Self-preservation and blogging

Anyone who reads academic blogs frequently enough will know that there can be issues with academic blogging. From employers not wanting to employ people with any kind of online presence linked to their names (a tad unrealistic these days I think), through to individuals posting things that their employers take as ‘bringing the institution into disrepute’, it might seem as though academic blogging is something best avoided. And yet, it can still be a powerful tool – not just for the writer in practising writing and disseminating information, but also in terms of generating conversations and making connections with people also studying in their fields. This is the internet as its best, as an enabler, what people envisioned and hoped for when they developed this strange new world. It is perhaps no wonder that many PhD students are encouraged to blog. Continue reading

Women presenting history in the media

History is all around us. I don’t just mean in the sense of being able to read events from the past in the landscape and urban environment, although that’s also true. It’s also all around us in a digital sense too, especially in this last week. Dan Snow set up History Hit, a regular series of podcasts on history, and last week extended that with History Hit Live, where a number of celebrity historians presented talks on a whole range of subjects. People like Suzannah Lipscombe, Neil Oliver, Bettany Hughes, Tom Holland, Frank McDonough, and others. The event was tweeted and transmitted live, and was a sell-out event. Fantastic! I always like to see history being spread, accurate information being transmitted in a variety of mediums (although the less said about ‘The Tudors’ the better….).

And then I saw a tweet that stopped me dead. I’m not going to say who it was by as I don’t see the point in starting a witchhunt, and I’d rather discuss the underlying issues than attack one guy. But the basic tweet was a photograph of Bettany, along with the text: “Bettany speaking at History Hit. Fascinating, who knew historians could be so good looking?”

Bettany is a wonderful historian. Passionate about her subject, she is particularly good at putting across complex ideas and I thoroughly enjoyed her last series which explored the lives and philosophies of three groundbreaking philosophers, Aristotle, Confucious and Buddha, learning a great deal about all three in the process. Intelligent, knowledgeable, a best-selling author of two critically acclaimed books and presenter of innumerous television programmes. There are few historians – male or female – out there with a track record to match, but instead of focusing on all that, on all her intellectual, knowledgeable and historian-like qualities… it focused on her looks.

Both Bettany and Suzannah are good looking. This is undeniable, and they are telegenic too; to a certain extent, their broadcasting careers will depend on this as much as their intellectual capabilities. Their fellow male historians on the panel are also good looking and telegenic – many women seem to find Neil rather attractive (he has a tumblr blog devoted to him), for example, but I wasn’t seeing the same bias being applied to Neil, that day, as I was to Bettany and Suzannah. For the male historians, the focus was on what they were saying. For Bettany and Suzannah, it was on their appearance. I doubt that Bettany and Suzannah are alone in this, or even female historians – I’d go so far as to say that women academics altogether probably struggle with this. One of my tutors regularly dresses down in casual jeans, shirt, and what looks to be a well loved, much patched, rather bedraggled, in places, jumper. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of approbrium attached to that. It is simply how he is – he’s a wonderful teacher, a fantastic lecturer (If I can ever deliver a talk as half as well as he can, then I’ll be happy) and his dress sense is simply a part of who he is. But I cannot ever imagine a woman dressing the same way, not and be taken seriously in academia. This double standard is pervasive in society and in academia, and seeing things like that tweet really make me think about it. I find it distasteful – and only one person picked up on the tweet, pointing out that there were far better things to focus on than Bettany’s looks.

So… if we agree that this kind of message is unpalatable, that the underlying culture of regarding men and women differently needs to change, how do we go about changing it? There, I get a bit stumped. To paraphrase a grumpy Doctor McCoy from Star Trek; I’m a historian, not a sociologist! But I do think that women deserve to be regarded in the same terms as their male compatriots, to be regarded first and foremost as intellectual, high-achieving, insightful, knowledgeable … all these things, before any mention of looks. Men do too, to be quite honest, but, the Neil Olivers of this world apart, it seems to be less of a problem for men. My partner, playing devil’s advocate, suggested that perhaps the original poster was comparing Bettany’s image to that of the traditional historian, that of an old, grey man, in a grey cardigan, smoking a pipe by a fire, complaining bitterly about the modern world. Perhaps that was the tweeter’s original intention. But as I said to my partner, if that was the case, why not use a photograph of the entire panel, both men and women? Why not specifically say something like, “modern historians, putting the old image of fuddy duddy historians to bed”. That would have been quite doable in 140 characters. Why focus on Bettany’s looks, rather than the message of the lecture she was delivering? The same person posted pictures of some of the other presenters of that evening. Neil was described as a “TV presenter and author” and a “lovely guy”. Dan Snow was described factually, as a “historian”. Peter Snow, in the audience, as a “Historian and TV Presenter”. With Suzannah he said she was “captivating the crowds”, and that she “apparently was talking about witches” (suggesting that he was watching her without taking in a single word of what she was saying. righttt….). However, I find it interesting that the pictures of Suzannah and Bettany, and the original tweets have disappeared from this chap’s twitter stream. Perhaps the penny dropped as to exactly what he was suggesting with all this.

