Monday, December 18, 2017

Experiential learning with Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich

One of the challenges of teaching medieval literature is how different the texts can appear to today’s students. It’s often a combination of the language – Middle English is probably the most challenging language an English Literature student will encounter – the very different contexts, and a twenty-first century belief that the medieval is irretrievably distant and other. I’ve talked elsewhere about the dangers of the presentation of the medieval as other, but in this post I want to focus on teaching the medieval. Specifically, I’d like to share my efforts to counteract the distance and difference of the Middle Ages through experiential learning.

Since the work of David Kolb in the late 1970s and early 1980s, experiential learning, or learning by doing, has been recognised as an effective mode of instruction in higher education and elsewhere. Variously interpreted through performance, art, music, dance, and more, it builds on ideas of active learning with the addition of a reflective component that invites students to learn through the process of reflection. I’m a big fan of experiential learning, and I wanted to see if I could incorporate it into my current teaching as a way to help students experience something of the medieval period we were studying. I was hoping that this would help something that feels quite distant seem closer to the students’ everyday lives and experiences.

The activities I developed were focused around Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, two late medieval mystics who each wrote or had written texts outlining their faith and life. The activities are a combination of craft, collage, and experience. I know many of you also teach these texts, and I wanted to share what I did to see what you make it is and in case you'd like to try it out for yourself. Call it an early Christmas gift!

I developed three class activities around these women’s texts.
  1. Creating our own anchorholds
  2. Travel guides with Margery
  3. Cut-and-stick poetry
In what follows I'll describe each activity, including instructions for students and the materials required, and offer some reflection on the process. I'd be happy to share my slides and materials if you're interested in any of these - just drop me a comment or an email to

Creating our own anchorholds

What it is: Working in groups to design and build 'life-size' medieval anchorholds.

A cardboard anchorhold with an open doorway, revealing a bed and chamber pot, constructed from cardboard
A student-created anchorhold
(featuring bed and chamber pot)
Time: 30-40 minutes

What you’ll need: lots of cardboard, a set of instructions, a space large enough for students to move around.

What I was trying to do: The anchoritic lifestyle adopted by Julian of Norwich is one that often feels very strange to students. It can be difficult for them to imagine what it would have been like to be enclosed in a small room adjoining a church, to remain there for the rest of your life. When teaching in York, I would take students to All Saints North Street church, which has a recreated anchorhold. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent in Cardiff so I decided I’d need to do something else to give students a chance to feel what enclosure was like.

Instructions for students: Based on the information below (from modern scholarship and medieval sources) you will work together to construct your own anchorhold. You can make this ‘authentic’ or adapt it, but it you must be able to explain how it relates to or reflects what you know about anchorholds.

The rationale behind this task is to have fun after submitting your essays, but it’s also an opportunity to reflect on the physical space of the anchorhold (given that we don’t have one that we can visit). Constructing this space yourself encourages you to consider how it feels to be in this space and to consider questions of access (how big will you make it? will you fit inside?), comfort, and function (will it need windows so the anchorite can talk to others? How big will these be? What will be inside the anchorhold?). This may help you to consider the effect of the space of the anchorhold on Julian’s writing.

You should share tasks in your group so everyone has a role to play, perhaps appointing a project manager, and sharing out individual tasks.
An anchorhold made from cardboard complete with roof and cross detail
An anchorhold large enough to house
a student (temporarily)

(The handout for the students contained extracts from The Book of Margery Kempe, The Life of Christina of Markyate, the Ancrenne Wisse, Christopher Cannon, ‘Enclosure’, in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Womenʹs Writing, ed. Carolyn Dinshaw and David Wallace (Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 109-108, and E. A Jones, ‘Anchoritic aspects of Julian of Norwich’, in A Companion to Julian of Norwich, ed. Liz Herbert McAvoy (D. S. Brewer, 2008), pp. 75-87.)

Accessibility: This task requires students to be able to use their hands to build a structure so is not accessible for any students for whom mobility is an issue. However, I was clear that students should work in groups and share task roles, allowing students to take on a director or 'management' role to make sure that any students unable to physically construct the anchorhold could still be involved in its design. I had intended that the anchorholds would be constructed large enough to fit a wheelchair inside, but in reality there wasn't quite enough cardboard to make it the appropriate size. However, the students adapted their anchorhold so that it could be worn over the head to give some idea of enclosure.   

How it went: This activity helpfully fell on the same day that student mid-terms were due so it was a good opportunity for them to have a bit of fun after working hard on their written work. I was surprised how enthusiastically the students threw themselves into the activity. Once each group had their stock of card, they immediately set about the task of constructing walls that would stand by themselves, and how to construct a roof. 

Detail from a created anchorhold - a hanging white cross featuring Christ crucified drawn in red ink
Christ on the cross (as seen
through a 'squint' window)
As I circulated, I could see that they had picked up on some of the details of anchorholds - that they were usually on the north side of the church, that there was a narrow window (a 'squint') to see through the the altar, and that there were access windows for food - and had incorporated these imaginatively into their designs (see the images). The students were also discussing, as their structures took shape, what it would have been like to have lived inside one - this was exactly the kind of reflection I had wanted to inspire. 

Once the anchorholds were constructed, some of the students sat inside their constructions (if able to). Two grouped actually enclosed a classmate inside - one group with a paper door, and another group literally taped one of their group inside (the student then forcibly busted his way out of the anchorhold which prompted a conversation about how to escape these spaces if you so desire).

