Creativity and history: tales from the blarchive

Laura Sangha

This summer we are marking the ten-year anniversary of the many-headed monster blog with a collection of posts that highlight older material in our blog archive (or our ‘blarchive’, as Mark has christened it, to the great and growing pain of the other monster heads).

In my piece I want to pull at a thread that has run through our output over the years, that is, posts that sit on the fence between history and fiction.

Are you a fan of analogies, however laboured? Read on!

Of course, there isn’t really a fence betweenthese two spaces. Or at least, if there is, it was only erected recently, and in fact it’s pretty shoddy work, full of gaps and holes, plus one part of it blew down in a winter storm a few years back, while another is so deeply lost in the undergrowth it’s no longer effective, or even particularly visible. But anyway, let’s not get lost in the encroaching greenery trying to pinpoint the boundary, but rather, let’s consider the fruitful relationship between history and fiction by revisiting some of our related content.

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the many-headed monster is 10: looking back

When Brodie and Mark quietly announced the birth of the many-headed monster to the world in July 2012, little did they know how big their baby would grow or just how many readers and contributors the behemoth would ensnare. But it’s been quite a ride.

four photos of the monster heads when they were young
monster heads when they were young

It’s possibly obvious to our readers, but we have never had a strict editorial line, preferring the blog to develop organically and to lead us in whatever direction seems promising. We share a consensus that we want to reach broader audiences than journal articles and academic monographs can, and that the types of history that we discuss, the format, and particularly the tone of our writing is intended to be accessible and engaging for non-specialists, but beyond that, there aren’t really any rules. Indeed, until we four co-authors met late in 2021 to discuss how to mark our ten year anniversary we’d never had an editorial meeting, rather we very satisfactorily conducted matters via email, or a scatter of shared google docs for when we were feeling fancy.

This informal approach is perhaps one of our great strengths. For one thing, it keeps editorial and administrative duties to the barest minimum. Just as importantly, it has allowed us to develop ways of publishing content online that retains the quick blog post format, but which expand and adapt it for different purposes. At its simplest, this might mean breaking a longer post into more easily digestible chunks and posting each chunk individually across a week or a fortnight, as Mark did with his posts on the application of theory to the history of food and drink.

More distinctively, our ‘Monster Mini-Series’ quickly became a feature of our output. These are both finite and current/long-running collections of posts focused around a particular theme or topic. Laura’s posts on the history of the Tudor Southwest is an example of the former, and our co-authored series ‘On Periodisation’ of the latter.  

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Paper Trails CfP: ‘Hidden Voices’

Laura Sangha

You may know that last year saw the triumphant release of the first cluster of publications for Paper Trails: The Social Life of Archives and Collections. Paper Trails is a BOOC (Book as Open Online Content) published by UCL Press: a fully open access platform that allows for multi-form contributions across time. The BOOC offers space for contributions both from practitioners who study the past, as well as those who make the study of the past possible. So if you are an educator, librarian, historian, curator, collections manager, archivist or just someone interested in critical histories as well as reflections on practice, sources and materials – read on!

Paper Trails image

I am privileged to sit on the editorial board of the BOOC and in our most recent meeting we had a noteworthy discussion about how to describe the innovative format to others. One of the things we worried at was the extent to which we wanted people to think of Paper Trails as being a bit like an online journal – so for instance, when we add our second, new cluster of publications, we could call this a new ‘volume’ or a new ‘issue’ of the BOOC, and allocate numbers to different articles accordingly. By making an association with such a well-established format we could familiarise the BOOC concept, and I suppose the comparison could in some way lend it more academic ‘legitimacy’. Continue reading

Decolonising and Black British History: a teaching resource

Laura Sangha

If you are thinking about decolonising your history module this year, this seminar plan [pdf] might be of use to you. It’s based around ‘Black Lives in Early Modern England’, but with minor tweaking of the reading and primary sources it could be adapted for most modules, whether pre-modern or modern.

John Blanke (detail from 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll).

The seminar aims to introduce students to some key concepts whilst also encouraging them to think about methodology and historiography. It combines synchronous and asynchronous activities, and is equivalent to four hours of synchronous seminar time (it’s designed for my Special Subject which in non-pandemic years is taught by means of 2 x 2 hour seminars a week).

In this post, I want to share some of my recent experiences which provide some context to where the seminar emerged from.

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The digital delegate: attending an international online conference

We are delighted to welcome our next guest blogger for our #SchOnline series (scholarly conversations online). Here Jennifer Farrell (@dr_j_farrell) reflects on her experience as a delegate of an online conference.