Either way, although the original tweets seem to have gone away, the attitudes have not. That the original tweets have gone suggests a certain level of shame, which is at least suggesting that parts of society are starting to realise that these attitudes are unacceptable – the first step in changing attitudes is to make people realise that the original attitude is wrong in some way, to hold those attitudes up to the light, to hold an open debate about it

I read a really interesting article this morning on the BBC news site by Roger Scruton, about freedom of speech and the importance of it in making arguments, in discussion, in determining the correct course of action in any debate. In debate, the right to utter offensive words needs to be sacrosanct, to go against, where necessary, the conventional tide, to present an alternative viewpoint, to suggest something that can help people to see matters differently, and to improve the society around us. That doesn’t mean that I think the original tweeter should shut up. It means that I want them to speak out about what they think, because in so doing, others can point to the statement (not the person) and say “see that, that is indicative of this general underlying trend that we think is wrong and needs to change”. Shutting people up, driving attitudes underground is never the answer. And in a way, I feel saddened that the original poster removed their tweets, because in so doing, they almost removed the impetus for a debate, to discuss how intellectually capable women are regarded in society, how they are described differently to men.

These attitudes must be questioned. Statements that reflect them must be held up, not so as to shut up the person making them, but to help to educate the world, to help change the attitudes in the first place. This, rather than legislation, I think, is the way forward to change in a whole range of issues, is how we reach the tipping point in overcoming any kind of cultural hegemony, and the best way to improve a society for the better. And this is why I love history. It reflects people, it reflects society, and helps us, the individual and the society, when we’re willing, to improve for the better.

… daily PhD?

… maybe not. Not so sure that particular style is working for me – as evidenced by the lack of daily posts. There is only so much one can say about reading articles after all (I may as well post my notes), and I suspect at this point that won’t change until the second year of PhD studies.

Quite how this is going to shift, I don’t know. But it is a young blog, and blogs often take a while to find their feet, to settle down into their style. I’m not too concerned about that. Maybe a weekly post would work better. Let’s try it, for now:

Monday morning was primarily spent away from my studies, catching up with a few necessities like food shopping and so on. I still have to eat! I spent the afternoon working through a few ideas for increasing the social media use and engagement of a project that I’m going to be working on, in preparation for a meeting on friday. I started to read through an article, but had to leave to collect my partner from the station before I could finish it, unfortunately. In that respect, its a forced ending to my day – 6.15pm or so, is when I more or less have to down tools. I can’t decide whether that’s a blessing or not – I suspect it both is, and isn’t.

Tuesday… Tuesday was amazingly productive actually. Every single thing on my to-do list was crossed off, plus some additionals, making for a very positive end of the day. I finished reading, and making notes on, the article from Monday. I use the Cornell notes method at the moment, which helps a lot in terms of not only getting it straight in my head what the article is about (active, rather than passive reading), but also helps me to relate the material to my own research topic. Then I made some rough notes, starting to draw together the plan for the lit review, starting to think about how to frame and position various historians and theories with relation to my research topic.

I got quite a few emails done as well, in a veritable blizzard of productivity. Some of these I had been putting off for too long, but they got back to me fairly quickly, and they turned out to be relatively painless. I did a little housework (such as the ever-eternal washing up!) and prepared for a trip to the Record Office in Wigston, on Wednesday.

Wednesday… the planned trip to the record office. I’m doing a little voluntary work as part of the Charnwood Roots Project, where I’m researching the history of stage coaches and small carriers in parishes in the Charnwood Forest area (to the North West of Leicester). I’m well overdue in doing work on this, but I’ve been looking forward to it for a while, so … time to knuckle down. I managed to make serious inroads on the trade directories, which I think will be the main source for this project, starting from 1794 and I managed to get to 1849. It seems that although the stage coaches died fairly quickly after the introduction of the railways, the small carriers, going between the parishes and the towns, survived much longer – serving the equivalent of the rural bus network today. It will be interesting to trace the services for each parish, see how much continuity there was. I’ve already seen that with coach builders, there was a continuing trade from one particular street in Leicester, for example, although the actual business changed hands at least once. I suspect, that for parishes where the same person/family did this role for decades, they would have been seen as of key importance to the parish, like the parish clergyman or school teacher – if they weren’t disreputable in other ways. I have found evidence in local newspapers, later on (latter part of the 19th Century) that the carriers sometimes had a relationship with alcohol that was, well, lets describe it as less than healthy! Anyway, I’ve scanned/photographed the relevant pages with my phone and camscanner (more about that in another post), so what needs to be done now is a) extracting the relevant information out of the trade directories into parish format, and b) organising the photographs so that they’re ready for turning over to the wider Charnwood Roots project, ready for someone else to incorporate as part of the parish histories. So that will be a day or two’s worth work – probably starting next week.

