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.

 

 

The unfinished year

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

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

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

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

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

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

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

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

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

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

Robert Frost, 1922

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

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

Working in Mud Time

I am on strike today.  As a member of the UCU, I am neither manning an open day drop-in session nor attending a classification meeting in an attempt to get across to university management that the gender pay gap in academic salaries (over £7500 at Leeds) and the ever-increasing casualisation of academic labour (51% on temporary contracts at Leeds) are things that really matter and need to be addressed to ensure sustainability of the sector.  To my third-year students, I apologise. You have worked hard and deserve to have your scholarly achievements properly ratified and acknowledged.  But nothing can take away from these achievements and, if we collectively learned anything from studying men and masculinities in Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is that gender hegemonies need to be challenged at all levels.  To prospective students, I am sorry if you feel if you had a wasted journey, but there will still be time for you to judge for yourselves if Leeds is the right place for you to study, knowing that it can only be a better place to do so if those who are teaching you are fairly rewarded for their labour and don’t suffer from the vagaries of job insecurity.

So instead of sitting in foyers and meeting rooms, I am sitting in the garden typing this.  As urged by my union rep, I am staying away from the university, not answering emails, not preparing for next week’s Somme 100 commemoration events, or the talk I am giving in mid-July, or reading applications for the two jobs that I am on the shortlisting panels for.  But on the table beside me is the chapter of my book which I am going to spend the afternoon editing in preparation for sending it to a publisher for consideration.

But surely that is doing academic work, you say.  This book is Research, the result of work done as an employee of the university (and only able to be done because I was a university employee).  If published in good time and of sufficient quality it will be submitted for the REF, by which the university as my employer will be judged.  Working on it today is, must be, strike breaking.

Which is one way of looking at it, but there is, inevitably another perspective.  Because this book as a product of my labour is mine and not my employers, however much my colleagues might have contributed, however important an office and official email were for getting the research done.  All books are, as Matt Houlbrook has noted, co-written or collaborations, but once published this book will be in my name.  It will be my calling card for the rest of my life.  If I leave the university, I will take that credit with me to wherever I go next.  The value of the book as a product accrues to me (and to my putative publisher) not to my employer.

It can be easy to forget this fact under the pressure of meeting deadlines and hitting targets.  It is even easier to forget, in the welter of work created by teaching and public engagement, that writing this book, shaping my original research into a form that communicates both the data and my analysis of it clearly , accurately and engagingly, is what I do best and why I do what I do.  I was able to come back to academia because of good fortune and the support of others, but I chose to come back because  I could not not write history and doing so in an academic setting made the most sense.  While working in publishing I spent large parts of my ‘leisure’ editing a collection of essays, writing articles and finishing my first book.  Writing history wasn’t my job, but it was my work, and it will remain so whatever paid employment I have in the future.

Such a sense of vocation is not uncommon in academia and it is, of course, dangerously exploitable by employers who use can use it to excuse poor rates of pay and exploitative contracts.  Yet just because it can be used this way does not mean it can be denied either.  To fail to acknowledge love of one’s work, to view its value solely as reflected by the pay levels and working conditions it attracts is to cede the value of the labour to the paymaster.

So this afternoon, after months of attempting to fit my writing around all my other work, both paid and unpaid, I will be reclaiming the value of my work not for my employer but for me, because this is who I am and this is what I do.  The same applies to the work of my colleagues; our work has value for the university but also for us and it deserves to be acknowledged as something more than the purely instrumental.  Fair pay and working conditions would be a decent place to start, although only a start.

Serendiptously, I reread Robert Frost’s poem ‘Two Tramps in Mud Time’ this morning (I was sidetracked in my hunt for ‘Mending Walls’ in an attempt to demonstrate the dangers of quoting out of context in political debate).  Frost’s eloquent anthem to the joys of manual labour (and Vermont weather) acknowledges the priority of claims to work for pay over labouring for love but nonetheless concludes:

But yield who will to their separation

My object in living is to unite

My avocation and my vocation

As my two eyes make one in sight.

Only where love and need are one,

And the work is play for mortal stakes,

Is the deed ever really done

For Heaven and the future’s sake.

In giving into the impulse of love on a day when the claims of need are being so strongly asserted, I am seeking, like Frost, not to dismiss the priority of that need but rather to unite with it in hope for a better future.

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.

#am(not)reading

tumblr_ncgkryMwuc1s1zlzoo1_500I miss reading.

That may sound like an odd thing for an academic to say.  After all, I read all the time.  Within the past few weeks I have read 10 2000-word essays, two articles for discussion in a reading group, a draft of a colleague’s article, a draft of an other colleague’s grant proposal, three pieces of work written by postgraduate students, bits and pieces of roughly two dozen books that I am using to write a book chapter, half of a review book plus an unnumbered number of articles, blog posts, twitter conversations, emails and other forms of writing that historians of the future may class as ‘ephemera’.  Next week I will read over a dozen research proposals, another piece of postgraduate writing, some more of the review book and yet more articles, blog posts, twitter conversations and emails.

My job is based on reading and reading occupies a huge portion of my time. So what do I mean when I say I miss reading?

What I really mean, of course, is that I miss reading uncritically.  Everything I read for work requires me at some level to think about it, evaluate the ideas it contains and make judgements based on those evaluations.  Some judgements are superficial or easily made. Deciding whether or not to attend the range of seminars that emails regularly invite me to falls into this category.  Others are more time and energy consuming.  Fully grasping the way a student has grappled with complex ideas of masculine hegemony or the sophisticated arguments of 250-page academic monograph requires attention and focus.  The former is a necessary aspect of daily life, the management of communication.  The latter can be hugely satisfying, reflecting achievements in communicating and comprehending complex ideas.  But both are forms of reading as work, reading in which the self is always present, bringing to bear critical faculties on the text.

What I miss, what I really miss is the sort of reading that entails the loss of self within the story, where the act of reading is enough, where judgement is not necessarily suspended but not the ultimate definition of the interaction between reader and text.  I miss reading for pleasure, a loss to the multiple demands on my time that I become ever more acutely aware of as my six-year-old son makes the transition from reading as learning to reading for self-satisfaction.  Watching him make that journey is wonderfully exciting, opening up new worlds of books that I can offer him to lose himself in.  But it is also a poignant reminder of how little time I spend doing such losing myself. There are books on my ‘to read’ shelf that have been there since he was born – and the pile still grows, a testament to the power of hope (and good intentions) over experience.  I will read these book someday, I know I will.

On the positive side, not only does my son’s growing discovery of the pleasures of reading for pleasure provide me with greater opportunities to read myself (although he still loves being read to, a joy I hope he never loses, as I have never done), but the Christmas holidays are nearly upon us, with their eternal promise of time to read.  The past few years have been dominated by grant deadlines which have eaten in to any time not already committed to festive preparations and family celebrations.  But this year I am determined to carve out some time to finish the novel I haven’t looked at since September, and maybe even one or two others besides. Because if I am to retain the ability to read critically, as I must do, I need allow myself the space read uncritically as well, to lose myself in the written word as a way of finding myself again.