Overall, this was certainly a fun activity. The students were talkative and engaged and their conversations were almost always centred on the task rather than drifting off-topic. Since the session, several students have shown an interest in enclosure as a topic for their final assignment. This might have happened anyway, but I hope that having a chance to reflect on the experience of being an anchoress or anchorite may have encouraged that interest.    

Travels with Margery

What it is: Researching and creating collaborative travel guides based on Margery Kempe's experiences of pilgrimage. 
A printed page reading 'The Rough Guide to Pilgrimage according to "this creature" Margery Kempe'
The front cover of the travel guides
Time: 40-50 minutes

What you’ll need: Pre-prepared and printed 'travel guides', pens, paper, glue, scissors, and source material (maps, extracts from the text, images).

What I was trying to do: Pilgrimage was a significant form of late medieval devotional practice and Margery Kempe's book describes her experiences of pilgrimage in characteristically engaging detail. Many pilgrimage guides survive from this period so I was aiming to combine this context with the text of Margery's book to encourage close reading and analysis of quite a lengthy text and to imitate medieval practices of textual production.

Instructions for students: Your task is to create a travel guide on behalf of Margery (you are acting as her scribes). Pilgrimage was a significant part of medieval Christian devotion, and several pilgrimage guides were published throughout the Middle Ages offering practical advice (where to sleep, what to eat) and describing the sights; it is estimated there are 526 extant accounts of pilgrimage to Jerusalem written between 1100 and 1500 (Voaden, p. 183). Margery’s book offers an evocative and information-rich account of pilgrimage and its perils.

Working in groups, each of you will create a page which you’ll then bind together to form Margery’s guide. You can choose which of the following you want to focus on.

Page 1: Why should people go on pilgrimage? (overt and covert reasons)
Page 2: What preparations should be undertaken before one leaves?
Page 3: Where should people go? What countries and sites?
Page 4: How do they get there?
Page 4: What kinds of activities can people do on pilgrimage?
Page 6: What do pilgrims eat (according to Margery)?
Page 7: What do they wear?
Page 8: What are the dangers to watch out for? What can go wrong?

There are several sources on which you should base your research for the guide. Margery’s book, of course, but also a range of maps, modern critical material, images of holy sites, and a medieval pilgrimage guide.

A page showing a figure dressed in medieval pilgrim garb with annotations and description
Pilgrims' dress
(Sources I gave the students included extracts from The Book of Margery Kempe (chapters 26-45), maps, images, and articles from the Mapping Margery Kempe project, an extract from Rosalynn Voaden, ‘Travels with Margery: Pilgrimage in Context’, Eastward Bound: Travels and Travellers, 10501500, ed. Rosamund Allen (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), pp. 177-195, and lines 12-17 of the General Prologue to Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.)

Accessibility: The activity involves writing and (potentially) cutting and sticking, therefore is not directly accessible for any student for whom this kind of mobility is difficult. The research element of the task, on the other hand, is accessible, especially if material is provided electronically. I therefore advised students to work together when collating the material, meaning that those students unable to physically write could still contribute to the task.

A map of medieval Jerusalem with a list of important pilgrimage sites
Important sites in medieval Jerusalem
How it went: This was the first week we focused on Margery Kempe and I was aware that many of the students would not yet have read the text in detail. I was hoping that a focus on pilgrimage would help students get to grips with a significant portion of the text through a directed activity that would require them to research only a small part of the text, but that would result in a much more comprehensive piece of work. To ensure that students were exposed to as much detail as possible, I asked the students to exchange their completed guides with another group who could then see what other groups had written. We also went through each page in turn as a whole class.

A white page with handwriting and drawings relating to preparations for pilgrimage
Preparations for pilgrimage
I was pleased to observe that students had picked up on the main elements of pilgrimage (preparation, purpose, location) and that they had noted the unique aspects of Margery's pilgrimage (such as her wearing of white clothes and her difficulties with her companions).  In subsequent lectures on Margery Kempe, students talked about her pilgrimage suggesting perhaps that the activity had supported their engagement with this part of the text. The activity seemed to engage all students during the class - this may be due to each student being assigned a specific 'page' to research. Some pages were completed more quickly than others - page 2 on preparation for example - and page 6 on what pilgrims eat seemed to be more difficult for students based on the extracts from the text I chose - I would perhaps provide alternative sources or extracts from elsewhere in the text in future.

Cut-and-stick poetry

What it is: A cut-and-stick poetry exercise using Margery's own text.

Time: 40-50 minutes

What you’ll need: Paper (I used coloured paper), glue sticks (one per pair at least), scissors (one per pair), a photocopied or transcribed page from a primary text.

