The History Woman's Blog

The Turkeys have Voted for Christmas

Posted in Comment, News, Politics, Uncategorized by thehistorywoman on February 2, 2017

turkeyAfter a large majority of British MPs voted in favour of triggering Article 50 last night, the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said that “history has been made”. And it’s tragic history indeed. The turkeys voted for Christmas once again – allegedly to uphold the will of the people who voted in a referendum on 23 June last year to leave the European Union, but disregarding the socio-economic consequences as well as the fact that many of those voters have come to regret their decision in the meantime.

After the Supreme Court ruling in late January, Parliament was given a chance to stop the impending disaster. And while the majority of Scottish MPs, a large number of Labour MPs, several Lib Dems and a Tory tried to do so by voting against starting the process of leaving the EU, their opposition was not enough.

Britain has finally decided it prefers isolationism over being one among 28. A country that once headed a large empire decided it simply could not be an equal to some of its poorer relations in central and eastern Europe whose migrant workers it so resents, and it certainly was not willing to play second fiddle to its neighbours France and Germany at the negotiating table.

Risking membership of the single market as well as losing the immense talent and economic contribution of EU migrants to Britain is a high price to pay for its pride. Large banks are already preparing to relocate to Frankfurt and Paris as the City of London is losing its appeal as a gateway into Europe, EU citizens in the UK are looking for jobs elsewhere as their future remains up in the air, and fewer EU students want to come to study at British universities as they fear they might no longer be welcome.

Meanwhile, Theresa May will have to go cap in hand to autocratic rulers in China and Turkey and fight to maintain a ‘special relationship’ with the US for the benefit of British trade, turning a blind eye to human rights violations as well as gross misogyny. But there are sacrifices one has to make to appear to be in charge of one’s country.

Isolationism has won over a common project to maintain peace and prosperity across Europe. Nationalism and xenophobia have won over multiculturalism. Pride has won over common sense. Only the British people have lost. But they have made history.

gma

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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…)

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…)

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.

gm

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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EU referendum raises questions about voting rights and citizenship

Posted in Comment, Early Modern, History, Politics, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on May 28, 2015

The news that foreigners would not be allowed to vote in the planned EU referendum came as a bit of a shock earlier this week, if not as a major surprise. The rules are based on those for the General Elections. Besides, it seems the Tories are keen to exclude anyone from voting who might not agree with them on a possible Brexit, in particular EU migrants and younger people.

As an EU citizen I would have liked to see the UK government include us in the vote as we are most immediately affected. If Britain leaves the EU it is us who suffer most, as our movement, working rights, taxation arrangements, pensions, transfer of money and even family life might be affected. As EU citizens living in the UK are allowed to vote in EU and local elections here it would be only logical to let us have our say. But I was not holding my breath.

However, for me, this piece of news has opened another question on voting rights and citizenship and what these should be based on. To be sure, citizenship and voting rights are not the same. Even though they are not British citizens, Irish and Commonwealth citizens, including EU citizens from Malta and Cyprus, ‘over 18 who are resident in the UK’ along with Members of the House of Lords are also allowed to vote based on their special status or historic ties to Britain. On the other hand, British citizens who left the country 15 years or longer ago have lost their voting rights in the UK without automatically acquiring the franchise in their current country of residence thus leaving them completely disenfranchised.*

Defining the various historic ties and exceptions as reasons for giving (or declining) people the vote in an EU referendum is to an extent an arbitrary move. Reasons could clearly be found to extend the vote not just to all EU citizens, but to young people over the age of 16, or to people ordinarily resident in the UK. Likewise, we might wonder if voting rights should generally be based on residence or where we pay our taxes.

In some ways, this reminds me of the debates over the franchise during the English revolutionary period in the seventeenth century, when Cromwellians, republicans, Levellers and a variety of other people attempted to define what qualified an individual to vote. Each of these groups tried to find justifications for the franchise that matched their own interests.

Traditionally, only adult male property owners of freehold land worth 40 shillings or more were allowed to vote. Both Cromwellians and republicans wanted to maintain property qualifications, largely based on the ownership of land, while modifying the amount of property required. The Instrument of Government that established the Protectorate also provided for a redistribution of parliamentary seats to reflect population numbers, abolishing some of the anomalies allowing a few large landowners to select their favoured candidates. The Levellers argued for manhood suffrage disregarding wealth or income, with some even going as far as implying the possibility of votes for women.

Alas, at the moment, the tendency is towards narrowing, not extending the vote.

gm

*

* This law is going to change over the next couple of years. However, the changes won’t be in place in time for the EU referendum.

On e-mails that should never be sent

Posted in Academia, Comment by thehistorywoman on February 1, 2015

At_Sign_NimbusFollowing a recent staff survey which saw many of my colleagues complain about long working hours and an unhealthy work-life balance our Faculty recently introduced an e-mail curfew. According to this curfew no work-related emails should be sent before 7.30 am or after 6.30 pm Monday to Friday or at the weekend. While the Faculty’s heart (does THE FACULTY have a heart?) was certainly in the right place, the curfew was not.