Jennifer Farrell

Last week saw the return of the International Medieval Congress (IMC) at the University of Leeds. This annual conference attracts thousands of medievalists from all over the world, eager to network with one another, to road-test their research, and to enjoy hearing about the work being done by others in their field. I have attended the IMC numerous times in the past, both as a delegate and as a speaker, but the major difference this year was that I did so from the comfort of my own living room!

Bingo Card

Sadly moving a conference online will still not stop you spending too much time at the book stalls.

The Covid pandemic has impacted researchers in various ways, but one of the major changes we are seeing is the willingness and indeed tenacity of conference organisers to find ways of facilitating networking and the sharing of research via online platforms. The sheer scale of the IMC means that its move to a virtual conference was nothing short of heroic.  This year the virtual IMC supported the delivery of c.530 research papers, attended by c.3,200 delegates from across 60 countries. The organisers, moderators, panellists, and facilitators deserve to be commended for this.

Speaking purely from the perspective of a delegate, with no need to worry about my paper being interrupted by poor internet connection, bad sound, disruption from trolls, or just the generally odd sensation of talking about your research to a computer screen, my own experiences of the vIMC were very positive. Of course, a virtual environment is by no means the same as experiencing the conference in person, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.  Like many of the changes that have occurred to our working conditions on account of Covid, there are good and bad sides. Continue reading

Time Zones Still Exist

In this guest post in our #SchOnline series (scholarly conversations online), Clare Griffin (@balalaichnitsa) calls for the organisers of online events to think about the access implications of time zones. 

Clare Griffin 

In the brave new world of virtual conferencing, there has been something of a sense that this is more open, more inclusive. After all, we don’t have to travel for hours to get to a physical venue. But there are still a number of accessibility issues, one of which I want to address here.

Time zones still exist.

A substantial number of these virtual events are being held live. That’s great, if you are in that time zone or a neighbouring one. Less so if you are not.

Many such English-language events are being held in North America and Western Europe, so are most directly accessible to academics based in those regions. What about those of us in other time zones? I am in Kazakhstan. There are academics interested in English-language events based in Australia, Singapore, India, and many other places.

Technically, we can still take part in such live virtual events, if we are prepared to get up in the small hours of the morning, or stay up until midnight.

When we were in the era of in-person events, I would regularly be flying multiple hours, crossing several time zones, to get to an event. And would be exhausted. Now, to take part in live virtual events I would often have to disrupt my sleep. And be exhausted.

Sleep is important for everyone, and we shouldn’t expect people to disrupt it to do their job.

Sleep is a particular issue for me, as sleep disruption is a major trigger for one of my conditions, a bipolar spectrum disorder. I am less well if I disrupt my sleep. If I try and participate in live events in time zones far to the West or East of me, I will harm myself. And weren’t well all supposed to be more concerned about our colleagues’ well-being during the pandemic? Continue reading

Online Conferences: Four Reflections

In this guest post in our #SchOnline series (scholarly conversations online), Will Pooley (@willpooley) reflects on hosting an online workshop. 

Will Pooley

There is something odd about the effect the pandemic is having on online academic work, collaboration, discussion, and teaching. The lockdowns imposed in many parts of the world have given a renewed impetus to some forms of doing history online. The pressures of the current situation have provided momentary distractions from longstanding problems with the platforms and tools that historians have found themselves most drawn to, such as Twitter and blogging.

The challenges of the #SchOnline moment involve addressing these legitimate criticisms around issues including accessibility, abuse and harassment.

One big change has been the adoption – almost overnight – of teleconferencing software such as Zoom and Skype, to replace face-to-face meetings and events. Jan Machielsen and I decided to give an online workshop a go, to bring together people interested in talking about the broad issues of the supposed ‘decline of magic’.

I have four reflections on this.

Something Old?

The first thing I want to mention is something that Jan and I agreed on from when we first discussed the idea: an online ‘conference’ or ‘seminar’ cannot just simulate a face-to-face equivalent. It’s very hard to broadcast a 20 or 50-minute talk, especially given the unreliability of the technology, and the fact that none of us are media professionals. The videos that professional Youtubers, for instance, put out involve specialist equipment and a whole production team. Academics need to be realistic about what we can do using an old work laptop in a poorly-lit makeshift space.

Something New

The second point I would make about this is that different does not have to mean worse. Continue reading

The Virtual Parish: Scholarly Communities Online

Laura Sangha & Mark Hailwood

In this post we reflect on eight years of running a ‘virtual’ scholarly community – this blog! – to consider questions that are currently pressing ones for all academics: what do we gain from taking our conversations online? What do we lose? What needs to be improved?   

In the spring of 2020, as much of the world was plunged into ‘lockdown’ by the advance of the coronavirus, regular forms of face-to-face interaction were swiftly replaced by online alternatives. For academics, the classroom morphed into the online seminar; the conference trip was replaced by a day tucked away in a corner of the bedroom staring at Zoom; the common-room catch-up was transferred to the Departmental WhatsApp group.

