Last week, I was at the inaugural conference for BRAIS – the British Association for Islamic Studies. It’s one of the initiatives assisted by the centre that’s funding me, and it brought together philosophers, historians, language scholars, political scientists, and social researchers like myself, all of whom touch on Islam and Muslims in the work that we do. I presented a paper as part of a panel on Scottish Muslim experiences organised by the Muslims in Britain Research Network; I was also busy as a volunteer support; it was a chance to “network” – crucial for a grad student on the cusp of completing the thesis and looking for “the next step;” and I took it upon myself to live-tweet Aaqil Ahmed’s keynote presentation. Ahmed is the head of religion and ethics for the BBC, and therefore a pretty important guy in the media environment in which I work and conduct my research. I’m not going to say it was the most important two days of my academic career so far, but it was exemplary of both the work I’m doing and the point I’ve arrived at.
Thing is, five years ago, I would not have imagined this is where I would be. Then, I was working as an associate producer with CBC Radio in Ottawa, Canada. Moving to Scotland – indeed, to Edinburgh – was a dream but only that. My wife and I had tucked some savings in the bank account and wondered if “one day” we could move back there and catch some of the magic from our first year of marriage, living by the North Sea beside the ruins of a medieval cathedral whilst she studied theology and literature. Academic study for me? I had scorned that choice, leaving promising results from my undergraduate degree so that I could “actually do something,” i.e. be a journalist. Through difficult years as a casual employee, respected and made use of but not given anything like job security, I had wondered whether I ought to go back to school. Other casuals had taken their undergrads in various fields and then done their Master’s of Journalism before levering into the same position I was in. Sometimes, they seemed to be getting the preferred shifts, the increased responsibility. Was having the masters degree the difference?
But when I considered that step, I thought – what would I study? Someone had wisely told me that there was no point in doing postgraduate study if you didn’t have a question: something burning that you wanted to solve. Without it, you’d just be wasting your time. This made sense to me, so I resisted and rode waves of underemployment until I got onto the contract ladder and, from there, finally, a permanent job.
Edinburgh, then, and the University of Edinburgh, and a fully funded PhD, were not on the horizon in 2009.
Then the CBC announced a simply mammoth job cut. 800 positions gone, and to skip in journalistic fashion to the punchline (though I’d get an F for this blog, meandering as it is), one of them was mine. That which I had worked so hard to achieve was gone. I don’t need to get into the family dynamics, including the six-month-old son at home, to tell you this was traumatic. It’s as much about my conception of myself. Journalism and public radio had been goals of mine since childhood.
We wondered about sticking around and going back to casual work. But other media outlets were hacking and slashing, and I was not the only one gone of my cohort. That meant a lot of people fishing for casual and freelance work in the same pool, and the reason these steps were taken in the first place was that money was short. We decided instead to make a one-time life redirection. After not too long a time thinking about it, I had a question in mind, and it turns out some places were receptive to helping me ask it. Still oriented to the UK, I got accepted at the University of Manchester and King’s College London. Took KCL, got a much-needed scholarship which took out half of my overseas tuition fees, and graduated with distinction. Got wind of the PhD funding at Edinburgh, and it was almost too much to hope for. But I went for it, and I got it.
So now, with all that effort, all those thoughts, all those applications bringing me to last week’s conference, I settled into my chair and opened Twitter to report on Ahmed’s discussion on why we need religious programming. And there, scrolling through my feed, were the desperate and pessimistic tweets.
Livetweeting was interspersed with long-distance sympathy in an almost tragicomic manner. My feed looked absurd.
The purpose of this is not to snidely or breezily suggest that things can get better, that there is life after the CBC. I was almost 30 when those cuts had been announced: I knew there was life left. People I love, programmes I worked for are going, and the broadcaster I believed in will have a hard time doing what Canadians want it to do. So I am sad and shocked – probably not surprised, given the news about hockey rights that preceded this. Dave Atkinson, a victim of the same round of cuts that got me, put it so well: “You are the chump.” Now, it’s 657 someone elses. Plus families, children, social relationships, mortgages and other properties that are not destroyed by this but certainly put into question.
I can say that I would not be where I am now if I had not been that chump. I was complacent, too timid to change things for myself. So they changed for me, and I had to adjust. Now, I’m here.