Not a pigeon

There is an excellent series of children’s books based on the character of the terrifyingly-Cyclops-eyed Pigeon, which I heartily recommend that you buy for yourself if you have any small children in your life in any way, or as a gift for those who do. Pigeon is a very keen and over-excited protagonist who really really really really wants to do something that he shouldn’t – stay up late, drive a bus, get a puppy – and the premise of the book centres around telling Pigeon “NO” loudly and repeatedly.  It is genius – Pigeon begs, whines, and throws tantrums on each page, and everytime you rebuff him.

“I tell you what: I’ll just steer,”


“I never get to do anything,”


“No fair! I bet your mom would let me.” 


In the Piglet household, the Pigeon books have become a byword for standing firm in the face of young academics wanting to take a series crappy  jobs in the hope of the great maybe. I have wheedled, partner Piglet has stayed firm.

But it’s only a part-time teaching contract, I can fit in my other work around it!


But it might lead to a more permanent position if I get in their good books!


Oh pleeeeeeease!!


NB. pP and I do not have a 50 Shades of AarghMyEyes relationship where zie tells me what to do and I comply, but it has been good to have someone act as the voice of good conscious in the face of all my academic enculturation where taking a shabby job is seen as a good thing – a wonderful thing! – on the road to the Emerald City. It can happen – I have seen several people spend their years in the adjunct mines and then get permanent positions, but banking on those things happening is dangerous as they’re as influenced by the quality of the individual as  much as luck, networks and the phases of the moon.

Sadly not a technique that works to get through peer review

But Terrible Academic Jobs aren’t just about the temporality and the death of hope (piglet says blithely). They’re also about how you’re made to feel when you work in them. A friend of mine who we shall call Mr Tiger left academic for a government job a while back and said that biggest shock was that he was so valued in the role – his boss and work colleagues praised what he was doing, he was offered training and support and mentoring, and the pay was pretty good too. Mr Tiger and I are good friends, and it has been one of my sparks of hope, to see that even when his job is difficult he is (broadly) valued. The less valued you’re made to feel, the less essential to the running and meaning of your workplace, the more you get ground down, the harder it is to see that you might be loved and cherished elsewhere. ‘Abusive relationship’ might be one way of putting it.

Of course, there are shonky and miserable jobs all over – academia doesn’t have the edge on that; and I know so many good and kind academics who have freely given their time to read my work, help with questions, and otherwise support me. But institutionally, there seems to be very little praise or recognition of the many smart, talented and driven people who work as academics, particularly the contract workers.  We’re not talking about constant congratulations or weekly bonuses made of chocolate bars but – oh I don’t know, trying to find ways to keep on and train up those clever people rather than giving them 10 month contracts to be spat out  *and* pressuring them to publish without any of the research leave that permanent faculty get. And my God, the mind-fuck of being in a system which simultaneously says you are very very clever because only a very clever person would be good enough to get any position at all – but then treating them appallingly.  Again, this is not unique to academia – I understand that the lower tiers of other savagely competitive industries (media, fashion, politics) operate on similar levels, although in those cases the people trying to get into the sector are generally younger and haven’t given up a minimum of three years to expensive qualifications.

Where this is all heading to is an advert put out by Birmingham University a few weeks ago for an unpaid research assistant. They pulled it after fury erupted over Twitter and there’s more detail over at the THE which I won’t repeat. But – can we get really, really angry now? People have been getting rightfully pissed off about unpaid internships in, again, media, fashion and politics and this is a terrifying path for academia to be going down. With so little stability and a mighty pyramid scheme resting on its poorly paid lower tiers of staff, the last thing that anyone needs is to throw in an unpaid workforce for the LOLs. Should the pigeon (or the piglet) take a terrible unpaid academic job? What do you think?