Care Conference Report

This is a guest post from Ellie Murray, a first-year PhD student at the University of Leeds working on children’s learning about parenthood in Britain between 1930 and 1980. Ellie was one of the co-organisers of the Who Cares? The past and present of caring conference held at the University of Leeds on 27th and 28th March, 2017.

This two-day conference, organised by the Women, Gender and Sexuality, Health, Medicine and Society and Medieval Studies research clusters at the University of Leeds, explored the past and present of caring. As well as traditional academic papers on the histories of care, a workshop provided space to explore current issues associated with care in academic institutions. Through this session, we explored how researchers at all stages of their academic careers care for themselves and for others. Panellists highlighted difficulties currently experienced within higher education, and were able to identify workable ways the academe can help to ensure personal well-being, and further support staff and students in their varied roles as carers.

Through this report, I will draw together some common themes which arose across the two days, before providing some reflections on the future directions of these discussions.

Care in Academia

As part of the care in academia workshop, academic staff, early career researchers and students formed four panels. These addressed personal experiences of motherhood, fatherhood, caring for those with additional needs, and self-care within the academe. These conversations were emotional, intensive and at times sensitive in their nature, but I will attempt to pull out some of the main discussion points and suggested changes within academic practice, raised across these panel sessions.

Guilt: One of the more striking reflections to come out of this workshop was the widespread feeling of guilt amongst the students and academics represented on the panels. On the motherhood and fatherhood panels in particular, parents studying or working within academia reported a sense of guilt that their careers prevented from becoming the parent they aspired to be. On the other hand, many working parents felt that due to their transition to parental caregiving roles, they were half the professional they once were, and felt that in some cases, they could not commit themselves as fully to their academic careers as they would perhaps like to. Childcare routines and nursery or school pick-up times mean that some parents cannot schedule meetings at certain times of the day, need to leave work at certain times, and cannot easily attend evening lectures or travel significant distances to present conference papers. For one mother in particular, her conversion to part-time work led to feelings of isolation, as she no longer felt included in the conversations within the department.

A need for greater understanding and flexibility for working parents was highlighted in these discussions. For example, promoting the possibility of skyping into conferences, and for student parents, the ability to move seminars classes and easily extend submission deadlines, to accommodate the reality of raising small children.

During the self-care session, some panellists and attendees spoke about the pressures associated with an academic career, which can lead individuals to work in the evenings, weekends and in some cases, over the bank holidays. The perceived need to be constantly productive, either in doing intellectual work or cultural activities weighs heavily upon researchers. Academia can often be stressful and isolating, and so it was suggested that the importance of resting and switching off from work entirely should be emphasised and indeed, encouraged.

Support: This sense of guilt can be attributed in part the difficulties of achieving a good work life balance, and the lack of support received from some institutions.  The Research Excellence Framework (REF) seems to pose a significant problem for parents. It was generally felt that the requirements upon staff submitting work to the REF did not adequately take into consideration the effect maternity leave would have upon academic outputs. Permanent academic staff are required to submit four outputs for each REF. Staff can submit one less output for every period of maternity leave taken within the seven year REF cycle, but it was felt among the mothers that this does acknowledge the amount of time each submission reasonably takes to prepare. Further issues with the REF system may be identified with the opportunity of shared parental leave. The motherhood and fatherhood panels also drew attention to examples of good practice, through their experiences of dealing with certain institutions or funding bodies. Some research grants accommodate periods of maternity or paternity leave within the period of the award.

The lack of support within academia was also raised in a discussion related to the care of those with additional needs. It was felt that UK institutions did not adequately support colleagues coping with bereavement. There is no standard procedure for notifying colleagues or students of a bereavement, which has the potential to make a situation more difficult for academic staff, who often have their own office spaces and teach different classes each term. Grief has a long-term impact upon individuals, and for some, a death can change life dramatically. It was suggested that UK institutions could offer some form of individualised support, such as providing a trained professional for the bereaved to speak to, if they feel this would be helpful.

The need for self-care within the research community was raised by the participants on the self-care panel. Research can be highly emotive or sensitive, and by their very nature, some testimonies or subjects can weigh heavily upon academics. The affect that research can have upon individuals needs to be recognised and discussed more widely, and it was suggested that academics be given an appropriate space in which to talk, digest, and reflect on their emotions.

Relationship between Care and Academia:

A significant point of discussion was of the various ways in which caregiving roles intersect with academia. Caregiving in its many different forms can change working practices, and shape individual relationships with research topics or historical subjects. It was felt among some of those on the motherhood and fatherhood panels that becoming a parent heightened their empathy with the experiences of those in the past, or changed the focus a study. Participants discussing care for those with additional needs felt that academia could act as form of therapy, by providing the tools with which to reflect upon or further understand changes in everyday life. The rhythm of academic work also helped those transitioning to the role of a caregiver, and their adjustment to new routines, or ways of working.

