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The Future of Victorian Studies: The Postgraduate Perspective

2011 October 7

Sarah Parker is a doctoral student at University of Birmingham. She recently submitted her PhD thesis, entitled ‘The Lesbian Muse: Homoeroticism, Contemporary Muse Figures and Female Poetic Identity’. Her article ‘A Girl’s Love’: Lord Alfred Douglas as Homoerotic Muse in the Poetry of Olive Custance’ is published Women: A Cultural Review (Vol 22, Issue 2-3).

This post is one part of a four-part discussion on the value of Victorian studies. To read the other posts, visit http://myblogs.informa.com/jvc/2011/10/07/the-value-of-victorian-studies/.


Firstly, I must say how honoured (and terrified) I am to be up here alongside such eminent, amazing people. I’m here to represent postgraduates as I’m just about to finish my PhD. I want to thank the organisers for forcing me to think about a topic that most postgraduates tend to prefer to be in denial about: the future. And specifically, of course, for us as Victorianists, the future of Victorian Studies.

John Leech 'Great Loss', from Punch (1852) c. John Leech Punch Archive

I asked the postgraduates at this conference to fill out a brief opinion survey, and I think their responses reflect a general mood that I have been detecting for a while. I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate how worried postgraduates are about the future. This fear, I think, has grown over the past few years and has become increasingly difficult to deny. Partly, it comes from the waiting around and uncertainty that are characteristic of postgraduate life and the early career stage. No matter how dedicated you are to furthering your academic research career, waiting for two or three years for a job, or for sufficient funding — despite all your best efforts — is bound to breed doubts about the system you have so diligently subscribed to.

Number one worry is, of course, funding. Students worry about their chances within already massively competitive AHRC and British Academy funding schemes, with increasingly squeezed funds. We worry about the possibility of having to subscribe to external, government-driven criteria of what research is considered worthwhile, at the expense of our sense of our own individuality, innovation and originality. We worry about being forced to use our knowledge of the past or of the arts to promote the ideology of the present. As Victorianists, we are intensely suspicious of any such progress and ‘social improvement’ narratives.

The second main worry is lack of jobs. Many of my survey respondents expressed concerns about Victorian Studies as an overpopulated area of research. They have little sense that the job market is expanding — or at least not in a way that accommodates newly qualified researchers. Many expressed worries about lack of permanent jobs, and that when posts do become available they will be filled by established academics, either who have been made redundant, or ‘new’ researchers who have been waiting for years and years for a job. For those of us just finishing, we worry about a backlog that we have to contend with, as well as the usual, expected high level of competition for academic jobs.

A couple of other worries include the ethical, even moral, issues raised by teaching students who are paying up to £9,000 a year. For many of us, this feels like a return to an elitism we thought was long past (indeed, one whose waning we have often studied in the nineteenth century). When our own career prospects look so bleak, it can be difficult to justify encouraging undergraduates to follow the same path. We also worry about the kinds of research and resources that are ‘dying out’. At many universities in the UK, library stock is being destroyed, and we have seen our study spaces turned into coffee shops or undergraduate computer clusters. The pace of this kind of change makes us worry that by the time we do get an academic job, is the job we get even going to resemble the job we wanted in the first place?

To conclude on a more positive note though. All of us postgraduates are passionately attached to our area of research. We’d have to be to brave the worries and dangers listed above. I need only gesture to the huge variety of high quality, stimulating research that has been presented by postgraduates at this conference, and at countless other conferences and events. This proves that the future of Victorian Studies, in terms of research, is bright.

In terms of teaching, the postgraduate workshop concerned with outreach has suggested the ways in which postgraduates are connecting and engaging with future generations, even in the face of the dark economic future that both generations share. I would like to stress though, that we are not engaging with outreach because we are planning to move into school teaching when we fail to get an academic job. We are instead committed to disseminating our research to non-expert audiences, because we believe in that research and its inherent value.

Finally, to end with a comment from one of my survey respondents, which I hope they won’t mind me quoting. Asked ‘what is the value of Victorian studies in the twenty-first century?’ the respondent replied: ‘’If we don’t know where we’ve been, how can we know where we are going?’ I’d like to turn this on its head and say, as a postgraduate to established academics: the value and future of Victorian studies relies, not just on where you are, but one where we’re going.

Sarah Parker, University of Birmingham

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