A tear shape with devil horns and a tail cut from pink paper with a teardrop outline made from words cut from white paper
'Devil woman'
What I was trying to do: The focus of the class was Margery Kempe in the Twenty-First Century - a chance to consider how Margery and her book are read by modern audiences, and how this is similar here and here) and it's worked well as a reflective exercise. I wanted to incorporate some activities related to creative writing, given that the School has some great creative writing teaching that many students had taken or were planning to explore later in their studies. This was also an opportunity for students to reflect on the medieval mystic tradition that we had focused on for the previous few weeks, and to highlight those aspects of late medieval devotion they felt were most significant or different to the way she was apparently received by her contemporaries. I introduced students to Sarah Law's poems about Margery Kempe as a basis for their own poetic reflection. I've used cut-and-stick techniques in previous workshops (you can read more about that

Instructions for students: This is your opportunity to ‘write back’ to Margery Kempe, using her own words. How do you feel about Margery Kempe and her Book? Is she a ‘fals lollar’, ‘a bad
On a blue sheet of paper, a circle made of words cut from white paper and stuck down, with a cross in the centre
'Her affection was for Christ'
woman’ or a ‘good wife’? What are the key aspects of her book that you think are important, or that have struck you since you’ve been reading the text? What connections might you make with the twenty-first century or with the Middle Ages?

Working in pairs or individually (it’s up to you) you should collect:
– A photocopied page with excerpts from Chapter 35 of the Book of Margery Kempe.
– A glue stick
– Scissors
– A sheet of coloured paper.

Then, fridge magnet style, cut out the words on the page and rearrange them, bisect them, add your own, do what you will with them to write your own response (poetry or prose) to the questions.

Spend a couple of minutes now talking to your partner or thinking about your response to questions and then collect your items. You have approximately 30 minutes to work on this.

Accessibility: As this was intended to be an individual activity (which was important for the reflective component) it was not possible to ask students to work in pairs where one would cut and stick for both participants. I therefore developed a digital equivalent that a student could use on a tablet using Padlet - here's a link to a copy I've made: Rather than cutting and sticking, the student could then drag and drop to re-order the text.

A screenshot showing individual words from the text listed with the title 'cut-and-stick with Margery Kempe'
Padlet 'cut-and-stick with Margery Kempe'

A pair of eyes on orange paper, weeping words that pool into a cluster, outlined in red
Margery's Tears
How it went: The students very quickly got on with the activity - whether this was because they were keen or because they had become more used to my teaching approach I'm not sure. It was clear that some students were more enthusiastic about the activity than others. I circulated around the students, asking them questions about why they had selected particular words, and how this related to their understanding of the text. This did seem to encourage students to think more deeply about the text and highlight aspects of their poem they hadn't previously noticed, for example the Margery's Tears poem (see right) led to a discussion of how far Margery's words and physical tears can be associated in her expression of devotion. I think students were pleased with their 'poems' and were happy to keep them afterwards, and it certainly encouraged some good reflective thinking and there was a lot of evidence of identifying key themes and ideas from the text which was encouraging.

I do think the activity could be made more challenging with an emphasis on textual analysis rather than reflection. This might have better met the expectations of the students, who were perhaps less accustomed to reflective work. In the future, I might begin with some discussion of the major themes of the text, and perhaps use this to direct the activity. We also encountered some difficulties with the digital version which didn't function correctly on the student's tablet. We managed to organise a work-around, using a word document I'd created as a back-up, but in the future I would ensure in advance that the site worked on the student's device, or make sure I had a second device to hand that we could use instead.

NB: Thanks to my students for allowing me to share their work and for their enthusiastic participation in the above activities.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Stories from the air: Some reflections on commuting

Since starting my new job at Cardiff, I’ve found I’ve been having the same conversation again and again, with a range of different colleagues. We talk about teaching, of course, and we talk about research. But one conversation I wasn’t anticipating finding so much widespread interest in is commuting.

I’m commuting for this job, from Edinburgh (where I live) to Cardiff (where I work). I factored this into my decision to take the job; it’s for a fixed period, it’s relatively affordable, and I can just about make it, from office to front door, in 5 hours. So, a weekly round-trip of 600 or so miles, for me as a child-free, able-bodied person, isn’t that bad, all things considered.

Relatively straight-forward though it is, I didn’t anticipate that many of my colleagues, especially those on open-ended contracts, would also be commuting. But actually, many of them commute from cities and towns an hour, two hours, or even three hours away. Most go by train, but one colleague has a five-hour drive twice a week. Two colleagues are even fellow Scotland to Wales commuters! Commuting has thus become a regular topic of conversation.

I don’t think my department is unusual in having a few members of staff who commute. Academic jobs are few and far between and if you find the right one (and if you can travel) commuting is almost a given. When I googled the topic, hundreds of websites appeared, many written by academics seeking advice on whether to take the plunge and start commuting themselves.

Balancing a work and home life that can be hundreds of miles apart is one of the biggest challenges of our profession, and is often unacknowledged (as a colleague recently said). People usually commute because they have a partner, children, or other family who live elsewhere and don’t want to be uprooted. Or it might just be that someone is settled in a particular place and doesn’t want to leave it. In fact, I think you’d be hard pressed to find an academic couple, especially if both are academics, who haven’t maintained a long-distance relationship at some point. It’s an issue far wider than just my institution – in an academic Facebook group recently dozens of people responded to someone who was considering commuting for work and was seeking advice.

I’ve decided to take a reflective approach to my commute over the next year, and consider what I might learn from it. The commuting is (like the contract) temporary, and it’s a good opportunity to figure out if I could, or would keep doing a commute like this and for how long. For example, as many commented in that Facebook group, long-distance commuting gets a lot harder when there are kids involved (although not impossible). Equally, I’m hoping the commute will be a chance to get some work done, or to prioritise certain tasks that will help my overall productivity. This hasn’t happened quite yet, but I am writing this blog post in the lounge at Cardiff airport, so that’s something.

