On being a (nearly) senior academic

Two weeks ago we heard from a Honours student in the School of History about getting the most out of the first undergraduate year at St Andrews, and last week John Condren shared his ten top tips for getting through the PhD years. This week, continuing the theme of reflections on life at St Andrews at all levels, we hear from Dr Aileen Fyfe on the challenges of being a (nearly) senior academic. First published as “The academic life” in Issue 3 of the Campaign Magazine published by the Development Office, and reproduced here with kind permission.

Ping! An email arrives from a potential PhD student.

Ping! The university conference office says I can’t fit any more people into the gala dinner for the conference I’m organising.

Ping! Another potential postgraduate wants to know about language courses.

Ping! The Dean’s secretary wants to know if I could sit on an interview panel next month.

Ping! Manchester University Press wants to know if I could referee an entire book manuscript in the next six weeks. No.

Ping! A learned journal wants to know when it can expect my (overdue) report on a paper. Oops.

Ping! A different learned journal informs me that the paper I revised and submitted last August is going through the final editorial stages. At last.

Ping! The Young Academy of Scotland wants to know when I’m available for a meeting at the Scottish Parliament.

Ping! One of my postdocs sends me the agenda for our upcoming team meeting.

Ping! Another press would like me to referee a book proposal. At least that’s quite short, so I’ll do that one…

To be fair, those emails did not all arrive in the same afternoon, but it’s a realistic sample from the past fortnight. And that’s not to mention the many teaching-related emails.

Flashback fifteen years, and I was finishing my PhD thesis and applying for jobs. To complement my research expertise, I composed carefully-crafted paragraphs making the most of my limited teaching and administrative experience. The letter worked; and I spent the next few years struggling to maintain a research profile while designing, delivering and assessing my new modules. That transition from full-time research to the research / teaching / admin load of a lecturer was hard at the time; but looking back, it seems to me now that it at least had the advantage of being not unexpected.

Far more unexpected has been the more gradual but no less real experience of gaining seniority. At heart, I don’t feel I’m yet a senior academic, but there’s no doubt that my current tasks and responsibilities are far removed from life as a new lecturer. I often feel torn by the demands of this newly challenging phase of my career. For instance, I’ve spent a lot of time recently worrying about funding, especially for our graduate students, and coordinating funding applications for PhD studentships for my School, as well as for future research projects of my own. I don’t doubt that this is a valuable activity that will be crucial for the next generation of St Andrews historians, but it takes me away from my own research and writing.

One of my colleagues recently commented that there has been ‘an inflation of expectations’ for academics, as we’re now expected to do far more types of things than academics two or three generations ago. The constant string of requests are, in their own small way, markers of my professional status, and thus a source of pride. But I’m constantly wondering how I’m going to find the time to do everything. Nothing has prepared me for management responsibilities, or, more precisely, for adding such responsibilities to my existing roles as lecturer and researcher. Workshops on networking and time management suddenly seem more relevant than they once did. I’ve learned to block out time in my calendar for important non-urgent tasks; I’m trying not to let email rule me; and I’m attempting to say ‘no’ more often.

I feel I am still trying to work out what sort of senior academic I want to become. In the meantime, I’ve switched off the ‘ping’ on my email programme.

St Andrews historian stars in ‘Victorian Science Spectacular’

Science and technology play prominent roles in our predictions of the future, whether we are imagining cures for disease, liberation from household chores, or interplanetary tourism. This was equally true in the late nineteenth century, when Victorians noted the significant technological and scientific advances since their grandparents’ days: they were proud of bicycles and typewriters; of railways, steamships and electric telegraphs; of photography and electric lighting. Science fiction writers began to wonder what the world of the future would look like, while popularisers poured their energies into explicating the wonders of science and the workings of technology.

