New Year things noted

January 6, 2008

Cross posted to Cliopatria and Trenchfever to keep things warm whilst many regular Cliopatricians are at the AHA.

Further reactions to the death of George Macdonald Fraser, including the question, ‘Should we mourn Flashman?’

Why where you put certain questions matters, in tests, in semesters, in lives, from Mixing Memory, via Gavin Robinson.

The Decision Hedgehog, for all those who’ve told that joke about why ‘working for this company is like screwing a hedgehog’…

Sad departure of 2007, Alan Eames, ‘the Indiana Jones of Beer’

Self-agrandising media corner, as I talk about doing a podcast for the OU and the BBC, with another corner for agrandising one of my PhDs, Jack McGowan, who spoke to BBC Radio 4 about newly declassified material from the National Archives.

Timewatch podcast

January 6, 2008

At the start of December, I took part in a podcast recorded to back up a BBC Timewatch programme about Omaha Beach on D-Day. The programme goes out this evening on the BBC, and the podcast is now up. I wasn’t asked to be involved because of any great subject expertise, I think, but rather because I’d worked before with the BBC and the Open University (who collaborate on the podcast and website), because they knew I’d probably do it, and, as it turned out, because I could discuss the mythology of the Second World War as well. Although I don’t think this was an influential factor, I also knew the historian who’d been principally involved, Dr Simon Trew, from my time teaching at Sandhurst.

I was, to begin with, rather apprehensive. I got some negative reactions the last time I stuck my head over the parapet of publicity to talk about victory in 1918, and a lot of people know a lot more about Omaha than I do. Timewatch has been the subject of some controversy recently, with accusations of it dumbing down – and even suggestions that it would be axed. And then the transcript and preview DVD arrived, and I learned that the script seemed to bounce from one topic to the next and that the programme would be presented by that well known historian of war, Richard Hammond. What, exactly, was I going to say about that, if I wasn’t going to ruin my chances of ever working with the BBC again? As it turned out, it wasn’t quite as I expected. Read the rest of this entry »

I’m back!

December 18, 2007

It is very much to my embarassment that this is the first post in over three months. Yes, I am well aware that the web is full of blogs the principal content of which are posts lamenting ‘I really must write here more often…’, but allow me to explain. For me, the purpose of the blog has always been to encourage and improve work, not to create it. It’s a place to share ideas and spark creativity. Over the last few months, I’ve often found myself either doing the sort of administrative work that doesn’t need to be shared with anybody, or writing to deadlines in a way that precludes discussion. I’ve also been fortunate enough to spend some time abroad – including a trip to Australia, of which you can read an account here and here. And this alerted me to the fact that quite a few people read trenchfever. Strangely, far from encouraging me to write more, this blocked me for two reasons. First, I felt a responsibility to produce quality. Second, I became conscious as I went over deadlines that the blog is also a measure of my activity. What would those editors to whom I owed chapters think of my excuses if they could see perfectly well that I was producing the goods here?

Anyway, the chapters are finished, the term is done, and I’m about to start a year’s sabbatical in which I’m concentrating on my Second World War book. So the blog should resume its role as thoughtpad and discussion site.

There are a couple of things I want to talk about over the next few days, including publishers using the ‘net, my experience of doing a podcast for Timewatch and my plans for next year, but for now, some sites to share on the web.

My Queen Mary colleagues put their Borromei Bank research project on the web. It’s a remarkable medieval history resource – an entire set of banking records allowing the reconstruction of a trans-European economy – and exactly what the net was meant for. Here’s the explanation of why it matters so much. Here are the records themselves.

James Holland’s research site and blog detailing his work on the Second World War. An example of an independent historian using the web to create his own archive.

The Imperial War Museum’s brief online exhibition of its work recording memories of Greenham Common, which might be quite a useful resource for post 45 British history.

Historical Writing 2

August 28, 2007

Thanks to those who commented below, apologies for a belated response. And thanks also to Jack McGowan, who has posted his comments on his own blog, and to Victoria Carolan, also one of PhD students, who has made very useful suggestions in person.

One point raised by Alan, below, and by Victoria, was the confrontational tone I’ve adopted. Not just confrontational, in fact, but divisive – most of the time I try my best to adopt a non-hierarchical voice, and I’ve spent a lot of words elsewhere in the Historical Writing coursepack suggesting that all members of the department – undergraduates, postgraduates, research students, academics, administrators – are part of a historical community to which we all contribute. So I can only blame the extraordinary anger that builds up inside me when I have to deal with plagiarism for making me adopt the tone I did.

