Letters from the Past

It has been a long time since my last post. There is no specific reason. Life has remained busy, but not significantly busier than any other period in the years since I started this blog. But it has been harder to write, not just blog posts but everything – book reviews, articles, conference presentations, even emails. With the official publication of An Equal Burden in February, the pressure to write regularly has been lessened, and there has also been the on-going challenge of dealing with the emotions around my mother’s death.

The second of these has, I think, had the more profound impact on my failure to write here. In the first place, Mum was integral to this blog from the moment I set it up; from the start, she was my imagined audience, the person I so often wrote for. It was her voice in my ear telling me that my use of language was too academic, advising me to write shorter, clearer sentences, reminding to proofread multiple times before publishing. But there have also been other emotions that have arisen every time I have thought about writing here, relating to the points where my private and professional life intersect. Prime among these have been regret that Mum didn’t live long enough to see the book published – although she did get to see proofs of the cover – and guilt about how, as a social historian, I dealt with a very small part of my mother’s legacy.

It feels as if it is probably too late celebrate the book publication on here. There will be a formal launch in September (if I can ever pin down a suitable venue!) which may provide another opportunity. But, after several months of saying that I need to tell and reflexively explore the story of how I failed as a historian when clearing my mother’s apartment, this feels like the right time to do so, and, in doing so, start to revivify this blog.

So, the story. Mum died at the end of August 2018 in New York City. Both my siblings and I were at her side but both my sister (who lives in Colorado) had family and professional claims on us that meant we needed to return home soon after. There was no funeral but we made plans for a memorial service in the city in November, with my sister and I staying on for a week afterwards to help clear Mum’s apartment in preparation for its sale.

That week was, without question, one of the hardest of my life. We had moved to the apartment when I was 18 months old. It was the only childhood home my siblings had known, as well as being the place my mother drew her final breath. It had been renovated to suit her taste and was filled to the brim with her things – not only over 6,000 books but a lifetime’s collection of cooking equipment, bedding, family photographs and writings. There was all the medication from her final illness, but also all the audiotapes we had listened to on car rides as children, as well as enough stationary to keep a small company going for several years.

It took the three of us, supported by my brother- and sister-in-law, the full week to sort and clear the bulk of it. The most exhausting elements were the photographs and writings that my mother had stored in cupboards and boxes all over the house, sometimes in multiple copies. Either through a historical instinct to archive and preserve, or because I am naturally more sentimental, I chose to keep a larger number photographs and many of the papers relating to my mother’s education and professional life (although my brother has her computer hard drive, copied onto multiple external drives, a process which in itself took most of the week). I also took the bulk of the family archive, the documents relating to my mother’s parents and grandparents, including all the material she had collected researching her family’s history in her final years.

It was on the final day, the day my sister and her husband were flying out, the day before I was leaving to return to the UK, that it happened. I was going through the last few storage boxes in Mum’s bedroom that, somehow, hadn’t yet been looked at. Most contained books related to her teaching and additional copies of essays from her Master’s Degree course at Columbia. The books would be donated; the papers could be destroyed. But, right at the end, I cam across the two boxes of letters. The first was easy enough to deal with as it contained her correspondence with my father over the course of their courtship and marriage; those would come with me as part of her archive. The second also contained letters, but this time in many, and often unfamiliar, handwritings. Some were from names I knew; others were apparent strangers. It took me a moment to realise that this was the correspondence my mother had received as a young Englishwoman living in New York in the years before not only the internet but even inexpensive international telephony. They were letters from friends about her life and theirs, full of news and names, most of which meant little to me.

For several minutes I sat looking at this collection. I couldn’t face going through it to see what should be kept and what discarded. I could have simply decided to bring it home with me, along with all the rest of the family papers, to put off the task to another day. But could I ever face it? Or I could have brought it home to keep unsorted, preserving these scraps of source material for someone else to examine. Yet so much of the material was from people I did not know even in terms of their relationship with my mother, rendering the letters themselves without meaning. Did I have the space to house these documents. I did not have the capacity, either emotional or physical to deal with them.

Yet I also found I did not have the emotional capacity to destroy them. I am a social and cultural historian. Letters, and personal letters in particular, are the lifeblood of my research. I can sit for days in archives reading just the sort of daily minutiae my mother’s letters contained about total strangers, sifting the in jokes and family gossip for words and phrases that illuminate their lives and experiences. My mother’s letters might, just might, be of equal value to some other, more dispassionate, reader, some day. Shredding them would destroy that capacity for ever – and even if I could have found an archive willing to take them, arranging this in the 24 hours I had left in the country would have been a logistic impossibility.

In the end, the only response I had to this dilemma was the instinctive one of the exhausted child – I fled to the room I had been sleeping in (my brother’s old bedroom), shut the door and howled. My sister, packing cleaning products in the kitchen next door, heard me and came to find out what was going on. I tried to explain through my tears, failed, and begged her to deal with the box. I couldn’t. More practical and less sentimental than I am, as well as a nurse by training and profession, she promptly shred them.