One thing that I should really note is how good it felt to get into the record office and back into primary sources. I reflected on this in a comment on this post, by someone else who is doing a DailyPhD style blog, although in the sciences rather than the humanities like me. Stewart commented on how he got ‘far too excited’ because he was doing real science (for a change, rather than other stuff) and it immediately struck home for me, because I felt the same way in the record office. Nothing quite like the smell of a record office in the morning… (!) but in all seriousness, I think most people who work as serious historians will recognise what I mean: the excitement that comes when handling old documents, primary sources, of figuring out how to make them relate to your theory, of the implications of them… For me, however, there’s the ‘ding’ moment when you find a document or something that completes the puzzle, makes your theory work, makes you understand something that you were trying to work out… how it contributes to the ding isn’t so important, but the ‘ding’ moment is this moment of incredible clarity where the world, just a little bit, a tiny little bit, suddenly makes sense, or more sense than it did before, and I just feel on cloud nine when I get that. I don’t know whether other historians feel the same way – its not something that I think most people would feel comfortable discussing!

Anyway, back to the week’s review. Thursday, I uploaded the photographs and PDFs (of the trade directories) from my phone to my laptop, so they’re in a better format for working with next week. This was easier said than done as previously I had done this on a one-by-one basis – not suitable when you’re dealing with several hundred photos! So I had to research, investigate and download a suitable app for downloading large amounts of material, and finally found one, then had to sort them out – what with one thing and another that took most of the afternoon. I also did some final preparation for Friday’s meeting, then rounded off the day with a little reading of an edited book.

The meeting on Friday went well – that was discussing a new job that I will be doing, very part time, working as a social media officer for the Leicestershire Victoria County History project. This is something I’m looking forward to getting involved with – even did a little work on it on Friday afternoon and was very happy to see results immediately, so that’s good news. I’m also hoping to put in for another part time job doing research – it all looks good on the CV and its something I enjoy doing, so why not?

Next week: More work on the social media project, applying for that other research role, more work on Charnwood Roots, starting to pull together that Lit Review, more reading, and more research work in the record office – can’t wait for that day, at least! My mother is dropping by for a cup of tea tomorrow, on the way past, so it will be good to see her too 🙂

new beginnings

Part of the way through my part time MA studies, I’m now at the point where the topics for my MA dissertation and general area for my PhD research have been decided on. This will be roughly in the field of parochial conflict in the Early Modern period. The MA dissertation will focus on a particular village in Shropshire, where the parishioners went to extraordinary lengths to try to get rid of their clergyman in the post-restoration period. The PhD will focus on clergy-parishioner conflict throughout the whole of Herefordshire.

This summer needs to be about putting in the prepatory work for the next year or so, with several aims:

  • Doing the general literature reading for both my MA dissertation and PhD proposal;
  • Establishing the availability of primary source material for MA dissertation and PhD;
  • Beginning the research process for my MA dissertation (which is not due till Jan 2017, so I have time);
  • Writing my PhD proposal;
  • Doing a little extra research for an article I have already done a lot of work on, and just needs some extra to finish off;
  • Preparing to deliver my first conference paper in November 2015.

The record office that I will be primarily working from is closed (they’re in the process of moving to a new building and I cannot WAIT to see it) so its been suggested that I spend the time working on the background literature.The general aim is to try to get this finished by the end of July; or to at the very least get to the point where I can a) put information from primary source material into context and b) understand the finer points of the material I will be reading when I get to the record office.

I primarily work from home, where I am lucky enough to have my own little study and can work uninterrupted. That solitude, while welcome (and I know a few people who would give their right eyeteeth for it) can also be very isolating and it can be terribly easy to procrastinate, hence the blog – if I have to report my achievements at the end of the day to something (if not someone), then I’m much less likely to procrastinate! Hopefully this will work and help encourage me to keep my nose to the grindstone, as well as giving people an insight into what is required to work on and complete both an MA and a PhD.

Richard III’s Reinterment

Today is the beginning of Richard III’s reinterment; the beginning of an end to the tumultuous journey that began when the skeleton was discovered two and a half years ago. Watching this on a range of media (from news sites to social media like twitter) the most interesting thing about it all is the modern day reaction to it all. From the grumpy (‘he should’ve been in York!’) to the breathless (‘history in the making!’) to the spoof (‘Get on with it……it’s bloody cold out here and there’s a large warm Jaguar hearse waiting for me’) to outright jokes (‘A hearse! A hearse! my kingdom for a hearse!’) everyone seems to have something to say about it. [Me included.]

