Early Modern Post


Leave a comment

Networks, case studies and the big picture: some reflections

Re-blogging (?) of a piece I wrote for the News Networks in Early Modern Europe project.

Early Modern News Networks

Following on from our successful conference last month, News Networks is busy once again, this time in producing a two-volume edition that aims to re-evaluate the history of news in Europe. The aim of the project overall could be summarised as forging its own network in order to link and so affect scholars working in the field, discussing shared problems and different methods in order to come up with genuinely new approaches and cast light on the old.

One of the minor difficulties involved in writing about the News network project has been the proliferation of the word network. We’re a scholarly network looking at early modern news networks, with some using the ideas of network theory and some the technology of network analysis to make sense of them. This is not just a stylistic coincidence, and it’s provoked me to reflect a little on the importance of the term…

View original post 1,351 more words


Leave a comment

Running a conference and learning by doing

This blog post, as promised, is about some of the practical, behind the scenes details of the Permissive Archive conference, which was run by the graduate students of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters in November 2012. It doesn’t promise to show the only or even the best way of doing things, but aims to give a snippet view of the good, the bad and the ugly, as we experienced it.

As with a lot of things in early career academia, part of the impetus behind organising this conference was our desire to learn how to do it, quite apart from its intellectual content. Running a successful conference is a concrete skill, and though you can get advice, you only really learn by doing.

The learning process shouldn’t be forgotten in this; these things don’t just appear by magic, and I think that (especially considering recent changes in the UK university system) we need to shout more about these valuable marketable skills that are part of research careers and PhDs.

Anyone who thinks that PhDs and researchers grow grey-haired writing in isolation about obscurity is just plain wrong.

I learned a huge amount by being involved in this process. The intellectual content of the day was extremely high and, I think, valuable and original. But as well as this, I learned a lot about teamwork, project management and, yes, myself: though this may sound like buzzword waffle, I really do mean it. Forget your team building days and leadership courses; if you want to develop yourself, get stuck into a big project, and learn by doing it, don’t wait for someone to teach you.

Planning

Home-made cakes: a conference must-have

Home-made cakes: a CELL conference must-have

Although I said in the previous post that we spent a year planning this, it was actually a year from its inception, with a varied amount of work required at certain intervals (sending the call for papers, choosing speakers etc), and most of the work was done in the final couple of months.

We were quite a large organising team, and the size had both its strengths and weaknesses. It meant that there were enough of us to stage-manage the day well, meaning we were able to pay attention to the details, and that some of us could listen to (and deliver!) papers whilst others tidied, shepherded and arranged food and coffee. If you were a smaller group, I’d recommend begging some friends/colleagues/students to help the day flow well. You never know which bit is going to go wrong (something will).[1]

The down side of this is that inevitably some organisers will see more of the day than others, which is not fair but probably necessary, since if proceedings are going to be published, there should be an attentive listener in each session. We could have done better at making this fairer, as it meant that some people integral to its success missed out on the intellectual content of the day, kind of like this.

Being a large team, we would have benefitted from taking strong roles earlier on – though we did adopt a more systematic way of doing things, from clarifying roles to minuting meetings, it would’ve saved time to do this from the start.

My amazing colleagues worked so well and in such an organised fashion on the day – the team had a dry-run earlier in the week and had a list of tasks and designated responsibilities both before and on the day – ensuring that all in all everything ran very smoothly!

Style:

Now this is where I think CELL and its grad students really come into their own. I headed this section ‘style’ because that’s what I think a conference needs, in its detail and in its attitude, and that’s what I think can easily be missing from a lot of academic conferences. To think that attention to the stylish detail takes something away from the academic substance of the event is, in my humble opinion, completely wrong. Let’s have our cakes, decorate them, and eat them.

Beforehand – mainly we have Kirsty Rolfe to thank for this one. Our resident cartoonist-meets-academic, Kirsty drew us an amazing visual version of our call for papers.

Kirsty_schedule

Excerpt from Permissive Archive schedule

On the day – Again, Kirsty drew us simply the best conference schedule, to go on doors and in people’s conference packs. And a little bit of merchandise is not a bad thing – we had good quality conference folders printed, little CELL badges made, and branded cloth bags so that delegates could tote their notes in style. And in case anyone forgot a pen for jotting notes, questions and contacts, we dropped one in each bag. These things cost much less than you might imagine, and are (on the whole) practical and useful as well as fun.

