The History Woman's Blog

The homeless man in the library

Posted in Academia, Comment, News by thehistorywoman on February 27, 2013

I’m intrigued by the story of a homeless man slipping into St John’s College Library at Cambridge for several weeks. Good on him, is the only thing I can say. There are certainly worse places to while away a cold winter’s day. His assortment of supermarket bags aside, he was probably not so different from many of the other students present with his ‘vague claims of doing a doctorate on religion and a habit of dozing off’, as The Guardian describes him. The only thing I fail to understand is why he was asked to leave and where he was supposed to go instead.

But the real reason why this story jumped at me is that I have been spending the last couple of days doing research in Geneva, and when the archive closes or I feel I am done there for the day, I tend to go into the university library to do some more reading, browsing the catalogue and scanning the shelves for interesting stuff. Nobody has ever asked me what I am doing there, nor has anybody ever tried to evict me. You do not need a library card as long as you are not planning to take any books out, and the security gates make sure you don’t.

As tax payers’ money is invested in these institutions, why not make them more freely accessible to all (within reason)? A bit of free education has never done anyone any harm.


The Holbein Stare and Other Works of Art

Posted in Art, Early Modern, News, Reviews, Sixteenth Century by thehistorywoman on November 3, 2012

Derich Born, 23-year-old merchant of Cologne, by Hans Holbein the Younger (1533).

Be prepared for the Holbein stare. His sitters will look right at you, or through you – like Derich Born. Serious beyond his years, wealthy and confident, the 23-year-old merchant of Cologne was the youngest member of the London Hanseatic League and seems remarkably lifelike as his dark brown eyes look out from underneath his black cap. Hans Holbein the Younger (c1497-1543) painted him in 1533, and as with most of Holbein’s portraits, it is the eyes that hold the viewer’s attention, be it in the sketch of Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor Thomas More (c 1526-27) or in the painting of ‘Hans of Antwerp’ (1532).

While most of the attention is usually on the paintings, I often prefer the chalk, pen and ink drawings. They are like shadows or ghosts of people who once lived and have all but faded out. I was particularly taken by the ethereal looks of a beautiful, young Lady Parker (c1540-3), possibly one of Jane Seymour’s attendants who gazes out from the white background with her big round eyes. There is also a drawing of a young ‘Lady’ Mary (c. 1536), demoted from her position as ‘Princess’ after the birth of her younger brother Edward, Prince of Wales, in a frame alongside hers, aged one (c 1538).

More often than not, these drawings were studies for paintings; and it is particularly interesting to see one next to the other, as in the case of the portrait of Sir Henry Guildford (1527), who was one of Henry VIII’s closest friends and Comptroller of the Royal Household. As a court painter, meanwhile, Holbein was not beyond the art of flattery. The exhibition blurb informs us that Guildford’s slightly chubby-drawn face was lengthened on the painting for ‘a more flattering expression’. (more…)

On statistics and league tables

Posted in Education, News by thehistorywoman on September 30, 2012

The results of the National Student Survey (NSS) and the Times University Guide 2013, both published within in the last couple of days, have made one thing clear. The best universities for research are not always the best universities for teaching quality. While Oxford and Cambridge with their student-friendly tutorial system still did well in terms of student satisfaction, Edinburgh University, one of the highest-ranking institutions research-wise, was ‘ranked bottom in the country for teaching quality’, with students complaining about ‘lack of prompt feedback or detailed comments’ and more generally ‘insufficient advice and support’, The Sunday Times reported.

‘Despite their world-class reputations for research and high entrance requirements, more than a third of the 24-strong Russell Group find themselves in the bottom 40 of 125 institutions for teaching’, Liz Lightfoot writes in The Sunday Times. Of course, as with all statistical evidence, there is more than one way of reading the results.

It might just be that Russell Group students have a stronger sense of entitlement and therefore are more likely to criticise the quality of teaching they receive, as History Professor and TV presenter Amanda Vickery (@Amanda_Vickery) suggested on Twitter. But it might also be that academic departments ‘hire on ability to attract research funding’ with the candidates’ ability to teach as ‘an afterthought’ only, as the journalist and Associate Lecturer at Brunel University Mark Shanahan (@Leapfrog Mark) commented. So students are bound to ‘lose out’. (more…)

What happened to social justice and equality in Higher Education?

Posted in Education, News, Politics by thehistorywoman on July 10, 2011

What’s wrong with Higher Education in the UK? Nothing, if you look at it from afar. The UK has some of the best universities in the  world as our VC never fails to remind us. We come second only to the US, and students from all over the world are attracted to study here by the smell of tradition and the shiny prospectuses praising our achievements. Alas, these foreign students are increasingly roped in to fill the funding gaps of a crumbling system, as the recent visit by Universities Minister David Willetts to South America has reminded us. According to a report by the Observer, the Brazilian government is willing to provide up to £18,700 per student in fees.

Wealthy foreign students count as so-called ‘off-quota’ students. This means they are not taking away places from UK candidates, but help universities expand and attract the best and brightest from all over the world. But there are two issues here. Are universities really going to select the brightest rather than those best able to pay? And what is going to happen to all these bright foreign students once they are here? It is great if we can offer them an excellent education and future prospects. It is not so great if we see little clusters of Chinese, Egyptian or Brazilian students huddled together on our campuses with unhappy faces, talking among themselves in their own language, wondering if they will ever make friends among the locals. Those who do integrate well and want to stay in contrast might find it hard to get a job – or a visa for that matter – when they have finished their degree. Can we square that with our consciences, or are we really exploiting them as cash cows?

