January round-up

I can’t quite believe this is the beginning of the last week of January – where did that month go?

While I didn’t get everything done that I’d planned to, I have been enjoying Twitter this month. So here are my thoughts on those stories and articles that caught my eye this month.

Debating Victorian Studies

There were some really great responses on JVC Online to Peter K. Andersson’s open source article ‘How Civilized were the Victorians?’. This article pointed out how Victorian Studies is dominated by narratives of discipline and civilization stemming from Elias and Foucault, leaving little room for competing narratives as they emerge from alternative sources. As a literary scholar I felt somewhat implicated in the criticism that it was Victorian Studies’ reliance on literary, bourgeois sources that encouraged this dominance, but I took comfort from his suggestion that close reading of such sources can provide evidence of the non-verbal culture that challenges the idea of Victorian culture as wholly restrained and disciplined. In the background to his article, and to some of the responses, was the V21 Collective’s push for more theory and more synthetic methods – which would tend to militate against the accumulation of more data, whether it undermined the current theory-inspired narratives or not. I’ve not fully formed my thoughts on V21 yet, but it would seem that Andersson’s article is useful to read alongside their manifesto.

Katrina Navikas’s response made some great points about how historians of Victorian workers have used working-class autobiographies, Hegelian theories of experience, and labour geography in order to talk in more complex ways about class.

Sophie Franklin’s response defended the literate as a source, challenging Andersson’s suggestion that novels present the Victorians as being on ‘their best behaviour’.

Oliver Betts agreed with Andersson’s overall point, bemoaning scholars’ under-use of non-literary sources in museum collections and the work of Charles Booth (NB – I don’t actually recognise this, especially after my experiences with the Literary London reading group). Interestingly, though, Betts warns that Andersson’s approach risks isolating the Victorian working class, not seeing the cross-class context of identity formation.

And Lucinda Matthews-Jones added her voice to Anderrson’s concern over the dominance of literary perspectives and the V21 Collective. Like Oliver Betts, she was also excited by the potential of non-verbal sources, and added that art history has a role to play here.

Jane Eyre and the Book of Common Prayer

I thought that this was a really interesting reading of specific dates in Jane Eyre and linking them to the Book of Common Prayer – by a non-traditional independent academic (check out the bio). I found the essay especially useful as I’m in the middle of re-writing a chapter on Jane Eyre and missionary writing.

Don’t Worry be Happy

I think the Guardian was thrilled by the long-running controversy about its article by ‘anonymous academic’ listing 9 positive things about working in academia. While most people seemed to accept the article on its own terms, others were concerned that this downplayed the serious issues of casualisation in academia.

I enjoyed the article, but was concerned by Twitter’s suggestions that ECRs should be judged for jobs on whether they had a positive enough attitude – most people acknowledge that those adjuncting and looking for a job have a pretty bad time of it, demanding they put on a happy face is a bit crass.

Teaching Excellence Framework

Consultation on the Teaching Excellence Framework came to an end this month. Sally Hunt’s article stressed the impact of casualisation on teaching quality in universities, and discussed the problems of basing an evaluation of teaching on the national student survey and graduate employment rates. She also called for university teachers to be more valued.

Twitter debated whether academics should be split into teaching and researching camps and be treated in an ‘equal but different’ way, but (luckily) this seemed to peter out.

THE reported that students were keen for employment rates to be included in any evaluation of university teaching; in a poll they also suggested that contact time was a useful measure, but believed that the most useful proxy was the proportion of students who achieved a good degree. Unsurprisingly, this was not popular with Professor Graham Gibbs, the academic THE quoted in response, who warned of the dangers of responding to what students wanted rather than what was good for them (including grade inflation). Part of the problem here, I think, is that students have been educated in a school system that has espoused a growth-mindset. Students are told that they can achieve highly, if they put the work in (and if teachers work to get the best out of them). It’s logical therefore, that they link contact time with getting a good degree. Unfortunately I suspect there are some academics that don’t believe in a growth-mindset and tend to decide early on if a student is capable of getting a 2.1 or not.

The Safe Space/Academic Freedom Debate

This continued to rumble on, with Joanna Williams complaining that academics, as well as students have contributed to a lack of intellectual diversity through their focus on widening participation…

The Chronicle also published an article on ‘how fear is stifling academic freedom’, pointing out that ‘a key aspect of securing a job is to present oneself as entirely unobjectionable, to sand away the aspects of one’s self-presentation that might offend, well, anyone.’

I can’t help but feel it’s ironic how people keep complaining about how they can’t say anything any more – in published pieces in highly circulated publications… Interestingly, the Chronicle piece pointed out that the high-profile firing of Steven Salaita at University of Illinois was largely down to the influence of (special-interest) donors rather than politically correct students, which is hardly anything new in America is it?

Gender Politics

Early in the month Slate asked (and answered) the question ‘Is History written about men, by men?’ In their survey, around 75% of popular history books were written by men; the majority of biographies published were about male subjects, and usually written by men; and they discovered that history books were usually bought as gifts for men, and were therefore mostly about ‘masculine’ subjects such as presidents and wars.

