“Dethroning historical reputations”: some questions

Last Thursday I read that the Institute for Historical Research was to publish a collection reflecting on the recent controversies over the commemoration of Cecil Rhodes and Edward Colston. I discuss these debates with my second-year students in an introductory module on heritage. Because they are relatively recent there is a lack of fully-cited and/or peer-reviewed work on which students can draw if they choose to write assignments on this topic. I was pleased to see that the IHR (publishing via the in-house School of Advanced Studies imprint, SAS Publications) had decided to address this gap.

I flicked through the table of contents. The editors had evidently decided to reach out beyond academia for contributions, and included ‘fundraisers, a sociologist and a museum director’ to (I quote the blurb here) ‘examine these current issues from different perspectives’.

I think it is commendable to include different perspectives on a topic such as this. So does the IHR. In its own diversity statement, it notes

Part of the focus of the IHR is enabling the exchange of ideas: we believe that the more voices that are represented, the richer this exchange will be.

It was therefore disappointing to note that despite this effort to include ‘different perspectives’ all the volume’s contributors were, as far as I could tell, white. (This was based on publicly-available images; if anyone has better information I am happy to correct.) I therefore asked a question:

Black students in both Cape Town and Oxford played central roles in the campaigns around the Rhodes statues: given that the volume claimed to be exploring ‘different perspectives’ it seemed very odd that it had not included theirs.

The IHR responded the following day with this statement:

This does not answer the question of whether it occurred to anybody that the absence of any non-white contributors might be a problem. Moreover:

I’m glad the IHR is welcoming further proposals but that in itself does not address the structural issues here. These are well-illustrated by the fact that the proceedings of this IHR conference have been produced as a book, but the ‘What’s Happening in Black British History?’ conference series (supported by sister SAS member the Institute for Commonwealth Studies), which has an excellent record of involving Black historians, is now seeking papers for its ninth event without a published proceedings of any of the eight previous meetings in sight.

As Patrick Vernon has pointed out, the large majority of Black historians in the UK work outside universities. As a consequence, they are excluded from the salaried research time that enables some people within the academic system to publish widely. A serious initiative to diversify historical scholarship might, as a first step, work out a way to compensate contributors for their time. The IHR, which already gives publication grants, is in a good place to take a lead on that. I hope the Royal Historical Society’s Race, Ethnicity and Equality working group will look further at these issues.

As the recent CLPE report on ethnic diversity in children’s books noted, 32% of pupils of compulsory school age in England were of minority ethnic origins on 2017. Even the most hardened free marketeer of the university sector might note that those are our potential future students. If they think their voices are not of interest to historians, why on earth would they come and study with us?

Photo: A statue of Cecil Rhodes is removed from the University of Cape Town, 9 April 2015. Credit: Tony Carr under a CC BY-NC 2.0 licence.

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Does TV history have ‘news values’?

There was a long Twitter discussion the other day on the incessant demand for novelty in TV history. This tweet rather sums it up:

It struck me that this isn’t so dissimilar from some things you find in TV news. And ‘news values’ have been a subject of scholarly inquiry going back to a 1965 study by Johan Galtung and Mari Ruge which I remember reading as an undergrad.

This work and the subsequent debate is synthesised in plenty of textbooks (Brighton & Foy’s News Values, from which I paraphrase some of the below, is a decent starting point). Galtung and Ruge focused on newspapers. Their work predates rolling TV news and the internet, but nonetheless the idea that there are ‘news values’ remains compelling.

G&R came up with ten key values: relevance, timeliness, simplification (i.e., can it be described in straightforward terms), predictability (could it have been foreseen), unexpectedness, continuity (i.e., it continues an existing story), composition (works for the particular outlet), elite people (celebs), elite nations, negativity (bad news is good news). Later studies (focused on TV) noted the importance of pictures to that medium.

The list has been much debated, but I don’t think it’s hard to see how one might use it as a starting point to explore a set of ‘TV history values’ (or indeed a wider set of popular history values). There is certainly an elite of historical personalities whose lives are disproportionately covered, likewise nations. The ‘composition’ value works too: programmes need to fit the outlet’s style. Timeliness produces the demand for novelty: this is all-new research that we need to cover now!