CELL only works as a scholarly group because students want to study with us and people come to us with research projects and opportunities. Self-promotion here is about making a small but vital research centre survive, and I reckon with things like the delegate bag we promoted our name and something of our personality.

There were also fresh-cut flowers on the panel tables, home-made cakes for afternoon tea (far cheaper than professional catering), and pastries with the morning coffee for those who arrived early.

Digital Humanities:

I was keen to promote the online presence of the conference, especially considering the vitality and number of early modern scholars and ‘twitterstorians’ on twitter and in the blogosphere. We made sure that our hashtag #permissivearchive was on the conference schedule, and set up a guest account for wireless internet access at the university. Since I was giving a paper, I included the hashtag with my personal details on my powerpoint presentation.

I was overwhelmed by the online buzz about the conference, and the real digital conversations it sparked: all told we had several hundred tweets on and around the day.

Here’s a link to a ‘topsy’ page with the tweets recorded (but this won’t last). And here’s a link to some stats data about the tweeting (I love this stuff). I may blog in more detail about this aspect of the conference. TOP TIP: aggregate your tweets early, soon after the conference, as twitter searches only go back 10 days. Use Snapbird to search further back, Topsy to export data, and Storify to collect everything together into one visual record of the event.

That’s going to have to be all for now, as it’s my first day back after Christmas and I’ve got a list as long as my arm of things to do. Do comment on the blog if you think I’ve forgotten something important. Once more, none of the above would have been possible without the support of our department, the incredible organising committee, our brilliant speakers and chairs and our attentive delegates. Thanks all, and a Happy New Year to everyone!


[1] Special mention goes to those who literally ran to a shop to buy vegan lunches, as we’d been let down by our caterers – as well as being a bit short on the quantity of food, they didn’t supply the vegan food we’d ordered…


1 Comment

The Permissive Archive – a review

In November 2012, the graduate students of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters put on a one-day conference to mark CELL’s ten year anniversary. ‘The Permissive Archive’ was the result of a year of planning, 24 speakers in four parallel panels, one keynote lecture by Lisa Jardine, and the most wonderful set of organisers, colleagues and delegates you could hope for.

This post was going to say a little bit about what the conference was about, and a little about what I learned from the process, but this ended up being, well, on the long side. So, here’s a bit about the intellectual content of the day, and IOU one blog post on the practicalities!

What is a Permissive Archive, anyway?

We were intentionally open-minded about what the enigmatic ‘permissive archive’ might mean. Bar limiting the period focus of the conference from 1500-1800, we left it to our speakers and delegates to explore what they thought the archive permitted, forbade, complicated and provoked. How does information reach us, what is preserved and what is lost, and how does this affect the questions we ask and the answers we find? We wanted to take a new look at the ‘archival turn’, at the intersection between archivists, historians and literary scholars, and at the history – and future – of archives. Ambitious? Probably. But what was covered in an expansive and open way on the day can hopefully slim down into something more directed in any future publication (watch this space on that one).

The papers

The audience wait expectantly for the first panel.

The audience wait expectantly for the first panel.

Being one of the organisers, I wasn’t able to attend all the panels, but the papers I did see impressed the socks off me. I was also presenting at the conference, alongside two fascinating papers that together made up the first panel, on the ‘original context’ of the early modern archive.

In brief, my paper was on the ‘afterlife’ of letters – that is, in the diplomatic arena particularly, what happens to letters after their initial sending and reception, and how do they become the sources of ‘History’ with a capital ‘H’? Do aspiring diplomats write with this use in mind? Who kept and preserved daily diplomatic letters, and why? I argued that such letters could become the substance of government, used not just as an epistle to convey information, but in their immediate ‘afterlife’ preserved and re-formatted to become political resources in their own right.

Christopher Burlinson discusses early modern filing.

Christopher Burlinson discusses early modern filing.