So here are the things I have learned from my commute so far. Some are personal realisations, others are more practical, and much of it might not be of interest to anyone but myself, in a year’s time, looking back on all the air miles, airport coffees, and flight safety demonstrations. 

What I have learned from commuting (so far):
  1. You very quickly learn the schedule. The first few times I made the trip, I spent quite a bit of time double-checking the journey times, looking up bus routes, and feeling anxious about how various transport options fit together. Now, I know I what time to leave my office to get to the airport bus *just* as it’s about to leave. I know which incoming flight will be turned around to be my flight (and therefore how delayed it is going to be before the airport announces it). This undoubtedly means that I’ll start cutting things incredibly fine, but for now I feel as though I have all of the knowledge and none of the anxiety I had a few weeks ago.
  2. Podcasts are a life-saver. I’ve listened to podcasts for a few years now, but my consumption has hugely increased since I’ve started commuting. In the past month I’ve listened to: a whole series on the social and cultural history of container shipping; a mini-series on Charles Manson and late 1960s Hollywood; a bunch of episodes of In Our Time on various medieval religious topics (this one was explicitly work-related); as well as my regular selection from This American Life, The Moth, Radiolab and more.
  3. The airport bus wifi will never work. At this point, I have come to accept this as a fundamental truth of the commute. Airport wifi, on the other hand, is consistently excellent.
  4. Cardiff means work, and Edinburgh means not working. I’ve always tried to protect my weekends and evenings for spending time with friends and family. But, as we all know, sometimes things slide and you have to spend the weekend marking, or writing a grant application or syllabus. Now that I’m only home for 3 days each week, I feel the need to limit the work I’m doing to core hours (i.e. when everyone else is at work) and to spend the rest of the time doing all those other things we need to do in life (housework, cooking, going to IKEA, seeing friends). The result of this is that I strongly identify Cardiff with work (during the day, in the evening, on the commute), and this seems to end when I get home. This separation between work and home isn’t something I’ve felt this strongly before, and I’m interested to see if this is beneficial for my work/life balance.
  5. My activities are planned for ever. If you want to hang out with me at any point between now and next summer, I pretty much only have two free weekends remaining. I block-booked my flights a few months back in a bid to keep the cost down, and how it means I know where I’ll be (at least, in which city) for the next 8 months. I’m generally quite an organised person, but commuting has almost completely ended my ability to make spontaneous plans. The upside is that I now appear to be the most organised person during every planning conversation.  

So there you have it – reflections and reporting from the first month of cross-UK commuting. Here’s to the months to come.

Photo by E T T T O on Unsplash

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Give your students knives (or, how to bring danger into the classroom to deal with a dangerous world)

Photo by Thanh Tran on Unsplash
Earlier this year, I attended the QAA Annual Conference in Nottingham to talk about a project on training for postgraduates who teach that I’d been working on. One of the keynote speakers at the event, aimed at higher education policy-makers, senior management, and administrators, was Professor Eunice Simmons, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Nottingham Trent University.

Eunice was talking about student engagement, and showed us a photograph of students in a workshop using two-handed bladed tools to carve wood. All the students photographed were bent over their task, intensely focused, and absorbed in their activity. Eunice, for comic effect, suggested that this might be because the students were working with very sharp knives, but she wondered how this concentration and focus might be replicated in the classroom.

Easy, I thought – give students knives!

Of course, I don’t mean literally, but bear with me while I expand this metaphor.  

What is a knife? Something dangerous, for sure. A tool that can be used to make something. A weapon. Something that must be handled carefully but, with skilful use, can be used to create something remarkable and individual. This definition could equally be applied to knowledge – when learning is most effective it too, should be handled with care, but can produce something extraordinary.

What I’m getting at (which might not be what Eunice Simmons had in mind so apologies to her for going off at a tangent) is that because these students were given a dangerous item that they had to consider carefully, they paid more attention and were more engaged in the task at hand.

Danger (in the form of knowledge or knives) is not something students encounter very often in their learning. But we live in an increasingly dangerous world; climate change, white supremacy, intolerance, terrorism – these are all things our students are dealing with in their lives outside of university. As educators, we have a responsibility to equip our students to deal with this, by talking about the dangerous world outside in our classes – bringing danger inside – and by giving our students the right tools to understand and challenge these dangers. In other words, we need to give our students knives, but teach them the skills they need to understand how to use them.

‘Dangerous learning’ has generally not been seen as a positive thing. Berthoin Antal and Friedman (2004) argue that ‘learning from experience can be dangerous when it inhibits inquiry and closes off new knowledge’ (n.p.) – in other words, particular ways of approaching learning or doing learning can make it dangerously misleading, partial, or insufficient. The implication is that if learning is not done ‘right’, it can lead to unhelpful and dangerous ways of approaching the world that will be potentially harmful to others.

I think the point here is that what is considered ‘dangerous’ is non-learning – where students think they are learning, but have not given enough time to reflection of abstract and critical thought. Limited learning is dangerous learning.

