The History Woman's Blog

Uncertainty and the post-truth society

Posted in Academia, Early Modern, History, Journalism, News, Political Thought by thehistorywoman on December 18, 2016
niccolo_machiavelli_by_santi_di_tito

Niccolò Machiavelli knew about the importance of appearances.

The word ‘Brexit’ entered the Oxford English Dictionary for the first time this month, only weeks after Donald Trump was elected as the next president of the United States and ‘post-truth’ was chosen as the word of the year. All three events are to a greater or lesser extent manifestations of anger with the establishment, a distrust in experts and the frustration of the losers of globalisation in a world of increasing uncertainty.

In the middle ages, the people in Europe had religion as their certainty and the Catholic Church as their guide. Life might not have been easy for poor peasants struggling to survive, but the rules to live by were: Be good, fear God and your reward will be in heaven. The reformations of the sixteenth century changed much of that, as individuals like Martin Luther came to question the authority of the Church and its hierarchies and the onus was laid on the individual to explore the Scriptures and establish a more personal relationship with God. Calvinists’ belief in predestination could also cause uncertainty in individuals who could not detect any signs of being one of the elect in their daily lives.

The Enlightenment tried to free the people from the shackles of religion, and faith increasingly became something they could opt in or out of. Society came to look for certainty through reason and science as scholars and scientists were trying to push the boundaries of human knowledge. The Industrial Revolution subsequently brought an increasing specialisation and division of labour as working processes were perfected, while the rise of the professions created the world of experts the twenty-first century has come to resent.

The people are craving security and they are increasingly finding it in self-delusion: in believing things they want to be true, be they the promises of salvation by sectarian movements, miracle weight-loss cures or fake news. (more…)

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Historians and the Fifth Estate

Posted in Academia, Comment, History, Journalism, Politics by thehistorywoman on August 6, 2016

IMG_0158Historians should get more actively involved in shaping policy, in particular foreign and defence policy. That is the gist of a recent call by Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson in The Atlantic for a Council of Historians to be established in the US.

Taking advice from historians, they suggest, could have helped President George W. Bush in 2003 to appreciate ‘the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims or the significance of the fact that Saddam’s regime was led by a Sunni minority that had suppressed the Shiite majority’. It might even have prevented Bush from choosing to topple Saddam Hussein and leaving us with a great mess in the Middle East.

Allison and Ferguson also suggest, historians could have helped Barack Obama appreciate ‘the deep historical relationship between Russia and Ukraine’ and consequently ‘the risks of closer ties between Ukraine and Europe’, before Russia went to annex Crimea.

Applied History 

The political scientist Allison has long been involved in US policy making as an analyst, consultant and advisor, and his push for a Council of Historians is no doubt influenced or given additional urgency by a real fear that Donald Trump could win the US presidential election and embark on a wrong-headed and dangerous mission to ‘make America great again’.  Together with the British historian Ferguson, Allison co-directs the Harvard Kennedy School’s Applied History Project, so, it should be added, they are promoting their own work.

Now, I’m not normally known for agreeing with Niall Ferguson or the advice he has chosen to give to the UK Education Department for that matter, but I do think the two scholars have a point. It is essential for politicians to be aware of the historical complexities of the issues they are faced with, and they need historical experts to help them respond to those issues in an appropriate way. (more…)

Political Thought in Times of Crisis, 1640-1660 – Symposium, 1-3 Dec

Sponsored by the Folger Institute Center for the History of British Political Thought, Washington, US.

Execution_CharlesI_IIWas the mid-seventeenth-century crisis in Britain and Ireland essentially one aspect of a broader “global” crisis? How might scholars theorize the relationships between political thought and other verbal and non-verbal expressions of change and instability (political, economic, social, cultural, and environmental)? Extending its recent investigations of the discursive and spatial boundaries of political thinking in the early modern period, the Folger Institute Center for the History of British Political Thought will offer a distinctive symposium that demonstrates the continuing value of the study of political thought, not least in showing the relevance of early modern thought to the concerns of our own world. The symposium considers political thought as it crosses language and geo-political domains beyond Britain and Ireland. The geographical range includes the pan-European world in the culmination and aftermath of the Thirty Years War as well as such global contexts as the colonial Americas and Asia. Scholars whose work considers these issues are encouraged to apply.