Photo by David at Flickr.

 

Autumn news

I realised it was a while since I’d posted an update here. This is a busy teaching term for me, but I have several events coming up, including a couple of talks in London, which are listed on my Events page.

I’m particularly looking forward to the first rehearsed reading of a new play on which I’ve been historical advisor. Shakespeare and his Black Mates, by Lynda Burrell and Fran Hajat, is at Nottingham Playhouse on Thursday 2 November, and it’d be great to see people there.

In academic life, I’ve been writing for and co-editing a volume on Queenship and Counsel in Early Modern Europe, which is close to completion and I hope will be out in 2018. That (I think) will be the last of my publications relating to the history of diplomacy, and I’ll be turning my attention to sixteenth-century guns for a while (as a research topic, that is).

Alongside all that, I’m writing a new non-fiction book for Bodley Head with the working title The Crucible of Europe. This will be my take on the period of the Italian Wars, 1494-1559. There are lots of famous names from these years (Christopher Columbus, Lucrezia Borgia, Leonardo da Vinci, Niccolò Machiavelli, Isabella d’Este, Michelangelo Buonarroti…). This is a book about the world in which they lived, and also–importantly–about lots of other people who you probably haven’t heard of but are just as intriguing. Publication is some way off, though: it’s a big project!

And… some of you will know that I’ve been writing a novel. I hope to have more news of what’s happening with that in the New Year.

Now to survive Intro Week and evade the pernicious Freshers’ Flu.

Out of the comfort zone

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TV and radio history presenters often find themselves discussing subjects quite some distance from their specialist research. This can be contentious in the academic sphere, where colleagues often ask why a specialist hasn’t been commissioned, and it’s something I’ve been reflecting on as I approach the second anniversary of becoming a BBC New Generation Thinker. Very often, I’m finding that broadcasting has closer links to teaching than to research, despite the fact that the NGT scheme highlights the link with the latter.

Wonderful though your work may be, the fact is that a focused piece of academic research probably won’t make for more than a couple of radio or TV programmes. My most recent book, for example, was the basis for a Radio 3 Essay, an appearance on Radio 4’s Start the Week and a short BBC Arts film. I’ve drawn on sections of the research in other places too, but there’s only so far one project will take you.

However, I do enjoy broadcasting and, as you can see from my media page, since those early pieces I’ve broadcast on a much wider range of topics. I’ve reviewed art exhibitions – one directly connected to my research on early modern Italy, one not. I’ve done one radio Essay drawing on material from a new research project, and one about my family history. The latter isn’t in my research area, but it does connect to a topic – the representation of imperial history – that I teach on a second year heritage module. And my criterion for what I’m happy to do tends now to be: “does this connect to my teaching?” rather than “does this relate to my research?”

A step beyond again is presenting. This month I’m presenting two programmes for Radio 3: a Sunday Feature and an edition of Free Thinking, which we’re recording at the Hay Festival. The Sunday Feature is part of Radio 3’s Monteverdi 450 season and focuses on the women who worked with the composer. We’re in early seventeenth-century Italy, which is within my teaching interests, but dealing extensively with music, which isn’t really. However, in this format my job is to use my knowledge of the period to pose thoughtful questions to the experts, rather than to be the expert myself.

Free Thinking – a discussion on women’s voices in the classical world – is even further away from my research interests. I guess the academic parallel there is being chair of a round table at a departmental seminar, where my job is to make sure the guests have an interesting conversation that the audience can follow. (As a side note, I’m also learning a lot by reading books that in a more conventional academic world wouldn’t be a priority.)

When I started out doing media work as an academic, I tended to think of it in relation to research impact and the demands of the REF. The more I do, the more I think that’s a very narrow way of looking at it. Perhaps we should focus instead on the long-term benefits to research from thinking about topics outside one’s discipline, and the synergies with teaching besides.

 

2017: New Year, new projects

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2017 will feature some family history

Happy New Year! (You can insert the obligatory “wasn’t 2016 awful” line here.) I’m now a year and four months into working at Swansea University and have some big new projects for the coming year. (And, below, a few thoughts on managing workload and the REF.)

