Lately I’ve been reflecting on how hard it is for those floating in a post-doctoral limbo land to connect with academic networks and stay ‘in the game’. I was undeniably one of the lucky ones in this respect: straight into a position with all of the inherent early career support structures, mentorship and resources that entails. How can I help provide that kind of support for my friends, colleagues, and former students who aren’t so lucky (i.e. the vast majority of post-doctoral scholars)? This is a thought process still in process. Some of these ideas may seem self-evident, but pooling them together might at least help some post-doc folks feel less isolated in their travails. Here are some initial ideas: Read the rest of this entry »
Umberto Eco has passed away, and with him we’ve lost one of our great thinkers about the meaning and implications of language. Like many people, I first encountered Eco as a fiction author. I remember seeing and loving The Name of the Rose as a high school student, going on to read the book, and being inspired to to make my way doggedly through Foucault’s Pendulum. Pendulum, like much of Eco’s work in fiction, depended on such deep cultural knowledge I’m sure I only understood a fraction of the references, but I remember the kudos I earned from my English teacher for knowing the book at all. Even in fictional work, Eco was dense and difficult, and rewarded slow absorption and reflection.
It was many years before I encountered Eco the Scholar. I was a postgraduate student in Oxford when he came to give the Weindenfeld lectures. He was gently disheveled, politely confused by the requirement of wearing an academic gown to lecture, by turns quiet and contemplative, and excitable and insistent. I was absorbed again and attended every one. His topic was translation. Not the technicalities of moving between Italian and English, for example, but the meanings, problems, losses and gains of doing so. He talked extensively about the experience of having Foucault’s Pendulum translated into English. The central figure of Casaubon is a sort of cipher for Eco himself; the ultimate intertextual person; a person constituted, motivated and to be understood almost completely by his literary and scholarly reminiscences and allusions. Eco talked about the thorny question of how to render classics of medieval Italian literature with which his initial readers would have been familiar into an English version, for instance. Transforming the words of Dante, or Boccaccio into English would not convey the same play of intertextual light and shade to an Anglophone mind. Simply replacing these references with contemporary English literature wouldn’t serve: the average Anglophone reader is less acquainted with and able to understand snippets of Chaucer than an Italian counterpart their Dante. In the end, some references had to be replaced with more modern English quotes, while others were transformed directly from Italian but couched to point towards their relevance and erudition. What happened to Pendulum in the process? Was it the same book? Fundamentally, yes. Like Abelard, Eco concluded that in translation it is intention that matters more than fidelity to the rules. The reader must understand what something really means, more than they must grasp the particular words.
In fact, those lectures, effectively the draft jottings of what would become his Mouse or Rat? Eco went on to demonstrate that all ‘rules’ for moving directly languages are fallacies, because language is fundamentally a cultural phenomenon. Human experience has many common features across cultures, and languages therefore also share many common features. We all have words, for example, for mother, baby, walk, and talk. But it isn’t merely a cliche to say that the Inuit have many words for types of snow that an English speaker isn’t capable of distinguishing. In the same way, Eco discussed, the native peoples of The Philippines have words for myriad shades of red that we would have to describe as colour codes, lacking the linguistic richness to discuss the differences between them. These distinctions of language are distinctions of culture. They reflect what matters to people in particular contexts; and the full meaning of the words is only properly conveyed by reference to that system of values and assumptions.
Looking back on his work, I can see how these topics to which he turned in the early 2000s were in long continuum with his interest in semiotics, the science (or art?) of meaning, since the 1960s. For my own work, one of Eco’s most influential books was The Limits of Interpretation. Here he reflected on the problematic anarchy of postmodernism’s attempts to kill the author. The death of the author, Eco observed, opened up the meaning of texts to any and all interpretations. But this isn’t representative of how texts work. In fact, they have limited possible interpretations. Admittedly, not all of them will be the intended meaning of an author/writer/producer of the text, but authors know this. As a result, the art of textual production, Eco argued, rests on anticipation of the reader and their assumptions, reference to likely shared patterns of structure and understanding, and the construction of a text which limits, for a given probable reader, the possible readings as closely as possible to the intended one, without simply reproducing a template. This insight was fundamental to me in understanding the relationship between medieval artes dictaminis, letter formularies, and the individual letter. It stimulated in me the idea that every medieval letter (and every modern one, perhaps) was a negotiation between reference to a notional ‘Ideal’ letter (the artes), common patterns of letter writing and meaning (formularies), and unique epistolary responses to the imperatives of context and correspondents.
Like Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco’s academic work is layered, dense and difficult. I don’t doubt it will continue to repay slow reflection and rumination for many years. Which is lucky, because there will be no more fresh thoughts from that wonderful, wide-ranging, provocative and stimulating mind. The world is a little dimmer.