Royalists_RoundheadsSpeakers and Session Leaders: The symposium will open with a forum that welcomes Geoffrey Parker (The Ohio State University), Michael Braddick (University of Sheffield), and Richard Tuck (Harvard University). On Friday and Saturday, the following speakers have been invited to frame discussions and inspire new lines of inquiry on a number of topics: Sharon Achinstein (The Johns Hopkins University), Jeffrey Collins (Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario), David Cressy (The Ohio State University, emeritus), Cesare Cuttica (Université Paris 8), Martin Dzelzainis (University of Leicester), Rachel Hammersley (Newcastle University), Helmer Helmers (Universiteit van Amsterdam), Ariel Hessayon (Goldsmiths, University of London), Ann Hughes (Keele University), Laura Lunger Knoppers (University of Notre Dame), Karen Ordahl Kupperman (New York University), Gaby Mahlberg (Berlin), Ted McCormick (Concordia University, Montreal), Nicholas McDowell (University of Exeter), David Norbrook (Merton College, Oxford), Carla Pestana (UCLA), and Joad Raymond(Queen Mary University of London)

Schedule: Thursday evening, Friday, and Saturday, December 1 – 3 , 2016.

ApplySeptember 6, for admission and grants-in-aid.

For more information, please see the Folger website.

You can’t buy an education

Posted in Academia, Education, higher education, News, Uncategorized by thehistorywoman on June 4, 2016

UCUAs university lecturers in the UK remain locked in a dispute with their employers over pay and working conditions in Higher Education, a survey published by private student loan company Future Finance this week revealed that less than half of students think their degree will help them get a graduate job to pay off their debts.

The issues are two sides of the same coin: the commodification of Higher Education. With home students now paying tuition fees of £9,000 per year, they rightly ask for value education in return. This involves among others high-quality teaching, well-stocked libraries, a wealth of electronic resources and specialist equipment, modern teaching and learning spaces, and decent student accommodation.

Alas, high tuition fees and the consumer culture they breed among students falsely suggests that the more you pay the more you will get in return. While this might work for cars, washing machines and smartphones, where you pay more to upgrade to a better model, it does not work for university courses. No matter how much you pay, you can’t buy an education. (more…)

Incredible universities

Posted in Academia, literature, Reviews by thehistorywoman on December 1, 2015

imageWhen I left my last academic job, a good friend and colleague gave me Ian McGuire’s campus novel Incredible Bodies, in case I would have any regrets. Like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, it’s a satirical novel about academic life and the dysfunctional characters that populate our universities and take themselves way too seriously, while pretending to shift the paradigms of this world with their research.

At the centre of the novel is Morris Gutman, a thirty-something over-worked and underpaid temporary lecturer in the English Lit department at the University of Coketown, who is still learning the ropes of the system while others are embarking on successful careers.

The aptly-named Gutman is a Candide-like character, who naively stumbles through the academic world thinking hard work, original ideas and compliance will eventually land him a permanent academic position. Alas, he soon comes to find out that it’s all about politics and whether or not certain people in power like you.

Only when an unfortunate car accident and a misunderstanding involving a challenging exchange student and a scheming colleague bring him closer to the centres of power, do his fortunes finally begin to change. (more…)

Redefining the independent scholar

Posted in Academia, Comment by thehistorywoman on September 19, 2015

Buecherregal2Three weeks after quitting my job as an academic historian it’s high time I reinvented myself. I might no longer work at a university, but that doesn’t mean I love history any less. On the contrary, maybe I had to leave because I loved my subject too much to see it destroyed by a changing academic culture driven by unrealistic targets, implemented by the corporate whip, and accompanied by an ever-growing array of pointless paperwork.