More Radio 3 Essays: In January you’ll be able to hear some very early findings from my new research project on the history of handguns as part of a Radio 3 Essay series on gun culture. And in March there’s a very new historical departure for me: I’ll be at the Free Thinking Festival in Gateshead with an Essay about my grandparents, who were missionaries in Dhaka and Kolkata from the 1940s to the 60s. This is some way out of my historical comfort zone, but I have done a fair bit of teaching on public perceptions of Britain’s imperial past. A few years into lecturing I’m finding new topics emerging from the teaching side of the job.

New research: There will be more research on that handguns project, which focuses on Italy c. 1500-1550, with a first paper at the Renaissance Society of America conference this spring. And some (more) grant applications in the hope of getting funding for the archive research I really need to do to get this up and running in a bigger way. Fingers crossed. I also have a couple of outstanding articles/chapters from previous projects to write up.

Fiction: For a while now I’ve been playing at writing a novel that’s a spin-off from The Black Prince of Florence. I’m going to finish it in 2017. I have no idea whether it’ll be publishable quality but the process is raising some interesting methodological issues for me about writing history so at the very least I’m hoping for a theory article.

Non-fiction: Yes. I hope to have news about a new non-fiction book project soon… and various other things that are at different stages of development… stay tuned…

Lectures: Besides those for my students, I have public lectures coming up at the British School at Rome (January), in Swansea (March) and in Leeds (September). I list these on my Talks & Events page, so keep an eye out there for details.

Is this an unfeasible workload? I agree it’s an ambitious one. But I’m not planning to finish all the big projects in 2017. And in the past few years I’ve got a lot better at breaking down larger writing tasks into tiny pieces. If I write 200 words a day every day for a year, for example (the equivalent of ten or eleven tweets a day), that’s a full draft (73,000 words) of an academic monograph. And with a 200-word daily target on a project it’s also possible to get ahead of the game by writing more some days, which is psychologically a lot more comforting than setting higher targets and then stressing about getting behind.

Academics reading this post may be wondering about how this pattern of work connects to the demands of the REF. One of the consequences of the huge uncertainty about the rules at the moment (to port or not to port, how many outputs per person, will impact be less linked to outputs, etc.) is that it’s basically impossible to plan. So I decided to stop worrying and work on things that interest me, which is probably, to be honest, the best route to turning out good publications.

 

Money-saving tips for academics

pound-414418_1280I was about to post my annual reminder of the deadline for claiming the money you’re owed for your journal articles, when Twitter sprung to life with complaints about the exorbitant cost of attending academic conferences, and the expectation that we should cover all or part of our own expenses when we do.

There are major structural issues here – partly (I suspect) fuelled by an assumption based on STEM practice that grant funding covers conference attendance, partly by an understandable desire to focus limited research funds on seedcorn and scoping work in the hope that will generate financial returns. (This ignores the fact that conferences are often the most convenient place to meet international collaborators, but there you go.)

As far as I’m concerned, Universities shouldn’t expect staff to attend conferences (and certainly shouldn’t make that part of probation/promotion criteria) without covering the full cost. However, until we get a change in the system, here are some ways I’ve managed to subsidise expenses or otherwise save/make money in academia. (I’m based in the UK – if you know equivalents for other countries, please post in the comments.)

