Archive for the ‘The History Profession’ Category

Re-evaluating Memory

14 December 2011

By Christina Morin

Two weeks ago I happened to catch a fascinating documentary on BBC4 about Abraham Lincoln. The show was called ‘Abraham Lincoln: Saint or Sinner’, and it set out to interrogate the politics of memory in relation to one of the most popular, if mythologized, figures in American history. Having grown up with a clearly romanticized image of ‘Honest Abe’ as a national hero who freed the slaves and is accordingly memorialized in countless ways today, not least in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, and on the face of the five dollar bill, I appreciated the clear-headed objectivity of the historiographical process evident in the documentary. I certainly came away from the hour-long programme with a fuller, more complete and more objective sense of Lincoln as a politician, one that will encourage me, in future, to view Lincoln’s legacy a little more critically than I have hitherto done.

The programme got me thinking about the ways in which cultural memory can lionize certain individuals, to the point where the reality of their lives is buried beneath a kind of mythology produced by the cultural and social mores of a succeeding period. A literary case in point is Charlotte Brontë, whose life and legacy were constructed according to very particular Victorian-era strictures on female behaviour by her first biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell. The resulting image of Brontë held wide sway throughout the Victorian period and into the twentieth century, with readers regularly making pilgrimages to Brontë country to pay homage to an author about whom they had only vaguely realistic ideas and perceptions. The same might be said about many of our so-called ‘canonical’ writers, as well as famed historical figures. While we might argue that the contemporary context of such figures is central to an understanding of their actions, it seems equally essential that we acknowledge the context in which scholarship and historiography are produced. This would help explain why certain individuals and texts receive an inordinate amount of critical attention, while others remain marginalized. Much Irish Gothic fiction of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, for instance, has suffered at the hands of the canonization of English writers like Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis, to the point where it often seems as if Irish writers simply didn’t engage with the Gothic aesthetic at all in this period.  That this is patently untrue is clear from the litany of Gothic novels produced by Irish pens in the latter half of the eighteenth century alone: The Adventures of Miss Sophia Berkley (1760), Longsword (1762), The History of Lady Barton (1771), Earl Strongbow (1789), The Children of the Abbey (1796), and Clermont (1798), to name but a few. Read more

Game-changing histories – tell us yours

14 November 2011

By Kevin O’Sullivan

I have a serious question for you. You know those texts – books, articles, chapters, whatever – that changed your history world? The ones that gave your work a little jolt, that changed your whole approach to how you read and understand the past. What are they?

Because here’s the thing. And it’s ok to admit it. You know that pile of books that sits beside the historian’s bed? The ones you just had to have; all that you couldn’t leave behind. Well look closer. Notice anything? There are way too many non-fiction books for one. But look deeper again and you’ll uncover a less talked about but no less visible trend. Most historians will read anything as long as it’s not related to what they study.

Don’t believe me? Fair enough. Surely, you say, these individuals, so lucky in the first instance to get paid to do what they love doing, are so enamored by their subjects that they love nothing better than to wile away an evening keeping up to date with the latest scholarship from their chosen field. Well here’s the thing: they don’t. Read More

The Metaphysical Angst of Publishing

2 November 2011

By Christina Morin

The recent publication of my book has been an extremely exhilarating but also unexpectedly heart-wrenching experience. Back when I finished my PhD, I remember joking with people about how I was suffering from post-PhD blues, but I never expected such a thing to happen upon completion of my monograph. It’s not exactly that I didn’t have anything to occupy me after finishing the manuscript. Precisely the opposite actually… I was already working on a new project and was so focused on the demands of my new research that I had little enough time to mourn the passing of the old. Whereas the submission of my PhD was followed by a bewildering aimlessness caused by the sudden loss of that which had occupied the majority of my time for the previous four and half years, therefore, the monograph left my hands with a sigh of relief and the recognition that now I could turn my attention to looming deadlines and articles promised long ago. And, where I worried about my thesis being ripped to shreds by heartless examiners upon completion of my PhD, I didn’t give much thought to the emotional angst that might accompany the publication of my monograph.

