In April 2014 Rachael Alexander was elected as the Postgraduate Representative for the British Association for American Studies. One month later Michelle Green spoke to her about her manifesto, what she thinks are the biggest challenges facing postgraduate students at the moment, and how we can all help.[starbox]
Welcome to your new role as the BAAS postgraduate representative! How have you found it so far?
Thank you! It’s been a bit of a whirlwind since the elections at the annual BAAS conference. The BAAS members and postgraduates have been incredibly welcoming though and I’m looking forward to an increased involvement with the association and the wider ACS community.
What can the American and Canadian Studies community expect from you in your first term as the Postgraduate Representative?
In my first term I hope to continue Jonathan Ward’s wonderful work in growing the postgraduate community and making it more accessible, through social media such as the @baas_pgs twitter. I am also assisting the organising committee of the upcoming BAAS PG conference, based at the University of Sussex. We hope to deliver an event of the same excellent standard as the previous BAAS postgraduate conferences. While this will certainly be a challenge, given the success of previous events, it is a welcome and exciting one. More generally, I will be attending committee meetings and ensuring the postgraduate concerns and issues are represented.
Can you give us a peek at your manifesto?
The role of Postgraduate Representative has changed considerably, now that we have Zalfa as Early Career Representative and you and Ben as Co-Editors of U.S. Studies Online. As such, I don’t yet have a concrete manifesto. Rather, I intend to develop one—which addresses specific concerns of the postgraduate community—through working closely with you, Zalfa and Ben. In the most general sense, I aim to encourage more postgraduates to join the BAAS community, offer support to those currently involved with BAAS and continue the excellent work of the previous postgraduate representatives and postgraduate conferences.
How can the ACS community support you in your aims?
By getting in touch! I’m really keen for postgraduates to be able to contact me with any issues, concerns, or suggestions which they feel are important. One of the things I was most struck by at my first BAAS conference was the strong sense of community, especially amongst postgraduates. I feel this sense of community is vital to the organisation, and is something I would like to strongly encourage.
At USSO we certainly agree! Digital spaces have been great for this, like twitter lists, hashtags and facebook groups (IAAS have a particularly brilliant facebook group, for instance). Do you think more could be done for the BAAS postgraduate community in this regard? Do you have any ideas for us at USSO? (We have recently created the 60 seconds interview to network-build but we welcome other pointers!)
I think, in terms of the digital infrastructure, the work that has been done is tremendous. I believe the best move forward now is to encourage postgraduates to get involved and make use of these resources, to connect with other postgraduates and contribute to the online space. Networking with other students can be quite daunting, especially for new postgraduates. Ideas such as the 60 seconds interviews make it less so. I’ve found that meeting and getting to know other postgraduates to be one of the most reassuring aspects of the postgraduate community. Anything that boosts engagement with other students is unquestionably constructive. The work being done with the USSO space at the moment is terrific, and I’m not sure I have all that much to add! But, if I have any moments of inspiration I’ll certainly let you know.
What would you say is the biggest challenge facing postgraduates at the moment?
As frequently documented, especially by newspapers such as The Guardian, there are numerous challenges faced by postgraduates. The primary concerns of most postgraduates—at least the ones I have spoken to—seem to stem from the prospect of finding a job after completion of their doctoral studies. The expectations of academic employers appear to be far greater for postgraduates now than they have been in the past. As a result, I would say that getting published in (what are considered) the ‘right’ journals is perhaps the biggest and most common challenge facing postgraduates currently.
Yes, I have recently drawn attention to this issue by reposting Professor Eleanor Dickey’s study on low morale and the so-called market “over supply” of PGRs and ECRs. Is this something you will be trying to tackle in your new role?
I think trying is the operative word there. As Professor Dickey’s study illustrates, there is evidently no easy, quick or painless way to tackle this challenge. However, I think that more readily available information and advice for postgraduates would be highly beneficial. At times it can seem like academia is full of secrets, particularly with regards to job prospects and possible career trajectories. There are existing sources of information on this issue—supervisory advice, conference workshops, training sessions provided by institutions—but I feel we can do more. This is certainly something I’ll be looking into.
Now, time to find out a little bit more about you! Was it a deliberate decision to work with BAAS when you yourself work in Canadian Studies? Do you think this gives you any advantages?
My own research focuses on a comparative study of American and Canadian mass-market magazines, so I really work both between and in American and Canadian Studies. However, if I did work exclusively in Canadian Studies I would still be involved in BAAS. The network provided by the organisation is wide and varied, and can be of significant benefit to anyone involved in North American Studies. I have found the feedback from BAAS conferences, the connections I have made, and even the informal conversations to be of great benefit to my own research. I also have links to other organisations (such as the British Association of Canadian Studies) and I think the main advantage of my research crossing the border is that it allows me to participate in a variety of conferences and research networks; with different emphases and interesting points of intersection.
In the past regional centres for American Studies have emerged for postgraduates who are unable to attend ACS events in the south, or London, where a lot of events are often held (such as the fantastic RCAS North West). Is this something that you have experienced living in Scotland? Do you have any advice for postgraduates who may not live within easy access of ACS events?
Absolutely! I have been to events run by the Scottish Association of the Study of the Americas, which have been very successful. I am firmly of the opinion that regional centres for American Studies offer great opportunities for postgraduate engagement. It can be very difficult to find both the time, and indeed the money, to travel to many events. Events and conferences which are closer to home for postgraduates can offer a way of increasing or maintaining engagement with the discipline and community as a whole. Indeed, these regional centres are not completely separate entities, rather they are an integral part of the wider community. My advice to postgraduates who are struggling to attend ACS events is: find out if there are any regional events nearby, always ask if there is any funding available for travel or other costs, and engage as much as possible with the wider community.
With more and more postgraduates organizing and attending conferences, what, in your opinion, makes for a great event?
I’ve been to numerous postgraduate events, and many (such as the most recent BAAS/IAAS Postgraduate conference “Homeward Bound” at the University of Nottingham) have been outstanding. For me, there are numerous elements which contribute to a great event. Perhaps most importantly are well-structured programmes, with panels which are thoughtfully assembled with the intention of inspiring interesting discussion. This can be one of the most difficult aspects of conference planning, given the diverse range of research interests, but the results warrant the effort. Supportive and engaging organisers also, without fail, elevate conferences. The best events I have been to have always had a team who were thoroughly invested in the conference and its success. And of course, lots of coffee and wine always aids the success of any event!