In which I get a new rucksack and am overexcited about it

Photo by K Gupta

Photo by K Gupta

This term I’ve been teaching in London. As I still live in Nottingham, this has required me to hoof myself down to London for a 10am class. Thanks to some kind friends who’ve let me stay on their mattresses, airbeds, beanbags and sofas, I’ve managed to all but avoid the expensive 6:30am train (and accompanying horribly early alarm). However, I’ve had to carry a lot of stuff around me and it was therefore with dismay that I noticed my faithful rucksack’s shoulderstrap coming off one morning on the tube. I’ve had that rucksack since I started my MA in 2006 and it’s been with me through my MA and PhD, two universities, three departments, trips to India and Egypt, many conferences and numerous visits to friends and family all over the country so I suppose it’s earned its retirement.

However, this left me without a rucksack.

A friend suggested Osprey and I splurged on the Osprey Momentum 30. This is totally Sam Vimes’ Theory of Economic Injustice – I am hard on my bags, and at the moment I’m being paid. It therefore makes sense to spend money on something that will last (I hope) than buying a cheap bag that will fall apart when I load it up with library books, leak on library books/my laptop or be uncomfortable to carry or cycle with.

This review is of an older and slightly bigger model but I was impressed by the thoughtful design and quality. This review and this review are both of the model I went with. The photo below is of all the stuff I routinely carry with me.

Photo by K Gupta

Photo by K Gupta

Going from left to right we have a hardback book (unusually, only one), my university ID cards, my laptop and charger, a shirt, assorted highlighters, the grey notebook I use to keep my conference notes together, my wallet and keys, my filofax, bike lights, shower soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, forks and paracetamol. I’d usually also have PJ bottoms and underwear with me but you get the idea.

The Momentum 30 copes admirably with all this and more – I even got my softbound thesis in there as well as everything else and it was great not to have to lug that around in a carrier bag. The pockets are spacious enough to be useful; I use one of the side pockets as a washbag and can easily fit shower soap, moisturiser and facewash in there. So many pockets means that I can use them for different things and as a result, no one has to know that I’m taking my PJs and toothbrush into work as I won’t accidentally pull them out along with my laptop charger[1]. The small zipped pocket in the main compartment is big enough to fit keys, my wallet, pens and my passport but small enough that these don’t get lost among the other stuff.

I live in an area where cycling is an everyday thing. While I’ve seen (and admired) a proper Dutch cargo bike chained up, I’ve seen more bikes with interesting cargo-carrying modifications – shopping baskets are a popular addition or, as in this fine example, a washing up bowl. I’ve not been doing my cycling commute much recently but this bag did very well on a trip to the shops – it comfortably held 4 litres of laundry liquid and fabric conditioner as well as my food shopping. The side straps can be tightened to make the bag more compact and it means you don’t have the bag shifting weight while cycling.

The bag can also be used for hand luggage on planes and I easily fitted nearly a week’s worth of clothes as well as laptop, book etc when I visited my partner recently.

About the only thing I’m not sold on is the laptop compartment against my back; it’s a bit big for my laptop so more a personal preference than a design flaw. Instead, my laptop goes into the document pocket in the main compartment and I use the laptop compartment to keep shirts flat when travelling. It would also be nice to have some way of tucking loose straps – I’ll probably make some ties or find clips but the lack of these seems odd in an otherwise thoughtfully designed bag.

It’s made me think about how things can be so much easier with the right tools and equipment. This term has been stressful enough as it is – among other things, I’ve been working three jobs (four if you count monthly invigilation), organising a module and working out the logistics of travel – and I simply don’t want to have to think about how I’m going to transport my stuff or for how long I can comfortably carry it or the chances of my stuff getting damaged or left behind somewhere. It’s been so nice to have room to keep some things in this bag permanently (and therefore not risk forgetting them) and it’s made my crash course in survival skills for the young academic that much easier.

As someone who cares for the environment, is broadly anti-capitalist and is against buying stuff for the sake of it, I am trying to surround myself with things that are good at what they do and which will last. I don’t want to keep having to replace things that wear out too soon – I want to be able to get something and be confident that it will be usable in 10 years or 20 years or longer. Hopefully this bag will be one of them.

[1]It pains me slightly that my life has become one where I consider not pulling out a toothbrush in front of my students/colleagues to be a minor triumph, and yet here we are.