Naturally, I won’t give up my research, and I hope I will stay in touch with my former colleagues and students. I will just turn into an independent scholar – at least for a while (until Jeremy Corbyn becomes prime minister, abolishes tuition fees, and learning for learning’s sake will be valued again).

Admittedly, independent scholars have a bit of a bad name. ‘Independent’ is too often considered as a euphemism for ‘unemployed’, ‘amateur’ or ‘hobby’. Independent scholars are the cranks and underdogs of the discipline, who, obsessed by an idea, send random emails to busy university academics trying to convince them of the value of their projects, while struggling to get access to the most basic research tools and resources. But ‘independent’ also means ‘free’.

I have declared independence from an academic system that has left me unhappy and exhausted, and, at times, properly ill. There is only so much research, teaching and admin you can do in your officially paid for 35 hours a week, while our workloads have been expanding ad infinitum. So most full-time academics either have to cut corners or do serious overtime. From my experience in the ‘sector’ (that’s how academics nowadays refer to their line of work) it’s mostly the latter. (more…)

Running away to the circus

Posted in Academia, History, Journalism by thehistorywoman on July 27, 2015

Beamish_editedI’ve done it. I quit my job as an academic historian. It was a full-time permanent job at a decent institution. It was a job I loved. After I sent the email, I screamed – to the bemusement of my friend Fiona, who was staying with me in Berlin for a few days. Then I went to the library and stared at my computer screen for ages. I started crying. Then I felt great relief and started thinking about the new life that was about to start. No more board meetings, no more marking, no more admin.

I would be working as a journalist again. It’s not a career choice known for its security or even respectability (not after Leveson anyway), and yet it’s something I’ve never been able to let go – all those years I’ve been spending at universities, in libraries, researching, writing, completing my PhD, teaching. I’m really going back to my roots.

Back to my roots

I was writing reports for my local newspaper before I even knew what subject I would study at university. I kept writing for various newspapers and press agencies while doing my various degrees, and I would spend university holidays in editorial offices looking for stories. Yet, I always felt I had to do something more ‘serious’. Despite the serious subject matter (there’s no shortage of important and horrifying stories to cover) journalism never felt like work. It always seemed like a bit of fun, a guilty pleasure. So somehow it didn’t qualify as actual work.

History has been like that too sometimes, especially when I’ve just been able to travel to archives and libraries and sit there for hours trailing through the material, getting absorbed into other people’s stories and other people’s lives. Writing things down, getting things published, planning new projects, trialling ideas – all that has been fun too, and I’m not planning to give it up. I might just turn into an independent scholar – at least for a while – until I know where my journey is going to take me next. But more on this anon. On hearing of my uncertain future, a former tutor and now old friend of mine told me to ‘remember what Cromwell said at the end of his life, “No man goes so far as he who knows not where he is going.'” (more…)

The quickie meeting: what academics can learn from journalists

Posted in Academia, Comment, Journalism by thehistorywoman on July 18, 2015

Stand-up_MeetingAmong the many new things I have been learning during my stint at the news agency, the way in which meetings are held has probably left the deepest impression on me. Few of them take longer than ten to fifteen minutes, and the reason for that is that they’re held standing up. As soon as participants start shifting from one foot to the other looking at their watches, the meeting is usually over. Admittedly, journalists are notorious for being short of time, always in a rush. Stories have to be researched, copy has to be filed. Nobody is interested in yesterday’s news.

Nobody, except maybe historians, you might argue. It doesn’t necessarily follow that it doesn’t matter if they waste their time in meetings though. While their sources and archives are unlikely to run away, academic historians usually have stuff to write too, they have to teach and meet their students, and more often than not they have to attend to their admin duties. So please let’s keep meetings short.

Smaller meetings

Not every single member of the department or subject group has to attend every meeting either. At the news agency, each desk (politics, economics, sports etc) tends to send a representative to the various meetings that are held throughout the day to update each other on the news agenda. Maybe it would be enough to send one member of each research group to meet with the head of subject too, provided of course that they are able to speak for the group, which requires some prior communication and coordination.

