In discussion – Ruth Blakeley and Kyle Grayson, BISA Chair and Vice-Chair
As the new academic year begins, we catch up with new BISA Chair, Professor Ruth Blakeley (University of Sheffield), and Vice-Chair, Professor Kyle Grayson (Newcastle University), to discuss their plans for BISA. These include a new early-career network, continuing to support Heads of PIR Departments in attracting students and staff from diverse backgrounds, the defence of Social Sciences, and ensuring the two BISA journals go from strength to strength. We also asked Ruth and Kyle about their research interests and any advice they have for early-career colleagues.
What are your priorities for BISA over the next two years?
RB: The COVID-19 pandemic has caused us to think hard about how we invest in and secure BISA’s future as sustainably as possible. We are fortunate that BISA has been very well led by the previous Chair, Professor Mark Webber, who took significant steps to secure the future of BISA through overhauls of the finance and governance practices, and through investment in a highly professional staff team, led by Juliet Dryden, who are exceptionally well placed to grow and strengthen BISA in the years to come.
Our first priority is to continue in that vein, recovering membership levels following a significant fall when the 2020 conference had to be cancelled, and ensuring that wise decisions are made on the investment of funds. BISA triples every pound invested by members, to deliver a range of activities via the conference, working groups, and PGN, as well as through awards to fund research activities, particularly focused on early-career colleagues. This can only be achieved because of the healthy financial returns on BISA’s two scholarly journals, Review of International Studies, and European Journal of International Security.
Our second priority, therefore, is to ensure these journals continue to go from strength to strength. Shortly, the contract for publication of BISA’s journals will go out to tender and we’ll be looking to secure a contract with a publisher that is committed to giving us the best return on investment, as well as supporting BISA and our journal editors in upholding our commitments to excellent scholarship that truly reflects the diversity of the discipline, while at the same time, taking seriously our EDI commitments. Within the next two years, the current editorial teams for both journals will complete their terms of office, so we will launch the recruitment process for new editorial teams within the next 12 months. We ask members to look out for our call for new editors in summer 2022, and do please contact us if you would like an informal discussion on a prospective bid.
Our third priority is to invest in our early-career members. Over 50% of our current members are in the early stages of their careers, whether graduate researchers, postdocs, or junior lecturers. We have an active and supportive Postgraduate Network (PGN), but in the coming months, we will launch an Early-Career Network targeted at our post-doc and junior lecturer colleagues. We will offer a series of tailored events around the 2022 conference that focus on career planning, research and publication, demystifying the REF, impact and knowledge exchange, and academic mentoring.
"We will launch an Early-Career Network targeted at our post-doc and junior lecturer colleagues. We will offer a series of tailored events around the 2022 conference that focus on career planning, research and publication, demystifying the REF, impact and knowledge exchange, and academic mentoring."
Our fourth priority is to take seriously the findings of the recent BISA and PSA commissioned research into Career Trajectories in Politics and International Studies, and to ensure that we are working hard to support Heads of Department in initiatives to attract students from diverse backgrounds to study International Studies, to ensure that a diverse body of students continue into postgraduate studies and into careers in academia. We are committed to supporting academic departments in several areas:
1) to better understand the factors that impede recruitment, retention and progression of women and ethnic minority members;
2) to explore whether the intersections of certain protected characteristics exacerbate these effects and to identify ways to address this if so;
3) to support and share best practice across our networks, including the PSA-BISA Heads of Departments network;
4) to better reflect the range of expertise and knowledge that will only serve to enrich the disciplines of Politics and IR; and
5) to ensure that we explore ways to cultivate a disciplinary community in which all students can see themselves reflected in our people, our teaching and research, and our wider ethos.
Our final priority is to ensure BISA actively promotes and defends the Social Sciences. The Social Sciences are under attack, and are vulnerable to the political and cultural whims of the powerful. Social Science departments across the sector are under threat, and repeatedly called upon to defend their worth and value for students. The reality is that if the world is going to have any hope of addressing the enormous challenges humanity faces – the climate crisis, growing inequality gaps, resource scarcity, erosion of the rule of law, democratic decline, and increasing polarisation – a human approach, underpinned by a social conscience, is critical in shaping and buttressing technical and technological solutions. Social Science scholars are very well placed to provide human insights, and to collaborate with scholars across the academic spectrum of scientists, engineers, and arts and humanities colleagues. We therefore assert BISA’s commitment to work with other learned societies and professional associations to robustly defend the Social Sciences, and to explain the significance of International Studies in addressing some of the world’s most pressing and wicked problems.
"We are working hard to support Heads of Department in initiatives to attract students from diverse backgrounds to study International Studies, to ensure that a diverse body of students continue into postgraduate studies and into careers in academia."
How important is BISA’s virtual event programme and what resources do you have in place?
