It was 13 years ago today that, at the age of 33, I started my first ‘proper job’. You know when you gear yourself up for a new start at something, new pencil case, new shoes. I had that feeling. I knew the institution already. I’d just finished my PhD there and had been doing some hourly paid teaching for a few years. Arriving that day, with a new purpose and upgraded contract, I wandered around, not sure what to do with myself. There was no induction. I think I was supposed to know what to do. I didn’t. I felt lost. I went for lunch with Lorraine Lim, who was starting the same day and who became a close ally, friend, and partner in crime. And then I went home.
Eventually, with the help of colleagues like Lorraine, I found my feet. Over the years, I felt held and supported by some amazing colleagues to develop and grow as a practice-based researcher, finding a way to not lose my practice but find a place for it as research. I developed modules, taught and supported students, became a PhD supervisor, co-developed Corkscrew for other practice-based researchers, was an active union member and even managed to get promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2021. I had become a fully-fledged academic. A full-time salary meant I could travel the world, get a mortgage and get paid maternity and sick leave.
This summer, I left that job.
At the start and end of my relationship with the institution, I felt I didn’t really belong there, like an ‘accidental academic’. These are complicated emotions. Starting the job I had a PhD, teaching experience, ten years of practice as an artist, curator and evaluator. Leaving the job, I feel fortunate to have had the experience of shapeshifting into a researcher (or so-called ‘pracademic‘), but I also feel exhausted by it. Academia nourished me on the one hand, and hollowed me out on the other. I think this has something to do with how I/we relate to and interact with institutions – dependent yet suspicious.
I have learnt so much in my uncomfortable shoes as an academic. I’m now going barefoot for a while. I’m not sure where this will take me (more Manual Labours, COTT, MIAAW and Corkscrew adventures I hope). I should probably be trying to get another job in academia (I have tried), but I also need some time to catch my breath. Put the slow movement I much admire into practice. Allow for some ‘molecular readjustment’. This is difficult when I feel angry, a lot of time, about what has happened (and er, hello peri-menopause), and also the pressing practical matter of needing to earn a living!
‘Holding’ spaces is coming up a lot (again) in things I’m writing and thinking about lately. During my 3 week hospitalisation in December last year I felt the significance of what this really meant. It is important to feel held when you can’t hold yourself up. This is down to individuals (friends, family, carers) but also institutions. The care and love I received from friends, family and nurses was essential to my recovery. I also relied on the institution – the NHS kicked into action, the professionals rallied around, and diagnosed and administered the drugs I needed in record time. Obviously, the structures and infrastructures of the NHS are fraught with problems, but when the shit hit the fan, I was looked after. I’m not sure the NHS prioritises the same level of care for their staff.
I have certainly felt held by my friends at work. We have been trying to hold each other up for some time. But this is difficult, and exhausting when an institution cannot find a way to hold (onto) us all. I’m leaving the institution but feel deeply connected to the friends I’ve met, held and been held by, en route.
Here’s to all the others whose academic lives are cut short. I feel fortunate I have the potential to see what happens next.
Undoubtably it will involve a new website, and maybe some new shoes, eventually.