The unfinished year

So as is traditional (at least for the past two years), it is time for me to reflect on the past year and offer a few hopes for the coming one.  Last year I reflected on a hard year in 2015 and hoped for an easier one in 2016.  I doubt many people would identify this past year as such, and the political and international situation looks bleaker than it did 12 months ago.  But at a personal level, this has been a year that, even if not noticeably easy, then at least an improvement on the previous one.  Both my parents are still ill and neither will ever rid themselves of their respective conditions, but somehow we have come to some sort of accommodation that makes the day-to-day manageable, most days.  This is life, not crisis. Similarly, the managerial work that felt so frightening two years ago has become less overwhelming as I have become more familiar with it.  It is still labour that I am less secure with than, say, writing a book, but I am slowly discovering my own capability for this role, which makes things easier.

And there have been some triumphs. My husband got himself a new job, which he will take up in a couple of months.  This brings many positives and a few potential problems, but it is definitely a step in the direction that he wants to go.  My daughter started on the great intellectual adventure that is formal schooling. In the column marked ‘unadulterated joy’, my sister got married and my brother introduced us to his new partner. The Men, Women and Care project is properly off the ground (including its very own website and blog!) and definitely going places, places which offer their own challenges but are hugely exciting.  The team I have recruited is, so far, living up to their promise and doing interesting and creative work.  There have been a few (small) funding successes, to balance out the inevitable failures.  And, above all, I finally got my book proposal off to a publisher and it has been accepted!

Which is why this year, more than most, feels unfinished.  So much of the positive has not be the culmination or completion of hard work, whether personal or professional, but baby steps along the journey.  So I will enter the new year with papers to write, books to read, a major project to work on, including pursuing new theoretical and methodological angles which I hadn’t considered before this year, a few smaller projects (including two conferences) to organise, and, of course, a book to complete.  On the domestic front, there are still carpets to be laid, decisions to be made about renovations, and the tantalising potential of a house move that has been under discussion for the past year. The children continue to grow, physically, emotionally and mentally, challenging me as a parent as they do so.

There is a lot to do, but I will go into the new year with some lessons learned – about my own ability to recover from the personal paralysis induced by major political crises, about the importance of flexibility and my own capacity to accommodate the unexpected, about how much I can do, how much I rely on others to lend a hand or ear – and just how many wonderful friends and colleagues I have who do just that.  Some things, I hope, will come to fruition in 2017.  Others will carry on carrying on.  Whatever the new year brings, however, I am approaching it, once again, in hope and more energy than last year.

Finally, it has been a year when I have turned more than usual to poetry as a source of consolation, primarily Auden and Frost, who I can probably say with some confidence are my favourite poets.  So I will leave you with a poem appropriate for this point in the year, as the temperatures tumble and cover the world in frost crystals, if not necessarily snow, making my first run after a 5-month hiatus due to planter faciitis, a thing of sparkling wonder and promise.  It is, as it happens, the first poem I was ever conscious of memorising as a child.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and snowy lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost, 1922

Wish you and yours a year of promises kept and fulfilled and miles travelled safely, however near or far the ultimate destination. Happy New Year.

Advertisements

Breaking the silence

It’s been a long time since I have posted, over three months in fact.  This is not down to a lack of material to write about (I have pondered at least a post a month which has never been written) and only slightly to do with lack of time (although I am pleased to say that the book is now four draft chapters long and well on the way to being completed in draft form).  Rather, I have got out of the habit of blogging and have struggled to get back into it.

Posting on here requires me to make the time to identify subjects, think them through and actually write posts down. Other things have to take a lower priority for this to happen and, as Matt Houlbrook recently pointed out, there are times when other things need to be prioritized.  Life can be more than history, and neither history nor historical blogging can alway console us for everything life throws us.

But there comes a point when even the priorities beyond history cease, at least temporarily, to be so compelling, when the deadlines retreat for a while, when the business of teaching and admin and childcare and housework have the potential to be treated as background noise rather than the narrative itself. But restarting old habits, however beneficial we may know them to be, can be difficult.  Blogging, like any other form of writing, at least for me, is a form of concentrated labour that needs time and space, time and space which need to be consciously carved out of already crowded days.  Forcing myself to do something that is difficult and time consuming but which has no deadline may be a very good self-mortifying discipline; that doesn’t mean I can or will do it.

