Blogging and the Day Job: Tales from the Blarchive

Jonathan Willis

In a series of recent posts marking the tenth anniversary of the many-headed monster, my co-bloggers have reflected on a number of themes. Mark has discussed the transition of the blog from what seemed (at the time at least) to be a series of topical yet ephemeral interventions into something more permanent: a blog archive or ‘blarchive’ if you will. I fear the term probably won’t enter the running for OED word of the year, and if I’m being completely honest it puts me in mind of early 1990s children’s TV presenter Timmy Mallett (if you were a UK child born in the ‘80s you’ll know what I mean, if not, don’t worry about it!). Laura then highlighted a series of posts relating to the recurring theme of the relationship between historical writing and fiction, and Brodie explored how another prominent series of posts reflect the turbulent history of the historical discipline itself in UKHE and beyond over the past decade.

Parochial – geddit??

This post feels a little more ‘parochial’ (good reformation pun, that) in comparison, because looking back at my contributions to the blog has really given me pause to reflect on what blogging has meant to me at different stages of my career over the past ten years. So in some way this is quite a personal – really rather self-indulgent – set of autobiographical musings, but I hope it is also an interesting dive back into older content on the ‘monster, as well as a potentially useful series of thoughts about what the process of blogging can look like at different times and in different contexts.

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Jobbing Historians: Tales from the Blarchive

Brodie Waddell

The world of UK universities has changed dramatically in the ten years since our first post appeared on the Many-Headed Monster, and it feels like the pace of change has recently accelerated.

So, while my co-bloggers are looking back at hangovers, Marxists, plebs and creative histories, I want to indulge in a bit of navel gazing. How has the role of the historian as a job been changing over the last decade? Much of my evidence comes from a sample size of one, but I think the sorts of things we’ve been talking about on the blog over the years give some sense of the wider climate.

I vividly remember my own circumstances in July 2012, when we started the blog, because it was a moment of personal chaos but also optimism. I was finishing up a postdoc and had recently been offered a three-year lectureship at Birkbeck, while at the same time trying to juggle the demands of a new baby. I have no idea why I thought it would be a good time to launch a new project, but I’m glad I did. Meanwhile, things were less chaotic but also less optimistic at the national level. The UK was in the midst of the Cameron-Clegg coalition government, and it was pretty clear that universities were generally going in the wrong direction, most obviously with annual tuition fees rising from £3,000 to £9,000 that very year.

What is intriguing, however, is that there is almost no evidence of this on the Many-Headed Monster. Posts from our first few years touched on lots of different historical topics, but very little on the job itself. That said, Laura’s reflections on conferences as ‘communitas’ and my complaints about boring exam questions are probably a fair reflection of the sort of day-to-day concerns of new lecturers, then and now, even if we somehow avoided mentioning the fact that we were then all currently or recently precariously employed. The closest we came to dealing with our jobs directly was ‘The Future of History from Below’ symposium in 2013, which included reflections on who we were writing for and why, an issue that we would now probably call ‘public history’, but which was barely discussed in academic circles just ten years ago. A couple years later, Laura set out her thinking on ‘What is history for?’ which again highlighted how we were increasingly questioning the purpose of our discipline in the wider world.

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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