This fit well with my co-panellist Christopher Burlinson’s paper on early modern filing, examined alongside Spencer’s The Faerie Queene. One really interesting point (among many made) was that filing and archiving can be ways of allowing one to forget as well as allowing one to remember – a really fascinating tension that I need to think more about. Our third member was Markus Friedrich, who explored the difficulties and possibilities of accessing archives in early modern Europe. We heard stories of the wining, dining and bribing of individuals in order that scholars could get their hands on materials, suggesting that the archive’s power dynamics lay less with princely display and politics, and more with local and social barriers to be navigated.

Parallel to my panel was a group of speakers on the future rather than the past of the archive – the ubiquitous but potentially ill-defined ‘digital humanities’. Unsurprisingly for a panel of tech savvy folk, you can find much of their material online already. Take a look at Samuli Kaislaniemi’s paper here, and his postscript that cheered in its conclusion that the audience were already reasonably au fait with the risks and complexities of the digital medium. Perhaps we’re now getting used to both the advantageous access and problematic filtering and misrepresentations of digital sources. If you weren’t there, you can find notes and slides from Paige Morgan’s talk on her Visible Prices project here.

The issue of how old and new methods of access affect our work was reprised in Helen Graham-Matheson’s paper on the under-studied counselloresse Elizabeth Parr[1]. Where the nineteenth century Calendars of State Papers excised this influential woman almost completely from history, the State Papers Online’s mass digitisation of original documents has allowed Helen to recover her story.

Amanda Vickery chairs the panel on 'What the Victorians did to us'.

Amanda Vickery chairs the panel on ‘What the Victorians did to us’.

This aptly named panel, ‘What the Victorians did to us’, was also made up of Eleanor Collins’ brilliant paper on the mediated nature of the Caroline Revels accounts, and Pete Mitchell’s inimitable presentation on the India Office records, the remaking of Colonial history and a particularly well illustrated kind of Victorian antiquarian pride.

Eleanor’s discussion of lost and manipulated originals tapped into something that threaded through the whole day – that we do not need to treat the problematic archive with pessimism or with reverence, but with a careful use that maps and explores what’s both there and not there.

This was seen in panel 5, which explored the relationship of the life of the individual to the life of ‘their’ archive. Noah Moxham took us through the biography of Robert Hooke and the Royal Society, challenging us to think about the overlap between the individual and the institution, and asking what leads to the preservation of a collection. Kelsey Jackson Williams, on John Aubrey, reminded us how donating a collection is a projection of the self, but one that is always fragmentary and incomplete.

Sarah Broadhurst shows us Isaac Rand's name inked onto the book edge.

Sarah Broadhurst shows us Isaac Rand’s name inked onto the book edge.

Towards the end of the day, this idea was revisited in a very physical form by Sarah Broadhurst’s deeply provenance-focused survey of the books in the Chelsea Physic Garden. Here we had the archivist’s approach, materially tracing the inscriptions of names down the sides of bookcases and books, as well as touching on networks of knowledge and friendship amongst such luminaries as Hans Sloane and John Ray. I only wish that I had some more images to put up here, both from this paper, and especially from Arlene Leis’ paper on a collection of eighteenth century visiting cards and from Anna Marie Roos’ wealth of Lister ephemera from earlier in the day.

The last paper was delivered by Ian Cooper, and discussed the finding of the Seymour of Berry Pomeroy manuscripts which reveal the role of Plymouth during the Armada years; a paper by Ian on a similar theme, published by James Daybell and Andrew Gordon in a special edition of the open source journal Lives and Letters can be found here.

The day was rounded off in excellent style by a stimulating lecture by Professor Lisa Jardine, which doubled as the keynote lecture and the launch of the impressive Annotated Books Online project. If you didn’t manage to catch her then, I strongly recommend going to her inaugural lecture at UCL on 15th January next year, titled ‘Temptation in the Archives’.

There were, of course, more excellent papers that I’ve not room to mention – otherwise this would be an article rather than a blog post. This is no reflection on the papers themselves, and if you were there I’d love it if you wanted to share your thoughts in the comments section below – especially on the half of the day that I didn’t see.

Once more, a massive thank you to my colleagues for organising, the chairs for presiding expertly over the panels, and all the speakers for their hard work. In my humble opinion, you’re all awesome.