Through discussions on the motherhood and fatherhood panels, it was felt that shifting priorities could change the ways in which new parents worked, or the time they allocated to certain tasks. Some of the fathers on the panel said their experiences of becoming parents had forced to have time away from their work, to leave the office at a reasonable hour and make time for family holidays.

These personal experiences highlight some of the ways in which the flexibility and creative opportunities offered by academia can be made to fit around, or even complement caregiving responsibilities. At the same time, there is still much work to be done in improving experiences of a healthy work life balance.

Histories of Care

Panels on experiences of care were followed by traditional research papers exploring the histories of care. Holly Furneaux (Cardiff University) delivered the keynote lecture, discussing care between soldiers in the Crimean War. This was followed by papers on the themes of Care in Wartime, Parenthood, and Violent Care of Animals on the second day of the conference.

One of the advantages of a thematic conference is that it provides speakers and delegates the opportunity to engage with research from a wide-range of historical fields and periods, which can provide interesting questions for your own work. Several papers explored the relationship between caregivers and the recipients of care. On the Violent Care of Animals panel, Sunny Harrison (University of Leeds) examined the violent care of horses in the medieval period, while Jonathan Saha (University of Leeds) explored the care of working elephants in colonial Burma, which were captured from the wide elephant population. These papers argued that care and violence are often entangled when it comes to the care of working animals, as what could be thought of as violence was often used to instil discipline, and not intended to cause unnecessary suffering. The speakers offered thought provoking reflections on the power dynamics of caring relationships, particularly of the status of the non-human patient is unequal to that of the caregiver or handler. This raises important questions about who the care is intended to benefit in these situations, the animal or the human. As part of the Parenthood panel, Rose Sawyer (University of Leeds) examines medieval changeling motifs. The changeling often took the place of a young saint, and was characterised by a failure to thrive or meet expected developmental milestones. In these motifs, parents or guardians continued to care deeply for their infants, despite the anxieties caused. In this sense, Sawyer argues that these motifs can offer a perspective on the experiences of caring for disabled children in the medieval period.

Many speakers reflected upon the relationship between gender and care. Joanna Phillips (University of Leeds) explored bodily care during the Crusades. Care in the Crusades has often been examined through the lens of medical care, but distinctions between care and cure were very fine in the middle ages, with therapies tailored towards the senses, such as food, drink and smells. Looking for acts of care, rather than seeking references to trained medical practitioners, Phillips argues that it is possible to locate women in the Crusades, and understand the caring roles they played, which could be construed as an extension of their domestic roles.

Several papers explored themes around masculine caregiving. In her keynote lecture, Furneaux (University of Cardiff) explored the nature of soldierly heroism, and care between soldiers during the Crimean War. Soldiers were often perceived as nurturing and compassionate, with cases of unmarried soldiers adopting children from the battlefield, and male nurses caring for casualties. Furneaux argued that these men were often described by their contemporaries as being “as caring as women”, raising questions about how different forms of caregiving intersect with cultural gender norms.

The gendered nature of caregiving was further explored on the Care in Wartime panel by Laura Boyd (University of Leeds) and Rosemary Wall (University of Hull). Boyd examined the masculine identities of stretcher-bearers in the First World War. These solider did not bear arms but played important roles in attending to wounded soldiers, and Boyd argued that this form of care was not necessarily seen as feminine in the context of the Western Front. Rosemary Wall spoke about her attempts to uncover the experiences of male volunteers in the British Red Cross in the First World War, as popular memoirs such ‘A Testament of Youth’ have led to assumptions that these organisations were dominated by female volunteers providing care for wounded soldiers. On the ‘Parenthood’ panel, Nehaal Bajwar (University of Sussex) discussed cultural resources for ‘involved fatherhood’ in modern day Pakistan, while my paper explored public images of adolescent caregiving and private family experiences of older brotherhood in post-1945 Britain.

Within these papers, it was implied that men participating in care were in some way subverting or reshaping masculine ideals.  This implies that caregiving is an inherently feminine role. As made clear during the discussions of motherhood in academia, the perception that women are naturally more competent carers than men can be inhibitive to mothers balancing academic work and caring responsibilities. This has led me to question whether conceptualising gender in this way is actually useful as an analytical tool. I have begun to consider whether examining family care in a gendered way could in fact mask how individuals understood their relationship with care, and the care which they provided for others.

