field.

:: download Call for Applications – the call closes on 28 February 2020


In order to foster in-depth discussions and reflection as well as extensive opportunities for establishing and consolidating networks, both among each other and with leading international scholars, a maximum of 25 participants will be admitted to the IRS Spring Academy. 

Thanks to funding by the Leibniz Research Alliance “Crises in a Globalised World” we do not charge any tuition fees. Meals, snacks and drinks during the event are included, as well as one evening reception and one dinner.

Participants are required to organize accommodation and make travel arrangements themselves and to cover these expenses.

For applicants who a) cannot receive any funding from home institutions and b) travel and accommodation costs would prevent participation, may receive a scholarship. 3.500 Euro are reserved for participants in need. These scholarships will be divided between selected candidates and shall contribute to compensate for travel and accommodation costs. 

If you wish to apply for a scholarship, please briefly explain your situation and indicate the amount that would make your participation possible.

Keynote Speakers

 Prof. Dr. Dennis Dijkzeul | Ruhr-Universität Bochum

 Prof. Dr. Jörg Sydow | Freie Universität, Berlin 


Prof. Dr. Olivier Berthod | Jacobs University Bremen
Dr. Natascha Bing | German Red Cross
Jun.-Prof. Dr. Verena Brinks | Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
Dr. Sarah Marie Hall | University of Manchester
Prof. Dr. Oliver Ibert | Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space
Dr. Thorsten Klose-Zuber | German Red Cross

Oliver Ibert

Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Spacer (IRS), Flakenstraße 29-31, 15537 Erkner
Deutsches Rotes Kreuz e. V., DRK-Generalsekretariat, Carstennstraße 58, 12205 Berlin