So, in an attempt to get myself back into the habit of finding some time and space to write in this voice, a voice which I know is important to me both personally and professionally, I present you with the following query and half-formed thoughts which arose yesterday when I asked on Twitter whether any historians had included details of childcare responsiblities in their grant applications.  I received no more than a dozen responses, so this is a deeply unscientific survey, but the results interested me on a number of levels.  From the answers I did receive the following information emerged:

– The inclusion of childcare most often occurs as an explanation for past behaviours (time off for maternity leave) rather than as justification for proposed future behaviours (such as why a certain number of research trips of a certain length have been budgeted for).

– Some funders (take a bow, AHRC) have specific policies for taking childcare responsiblities into consideration. I did not know this. I am very glad I do now.

– There is a US/UK divide, with US applicants much more willing to view childcare as a legitimate concern of funders than UK applicants.

– Almost all responses were from women. Where men did responded it tended to be to be in relation of their female partner’s applications, rather than their own.

– All responses expressing anxiety about how the inclusion of childcare would be viewed by funders came from women, but so did the cheerleading for funders who explicitly stated that childcare consideration could and should be included in applications.

As I say, the tiny sample of responses makes any conclusions difficult to draw, even if I had any, but I remain interested in seeing where this discussion might take me, not least because of my own responses.  I have never included childcare in any application beyond the statement of maternity leave taken and the inclusion of my children’s birth certificates as evidence of my qualification for time credited for leave.  But now I am seriously questioning whether I should have done or do so in the future.

Thinking about it, I realise the extent to which I still separate my caring responsiblities from my professional identity, despite the immense impact they have on each other, an impact I freely acknowledge here.  How I ensure my children are properly cared for while fulfilling my obligations as a researcher and a teacher is an immensely complicated issue requiring great good will from many others (as I was reminded when my son fell ill two hours before my husband was due at work and 2.5 hours before I was due to teach as seminar).  Yet I still assume that sorting them out is my responsibillity rather than my funders.  That others, funders and academics, don’t see it as such is both cheering and challenging.

There is also a question of gender to be addressed, a question that seems obvious but which I find surprisingly hard to articulate.  Is childcare still a dominant concern of women? Are men more confident in asserting their right to have childcare responsibilities taken into account?  If so, why?  And what about other caring responsibilities?  Like so many of my colleagues, the necessity of caring for aging parents is becoming an increasing demand on my time and emotional energy, time and emotional energy that cannot then be invested in research.

I will need to think more about this, ask more questions, have more discussions, write more blog posts.  If I want to change the status quo, my own as much as anything, I need to break silence.

 

Back to School

This blog has had a bit of a summer holiday.  Not a complete holiday, lazing in the sun and recharging batteries; two weeks of toddler illness and the start of big school for my eldest rather put paid to that.  But here we are at the beginning of the new term.  Marquees are going up around campus to help welcome the new students; language students no longer clog the lifts and staircases in the building that houses my office; my husband and I are slowly getting used to having a schoolboy in the house and to the lunacy of a morning routine that now involves a 30-minute school run and an evening routine of making packed lunches.  There is a chill in the air; I have sorted out the winter woollies (thereby guaranteeing a heatwave in the near future); I was seriously contemplating the advisability of gloves on the walk to work this morning.  Yes, autumn has arrived; the new school year has started.

I love the excitement of the start of the new school year.  As an academic I have never really left it behind in terms of the annual rhythms of my life. This year that excitement has been rather more stress-laden than usual, what with the need to help launch the first of my progeny on his own voyage of academic discovery. He seems such a frail craft at this stage, and the oceans of academe are indeed mighty from the vantage point of reception.  Winds have been set fair so far, but I am sure there will be squalls ahead.

In the meantime, the map of my own voyage through the term is filled with exciting potential destinations and discoveries.  Up first is the return of the Leeds Legacies of War seminar series, this year bigger and better with additional funding from the Schools of History and Modern Languages, as well as the Leeds Humanities Research Institute.  We have even managed to be organized enough to produce a term card this term:

LoW Term Card (2)(This is slightly false advertising as at least two of the seminars are going to have to move to larger venues but we haven’t been able to confirm where with central booking yet. More details will be advertised closer to the time.)

On a more specifically medical line, I am organising a workshop on the history of medicine and the First World War in Europe on 17th and 18th October.  More details can be found here, although I am afraid I have had to close registration due to the number of people who have already registered.  Full reports will, of course, follow, and I hope the workshop will lead to more exciting projects in the future.

Further afield, the terms looks to be a busy one for travel. At the end of the month I will attending the International Society for First World War Studies’ conference on Encountering the Other in Wartime in Paris and in November I am off to Ypres for the In Flanders’ Field Museum’s conference on War and Trauma.  There will also be a trip to London in my role as postdoctoral research fellow on the Legacies of War ‘Discovering First World War Heritage’ project and various trips to Salford and around the Yorkshire region for research and (whisper it) possibly broadcast purposes.

