BAMS Elections: A Dialogue

Séan Richardson: Hi all, so we are here to discuss the upcoming BAMS elections and why people should consider applying. Polly and Cécile, as you were elected just this year, do you want to talk about your experience running?

Cécile Varry: I stumbled upon the 2018 Networking Day announcements on Twitter, and learned about the call for PGR representatives at the event in Birmingham. I was very impressed by what the past and current reps had achieved – the workshops were incredibly helpful, attendees and organisers alike sounded so passionate about their work, and this was the day the Modernist Review was officially relaunched. It looked GREAT. I was very enthusiastic about running at first, but I very quickly got overwhelmed by a massive bout of impostor syndrome. Everyone’s CV was so impressive, and I felt as though I didn’t have much to bring to BAMS.

Polly Hember: Like Cécile, I heard about the PGR representative role at the 2018 Networking Day in Birmingham. This was just over a month into my PhD and I felt very new to it all. I was starting at a new university in a different department that did not have a strong modernist focus. Just from preliminary impressions of the BAMS PGR network glimpsed from Twitter and the weekly Monday #ModWrite, I knew it was something that wanted to be a part of but felt completely underqualified to run for the rep role as a first-year PGR, with barely anything on my academic CV.

SR: My experience reflects this. When Gareth and I ran to take over from Stephanie Boland and Helen Saunders, I felt like we had clown-sized shoes to fill. Comically voluminous, because the old reps – and Ruth Clemens, who we were joining – had achieved so much in such a short space of time. I put my hat in the ring on the encouragement of my supervisor Andrew Thacker, but I never thought it would go anywhere. It is funny to hear you both say this, however, as it was very clear to Gareth and I that you would both be excellent candidates from the off. All of the people running were so impressive.

Gareth Mills: I first encountered BAMS when I gave a thoroughly mediocre paper at the 2017 conference, ‘Modernist Life’. I met a lot of interesting people there who were immensely helpful in getting my shit together, such as BAMS member Rod Rosenquist. I also heard an excellent paper from then BAMS rep Helen Saunders, on Ulysses and Pathé, and afterwards she told me that the association also ran training days. I needed one. With her help, and the nominations and votes of people I’d met at the conference, by the time the training day rolled around in 2018 I had been elected as a Rep, and with my excellent colleagues Séan and Ruth, had started to pay back some of the debt I owed this marvelous community. It’s been my pleasure to serve it and work alongside such extraordinary people.

CV: About excellent colleagues… I had almost given up on applying when Séan chased me down. He offered to edit my statement and bio (I was not very familiar with the genre) and basically made me apply. When the election started, and I saw how great all the candidates were, I actually got really mad at him – I thought I didn’t stand a chance, and that he had made me apply for fodder. This tells you a lot about how quickly we tend to play down our own potential, and how important it is to go for things even when you’re not fully confident. You don’t need to hold yourself to impossible standards; be aware of the skills you have, and know that you will learn a lot more on the job!

PH: I completely agree with Cécile – it’s so important to put yourself out there and work through that awful imposter syndrome. For me, it was also a brilliant lesson in asking for help. I had no idea that there were people out there who were happy to read through applications, answer questions, and kindly correct embarrassing typos without any fuss, just a short ‘Sorry there are so many edits, I’m a Virgo’ tacked onto the last track-change comment (thank you again, Séan!).

GM: BAMS has the power to cut across the withering rage and despair that defines the contemporary precariat. I’ve definitely learned a hell of a lot from Séan and Ruth about efficient working methods and good governance from the senior committee. But I’ve perhaps learned the most from the infectious optimism of our newer comrades, Polly and Cécile. Things like social media and the so-called ‘Sokal Squared’ affair will turn anyone into a cynic. These two have shown me what associations like this can do not just for the intellectual health of the discipline but the well-being of the people in it. In the digital age it’s vital that real human communities like this flourish, and that they are as inclusive and genuinely productive as possible.

SR: I love that story, Cécile. Behind the scenes, we were very happy with all the applications that came in. And I have to hand it to Gareth for co-editing the statements. There were so many people that would have been fantastic to work alongside, but we knew the kind of representatives we wanted on board: people who would offer a fresh angle, while building on the foundation laid by Stephanie, Ruth and Helen. I would like to think that, ultimately, we have achieved that as a team: reviving the Modernist Review and getting it to where it is today, running an expanded membership survey, organising events like the postgraduate networking day. What did you want to achieve when you came on board?

CV: To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t very sure what I would be able to achieve. I was a very recent member of BAMS and I had spent the first year of my PhD working (wallowing) on my own – everyone always said that research was a solitary job, and I was starting to think that maybe research just wasn’t my thing. I knew I wanted to try a more collaborative approach, be involved in international and interdisciplinary projects, and start more discussions about the bonds between research and teaching; but I was half-expecting things to be very slow-moving. I was very surprised when I started working with the team: the first thing we did was crowdsourcing the Community Resource Pack, and that was a revelation. The campaign was quick, efficient, and successful: people were very keen to help, and all we had to do was centralise the call for contributions and provide a structure. I think that’s when I realised that we could really make a difference. In general, as a PhD researcher in BAMS, I have always felt that my input was valued and my work supported, both by my fellow representatives and the wonderful people on the exec board. It’s very motivating.