So the letters are gone, but as this post indicates, they haunt me still. As a daughter, I couldn’t give them space, either physically or emotionally. I know this now as clearly as I did that day in November. As a historian, I will always feel guilt that I was unable to do so. Some day a historian will write the quotidian history of transatlantic relations in the late 20th century, and I will wonder what they might have learned from that box of letters, that little bit of lost history.

What have I learned from this experience?  Nine months on I’m still not quite sure. That the materiality and emotionality of archives touches not just the creator of the sources and the historian examining it, but potentially anyone who encounters them in the process of their conservation, perhaps. Certainly I will return to the archives with a renewed respect for all those who, in the midst of mourning, found the capacity to preserve the past simply for the sake of that preservation.

In the meantime, five boxes and two folders of family history, including my father’s letters, sit in front of me as I write this. My ten-year-old son has, since his grandmother’s death, become fascinated by finding out more about his heritage. I have promised him we can open the boxes and start exploring them together this summer. Hopefully, as both a daughter and a mother, I can find the strength and courage to make good this promise.

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The Many and the Few

In the run up to today’s centenary Armistice commemorations, falling this year on Remembrance Sunday, pretty much every form of British media has been publishing and broadcasting material relating to the war and its aftermath. Many of these have focused on individual experiences of the Armistice and the war more broadly, often drawing on the archives of the Imperial War Museums. Others have focused on the conduct of the final campaigns of the conflict and the politics of remembrance.

One article which caught my attention, however, was the cover story of The Times’ Weekend section on Saturday, 3rd November, ‘The day I found my great-grandfather’s war diaries’.* In it Leonie Roderick narrates her great-grandfather, Trevor Roderick’s, war as an officer’s batman in the Army Service Corps using the text of the diary he kept from 1916. For Roderick, the ‘Slightly frayed little diaries, each measuring 3-5 in … provided a fascinating insight into something that had been kept secret for nearly 100 years’. I, however, was powerfully struck not by their uniqueness but by their familiarity.  After nearly two decades of research which has involved reading hundreds of similar diaries, preserved in archives primarily in Leeds and London rather than left in a family attic, there was much to recognise in these excerpts. The particular experiences may have varied to some extent, but the matter-of-fact tone, the choice of types of incident to be recorded (airplane sightings are always noteworthy and descriptions of physical health and meals common), the run-on sentences linked with plus signs, are all absolutely characteristic not just of one man but of a much wider category of servicemen who kept diaries during the war.

Trevor Roderick was a unique individual and his diary a unique document. For his great-granddaughter, their familial relationship undoubtedly both enhances this sense of uniqueness and piques her interest (as not a professional historian) in her grandfather’s experience. This has, in many ways, been the basis for much of the media coverage of the centenary. Indeed, in 2014, the BBC made explicit its focus on the personal, familial stories of individuals in its centenary programme, most notable in the use of descendants of those who lived through the war as talking heads on Jeremy Paxman’s Britain’s Great War, rather than historians. While the aim may have been to personalise a conflict which has now moved almost entirely out of living memory, one result has been to atomise our understanding of the lived experience of war and its aftermath. Every document unseen by descendants becomes a hidden one, every experience unique. The synthesis which forms the basis of so much social and cultural analysis of the war, the bigger picture of war’s impact, becomes almost too big in this approach, and we risk no longer being able to see the wood for the trees.

This effect can be seen in some recent discussions about who is remembered in our centenary commemoration of the Armistice. The nearly century-long focus on the dead and the bereaved who mourned them in British commemorative practice has, in many ways been, since its inception about personal histories. The powerful cultural traditions of naming the dead, the gravestones at Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries, now individually depicted on social media, usually in close up to show the individual epitaph, the focus on stories of mothers campaigning for the return of their sons’ bodies in the aftermath of war, all serve to give a name and identity to the dead and missing even as they locate them within the generality of wartime death. The power behind the Unknown Warrior was that he could be anybody’s son, enabling each individual grieving a loss to give him a name and a remembered face.

Yet the majority of those who served with the British armed forces during the First World War survived, 88% to be precise, including Trevor Roderick.  While his great-granddaughter notes this fact (not least because if he had not, her grandfather would not have been born) her reading of his diaries focusses on the war, with the post-war entries on work, family and marriage consigned to a single summative paragraph. For the men who died, their story does, of course, end with the war. But by focussing on a single individual who survived in this way, it is impossible to locate Roderick in the wider experience of the millions of men like him who returned to civil society, or the impact that their experiences of war had on interwar society.

The problem is, in part, how we talk about these men, whose sheer numbers make their experiences of post-war life hugely varied. Many, but not all, were impaired, mentally or physically or both, by the traumatic injuries they received during the war. Many, but not all, managed to reintegrate into civil society. Some were politically radicalised, others returned gladly to quiet domesticity. Some suffered domestic breakdown, others married and had children and grandchildren. Some wrote (and rewrote) their war experience, talked about it openly, displayed their wounds and their medals for all to see; others refused recognition, discarded military titles, refused to speak of about the war, at least not to those left alive to remember. No single person’s story can exemplify this range, but there is still a desire to generalise about the category of ‘First World War veteran’, to try to make one man – be he Trevor Roderick or Harry Patch – speak for all.