In this state of blithe emotional stupidity, I was struck with the vehemence with which post-publication anxiety took hold of me. Whereas pre-publication I was able to comfort myself with the thought of peer-review processes and other such evaluation techniques by which my manuscript had been found a valid and even valuable addition to current literary criticism, all such ability left me in the immediate aftermath of publication itself. Read more

Next Stop: World Domination

26 September 2011

By Christina Morin

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a lawyer and had a pretty clear (if rather vaguely conceptualized) career plan: pro bono lawyer to Sandra Day O’Connor protégée to first female president of the United States. I’m not sure how sincerely I believed I would follow through on any of it, but I had fun imagining it all. In high school, I briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a doctor or a biologist and was encouraged by a particularly inspiring science teacher to think about a future in medical journalism. I wasn’t too keen on dissection or blood though, so I focused on the journalism suggestion and, by the time I started my undergraduate degree, I knew I was destined to be a famous journalist. Not just any journalist, of course – a foreign correspondent, covering breaking news from the far flung corners of the earth. Unfortunately, an eye-opening stint at the university newspaper ultimately convinced me that journalism wasn’t the ideal career choice for me: I hated ringing people up and asking them uncomfortable questions; I hated the late nights just before the paper ran….   Read more

Attention historical geographers: a call for help!

15 September 2011

By Juliana Adelman

I recently noticed another history blogger experimenting with crowdsourcing advice and feedback on a developing paper.  I think this a great idea and hope to do it myself once my book chapters are a bit further on.  In the meantime, I am looking for a collaborator.  I am in the process of collecting a load of data about the locations of various animal businesses and industries around Dublin during the nineteenth century.  I would like to turn this data into some nice maps.  Now, I can draw dots on a scanned image of an old map using a free image editor and come up with some maps that are ok.  But I suspect that someone with GIS experience and some computer know-how would have a better idea.  The maps will be for a chapter in my book, to be published by the University of Virginia Press. I am offering co-authorship of the chapter to a geographer interested in collaborating and helping to produce the maps.  I suppose in this case I am supplying the data and the research questions and you are supplying the technical skills.  In the short term, it is a guaranteed publication.  In the long term, perhaps the beginning of a beautiful partnership?  Please contact adelmanj AT tcd DOT ie if you are interested.

Where did it all go wrong? History’s battle for souls

12 September 2011

By Kevin O’Sullivan

Since this is, after all, a history blog, we should probably start with the evidence. There is enough casual interest in our subject in Ireland to sustain a healthy publishing industry (peruse the catalogues of Irish Academic Press, Four Courts Press, UCD Press, UCC Press, Mercier, Gill and Macmillan et al for evidence), a dedicated monthly magazine (History Ireland), two national radio programmes (Newstalk’s Talking History and RTÉ’s The History Show), and a growing online community of bloggers and history writers. The genealogy industry continues to blossom, drawing in tourists from across the world in search of their Irish roots. Millions of others flock to Newgrange, Trinity College, Dublin Castle and a whole host of historical sites across the country. You can banquet, medieval style, at Bunratty. You can watch re-enacted cavalry training or musket fire at the Battle of the Boyne site near Drogheda. Or, if you’re not the going-out type, you can turn on the television any night of the week and watch a high-quality documentary on some period of Ireland’s recent – and not-so-recent – past (take a bow, TG4).

But still you get the feeling that something’s missing.


On Communion Wafers and Time to Think

9 September 2011

By Christina Morin

I’m in the midst of writing a long overdue journal article, and, with the start of teaching looming ominously over me, I’m starting to feel the need for a metaphorical communion wafer to stick to my forehead. If that sounds odd, let me explain: my man Maturin was famously supposed to have fixed communion wafers to himself when he was writing in order to warn his family not to disturb him. Part of a myth of Maturin? Possibly, though Maturin certainly was well known for his histrionic eccentricities. Whatever the case, I’m very drawn to the idea of a specific sign that both attests to my concerted effort – no matter how much it might look like I’m simply dossing or staring off into space – and cautions colleagues against approaching me with unrelated work.