Reflections

As a result of this conference, the participants and delegates have put forward suggestions about how we can progress our conversations from here. These experiences and discussions need to be heard as widely as possible, to promote tangible changes within academic culture. A report with suggestions for changes in academic practice, proposed as part of the care in academia workshop, will be circulated to conference participants and other groups working on related issues around equality and diversity in the academy. There have also been calls for further events exploring the particular issues faced by certain groups within academia, such as postgraduate researchers. A recently published report found that one in two PhD researchers experience some form of psychological distress, demonstrating the necessity for a discussion around mental health, research practice and institutional support for this section of the academic community.

This event, and the future plans arising from it, highlight the importance of such discussions, and of pooling experiences and ideas for improving working practice within UK institutions. Indeed, this conference forms part of a wider series of conversations taking place at the University of Leeds. In October, staff and students gathered to discuss women’s experiences within academia, and later this month, a conference organised by Jonathan Saha and Anyaa Anim-Addo will address the under-representation of Black and minority ethnic communities in the field of history, and discuss the difficulties faced by individuals working or studying in predominantly white universities.

It is likely that more events of this nature will take place within the academic community in the near future. Through raising the profile of such discussions, and circulating examples of best practice, we hope that substantive changes within academic culture can be made, to create a more equal and supportive working environments for current and future academic researchers.

 

 

A (belated) report from the wilds of Borsetshire

A recent post on Twitter asked if we are starting to witness the demise of the personal academic blog, at least in the field of history. Reasons put forward for the decline in the number of posts being written were pressures on time, developments in the research cycle (implicitly related to the increased imminence of the Research Excellence Framework) and variations in the teaching cycle, as posited by George Gosling.  Concern was also expressed that blogging was coming to be viewed as a requirement of postgraduate and early careers scholars, rather than more established ones.

I didn’t respond, all too aware that it has been months since I posted anything here, and even more since I directly posted anything related directly to either of my research projects.  This is due to all of the above reasons. I am teaching this term, not much but a new module that requires a certain amount of additional preparation and organisation.  I have committed myself to a large number of speaking engagements and forthcoming publications, as well as helping to organise two conferences.  On top of my research commitments and administrative obligations, this leaves me little time for writing the remaining chapters of the book, let alone reflections for the blog. And then there is the question of what I write about.  While I agree that blogging should not be the sole responsibility of PGRs and ECRs, I am becoming increasingly aware that it is easier to blog about searching for a job than it is about applying for promotion.  Similarly, blogging about ideas at the start of a project enabled me to work through key themes in ways that now seem to have less utility as I actively incorporate them into the book. If I am going to write about these ideas, I need to do it as part of my manuscript, not as a shorter reflection.

Which doesn’t mean that I don’t have things to write about (beyond my despair at the current political situation).  There are stories emerging from the new research project, although as this has its own blog now, I tend to reserve them for that forum.  And the number of speaking engagements I have undertaken means I am regularly coming into contact with the work and ideas of others which is giving me much food for thought and which is worthy of putting on record.

Which brings me to the Academic Archers conference, possibly one of the oddest but also  among the most interesting academic experiences I have had since I spent two days up to my ankles in mud talking about medical care on the Somme last summer.  This was the second annual conference organised to bring together academic analysis subjects based on or inspired by Radio 4’s long-running rural soap opera and the immensely knowlegable ‘Research Associates’, the long-term listeners whose knowledge of the world of Ambridge and Borsetshire is unrivalled in terms of breadth and depth.  Papers presented range from sociological analyses of familial relationships among prominent family groups, and the wider social implications of the resulting (matriarchal) power structures through an examination of the programme as an exemplar of rural theology to a discussion of the social standing of male characters and the relationship to perceived penis size (a phrase I never thought I would type on this blog or, indeed, anywhere else).

Arguably this was all tongue-in-cheek good fun, something not to be taken very seriously but to be played predominantly for laughs.  Certainly the most popular papers, such as the ones picked up by the press looking at negative aspects of competing in village flower and produce shows, and the ‘Ambridge Paradox’, or why all the characters don’t suffer from type 2 diabetes, involved much laughter along with the learning.  But there was very serious scholarship being undertaken here as well.  The session focussing specifically on the Rob and Helen story line of domestic violence and coercive control was sobering not only in terms of the subject matter, but also in relation to the information conveyed, whether on the forensic analysis of blood spatter patterns or the cost per day of food for women in prison.  Additionally, my understanding of my own work has been enhanced by a number of papers.  I have come away with a long list of recent sociological texts on masculinity, disability and violence taken from Katherine Runswick-Cole and Becky Wood’s paper on the use of the stoma bag in representing Rob’s disability and Jennifer Brown’s keynot on using Rob to understand the antecendents of domestic violence perpetration. Amber Medland’s concept of culinary coercion, while derived from the domestic context of Rob’s control of Helen, has opened up questions for me about the regulation of food in the institutional setting of the military hospital.  And I am looking forward to learning a lot more about masculinity in post-Second World War literature, particularly as it relates to birdwatching, in the on-going work of Joanna Dobson.