The same problem, of course, affects our commemoration of the dead. As we focus on the individual, it often becomes hard to comprehend the mass. In turn, as in the case of Wilfred Owen, symbolic individuals become increasingly significant in how we frame the experience of that mass. How much weight of commemoration and emotion can one man’s memory bear? The impulse is understandable. As Josephine Tey wrote in The Daughter of Time (1951), ‘The sorrows of humanity are no one’s sorrows, as newspaper readers long ago found out. A frisson of horror may go down one’s spine at wholesale destruction but one’s heart stays unmoved A thousand people drowned in floods in China are news: a solitary child drowned in a pond is tragedy.’  But there is still more willingness to view the dead of the First World War as a whole, and a large one,  to locate Owen’s voice as one of the many in a way that still doesn’t happen with the men who survived. Enumerating the dead as many as well as one has a political purpose, underpinning the narrative of war as wasteful and futile. Doing the same for those who survived undermines this dominant narrative in ways that still make us uncomfortable. Yet the job of the historian, at least those of us who study the social and cultural history of the war, is to bridge that gap, to give the individual lives context beyond that of their families’ love and desire for better understanding of their individual experience. It is important for us to point out that not only was Trevor Roderick was unique individual who lived a unique war and his diaries are thus unique records, he was also part of a larger story about how war was experienced and what happened after. There were millions more Trevor Rodericks who may or may not have kept diaries, who may or may not have had great-granddaughters who became journalists and wrote about them in the national press but they too had a voice and a place in history, of which that of Trevor Roderick is a familiar part, not an exceptional exemplar.

88% of those who served in the British armed forces – over 4 million men – survived the First World War. We cannot name them all, any more than we can name all the more than 700,000 dead. Today on social media many people have named the specific men and women of this war and other wars who they remembered today. But as we each remember the few whose names have meaning for us as individuals (George Swindell, Ward Muir, David Randle McMaster), let us also remember that they each were one of many.

*With apologies for the pay wall.

All I have is a voice

So I am coming to the end of another summer of writing, the third focused primarily on the book. With little bit of luck, this will be the last, as I now have an at least somewhat definite deadline for submission of the full manuscript, although next summer is likely to be occupied with editing and incorporating reader comments.  Sadly, while I have emerged from the previous two summers energized and enthused by successes in completing chapters, I end this summer with far more mixed feelings, having spent a significant portion writing what I can only describe as the wrong chapter. That is, I got an idea of what I was supposed to be writing into my head, struggled to draft about 15,000 words, went back and reread what I had actually proposed and discovered it was something different – more complex and less linear, but potentially far more useful in the overall scheme of the book.  There are bits that can be salvaged from the previous version, and the rest will form the basis of a lecture I hope to be giving next spring. In the meantime, I have nearly finished drafting the correct version, a process I have found far easier and quicker than the original. This version is far more comfortable because I am writing in a way that suits me, not trying to take on the voice of a different type of historian and applying it to my research.

I have been thinking a lot about this question of the writer’s ‘voice’ this summer, in part because my period of focused writing has been bookended by events which have (or will) asked me to push myself out of my comfort zone as a writer.  The first was the final event in the Passions of War workshops which I have been attending for the past 2 years (for details of previous workshops, see posts here and here). In addition to hearing updates from participants on the research they had presented on at previous events, participants engaged in a guided fiction writing session, aimed at helping us free up the writing process and gives us skills and strategies for our academic writing practice.  The second is a story-telling workshop that I will be attending as part of the War Through Other Stuff workshop, being held at Leeds City Museum on 30th September.

Both of these events form part of a wider trend towards ‘creative histories’ which has been developing over the past few years.  This is the move towards exploring the variety of ways in which ‘educators, researchers, writers, artists, students, practitioners, and curators [bring] the past to life, [make] history compelling, and [have] fun’, to quote the call for papers from the summer’s Creative Histories conference.  The idea that the doing of history involves more than solely academic analysis or traditional exhibitions (a subject which has been raised in my own field in relation to the newly renovated National Army Museum, more of which in a moment) is undoubtedly to be welcomed.  But my experiences this summer have left me thinking that we need to make the case for more traditional analytic, even formal, histories as well.

One of the things that the fiction writing workshop reminded me was how uncomfortable the writing of fiction can be.  I say that as someone who started out as a writer of fiction (and weak adolescent poetry). For three summers during my school days, I attended that most American of institutions, an writing camp.  For two weeks each summer I took classes on poetry, short fiction, screen plays, learning how to create characters, set scenes, develop plot.  I wrote some very bad fiction, most of it thankfully long destroyed, but at the time I was quite convinced that I would, one day, be a writer of fiction.  I even thought that I might be able to make a living out of it.

What being asked to write fiction again reminded me was how constrained I have always felt by the process of scene and character creation. Far from inhabiting my imagined worlds and people, I have always needed to get it right – to be historically, or socially accurate, to get the slang correct, the details of the setting just so.  Developing a good story (or even a believable character) fell foul of this obsession with detail, a fear of the criticism that it was unauthentic, wrong.  I couldn’t, writing fiction, find that most elusive of qualities, my own writer’s voice.

