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personal and professional: Kathy MacDonald

February 3, 2023

This week, what I suggested might be my most important piece of writing this year came out: a profile of Katharine MacDonald, a palaeolithic archaeologist, co-authored with Professor Wil Roebroeks, for the site devoted to the histories of women in ‘the digging sciences’: Trowelblazers.

She was no doubt a pioneering archaeologist: an article she co-authored has just been written up in The Guardian, CNN, the New York Times and even the Wall Street Journal. In the process of writing the profile, I drew on my professional interest in women’s history, taking her inclusion in Trowelblazers as an opportunity to think about how we normally tell the story of ‘pioneers’ and how to include this story of a quiet, careful, collaborative scholar who worked mostly with databases instead of directly with digs. And, as so often, it seemed important to point out:

Yet despite her achievements, brilliant scholarship and dedication to the discipline, Kathy – soft-spoken and unpretentious – did not gain the rapid career advancement one might expect, and she remained on temporary contracts throughout her career.

But of course my main interest was personal: Kathy was my wife, my partner of 20+ years, the mother of our daughter, and the love of my life. She was my home. Her sudden death this summer of an invasive group A strep (iGAS) infection was devastating, and I’m still sorting through the ruins. The trowelblazers profile has reminded a lot of us of how much we miss her.

Kathy MacDonald at the palaeolithic site on the beach in Happisburgh, Norfolk, UK 2008 (Photo Wil Roebroeks)

While I never really saw her much out in her professional life – she tried to keep the office at the office and home at home (something I greatly admired) – my discussions with Wil underlined what I had already observed: that she was a better scholar than I by a country mile. She delved into subjects thoroughly. Most of us academics download huge numbers of pdfs; she read them. She worked and re-worked the arguments of her articles until they were absolutely watertight – probably to the occasional chagrin, but eventual benefit, of her co-authors. (Both of these traits stood her in good stead at home, too. She came out on top in most of our disagreements by citing multiple sources and making a watertight case. As her friend Sarah Moss writes in her book Names for the Sea: “Kathy is usually right” [p.7]. But I digress.) She worked methodically and slowly – because that kind of care-ful work is slow. In so doing, she made an outstanding collaborator and colleague. She commented on colleagues’ and students’ work thoroughly with insight and care, including thorough critique. I came to realise more fully in talks with Wil how radically egalitarian she was as well: she treated her MA students with the same care and interest as she treated world-renowned figures.

We value these traits in academics – but we seldom reward them.

None of us had any inkling that Kathy’s life would be cut short. At the time she died, however, she was anticipating that her career as an archaeologist might already have ended. She was unemployed – again – and after 18 years on temporary contracts, she felt like she was running out of career rope. She’d been told a decade before that her only hope of getting a permanent job in her department was to get one of the major ERC or NWO grants that she had neither the CV nor the kind of character to lead. They also had near single-digit percentage success rates. As of this summer, she was holding on for one more grant proposal she was involved with, and perhaps to hear whether the vague noises her department had recently been making about offering her a permanent part-time post would come to anything. Again, based on 18 years’ experience, she was not holding her breath for either one (as it turns out, the position in the department was close to happening). She was also sick of the cycle of uncertainty and was starting to feel that a clean break might be preferable. At one point recently, she told me that while she was sure of her abilities as an archaeologist, her lack of interest in self-promotion meant she probably did not have the skillset or interests of a successful academic.

Most precarious scholars don’t hold out that long, but then most don’t have mentors like Wil with the insight, willingness, and the means to make sure there is work for someone like Kathy when the official policy is to chew up young scholars and spit out all but the lucky few. Movements like 0.7 are finally starting to call attention to the plight of precarious staff, and/but we also need to think about how it also harms our institutions when they can’t foster the kinds of scholars that nurture their field, their colleagues and their students.

I’ve added our profile of Kathy to my list of professional publications, but I’m not sure it will count for a whole lot with my employers, either. Above all, I’m hoping Kathy’s profile on Trowelblazers might help inspire more Kathy-like scholars to enter – and remain – in the field, but also that the field will become more welcoming to them.

As Wil wrote: science and academia could do with more “Kathyness”.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Margaret MacDonakd permalink
    February 3, 2023 3:14 pm

    That perceptiveness, thoroughness and intellectual energy come though strongly in Kathy’s work, and illuminated her character. Her intense visual responses and imagination were other inspiring characteristics, plus her capacity for love and friendship. But you are right, it’s a huge struggle to get through the multiple academic glass ceilings. Thank you Alec!

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