One way to make learning ‘dangerous’ is embodied learning – inhabiting and acting out concepts, characters, or ideas. In an article on teaching theatre, Butterwick and Selman found that:

“working in these transformative spaces can be risky, even harmful. While embodied theater processes can reveal meaningful stories that create opportunities for building community and commonalities, reflection, analysis, and strategizing for action, they can trigger unremembered and unprocessed stories and memories. The potential for surprise and danger needs be recognized and anticipated, to avoid overwhelming individuals, groups, or facilitators. The power of embodied learning should not be underestimated; these experiences must be embraced and turned to positive outcomes.” (p. 62)

Particular ways of learning, then, have the potential to be dangerous in unwelcome ways, and these need to be managed.

But I still think there is a rationale for incorporating dangerous knowledge (i.e. knives) into our teaching. An example of this is a course taught at Dalhousie University where students learn activism. In a 2013 article on the course, Robert Huish writes:

“Development & Activism, a course offered at Dalhousie University, sparked controversy about whether a class should prepare students to organise activism, including public protest. Discussing these experiences, I argue there is a place in universities to teach activism as a skill of effective engagement with those in authority and with fellow citizens, thus enhancing democracy. If activism is taken as a process of commandeering space and place to engage with power structures, then the pedagogical experience is about exploring dynamic social geographies that influence, and that are influenced by, processes of organisation, manifestation and dissent. Such exploration is necessary in an era when protest is sensationalised but rarely appreciated for its complexity and when universities do not always defend an open space for progressive engagement.”

Huish notes that critics of the course “deemed activism a knowledge inappropriate for campus, either because it was morally hazardous to produce knowledge of engagement, or because this knowledge was illegitimate, or because any layperson could acquire the skills on their own” (375).

Huish’s words reminded me of Eunice Simmon’s original point about giving students knives – was this inappropriate knowledge for campus learning? Was it morally hazardous? Illegitimate? Not of an appropriate scholarly standard? All of these could reasonably be applied to the carving workshop she observed at Nottingham Trent – another example of dangerous knowledge, but where students were engaged.

So dangerous learning happens in relation to the content of our courses (what we teach) and the pedagogic approach (how we teach). Ultimately, as educators, it’s up to us to bring knives into the classroom – not just because our students might be more engaged, but because by doing so, we might just help to save the world.

Appendix: A cutlery drawer toolkit for teaching dangerous knowledge

This is a mix of articles, resources, and blogs. It’s not exhaustive, it’s definitely not definitive, and it has a distinctly medievalist leaning (for obvious reasons). But if you want to give your students knives this year, pick your favourite one and get a-cutting (not literally).


Ariane Berthoin Antal and Victor J. Friedman. Overcoming dangerous learning: the role of critical reflection in cross-cultural interactions. Discussion Papers, Berlin, 2004. URL:

Shauna Butterwick and Jan Selman. Embodied knowledge and decolonization: Walking with theater's powerful and risky pedagogy. New directions for adult & continuing education 134 (2012): 61-69. DOI: 10.1002/ace.20018

Robert Huish. Dissent 101: teaching the “dangerous knowledge” of practices of activism. Canadian Journal of Development Studies / Revue canadienne d'études du développement 34:3 (2013): 364-383. DOI: 10.1080/02255189.2013.809334

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Love on the Fringe

Roll up, roll up - Edinburgh's Festival Fringe starts this week and there's definitely something in the air...

Last year, I took part in the Festival for the first time as part of the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas. The cabaret (or CoDI, for short) is a series of shows where researchers, academics, and students present a dangerous idea from their research. This year, I'm reprising last year's dangerous idea - that we should take romance seriously.

I set out the reasoning behind my statement in a blog post from last year, and you can come along to the show to talk more about this in person if you like - the show's on Sunday 20 August, 8.20-9.20pm.

What I want to do in this post is highlight just how many shows at this year's festival have taken love and romance as their theme. So, for all you romance aficionados out there, here’s a round-up of some of the #loveonthefringe this year.

Academic Love

I’ll start with my show, The Romance Novel as High Art?, because it relates to many of themes in other shows. Arguing that romance novels deserve more respect than they get, I’ll introduce the audience to trends and developments in romance writing (heroes, heroines, settings, sex) and we’ll come up with an outline for our own romance novel (whether it’s good enough to be submitted to Mills & Boon is a different question). It should be a lot of fun, but I’m hoping that the audience will learn something too – and everyone will get a free book to take away with them!

Another academic show related to romance is Terry Huang’s show, Fifty Shades of Green. Terry works at the Royal Botanic Gardens and is promising to share with the audience the “sights and smells of courtship and consummation in the botanical world”. Featuring an exclusive reading from a previously undiscovered early draft* of Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James, in which she was inspired by the sex lives of plants, I don’t think you’ll ever look at that rose bush the same way again.

*For legal reasons I should state that this is possibly a device created for the show. But then it might not be…

Modern Romance

Love can be modern, too. Beam, showing at Zoo Southside, is a ‘multisensory romance’, according to creators Heather Morgan and Lucy Haighton. Describing their show as “one of Granny's stories” – “a true story of 10 pairs of knickers, a leap, a waft of lavender, a blue suit, and true love” – Morgan and Haighton ask: “true love? Does that even exist anymore?” The show seems to be taking a look at modern love (as Aziz Ansari might put it) from the perspective of a real-life granny. Apparently, “just hearing how Granny tries to describe Tinder is worth the price of admission alone” ( It’s bound to raise questions of the nature of modern love, our cultural and social ideas about monogamy, fidelity, marriage, and dating.

