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


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

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.

Getting into trade history writing

After my post last week on the relationship between academic and public history, a few people asked about the practicalities of getting into writing history for a broad audience. So here are some tips. I’ve focused here on the process of writing for the large publishing houses (Penguin Random House, Faber, Bloomsbury, Simon & Schuster etc.) rather than for niche specialist publishers because that’s what I know about.

First, trade publishers are running a business, so you need to think about whether your topic is likely to sell to the general public. Can you see your non-academic friends buying it as a gift for a relative’s birthday (and not just because they’re your mates)? Have you got a hook that will interest a browser in a bookshop based on a few lines of cover blurb? You’ll often find trade books combining familiarity and novelty in some way, giving a new take on a well-known historical figure or event. In practice that means a lot of books with a link in to World Wars, revolutions, royalty, presidents, prime ministers, and so forth. There’s also a big market for wide-ranging general or thematic histories, as a quick look at the history shelves of a local bookshop will reveal. Again these are typically introduced as novel in some way.

Some examples:

  • My own first book, Our Man in Rome, had a new perspective on the well-known first divorce of Henry VIII by virtue of being told from the point of view of Henry’s ambassador in Rome rather than from England.
  • In Thunder At Twilight: Vienna 1913-14, Frederic Morton uses the intriguing fact that Hitler, Trotsky, Tito, Freud and Stalin were all in the same place at the same time as a starting point for his history of the city in the run-up to the First World War. Again: something you didn’t know, plus a familiar event.
  • Selina Todd’s The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class is pitched as an account of hitherto-untold lives of three-quarters of the population, and a history that the author didn’t hear in her university history classes. A familiar topic (social class) but the promise of a new take.

‘New’ to a publisher, by the way, means new to a large majority of general readers, not new to a niche of experts.

If you think you have an idea that will work for a broad audience, then the next step is to get a literary agent. The big publishers do not accept direct submissions from authors. (Some smaller niche history publishers do, but I’ll leave the advantages/disadvantages of those to someone more familiar with them.) Agencies vary considerably but as you look at lists of authors they already represent you’ll see that some have more of a track record of working in the academic-trade crossover market than others (e.g. mine, Felicity Bryan Associates). Personal recommendation from someone familiar with your work is one way to make contact with an agent (this was my route), but you can also send a proposal following the guidance for submissions on the agency’s website. Do follow the guidance.

Once you have an agent interested in your book, you then prepare a full proposal. This will typically include a detailed chapter-by-chapter synopsis plus a sample chapter to show your writing style. Your agent will give you feedback on the proposal, and once you’re both happy it will go out to publishers. Unlike academic publishing, where submitting to more than one publisher at a time is frowned on, your agent may well send the proposal to several publishers at the same time, with a deadline for offers, in effect an auction. Publishers may want to meet you before they make an offer, and this is your chance to see if you are happy with their understanding of your plans.

Assuming you have a publisher interested, your agent then negotiates the advance on royalties (if you’ve got more than one offer, this is an opportunity for the agent to bargain them up). As with academic publishing, the idea is that you get a share of the profits. But unlike academic publishing, with trade publishing you get a guaranteed chunk of royalties ahead of publication, and even if your book doesn’t sell as well as you might hope the advance is yours to keep. The advance is usually split into four parts: first on signature (when you sign the contract), second on delivery (when you deliver the final revised version of the book), third on hardback publication and fourth on paperback publication. Your agent gets a percentage of the royalties for her work.

At this point I should say that almost no-one makes a living exclusively from non-fiction writing. Everyone I know personally in this world combines it with an academic job, with broadcasting or TV consultancy, with journalism or some other source of income (like a partner’s salary, as this excellent post discusses).

You then go off and write the book. Unlike academic publishing, there is no peer review unless you organise it informally yourself (which I recommend!) But there is editorial review – much more so than you get in academic publishing – and you should expect detailed comments from an editor on structure, narrative style, requesting clarifications… I know some academic colleagues have been surprised by the degree of intervention from editors. You then go on to copy-editing and proof-reading (both, in my experience, to an excellent standard) and finally your book goes to press.

The next stage is the publicity, and some effort on your part here is expected. Reviews are important for sales, as are media interviews and appearances. You may be asked to write articles or blog posts linked to your book, or to travel to literary festivals. All this takes time and may require some negotiation if you also have another job to do, but doing an Elena Ferrante is really not an option unless you are, in fact, Elena Ferrante.

There’s also the possibility of further money to come, through the sale of translation rights to your book (in the initial round your agent will probably sell either World English Rights to a single publisher or split the UK and US rights and sell them to different publishers) and also through sale of rights for TV/radio adaptation. If your book does well, you may ‘earn out’ your advance and begin to receive further royalties.

