Standing Still to Move Forward? Reflections on a Decade at UACES

The UACES Network |

By Emily Linnemann, Executive Director at UACES

A few months ago, I was having a WhatsApp chat with my 3 best friends. They are all incredibly talented women – one is a partner in a law firm, another an award-winning science journalist and author, another a charity policy director. Intimidating or what? The conversation was about the organisations they’ve worked for and the value of moving between different companies. One of my friends said ‘[it’s] amazing how easily you can think your organisation’s way of doing something is the best or most productive until you experience different workplaces’.

I couldn’t really join in with this conversation. I’ve worked for one organisation throughout my professional life: UACES. For me, 1 August 2020, marks the end of a decade at the Association. But the messages did get me thinking: What are the challenges of having worked in one place for so long? How does a long-term member of staff help to reinvigorate an organisation? What is the value in being able to take the long view of the Association and its development?

Now, as I approach my 10th UACES-a-versary, in the midst of a global pandemic and at a time when UACES, along with many of our fellow learned societies is having to accelerate its innovations, I am in a reflective mood and I wanted to share some of my thoughts and memories here.


It’s pronounced UACES, not U.A.C.E.S.

Back in 2010, I was in the process of writing up my PhD thesis on the cultural value of Shakespeare in publicly-funded theatre. Whilst buried deep in corrections and redrafts I was also thinking about what the future might hold for me beyond the PhD. One thing I was sure I didn’t want to do was to become an academic. Whilst I loved doing the research and the writing, I was acutely aware that I wasn’t cut out for the teaching side of the job having struggled my way through 2 semesters with third-year undergraduates the previous year.

During my time at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon I enjoyed running the annual British Graduate Shakespeare Conference (BritGrad) with a team of colleagues including the ever-inspiring Andy Kesson and the supremely talented and much-missed Lizz Ketterer. Running conferences just suited me. I loved the feeling of getting everything planned and prepared and then watching it all come to fruition over the course of the event.

So, I knew that I wanted a job that allowed me to organise events and if it was within the sphere of higher education so much the better. Scrolling through listings on one day I came across a job that seemed to tick all those boxes. A 1-year job as Events Management and Membership Officer at a European Studies association. I applied. I got invited for an interview.

My train was delayed getting to the interview, something for which I will always be grateful. Without this rather panic-inducing scenario, I’d never have phoned ahead and heard Luke Foster, recorded on the machine, say: ‘You’ve reached the UACES office. Please leave a message’. I went to that interview pronouncing UACES correctly (it’s not U.A.C.E.S!), all because of a delayed train. Perhaps that gave me the edge over the other candidates. I got the job.


‘All the women we invited said “no”’ and other excuses

My first annual conference took place in Bruges just 1 month after I joined UACES. It was an amazing and overwhelming experience. There were the usual hiccups that accompany any conference: locked rooms that should’ve been open, late-running speakers, odd sandwiches. My enduring memory – shared I am sure by many – is the rather dubious soup served at the conference dinner and the wine which only emerged during the main course because the venue informed me they ‘didn’t serve wine with starters’. We’ve been careful to avoid cup-a-soup and tardy wine when sourcing conference dinner venues ever since!!

For me, the annual conference is the highlight of my professional year. I love walking through the venue when the sessions are running, seeing all the plans and preparations that the UACES team have been working on for months come to fruition. I learned a great deal from the late Luke Foster about how to run conferences smoothly and effectively and in a way that benefits our members. I work to uphold his high standards at every event we run, and I hope that he would be pleased with our continued efforts.

The annual conference is also the source of many great memories. From dancing down the sparkling stairs of the Crystal Ship in Passau with Alex Brianson, to watching my 10-month-old (now 5 year old!) son Teddy crawl around at the drinks reception in Bilbao to sipping beer in Lisbon until the early hours of the morning.

But most importantly, the conference has been one of the sites of change during my time at UACES particularly around gender representation. I am the first to admit that these changes have taken too long to come into force and that I was resistant to them at first. I remember seeing a tweet from a member back in the early 2010s complaining that an annual conference featured too many male plenary speakers. I bristled at this. I’d spent a lot of time tracking down the plenary speakers and I had the usual stock responses ready to go – ‘we tried to invite women’, ‘there weren’t that many women who could speak on this particular topic’, ‘all the women we invited said “no”’.