  1. Back to that deadline I mentioned at the start of the article. The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society collects money on behalf of authors that universities (and other institutions) pay for the right to photocopy or digitise your work. You need to register your publications with them by 30 November to get the money you’re entitled to. This can be several hundred pounds so it’s well worth doing and doesn’t cost anything upfront. Basically it’s free money.
  2. Reclaim your tax on work-related expenses. If you have to spend your own money to do your job then this is tax-deductible and you are entitled to 20% of it back if you’re a basic rate tax-payer or 40% if you pay the higher rate. A percentage of UCU subscriptions is deductible, for example, as are subscriptions to learned societies, some travel expenses and so forth. HMRC issues guidance on how this works. Do not over-egg it with the tax claims, or you risk getting in trouble with the tax office (I’m aware of a case where this happened). Reclaiming tax is for things you need to pay for to do your present job, not for your personal desire to jet out to that Hawaii conference or own all the lovely first editions of the books you teach. More seriously, the rules mean that career development you pay for yourself is not usually tax-deductible.
  3. If you’re travelling internationally for a conference, talk to your International Office. Universities do lots of international business that you might be able to help with while you’re there in return for some cash from a different budget heading. You could speak at a school overseas that’s been targeted for international recruitment, visit a university that’s a focus for building research collaborations, or do a regular due diligence visit to an overseas partner for a student exchange programme.
  4. Collect your frequent flyer miles on trips you do get paid for, and use them to subsidise the ones you don’t.
  5. Academic publishers generally offer an author discount to anyone who’s written for them. This applies for authors of chapters within books as well as whole books. If you don’t have an author discount with that publisher, ask a colleague who does.
  6. Reviewing books pre-publication brings you cash or more books. Post-publication it gets you a copy of the book (usually, though certain publishers are trying to replace this with an e-book only…) Very useful if you were going to read the book anyway, perhaps not the best use of time if it’s only tangentially relevant.
  7. External examining (which is paid separately to a main academic contract) is typically done by relatively senior academics, but there are other ‘externalling’ opportunities too. For example, I’ve been an academic reviewer for the Open University’s Centre for Inclusion and Collaborative Partnerships, which validates degree programmes at institutions without independent degree-awarding powers. Again, there’s a time/money trade-off, but being asked is a marker of esteem, and it also gives you useful insight into how other institutions work.
  8. Finally, if you’re asked to give talks to external organisations, or write for non-academic publications, ask if there’s a fee. They might say no, and then you have to make a call about whether to do it without. I take the view that I should do some public engagement within my salaried role, so a few expenses-only gigs are fine. But not too many.

Other suggestions? Post them in the comments!

P. S. If you get paid for talks, external examining and so forth, and this is not taxed at source by the organisation paying you then you should declare it to HMRC.

Disclaimer: I’m not a tax professional. If you have questions on the tax side that aren’t answered on the HMRC website, call HMRC (be prepared for a call-centre queue) or speak to an accredited tax adviser.

Speak your essay feedback: voice recording on Turnitin

The other day on Twitter I got into a discussion about dealing with large quantities of marking. Are there any ways of making it easier?

About this time last year, I started using the voice recording feature on Turnitin. I had moved from a university where marking with pencil on paper (plus a paragraph of typewritten feedback) was the standard way of doing things, to one that was all-electronic, which would inevitably add to an already heavy proportion of time at the computer screen.

So, recording rather than typing essay feedback was initially, for me, a way of reducing the risk of RSI (which I had a long time ago and believe me was unpleasant). But having tried it for a while, I think it helps me give feedback in an informal, accessible style, and initial student response has been positive. I’m hoping to get some proper survey evidence this year of what my students make of it, and how they use it, and I hope others who use the function can feed into this too.

How does it work? Very simply, Turnitin gives you the option of recording up to three minutes of feedback, perhaps 300-400 words, so more than you can easily write. I usually record as much as I can, write a few bullet points summarising it, and add inline comments (those little bubbles that Turnitin does) on specific points in the text. So there’s a mix of written and oral feedback.

You only get one take, which can be frustrating. I hand-write a short list of key points I want to make, then record as I look at specific parts of the essay. Typical feedback might go something like this. ‘Hello. I thought this essay started really nicely. If we look at page one, in your opening paragraph, you’ve got a good sentence setting out what you’re going to argue…’ Then I’d continue a bit on that section, giving some tips for improvement. Then I’d move on to discuss two or three further sections, before wrapping up with a summary of key things to work on for next time.

When I’m recording, I try to imagine that I’m sitting in my office with the student and a copy of the essay, going through what’s gone well and what hasn’t. It’s possible to convey a lot through tone of voice: you can be very pleased with one bit of the essay and rather disappointed about another. You do need to be cautious about this, though. If you’re exhausted or in a foul mood about something else, listen back carefully to make sure you’re not inadvertently conveying that to the student.

Recording feedback won’t be for everyone, and the lack of a pause button is less than ideal. But if you could do with reducing your typing load, it might be a good place to start.