In between, I have a fair bit of writing to do: a couple of articles, draft chapters for the book proposal and, of course, keeping this blog up-to-date.  Writing it all down is fairly intimidating on the one hand, but enormously exciting on the other.  Like my son, I am embarking on a voyage, not into the unknown as he is, but certainly to destinations far enough on the horizon that I cannot clearly discern their shape and form.  It should be quite a journey, and I do hope you will accompany me, at least some of the way.  It is always good to have traveling companions.

Playing at Royal Welch Fusiliers?

A tweet tonight reminded me that it has been a while since I have written a blog post.  While I have several posts lined up, the past few weeks have been overwhelmed with family business, so I thought I would return with the following family story:

The other day I was watching my children play with their Duplo (large Lego blocks, for those of you who have never suffered the trauma of thinking that your offspring has ingested one of the regular sized pieces).  My son (age 4) had attached two wheeled pieces to each other and was carefully constructing an edifice which he informed me was a tractor.  My daughter (age 21 months) had amassed every one of the small people who come with just about every box sold (we have about 15 at this point) and carefully lined them up on the table, first standing, then lying down.

Watching their varying behaviour was fascinating. Feminist that I am, I have been fairly strict about not distinguishing their gender when it comes to toys, although, yes, I do dress my daughter in dresses and floral print tops that I would never dream of putting my son in.  And I have cut my son’s hair since he was around 9 months, while my daughter’s curls have been allowed to grow.  Where their toys might be considered gendered (a mouse doll’s house or the pirate dressing up outfit) I encourage both to play with them, sharing, of course.  Yet when faced with a gender-neutral toy such as the Duplo, each child chooses to approach it in an entirely different way.

Is this because of their respective sexes?  I have read the media reports of chimpanzees which use a stick differently (tool or weapon) depending on their sex.  And here are my children apparently following gender norms in their play: the boy constructing, the girl socialising (as much as as 21-month-old with limited vocabulary can).

And yet, and yet…  My son has always built things.  He has an engineer’s mind, the sort that wants to know how and why things work.  My daughter has always been sociable, delighting in engaging with people in whatever way she can.   I don’t think that these traits are defined by their relative possession of XY or XX chromosomes. These are facets of them as individuals, not of their sex.  As their mother, what I must encourage is this sense of individuality and what I must guard against is the imposition of gendered social norms, however neatly they appear to fit.

Perhaps there is also a lesson for me for my research as well. Gender categories are all very well for attempting to understand the society that creates them, but they must be applied to the individual with caution. From the CO who was both fired by a desire to serve his country while at the same time refusing to take up arms, to the warrior poet who renounced war and yet returned to his battalion, men (and women) transgressed gendered assumptions throughout the  war.  No one fits a neat characterisation of masculinity or femininity in life any more than in play, something I must strive to remember when I eventually make it back into the archive.

The historian wants a wife

It does seem appropriate that my son’s current favourite nursery rhyme is ‘The farmer wants a wife’, as that is precisely how I was feeling at 9:00 pm last night.

The background: my husband left yesterday for a week-long conference/collaboration exercise in France (not Sweden) yesterday afternoon.  In about an hour I will be heading downstairs to register for the Social History Society conference where I am giving a paper tomorrow morning.  This will be my first conference paper in about 5 years (I have given seminar papers, but the audiences have been fairly small), and the first on my new research.  I am terrified (not helped by the fact that the paper appears to be coming in five minutes too long).  On top of this, I now have a month to write two further 20-minute papers on two entirely different topics, and I am in the process of applying for funding and advertising a workshop.  Work is busy at the moment, to put it mildly.

So while my husband battled with a delayed flight and the language barrier of speaking minimal French, I spent yesterday evening doing the following: cooking dinner, feeding dinner to both children accompanied by my son’s interminable monologue which rather gets in the way of eating, getting both children undressed, bathed, redressed in night clothes, milk drunk, teeth brushed, stories read and into bed, putting on a load of washing, cleaning up the dinner table, washing the dishes and hoovering the floor.  I then managed to read through my conference paper (still coming in too long), tried to edit it down and read half an article.  At which point I realised my son was still awake (at gone 9) so I went and confiscated his globe, to much complaint.