The demonstrations, lectures and shows that were part of late Victorian entertainment culture incorporated these innovations into their programmes. Scientific shows were crucial to the process of selling the future to Victorian publics. They were highly skilled and often technologically sophisticated affairs that required careful management and meticulous choreography of performers’ bodies and scientific apparatus. The ‘Victorian Science Spectacular’ project recreated one such show. It involved a team of academics from around the country, and was led by Dr Aileen Fyfe of the St Andrews School of History.

The show has been performed across the country, from Aberdeen to Cambridge. It has also been recorded – watch below!

The above text and video are reproduced with the kind permission of the Victorian Science Spectacular Project.

Victorian Outreach at MUSA

MUSA 1Students on Dr Aileen Fyfe’s special subject (MO4930: Technologies of the Victorians) took their work to a public audience as part of the Fife Science Festival. The ‘Science Snapshot’ event was organised by MUSA on Friday March 14. All the exhibits were linked to photography or visualisation techniques. Alongside displays of virtual reality reconstructions of St Andrews cathedral, and a showing of early (1890s) film footage, the students demonstrated and explained a Victorian camera and magic lantern.

The magic lantern (above) was a great success, and the younger visitors particularly loved being able to draw their own picture (on acetate) and then have it displayed on the big screen. They also enjoyed spotting everyday objects in Victorian photographs, and a few of them were persuaded to dress up for their very own ‘Victorian’ photograph! (Below).

This project was one of the assessed pieces of work for the module, and was funded under the Enhancement Themes for enhancing students’ transferable skills.  The students had to work in groups to research their artefact, to prepare visual material and interactive activities, and to talk to visitors (young and old!) on the evening itself. They learned a lot about teamwork, and about communicating history to public audiences. Reflecting on the event afterwards, the students commented:

‘I gained useful insight into the reality of demonstrating history for public consumption, as well as developing a number of interchangeable skills’

MUSA 2‘I learned a lot about working with others throughout this project…  This exercise highlighted to me that I need to be open to different ways of working’

‘The simple technical skills I gained from poster design and other aspects of the project have already proved useful in job interviews, and learning to structure historical research for a popular audience was also a valuable exercise. I think the outreach project was a thoroughly modern assignment, and allowed those like myself who are not going on to further academic study to see the relevance of historical scholarship in popular contexts.’

The event also impressed representatives of Fife Science Festival, who have asked if the class would like to run it again at the Dundee Science Festival in November. Unfortunately, they’ll all have graduated by then!

Aileen Fyfe’s Steam-Powered Knowledge wins Edelstein Prize

Steam-Powered KnowledgeDr Aileen Fyfe‘s book Steam-Powered Knowledge: William Chambers and the Business of Publishing, 1820-1860 has won the Edelstein Prize, an award given by the Society for the History of Technology. The prize was awarded at the Society’s annual meeting in Portland, Maine, where the book was honoured with a roundtable discussion. Panelists praised Steam-Powered Knowledge for its impeccable research, its lucidity and its production values. Dr Fyfe participated by video-conference, and remarked that “it was wonderful to listen to such esteemed colleagues saying such generous things about my book; and truly humbling to be held up as a model for a new direction in the history of technology – one that would make the history of technology more central to general history.”

Steam-Powered Knowledge has also won the Colby Prize, awarded by the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals for the book which most advances the understanding of the nineteenth-century British newspaper or periodical press; and the book was nominated for the North American Victorian Studies Association Book Prize.

MO4930 Victorian Technologies visit Stanley Mills

Stanley MillsStudents on Dr Aileen Fyfe‘s special subject module on Victorian technologies (MO4930) had a close encounter with water-powered technologies during their visit to Stanley Mills last week. The day after a class session on heroes of the industrial revolution – which included Richard Arkwright, inventor of the water-frame, for spinning cotton – some of the class visited a mill designed by Arkwright, north of Perth. Stanley Mills were in near-continuous operation from 1786 to 1989, and are notable for never having converted to steam-power: they went from water wheels to water turbines, and then straight to hydro-electricity.

