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…)

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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A historian in journalism – one week into the job

Posted in Academia, History, Journalism, News by thehistorywoman on April 12, 2015

NewsJust over one week into my new job at the press agency I must say I absolutely love it. Working at the foreign languages desk I spend most of my day monitoring the news coming in from our correspondents all over the world via the various ‘queues’ on my computer screen and see if any translations are needed.

Most of the time the various desks, politics, panorama, sports etc, ask us to do translations for them – from English (mostly) and Spanish (rarely) into German – or we offer them stories we think might be of interest to them. We also keep an eye on the news generally, checking newspapers and websites, and sometimes we do our own stories or cover for a correspondent who is away on an assignment or on holiday.

Being paid to read the newspaper

Yes, ok, I’m being paid to read the newspaper. But that’s not the whole story. I also learn a lot. Most of the time the stories we translate need a fair amount of additional research. Some of it can be done on the Internet, some of it on various internal and external databases storing information on people, places and events. In the past week I’ve learnt among other things about the Nepalese constitution, the reasoning of the jury that convicted the Boston bomber, and a young woman who escaped Boko Haram.

It’s not just the stories themselves I enjoy. Doing the translations is fun too. The perfectionist in me always wants to find the right word, the correct idiom, the best way of putting it. Sometimes several colleagues at a time are deliberating about the best translation. With an international team of journalists and translators, including native speakers of English, Spanish and German, you learn a lot about the nuances of a language and the (subconscious) prejudices of its speakers.

You also learn a lot about things you never thought you would take an interest in – like golf. The story about Tiger Woods’ comeback was definitely the most difficult one I’ve had to translate so far, mainly because I don’t play golf myself and don’t know anything about putts, chips, birdies and the lot. Thanks to my colleague on the sports desk and various amateur golfers in the office I now know a little bit more.

A deadline is a deadline

What I really like about the job though is the speed and the almost instant reward when a story goes out. It’s even better when you find it on the web or see it printed in the paper a day later. You know that you have done something, and that you have provided a service many people will benefit from. No monograph, book chapter or academic article I’ve written will ever get the same exposure. (more…)