As for my own paper, I’m not sure I got the balance between humour and scholarship quite right.  ‘Erudite’ was one description of it, and I can only apologise to the tweeter whose brain apparently hurt when I finished speaking.  But the opportunity to explore how this particular artefact of British popular culture has memorialised the First World War – and to use the title ‘Some Corner of a Foreign Field/That is Forever Ambridge’ – was too good an opportunity to miss.  Among other things, it provided me with the opportunity to design an academicMeyer Poster poster in collaboration with some very excited and supportive colleagues. [1] I will, I hope, be publishing an extended version of the paper in the forthcoming edited collection (the one from last year’s conference is a beautiful object, available to buy from Amazon).  Writing it up will enable me to engage more fully with debates around imagined communities and invented traditions than I have done since I was a post-graduate, a useful exercise that will enhance my other academic endeavours.

And, in a sign of just how stimulating and welcoming the conference was, I’m already considering the topic of next year’s proposal. Leading the field is a plan to recreate the Ambridge War Memorial using the information from English Heritage uncovered by Laurie MacLeod, one of the attending RAs.  I’m even thinking about putting together an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund, if any of the Academic Archers community would like to form a group to work on this.  And I know there are several other First World War historians, many more eminent than I, who might be persuaded to trace the progress of the Borsetshire Regiment on the Western Front, analyse the minor poetry of Lt. Rupert Pargeter, explore the records of the Borsetshire Military Appeals Tribunal or discuss the impact of the use of women and prisoners of war in agricultural labour on wartime Ambridge.  I hope they will consider putting in a proposal when the call goes out.  The experience, both intellectual and social, will be well worth it.

 

[1] My thanks to Sara Barker, Tess Hornsby-Smith and Sabina Peck for their encouragement and insight.

Talking about caring

I am still planning on writing a post about Sgt. Arnold Loosemore, VC, but while I wait to hear from someone who has done far more research into his life than I have yet done about a query, I am also helping organise the ‘Who Cares?’ conference to be held in the School of History at the University of Leeds on 27th and 28th March, 2017. In particular, I have been approaching people to ask if they will talk about their personal experiences of providing care as academics.

So far, everyone I have asked to contribute has responded positively, not to say enthusiastically, providing evidence that there is an appetite for having these discussions within the academic community.  This has been a huge personal relief to me as I have been finding it surprisingly uncomfortable to make these approaches in the first place.  While my head has been telling me that these are conversations we need to have, and have in public forums, not privately behind closed doors, my gut has been questioning whether these really are conversations people want to have and are comfortable having.  Are these subjects too personal?  Should we be combining our work and family lives in this way?  Do we risk one colonizing the other in unhelpful ways if we start to blur whatever boundaries we may have established as individuals to maintain our sanity?

I am hoping that all these questions will be explored in March.  But even if they are not discussed directly, then at least the very fact that I feel such discomfort has reaffirmed for me the importance of starting and continuing these discussions as part of our professional lives.  The more openly we can talk about our family responsiblities and how they combine with our professional commitments, the burdens they place on us and the support we get from our colleagues and communities, the easier it will come to have such discussions and to establish good practice for all concerned.  If the end result is a free-flowing discussion where everyone feels heard, then it will have been worth every gut-tightening moment of anxiety that organizing this event is causing.

In the meantime, I am hugely grateful for the generous enthusiasm of colleagues who have agreed to contribute.  It will, I believe, be worth all our effort.

Who Cares? Call for Papers

Next March the Health, Medicine and Society and Women, Gender and Sexuality research clusters in the School of History at the University of Leeds will be jointly running a conference on histories of care.  There will be a conference website in due course, but as this is taking some time to set up properly, I am posting the Call for Papers here as well.

Who cares?: The Past and Present of Caring

Monday 27th – Tuesday 28th March, 2017

School of History

University of Leeds

A collaboration between the Women, Gender and Sexuality, and the Health, Medicine and Society research clusters.

Call for Papers

Deadline for Abstracts: 13th January 2017

 

At all stages of life, people give and receive care. Rapidly changing demographics are affecting the dynamics of care, and now more than ever, gender-based expectations of caregiving in history are being called into question. A growing emphasis on personal well-being denotes a generation that is complicating traditional notions of care.