The Permissive Archive organisers were: James Everest, Helen Graham-Matheson, Daisy Hildyard, Nydia Pineda, Kirsty Rolfe, Will Tosh, Elizabeth Williamson, Clare Whitehead.


[1] The term ‘counselloresse’ was found by Helen in a letter describing these kinds of powerful women around Elizabeth I’s privy chamber. I know Helen would love to hear from you if you’ve encountered its use elsewhere.


1 Comment

Freelance research and the sixteenth century CV

This blog has been the oft-ignored ugly sister to my ADD PhD, the latter always clamouring for more and more attention, and probably pulling the blog’s hair when it thought no-one was looking. Being busy with writing up said PhD, and teaching, and working on projects to make ends meet, was an unarguably excellent excuse for not writing more blog posts.

However, as I confessed in the last post over two months ago, I’ve now finished my PhD. And as you can see from the sub-clause, finishing it hasn’t led directly on to a whole lot of free time.

So, what happened? Like with any all-consuming project, I think you make a deal with yourself that in exchange for ridiculous working hours and vein-popping stress levels, once the project is over you will have free time and instant bliss. And like any promise you bribe yourself with, it never quite works out like that.

The bottom line is, I’ve finished my PhD, and whilst that’s brilliant, I’m now unemployed, and I find myself at the bottom of another mountain to climb. It can take a little while to get your head around that, whilst simultaneously dealing with the real-world demands of paying rent and feeding oneself.

That’s what I’ve been doing since finishing: meeting real-world demands and scoping a route up the mountain.

I’ve been lucky enough to get a bit of freelance work to help with both of these (researching the plague in early C17th London for an American academic – you’ll have to wait for his next book for that, though). That, thankfully, was straightforward paid work; it’s the other time-consuming occupation that I want to talk about today, the route planning and ground-laying for the next step in the academic career – planning that isn’t paid but that amounts to very real work and takes a heck of a lot of time.

To get an academic job, I’m going to have to publish an article or two, and maybe try to publish my thesis as a book, which will absorb a huge amount of work and time, but will not be (in the first instance) remunerated. I will have to keep giving papers at conferences, and review books, to keep my foot in the door and my face recognised. In the academic world, as far as I know, none of these activities are paid, but are rather expected aspects of your full-time, well-supported university post. If you have one.

At my level, the idea is that all this work will be for deferred favour, for an increased chance of a job in the future. And – because this is another mental side effect from doing a PhD – this made me think of one of my thesis chapters.

If you were of a reasonable background in the sixteenth century, an educated gentleman, say, then you might be looking at the church or the law for your livelihood. One possibility would be to get noticed by a patron, and move into politics and crown service. If you were really skilled and really lucky, this might open further opportunities and sinecures. One way of getting noticed was to travel abroad under the encouragement and approval of a patron (not least to get your passport for you), and to send them news and intelligence of foreign lands. In a pre-multimedia, even pre-newspaper, world, the access granted by travel and the skills of researching and writing were valuable, and could land you a job in the Elizabethan polity: to scale that mountain you needed both a patron, and to demonstrate your skills.

Demonstrating your skills and pitching for favour could be done in the form of transmitting regular news, and by writing reports and topographical accounts of the host court and country; like the Venetian relazioni (diplomatic reports), but without the diplomatic salary. Travel and information gathering by the gentleman and nobleman essentially acted as both training for the next generation of political figures, and as an ad hoc intelligence service for the crown, and the best thing was, the crown rarely paid for it.

The problem, for the aspirant at least, was needing to secure patronage in the first instance – they would need to move in circles where they could build such contacts – and of course needing to support oneself whilst essentially working for free, or for unreliable or irregular returns.

Your young gentleman abroad was either supported by well-off kin, or commissioned by a patron, like the earl of Essex supporting Francis Davison in his travels in Europe. If the ‘commission’ was encouragement and instruction, but no money – i.e. deferred favour – then the traveller would be at risk of slipping from information gatherer to intelligencer-for-hire, from gentleman abroad to prison spy. If there was no encouragement and no money, then movement, whether physical or social, was impossible. Elizabethan society was far from meritocratic, but there was sometimes space for accession if one had the right contacts, experience, brains, and luck.