PH: Like Cécile said, it was hard to know what to expect or what we’d be able to achieve when we first started. I knew that I wanted to continue building on the incredible sense of support and community that Stephanie, Helen, Ruth, Gareth and Séan had fostered. The training day in Bristol on weak theoryNWIMS Conferences, the PGR workshops at Troublesome Modernisms, and the crowdsourced Community Resource Pack have all been such a pleasure to be part of. Events like these have made the first year of my PhD such a collaborative, positive and sociable one, and allowed me to meet so many fellow researchers.

SR: I think that Gareth would agree that you two have been a breath of fresh air and achieved so much since joining the team. The Modernist Review is stronger than ever, the Twitter has reached over 5,000 followers and we are now working alongside Routledge. What a coup! Following up on these achievements then, I want to think about what we hope the next candidates will be like, now Gareth and I are leaving. Personally, I am looking for statements of purpose that hope to continue the hard work everyone has put in, while bringing new ideas to the table. It’s always great to see someone engaging with what is currently going on, as it shows they are truly paying attention to the waves and ripples of the community, but also heartening to find a candidate who knows how they can continue to improve BAMS’ outlook. Certainly, from what I have seen, the executive committee are incredibly receptive to change. Aside from this, I would really encourage women and people of colour to apply. Representation matters a huge deal in academia, and this is a chance to really shape our corner of the field!

CV: It’s very hard for me to answer that question – I don’t want candidates to feel that we have a fully set vision of what we’re looking for, and I’m looking forward to being surprised! (is that the most unhelpful answer?) But (there is always a but) if there were a recipe for the perfect candidate, it would have to be a mixture of professionalism and enthusiasm. I’d like to work with people who are as excited about BAMS as we’ve all been, who have a strong sense of community, and are therefore ready to hop on the learning curve and put in the work to build on the outstanding achievements of the previous teams.

GM: As Séan says our expansion was down to building on what BAMS already did well, and thinking of ways to solve problems that existed in the community. So, for example, one of the first things he did was build on the member survey conducted by the previous reps to find pockets of information they had missed with a new questionnaire. Similarly when I re-designed the old TMR website what I had in mind was maximising the space available for contributors and making the articles easy to share in ways the old (very good) TMR website did less well. This is really key. What problems, occlusions or inefficient practices are present in the community? Do you have ideas for practical solutions? I’d be far more interested in voting for candidates with workable plans that enable young academics, than things which get the project leader attention and then fizzle out.

PH: I couldn’t agree more with you all! I would like to see statements from people wanting to support BAMS’ inclusive and dynamic research culture, and who are committed to maintaining that sense of community. I’m so excited to hear from the new candidates, what ideas they have for the future of BAMS.

SR: That’s fantastic to hear. So, for anyone applying, what would you say have been the challenges of the role? What has surprised you? I know that I found it quite daunting when I began as I had gone from working on my own projects with my own standards to suddenly having something of a remit. I wanted to support other students and was nervous that I would let them and the team down (I am hoping to the contrary!). In the end, however, the executive committee (and the reps in particular) really uplift each other. Exemplary of this, once I handed in my PhD, I began a full-time job and I needed a break as I transitioned – I couldn’t have taken that break without all of your hard work and I am incredibly grateful. It’s great to know that when difficulties do crop up, you aren’t alone. Plus, the challenges are worth the results. Often academia is a slow game and getting to see tangible results relatively quickly is such a joy.

PH: Starting out, I was so worried about letting my fellow reps down or getting something wrong. It’s really funny looking back, at how nervous I was editing pieces for TMR, drafting an editorial or providing feedback on an article. But the support system that Cécile, Séan, Gareth and the wider BAMS community have provided me with has made me much more confident in my approach to research and a much better writer (well, at least I like to think so!). It’s been a steep learning curve at points, but (thanks to the BAMS team) it’s been an incredibly enjoyable one.

GM: I think the biggest issue for me was figuring out what people actually needed from BAMS. I’ve had to try and democratise my own thought process because in the beginning I was led too much by what I thought was helpful and necessary, potentially at the expense of what people were crying out for. So for example one thing I was keen to do was create a pipleline of publications that would help shepherd modernist PhD research into popular media, for example, in the form of a Guardian or Aeon article. But the hunger wasn’t there – what social media comments seemed to suggest was a more nuts and bolts set of tools and advice about core academic practices, such as panel proposals and CVs. This is what we ended up doing in the highly effective Community Resource Pack. As with writing, you’ve sometimes got to kill what you love. Try to action ideas which work for the many, not just for you. It means listening carefully…