The way care has been understood and delivered has developed across time.  Approaches to care have historically been and continue to be changed and challenged by spatial, temporal, and socio-political boundaries. This conference seeks to shed light on care within communities and across borders, exploring changes in its perception throughout history and how it intersects with different ages, cultures, and identities.

Our keynote speaker will be Professor Holly Furneaux, Cardiff University, author of Military Men of Feeling: Masculinity, Emotion and Tactility in the Crimean War (OUP, 2016).

The conference will also include a half-day workshop exploring issues associated with care in academic institutions. Through a discussion of parenthood, experiences of supporting family members, and mental health, this workshop will provide a space to explore how researchers at all stages of their academic careers care for themselves and for others. This session aims to highlight difficulties currently experienced within higher education, and identify workable ways the academe can help to ensure personal well-being, and further support staff and students in their varied roles as carers.

Submissions are now invited for 20-minute papers on subjects which may include but are not limited to:

 

–       Varieties of medical care

–       Gender and caregiving

–       Self-care and mental health

–       Care in the military

–       Care and the family

–       Care and the life cycle

–       End of life care

–       Care and the non-human

–       Care and marginalised communities

–       The economies of care

–       The politics of care

–       Critical care

 

We particularly welcome proposals from postgraduate and early career researchers.

Submission guidelines

Abstracts must be no longer than 250 words for 20-minute papers.

Please send abstracts to hisccon@leeds.ac.uk no later than 13th January 2017. Please ensure abstracts contain your name and institutional affiliation (if any).

Any general enquiries may be sent to hisccon@leeds.ac.uk

Conference Report – Resistance to War

Following on (rather belatedly) from my last post, one of the conferences I was only able to attend partially in March was the Resistance to War conference, held in Leeds on 18th-20th March.  In addition to Twitter, an important, and more established, way of keeping up with conferences that one can’t attend in person is via conference reports.  It gives me great pleasure to publish a report of the Resistance to War conference written by Charlotte Tomlinson, a former undergraduate and current MA student in the School of History, University of Leeds, and founder of the HUll Blitz Trail project (which can be followed on Twitter @hullblitztrail).  My thanks to Charlotte for taking the time to write and reflect on what sounds like a fascinating few days.

As the centenary of the First World War has come upon us in the last two years, scholars across fields have turned their attention to the conflict and offered new ways to look at it. As well as encouraging commemoration and highlighting traditional narratives, the anniversary has inspired fresh perspectives and uncovered previously untold (or at least under-told) stories. One such strand of new thought was recently celebrated at the Resistance to War conference, held in Leeds March 18th-20th. It was a truly international event, with speakers visiting from stretches as far as Auckland, and covered an equally diverse scope of subjects relating to resistance to war. Inevitably then, the conference encouraged consideration of a less traditional approach to the First World War. However, as all papers seem to, the event had me thinking more broadly about how we, and I, approach histories of war.

The event began with a series of panels exploring different aspects of war resistance. I decided upon one which explored resistance and gender through the lens of wartime literature in France (Philippa Read), Germany (Corinne Painter) and Britain (Sabine Grimshaw and Sarah Hellawell). After four extremely interesting talks, and a few books added to my ever-growing summer reading list, it was a question on how these works were received at the time that really peaked my interest. Not in the answer, but in that it made me contemplate how we use literature in history more widely. As happens so often lately, I found myself pondering the representation vs reception debate, comparing the cultural and social approaches to sources such as those discussed. While our own readings of literature are insightful, and were hugely fascinating to listen to, the panel left me with more questions about my own research than theirs.

The following day, another question of how we approach history left me a little more excited. In a fascinating talk on two ‘gender dissidents’ of the early twentieth century, Conscientious Objectors and Suffragettes, Lois Bibbings argued for a more complex understanding of how the two groups used gender in their resistance. In doing so, she highlighted how Emmeline Pankhurst’s WSPU used fashion as a method of resistance, how suffragettes ‘consciously played on gender’ by maintaining a prim and proper appearance in order to defend their femininity, and oppose media representations of them as unruly and manly. In a later conversation, we discussed how the loss of control over appearance was also central to the suffragette prison experience. It was encouraging to see how the issue of fashion, so often overlooked as a trivial matter, could be integrated into an analysis of war resistance and I was left feeling quite uplifted about the potential for this research to be taken further in the future.

