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Just named 'Teacher of the Year'. In six months, her contract expires

Precariat — Research assistant Maria Damkjær loves cheap and ugly books, and the students love her teaching in British literary history. »If I can't continue at the university, I will have to work through some grief, because who am I then?« she says.

The students on the English study programme praise her for a teaching that makes old, cryptic, literature relevant today. She has been awarded the Teacher of the Year Award for her teaching at the University of Copenhagen’s annual commemoration in 2019. She was celebrated with speeches and original art gifts.

Maria Damkjær appreciates the recognition from her colleagues and from the management at the Department of English, Germanic and Romance Studies. But this does not change the fact that her position as a research assistant at the University of Copenhagen expires in September.

About

Maria Damkjær is 36 years old and lives alone in an apartment in Copenhagen. She is a singer in a choir and has just started to knit her first cardigan.

Does research on British literature and printing culture, primarily from the 19th century.

2013: PhD in English Literature from King’s College London

2014-18: Postdoc fellowship from the Carlsberg Foundation, affiliated to the Department of English, Germanic and Romance Studies at the University of Copenhagen.

2018-20: Employed as a research assistant at the Department of English, Germanic and Romance Studies.

Maria Damkjær came back to the University of Copenhagen with a PhD from King’s College in London after she received an individual postdoc fellowship from the Carlberg Foundation in 2014-18. Then the department co-financed and extended a fixed-term contract for two years because they needed teaching staff.

During this period, she has taught and supervised students for 80 per cent of her working hours. This leaves seven or eight hours for her research. Not a lot, especially when Maria Damkjær’s continued academic career is dependent upon her publication of original research in recognised journals.

Repressed panic

»I don’t know how many years I’ll hold up to this, because I am repressing a sense of panic inside me. Most of us have mental issues after our PhDs. I still have stress symptoms that I developed from this time, because it is really difficult to be a PhD student. And it is also tough to go from short-term contract to short-term contract, in and out of the social benefits system. It lodges itself in the body, it all lodges into your body,« says Maria Damkjær.

She would rather speak about the joy of teaching and about the research that she is passionate about, because the other thing is difficult:

»This is not what I really want to share about my situation, because I am privileged in so many ways. But it really bothers you, and it is … frightening,« she says.

It lodges in the body, it all lodges into your body

Maria Damkjær

She hastens to say that it is not anyone’s fault; that she gets plenty of support, and that the problem is structural. There are simply no jobs for younger researchers in her area.

»We could all be brilliant teachers, we could have published loads of stuff, we could have published two books, but when there are no vacancies, it’s no use being the best,« she says, and adds:

»And I am not, by the way, because there are a lot of highly talented researchers and teachers. It is difficult to be young in this business, we feel that we are being pushed out, and now this growth layer has been completely closed off.«

Accursed short-term contracts

And even though many young researchers go for them, getting a postdoc – a temporary position for a PhD typically between one and three years – does not automatically lead to happiness.

»We are all, myself included, a part of this structural problem. When I eagerly snap up this one-year position, I contribute to the precarity myself.«

Humanities scientists with temporary appointments, in Danish the ‘TVIP’ category, have organised themselves in an association:

»We need each other. We are often in a situation where what is good for an individual, like a short-term contract, is bad for us all. And it is not good for the university as a workplace,« says Maria Damkjær.

I’ll be OK. I can be used for many different things.

Maria Damkjær

Most of her research in recent years has taken place outside her job context. Her current research project is about hidden advertising, filler texts and other offbeat genres in English journals in the 19th century.

»It’s important that I get time for some research, but when I’m on unemployment benefits, I must of course also apply for a job.«

But the hardest thing is to keep up the good spirits, because every time you get a rejection, the insecurity increases, according to Maria:

She still maintains that it was the right decision for her to do a PhD.

»I loved writing my PhD. It was wonderful, and I will never regret it. But I don’t know how long I can keep on doing this.«

As to whether Maria has a plan B if she does not land a job at a university, she responds:

»No. I am not ready to become an upper-secondary school teacher. If I can’t continue at the university, I will have to work through some grief, because who am I then?«

There have always been people who have dropped off the academic career ladder. The problem is, according to Maria Damkjær, that the people who drop off are most often women, people with families, and people who are socially or culturally disadvantaged who do not have the academic network and financial security.

»If you are a first-generation academic, why would you want to go into this industry?«

And herself?

»I’ll be OK. I can be used for many different things.«

Translated by Mike Young.

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