KG: The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we all work and interact. This is true for BISA as well. With the cancellation of our 2020 conference, we knew we had to provide for our members in new and different ways, predominantly virtually. Luckily, with the substantial investment into our systems and website the year before the pandemic, and the appointment of our Communications Manager, Chrissie Duxson, we were very well placed to quickly develop a virtual programme of events, running them a couple of times per week from mid-2020 onwards, in collaboration with our working groups, PGN, and our trustees. With investment in some additional staff support, and in appropriate communications platforms to host events, we have been able to improve our offer to members because these virtual events overcome the challenges of constrained finances for travel and people’s limited time. As a result, a more diverse group of scholars has been able to access BISA activities, including colleagues with significant caring responsibilities or leadership roles, as well as colleagues from around the world. It also means that those with fewer funds available for research activity and travel can participate. We recognise the importance of maintaining these levels of inclusion as part of our EDI commitments, and so have taken the decision to keep many of our working group and PGN activities online, reserving financial investment into face-to-face activities for events that will have the most significant impacts. Examples will include colleagues coming together for more in-depth and focused work on grant applications and edited collections or special issues, rather than standard panels, roundtables and guest speaker formats. This way of working also helps BISA to deliver on its commitments to reduce our carbon footprint in the race to reverse the devastating effects of climate change.
"Virtual events overcome the challenges of constrained finances for travel and people’s limited time. As a result, a more diverse group of scholars has been able to access BISA activities, including colleagues with significant caring responsibilities or leadership roles, as well as colleagues from around the world."
What plans do you have for #BISA2022 in Newcastle?
KG: We are so excited by the prospect of hosting a face-to-face conference, and are delighted that BISA will finally come to Newcastle. But we also recognise that not all of our members will be in a position to travel and attend in person. We are exploring options for ensuring that as many members as possible can take part, through a mix of live and virtual events. We have learned a lot from our experiences of providing an extensive online offer over the last 18 months, and want to draw on this to provide the best experience possible for colleagues, whether participating in person or virtually. Those who attend in person, and those who participate online will inevitably have a different experience, but we want to ensure that this is as positive and engaging as possible, if different. This is very much a work in progress, so do please share your thoughts with us as we work towards this exciting event.
Are there any exciting events planned over the next year?
KG: We are excited to host and participate in a series of high-profile events over the coming year, including the model UN climate negotiations and model NATO, targeted at students of Politics and IR. We have found in the past that these events are key to encouraging students to consider postgraduate study in International Studies subjects, and we consider this to be incredibly important for securing a pipeline of fantastic scholars in the future.
How important are the journals and book series to BISA?
RB: The journals and book series are BISA’s jewels in the crown. Our role is to promote scholarship in International Studies, and we are proud to be the owners of two journals that are producing outstanding scholarship and have fantastic international reputations. The Cambridge Studies in International Relations series (our book series) showcases outstanding long-form scholarship from a very broad range of scholars, and with our journals, this means that we are producing the very best scholarship in the field.
Why did you decide to get involved with the running of BISA?
RB: I’ve had a very long relationship with BISA, attending my first BISA conference in the first year of my PhD. In all honesty, it was an alienating and intimidating experience, but it was also fun, and the place where I found a community of scholars I could relate to and who could relate to me. I was invited to stand for election as a BISA trustee as a junior lecturer, and went on to become the BISA Secretary, with responsibility for membership and conferences. I had the privilege of coordinating the academic programmes for four BISA conferences, including a joint one with the ISA, and the 40th BISA anniversary conference. I then took a break, to take on the editorship of the BISA journal, Review of International Studies, from 2016-2020. I was encouraged to stand for election as BISA Vice Chair in 2018, which would also mean taking on the Chair role from 2021. This was a real privilege and I was excited to do this, given how much BISA has meant to me throughout my career. Academia can be very lonely and intimidating, and professional associations have an incredibly important role to play in bringing colleagues together, demystifying our profession, shaping behaviour in academic departments, and ensuring that our discipline is championed and defended. For these reasons, it is both an enormous responsibility and pleasure to Chair the BISA Board of Trustees. I only hope I can live up to the expectations and hopes of our many inspiring members.
KG: I attended my first BISA conference back in December of 2004 at Warwick University having just completed my PhD in Canada. The quality of scholarly exchange, intellectual vibrancy, and social informality compared to other disciplinary spaces made such a positive impression, that I actively pursued employment opportunities in the UK as a result, landing a temporary lectureship several months later. Since that time, BISA has continued to play an important role in my intellectual development and in expanding my professional networks. I sought election as a trustee in 2016 and found the opportunity to engage in strategic level discussions that aimed to make positive difference in the profession extremely rewarding. When BISA required temporary cover for its Secretary position in 2017, I agreed to step in, taking over in the middle of conference cycle for Brighton. I won’t lie, it was baptism by fire! However, from that experience, I also realised there were many things that BISA could be doing better with its conference, including making it more inclusive and having it better reflect exciting new subfields within the discipline. On that basis, I stood for Secretary in the autumn of 2017 and was thrilled to be elected into the role. Over the ensuing three years I did my best to continue to take measures that would improve the BISA conference experience for delegates as well as to be the ‘conscience’ of the Association (a descriptor in the role) by bringing EDI considerations to forefront of BISA’s core activities. While I may not have always got everything perfect, I do believe that I left these remits in better shape than I found them. When I was encouraged to consider running for Vice-Chair, I have to admit that my first thought was ‘haven’t I done enough?’. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that there was much more to do! Thus, I am really excited (and humbled) by the prospect of working with Ruth, our excellent trustees, and the brilliant BISA team to further improve what we provide to our members, make International Studies in the UK an attractive field of study for people from all backgrounds, and demonstrate the intrinsic value of International Studies as a way of positive engaging with our worlds to address the major challenges of the 21st century.