Another talk inspired a less encouraging but equally interesting reflection, on how collective histories continue to shape how researchers approach resistance to war. The huge success of the conference showed how far we have embraced less typically-glorified narratives of the conflict which do not place the volunteer soldier suffering in the trench as the quintessential war narrative. Benjamin Ziemann’s keynote paper, on German soldiers who refused to fight from July 1918 onwards and how these have been remembered in Germany since, did however cause me to consider how we approach war resisters who were not pacifists. Crucially, a point was raised about the likelihood that a similar project would be undertaken on British so-called ‘cowards’. While popular opinions of war resisters has undoubtedly altered in past decades and become more positive, it was rightly argued that our changing cultural memory in Britain of heroic fighters or brave COs has not yet allowed a shift that adequately acknowledges our ‘cowards’ too.

It is hardly surprising that Cyril Pearce’s paper proved thoroughly inspiring. His work continues to influence scholarly thought on conscientious objectors and encourage new work. It was not his insights into war resistance here that had me thinking though, but his approach. In using statistics and maps to explore the pattern of conscientious war resistance in Britain, the paper was undeniably unique in a historical conference. Outside of economic histories, it is perhaps unsettling for many of us to deal with such mathematically presented ideas, but by mapping COs it was easy to highlight resistance hotspots and identify interesting communities that require further study. Ultimately, it was refreshing and inspiring to see an approach many researchers, myself included, would usually shy away from and provided a visual exploration of COs that really brought the issue to life.

Finally, a paper on the infamous Alice Wheeldon left me thinking about the significance of new perspectives on war resistance beyond the weekend conference, and beyond academia. A moving paper was given by Nick Hiley and Wheeldon’s great granddaughter, Chloe Mason on how the conviction of her family for conspiring to murder the then Prime Minister Lloyd George should be overturned. Hiley and Mason unpacked the case and highlighted the secrecy surrounding it, explaining how they are now appealing for the conviction to be quashed. In doing this, rather than reflecting on war resistance as much of the other papers had, the paper reminded us that our memory of war and war resistance remains a contemporary issue that touches lives today.

Driving home after a long couple of days, my (non-academic) dad asked me, ‘so what’s the point in a conference?’ What followed was a lengthy answer which I don’t think he was quite expecting. In the first instance, the papers given offered interesting insights into many areas of resistance to the First World War, some related to my own research, some not. But more importantly, the papers, as always, left me with a number of questions and points to reflect upon, a few of which I have briefly discussed here. These relate above all to how both I, and we, approach history. So more than just gaining knowledge and enjoying papers from across the globe in a celebration of centenary research, I left the conference with a greater self-awareness of myself as a researcher. Once again I was reminded that no matter the topic, there is always something to be learned in hearing about another’s work.

Doing history across space

This forms the third of a three-part series of posts reflecting on conferences I am have attended in recent months.  The previous posts in this series can be found here and here.

I am writing this on a train on my way to London where, tomorrow, I will attend a workshop before meeting with a potential collaborator.  I have done this journey in one day, getting up to catch the 6 am train and arriving home, bone weary at some time after the rest of my family is in bed.  The second half of the programme will remain the same this trip, but I am taking advantage of having the opportunity to stay with my cousin overnight, which should mean I get at least an hour’s more sleep (although possibly not more, given that she lives in Dulwich and I need to be in central London by 9).

Although this trip feels as if I have found the right balance between productivity and calm, it is nonetheless undertaken with a bit of regret.  In an ideal world, I would have been on this train two days ago, preparing to spend yesterday at a study day on First World War nursing held at the Wellcome Collection. The demands of family life meant, however, that I instead had to follow what looked like a fascinating series of talks, delivered by a number of colleagues whom I hold in very high regard via Twitter.

The dilemmas that this weekend has presented me with are something of a distillation of my experiences of travelling for work and conference attendance over the past few months.  In both February and March I dedicated a week to traveling to conferences, attending two or three within a seven-day period, a schedule which while exciting and often inspiring, was also exhausting and occasionally confusing.  While staying within Britain, I moved intellectually around contintal Europe and the British empire, as well as travelling from the seventeenth to the 21st centuries.

And even as I did all of this, absorbing and communicating information and ideas, I was still missing out. I did not go to Valencia, where what felt like the entirety of my Twitter feed spent a sun-drenched week at the European Social Science History Conference, nor, for the second year running, did I make is to the Social History Society Conference the wee before.  The latter took place at the same time as other conferences I had committed to; the former during a week when my young children desperately needed me around to remind them that they have a mother as well as a father to care for them and help structure their lives.