I’m pleased to say that researchers at Harvard share my view on meetings. As The Times reported the other day, they have also found that meetings with more than seven people are largely ineffective as ‘it is impossible to pick up body language and subtle cues’. Besides, it is important that whoever is moderating the meeting does so with a firm hand, so nobody can dominate or slow things down with irrelevancies. Maybe we should try that at the next board meeting too and free up some extra time for more important things.

Stop the back pain

Stand-up meetings might also help those of us who suffer from a bad back (and which desk-bound worker doesn’t?). After all, they give us the opportunity to move around a bit, adjust our posture, loosen our neck and shoulders, and take the strain off our lower back. So stand-up meetings might create a win-win situation, in which we all have more time and suffer less pain. If that doesn’t improve our working conditions I don’t know what else will.

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Distractions in the lab – and elsewhere in academia

Posted in Academia, Comment, literature, News by thehistorywoman on June 10, 2015
Katharine Burr Blodgett (1898-1979) was the first woman to be awarded a PhD in Physics at Cambridge.

Katharine Burr Blodgett (1898-1979) was the first woman to be awarded a PhD in Physics at Cambridge.

The comments made by the famous scientist and Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt at a recent conference in Korea show that sexism is alive and kicking in academia and elsewhere. Apparently, “three things happen when (women) are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.” Wow!

As several people have pointed out, Hunt is married to fellow scientist Mary Collins. I don’t know whether they met in the lab or not (I’m sure the media will find out soon), but their mutual love for science clearly had something to do with it. So surely that’s not necessarily a bad thing, unless there are problems Hunt hasn’t told us about yet. However, there are many scholars of both genders who just work alongside each other in a team without any sparks flying that hinder their work. It’s just like the real world. So I don’t quite get what the problem is.

As for women crying at work, there’s a simple solution: don’t treat us like s*** and it ain’t gonna happen. Nobody cries for no reason at all. If you find a woman (or indeed a man) crying at work, something is seriously wrong. Either she has been dumped with so much to do (women are the donkeys at work and the safe pair of hands) that she is close to breakdown, or she feels powerless because someone offended or bullied her. If she was feeling happy and appreciated she would not cry. It’s as easy as that. (more…)

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Historians in Britain need to ask the right questions about Europe

Posted in Academia, History, News, Politics by thehistorywoman on May 24, 2015

euFollowing the surprise result of the General Elections earlier this month historians in Britain have reopened the debate about Europe. Depending on where you stand, Britain is either part of Europe, or a strange place across the Channel you can travel to.

The Historians for Britain who have come out in favour of ‘fundamental changes (to be) made to the terms of our EU membership’ are clearly of the latter school, fearing a loss of British identity inside the European Union. In a controversial contribution to the pages of History Today magazine they have gathered historical arguments to show ‘how the United Kingdom has developed in a distinctive way by comparison with its continental neighbours’ to show why it can’t integrate any further in the EU.

Referring to Britain’s common law, its long parliamentary history and its ancient monarchy, Historians for Britain have made the case for a ‘degree of continuity … unparalleled in continental Europe.’

A manifesto for little Britain

Their manifesto for a little Britain based on the old chestnut of British exceptionalism has been countered by the Historians for History, who insist that history should not be used for political propaganda and ‘take issue with the statement’s highly reductive distortion of the history of the United Kingdom.’

bayeaux_tapestry.jpg.pagespeed.ce.tSmoVM3SUYThey highlight that, ‘(i)n terms of ancient systems of democracy, Greece clearly has a much stronger claim than Britain’, while also drawing attention to the fact that the long-standing British monarchy was many times in foreign hands, starting with the Norman Conquest of 1066 followed by the Glorious Invasion from the Netherlands in 1688 and the take-over of the British monarchy by the Hanoverians hailing from the German lands. (more…)