I did eventually find it, however, in my final year of my undergraduate degree in the rather unexpected form of the dissertation, or long-form academic essay.  Since then I have honed and developed it, through two post-graduate theses, journal articles, book reviews and one (nearly two) complete monographs.  While there have been moments of doubt about the process (am I just stringing interesting/relevant quotations together/this is entirely and blindingly obvious/x, y and z have all said exactly this before), I have developed (and hopefully will continue to do so), my own style, my own perspective, my own contribution to understanding, my own ‘voice’.

As part of the process of learning the rules and limitations of the form I work in, I have also learned how to bend and subvert them, how far I can push the boundaries while maintaining my own authenticity, how this can be used to make my work engaging to a variety of audiences.  I am learning how to adapt my voice to different forms – discursive/reflexive essays (probably the form I aspire most to succeed in – Joan Didion has been a hero since school days), public lectures, academic seminars, scholarly monographs, someday, I hope, trade histories. This summer I have sought to push the boundaries of my own form in a peer-reviewed journal article that adapts reflexive practices and a book chapter for a collection that will be marketed to the Christmas trade as something of a novelty volume.  But within these experiments I try to remain true to the voice that I have come to through my academic writing and training, a voice shaped by analysis, historiographic considerations, and a belief in the value of proper citation and acknowledgement of intellectual debts (even if that does take the form of the despised footnote).

That locating and nurturing an individual voice is a significant part of the historian’s craft even in the most traditional forms of academic writing has been brought home to me by two museum events that I contributed to, the late opening of the Science Museum in July as part of their current Wounded exhibition, and the Masculinity Late event at the National Army Museum last night, part of their current season exploring gender and the military.  For both, I was asked to provide some sort of interactive session for museum visitors, although I had initially been asked to give a talk at the National Army Museum (the change was to make the event over all work more smoothly).  For both, I did the same thing, taking an article (one published, one currently under review) and deconstructing it into a series of quotations and images which I stuck to a wall and asked participants to respond to with their own thoughts.  Essentially, I took myself, my analysis, my voice out of the presentation of my work and then presented it to a non-specialist, if culturally engaged audience.

I came away from each event with very different feelings about the process.  The Science Museum experience was, for want of a better word, depressing.  While I had many interesting conversations, and felt my audience was engaged with the material presented, I was left wondering what the point of my labour was in the process.  Many of the responses I got were conditioned by dominant narratives around shell shock, which I found difficult to challenge in this format.  What then was the point of my research? It wouldn’t reach a wide audience in the format it was published in (a respected but slightly niche academic journal), but, in removing my voice from the format in presenting it to a wider audience, my ability to shape that narrative had dissipated. My voice was important; it needed to be there in some form.

By contrast, last night’s event at the NAM left me feeling far more energised and enthusiastic.  This may have been due to the fact that the audience was smaller, allowing me more opportunities to explain my perspective in some detail. It may have been due to the fact that the work presented hasn’t yet been published, leaving me more open to having my understanding shaped by the audience responses (there were also more of these in the form of post-it notes stuck to the wall by participants than there had been at the Science Museum, a reflection of the event being held in a more intimate space within the museum, allowing participants to feel safer in voicing their opinions, I think.) But I had also organised the display in ways that allowed me to demonstrate my ideas, my argument.  It was subtle, but it felt as if my voice was able to come through more clearly.

What last night demonstrated for me is that is possible for more traditional forms of history to be adapted to communicate with diverse audiences in ways that are both creative and yet recognise the authenticity of the original form.  This is the power of respecting one’s own authorial voice. Which may mean that, as fun and adventurous as writing fiction can be, it doesn’t need to be the approach taken by everyone. I will bear this in mind as I prepare to engage with storytelling at the end of the month.

Women, Gender and Sexuality visit Women, Work and War.

A guest post from Laura Boyd, a second-year PhD student in the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the University of Leeds. Laura is researching the work of non-combatant male medical caregivers in Britain and France during the First World War, and is a postgraduate member of the Women, Gender and Sexuality Research Cluster.

On 8 March 2017, the Women, Gender and Sexuality Research Cluster at the University of Leeds had the fantastic opportunity of a guided tour of the Women, Work and War exhibition at Armley Mills, followed by coffee and a chat. We were a mixed group of academic staff and postgraduates, from MA to Ph.D level in the Faculty of Arts. Guiding us was Lucy Moore, the Project Curator for First World War and member of the Legacies of War Project.

The visit began with the guided tour. The exhibition was wonderfully curated, and gave a real insight into the lives of the women working in and around Leeds during the Great War. These women came from all around Leeds and indeed much further, and took over the jobs in factories that were left by men who had gone off to war. Though it started in Armley, the factory expanded to the Barnbow site and employed large numbers of women.

Not only did it portray the ‘general’ or ‘bigger picture’ of the lives of these women who worked at Armley and Barnbow in the munitions factories, but was interspersed with personal stories. Lucy showed us around the different exhibits, including munitions and clothing, and shared other anecdotal tales that were not on display, taken from the writings of the ‘Canary Girls’ themselves. The exhibition featured personal accounts of the 1916 Barnbow explosion, which really brought home just how dangerous this behind-the-lines war work was. We even had the chance to have a sneak-peek at an original medal press that is currently awaiting restoration!