Such conflicts are, of course, an embarrassment of riches.  It is exciting to have so many possibilities for intellectual contact and cross-fertilisation available.  But there are drawbacks too.  Modern technologies, particularly Twitter and podcasting, mean that conference papers can be communicated and followed from a distance, but this is reliant on the good will, dedication and skill of presenters and live tweeters whose interests and priorities may or may not overlap with your own. In addition, following a Twitter hashtag or a podcast requires a certain amount of time and concentration on the part of both  the reader/listener and the communicator.  Trying to follow one conference while attending another, I have found, is incredibly difficult, while if I am live tweeting a panel, I have given up on taking my own notes, relying on my tweets as a form of note-taking.  Also tough is trying to follow a conference while getting a four-year-old’s lunch.  And ‘attending’ a conference at a distance does not allow for discussion, whether the back-and-forth of a question and answer session or the potential serendipities of coffee and lunch break discussions.  This last point was brought home to me when a live tweeter pointed out to his followers that he coudn’t actually put any of their questions to the panellists.

Then there is the question of cost.  I am in the fortunate position of being able to pay for conference attendance out of my current grant, but even that is not limitless, any more than the departmental budgets available to colleagues are.  For students and early careers researchers, the situation is even more parlous. Even when organisers try their hardest to keep registration costs reasonable (and not all do), travel and accommodation costs can make attendance at even one, let alone multiple events impossible.

Despite these problems, the sheer amount of intellectual activity happening around history, particularly the various types of history which I do (First World War, gender, social, cultural, British), is, as I say, immensely exciting and stimulating.  Which brings me to one of those conferences that I did manage to jam into my week of March madness, the Globalising and Localisng the Great War Graduate Conference on Stories, Spaces & Societies in Oxford. (I also attended the final day of the Resistance to War 1914-1924 conference in Leeds that weekend. A report on second day of that conference will be posted next week.) The scope for this conference, as the title indicates, was immense, and in terms of approach the two days covered military, social and cultural history in a truly interdisciplinary fashion.  Casualty statistics were deployed alongside diary entries and poetry, and discussion was enlightening and enlivening.  For my own part, I came away with a number of nascent ideas, two concrete references to follow up on, and the hope of recruiting another member to my research team at some point in the future.

One of the most interesting sessions was the roundtable discussion which concluded the first day during which current Oxford postgraduates reflected on their explicitly transnational approaches to researching the First World War, before discussion broadened out to a wider discussion of the transnational history of the war in the centenary period.  What struck me was the extent to which definitions of the transnational were defined, in the British context, by the British empire and dominions.  While the subjects of historical study were extra-European, the identity of historical actors from India, Africa, Canada, Australia, was inevitably intimately bound up with their understandings of themselves as imperial subjects, so that studies of these varying cultures and their participation in and memory of the war remain rooted in British history in complicated ways. This paradox was further reflected in the wider discussion, particularly Jane Potter’s point about the difficulties of editing a scholarly handbook of First World War poetry.  With all the good will in the world towards including as many national and supranational cultural perspectives as possibles, the limits of space, expertise and time, as well as the complexities of intellectual debate around definitions, inevitably mean that ambitions for comprehensiveness have to be reigned in, usually at the cost of the lesser known national literatures.

What the discussion highlighted for me is the extent to which we remain bounded by space in our work, whether analytically or physically.  Transnational history is shaped by historically constituted definitions of the nation, itself defined by borders both concrete and ephemeral. Location shapes our perspective, what archives we have access to, which scholars we encounter who influence our own scholarship, who we talk to and in what language.  Collaboration is, of course, a route to transcending boundaries, which are in turn enabled and enhanced by modern technologies.  But, as with conference attendance (that prime space for the development of collaborations), modern technologies cannot overcome every barrier or make space immaterial to the way in which we work.  As frustrating as the limits of space (and the inability to be in two places at once) may be, reflecting on them may, in a small way, help us in our understanding of the significance of space and its limits in the past.

Doing history across time

This post forms the second of three related posts on questions about historical methodologies arising from conferences I have recently attended.  The first of these can be found here.

I hadn’t intended to start this post this way.  This was (and eventually will be) a reflection on the Passions of War workshops I attended in February.  But, in a lovely example of the utility of blogging to academic practice, my previous post on interdisciplinarity has sparked a fascinating and detailed response from Jeanne de Montbaston, making the case for the value of reading sexual subtexts in historic literature from a contemporary perspective.  And it is a strong case (although I’m afraid Dr Allen and I are going to have to agree to disagree about finding Sir Impey a convincing object of Wimsey’s desire).  Reading ‘against the grain’ in this way can be an intellectually valid, not to say illuminating, exercise when done rigorously [1] and with the awareness that such readings tell us as much if not more about the reader and their cultural context than about the text itself.

