Young Academics

Do a Google image search for “Oxford don.” You might see a couple of pictures way off topic, like a guy holding some sort of massive crab. But mostly you get images of old withered men, posing by book shelves, or with their heads weighed down by mortar boards or impressive, Curzon-esque facial hair. No doubt this is what many people imagine when they think of the academic, of the gowned intellectual. But our own experience of tutors and lecturers will (for the most part) largely have already informed us this is nowhere near the whole story.

In fact, Oxford and other universities are increasingly using younger tutors, men and women who are joining academia, some of them only a few years away from their own undergraduate study. But who are they? Why have they chosen to devote their working life to the pursuit of knowledge in a culture that will force them to justify who they are and what they do at every turn?

In order to find out, arrange to meet two English tutors, Ben Burton and Lizzie Scott-Baumann, who have taught me during my studies. Lizzie offers me a coffee and explains that, as she is currently using her cafetiere as a vase (for a rather sunny spread of flowers), I probably want to stir well and don’t want to drink the last glob of residue-enriched liquid.

Ben and Lizzie do much of their research and some of their teaching together, having been good friends since their own undergraduate days at Teddy Hall. “It’s unusual in Oxford.” Lizzie explains. “but it’s more usual elsewhere, team teaching’s the norm at some other universities.”

“I think having gone through the stress of undergraduate study together,” Ben adds, “which can be very competitive, we were well prepared to work together and understand how each other thought.”

So why did they both want to go into academia? Lizzie explains how she tried some other things and found she got more of what she enjoyed in academia. “For me,” says Ben, “it was simply intellectual curiosity. There was no point at which I thought ‘Now I am an academia’. I just always wanted to learn more.”

Ben and Lizzie talk very well together, one filling in as soon as the other stops, developing an argument together as they go. When I ask them if they consider their work socially valuable, for example, Ben tells me that “It encourages people to debate about their cultural heritage and its meaning. I think that’s important. When I doubt it I think to myself about what it would be like to stop that – to think, you know, “those things are decided now””

Lizzie agrees: “What I would add is that we’re also trying to work out why literature has social importance, why it’s meant so much to so many societies.”

When I talk to academics in other faculties they give similar answers. “There’s definitely not enough value given to academia”, says Hubert Bastide, who is currently doing a PhD in anthropology at St Cross College. “Something I really like about the English system is that you can study whatever you’re good at – whatever you want – and then apply that to whatever you do then. But now you’ll study just to get a job. If you start thinking only for a purpose, you stop thinking

“And I’ve seen people lose their jobs already. Especially in research. I have a friend who lost their job just recently. When it got to Christmas they were just like ‘that’s it, you have no job.’”

Hubert is originally from France and studied two undergraduate degrees at the same time, one in law and the other in history of art and anthropology. He is the most confident of all my interviewees, a smooth talker, who just got married before Christmas. When we meet in the soft furnishings of the St Cross common room, he pours me a lukewarm coffee, which sustains little of its meagre heat throughout our interview.

When he thought of academia as a career, Hubert explains, “there were some law professors who taught us who were very charismatic. I liked the ways they were thinking about things and I liked the lifestyle they seemed to project.

“And there was this thing, you know, ‘it’s not a real job, being an academic isn’t a real job.’ And not many people make it in academia. But I thought, I’ve had a real job, I’ve proven that I can do that – now I want to do this.”

He tells me that when he thought of anthropology in particular “There was this romantic notion of travelling the world and writing everything down in your khakis, you know, like Peter O’Toole style.”

Yet as much as he jokes it is clear that Hubert cares a lot about what he does. He is particularly concerned about the rise in tuition fees: “the more people pay, the people want the guarantee [of financial outcome]. They want applied knowledge rather than just knowledge.” When I ask what the larger implications of this are, his answer comes quickly. He has evidently given this some thought already:

“Academia is only responding to a societal aspiration. Our aspiration is toward more efficiency, more toward applied research. But in the long run this type of aspiration is going to exhaust societies. The UK attracts a lot of people because it’s grounded in a culture of knowledge, which is not operating just for immediate gain. And as soon as you’re not doing that any more, you’re stopping this movement that kept it going for hundreds of years. In the long run you impoverish it.”

If you think Hubert sounds passionate, just wait until you hear an oceanographer discuss fluid dynamics. I did just this when I met my last interviewee, the post-doc researcher David Munday. It was exactly this “that really got me hooked.

“It was a really simple problem that caught my attention.” The problem in question involves “a cylinder” interrupting the movement of liquid in a “uniform flow”. I don’t catch even the basic detail, but David’s explanation involves plenty of actions and hand gestures. “It’s actually quite a simple problem” he concludes.

He explains that as an undergraduate in Southampton he had little thought of academic research, but then looking in New Scientist’s job listings (“They all seemed to want biologists for some reason.”), he spotted “this tiny little advert in the bottom corner of the page” for a masters course at Reading, which eventually landed him a post-doctoral position in Oxford. “I’m starting to verge on being the perpetual post-doc. I’m on my third now.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when I ask David if his subject is socially valuable, his examples are more abundant and more quantifiable than those of Ben, Lizzie or Hubert. “The constant thing we’re talking about here, and relating a lot of our work to, is climate change. And that’s big thing for society. The socio-economic impact is already huge. I mean the hole in the ozone layer is already causing problems, it’s already giving increased instances of skin cancer in places like South America. And that’s just one fairly small example. If you think of this country, we have large populations near the coast – I think they do in most countries. That’s probably the biggest impact.” He also tells me about the relationship of his work to weather forecasting (they’re always talking about that at Reading apparently) and the diversity of the department here in Oxford: “there are people building satellites for example, that didn’t happen at Reading.”

So does David think it’s fair that government funding should focus so heavily on the sciences?

“As an oceanographer of course I’m going to say it is fair. But personally… I mean you only have to walk in to the Ashmolean to see the effect that arts have had on people. They have my favourite painting in there, they have a kind of miniature of it. And I walked in there the other day and saw it and just stopped. And I was like ‘wow’. I mean I’ve never had a graph put up of one of my results and had a non-specialist just stop and think ‘that’s amazing’.”

So, our young academics: smart, enthusiastic and unable to make a decent cup of coffee between them. Yet, their futures aren’t as secure as one might think. All four of my interviewees mention the increasing difficulty of finding a permanent position in their profession. “There’ll be a lot more people than there will be jobs.” David reflects. “The danger is that the people who could have come with new ideas aren’t there in the future.”

Or as Hubert puts it, with a smile that implies humility rather than amusement: “It’s quite bleak at the moment really.”

But for now, they are young and relatively hopeful. When I ask Ben and Lizzie if they’re still mistaken for students in their faculties, Lizzie tells me that she wishes it still happened. Although, this is a change, it seems, from the recent past. “I do have a good little anecdote if you want one for your feature” says Ben as he explains how he was “apprehended” at work by a ported who’d heard reports of “a hooded youth on the site.”

Hubert relates a similar story with far greater indignation: “Actually the last time it happened was earlier today. The porters were being… shall we say, just not very nice. I went in there to get a key for a room I’d booked. I think the exact sentence they used was something like “Can you identify yourself!””

But this side of things isn’t something any of them seem to take particularly seriously. As Ben and Lizzie have their photo taken, they joke that they should have dressed in their graduation gowns for the shoot. “They are expensive” comments Lizzie, “you really have to try and get your money’s worth”.

“I try and wear mine as much as I can” adds Ben, “whenever I go to fancy dress parties, I go as a tutor.”