Dr Kathryn Simpson (Manchester Metropolitan University) and Emily Linnemann (Executive Director at UACES) at UACES Annual Conference 2017 in Krakow.

It took me too long to realise that responses of this kind only serve to highlight the laziness of conference organisers (in this case me) and demonstrate an unwillingness to look beyond establishment figures to fill plenary sessions. At UACES we have had to challenge the assumptions we made in the past about who we invite to speak at our conferences. Since 2017 we have not had any all-male plenary sessions and have often been in the position of having more women sitting on the stage than men. Last year, we made the decision to ban manels of any sort from the conference and it has been extremely gratifying to see this met with enthusiasm from our membership. But, of course, there is more to do.

If we really want to ensure diversity and better representation at UACES events we cannot rely solely on inviting women to speak on panels. We need to think about the questions we are asking during these plenary sessions: why are we giving prominence to this topic over another? Are we being inclusive in the way we frame plenaries? Is the traditional structure of a plenary session another way of reinforcing old hierarchies? Questions of this sort can be asked about other aspects of conferences as well and they should be. In reproducing the same kind of events year after year we will inevitably be reproducing inequalities. It is by challenging ourselves to rethink what conferences are for, who they should serve and how they should do it, that we can continue to create added value as an academic association. It is not always easy or comfortable to do this. It is especially hard when, like me, you have been working in a particular way for a decade. But it is a challenge to which we need to rise. But it is work that needs to be done.


‘Wow, there’s a lot of white people here’

In 2017 UACES celebrated its 50th anniversary. We held a party at the British Academy in London complete with string duet, birthday cake and a fabulous poetry reading from the multi-talented Paul Stephenson. I’d highly recommend that all UACES fans check out Paul’s wonderful ode to the Association. It was a brilliant evening, with plenty of fizz flowing and a real feeling of warmth and community from the attendees.

In amongst the celebrations, a member made a remark to me that has influenced the work of the Association over the last 3 years. She was a new member of UACES and had joined the party to meet others from the Association. We were chatting about her work and her journey to London that day when she gestured around the room and said to me ‘wow, there’s a lot of white people here.’ And she was right. And she would’ve been right if she’d said it at one of our conferences, or if she’d (virtually) leafed through the pages of one of our journals. UACES – like our object of study – is extremely white.

This is something we need to work to change. Again, it requires us – the staff, the trustees and the wider membership – to interrogate the structures that exist within our discipline, the traditions that underpin our activities and the principles that guide our funding grants. We have taken initial steps towards making UACES more diverse and inclusive with our DIMES project and our newly-instituted EDI officer role but the work needs to continue.

At the DIMES (Diversity, Inclusion and Multidisciplinarity in European Studies) workshop in Leiden, March 2020.

Recent tweets from black academics sharing their experiences of working in higher education under the hashtag #blackintheivory (started by Joy Melody Woods and Shardé M. Davis) underline just how much needs to change within academia. It is important that people in influential positions work to change and shape the discipline of European Studies. But we also need to have conversations about why those people are in these positions in the first place and how we can shift the power structures that currently underpin academic work. Looking back over my decade at the Association, it shouldn’t have taken so long for us to start having these conversations but I am glad that we are now doing so.


‘60% of our membership is based outside the UK’

On 9-10 May 2016 we held the UACES Student Forum (now Graduate Forum) conference in Brussels. It was only a month after the terrorist attacks and the presence of armed soldiers on the metro added a tension to proceedings that I have not experienced at any other time in that city.

The first day of the conference was Europe Day. It felt like a fortuitous moment to start the event but its celebration of all things European was also starkly juxtaposed with the rhetoric and discourse that dominated British political life at the time. After the first day of conferencing, we had drinks in a lovely little bar called Monk – highly recommended for its beer and cheese selection. I went up to bar and ended up in a conversation with a local about the upcoming referendum. I remember being exhausted by the topic, drained from listening to frustrating debates on the Today programme, sick of having racism and xenophobia aired alongside the views of those who wanted to remain in the interests of ‘balance’. I put my head in my hands and said ‘I just don’t know what’s going to happen’. But I don’t think I’d lost all hope.

UACES did not intervene in the referendum debate. Our lack of action was criticised by some of our members and applauded by others. UACES as an association does not exist to make statements in support of the EU – it exists to provide our members with a space to examine and critique the workings of the EU and its member states. As a registered charity, we have always had to be impartial in our dealings with political matters and I think that our stance during the Brexit debate was the correct one.