What concerns me about such readings is not that they are amateur or uninformed but that their perfectly defined ’21st-century strobe lighting’, while illuminating particular facets of the text will, in turn, obscure others. Because I worry that in defining Peter Wimsey as bisexual we run the risk of losing the full historical complexity of same-sex desires and relationships in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain, complexity which historian such as John Tosh, Joanna Bourke and, most recently, Helen Smith have all addressed. [2]  The contemporary category of bisexuality appears to me (and I am very willing to be corrected on this) to limit rather than expand our perceptions of relationships, both physical and emotional, that were, in reality fluid and multi-faceted.  Tosh might argue that ‘Emotionally intense and physically demonstrative friendship between men was not new [to the Victorian era] – in fact in most historical periods it has been taken for granted.’ [3]  He goes on, however, to discuss the historical contingency of interpretations of such friendships in the late nineteenth century, a historical contingency which surely equally effects our own more legally tolerant age.

Which brings me, in a rather roundabout way, to the original point of this post, the consideration of the problems, as well as the benefits, of doing gender history across time.  This was sparked, as I say, by discussions at the Passions of War workshops held at the University of Leicester on 19th-20th February this year.  Part of an on-going series of AHRC-funded workshops, the Passions of War network is interdisciplinary, including scholars of literature, history, sociology and political science, and international, being organised by the University of Leicester, Ghent University, Dr. Guislain Museum and the National Army Museum, as well spanning a time frame from the 17th to the 21st centuries.

I have written previously about how inspiring the diversity of this workshop series has been to me.  My primary reflection on this occasion, however, was the ways in which scholars of a range of historical periods spoke to and with each other.  On several occasions I found myself mentioning the women, gender and sexuality reading group run by two enterprising postgraduates here at Leeds which deliberately selects an article by a medievalist and one by a modern historian for discussion at each session.  Just as at Leicester, where the panel on ‘Tender Encounters’ during the Napoleonic, American Civil and Crimean Wars had me revising and reevaluating my arguments about medical intimacy in the First World War, these groups have been illuminating for the historical continuities in understandings of gender they have uncovered. And yet, that question of historical contingency and specificity haunted our discussions as well.  As Rachel Bates demonstrated, our readings of Victorian images of wounded servicemen need to made in light of our knowledge of technological limitations and the social import of the fact that they were made for Queen Victoria’s private collection.  Their fundamental differences from, say, newspaper photographs of cheerful First World War limbless soldiers may tell us as much about their significance as their superficial similarities.

How, then, do we do history effectively across time?  Can we make comparisons between a medieval world shaped by religious and social understandings of sex, gender and the body which may see alien to us, and a Victorian world in which some forms of (particularly female) sexuality and bodily experience were so taboo that they could not be spoken of openly?  Is it simply a matter of applying similar tools of analysis across periods to uncover or fill in the archival silences? Or are there wider experiential truths which transcend our contemporary attempts at periodisation? How do we balance the insight that the probing if narrow brilliance of the strobe of light of contemporary perspective with the the wider, more shadowy world uncovered by historical context?

When people ask me what I do professionally, I tend to provide an answer that defines my work periodically – I am a First World War historian.  And yet, the joy of attending workshops like the Passions of War, of participating in the women, gender and sexuality reading group, of engaging with those such as Jeanne de Montbaston who are grappling with related questions in provocative and interesting ways, is the realization that the questions I am dealing with cannot and must not be confined by period.  As John Arnold and Sean Brady argued in their defense of long durée histories of masculinity, we need to ‘look beyond the confines of historical periodization, context, evidence and discipline, to provide new insights and challenges in questions of the relational qualities of gender’. [4] Doing so is not always comfortable or easy, but it can be immensely stimulating.  I look forward to more such discussions, on line, in reading groups and in the final Passions of War workshop, due to take place in September.

[1] On this point I will continue quibbling about Sir Impey’s flushed face which, in my copy of the novel occurs a page before Wimsey enters the witness box and three pages before his poetic mockery of ‘Biggy and Wiggy’.  The text itself, rather than a literal reading of it, would seem to preclude association, innuendo-laden or otherwise, between the two instances.

[2] John Tosh, A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 185; Joanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War (London: Reaktion, 1996), Chapter 3; Helen Smith, Masculinity, Class and Same-Sex Desire in Industrial England, 1895-1957 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

[3] Tosh, A Man’s Place, 185.

[4] John H. Arnold and Sean Brady, ‘Introduction’ in John H. Arnold and Sean Brady (eds.), What is Masculinity: Historical Dynamics from Antiquity to the Contemporary World (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 14.