There are many wonderful things about having an academic office, but the thing that I love the most about my digs is the enormous double whiteboard along one wall. This was an indispensable tool in completing my doctoral thesis: it allowed me to plot the over-arching arguments and structures ‘to scale’, and in a medium which was both fixed enough to stay on the wall for the last few weeks as a visible prompt whenever the minutiae of individual pieces of analysis threatened to spin off in their own directions or subsume the larger trajectory of the material, and flexible enough to accommodate constant reconfiguring or tweaking by the judicious application of an eraser and some different colour pens. The various chapters in the image above were re-numbered and shuffled at least three times in the course of final write-up, as I debated the proper order of materials and the connections between them.
It’s almost a shame one can’t submit a time lapse video of a whiteboard as a thesis! It would be a much truer reflection of thoughts and arguments than the necessarily linear verbal presentation of thoughts that must, by its essence, be partial and in some ways impoverished.
Time to wipe it all off and prepare for the next project… Now that really is the beauty of whiteboards.
I’m so excited by the historiographical developments that underpin this recent US conference (report by Lois Huneycutt, rebloged below). It’s been my conviction for some time that we need to take the discussion of powerful women and women in power ‘beyond exceptionalism’; and here are a bunch of my (s)heroes making that happen. I eagerly await the proceedings!
Lois Huneycutt send a conference report on “Beyond Exceptionalism” at Ohio State University, Mansfield from 18-19 September 2015.
Let us know if you’ve also been to some interesting Royal Studies conferences, write a few lines and send some pictures! We’re happy to post them here.
Now, on to Lois’ report:
In some ways, “Beyond Exceptionalism” was a continuation of a conversation begun three years ago at Kalamazoo. Around the lunch table, several of us who have been working with powerful medieval women for decades expressed our frustration at continuing to hear papers and read articles that characterized a powerful woman as an “exception” to the “rule” that medieval women do not exercise public power. Surely, we decided, it was time to move “beyond exceptionalism” and accept that it was more normal than not for elite women to be in positions of authority and to exercise public power. Amy Livingstone took…
View original post 1,022 more words
Some weeks ago, not for the first time, I received a compliment from a student that both gave me a little glow inside and flabbergasted me at the same time. There are clearly some things I regard as a baseline effort in the classroom that other people just don’t. Naturally, it’s gratifying when students recognize their tutor’s hard work. It’s also extremely lovely when they are appreciative enough to let one know. As I replied, it can be unexpectedly difficult to tell from the front of the classroom how things are being received by students. (Are they quiet because they’re listening and thinking hard? Or are they all secretly stifling yawns?!) Letting tutors know when they do something right is important because it helps them – at least in theory – to refine their practice.
On this occasion the student remarked that my commitment to teaching was evident in the fact that I could remember my students’ names. Names? The fact that this should be something worth complimenting a tutor on is, quite frankly, horrifying.
I know some people find names hard. I know some people have been teaching for an awfully long time, and a staggering number of names and faces have passed before them. For all I know, this student’s other tutors are all suffering clinical prosopagnosia. If that applies to you, you have my deep sympathy. But for myself, I look at it this way: you, the tutor, have to meet with these young people on a weekly basis for at least three months. You might have a number of groups, but probably no more than (in our system, at least) five groups of twenty or so. That’s one hundred people, give or take. If it’s not the first semester of first year, it’s reasonably likely that you’ve met some of them before. You also have (or at least, we have in my institution) the facility to print off a photographic roll. You have to lead these students in discussion, teach them, advise them, collect and assess their work and, determining whether they’ve taken on your advice, return it to them, and eventually sign off that you are satisfied that the final grade they receive is appropriate to their level of effort and achievement throughout semester… and you propose to do all of this without being able to identify them as individuals? I’m sorry, but words actually fail me… Read the rest of this entry »
Having come direct from reading the Guardian’s reports on Tunisia over breakfast, I am now re-reading Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy, in preparation for my paper at Leeds in a week or so’s time. The deep truths of the following paragraph struck me forcibly. I offer without further comment:
The traditional approach is to trace the background of dissidents, assuming that the formative experience takes place before the individual enters a heretical cell and that his sense of solidarity is based upon a previously developed, commonly held need. However, membership in any group proceeds in stages. The familial, institutional, intellectual, or “class” bonds of the individual before joining are only the point of departure. In many cases the process of socialization continues within the group and arises, as suggested, from patterns of interaction with the other members. This period of education helps determine later behaviour (and may, as well, influence the reinterpretation of earlier events). … Group interaction also determines doctrinal dissemination. Only rarely is an idea utilized by a small voluntary association simply because it has deep historical roots. It must also respond to a problem in the here and now: in that sense, all dissident movements, whether heretical or reformist, are contemporaneous phenomena, no matter how they historicize their origins. (pp.100-101).