We then sat down for coffee and a chat with Lucy, and we began by asking about her own career progression into becoming a curator. Her answer? Refreshingly honest! And by that I mean that it wasn’t a straightforward, linear progression, as these things rarely are. A few of the postgraduates in attendance were interested in hearing about how to get into her line of work and Lucy gave us some great tips on how to get started.

This led to a discussion of the academic buzzwords ‘impact’, and ‘partnerships’ between academics and the community. Though these words tend to scare people like me, it was actually a really insightful and interesting discussion. Both Dr. Jessica Meyer and Lucy Moore are part of the Legacies of War Project here at Leeds, which they were delighted to talk about. Lucy was open about how the academic world has helped create interest around exhibitions such as Women, Work and War. Not only through organising trips such as ours, but by spreading the word among colleagues and at other academic events such as conferences and seminar series. She also said that she is happy to have connections to which (and whom) she can turn for information and help. Jessica was also keen on this point, telling us how the museum had also helped greatly in terms of ‘impact’, by helping the academic world bridge the gap between us and the public, leading to some fruitful and fascinating interactions. She also noted that often independent researchers involved in projects such as this come with knowledge and sources often unknown to academics!

So, to sum up, it was invaluable. Academic-community partnerships can help to get the public interested in what we do, and in turn can, through these partnerships make our research available to all. I would wholeheartedly suggest that if you have not yet been to the exhibition – GO! It will be well worth it, I promise.

Women, work and academia

I am never quite sure where October goes.  At the end of September I felt as I was looking out on vast swathes of time in which to complete the first draft of the next chapter of the book.  I am doing minimal teaching this semester and most of it, or so I thought, was concentrated in November, which I have also filled with two trips (one abroad).  And now, here I sit, on the last day of the school half term, with not a word of said chapter written (although a very clear idea of what it needs to say) and facing a series of looming deadlines for funding and articles which I have promised to complete.

Which is not to say October hasn’t been productive.  I’ve done a lot more postgraduate teaching than I anticipated, all of it hugely energising.  There can be few things more exciting than sitting with a PhD or MA student as they start to work through their ideas for their thesis – unless it is perhaps supporting those students as they complete the final stages of three or four years of intense work, and realise that they have independently produced something unique and important.  I have also been doing a remarkable amount of administrative work, not least because I now lead a new research cluster in Women, Gender and Sexuality.  Setting this up, and working with colleagues as we think through as a community how issues of gender and sexuality shape our working lives within a university setting has been thought-provoking, at times troubling, at others life-affirming – and remarkably time consuming.

Which is why it is only now that I have the opportunity to write up and reflect on one of the events partly related to the WGS cluster (we provided tea and coffee for the post-workshp social event) which occurred over two weeks ago now.  This was a workshop organised in conjunction with the Katrina Honeyman Lecture, this year given with immense panache by Professor Selina Todd.  (The lecture itself deserves its own blog post, but I am still trying to find the time and space to think through all its implications properly, so will defer the pleasure of reporting on it at present.)

The two-hour workshop which preceded the evening lecture took the form of a facilitated discussion among a range of academic women of experiences of gender discrimination and harrassment in the academic workplace.  Two panels of speakers, the first made up of three academics from universities outside of Leeds, the second of three academics from Leeds different stages in the academic life cycle, were given three questions to respond to in turn, followed by a more general discussion.

The first panel, which included Helen Smith (Lincoln), Julie-Marie Strange (Manchester) and Selina Todd (Oxford) were first asked to introduce themselves and explain the work they were undertaking around gender equality, experiences which ranged from organizing an Athena Swan bronze award application through experiences of the Aurora leadership programme and its influence on running a department to the development of a new initiative, Women in the Humanities.

They were than asked about the labour involved in equalities work. Much of the response was about the Athena Swan scheme, both critically and constructively.  On the one hand, panelists spoke of the labour involved in applying for the scheme, which often goes unrecognised in workloads and those in authority, the risk it runs of reducing action on equalities to a tick-box exercise, and the tendency of university hierarchies to assume that women would undertake such work.  It was also pointed out that equalities work is not only time-consuming but brings and emotional burden, given the sensitivity of the subject, and that the labour is not limited to the application itself but, if the award is to be more than a tick-box exercise, involves commitment to change going forward.  On the other hand, it was pointed out that Athena Swan and similar schemes are needed, and will increasingly be needed, by university management structures as markers of best practice.  This gives them the power to serve as a conduit for examining and possibly changing institutional structures by adding to the indespensibility of those who provide the labour of recognition.  Both Julie-Marie and Selina pointed out that if the application process embodies and enacts the aims of the award, through for instance ensuring workload recognition for those organising the award, then such applications can act as a driving force for structural change.  For this to happen, there had to be wider acknowledgement, either through sympathetic leadership or through the pressure of collective action, what Selina termed the posse within the discipline, although she also argued that we needed to reach out in solidarity across departmental boundaries, particular in recognising HR as a resource for bringing an external perspective to the examination of institutional structures, if only through their knowledge of equalities legislation.