Now, this isn’t a complaint about my husband’s relatively easy life.  For a start, it isn’t that easy as he hates travelling and the weather has made it more complicated and stressful than it need be.  Plus, when he is at home he pulls his weight on the domestic front (he does all the laundry for a start) and he will find himself in my position, trying to juggle domestic duties with paid employment, in a few weeks when I go on yet another trip to a distant archive. Rather I want to record my personal experience of a very old observation, to whit, that someone who works outside of the home, whatever their sex, needs domestic assistance if they are to do their paid job and run their home properly.  And I don’t just mean help with the cleaning or the childcare, but rather holistic assistance with household management. In other words, a housekeeper or, indeed, a housewife.  As I say, this is not new.  Many professional women have, over the years, argued that they need a wife in the home as much as a secretary at work to enable them to keep all the balls they juggle personally and professionally in the air. Some feminists have argued that domestic labour should be paid for and valued as highly as any other, given the support it provides to the smooth running of the economy.  And, indeed, the work of the housewife as a support to her husband’s career has, increasingly, been acknowledged in recent divorce settlements of self-made men in Britain. But coming from a home where domestic duties fall on both partners relatively evenly, as does the support given to both our outside jobs, this week looks set to be a valuable reiteration of the importance of the partnership I have with my husband in maintaining an even keel, both domestically and professionally.

In addition to a renewed realisation of the importance of the keeper of the home to productive employment outside it, my admiration for single parents has also reached one of its periodic peaks. I discovered this morning, for example, that we have half a tank of petrol in the car, so now I have to think about where to find a petrol station with pay-at-the-pump facilities because I will have both children in the car whenever I am driving this week. This is precisely the sort of detail that having a partner or assistant to share the burden of domestic tasks (if not take them over entirely) ensures is not forgotten.  We are at the start of the week.  I am just hoping that the end of it doesn’t find me and my children sitting by the side of the road somewhere between home and the university, desperately seeking assistance with moving a petrol-less car!

So what conclusions can I draw from my labours?  Nothing very original.  I know there are plenty of households with far more demands on their time and energy and far fewer resources than I can call upon.  But as the British government finds itself in the midst of debate over how to support working women through childcare subsidies it is perhaps worth reiterating that domestic labour is both time-consuming and vital.  It extends beyond being with children in their early years to ensuring the comfort, health and well-being of all members of a family, whatever shape that family may take, nurturing the energies and abilities of both of the economic producers of the present and of the future, as well as the comfort and happiness of citizens of all ages.  It needs to be valued as a public good, rather than dismissed as a private arrangement.  Debates over childcare are a start, but only a start and not a terribly helpful one if they alienate those who provide the domestic labour.

Now, what did I do with my daughter’s clean clothes for nursery?

A musical interlude

My mother has just sent me this:

She thought I would be interested as I am a mild Ricardian, having been introduced to Josephine Tey’s The  Daughter of Time, as read  by Derek Jacobi, when I was about 14.  To be honest, Jacobi’s voice was, and still is, the primary appeal, but I do enjoy the book and I still find myself excited about the idea of history as a detective story, an investigation and uncovering of the ‘truth’.

What interested me most about the clip, however, was the fact that it is a Horrible Histories production.  Now, my two are still too young to watch the television show, although I have read some of the Horrible History books and several interviews with Terry Deary, who is depressingly rude about historians and history teachers.  But I was recently discussing the television programme with a friend whose older children apparently love it, and she herself finds it witty and amusing, so I was interested to see something of what I have been missing.

I have to admit that this clip does not allay any of my concerns about the programme as a teaching tool.  Yes, it does point out that Thomas More and Shakespeare (who based his play on More’s history) are biased sources.  But significantly it completely fails to present any sort of evidence, in however an amusing form, as to why the story we think we know about Richard is wrong.  Instead, it just asserts that he is not all the things that history has portrayed him as.

Having spent far too long commenting on undergraduate essays (and even the occasional professional monograph) about the problem of asserting rather than proving statements about the past, this worries me.  History as a discipline rests on the skill of marshalling sources to prove an argument.  Those sources may be suspect or biased.  They may appear mutually contradictory, particularly when they are personal narratives.  They are often problematic, which is why historians can carry on arguing about the same thing (Was Richard a good king or a monster? Was the First World War a futile waste of a generation or a principled defence of democracy?) generation after generation, as new evidence is uncovered or a new perspective is put forward.  Used properly historical evidence can change minds.  I have read very good arguments as to why Richard probably was a usurper who killed his nephews, based on evidence of his other actions prior their disappearance, which have moderated my earlier belief in his absolute innocence.  But if evidence does not form part of the discussion then what you get isn’t so much historical debate as something more like this:

This isn’t history so much as children squabbling in the playground.

So, I will continue to approach Horrible Histories with a certain amount of circumspection and make sure that when my children are old enough to watch it that we discuss how we know what we think we know about the past, as well as what that past actually may have been.