IT and the itinerant academic

Last week I lost access to my institutional email account. This is a problem on several levels: I am on the organising committee for a conference and have access to the conference email account – which has to be accessed through my institutional email account. I’m working on a project at the University of Nottingham and need to communicate with other members of my team and have computer access for when I’m working on campus. I’m in talks about a publication. Finally, I’m teaching at two other institutions and (probably) won’t get an institutional email address at either.

Luckily my access to my Nottingham postgrad account was extended by a week so I could get on with my work, I have been set up with an Associate account and I have an email account attached to this domain so I do have an email account slightly removed from my personal one. I find it’s crucial to have this separation between personal and professional identities – not least because I don’t want my academic contacts to be able to see when I’m online, add me on a messaging service without my consent and so on.

Having graduated and currently working several part-time jobs yet without a long term contract, I am merely one tiny cog in an academy increasingly built on casual labour and short-term contracts. Melonie Fullick outlines the problems with this precarious existence, and I suggest that some of the issues crystallise around my (lack of) institutional email account.

As for early-career academics, they’re not even sure if there’s a place for for them in the university anymore or if so, what it will look like. What this adds up to is a special kind of chaos that exists alongside, intertwined with, the still-stable roots and structures of academe; and it takes a lot of privilege to be able to close one’s eyes to that.

In my academic world, an institutional email address is one of the structures of academe; it gets added to departmental and career-stage email lists so I know what’s going on, I use my user name to access electronic and teaching resources, I can use the staff and student directory to contact people. More than that, it signals a professional identity, an institutional aegis, an academic belonging.

What does it mean to send an email from an address ending in @nottingham.ac.uk versus @mixosaurus.co.uk? What does it mean to give my students an email address that will expire in a few months time, as my Associate account probably will?[1] What does it mean to give my publisher an email address that will expire in a few months time? What does it mean to give them an email address that the domain name reveals as personal rather than institutional?

What does it mean to build up relationships that occur primarily through email (and occasional meetings/conferences) without having a consistent long-term email? What does it mean to have friends, former colleagues, (former) mentors in academia without knowing that if they want to contact you, they know where to write?

I am reminded of a friend at college who changed her email and livejournal accounts regularly; I inevitably missed one change, she probably assumed I no longer wanted to be friends and we drifted apart. A good friend, one that I would like to have stayed in touch with – and yet, I was thwarted by the fragility of an online connection, the difficulty of maintaining it through account changes and deletions.

Moving back to Fullick’s observations, I am reminded that a stable email address comes with a stable job – one that is largely located in one institution and can be reasonably be expected to last years rather than months or weeks. This system of short-term contracts and precarious employment is difficult in so many ways. The fact that even the method of communication underpinning academia does not account for such experiences of employment highlights the disparity between the conditions of work found in “still-stable roots and structures of academe” and the way that many early career academics work, and are expected to work. It draws attention to the fact that the way I am expected to teach and research unsupported by the roots and structures of academe, but at the same time thrive in in an environment where these same structures are necessary and relied upon.

Anyway, does anyone have any suggestions as to which contact email address I should give my students?

[1] While I won’t be teaching them then, what if they email me later to ask for a reference?

(not) writing in public

It’s been very quiet on the blog and there’s a reason for that. I thought I’d write about the reasons behind it.

At the moment I’m juggling several things – an early career researcher’s portfolio, if you will. There are numerous things that I’m involved with, some short term and one longer term, all focused on my area and which will hopefully open doors in the future. However, none of them are things I’m happy to talk about yet – or indeed discuss in detail with anyone but a few close friends and my immediate family. In some cases this is due to the sensitive nature of the project, in others it’s due to the wishes of other people on the project, in others still it’s because things aren’t fully confirmed and I’m loath to count my chickens before they hatch, in yet another yet it’s because it’s still a tentative thing and I’m not sure how closely I want to connect it with my academic identity.

If I were a cleverer writer I’d be able to write carefully, giving you enough to make me seem busy and exciting while withholding juicy details of the stuff I want to keep close to my chest. But I am not that writer, and my current situation is such that none of the things I’m involved in suitable for public consumption (or at least, not yet).

It’s all making me wonder about the nature of blogging and writing in public, and what this means for the early career researcher. Is blogging about our work always an unqualified good thing? What are the disadvantages? What does it mean to get a reputation as someone who thinks and writes in public? Can such a reputation have a detrimental effect – can it mean that you’re less likely to be trusted with classified data and with sensitive research?

It also makes me wonder about the nature of power expressed in these concerns: basically, who gets to research and/or write in public without repercussions? If I were a more senior researcher – had more clout, had the security of a permanent job – how would that change what I felt able to write about here?