This discussion led directly into the final question for the panel on how we can go about putting pressure on our institutions to change.  Here the responses were about both individual behaviour – calling out bad behaviour when we see it, naming our own experience and claiming it as experience rather than anecdote, taking up training and coaching opportunities to strengthen our ability to give voice our experiences and to support others who might feel more vulnerable voicing theirs – and group behaviour, with a particular call for unionization as a way to make our voices heard within structures that universities understand and which attract allies, not least our own students. Selina in particular reminded us that, as individuals we can only ever expect to take small steps towards changing institutional structures and none of us can fight every battle all of the time – we need to be strategic about our time and emotional resources.  But lots of small steps, taken together, can, in the end, bring about institutional change.

This was followed by a discussion in which points were raised about who is responsible for calling out bad behaviour, particularly that which is observed, relative vulnerability and security, where gender intersects with class, age and location within the professional academic life cycle, the influence of Athena Swan on research practice and how to overcome institutionally constructed divisions between academic and support staff.  Throughout these discussions the need for inclusion and solidarity to effect structural change was central, although the importance of those with job security in recognising their privilege and using it responsibly to call out bad behaviour and identify patterns of abuse was acknowledged.

The second panel was made up of Professor Emilia Jamroziak, Dr Laura King and Ms Nicola Ginsburgh.  Asked first to reflect on issues that specifically affect women in the academic workplace, Emilia pointed to the changing nature of academic careers, with an increasing focus on management, particularly at a senior level.  This, she pointed out, often comes with little training, which is problematic not simply for women seeking these more senior roles, but also for the ways in which women are managed.  Lack of effective training for all academic managers increases the likelihood of a culture of silence around bad behaviour, which is too often ignored and not effectively disciplined when called out.  Laura pointed to the pressures on women relating both to lack of job security and to the biases which shape the academic job market.  She suggested that while universities are increasingly talking a good game around implicit bias and training for its recognition, this too often masks broader institutional problems, displacing the identification of discriminatory behaviour onto individual subconsciousnesses, rather than seeking ways to alter structures to eliminate such behaviours.  Nicola picked up on this last point, noting that there were a number of structural assumptions which attached themselves to postgraduate students in particular, such as those around the desire to pursue an academic career.  She also pointed to the distinctiveness of the student experience as more isolated than that of the academic, making it harder for postgraduate women to form an effective posse.  This was further reinforced by the assumptions of the temporary nature of student status within the school, affecting students’ ability to complain.  The fact that the student might not be present in the institution in the long term but the person whose behaviour might be complained about might be, due to holding a permanent position, shaped decisions about whether to make a complaint.

The panel was then asked for suggestions as to how these challenges might be addressed.  The answers echoed the earlier discussion, with Emilia arguing that women needed to work together to build the sort of alliances that, she suggested, men all too often use to silence discussion.  Echoing Selina, she argued that cultural and structural change can be achieved through engagement and the sharing of information to challenge the definitions of institutions hierarchies which are not absolute truths. Laura supported this, suggesting that we need to change the definition of female discussions to define them as discussions and the sharing of information, not gossip.  Nicola finally suggested that we need to not only contribute to but also place demands on representative organisations such as the unions (including the student unions), to reflect the particular challenges faced by women in the academic workplace.

The discussion element following this panel turned more to reflection, a facet of the audience also being part of the institution under discussion.  A particularly fruitful discussion took place around the question teaching practice, and the need to shape the curriculum to more fully reflect diversity.  Problems were identified in relation to this, not least in terms of the additional labour required to diversify modules options and reading lists, labour which all too often fell to those already under pressure of time as hourly-paid or early career teachers.  However, the potential for such diversification to effect structural change was also discussed, through the potential for creating new areas of power linked to appointments and the allocation of scholarships, and that offered by co-teaching as a way of creating space for discussion and solidarity.  The potential for incorporating the equalities agenda into already recognised systems, such as departmental and staff reviews (which are required of everyone) was also put forward.  This point, about building change into existing structures was also raised in comment about the gendered labour of documentation and the privileging of the quantitative decision-making.  The answer, which Selina suggested was true across academic systems and beyond, may lie in the need, already noted, to take ownership of the value of qualitative data, claiming experience as such, rather than anecdote, and using it as evidence for our claims to be heard.

As is inevitable with any discussion involving a diverse group of passionate, intelligent participants and tackling a subject as large and complex as gender within the academy, there was much left unfinished and several points which I questioned.  Is ‘amplification’, whereby colleagues repeat a point that is attempting to be silenced until it is acknowledged, a useful tactic, or does it run the risk of entrenching the attitudes expressed in this well-known cartoon?:

office-sexism-women-business-relationships-cartoons-punch-magazine-riana-duncan-1988-01-08-11How many of the pressures experienced by post-graduate and hourly-paid teachers are a facet specifically of gender and how many of wider problems with academic employment structures?  How do we incorporate men, and particularly men in senior positions, into our discussions without constructing them as a potentially alienating other?  How do we, as individuals, effect small changes as individuals without getting overwhelmed by the challenges of effecting wider structural changes, challenges which have the power to undermine our subjective integrity as academic workers?