One of the few perks of having an academic job is that I can – lectures, seminars and meetings excluded – do my work whenever I want, provided I get it done. If that means working until 2am on Thursday morning and not going into the office until 2pm, so be it. Us creative types usually don’t really do the nine to five anyway. But if I’m then not allowed to sent out any emails after 6.30 pm I have only half a day in which to get things done.

To accommodate people’s flexible working patterns, the suggestion was then made to save drafts of the e-mails we were planning to send and auto-release them from the e-mail system during official working hours.

Since my technical skills are severely limited (I’ve only just worked out how to send a meeting request in Outlook) I won’t even go there. Nor do I see the point of saving a lot of e-mails in my draft folder at 10pm only to send them out next morning as one of my well-meaning colleagues suggested, as this would mean handling each e-mail twice thus adding to the working hours this measure was actually meant to reduce. You know the one about the spirit and the letter of the law. (more…)

24 Hours in Academia

Posted in Academia, Comment by thehistorywoman on November 1, 2014

happy_woman_in_front_of_lap_top_by_mrphilips-d5ncb4tI used to think that I was the only saddo still on the computer while everyone else was down the pub on a Friday night. Turns out that’s not the case. I received several work-related e-mails from academic colleagues during the hours when other people were getting drunk last night, and on opening my mailbox this Saturday morning there was another load, including one sent at 6am apologising for a late contribution to an edited collection. Sometimes I get e-mails from colleagues sent at 2am or 5am, when I’m usually in my bed (NB for academics: That’s the thing in your bedroom that has the mattress on it. Some people use it for something called ‘sleep’.)

In this 24-hour culture academia has become, overworked staff have to function like clockwork or the lectures won’t be prepared for Monday, the essays returned by Tuesday (along with the latest chapter submitted by one of your PhD students you annotated over dinner), the article submitted by Wednesday, the funding application on Thursday, the review written on Friday and the UG Open Day be prepared by Saturday. If you dare to take Sunday off, you might find yourself stumbling unprepared into your 9 am seminar on Monday.

I have frequent rants to my friends and family about unsociable working hours, unreasonable workloads and the lack of a work-life balance. Surveys by the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) or by The Guardian regularly show that academics are struggling with work, with life, with bullying, with mental health.

Yet, as long as there are people willing to work unreasonable hours for the sake of their reputation, their publication record, their career, or simply to show that they are good colleagues, committed teachers and that they can hack it, they are collaborating with a system that will eventually get them down. And if one of us leaves their ‘cushy’ job (that’s what outsiders seem to think), there will always be another desperate colleague on a temporary contract or a recent PhD to take our place.

So much for the general mood in academia these days. I’ll have a break to do my shopping now.

gm

Life outside academia

Posted in Academia, Comment, Education, History by thehistorywoman on October 25, 2014

AlienGetty460There is life outside academia, and by that I don’t mean that people are having more fun elsewhere. I am only suggesting that an academic career is not the natural, or even the most desirable outcome of a university degree.

As a lecturer in early modern history at a post-1992 university I know that only few of our undergraduate students will progress to a Master’s degree, and even fewer will embark on a PhD in the subject. Out of the few who do, not everyone will end up in an academic job; and with a highly volatile job market increasingly dependent on short-term temporary positions even a post-doc or a one-year teaching contract are not a guarantee of future employment in the sector.

Nevertheless, many universities still do too little to prepare their students for real life, while lecturers (in fairness) might not be the best qualified people to do so, as one of my colleagues pointed out at a recent meeting discussing ‘employability’. After all, most academics would have proceeded straight from their undergraduate degree to postgraduate study, finishing it all off with a PhD within seven or eight years before embarking on a career in research and teaching. The odd bar job aside, few academics will have seen much of the world of work outside when they are let lose on their undergraduate students. (In fact, I often feel a bit like an outsider because I worked in journalism for a number of years before becoming a full-time academic.)

Nevertheless, the percentage of graduates in appropriate employment within six months after leaving university is a key criterion in league tables measuring the success and quality of a higher education institution, and academics are supposed to prepare their students for the job market. So what can we do?  (more…)

How to get some quiet time over lunch

Posted in Academia, Comment by thehistorywoman on October 18, 2014

lunch-breakI dispensed with proper lunch breaks about six months into my first permanent full-time academic job. With lessons to prepare, essays to mark, admin to do, and – heaven forbid – research somewhere on my list, it seemed frivolous to set aside an hour or even thirty minutes each day just to eat a sandwich and have a chat with my colleagues in the staff common room.

Besides, with my colleagues around, most lunchtime conversations would be work related – discussing student problems, documents to be submitted or lesson prep – only reminding me of all the things on my to-do list, which seemed to be growing with every bite off the sandwich. So I decided to eat lunch at my desk instead.

Available for work

Alas, being at your desk implies that you are available for work. More often than not when I’m chewing away while going through my emails someone, either a student or a colleague, will knock on my door and demand that I drop my lunch to attend to whatever problem they are presenting me with.

You could argue that I should just not let them in. But our office doors have little windows we are not allowed to cover, in case there’s a fire and the fire warden needs to check if we are in. (I suspect the window is also there to monitor more sinister goings on, but let’s stick with the fire story for now.) (more…)