Malaprop Theatre’s show at Summerhall, Love+, delves into a different aspect of modern love – human/robot relationships. They describe their show thusly:

"What happens to romance when there's a machine who cooks for you, cleans for you, never forgets your birthday or how you like your tea, tells you you're beautiful, holds you when you're crying, and still makes you cum? Love+ is a one-woman two-hander about the inevitability of human/robot relationships. It’s about loving, being loved, being human and whether those things are intertwined. It’s not about whether or not you can love machines, because we all already do. It’s about what it’ll be like when they love us back."

Their show immediately makes me think of Marge Piercy’s He, She, and It (or Bodies of Glass) which deals with the physicality (in a very sexual way) of a cyborg and their relationship with a human woman. It’s an amazing book, and I’m sure this show will prompt all kinds of thinking about humanity and its connection (perhaps not an exclusive one) with love.

Online dating and role-play sex are the theme of Campfire Stories Theatre Company’s show, The Girl Who Loved Stalin. Billed as “a rough guide to romancing, wining, dining and wooing a communist
dictator – whether they’re the real thing or a curly-haired soldier with a self-esteem problem in a cheap costume”, the show may likely offer some lessons from history – that of Soviet Russia, at least – of relevance for modern romantics. Although, it very well might not.

There's also Illuminate Productions' City Love - "the story of two city workers juggling rent and bills until a chance meeting on the Number 12 night bus transforms their mundane lives into an epic love story". It's apparently "a funny and unflinching look at how trivial insecurities can send us crashing into self-destruction". So modern, and perhaps unsettling (as love can sometimes be).

Love’s a Song and Dance

Everyone loves a cabaret, right? If musical entertainment sounds right up your street, you might want to check out Adriano Cappelletta’s show, Adriano Cappelletta: This Boy's in Love, billed as “the world's first one-man gay rom-com cabaret”. The show promises to contain “hilarious and heartfelt songs”, “physical comedy and candid storytelling” to describe “one man's final shot at finding love”. Mainstream romance in the West (I’m talking romance novels, Hollywood romantic comedies, and TV shows) has been (rightly) criticised for being heteronormative (as well as overwhelmingly white). It’s nice to see a show that looks at romance from a non-hetero perspective.

So do check out some of these shows if you're in Edinburgh this month - it would be great to see you at my show too. Follow #loveonthefringe on Twitter, and if you've got any love-related shows I've missed let me know in the comments!

Signing off with lots of love...

Friday, June 30, 2017

Medieval in the modern world

The University of Manchester (image from Wikimedia Commons)
It's Friday night, and I'm on a quiet train on my way back from the Medieval in the Modern World conference in Manchester. This is the third iteration of the conference, which will next convene in Rome in late 2018. The ethos of the conference is to look at (in a rigorous, analytical, and scholarly way) how the Middle Ages survives in the modern world.

The relevance of the medieval to modernity is the bread and butter of my scholarship, and I was delighted to be presenting at #MAMO2017. I met up with some people I hadn't seen for a long time, met a lot of smart and interesting people, and generally had a great time chatting about medievalism, gender, race, and how great the cakes were.

This post is my attempt to summarise some of the incredibly rich research and the ideas that came out of the conference that I think will influence my thinking for quite some time. Of course, every scholar will have a slightly different take home message. As someone interested in sexuality and gender, it was always going to be that aspect of the conference that would stick with me the most. But, there were some very clear themes that seemed to come up again and again that seemed to reflect current thinking about the medieval, medievalism, and the contemporary world. Many of these these themes overlapped, but I thought it might be useful to jot them down here for future reference. I apologies in advance for any mistakes, omissions, or errors - I blame a tired brain after 3 days of excellent and inspiring conversation.

1) The medieval is political (and it's not pretty)

I would much rather this were not the case, but it was impossible to deny that the dominant theme running through so many panels and conversations over coffee, cake, or wine, is the co-opting of the Middle Ages by white supremacists, social conservatives and, in short, all kinds of unsavoury people. This isn't something I  was unaware of, but the fact that this was a thread running through so many panels - on nationalism, on social media, on film, on games - was sobering. It made me realise that, as comfortable as I am in my feminist scholarship bubble, that there is something sinister, something dark going on in my discipline, that I really need to pay more attention to.

What MAMO2017 was great for was the reinforcement that I can do something about this. It felt like a real call to attention and action and I've come away with a whole host of ideas for ways to counteract this racist, ahistorical appropriation of the Middle Ages. In some ways, medieval studies has never felt more like social activism and I am equipped and ready.

2) Authenticity vs realism

The distinction between authenticity and realism in medievalism is not at all new - this is a question that has concerned film and games researchers for a good while. However, it seemed that this was a question that kept coming up during the conference. Victoria Cooper (@drsyrin) gave a really nice definition of each of these at the start of her talk:

Realism = current understanding of the Middle Ages.
Authenticity = conforming to expectations of what 'feels' right or 'appropriate'.

This conceptualisation of authenticity was a light bulb moment for me. I spent the rest of the conference thinking about that idea of the Middle Ages as a 'feeling' - this idea that the 'medieval' is affective (I wrote this down in capital letters in my notebook). If the Middle Ages is a historical period whose primary aim is to make you feel something, as medievalists do we need to address or speak to this? I need to think this through a little more, but there's definitely something there... watch this space.

3) The medieval is raced (but how?)