There are no easy answers, but for two hours two weeks ago a large group of women and men attempted to put some of our ambitions for change into practice, sharing experience and proposing strategies.  And these conversations will continue, through the WGS cluster and other venues, and through future organised events, not least a conference that will take place in March in the School of History at Leeds which will explore care both in history and in the academy.  More details to follow – once my colleagues and I manage to carve out the time to organise the next steps.

Reviewing the Reviewers

So I’ve been pondering a question for the last few days that, hopefully, someone out there may be able to help me with (all comments gratefully accepted).  When submitting a book manuscript for review, is it standard practice to include the names and contact details of people you would think would be suitable referees?  I ask because of three things that happened recently:

  1. I submitted my book proposal to a publisher, including the names of two people whose fields of expertise made them, in my opinion, suitable commentators on the strengths and weaknesses of my work.  I submitted the proposal as PDF files (a habit I developed when, as an independent scholar I did my word processing on Open Office, a format that almost no one else seemed able to work with) and promptly received a request from the editor that I resubmit the proposal with the names of my two suggested readers omitted. Both the readers I suggested were women. (The relevance of this will become clear in a minute.)
  2. I was asked by another publisher to review a book proposal for a book in my field.  The proposal included the names of four suggested reviewers.  None of them was mine, not least because all four suggestions were men.
  3. Suzannah Lipscomb published an article in History Today about sexism in academic history which, among other things, suggests that the process of academic review is inherently gender biased.

All of which has got me wondering about the role of gender in the academic review process.  And here it is important to make the distinction between journal articles, which are double-blind, with neither review nor author knowing the identity of the other, and book manuscript reviewing, where the reviewer remains anonymous, but is informed of the identity of the author, usual to enable them to comment on the author’s suitability to undertake the proposed project (a similar process to that involved in grant proposal reviewing).  Because while, as Lipscomb suggests, the gender of the author may influence considerations where known, the gender of the reviewer seems to me to be an equally valid variable in our understanding of the gender dynamics of the review process.

This is not to suggest that female reviewers are necessarily less likely to have their opinions of a piece of work shaped by sexist assumptions about the author.  We all have implicit biases by the nature of being socially constructed actors, and many of those are gender-related in ways that have the power to make us extremely uncomfortable.  But I do wonder if the view that young female historians are inherently disadvantaged by the review system isn’t making some assumptions of its own about the make up of the community of reviewers – namely that it is a privileged community, so more likely to be older, white and, above all, male.

I’m not sure that this is the case, as demonstrated by both my suggestion of two female readers and the fact that I, as a woman and a subject specialist, was asked to review a proposal over a list of men with higher name recognition.  Subject specialism is the necessary ingredient here, rather than notability within the field, but the other key variable seems to me the willingness of reviewers to actually undertake reviews.  I have absolutely no evidence to assert that women are more likely to agree to act as reviewers – an act of collegiality even in the case of book proposals, which often bring with them a small honorarium in the form of cash or double the value in books from the relevant publisher.  But there is evidence, as noted in the Royal Historical Society report on gender equality, that women tend to be expected to take on roles of pastoral care, mentoring or outreach – in other words roles that enhance collegiality but bring relatively low reward in terms of recognition. My suspicion is that women are more likely to agree to act as reviewers than men, particular in circumstances where they will receive little or no recognition for this role.

As far as I am aware, there is no data available on the gender breakdown of reviewers for either journal articles or book proposals in historical subjects.  It would be fascinating to know this information, although the nature of anonymous review means that it would take considerable input from journal and commissioning editors to be compile any sort of usable data.  Perhaps there are colleagues in publishing out there who may be able to point me in the right direction?

In the meantime, assuming that the standard for book proposals is for authors to continue making suggestions of appropriate readers, in an attempt to challenge gender bias in the discipline, both implicit and explicit, perhaps it behooves us all to interrogate who we consider appropriate reviewers of our work – and why.

Doing history in public

Last week I met with a woman who wanted to know more about the history of her great-uncle, an ex-serviceman from the First World War who suffered from shell shock. I had an email correspondence about plans for a future workshop on visible and invisible wounds that I might offer to a group of primary school students who I worked with over the summer. I began putting together the PowerPoint presentation for a talk I am giving to a local professional association next week. And I proposed two potential posts for a national research blog on the history of the First World War.

This wasn’t, of course, all I did.  I worked on my current book chapter, met with four postgraduate students to discuss their work, put the finishing touches on the reading list for the seminar on gender and medicine I’m teaching this term and completed two book reviews (one of which the editor kindly complimented as being ‘jargon-free’).  But the work I did that might be classified as engagement or outreach or even, at a pinch, impact (to descend into academic jargon for a moment) seemed particularly pertinent, occurring as it did in the context of the Twitterstorm over Rebecca Rideal’s promotional interview for her new book, 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.  I have no intention of recapping the  ins and outs of this particular squabble, not least because it showcased an extraordinary level of bad behaviour on all sides of the debate, except to gently point out to my fellow Twitterstorians on all sides of the debate that subtweeting is rude, whatever your level of professional seniority, and that I don’t care how justifiably angry you believe yourself to be, there is no excuse for sexist comments.