This does not mean that when I woke up on 24 June 2016, rolled over in bed, picked up my phone and checked on the results that my heart didn’t sink. Not only was I bitterly disappointed with the result from a personal perspective, I was deeply concerned about what it would mean from a professional standpoint. Would our members desert us now that we were no longer based in an EU member state? Would we still have access to the funding which supports our work with graduate students and early-career researchers? Had we, a British-based association of European Studies, lost our raison d’être?

4 years on, remarkably little has changed. In fact, UACES has managed to increase its membership, has continued to win funding from the European Commission – though whether this will continue after the transition period remains to be seen – and has expanded its relationships with EU universities. Europe and the European Union are, in many ways, more relevant to people’s lives in the UK than they have ever been. UACES has gone from strength to strength during this time partly due to the work of its officers, trustees and staff but also because our members understand that we are both British and European. And this remains the challenge for us over the next few years – to exist both within and without the European Union. I think it’s safe to say, that with 60% of our membership being based outside the UK, we stand a fair chance of upholding our dual identity for some time to come.


Closing down the office for a ‘couple of weeks’

When 2020 began, none of us could have predicted the situation that UACES and its members would be facing. The signing of the UK exit deal on 31 January – finally making Brexit mean Brexit – looked to be the biggest challenge the Association would face this year. Then, a month and a half later, on 13 March 2020 the UACES staff and officers sat in the office and made the decision to close down for a ‘couple of weeks’ over the peak of the coronavirus pandemic…

As I write this, it has been 4 ½  months since I last saw the UACES office. During this time, we have had to cancel our annual conference. We have put together a virtual event which I hope will provide a useful space for members to get feedback on their research. We have got to grips with remote working tools like Slack and Zoom. And we have also had to think again about what a membership association should be offering its members.

Over the last few years, it has become increasingly clear that learned societies need to offer their members more than a space to present and publish research and the prospect to apply for funding grants. We also need to offer opportunities for professional development and training as well as pastoral support. The pandemic and associated lockdown have only served to emphasise this further.  Throughout lockdown, UACES staff and trustees have worked to provide space for members to meet and chat with colleagues – sometimes to discuss their research but sometimes just to share a coffee and have a bit of a moan.

This is one of the reasons that I believe UACES is special and it is the reason that I have continued to work at the Association. When we ask members to outline the value of UACES membership, the same words come up again and again: ‘community’, ‘network’, ‘peers.’ The community has come together during the pandemic to continue to promote and further the study of Europe and to support those (in particular students and ECRs) who have been disproportionately affected by the lockdown.


A Shakespearean or a Europeanist?

When Richard Whitman, then UACES chair, phoned me to offer me the job back in 2010, I was extremely excited. It was my first ‘grown-up’ job! I was going to be working in Central London and I was going to get the opportunity to travel for work – both things which had been on my wish list since my teens.

What I didn’t realise at the time was that I was not only embarking on a 1-year parental leave cover. I was joining a community of fellow academics who have always made me feel like I belong, even though I am not a Europeanist by training. My PhD may well be in Shakespeare Studies, but these days I think of myself as more a part of the European Studies community than a Shakespearean.

I joined the Association at a time when the UK’s membership of the European Union was not an issue for debate. Now, 10 years on (only 10!) Britain has left the EU. I joined before the #metoo movement, before (some) white academics started really listening to our BIPOC colleagues about the racism and micro-aggressions they face daily. 10 years on, progress has sometimes been slow and there is still a lot of work to be done – not least by me – but I do feel proud of the moments when we have challenged ways of thinking and have worked to restructure our practices.

Of course, this work wouldn’t be possible without the enthusiasm and commitment of the UACES trustees and members I have worked with over the years. They are too numerous to mention here but I would like to say a special thank you to Helen Drake, Nick Startin, Rebecca Zahn, Richard Whitman, Simon Usherwood, Paul James Cardwell, Maria Garcia and Jocelyn Mawdsley. Thank you too to Katharine Wright, our first-ever EDI officer, for driving many much-needed changes at the Association. Together, we have all ensured that UACES has not stood still over the last decade and we have prepared the Association for further progress in the future. I will always be grateful for the warmth and generosity of UACES members and I am excited to see what the next 10 years will bring.