The 800th anniversary of Magna Carta has brought with it a lot of rather self-congratulatory and not always entirely relevant musings on the triumph of the Westminster system of government and the superiority of the Anglo-commonwealth legal system, and a number of cautionary warnings issued to world governments about upholding these presumed triumphs and superiorities within and beyond the boundaries of the post-colonial remnants of the British Empire. On national radio, I too have been asked to talk about what the outcomes of the charter were in abstract legal and philosophical terms, both in medieval England and 21st century Australia; and in more human, biographical terms, on what it was about King John himself that provoked it. (Possibly among the most memorable lines about history ever uttered on the ABC: “So, King John was a bit of a tool, wasn’t he?” I have to admit, I actually loved that particular interview!)
Reflecting on this anniversary myself, I realise that, like most of the histories of the past, and with few exceptions, commentators (and I’m talking popular media here) have been approaching Magna Carta mainly as a document of royal and systemic (if not necessarily systematic) significance. In other words, they read it in direct terms as being a verdict on John, and in wider terms as being about rights granted and to be maintained, and about systems thenceforth put in place to do so (themselves also in need of maintenance). All of those things have their place and their interest. But while the barons (and church, Welsh, Scots, Londoners, etc., etc.) are implicitly recognised as part of the narrative of producing Magna Carta, most modern commentaries seem to overlook the essential role of ‘the people’, broadly interpreted, in the charter’s origins, development, granting, and subsequent maintenance.
I don’t want to add tons of unnecessary words to this discussion, as we’re at risk of passing #PeakMagnaCarta very soon already. But having been thinking recently about the historian’s ethical obligations to engage in modern debates of relevance, I do want to add the following 2 cents. Read the rest of this entry »
If you’d been in the corridors around my office a few weeks back, you would have come across me and several of my wonderful tutors and colleagues bedecked in thirteenth century(ish) garb. This was not a closet cosplay club. This was serious pedagogy folks. In the closing week of semester, we held a ‘Medieval Expo’ of student posters, videos and podcasts aimed at educating a general audience about the middle ages, and turned it into a festival with staff and students in costume and prizes for the ‘People’s Choice’ displays.
To my mind, historical education is a serious business, but that’s no reason not to have fun as well. After all, I love what I do, so why can’t students be encouraged to have a blast while also acquiring historical knowledge and transferable skills?
Apparently not quite everyone agreed, although the students raved about it and all the teaching staff involved were excited by this innovative addition to the assessment program. The odd dissenting voice of critique seemed to suggest that in dressing up we had undermined our own and our discipline’s credibility. This not a unique view: ‘real’ historians often deride ‘amateur’ re-enactment troupes and the SCA set. This was the prevailing attitude I encountered as an undergraduate student myself. Now, I find I beg to differ. Let me tell you why.
As I recently tweeted to British Library curator Julian Harrison, before the year is out we will all have reached #PeakMagnaCarta. But that time is not yet upon us!
In this 800th anniversary year, I’ve already been (albeit briefly and unexpectedly) something of a radio celebrity, talking about thirteenth century England on ABC radio in three capital cities across Australia. Heady days, folks; heady days! But we’re only just beginning. There are any number of public events, lectures, exhibitions and conferences planned. I won’t be at all of them, but I admit I’m going to gorge on this unaccustomed appetite for my period and specialty while I can.
Here’s a curated selection of Magna Carta related activities for you to peruse: Read the rest of this entry »
Darren Baker of the simon2014.com blog and associated newsletter ‘The Provisions‘, has a new book on Simon de Montfort, With All For All, out now* with Amberley Publishing. I posed a few questions to him in the lead up to publication, to probe how his book responds to a range of opinions about this complex character circulating in the academic world:
This is the first biography of the Earl of Leicester since J. R. Maddicott’s Simon de Montfort in 1994. What do you see as the key distinction between your characterisation of Montfort and his? Do you think interpretation has shifted in a particular direction in the last twenty years?
Maddicott gives perhaps the fullest account yet of Montfort’s life and career. He is what you might say is a biographer’s biographer, meaning his work will always be an indispensable resource for people like me. In the end, however, I feel his judgment is too harsh, that he is inclined to see him easily corrupted by his success, to be too much like his father, who incidentally I don’t think was the complete demon he is often portrayed as today. Maddicott is certainly not the first to present such a sombre view, but so thorough is his biography that it has been the prevailing opinion since it came out. I see Montfort as a much more inspiring figure, one who truly did make a lasting contribution, and at first I felt compelled to answer criticisms about him in the body of my book. I then realized that most lay readers probably couldn’t care less for any scholarly tug-of-war, they just want a great story, so I shuffled my opinions to the back of the book. Read the rest of this entry »