I am certainly not saying that we’re in the same state now – in fact, I just got some freelance work from asking around on twitter (the ultimate example of a move from patronage and closed elites to widened access and opportunity). However, working for free – building and displaying your experience – is still expected if you want to enter certain careers, and no more so than in straitened times. There’s no shortage of recent news stories highlighting the unfairness and social disparity in requiring incomers to an ever increasing number of careers to work for free; you need that well-off kin or patron. Internships and doing unpaid work to benefit your CV is all very well if a) you have support from elsewhere, and b) there’s actually a job at the end of it. I’ll keep you posted.

 


Leave a comment

The Permissive Archive, or why have I been elbow-deep in paper for four years?

Last week, I passed my viva and was granted my PhD. That explains the dearth of posts in recent months, as I have been frantically polishing, submitting, reading and trying to get my head around what I’ve spent the last three and a half years doing. More on that later, when I have a little more time (somehow, don’t ask me how, I am still quite busy).

My PhD was heavily archival – it used many primary sources, mainly sixteenth century manuscript letters, to reconstruct a picture of political information gathering and diplomacy between figures abroad and recipients at home (as well as undercutting any sense of easy division between these groups).

At times, I analysed the manuscripts from a deeply material perspective, looking at stitching, watermarks, handwriting and so on, in order to try to understand their construction, use and point of origin. I also spent a lot of time discussing the immediate provenance or ‘afterlife’ of these letters, in order to understand how and why these were preserved, and how both contemporaries and historians come to use and perceive them, as person-specific missives turned political resource.

The field of early modern letters and letter-writing has enjoyed ten or twenty years of fruitful research and work on the former – i.e. the emphasis on materiality – and now perhaps it is time to ask more probing questions of this approach; its benefits, difficulties and disadvantages. Additionally, I would suggest that much more attention could be paid to the latter aspect – there’s room for a more directed focus on provenance and the immediate use of the manuscripts that we employ in the construction of historical narrative.

This leads me nicely onto a little self-publication for the department that has been my intellectual home for the past five years. ‘CELL’, or Queen Mary’s Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, is 10 years old this year, and so in celebration we are holding a conference on all things archival – case study, theoretical analysis, practical demonstration, uses and abuses – whatever interaction you have with the archives, we want to hear about it.

The deadline for proposals for papers of 20mins (and other formats) is the end of July, to be sent here <hjgrahammatheson@gmail.com> – so get thinking, and spread the word. I look forward to seeing you there!

WEBSITE: http://permissivearchive.wordpress.com/

CALL FOR PAPERS: 

For ten years, the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters (CELL) has pioneered original archival research that illuminates the past for the benefit of the modern research community, and beyond. To celebrate this anniversary, in early November 2012 we will be holding a conference examining the future of the ‘Permissive Archive’.

The scope of archival history is broad, and this conference seeks presentations from a wide range of work which opens up archives – not only by bringing to light objects and texts that have lain hidden, but by demystifying and demonstrating the skills needed to make new histories. Too long associated with settled dust, archival research will be championed as engaged and engaging: a rigorous but permissive field.

We welcome proposals for papers on any aspect of early modern archival work, manuscript or print, covering the period 1500 – 1800. Topics may include, but are not limited to:

  • The shape of the archive – ideology and interpretation
  • The permissive archive: its definition and its past, present and future
  • Alternatives to the permissive archive
  • Archival research as discovery or construction
  • The archive which challenges or disrupts
  • Uncatalogued material – how to find it, how to access it, how to use it
  • New findings
  • Success and failure
  • Broken or dispersed collections
  • The archive and the environment
  • The archivist and the historian
  • The ethics of the archive
  • The comedy of the archive
  • Order and anarchy

Please send 300-word proposals to hjgrahammatheson@gmail.com. Deadline July 31st.

Submissions are not limited to the 20-minute paper. CELL will be holding a workshop on the use of archival materials, and we are keen to hear from scholars with ideas for alternative presentations such as group sessions, trips or guided walks. Submissions will be peer-reviewed by Professor Lisa Jardine.