I’ve particularly felt the need for such a charm in the past few weeks. After attending an information session for the European Research Council’s new Starting Grants – mentioned in my recommendations for this month – I felt a growing sense of panic. On the one hand, I wondered, how could I not apply for such a significant amount of money and, perhaps more importantly, five more years of lucrative academic employment? On the other hand, when was I going to find the time to prepare such an application, especially when the instructions alone amount to a dizzying number of pages? As the wheels turned frantically in my head – how could I frame the project I had in mind in such a way as to make it more ERC friendly? Who could I contact to help me with my application? Was there anybody (preferably more senior) with whom I could forge a connection that would make the project more attractive? – I consulted a wise friend who has a habit of speaking reason to me in my (not infrequent) bouts of work-related panic. Read more

A refreshing interdisciplinary experience

7 September 2011

By Juliana Adelman

A few weeks ago I was called on to replace a panel speaker at a conference on ecocriticism (Literature and conservation: responsibilities).  Having plenty of conference organising experience I was sympathetic to the organiser’s attempt to patch a hole in the programme and the topics for discussion looked interesting to me.  Nevertheless, I felt a mounting sense of trepidation as the day drew closer.  Did I really have anything to say that someone from English literature might want to listen to?  Did I really GET the questions I had been sent or was I missing the point completely?  I silently prayed that no one would ask a question about literary theory and wondered if I should try to cram in some reading of the novels that other speakers were talking about.

The day of the conference arrived and I spent an enjoyable few hours listening to a great diversity of papers.  (With thanks to the organisers, Alison Lacivita and Megan Kuster).  My contribution to the panel session seemed to go down ok (although no one boos or throws things in academia these days) and no one asked me a question about literary theory.  It was truly refreshing to listen to people outside my own discipline.  I came away with an enormous reading list, a commitment to paying more attention to ecocriticism as part of my interest in environmental history and a renewed distaste for jargon. Read more

The writing is the hardest part

29 August 2011

By Juliana Adelman

So here I am again, surrounded by notes and papers and books littered with colorful sticky tabs.  I have more than enough material and yet I find myself making a list of other things I should look up.  This will give me a number of tasks in the library that will make me feel as though I am accomplishing something yet I will be no closer to the end result.  Of course writing is the hardest part because it is the task through which we add up facts to make something more than the sum of their parts.  Writing is the creative part of the historical process, the one in which you allow yourself into the picture.  You have to put all your flaws, or your potentially flawed arguments, on display for everyone to read.  It is much easier to keep gathering ammunition and hope you can simply bombard potential readers with facts until they beg for mercy and agree.  Not that I like to read anything written in this way, but at least it has the appearance of solidity.  This is my effort at breaking writer’s block and hopefully providing you with some interesting reading/listening as well. Read more

Re-viewing Reviewing

10 August 2011

By Christina Morin

My musings on networking on Monday led me to ponder other sometimes difficult professional situations in which we find ourselves, and one with which I am grappling even now, as I write this piece – namely, reviewing. There’s something so thrilling about getting a monograph normally priced at €85 for free, that I frequently find myself soliciting coveted texts from various reviews editors. Of course, in my excitement, I forget that nothing ever comes completely free. As with Ryanair, in fact, I find that I always underestimate the cost, getting sucked in by the thought of cheap goods (in this case, scholarly studies rather than flights) without fully considering the ramifications. In short, I forget that this is an exchange economy and that the ‘price’ of my supposedly free book is a review.

It’s not that I find writing such pieces particularly difficult, especially when the book in question is well-written, well-edited, and well-argued, but I do find reviews incredibly time consuming. Perhaps it’s just me, but I read a book very differently when I’m reviewing it than I do if I’m simply reading it for my own ongoing research. I’m much more thorough in my reading (meaning I don’t skip any paragraphs or pages!), take copious notes, and think very carefully about how best to underline the text’s strengths while still pointing out its potential deficiencies or weaknesses. What I’m aiming for is an objective account of the book in question, written with a view to the professional expertise I share with the author. The point of a review is, as I understand it, to highlight the book’s contribution to existing scholarship and, thus, its value for fellow scholars. Read more