Is ‘ECR’ fit for purpose in the Humanities?

Right now I’m writing reflexively about teaching. I enjoy teaching and I think I’m good at it. I miss being in the classroom. The point of my writing is an application for Fellowship with the Higher Education Academy, which is something I am doing to get formal recognition of my teaching quality. But the whole process got me thinking about the place of teaching in Higher Education, and whether or not it’s valued (and I’m certainly not the first person to ask this question!)

I call myself an ‘ECR’ (Early Career Researcher), and it’s a label that generally fits me because I’m newly-minted and because my current focus is research and publication. But I’m not sure that ‘ECR’ is actually the best (general) label for new PhDs in the Humanities. I suspect we borrowed this term from the sciences, where the normal path to an academic career is through research postdocs. There certainly is an idea that the ‘gold standard’ of entry-level, fixed-term contracts in the Humanities are research Fellowships (either external, like British Academy or Leverhulme, or institutionally funded). Departments are, formally and informally, judged on research quality, and we all know academics who work tirelessly to win money to buy out their teaching for more research time. In other words, at all stages we’re told that research is the name of the academic game.

And, none of us would be here if we didn’t like research. That’s why we spend three or four years writing a substantial piece of research. But lots (and lots!) of first (second, and third) jobs are exclusively teaching roles (or at least very teaching-heavy roles). These early career academics work just as hard as those in research-focused roles, but they are all but erased when we talk exclusively about ‘Early Career Researchers’. Their work as educators is overlooked, their identities as academics are devalued, and the work of teaching is devalued. Everyone who is not in a research-focused position knows that they need to keep researching, publishing, and presenting work if they want to get a job – even a fixed-term, teaching-only contract. Emphasising research over teaching at an early-career stage increases the divide between research and teaching roles, and this will (probably) be further divided with the TEF. When the (written or unwritten) requirements for landing a permanent job include a monograph, those who have taken teaching-focused roles are immediately disadvantaged. Of course academics in teaching-focused roles should be encouraged and supported to continue their research, but those people are paid to teach. Research is happening on their own time, and that needs to be recognised (and compensated for).

I personally know many established academics who value teaching and research equally, but the ‘research is more valuable than teaching’ issue is more systemic than individual. When I asked on Twitter if people felt the term ‘ECR’ represented their academic identities I got as many different answers as respondents. One Teaching Fellow commented that they needed ‘Researcher’ to be a part of their academic identity, even though that wasn’t what they got paid for. Some responses echoed my own feelings, and others broke off in unexpected ways. It is something I will have to think more about, but I don’t think there are easy or comfortable answers.

The beginning, though, is relabelling ‘ECR’ in the Humanities. I suggest we should be calling ourselves ‘ECA’ (Early Career Academics), to make sure that research and teaching can be prominent in our individual and collective identities.

I would really like to hear what you – ECAs or otherwise – think about this. Does ‘ECR’ resonate with your academic identity? Do we need to think more inclusively about teaching and research at an early career level? Is there an implicit bias towards research over teaching experience at any (or every) level of academic hiring? Let me know what you think in the comments or on twitter @elliemackin.

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About Ellie Mackin

Ellie is a Teaching Fellow in Ancient History at the University of Leicester. Her current research focuses on ‘embeddedness’ in early Greek religion. Ellie completed her BA(Hons) and MA at Monash University, in Australia, before moving to the UK for her PhD at King's College London (2015). She tweets @elliemackin.

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