1 Comment

Digital Humanities, the Devonshire Manuscript and social knowledge

As frequent readers may have guessed, I have in recent months been getting more and more interested in that nebulous world often described as the ‘digital humanities’ (they might also have noticed the shameful lag between the last post and this – my excuse is that I’m a couple of short months off submitting my phd (hopefully!), so please forgive my laxity).

Now, I don’t have to tell you that the broad church of digital humanities involves more than online publishing, whacking texts on the web for all to see. It’s true that DH offers exciting possibilities for elegance and efficacy in digital publication, regarding content, browsing, searching and so on (look at CELL’s dateline view for the correspondence of Thomas Bodley project, for instance). But the digital humanities are also moving towards the kind of activity and interaction that is in concept, design and process web-based. That is, it is not just about making the non-digital digital, it is about opening up and thinking up whole new ways of working, researching, editing and writing.

Front matter in the courtly anthology the Devonshire Manuscript (note Mary Shelton's name). c.1530s-40s.

The Devonshire Manuscript project masterminded by the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab at the University of Victoria is a great example of this, and I urge anyone interested to get involved.

The manuscript is a verse miscellany dating from the 1530s and 40s, for which there is no authoritative published edition. That is about to change. However, instead of producing a single-instance, single-authored transcription of its content, the ETCL are developing a social edition of the manuscript, that is at present available online here.

The ‘social edition’ aspect of it means that anyone is free to adapt, update and add to information on the manuscript and its many features, creating a pooled wiki-type knowledge base from which the final version will benefit. It is important to note that this will avoid the dangers of a lack of authority or accuracy, concomitant with a free-for-all wiki approach, by reintroducing authorial checks and balances at the end of the process.

The editors are keeping track of all user updates, and will review the project in July when turning the online version back into an authorised publication, to be published by Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies.

The project demonstrates real awareness of the advantages and risks involved in social knowledge contribution in that there is a sense of culmination, an end point at which authorial control can be re-established, contributors can be credited for their input, and the role of the editor again becomes central in deciding how best to amalgamate and solidify the working text.

So, what is in the Devonshire Manuscript? It is well known in literary circles as a key source for the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt, but its nature as co-authored miscellany means there is a richness to its material, scribal and paratextual features that is only now being fully explored. It contains multiple hands from key figures around the court of Henry VIII, and has been called ‘the richest surviving record of early Tudor poetry

Sir Thomas Wyatt, 1503-1542

and of the literary activities of 16th-century women’.[1] The online version at present offers transcriptions with scholarly apparatus, as well as an impressive amount of contextual, textual and bibliographic material, all of which is open to addition by whoever has knowledge to offer: just click ‘edit’.

This is a socially-mediated, socially-constructed text, and so to have its publication echo its origins so beautifully is a fantastic idea. The very fact of the manuscript being a co-authored court anthology and thus a point of intersection for so many different people, poems, themes and contexts means that it lends itself particularly well to social editing. Opening the text up to the scholarly community allows those with the relevant special interests to contribute as much or as little as they know and want to share.

I’m a firm believer that the process of building knowledge works best when based on sharing; not just in terms of wide and accessible transmission but in terms of collaboration in the building itself. The open source movement in computing is an incredible working example of this, but I think we can do more in the humanities (the regular non-digital kind) in terms of collaborative research.

The greatest insights come from collaboration, and there is nothing like discussing your ideas verbally to sharpen them. It is perhaps strange, as a friend remarked last night, that the PhD is a process involving 3-4 often somewhat solitary years spent writing your words in relative isolation, but nonetheless a process whose worth is eventually measured by a verbal defence – the dreaded viva. That may betray my own personal anxieties at this time, but I suggest that if you’re part of the humanities research community (and if you’re not, for that matter) consider how much you actually talk about your own work and ideas, and how much you do or could do collaboratively – save the polish for the final version and let’s open up the process a little bit, it’ll be the better for it.


[1] Colin Burrow, “How to Twist a Knife,” London Review of Books 31.8 (2009): 3, 5. Quoted in <http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/The_Devonshire_Manuscript/General_Introduction> [accessed 04.03.12]


Leave a comment

Preoccupied with archives? Or, what is my PhD for?