As a historian, my hackles immediately rise when I hear the phrase “history in the making”. This reinterment changes nothing about Richard III’s past. His body may have revealed new information about the man he was (e.g. his health, his diet) and how he died, but the reinterment itself? No. All it is doing is placing some bones into a position of respect, so that they can rest in peace. Surely most people would agree that the reinterment, and the battle for it (Leicester vs York) has been far more about the modern day than the man himself, regardless of which location one feels he should have been reinterred in.

I’ve seen too, the comment that ‘today for Richard‘, but watching this event is making me think anew about history: about the wider issues. Who does today belong to? Is today really about Richard? The Dean of Leicester Cathedral has commented that funerals are about goodbyes. Having attended far too many funerals of close relatives in the last few years I am inclined to very much agree. On the other hand, as David Monteith says: today, ‘the dominant motif is much more hello‘.

If one argues, therefore, that history belongs to all, then it should be recognised that for many people, history is indeed in the making in one sense. It is extremely unlikely that a king will be reinterred in quite the same way again, certainly in this country. It’s one of those seminal events where people will remember – particularly people who have any sort of connection with the event, such as local people, students of the university, Ricardians, and so on – where they were when they heard, when they saw, what they thought. And while this isn’t world changing in the same way that it was when (for example) JFK was shot, it has a meaning to the individual. That meaning is going to be largely redriven by one’s social identity and how they connect to what Richard represents to them. We’ve already seen the local, regional response: how people from York associated strongly with Richard, identifying him as one of their own; how Leicester claimed him as theirs because of modern-day regulations stipulating reburial in the nearest consecrated ground; other places such as Gloucester and Fotheringhay were even briefly mooted as suggestions because of associations that Richard himself had with the places in his lifetime. In Leicester and the towns and villages surrounding today we’re seeing people paying their respects in a way that certainly wasn’t done after his death: people carrying white roses, ringing the bells as the cortege moves around the county, laying flowers at his statue outside the cathedral. There seems to be a celebration of the local, of Leicester and Leicestershire, as well as Richard himself. Connections being made that were certainly never forged when he was alive. As a result, there are real oddities: no royal standard, as this flag post-dates his life, yet his coffin is being moved around in a modern funeral hearse with modern day pallbearers. While we are only, at this point, less than half way through the initial day, the dominant motif seems much less “hello Richard” and much more “Hello World, we’re Leicester!”. Here, what is being celebrated is popular history, encouraging people to learn about their past, their cultural history, and part of me sees that as wonderful, as a way to encourage future generations of historians. Part of me, a very little bit of me, the stuffy, dry academic bit that cherishes a more scholarly approach, shudders – as unpopular as it may be to admit that, because the idea of having history as a preserve of those in the ivory towers of academia have long disappeared. These days academic proposals, particularly for history, must include popular dissemination. The Charnwood Roots project is a classic example of how this is done very well. But then, Richard III’s reinterment isn’t history in that sense: there are no documents being read; no digs being conducted; no surveys; no interviews; no reports.

I think too that today opens up bigger questions. How to handle human remains with respect is one that has been oft discussed in both news media and academic texts. How much involvement do the greater public have a right to, in situations like this, especially when it is something that the individual concerned cannot consent to. Richard III cannot consent to either his reinterment in Leicester; or the events of today, or even his manner of initial burial and eventual (temporary) burial place. Who has the right to decide what happens to an individual after death? Richard himself made plans for a tomb, as most kings did, but they were never carried out. Henry VII, the man who beat him, rests in Westminster Cathedral. In history, the resting place of a monarch has often been decided by their successor; Henry VIII completed the tomb of Henry VI, for example, but Edward III made sure that the tomb of the somewhat disgraced Edward II was tucked away out of (what was then) public view at Gloucester. Others have had their resting places determined by those who controlled them in life: Catherine of Aragon was buried at Peterborough on the orders of Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots in the same place on the orders of Elizabeth I. Bring that forward to the modern day. Diana’s death showed, very clearly, the right that the general public felt they had to grieve, and to access the royal family at a time of immense sorrow. In the first ‘funeral’ (which is what everyone is calling it, although it is strictly speaking, a reinterment) of a King of this country since 1952, one has to wonder: what will happen when our present queen dies? How much ‘right’ will the general public have to her funeral ceremonies? Will her coffin, disasteful as the idea may sound, be carted around the world for all to pay their respects? What differences will be shown because of the immediacy of her life, and her death?

It will be very interesting to keep watching the events of this week, and to consider the questions raised by the events, and what they mean for historians working in various fields.  If I’m quite sure about anything, its that far from settling anything, the discovery of Richard’s bones, the study of them and popular reaction to him, this journey and his reinterment has and will only serve to keep discussion about him, his life, and his implications alive for quite some time to come.