I owe this subheading to Cord Whitaker (@CordCWhit) who joined the conference by pre-recorded YouTube video. Well known for his work on medieval studies and race, Cord was part of a round table session on medievalism and race, where the erasure of diversity from medieval studies and from medievalism was front and centre. Dorothy Kim (@dorothykim98) put forward an important question: the personal is political, but is your scholarship? (The answer is always yes).

I've seem a tweet doing the rounds recently that calls out Doctor Who for its implicit assumptions about race. It points out that when a character who is meant to regenerate and be created entirely new is regenerated a dozen times as a white man, that is not a neutral act, it is a deliberate and meaningful act. MAMO2017 did a really good job (compared with every other medieval studies conference I've been to) of making that deliberateness overt. With medieval studies, particularly given the co-option of the field and discourse by - not to put too fine a point on it - racists, it is so important to question what is seen as the default, the norm, the unquestioned.

The conference continues tomorrow, so I recommend you follow the hashtag #MAMO2017 on Twitter if you're at all interested. I've certainly taken away a lot of things to think about.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

In praise of the independent scholar

a laptop lies in grass at a park

'Independent scholar' - it's the label on a conference name badge or schedule most likely to draw embarrassment, dismissal, or scorn. A term used to describe someone who undertakes academic work but who is not affiliated with an academic institution, the independent scholar has a long but troubled history with the academy that generally revolves around some designation of them as a second-rate researcher - an enthusiast, rather than a professional. (There's been some debate on what exactly independent scholars should call themselves, some of which you can read on the NCIS website).

I think it's time that we re-evaluate the independent scholar and their position in academic research. The landscape of higher education research and employment continues to change in ways that affect the status of independent scholars. I'd argue that we are at a crucial moment for independent scholarship in the UK (and perhaps elsewhere) and this post is my manifesto for why and how the academy needs to start giving non-affiliated scholars the respect they deserve.

Who is an independent scholar?

The traditional definition of an independent scholar is often given as a hobbyist - someone who conducts research on a particular topic but who is not paid to do so. An obvious example familiar to many is the local historian; someone who spends time in archives, gathering source material and evidence relating to the history of a community; local museums and archives are often reliant on these independent researchers.

I'm aware that many people undertake research outside of academia in both the private and public sector; industry, pharmaceuticals, and policy are all areas where intensive research is undertaken and published. While not primarily academic, I still don't consider these researchers to be independent scholars because they are still being paid for their work - they are not unaffiliated.
Frederick J. Furnivall (1825-1910)

Independent scholars have been part of academic research for a considerable time, not least in the two fields in which I conduct most of my research: medieval studies; and popular romance studies. Few medievalists who work with Middle English texts will not have heard of Frederick James Furnivall, who established the Early English Texts Society (EETS) and edited over a hundred medieval texts. My University's library held an almost complete collection of EETS texts which I spent many hours reading during my doctoral studies. Yet, aside from a position teaching English and grammar at the Working Men's College which he co-founded, Furnivall was not a University-affiliated researcher; as Antonia Ward has pointed out, he remained 'outside the academy' for his entire life.

In the relatively new field of popular romance studies, a number of researchers could be classed as independent scholars: Laura Vivanco is a particularly prominent example, whose work is regularly cited in publications and conference papers by researchers who are affiliated with universities. Popular romance studies is a research field populated with readers, authors, librarians and others whose identity doesn't fall into the category of university-affiliated academic, but whose contributions to the field are nonetheless significant.  

So what's the 'problem' with independent scholars? 

I'm going to outline the 'problem' with independent scholars with the caveat that I don't think this is a 'problem' that independent scholars themselves can or should solve. One of the most common complaints about independent scholars is that their scholarship is not up to standard: the quality of their research is seen as lacking; they have not published in the top journals; and their methodological and subject-knowledge is considered not as up-to-date. 

Sometimes, this might be true - Furnivall, for instance, never had any work published by an academic press and he did not conform to contemporary standards of academic writing; Antonia Ward argues that it was his "idiosyncratic prefatory style which excluded him from the Victorian academy" (p. 45). Yet, many of these accusations are a result of the exclusion of the independent scholar from knowledge jealously guarded by universities. If independent scholars are denied access to training, resources, and recognition (all things hoarded by universities) then it is surely self-evident that they will not be as familiar with the latest research methods, or have access to the most current research in the field.

In a research world where it can costs hundreds of pounds to subscribe to academic journals or to buy monographs, where conferences are priced according to an assumption that your institution will pay for you, and where your institutional affiliation (or lack thereof) is a deciding factor in your eligibility for funding or acceptance of your manuscript, the unequal gap between university-affiliated researcher and independent scholar is stark

Why this matters now: changing demographics of independent scholarship 

So why do I think the question of independent scholars is so important right now? To me, it's clear that in an increasingly fractional and fractured higher education research environment, we've not only got many more independent scholars, but the demographic is changing. Today, the designation 'independent scholar' is equally applicable to a recent PhD graduate who is continuing to carry out research while in precarious, adjacent or adjunct employment (or unemployment), or to a teaching fellow who is paid only for their teaching and not for their research (such as yours truly). This is also a refutation to the (still persistent) idea that independent scholars are not employed by universities because they are somehow 'not good enough'; researchers work independently for many reasons (work-life balance, freedom to research 'unfashionable' topics) including the fact that there are not enough paid research jobs for all the excellent, qualified candidates.

