In April 2013 Zalfa Feghali was elected Early Career Representative for the British Association for American Studies. At the end of her term she joined U.S. Studies Online co-editor Michelle Green to discuss her time in the post, why she lobbied for this position in the BAAS exec, and where her successor can go from here.
Elections will be held for the Early Career Representative post at the annual BAAS conference taking place at the University of Northumbria between Thursday April 9th and Sunday April 12th 2015. Scroll to the bottom of this post to find out how you can apply for the position.
Come April, you will be leaving your role as the Early Career Representative for BAAS. What have you been most proud of in your term in the position?
Oh gosh – I don’t know that I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to at all. The idea of the post was to create an ECR counterpart to the postgraduate representative on the executive committee, to more accurately reflect the realities of American Studies graduates. A lot of my term has involved trying to figure out how BAAS can best support ECRs, and this has been tricky, because ECR events tend to get folded into either postgraduate events or events not specific to career stage. I think USSO has been a great example of how well BAAS can reach out to ECRs, but there’s still a lot of work to be done – work that other associations and societies are doing really well, incidentally – and I’ll look forward to seeing what my successor does.
It’s heartening to hear that other networks are also taking steps to represent ECRs. Can you say a little bit more about how these other associations and societies are supporting and representing ECRs?
Well, HOTCUS, for example, runs skills workshops that work for both postgraduates and early career researchers. The ASA runs ECR-specific book and essay prizes, and so do smaller societies like the Society for the Study of Southern Literatures (SSSL). These are all helpful in building a community of ECRs.
If my memory is correct the ECR representative position was created following discussions between yourself and the BAAS executive committee. Can you share your reasons for driving the creation of this role?
Yeah, it was something that I’d spoken about initially with Michael Collins, who was PG Representative before me, at some length as well. We felt (and people seemed to agree) that while the existence of a postgraduate representative was really important, early career researchers seemed to get left by the wayside in terms of representation on the Exec. It isn’t as easy as all that to suddenly “not” be a postgraduate anymore, and we hoped to be able to bridge the gap.
On that topic, in your 60 seconds interview you said “ECR is often understood to be shorthand for unemployed academic” which is “(obviously) rubbish”. Who does the Early Career Representative represent in your opinion?
Anyone who identifies with the reality of being an early career researcher, really. My comment was rooted in the idea that ECR has come to mean “unemployed” or “teaching donkey” which really flattens out the varied experiences that ECRs have that really don’t match up to the postgraduate reality or the more established academic’s experience. It’s a pity, because ECRs tend to be some of the most energetic, motivated, and driven academics I know. Everyone is either on their way to being an ECR, or remembers what it was like at the start of their career.
What would you say is the biggest challenge facing Early Career Researchers at the moment?
Oh gosh – other than finding a job? Probably getting the support necessary to jump from being a postgraduate (which has its own challenges) to suddenly being responsible for your own research, sans supervisory guidance and often without a mentor at all. There seem to be secret, magical skills involved in no longer being a postgraduate, like somehow knowing how to write a book proposal (ask someone who’s been successful in writing one for a draft of theirs), like even writing a really strong cover letter for a job application (ditto), or like talking about your new research project without feeling like an idiot (I got nothing, sorry). And so the challenge is getting on in this new secret, magical world. I think one answer here is having a mentor: someone who can tell you that yes, you should negotiate for teaching remission, or a higher hourly rate for sessional work, or this is how to email someone and get what you want from them while still being polite and human, or here, this is how to get on with writing this funding bid, and so on.
Yes, it certainly seems that mentoring is vital to making the jump from the PhD to the next step, whatever that may be. Do you have any tips on how to build and develop mentoring relationships?
I’ve been really lucky that my supervisors, my PhD examiners, and other more senior academics I worked with over the course of my postgraduate work continue to be interested in what I’m doing. Essentially, the key for me has been to stay in touch with people whose work I admire and who have advised and supported me in the past. Don’t just get back in touch with people when you want a reference. And then there are amazing people we meet at conferences, who, in my experience, have always responded positively when I’ve asked if I can email them about one thing or another. Maintaining existing relationships is key, and being human and asking for help or advice from people we meet in other contexts is useful as well.
BAAS has a great track record with fostering community spirit within the postgraduate contingent of American Studies in the UK through the annual postgraduate BAAS conference and U.S. Studies Online, but how do you think ECRs could be better supported through events?
Yes, absolutely! Like I said, there is so much more we need to be doing for ECRs. We can take our lead from other associations, like HOTCUS, for example. There are links to be forged with schools, with other associations, and with institutions (academic and otherwise) that I think ECRs could benefit from.
Lastly, do you have any final words of wisdom for your successor or the ECR community as a whole?
None at all, except maybe make good habits early, or better, break bad habits early. I’m trying to learn that literally nothing bad will happen if I don’t obsessively check my email at home, or late at night, or on the weekend, or on the train to somewhere (full disclosure: I still haven’t broken this habit, but I’m trying). Like many of us, I find myself in my dream career, doing research I love, teaching modules I got to create from scratch, and meeting great people. We’re no good at the things we love if we’re exhausted, emotionally drained, or sick, but we’re even better at the things we love when we’re happy and rested. Of course I can say this because I’ve finished my marking for the term. But I still think I’m right!
Thanks for joining us Zalfa!
Several vacancies are coming up on the BAAS executive committee in April and these represent a great opportunity to become more involved with the American Studies community in the UK and a whole range of education and research related activities. At the AGM this year, elections will be held for the post of Treasurer, for three positions on the Committee (three-year terms), and for one Early Career Representative (a two year term). Nomination forms should reach the Secretary, Jenny Terry, by 12.00 noon on Friday 10 April 2015. Further details and the forms can be found here: http://www.baas.ac.uk/baas-elections-2015/
The BAAS constitution stipulates ‘candidates for early career representative must have an institutional affiliation and be working on any aspect of American Studies. To be eligible candidates must be within three years of successfully completing their PhD and must be members of BAAS. Former BAAS postgraduate representatives are eligible for election, but all candidates must have submitted the final post-viva version of their PhD at least two weeks before the BAAS AGM in order to stand.’ For further information about roles contact Jenny Terry via the weblink above.