CV: For me, learning to be an editor was definitely the hardest part, but also the most rewarding – it has given me a sharper vision of what’s happening in the field, and made me so much better at editing my own writing. I remember looking over my first TMR issue, staring at the review had been assigned like I would a blank page; the relief of finding a double quote to change into a single quote — purpose! But everything comes with practice; I now have a much clearer idea of what makes pieces better and what works for TMR, and it’s given me a lot of confidence as a researcher. Organising the ‘Teaching Troublesome Texts’ workshop at Troublesome Modernisms was also a high point of BAMS-induced anxiety, as it was my first time leading this type of event — on a sensitive subject with that. But as soon as I suggested that I was struggling, Gareth offered to discuss my ideas on Skype and we left the session with a clear battle plan; Séan’s PowerPoint tips helped me structure my materials, and Polly offered to host with me on the day. I also did an open call for suggestions on Twitter, and everyone was so responsive and enthusiastic! The discussion that followed the workshop is one of my favourite memories of the conference. It’s nice to feel that we’re all in this together. It might seem cliché to say this, but in the end, all of these challenges turned into great training opportunities, and my personal work is all the better for it.

SR: Finally, then, I am wondering what everyone has gained from the role? As well as getting to work with each of you (which really has been the highlight), I think making decisions and watching them flourish is lovely. When Ruth, Gareth and I organised the networking day in Birmingham it was cheering to see so many bodies in the room (and a special thank you to all our guest speakers, they made the event what it was). As discussed, that is also where we first met the new representatives – who are now moulding the future of BAMS in their own ways. Equally, it was truly wonderful to see Troublesome Modernisms grow from an idea that Ruth brought up at a Skype meeting to a fully fledged conference. Becoming a representative offers a space that allows your thoughts to take shape. It is because of this that, even though I have left the world of academia behind (for now!), I only have positive memories of my time at BAMS. Alongside this, I know the skills that I gained will support me in any career I choose to take on.

GM: Probably having my nails painted for the first time in my life by Polly while we sat in a pub called The Astronomer, a massive astrolabe spinning behind Séan’s head, all of us drinking in the middle of the day. Getting stuck on trains with Cécile for a grand total of something like 30 hours and getting more out of it intellectually than a 3 day conference. In terms of work, there are too many highlights to mention, though I would reiterate all of the things Séan just said. The conference was a big deal – a rep, Ruth, chose the name – and our input was valued the whole way through. Setting up the DigHums training day with Jeff Wallace (committee member) was great. I’ve enjoyed editing the dozens of articles provided by the community, and piecing together the themes into editorials. Mostly I’m pleased to leave behind a body of work that is self-sustaining and lasting: better trained ECRS, a regular publication, toolkits, resources, mailers, and the whole back-office infrastructure that supports it. It’s all in fine hands now and will be with the newcomers too.

PH: There are too many highlights to mention in just one paragraph here! Working on the Modernist Review and getting to source, publish and promote PGR’s opinions and work is something I feel very proud of, and I love how quickly new ideas are embraced with passion and momentum (keep an eye out for the Modernist Toolbox launch in Spring!). But really, it’s the people that have made my experience with BAMS so profoundly enjoyable. It’s been an absolute pleasure to work with Cécile, Séan and Gareth this past year and get to know them, over our Twitter live chat (rather appropriately titled #BAMSforLife), and over brunch, pints and nail polish. We’re so sad to see Gareth and Séan move on (pass the tissues! 😭), but I know that Cécile and I are excited to keep that passion and momentum going and welcome the new reps with the same support and warmth that we were met with.

CV: Is it cheesy if I talk about friendships? I feel that all the other (more academically oriented) gains are obvious from everything we said earlier. BAMS has been an online romance for me: as BAMS reps and co-editors, we are in touch on the Twitter live chat almost every day. It was very professional at first (as it still is) – dealing with emails, abstracts, and BAMS PR. I can’t remember who was brave enough to post the first gif (it was Gareth). Time passed, until recently, at the Manchester exec meeting, I realised that we had had very few opportunities to meet in person, and that blew my mind. I had started organising an international conference with Polly, whom I had technically only met once. On my way to and back from Manchester, I spent a lot of time stuck on a train with Gareth, whom I had also only met once, and IT WASN’T AWKWARD. We talked about modernism a lot, sue us. Getting to see all three of you together in London that week was definitely a highlight of my year! Even working remotely on this dialogue has been such a cheering experience. Gareth and Séan, I am heartbroken to see you leaving, but I also feel that Polly and I are ready to take over; and I am very, very much looking forward to sharing this wonderful energy with the wonderful new people that join the Rep team and the BAMS fam.


BAMS is currently inviting nominations for membership of the Steering Committee, along with two Postgraduate Representative positions. Nominations will now be accepted up to 1 Jan 2020, and the online election will take place 10-31 Jan 2020.  Please click here to read more about how to apply.

Séan, Polly, Cécile and Gareth are all very happy to look over any applications or answer any questions about the role or how to apply. You can contact us by emailing info@bams.ac.uk.

Good luck!

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