"Academia can be very lonely and intimidating, and professional associations have an incredibly important role to play in bringing colleagues together, demystifying our profession, shaping behaviour in academic departments, and ensuring that our discipline is championed and defended.”
What are your areas of research interest?
RB: My research focuses on state violence and human rights. I’ve spent the last decade trying to uncover the extent and implications of the US CIA’s use of torture as part of its Rendition, Detention and Interrogation programme. I have always sought to ensure my research is of use to people beyond the academy, and it has been a privilege to undertake this research in collaboration with an international network of human rights litigators and advocates, from whom I have learned so much. The research is grim, because it concerns the most egregious human rights abuses of hundreds of people, with no regard for the rule of law and of states’ own obligations to uphold the most fundamental of human rights. But there have been victories, achieved through international collaboration between scholars, human rights advocates, litigators, officials, and ordinary citizens who are simply not prepared to accept the most depraved treatment of other humans. This has taught me to never lose hope, and never to give up on the struggle to realise the humane and equal treatment of all people.
KG: my research interests lie at the intersections of security, politics, and culture. I am particularly interested in how security practices reproduce forms of inequality and structural violence locally and globally as well as how culture, as both an interpretive disposition and material production, shapes our understandings of security. This has meant my projects, at first glance, look to be very different from one another, ranging from my doctoral work on Canada’s drug war to my more recent collaborative work on the role of scopic regimes in targeted killing and sound in the practices of nuclear deterrence and non-proliferation. In the end, my ambitions are to show that too often approaches to insecurity merely focus on manifestations of violence rather than the structures that will continue to reproduce them. My contributions in this regard are humble at best.
Give us a brief overview of your careers. Are there any words of wisdom you’d give to our early-career colleagues?
RB: I completed my PhD in 2006, and was appointed to a lectureship in 2007, at the University of Kent. I enjoyed 10 wonderful years at Kent, where I progressed from lecturer to SL, Reader, and eventually, Professor. I took up a range of leadership roles, including Department Director of Postgraduate Research, Faculty Director of Postgraduate Research, and eventually, Head of Department. I was also heavily invested in initiatives to ensure the career progression of women academics. In 2017, I was appointed as Director of one of the Economic and Social Research Council’s Doctoral Training Partnerships, (the White Rose DTP) led by the University of Sheffield. This fulfilled a key ambition to focus my attentions on the funding and support of the brightest and best PhD students across the Social Sciences. Since July 2020, I am privileged to serve as the Head of Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Sheffield.
For early career members of BISA, I would recommend keeping an open mind to the kinds of roles you might take on, and not to assume that a successful career is simply about the publications and grants treadmill. While these are, of course, important, you have long careers ahead of you, potentially outside as well as inside academia, and universities and other employers are desperate for colleagues who are as invested in creating opportunities for others to excel (whether students or colleagues), as they are in your personal achievements. Leadership roles focused on supporting others can be incredibly enriching. Do not shy away from opportunities to lead and to make a difference to others’ lives.
KG: I completed my PhD in 2004 from York University (Canada). I initially undertook a post-doctoral position with the Canadian Consortium for Human Security as well as picking up short-term sessional contracts at institutions across Southern Ontario. In the autumn 2005, I was thrilled when I was appointed to a temporary one year lectureship in Politics at Newcastle University. Little did I know at the time, but this would become my new home, and 16 years down the line, I now find myself as the Head of the School of Geography, Politics, and Sociology working with amongst the very best academics, professional services colleagues, and students in the world!
I am always somewhat reticent about offering careers advice, insofar as anything I say is going to be a product of survivor’s bias, having spent a prolonged period of time as an early-career academic working across institutions without secure employment. Nevertheless, to compliment Ruth’s sage advice above, I would encourage colleagues to be curious: in the questions you ask and where/how you look for answers; in the approaches you take to teaching and in seeking to meet the needs of students from different backgrounds with different learning styles; in identifying challenges faced by students and colleagues and in undertaking leadership roles to address these challenges to make a positive difference. Curiosity is too often in short supply in higher education today and this is to our collective detriment as scholars, teachers, and colleagues.