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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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…)

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…)

Being a refugee

Posted in Early Modern, History, literature, News, Political Thought, Republicanism, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on February 14, 2016
Shipwreck_IoP

Woodcut illustration from The Isle of Pines (1668).

It’s weird to be writing a book about English republican exiles in the seventeenth century while thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa make their way to Europe every day. I’ve been wondering a lot what it might feel like to be a refugee and if there are experiences that might link these two very disparate groups of migrants – or indeed migrants at all times, everywhere – such as feelings of displacement, isolation or fear.

One of the things that keeps coming back to me when I read about the present refugee crisis is a letter Algernon Sidney wrote to his father from Italy some 350 years ago, in which he describes his exile experience as that of ‘a broken Limbe of a Ship-wracked Faction’, while also often feeling ‘naked, alone, and without Help in the open Sea.’

The shipwreck metaphor

I think it’s the maritime metaphor that gets me. Even though Sidney was for the most part travelling on horseback over land, he decided to describe his exile situation through the metaphor of shipwreck. The republican faction that he was part of had failed to maintain its power base in England and was replaced by the restoration of the Stuart monarchy. It was shipwrecked and had to start all over again.

Shipwreck was a common metaphor used in England as a maritime country, part of an island surrounded by the sea. It had also been a common metaphor for the exiles of antiquity, who were part of a world of seafarers and adventurers.

Being at sea

It seems that ‘being at sea’ was one of the scariest experiences during times in which humans were much more exposed to the elements and regularly at their mercy, when every sea journey could end in death, and yet had to be undertaken for the purpose of trade, or warfare, or necessary overseas travel.

It is interesting too that Henry Neville in his exile dystopia The Isle of Pines uses the topic of shipwreck to start his narrative about the discovery of an unknown island that holds up a mirror to Restoration England. Here, shipwreck too is an end but also a new beginning and a call for the English republicans to reinvent themselves.

(more…)

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…)

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…)

Pretend less, read more

Posted in Comment, Education, News by thehistorywoman on March 15, 2014

nerd-glassesSince being a nerd has become cool I don’t like it any more. Big glasses are no longer the indicator of a visual impairment caused by too much reading, and pasty skin is less likely caused by long hours spent in libraries, archives or labs. It’s more likely the result of an overpriced holiday in Finland and cleverly applied make-up.

It is now socially acceptable, even hip, to be seen sitting by yourself in a murky café reading Camus. It is even more so if you’re wearing a baggy jumper you found in a charity shop, while frantically scribbling notes into your Moleskin notebook or are indeed staring into your MacBook. Not even questionable personal hygiene or unkempt hair are a safe indicator that the person next to you is a borderline genius.

On the other hand, real nerds are now heading to the gym to fight the pen pusher’s wobbly thighs and bingo wings, while buying the pretty plaid skirts and cardigans now cheaply available in American Apparel. So how am I supposed to tell them apart?

Chances are you will never know if someone is a real nerd until you have seen them walking into a glass door or actually had a conversation with them. In conversation, watch out for tell-tale signs: if the first association they make with the name ‘Churchill’ is that of a nodding dog in the back of a car, they might not be the real thing. If they can tell the difference between Thomas and Oliver Cromwell, you might be on to something. (more…)

The survey that didn’t surprise us

Posted in Academia, Comment, Education, News by thehistorywoman on October 19, 2013

Stress-ZebraStripesSome surveys shock us, others fill us with a sense of relief that it’s not just us. The recent Research Excellence Framework (REF) survey undertaken by the University and College Union (UCU) does both.

The summary of key findings  states that nearly two thirds of the 7,000 respondents said they thought the REF had ‘a detrimental impact on the sector’ and believed it created ‘unreasonable expectations of research outputs’. More than half of respondents also said they would ‘like to see the REF replaced by an alternative method.’ Among the most shocking, though not surprising, findings was that ‘67% of all respondents (and 73% of women responding) felt unable to undertake the necessary work on REF outputs without working excessive … hours.’

In UCU’s 2012 Stress at Work survey ‘over 59% of respondents in HE indicated they worked 46 or more hours a week’ (while being paid for 35), and ‘over 35% worked 51 or more hours.’ Over half of the respondents felt ‘pressured to work long hours’, with many citing the REF as contributing factor to this pressure.

I don’t need a UCU survey to tell me that. I have seen my colleagues panicking about getting that last item for their REF submission out on time, panicking about the quality of the book they had to rush out before the deadline, even though an extra month or two might have enabled them to add that extra bit of research that would have given it the edge. I have also panicked myself hoping to exchange an item I didn’t like so much by something I felt would rate more highly. I have also chided myself for spending my time editing collected essays while the University keeps telling me the two books I have been so proud of and enjoyed so much producing with my friends and colleagues won’t count much in the world of the REF. They want monographs and articles in the top journals. You know the story.

Balancing research and teaching

Another key problem cited in Section 10 of the report, which covers workload issues, was the inability to meet the demands of the REF while undertaking regular teaching duties, including lesson prep or giving feedback to students. According to the survey, the stress caused by the REF is ‘combined with the increasing administrative duties that academics face, including teaching-related administration, grant applications and the significant amount of bureaucracy related to the REF itself.’

I find myself so many times politely (or not so politely) ushering students out of my office to finish that lecture Power Point five minutes before I have to go to the next class, or putting the finishing touches to an article or a chapter before it has to go to the journal, editor or publisher. Conversely, I have also found myself taking home a piece of work because I was talking to a student and didn’t manage to finish it in the office. I hardly ever finish in the evening what I set out to do in the morning, and then I get another email from Registry that I was meant to hand in form X, Y or Z – yesterday. And have I marked…? In other words, something has to give, and in many cases – poor conscientious creatures that we are – this is our free time. (more…)

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The Queen and Magna Carta

Posted in Comment, History, News by thehistorywoman on June 15, 2013

I’ve just been writing a lecture on ‘Transatlantic ideas of liberty’ for an Erasmus exchange with Potsdam University in a week’s time. Going through the ideals and principles of seventeenth-century English republicans which would later come to influence the American colonists in the War of Independence and inspire the US constitution, such as political and religious liberty, accountability of office-holders and the rule of law, it struck me once again how quaint and anachronistic the British monarchy appears today as many people in this country celebrate the Queen’s official birthday with the usual pomp and circumstance.

The Queen is not just the head of state, she is also the secular head of the established churches of England and Scotland, she still opens Parliament, she signs Acts of Parliament into Law, and the House of Lords is still a colourful mix of non-representative members. I’m not sure what my republicans would have made of that.

I’m not advocating regicide, but surely the House of Lords should long have been replaced by a fully elected Upper House or Senate. I can just imagine seventeenth-century republican pamphleteers poking fun on the Lords involved in the latest ‘cash-for-access’ affair. They would have denounced the corruption of privilege and the decline of virtue.

At the same time as the Queen’s official birthday, both the British and the Americans are also celebrating the anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. This document, in which King John acknowledged to his rebelling barons that the monarch was subject to the law and endorsed principles such as Habeas Corpus and trial by jury, should mean so much more than people in fancy uniforms parading around London.

But then, if Britain didn’t have its Queen, who would confer honours on the Blackadder team?

gm