The History Woman's Blog

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…)

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…)

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…)

Bye bye academia

Posted in Academia, History, Jobs and Fellowships by thehistorywoman on March 12, 2015

cap-and-gownI’m having a break. At least for the next six months or so I will be working in the real world at the foreign languages desk of an international news agency in Berlin. It seems like a crazy thing for a historian to do, and most of my friends and colleagues in academia have seemed somewhat shocked on hearing the news. How could I possibly think of leaving behind such a much-coveted thing as a full-time, permanent academic job?

The thing is, I’m not sure I will. But I wanted to give journalism another go. For the past couple of years, working in the parallel universe that is academia, I’ve been wondering many times what would have happened if I had stayed in journalism, got myself a job with a newspaper or even gone freelance. So I’m trying to find out now whether I’m ‘done’ with journalism or whether there are still avenues I need to explore.

Don’t get me wrong, I love being a historian. I enjoy my research and writing, and there are so many things I still want to write about. I also enjoy my teaching, and I can get really excited when one of my dissertation students comes up with a new idea. Supervising PhD students can be great fun too, especially seeing them make good progress, going to conferences, getting their first publications out. You end up feeling like a proud mum.

Alas, research, writing and teaching has come to be an ever smaller part of my job, so small even that I sometimes barely remember I am a historian and not an administrator. While I should be in the archive trailing through manuscripts and crumbly letters, I’m actually stuck at my desk in the office filling in forms and compiling statistics, rewriting programme specifications and thinking up marketing strategies. So I’ve been feeling more and more that this is not the job I once eagerly applied for, and it’s time to reassess my priorities and weigh up my options.

My university was really good about it. They’ve allowed me to go on an unpaid ‘career secondment’, where I can take six months off from my academic duties and follow different interests as long as they would benefit the University in the long run. If I return I’m sure they will. It certainly won’t do the University any harm if their academics learn how to write intelligibly and concisely for a wider audience, nor will it be a disadvantage to have some media connections. Even our students might benefit as I would be able to report back to them on what working in the real world is like and how best to get a placement in journalism. I could teach them about employability and transferable skills – something all history graduates should be aware of. (more…)

An Academic Summer

Posted in Academia by thehistorywoman on June 18, 2013

summerMy student neighbours have departed for the summer – stereo, guitar and all. There won’t be any more parties out on the roof of the add-on kitchen, no more banging of doors at 5am, no more cigarette stubs in my back yard. The whole street is getting eerily quiet, the queues in my local Tesco’s shorter, the university gym deserted. The classrooms at the university are taken over by summer courses, and disoriented looking Chinese students have replaced the cocky Geordies.

But what are we academics doing, now that the exam board is over, and the notes on last year’s teaching filed away?

When I tell people what I do for a living I usually get some puzzled faces, some commiserations for having to deal with obstinate youngsters, and finally a slightly jealous or snide remark about the wonderfully long holidays I have over the summer. The teachers among you will know this one. Several months without teaching, an entire summer to myself. What could I possibly be doing with all that time? Little do they know what really happens over an academic summer, teaching prep for next term aside. (more…)

Talk to them

Posted in Conferences, Politics, Religion by thehistorywoman on June 19, 2011

I have just returned from a conference in Paris and must say I am deeply impressed by the way the organisers and participants managed to cross linguistic boundaries. Virtually all of the French colleagues had very good English, while most of the foreign participants had only little or no French at all. Yet, we all managed to have some engaging and meaningful discussions, thanks to the many creative ways in which everyone tried to make it work.

Participants would, for instance, present their paper in English and have a Power Point presentation in French, so everyone could follow the talk without having to wait for someone to translate. Some speakers even had slides in both languages, and there was a lot of spontaneous interpreting backwards and forwards, be it to summarise what had just been said, or just to clarify individual terms. The conference was on ‘Profane Imprints on the Sacred: What Religion Owes to Politics’, so there were a lot of religious terms that needed clarifying. Thanks to a paper on the English Reformation we learnt that the English word ‘collect’ in the context corresponds to the French ‘oraison’, while the modern French ‘collecte’ is only used for specific prayers in the Catholic mass.

The session chairs also helpfully summarised each paper after the speaker had finished – sometimes in French, sometimes in English – and offered a helpful interpretive commentary on what had just been said. It was my first French conference, but I assume this is their usual way of doing things, and I found it very helpful, not least to get the discussion going. And there was a lot of it.

“You need the papers as an impulse, but it’s really the discussions that matter at those conferences,” said Nathalie Caron, one of the organisers at the University of Paris-Est Créteil. She is right. The participants were historians, theologians, literary scholars, sociologists, even lawyers, and the papers ranged from the Middle Ages to the present day. So we were not specialists in each other’s subjects. Yet, we could all reflect on the different ways in which politics intrudes on religion, and in which religion is exploited for political purposes.

Call it a national stereotype, but the French are good at the big ideas. The keynote speaker, Jean-Paul Willaime, took us from Durkheim via Weber to Ricoeur and back to explain the role of religion in the shaping of national, individual and narrative identities, and the debates that followed crossed not just linguistic but also subject and period boundaries.

And there we are in the UK, historians talking to our immediate colleagues in the field, working not just on the same period, but on either politics, religion or ideas in that little period, unable to engage even with a social or gender historian in a related field. This is not meant to be a rant about monolingualism or even about the fragmentation of academic history into ever shorter periods of time and ever more specialised fields of study, it is a call for more openness and experimentation. We need to talk more to our European neighbours.

Du profane dans le sacré: quand le religieux se politise,’ organised by Nathalie Caron and Guillaume Marche at the Université Paris-Est Créteil, 16th and 17th June 2011.