I still feel that anger, of course. And I am not sure that this is a problem that is best dealt with by tolerance. Yes, plagiarism can occur inadvertently – and probably all of us who write historically have had cause at some point to worry about how we’ve expressed something. Anyone who teaches will have encountered students whose plagiarism is accidental. But my personal feeling – and since I am identifiable I must emphasise that it is solely personal – is that this allows an easy escape route for many students who plagiarised deliberately. ‘I didn’t mean to do it’ or ‘I didn’t know what I was doing’ gets you one free pass. And it shouldn’t. For me, this is a bit like the issue of drug taking in sport: the athlete has responsibility for everything that goes into their body, whether they’re a chemist or not. Just because they didn’t know that coach’s funny syringe contained more than vitamins doesn’t absolve them. If you plagiarise at all, for whatever reason, you get 0 for that piece of work. If you get caught twice, you’re out of the department. But, probably fortunately, I don’t get to make those calls.

But I think that – thought I hate to use this word – a piece of writing that encouraged more ’empathy’ might be less aggressive and more effective. As has been suggested, ‘how would you feel if you opened your lecturer’s best-selling book and discovered that they had copied from your third year dissertation?’ is perhaps a more respectful approach, and more thought provoking.

My fear about discussing established historians who have ‘got away with it’ is that there’s a risk of blurring the line. But I take the idea that this might be a useful means of engagement. I have to say that they have not necessarily ‘got away with it’ just because they’ve kept their posts or are still getting contracts. In a field as gossipy as academia, once you’ve been tarred with that brush it won’t go away. I ‘m sure we can all think of examples where new graduate students are warned about letting Professor X see their work without having hedged it round with statements to ensure they get credited. I don’t think there’s space on this course for that sort of in-depth discussion – but I would _really_ like to develop a similar module to this for subsequent study years about public history, its demands, successes and failures, where such material would be appropriate and useful.

Points about software (although I can’t really see anyone taking that as a challenge), generic questions (urgh – laziness on the part of the instructor), coyness and so on all accepted and will be worked into the re-write.

Historical writing

August 16, 2007

The summer months typically see me doing a lot of writing, with the result that I restrict my use of the net a lot more, and my postings become ever more feeble. I notice that this happens to some other academic bloggers as well. In the meantime, I thought that I might post up some parts of the course pack I’m in the middle of updating for the history department. We have a compulsory course for undergraduates called Historical Writing, which introduces them to essay researching and writing skills at university level. The current version of the course was set up very well a couple of years ago by Dr Jon Bulaitis – but this year I’m responsible for it, and I’ve tried to tweak it a little – adding in a few things I care about, drawing on my own teaching experiences, and trying to fit the whole thing around the history of London over the ages. The pack that accompanies the course is more extensive than for others – it’s almost a textbook. I’ve been updating that as well.

Here is the section I’ve just been writing. I should point out this isn’t all rant: there are lots of exercises and tasks on each side, and the seminars deal with lots of material in an approachable fashion. But I thought I’d take the opportunity to spell out more explicitly than ever before why this offence makes us angry, and why it’s usually so stupid as well as so wrong. Comments, as ever, welcome
Read the rest of this entry »

World enough and time

May 9, 2007

In different ways, Great War Fiction, Investigations of a Dog, Break of Day in the Trenches and Victoria’s Cross have all discussed the experience, costs and value of blogging. Esther at BODITT points out that in the reflexive, insular world of blogging, a certain degree of navel gazing is inevitable. But I feel the need to participate, despite her somewhat worldweary tone (and otherwise, I’d just be commenting, and I get told off for that) Victoria’s Cross argues that: ‘So, lecturers must blog more. Blogging is the start, it provides a visible rallying point for developing communities. They must get involved in networks and communities beyond the traditional university driven avenues. It is a priority.’

I wholeheartedly agree that the academic blog is a potentially hugely valuable tool – not just for rapid intellectual exchange between the expert, but in order to break down the authority of status and replace it with the authority of expertise. But everyone saying that lecturers should blog more needs to think about how we make decisions about our time. Read the rest of this entry »

Suggestions of a dog…

February 13, 2007

Gavin Robinson at Investigations of a Dog has floated the idea of a Military History Carnival. Gavin’s proposal is broad ranging, well thought out, and deserves support from all history bloggers as well as the forty odd who make up Clio’s military history blogroll. Pop over and contribute to the discussion.
Cross posted at Cliopatria