In spite of all the unpleasantness, however, there does appear to be a small silver lining appearing in the form of blog posts responding to the issues raised about who is defined as a ‘historian’ and, more specifically, how a ‘public historian’ might be distinguished from an ‘academic historian’. Catherine Fletcher was one of the first off the blocks, arguing that historians who ‘do public history’ are misunderstood by ‘academic historians’ who are defensive about the boundaries of professional definition  and therefore engaging in ‘occupational closure’, to use sociological terminology.  Yesterday, Graham Smith issued a call via the Historians for History blog for historians, ‘irrespective of where they work or what they work on, to collaborate on projects in a spirit of shared authority.’ Doing so, he suggests, would be a step away from internal squabbles over resources in which boundaries of period, approach and discipline are mobilised via exclusionary and demarcatory strategies. (Yes, I have been reading rather a lot of historical sociology as part of that book chapter I am writing.)

At one level, I have no problem with the overarching argument that both Fletcher and Smith are putting forward, namely that those who do history (and can therefore be defined as historians) often practice outside the limits of the formal academy and that it is incumbent upon those working within those limits to engage with those outside them, whether via projects of ‘shared authority’ (which I think refers to what I know as ‘co-produced research’) or via engagement with the media of public dissemination (television, radio, trade publishing, blog posts, podcasts, museum exhibitions). What I do take issue with, however, is the implication of both posts that a) the boundaries between ‘public’ and ‘academic’ history are fixed and impermeable and b) that the fixing of these boundaries has come solely from one side of the discussion.

As far as the first of these implications is concerned, Fletcher’s own positioning of herself as an academic actively engaging in public history (via her role as an AHRC/BBC New Generation Thinker and the publication of a well-received trade history) demonstrates that this is not the case.  Nor is she exceptional, except possibly in the level of her public profile.  Every academic I know engages at some level in communicating their history publicly, whether through publication or presentation.  For most of us that means giving lunchtime talks to thirty-odd pensioners at our local library rather than broadcasting on national radio. It means acting as an uncredited advisor to a local drama group rather than a talking head on a national documentary. It means convincing our publisher to run a paperback edition of our monograph rather than pitching to a literary agent in order to get our research read.  But all of us, as I have argued before, are fundamentally motivated by our desire to communicate our research to others, and many of us are extremely creative in how we do so, well beyond the sometimes rather narrow definitions of what constitutes ‘public history’.

Which brings me to my second point, that the ‘gate-keeping’ of the boundaries of professional definition works both ways.  Not all of us are given access to the audiences provided by schemes such as New Generation Thinkers (a project with a fairly rigorous competitive selection process).  Some of us work in field where the competition in trade titles comes from Jeremy Paxman and Katie Adie (backed by the BBC), making a pitch to an agent that much more complex.  And those who control the channels of public communication at the national level in particular bring their own knowledge and assumptions to the table, shaping their willingness to hear and broadcast potentially challenging ideas (something that has shaped much of the criticism by historians of the national commemorations of the First World War centenary as produced by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the BBC).

This is not to suggest that lack of access should be used as an excuse by those within the academy for retreating into an inward-looking discussion, or to express resentment of those who do gain access, which they will have worked hard to achieve, through unfair or unwarranted criticism.  Rather it is a call for two things: firstly, a little more self-awareness by those producing widely distributed forms of public history that they have privileges of their own, some of which may come through leveraging their association with academia but which are not necessarily available to all their colleagues.  A permanent academic position is, as has quite rightly been pointed out, not the be-all and end-all of historical authority; nor is it a position of infinite security and privilege. We need to treat all our colleagues, however they practice their craft, with civility and respect, which includes not throwing unwarranted accusations from either side.

Secondly, this post is a call for a greater acknowledgement of the full range of public history being undertaken by historians across the spectrum, from the HLF-funded co-produced project through artistic collaborations to the Christmas best-seller.  Increasingly this form of historical practice is being expected of academic historians by funding bodies and univesity administrations, in addition to (rather than in place of) depth and breadth of engagement with subject knowledge and methodological practice.  Those of us with academic positions (or aspirations to such) are becoming increasingly adept at code-switching in response to the variety of audiences we address, so having it assumed that our writing will be full of jargon or our public presentations too abstruse simply because we hold or are working towards a higher academic degree is deeply dispiriting (as well as not a little patronising to our intended audiences). We are also, as Fletcher and Smith both beautifully demonstrate, engaging in a huge range of creative public practices, starting from our classrooms, where increasingly ‘public history’ is an academic subject and ‘engagement’ an aim, and encompassing a huge range of creative co-productions, both formal and informal, funded and not.

The Rideal Twitterstorm initially began with a complaint about the lack of acknowledgement for historical work already undertaken.  How we acknowledge such work within the ever-growing sphere of public history in ways that satisfy the demands of a media landscape where novelty is all remains an important discussion.  But if we are to lift the professional barriers that seem only to bring out the worst of history’s insularity, we all need to acknowledge both that a range of practitioners are historians, and a range of practices make up public history.