Finally, once you have one book out, there’s Book Two to talk about. Both agents and publishers are looking for authors they can work with long term. And that should be a consideration, too, when you’re starting out. Expect the people around you to be interested in your future plans, and think about them yourself.

Image by Stewart Butterfield (flickr), used under a CC BY 2.0 licence via Wikimedia Commons.

On academic ambivalence towards public history

I was prompted to write this post by a storm that blew up on Twitter a few days ago. In case you missed it, here is a short summary: A Guardian interview with Rebecca Rideal about her new book 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire gave the impression that Rideal claimed some historiographical novelty for her approach; some academic historians on Twitter commented that it did not appear particularly novel. The ensuing (and often bad-tempered) discussion took in a wide range of issues from the propriety of senior academics using Twitter to criticise a PhD student’s work, to news values in the reporting of research, to the question of whether the title ‘historian’ should be accorded to someone without a doctorate.

The issue that struck me most, however, was the wide reporting from many people working in public history, particularly young women, that they had experienced hostile or unsupportive responses to their work from academics. As someone who works in academia but who also does (and teaches about doing) public history, I am interested in understanding why this happens and how we might deal with it. I should say that my observations here are not based solely on the Twitter row, which I have no desire to re-open, but on many conversations over the twelve years since I began my PhD.

First, I am not surprised that academics in the humanities feel defensive. (I think this is often not understood by outsiders, who think our salaries and relative professional autonomy are actually a pretty good deal.) Our work is subsidised by taxpayers: the Arts & Humanities Research Council (UK) had government funding of £103 million in 2015-16. But both within and outside universities, we have to fight hard to justify that level of spending and to make the case for humanities research more broadly. The vice-chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast had to apologise earlier this year after suggesting sixth-century history wasn’t relevant to 21-year-olds. In Australia, the Treasurer (Finance Minister) recently suggested academic projects seeking public funding should have to pass a ‘pub test’, implying many are too obscure.

But of course it’s often this ‘obscure’, publicly-funded research that is later synthesised into more popular histories for wider consumption. Very few academics object to that, but I often hear complaints that work is insufficiently credited, which I think are understandable against the constant demands to justify our work. TV rarely credits at all, except for major consultancy roles or book adaptations; trade books credit in acknowledgements or endnotes but often not (for reasons of style) in the main text. Moreover, both TV and trade publishing rely on presenter/author ‘brand’ to pull in an audience: you are reading or watching Smith’s latest because it’s Smith, not because of the topic. That model does not lend itself to emphasising research as a collaborative process. Instead, a TV programme becomes the sole presenter’s exciting quest to uncover secrets of the past, while the Amazon algorithm tells you that as you bought Smith’s last book, you might like to buy her next one.

Moreover, in my experience, these workings of public history are not well understood, even by academics who value engagement with wide audiences. This is a problem because increasingly we (academics) have to supervise doctoral students who may want to consider these career options (and given how niche they are we can’t rely on the Careers Service here). We have to think about how our students might combine academic work and public historical practice. Thanks to the provision of Collaborative Doctoral Awards we’ve got better at doing this with museums and galleries, but the world of commercial history is still very alien to most. I don’t have all the answers, but we should have a discussion about what would be helpful, involving supervisors, students and former students.

We should also think about ‘gatekeeping’ and how we talk about professionalism and authority. Again, the question of money – and public money – is pertinent to some of the anxieties I detect in academia. If one doesn’t need a PhD to be a historian, and can do history quite well without one, ought taxpayers really to be funding so many humanities PhDs? After all, the majority of History PhDs will not go on to an academic job. Personally I think it is possible to be a historian without a professional qualification, but I also think the PhD is worth having, and that it is more difficult to be a good historian without that apprenticeship. I could not have written the books I have without the time my (publicly funded) doctoral and postdoctoral research gave me to explore archives and think and talk about history. But I doubt that’s very obvious to the average person who buys them in a bookshop. We should talk more about how to communicate the value of the PhD – which in turn would help those PhDs who go on to work outside academia in a world that often doesn’t understand the point of the qualification.

Finally, I think academics who are unhappy about aspects of public historical discourse should discuss whether there are things that might be done to tackle the problems. A couple of years ago I had an enlightening conversation with a scientist about this. He and his colleagues were frustrated that TV’s go-to expert in their field was someone with a poor reputation among his peers on ethical issues. They got together and worked with a media officer to promote alternative voices, and now the coverage, in their view, is much improved, the one problematic individual no longer dominates and overall their field has a better relationship with the media. Could historians do likewise? We should at least talk about it.