The mill buildings are disappointingly empty of eighteenth or nineteenth-century machinery, but Historic Scotland has done a great job developing displays and interactives to explain what life was like for factory workers, how water wheels work, and how power was transferred from the wheels to the machinery in the mill. The interactives may have been intended for younger students, but St Andrews students proved that age is no barrier to the thrill of getting your fingers (virtually) chopped off by a power loom! The interactive model with water wheels and turbines proved particularly successful, both for the fun of nearly flooding the exhibition area and as a learning tool. They were also intrigued by the very early diesel-powered trolley, and by the use of large numbers of wooden boxes marked ‘Tay Fisheries Salmon’ to store machine-parts. Some interesting discussions ensued about technology transfer, and how you get both the kit and the skills for cotton manufacturing (or anything else) from one place to another.

Call for Papers: Publish or Perish Conference, March 2015

©The Royal Society

©The Royal Society

Publish or Perish? Scientific periodicals from 1665 to the present

19-21 March 2015

The Royal Society, London


To celebrate the anniversary of the Philosophical Transactions, the world’s oldest scientific journal, the Royal Society will be hosting a major conference in spring 2015. At a time when the future of scientific publishing is in flux, this conference will take the long perspective by examining the transformations and challenges in the publishing of scientific journals over the last three and a half centuries, and into the future. We seek offers of papers, or proposals for three- or four-paper panels, which engage with any aspect of the commercial, editorial and distribution practices  of scientific journal publishing, in any period since 1665, preferably with a comparative or longue durée perspective.

Papers or panels might address:

  • The processes of printing, publishing or illustrating scientific journals
  • The commercial practices of journal publishing
  • The development of editorial and refereeing processes
  • Distribution networks and marketing – regional, national and international
  • Issues concerning the status, reputation and reception of competing journals

Offers of papers, including a 250-word abstract, should be sent to publishorperish@royalsociety.org by the 30th of November 2013.

Participants must be willing and able to prepare their paper for speedy publication in autumn 2015.

Philosophical Transactions at 350

The Philosophical Transactions turns 350 on March the 6th, 2015. To celebrate this milestone in the history of science communication, a programme of events and activities is being planned for the Anniversary year. In addition, a major AHRC-funded research project, led by Dr Aileen Fyfe at the University of St Andrews in partnership with the Royal Society, is already under way, which will produce the first full history of the Philosophical Transactions.



Dr Aileen Fyfe gains place in Birmingham-based AHRC Research Network

Lodge, OliverDr Aileen Fyfe is part of a successful AHRC Research Network investigating the physicist, spiritualist and university manager, Oliver Lodge (1851-1940). The network, based at the University of Birmingham and organised by Dr Jim Mussell, will be holding 4 meetings over the coming two years, each investigating different aspects of Lodge’s life. Lodge has much to teach us about the place of science in culture because, in his life and career, he transcended many of the boundaries we imagine structure the cultural status of science. A pioneer of wireless telegraphy, Lodge was an internationally-acclaimed physicist and engineer, equally at home in laboratory and workshop. Alongside his commercial interests Lodge carved out a career in the new Victorian universities, becoming the first professor of physics at the University of Liverpool and then Principal of the University of Birmingham after its move to Edgbaston. Not only did Lodge help science consolidate its place at the heart of the university, but he also saw the institutionalisation of the differences between scientific disciplines.

A prolific writer, speaker and, later in his life, broadcaster, Lodge was widely known as a populariser of science and commentator on current affairs. Yet in the latter part of his life, Lodge became a famous spiritualist, carrying out psychical investigations alongside his scientific research and publishing a bestseller, Raymond (1916), detailing encounters with his son killed in the trenches. Focusing on Lodge can help us understand the differences between science and the arts and humanities; the place of faith and the imagination in scientific practice; and the role of the arts and humanities in popularising science.

For more on the award see Dr Mussell’s blog: http://jimmussell.com/2013/03/02/making-waves-oliver-lodge-and-the-cultures-of-science-1875-1940/