But foreign students aside, the Government has found another ingenious way of creating divisions in the great community of learning by allowing the best universities to compete in a free market for students with AAB grades (or better). This will undoubtedly mean that the most successful universities can expand and grow wealthier to their heart’s content, while the others will create ‘the rest’ looking enviously at the research money and shiny labs of the better off.  The Sunday Times has already announced the creation of a UK Ivy League ‘headed by Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, the London School of Economics and Bristol.’ (I would link to the article, but the pay wall won’t let me). Government reforms are ‘expected to lead to a concentration of students with the highest grades in a small group of universities, starving mid-ranking competitors of some top potential recruits and possibly forcing them to lower their fees from the maximum £9,000’, Jack Grimston writes. Figures to be released by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) later this week, are also ‘expected to show that about 40% of the 56,000 students gaining grades of AAB or higher are already concentrated in nine universities’ – something that comes as little of a surprise after research by the Sutton Trust revealed earlier this week that just ‘five schools in England sent more pupils to Oxford and Cambridge over three years than nearly 2,000 others combined.’

It seems all so wrong. The Higher Education reforms by the Coalition Government are taking away money from crucial teaching budgets, leaving universities to fend for themselves in an open market for off-quota and foreign students. Some institutions will clearly benefit from this increasing commercialisation of education, others will die, and the rest of us will hope for a new government.

Fees, fees, fees

Posted in Education, News, Politics, Uncategorized by thehistorywoman on April 9, 2011

The government’s decision to allow universities to charge UG tuition fees of up to £9,000 per academic year clearly was an own goal. A BBC survey shows that about half of all higher education institutions in the UK are planning to charge the full fees, and even those who don’t on average demand more than the £7,500 the government had bargained for. In fact, the average fee is likely to be closer to £8,500, leaving the government to foot the bill until the new graduates are earning more than £21,000 per year. If the job market doesn’t pick up quickly, there won’t be many graduates to do so in the near future. (more…)

Raphael: Cartoons and Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel at the V&A

Posted in Art, News, Reviews by thehistorywoman on September 9, 2010

The Raphael Cartoons at the V&A are quite impressive works of art in their own right. Roughly four metres wide and three metres high they show scenes from the lives of the Apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul, such as  The Miraculous Draught of Fishes or The Sacrifice at Lystra. They are powerful reminders of the impact these men had on early Christians and of their role in the creation of the Church. They were fishers of men and brought hope to the poor and to the sick. Looking at what has become of their Church now, The Healing of the Lame Man and the other scenes depicted seem to have happened in a different world altogether. But the images are still alive.

With their bright colours barely faded it is hard to believe the cartoons are nearly 500 years old. Commissioned in 1515 by Pope Leo X and painted by Raphael and his assistants, they are full-scale designs for tapestries at the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Four of these tapestries can now be seen right next to their desgins at the V&A. They are on loan from the Vatican to mark the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain. Whether or not they will help to boost the popularity of the institution to which they belong remains to be seen.

However, what is so impressive about this show at the V&A is that the cartoons and corresponding tapestries probably have not been seen in the same room together since the latter were woven in Brussels. In fact, there are two sets of tapestries. For the then Prince of Wales, and later King Charles I, brought the cartoons to England in 1623 to have his own tapestries made at Mortlake. Charles was a great art collector, but his love for all things popish did not endear him to his protestant subjects.

Anyway, the most interesting thing about the artworks themselves is the opportunity to compare them to each other. There are slight variations between the cartoons and the original tapestries (aside from the fact that they are mirrored) and between the original tapestries and the English set (of course the weavers of Mortlake had not seen the tapestries in the Vatican). For instance, on the cartoon the healed man from the Sacrifice drops his crutch, while the Vatican tapestry shows a discarded wooden leg; and the colours used in the Vatican tapestries are much brighter than their gloomier counterparts of the English version.

It is a shame I did not have more time to study the tapestries next to their cartoons. The V&A make you book your tickets in advance for an allocated time, and I booked mine for 5pm on Thursday evening only to be told as I went in that the museum was about to close in 30 minutes. They did not think that one through. Maybe I  will go back for another look.

Raphael: Cartoons and Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, V&A, London, 8 September – 17 October 2010.

Festive news

Posted in News by thehistorywoman on December 22, 2009

With Christmas approaching the news are definitely getting more festive by the minute. Just read an article in the Telegraph about a scientist who has studied the anatomy and physiology of angels and fairies and come to the surprising conclusion that they can’t fly. There’s research money put to good use here, as a fellow Twitter user commented!

More research apparently is being done on the giving of Christmas presents. The Times Higher Education Supplement on 17 December recommended a range of scholarly articles from ‘Gift selection for easy and difficult recipients’ to ‘Is it better to give than receive?’ and even  ‘A guide map to the terrain of gift value’.

And as religion always tends to sell nearer to Christmas The Times put in an article for good measure claiming that cryptic signatures in the visitors’ book at the Venerable English College in Rome dating from Shakespeare’s so-called ‘lost years’ in the 1580s prove that the Bard was actually ‘a secret Catholic’.