France, the French & the Second World War

a historian blogs about research, teaching, motherhood and other stuff

Category: cheminots

Strikes, Archives and Maternity Leave – rethinking relationships to academic work

One of the main arguments I make in my first book is that, far from being willing strikers, French railwaymen – cheminots – were hesitant to strike. Even in the late-nineteenth century when they endured terrible working conditions, they were reluctant to strike, down tools or sabotage their machines. The fact that the cheminots loved ‘their’ machines was a major reason behind this reluctance which endured for decades. Until the Second World War, they largely preferred to use alternative means to advance their professional situation. But even after the war, the ‘unanimous support’ for strikes within this professional milieu was anything but certain. Involvement or abstinence from strikes has been a deeply fractious topic throughout cheminots’ long history, showing the rifts and tensions within this community.

Cheminots’ historic attitudes to strikes reminds us of the complexity of the relationship between workers and their work. Jonathan Saha recently blogged about this, reminding us that the affection workers can feel for their work (which, in this case, involved elephants) can seriously effect their approach to and attitudes during strikes.

Academics experience a similar tension between them, their work and the politics of academia. There is a tension between the passion many of us feel for our research, and the conditions in which we work on a day to day basis. Indeed, the latter were the subject of strikes on 25-26 May. These strikes were about addressing fundamental problems within our profession, problems linked not only to salaries but more importantly attitudes to both work and workers. Pay gaps and the casualisation of academic work are serious and glaring issues. Pay gaps continue to affect women and minorities, whilst short-term, casual contracts exploit post-doctoral researchers who often have to forego a lot of personal, familial and/or financial stability for no promise of any job security.

I therefore fully supported the strike – but I did not go on strike. Why ? The short answer is : I was on maternity leave. So I couldn’t ‘strike’ as such. The long answer is more complicated, however, because I was actually working on 25-26 May. Indeed, after almost 10 months of taking care of my son, and on the verge of going back to work full time as of 1 June, I had found a few days where I was able to guarantee childcare and fit in time in the archives in Paris. On the Monday night I was giddy with excitement. On the 5h40am Eurostar the next morning, I was still too excited to sleep and worked all the way to Paris. The trip lived up to its expectations: already on the first day I found some amazing photographs and speeches linked to the Friendship and Merci Trains. I scrolled through boxes relating to Colonial Prisoners of War to keep gathering material on race in Vichy France. I enjoyed dinner with old friends in the evenings to wind down from intense work days.

But as I was having a grand old time in the archives, my thoughts kept wandering back to my colleagues, in the UK, on strike. The issues at stake were very important to me, but here I was, in the archives, doing research work. And then it really hit me: not only am I still working during a strike I support, but I am actually working WHILST STILL ON MATERNITY LEAVE.

Why I organised this research trip whilst on maternity leave is an important point to explain. (1) I was going back to work on 1 June and needed to spend my annual departmental research allowance by July 2016 (2) the week of 24 May was the only time where I could organise fulltime childcare for 3 days (3) I love research, so is it really ‘work’?

I wish this was the only time I had worked on maternity leave, but it wasn’t. Between 25 July 2015 and 1 June 2016,  I found myself working between my son’s nighttime feeds because my proofs and index needed to be done. I worked with my French editor who was managing the French translation. I accepted a job as reviews editor for a prestigious journal, which was a great opportunity to work with great colleagues and a great journal. I gave a lecture and supervised dissertation students as part of my Keeping In Touch Days. Anyone who has a baby will know these things were no small feat.

No one forced me to finish my proofs or write my index on maternity leave. No one forced me to do a research trip. The fact that I have a permanent job and am no longer on probation makes me one of the lucky ones. But the constant, intense pressure to produce as a doctoral and post-doctoral researcher hovers over you at all times. Whilst in the archives I realised just how much I had internalised – and normalised ­– this pressure. How it had led me to think it was OK to still do work whilst on maternity leave. How it had made me think that ‘doing what you love’ is not really ‘work’.

I want to underline that doing work-related activities whilst on maternity leave helped me to maintain a sense of normalcy in this crazy new life that is being a parent and a mother. It was a choice that I accept and often enjoyed. But the amount of effort I put in to work around my son, around my carpal tunnel syndrome, around our new family life, was also an extraordinarily difficult thing to do – and this part of my work will never, ever get recognised or valued.

As such, there is a huge risk of working on mat leave : by doing it, I was also silently accepting a system where our work repeatedly and regularly gets undervalued. As the strikes were going on in the UK, and I was having fun in the archives, I became painfully aware of this fact. Our work culture is deteriorating, and our work as individuals and as a community is de-valued. By working on mat leave, I was contributing to this.

So my first archive trip to start my new research projects was as much about the projects themselves as it was about re-discovering my relationship to my work. The complicated tensions between the personal, the professional and the political in academia became intimately entangled. Whilst I do not regret anything, I realised that, sometimes, downing the tools you love is important to show what needs to change.

the end of a project

On 13 July 2011 I sent a book proposal to a university publisher. It was based on my doctoral thesis about French railwaymen (cheminots) in the Second World War, but I was going to add lots of cool new things. I was full of excitement and enthusiasm. ‘I will have the finished manuscript by July 2012.’ *insert raucous laughter*

I got the contract – hurrah – and unsurprisingly, July 2012 went by. So did my next deadline. And all the other ones. Almost three years later, in a Pret-a-Manger in Washington D.C., I rejoiced: I had finally finished my manuscript!

Oh no – wait.

I still had to re-write the Introduction. And then check up those few little references. And then get the copyrights for the photographs. And then have a baby. And then read the first proofs. And then read the final proofs. And then do an index. And then teach the baby how to sleep through the night. And then double-check the index.

When I sent off the *final* finished proofs it was April 2016. It was pretty underwhelming – probably because I had celebrated my book being finished at least four times in the past two years, never fully appreciating all the work that remained to be done. And so the *final* send off went totally unnoticed, uncelebrated, no cheap champagne in sight. I did not even share the news on social media. I was so over it.

But as the days passed I began to feel a little lighter. Flutters of excitement took me by surprise on the tube. Not because I had an upcoming book, but because I was thinking about.. my next project. How was I going to get stuck into my archives again? When was my next research trip? Should I go to Aix, to Paris or to Indiana? How would I time it with childcare? What about my annotated bibliography? Too. Much. Excitement.

And I suppose that this is what this blog is about: the thrill of starting my second big research project.