Sometimes you go to a lecture, maybe a very good lecture, maybe by a bona fide expert and writer of books you admire, but a lecture nonetheless that you just can’t follow, no matter how many times you try to pull yourself back to the thread of it. You’re sure that what was said was of great relevance, importance and gravitas, but really you only came away with a partial, distorted understanding, leaving most of the rest to the ether.

What good is the lecture if it doesn’t take the audience with it? Does it have to sacrifice its content in order to make itself accessible, or would just a few more explanatory sentences here and there be enough to let the non-expert comprehend its aims and intentions?

I don’t need to rehash what is going on in higher education funding in this country, in fact to funding for the social good in general. There’s been no attempt to hide it, little attempt to sugar-coat it. Perhaps this is because there has been a prevailing fatalism, an acceptance that such cuts were probably not far off from necessary, and that it was all going to happen anyway.[1]

Funding for the humanities has been slashed and burnt. And perhaps our biggest failing is not explaining why this is so detrimental to society at large. Explaining back in my home town in, oh, the ‘real world’, why I was studying English Literature at university was one thing, explaining what I was doing with four years studying sixteenth century diplomacy another.

It has never been so important for us to articulate an answer. We must explain the public good of the university, and the PhD, if we expect people to care about their future.

History has fared slightly better than English Literature at defending its relevance in the modern world. On the whole the PR has worked well: people understand what ‘History’ is, they understand the importance of it. Understanding the past will elucidate the present, so the axiom goes; there are even attempts to accord it a place in informing policy.[2] It has a public face, with multiple media outlets that demystify the subject in its widest form, and slowly embed in society a subconscious acceptance of its real importance, whether it’s Melvin Bragg’s In Our Time or The Great British Bake Off pausing footage of icing and beating to provide a cameo role for 1940’s rationing or the Georgian cupcake.

What of English literature? And what of the research PhD, now (with multiplied fees) impossible to undertake without ever-shrinking funding sources or masses of private wealth? The former is a popular subject, but the sense in society at large that it is little more that reading some books is commonplace, and has gone largely unchallenged.

I could not be a stronger believer in the importance of a degree in English, and of research culture in general. Both are about equipping us with the critical skills that are at the very core of what protects us from the worst in human history.

An education in reading critically, questioning assumptions and constructing argument is our best defence against fundamental belief in whatever guise it may take – it is the unquestioned, anti-pluralistic ideology that is at the heart of all our evils. The intellectual community have a responsibility to read and write and argue, have a responsibility to keep us in check. Of course anyone without such a training shares in this responsibility, but these are our skills, this is what we can offer.

At the same time, the student and the scholar are also engaged in pursuing their own often niche subjects. This is, in my view, of equal merit to a more widely applicable critical faculty, and to a training in science or engineering, say. But the new idea in science, medicine and so on is more obvious, more PR-friendly. Who really cares if I write something new on the letter-writing processes of a long-dead diplomat?

In an immediate, practical sense there seems to be a hierarchy here, but this misses the point. We should never, nor do we have to, choose one at the expense of another. I’m not going to save lives doing what I’m doing, but a world in which all that matters is the fact of living is not one I want to be a part of. The arts and humanities do more than enrich our society; they are the expressions of it, they are its voice, and they are not an optional extra. The stuff of interest and of intellectual challenge, the exploration of the world of ideas and of language, this is what makes us human.

I feel this bubbling under the surface, under my skin, and my feeling is that the next few years are crucial not just in deciding the realities of the future of higher education, but in setting how we think about it. We should not accept our fate and wait grumbling for the flood.

To academia, and especially young academia (the postgrads, the early career lecturers): we need to stand up, we need to raise our voices and take ownership of the education system we comprise. We need to occupy the universities, occupy the archives – not in the sense of setting up tarps, but in the sense of taking responsibility for them, for using them and explaining the importance of that use. Because if we don’t explain why what we’re engaged in is so necessary for society, we’ll be left lecturing to the ether.


[1] This, of course, is a generalisation about wider society and wider academia. There have been many, many political demonstrations, not least the Occupy movement, and for a voice from academia see the alternative white paper on higher education that was signed by over 400 academics.

[2] Take a look at the excellent History and Policy website as an example of this. I especially like the article on torture during WW2 and during the modern ‘war on terror’ as a convincing illustration of the persuasive power of precedent.