But for me this topic ended up being dominated this month by the crazy #femfog rantings of Allen Frantzen’s website. I really have no words. Thank goodness for Twitter, and for Peter Buchanan, whose response I thought was truly excellent.

And Finally…

Stella Creasy’s interview with Caitlin Moran about feminism, online abuse and politics was (as expected) sane, inspiring, and great for when you’re just too tired of all the sexism:

I also enjoyed the Guardian’s run down of their top articles for academics of 2015, especially the ones about learning how to be better at failing, and how not to be a conference troll.


Loving the Victorians

There were so many problems with Sarah Christman’s recent Vox blog post, ‘I love the Victorian era. So I decided to live in it’, that it’s difficult to know where to start. Luckily my peers on social media and Slate’s Rebecca Onion were quick to identify these issues for Chrisman – though as someone ‘living’ in the Victorian era, I wonder if she’s been able to access this valuable education?

Many Twitter users had fun pointing out the obvious anachronisms involved in publishing an online piece boasting about a dedication to living in the manner of the Victorians.

Other issues pointed out aren’t so funny. As Rebecca Onion explained in her excellent article, Vox’s Victorians, there are some serious blind spots to this couple’s love of the Victorian era, caused by their emphasis on encountering the Victorian world through its artifacts.

The “past” was not made up only of things. Like our own world, it was a web of social ties. These social ties extended into every corner of people’s lives, influencing the way people treated each other in intimate relationships; the way disease was passed and treated; the possibilities open to women, minorities, and the poor; the whirl of expectations, traditions, language, and community that made up everyday lives. Material objects like corsets or kerosene lamps were part of this complex web, but only a part. (Rebecca Onion, ‘Vox’s Victorians’, Slate)

Twitter users were also quick to school the Victorian couple in the social (in)justice of their beloved era.

As @MariaWritesStuff points out, these blind spots also extend to the contemporary era – only a privileged few would be able to follow the Victorian couple’s historical ‘methods’: not only are the artifacts expensive, but the amount of work involved in Victorian housework precludes the possibility of a full-time job (she really hand-sewed her own mattress??).

And then of course, there’s the issue of Chrisman’s ‘methods’ themselves and the serious misunderstandings about history that made those of us in the business cringe and groan. Rebecca Onion rightly identifies Chrisman’s piece as showing:

a hopelessly naive understanding of the historical record, which is, itself, incomplete and “twisted” by the agendas of those who have produced, saved, and recirculated its texts. (Onion, ‘Vox’s Victorians’)

As someone who values the work of historians and the methods of our trade, I also agree that Christman needs some critical support/feedback on her methodology and theoretical approach. Her own dismissive and critical characterization of Victorian history (all of it?!) was guaranteed to offend:

Modern commentaries on the past can get appallingly like the game ‘telephone’: One person misinterprets something, the next exaggerates it, a third twists it to serve an agenda, and so on. (Chrisman, I love the Victorian Era. So I decided to live in it.’, Vox)

But I’m going to jump off this bandwagon – fun though the ride has been – as I think there’s a danger of us ‘serious’ academics/students alienating a potentially supportive public with what might appear to be intellectually-snobbish ridiculing of a sincerely interested amateur.

After all, a ‘love’ (albeit uninformed) of the Victorians is sort of what keeps people like me in business. If no-one cared, there would be no students and no book sales beyond the academy. I think you can find a pretty much healthy Victorian department in nearly every university – you can’t say that for Medieval studies, for example, which doesn’t have the same non-expert fan-base.

I think we maybe have to accept that what Chrisman means when she says ‘I love the Victorian period’ is that she loves some aspects of what she thinks life was like for people like her (or the kind of person she imagines she would have been) in the Victorian period. (But of course that doesn’t make such a snappy headline for a blog post.) This is still an ethnocentric position, but that’s not an unusual first position for most people. And she’s certainly passionate about attempting to understand how her sorts of Victorians experienced their lives. This is naive, but surely most of us engaged in history wanted to do this when we first started? And I think, in a way, it is the tension between this still extant desire and the apparent impossibility of discovering what those in the past experienced that drives me, along with a love of historical methods developed through years of study. I found Chrisman’s description of the effects and experience of wearing long skirts in daily life fascinating. But then I also found fascination in thinking about in what sorts of ways her experience of her body in skirts would be different from how a Victorian woman might have interpreted the sensations transmitted by her clothing. This appreciation of how people experienced things very differently in the past has only developed in me since I had the time to think and study.

I’ve been guilty of intellectual snobbery when confronted by students who express their ‘love’ of authors and time periods through buying Jane Austen t-shirts or attending country dances. But then I realized that while we can teach critical theory, and we can teach historical methodology, we can’t teach enthusiasm. At this point I’m not sure Chrisman would welcome any more constructive criticism. But I would warn those planning to use this piece or something like it with undergraduates to do so with sensitivity, and to remember that we weren’t always as sophisticated as we like to think we are now.