In a postdoctoral climate where publications can make the difference between getting an academic job and not, it's unsurprising that so many precariously-employed people are effectively working as independent researchers, even when the research environment is so stacked against them. It might be easy for an independent scholar who has already established a reputation to get published and to be invited to speak at conferences and events, but this is so much harder for a new PhD graduate who has yet to make their mark, and it seems like there are so many more people in this position now. The revival of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS), a 'non-profit organization providing professional affiliation, support services, and camaraderie to scholars outside of tenured academia', is a good indication that this is a timely issue.

Possible changes to the upcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK might also change things for independent researchers (possibly in their favour). For those unfamiliar with REF, it's a rating exercise that takes place every four or five years where the research published by academics employed in universities is rated by panels of their peers, after which research funding is distributed based on rankings. It's a pretty big deal in UK higher education.

While we won't know for sure until Summer 2017 what the next REF will look like, what's been proposed for the next cycle is that rather than academics themselves 'owning' their research (meaning that institutions can effectively 'buy' in star researchers just before submission), any research published during an employment contract will be 'owned' by the employing institution and won't be able to be taken to another institution. In other words, if I am employed by University A and publish a journal article while working there, when I move to a new job at University B that piece of research can't be submitted by University B for the REF as it was undertaken while I was working elsewhere.

The status of independent, non-affiliated scholars is currently unclear but this new rule potentially opens up a benefit for those who want to return to an academic job, as they'd technically be free to take their research anywhere with them (as it isn't 'owned' by an institution).

What we can do

It's important to recognise the difficulties associated with being an independent researcher: empathy can go a long way. There is a great list of articles with advice for independent scholars (here called freelance academics) on the Vitae website. Here are my own suggestions of five relatively simple, practical steps that university-affiliated researchers can do to help support and value independent scholars and their research contributions.If you've got any more suggestions I'd love to hear them in the comments.

1. Offer discounted conference fees.

Independent scholars (which includes teaching fellows and those with no access to research expenses) can find conferences prohibitively expensive. Because big subject-area events are usually the place to network and share research findings, many independent scholars will pay to attend and pay out of their own pocket. This can often be very expensive (prohibitively for some). Many academic conferences offer lower fees for students and unwaged people. If you're organising a research event, try offering a lower registration fee for independent scholars. Hosting at least some events in the evening or streaming them online also makes your event more accessible for those with a non-research day job as they no longer have to take a day of annual leave in order to attend. Writing a statement of who is welcome to attend that specifically invites independent scholars is a nice, inclusive touch.

2. Make the most of independent scholars' connections to the community or industry.

Independent scholars often have close connections with local enthusiast groups, libraries, charities, and companies. This might be because of their historical exclusion from academia (you've got to find your friends somewhere) but it means they have developed strong relationships in areas that university researchers often have not. In recent years, university-affiliated academics have had to provide evidence of their research 'impact' beyond the academy; working with independent scholars is a great way to do this, making use of their particular skills and experience.

3. Include independent scholars as co-investigators or researchers on funded projects.

Many UK funding bodies require principal applicants to have a job or some other formal relationship with a university (an example of this was raised in a Times Higher Education piece from 2012 and it's still the case for most big funders). This means that many independent scholars miss out on opportunities for funding and the prestige that goes with it, because they are simply not permitted to apply for it. Researchers who are employed by universities can help by including independent researchers on their bids where they can gain experience, skills, and reputation. The potential for increased research impact when including independent scholars is an added benefit. 

4. Make your research open access.

The cost of academic publishing is not a new subject of discontent amongst academics. However, many of us are able to largely ignore or sidestep these inconveniences due to our institutional subscriptions (or a research budget that allows us to purchase materials). Many independent scholars do not have such an option. While I'm not advocating sharing publications with non-affiliated colleagues (although I'm sure we've all done this), one thing university-affiliated researchers can do is store your publications in an open-access repository so it can be accessed freely. Your institution almost certainly has one, or you can post on your blog or sites like (although this option is not unproblematic, as this Forbes article points out). Making a pre-typeset copy of your research available freely is actually a requirement for the Research Excellence Framework in the UK; an excellent additional benefit is that it allows far wider access to your work and means that independent scholars can get access to up-to-date scholarship. If you edit an academic journal, you might also consider making all or part of it open access; the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, the main journal in the field of popular romance studies is fully open access; and the Open Library of Humanities hosts a range of open access journals.

5. Co-publish with independent scholars.

A barrier for independent scholars can be that their lack of institutional affiliation limits their options for publication. They are thus more likely to seek out alternative presses that might offer less rigorous editing or have a less specialist peer review panel, thus perpetuating the perception of independent scholarship as less rigorous. If university-affiliated researchers made a point of co-publishing with independent scholars, this would help address this barrier.  

I'd love to hear more ways we can support our independent scholar colleagues, so let me know in the comments!

I cited Antonia Ward's chapter "'My Love For Chaucer': F. J. Furnivall and Homosociality in the Chaucer Society," in Medievalism and the Academy, ed. Leslie, J. Workman, Kathleen Verduin, and David D. Metzger (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999), pp. 44-57.

The image at the top of the post is by Picography and is used free for commercial use from Pixabay.

The image of Frederick J. Furnivall is from his Wikipedia page and is in the public domain.