Innovative initiatives have abounded, including A Bit Lit, a series of fun and informal filmed conversations about history, literature and culture, designed to fill the gap left by the kind of over-a-coffee-conversations that might take place between scholars. We were delighted to receive an invite to take part, and you can see our ramblings here. In the opening film, Andy Kesson talked about A Bit Lit as part of a process of building new kinds of academic community—or to give it a more early modern twist, new kinds of ‘parish’—that would draw on digital forms of contact to overcome the obstacles of infection.

We liked this notion of new ‘virtual parishes’, especially since many of us have been involved in a variety of ad hoc ways in constructing such novel online communities in recent months. But this notion also struck a chord with us because we realised that we—along with Brodie Waddell and Jonathan Willis—had already created a ‘virtual parish’ long before the current crisis: this blog. The context of its creation was very different to the circumstances we face now, but the impulse to create a scholarly community that transcended physical obstacles was central. Indeed, the loss of physical proximity that we had enjoyed as a group of postgrads at Warwick was an important catalyst. Continue reading

Books as Open Online Content: Paper Trails

Laura Sangha

This year I joined the editorial board of a BOOC for UCL press titled Paper Trails, and if you are an academic, librarian, curator, collections manager, archivist, or educator, we want to work with you.

Paper Trails imageThat might need some explanation: a BOOC is a new, fully open access platform that allows for multi-form contributions across time. Living books for the digital age, if you will.

The innovative BOOC format comes with many benefits. It means that Paper Trails can offer space not only for peer-reviewed, ‘REF-able’ academic articles, but that these can be published alongside work by other practitioners who both study the past, and who make the study of the past possible. We thus hope that one of the things our BOOC will do will be to make visible and showcase the work of collection managers, curators, librarians, archivists and educators. The intellectual focus, multi-form content, and the four streams in our Call for Papers are designed with this in mind.

The Paper Trails BOOC therefore presents an excellent opportunity for interdisciplinary reflection on the ways that we construct the past, and on the collaborative nature of that project. In particular it will allow us to consider our relationship with research material more closely and coherently, by juxtaposing critical histories with reflections on practice, sources and materials.

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‘Engaging’ Lead Editor: Andrew WM Smith

Paper Trails is also intended as a means to capture and promote some of the excellent education and engagement work that many scholars are involved in, but which we often don’t get to hear about. We hope that the ‘Engagement’ stream will become a repository of shorter cases studies or think pieces that demonstrate particular skills or techniques, and which can therefore inform broader professional practice. Since creative and dynamic ways of engaging non-professionals with the past are now widespread, the BOOC can be the means to preserve and disseminate the best of this work. Continue reading

Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: Conclusion

This post is part of our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group. In it Susan D. Amussen offers some reflections on the ‘Conclusion’ of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, as well as on the posts in this series as a whole. Susan is a Professor of History at UC Merced, and tweets as @susandamussen. You can access the book here.

Susan D. Amussen

Alice Clark ended Working Life of Women by summarizing her findings in terms of her central themes. What does it mean for women when the individual rather than the household is the primary actor in the modern economy? Why don’t women get as much specialized training as men?  As the essays in this series have shown, the story of women’s work is considerably more complicated than Clark’s argument allows.  But Clark raises two new issues in her conclusion.  First, the subordination of women.  She argues that capitalism is not the source of the subjection of women; instead, ‘the subjection of women to their husbands was the foundation stone of the structure of the community in which Capitalism first made its appearance.’ (p. 300)  Second, she raises questions about political theory.  She asks about the impact of the ‘mechanical state’, represented by the works of both Hobbes and Locke.  What does it matter when women are invisible in formulations of what the state means?  Clark argues that these issues draw attention to a much wider range of issues and a longer chronology than those which have been the focus of the book.

Reading her conclusion alongside the essays that have made this series so interesting demonstrates one reason we – and our students – keep reading Alice Clark: she raises big questions.  She understands women’s work, and women’s position in society, first in relation to the history of capitalism.  At the end, though, she tells us that the big question is part of two even bigger ones, about fundamental social structures and the history of political thought.   Both of these have been the focus of extensive research over the past 40 years.  The tension between women’s agency and their subordination has been a central theme in women’s history.  We have simultaneously demonstrated women’s agency not just as economic actors but as political ones while we have explored domestic and sexual violence.[1]  Allyson Poska’s suggestion that we consider what she calls “agentic gender norms” that co-exist with patriarchy and provide a counter-vailing set of norms may be a useful way of thinking about these tensions.[2]  Similarly, scholars in the history of political thought have unpacked the ways in which contract theory not only erased women, but made women’s political action far more complex.[3] Continue reading