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.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Wikipedia, research and representation

Editathon in Edinburgh (photo: Eugenia Twomey)
Admit it, academics out there - you've used Wikipedia. Maybe today, almost certainly this week, you've used "the largest and most popular general reference work on the Internet" (and yes, that is from the Wikipedia page on Wikipedia) to check a detail on something you're teaching, researching, or talking about with people in the pub.

And that's totally fine. I love Wikipedia. I use it all the time. I even encourage my students to use it. And even though we probably tell them to find a more 'reliable' or 'peer-reviewed' source to cite in their essays, really, what could be more reliable than Wikipedia, whose (as noted on the Wikipedia entry on Wikipedia) "level of accuracy approached Encyclopædia Britannica's".

But that same article also notes that a common criticism of Wikipedia is its systemic bias, that it is not always entirely truthful and that it is vulnerable to manipulation. This can be summed up by a simple question: who writes Wikipedia? Wikipedia conducted a survey in 2013 and found that only 13% of its editors were women. It is this side of Wikipedia that causes many people to remain skeptical about its usefulness, particularly to researchers.

What is more problematic are issues of representation. For a start, Wikipedia is dominated by English content; while English content accounts for only 12% of all of Wikipedia, the number of users, edits, and total pages (including categories, templates, and images) is by far the highest (check out the stats for yourself). So if you're someone who doesn't speak English, there's a lot of Wikipedia that won't be accessible to you. Equally, the dominance of English language content on Wikipedia (and on the internet more widely) is likely to also mean that the culture and media of non-English speaking places is less widely represented. Even within English pages on Wikipedia, there are huge gaps in representation when it comes to women. This is something I'd always been aware of but it really hit home for me when I was working on a recent research project on early twentieth-century Scottish women authors.

My plan was to explore fiction holdings in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh of Scottish women who wrote romantic fiction set in Scotland between 1908 and 1940. As is fairly common at the start of a new research project, I wanted to find out as much about the different authors as I could. So, as many others I'm sure do, I ended up on Wikipedia. But, after a point, Wikipedia couldn't help me, because some of the authors I was looking for were simply not there. For example, Robina Forrester Hardy (1835-1891), who is listed as a Scottish poet on Wikisource, does not have a Wikipedia page. In fact as of today, only 16.93% of Wikipedia biographies in English were of women (data from Women in Red).

This lack of representation of women (and many others who are not white, Western, men) on Wikipedia is a real problem. Our students have grown up with Wikipedia and see it (as do I) as a quick and reliable source of basic information. But that basic information is not as comprehensive as it might claim to be if so much of what makes up and has made up the world is excluded.

This concern is what has led to a string of 'editathons' across the world. These often locally-organised events are supported by Wikipedia and seek to fill in gaps in Wikipedia's provision. Many groups have made use of the model of editathons to add pages of women in art (National Museum of Women in the Arts), or just women in general via WikiProjects like Women in Red). My own institution, the University of Edinburgh, has run editathons to raise the profile of women in science and Scottish history.

These events, often run by Wikipedians in Residence (people who work in libraries, universities and other organisations to build a relationship between the organisations and create pages relating to that institution's mission or aims) and teach people how to create and edit Wikipedia pages before helping them write new content on notable women, places, histories or events. There's a helpful guide to running editathons on Wikipedia (where else)?).

So, I've decided, as part of this current project, to add what information I can to the existing pages for the women authors whose works I've been looking at. This includes Annie Shepherd Swan, who wrote over 200 novels, was a founding member of the SNP and who was one of the first women to stand for election in 1918 (she didn't win). This is information that would have been more difficult to find out if it wasn't on Wikipedia. Indeed, Annie Swan's page was only created in 2010 as part of a project to add missing pages. Compare this to S. R. Crockett's page - a contemporary of Swan's who wrote similar novels but who enjoyed less commercial success, his Wikipedia page was created in 2004.

It's true that Wikipedia is not the only place women are absent; their place in the English literature canon is far from established (something that is hopefully changing). But adding content to Wikipedia on these women is something high impact and low effort that I can do to make a difference now. In fact, it's probably something we should all do; after all, we all use it...right?


The photo used is from the University of Edinburgh History of Medicine Wikipedia edit-a-thon for Innovative Learning Week in February 2016. The photo was taken by Eugenia Twomey and is used here under a CC-BY-SA license). 

Friday, March 31, 2017

Cabbage patch kids: contemporary romance novels, Scottish Kailyard literature, and Annie S. Swan

For those unfamiliar with late-nineteenth century Scottish literature - a group that would have included myself until a few months ago - the term Kailyard might not mean all that much. A term coined by the poet Ian Maclaren in 1894, kailyard, literally means ‘cabbage patch’ and describes works published at that time set in "isolated rural communities whose dramas revolve around the doings of the minister or the dominie, tracing arrivals, departures, weddings, funerals and the pitfalls of petty presumption.” (Watson, 2007, p. 339).

Ian Campbell in his book Kailyard (1981) writes that Kailyard fiction was prominent between 1880-1900 and was characterised by: rural setting and concerns; transport featuring prominently (primarily the railway); class distinctions; a lack of change (although people can change their lives through education or self-help advancement; Christian values; and realism (pp. 12-16). Hugely popular at the time, it wouldn't be hyperbolic to say that Kailyard defined Scotland at the time for many readers of popular fiction both in the UK and elsewhere; "for a six-year period from 1891 until 1897, Kailyard authors ranked in the top ten annually in the American best- seller lists” (Cook, p. 1054).

Why have I been reading about Kailyard fiction? I'm conducting a research project, Romancing Scotland, looking at early-twentieth century romantic fiction written by Scottish women authors. The National Library of Scotland has a whole collection of novels by authors like Annie S. Swan (1859-1943), D. E. Stevenson (1892-1973), and Jean S. Macleod (1908-2011) whose works have been practically erased from the history of Scottish literature.

Annie S. Swan, arguable the most famous of the three authors, was probably one of the most well-known and prolific (she wrote at least 162 novels under her own name) authors of her time, but her name is routinely left out of anthologies and discussions of Scottish literature. Even when critics discuss the Kailyard (not always appreciatively) they are more likely to associate Kailyard with the male authors J. M. Barrie (of Peter Pan fame) or S. R. Crockett. (NB: Barrie actually wrote to Swan on several occasions to admire her work and fame).

Why is Annie S. Swan so often overlooked? It's obviously partly because she is a woman, although other Scottish woman writers of her time retain their place in Scottish literary history (e.g. Catherine Carswell or Margaret Oliphant). I think that a key reason Annie S. Swan is so ignored by the 'literary establishment' is because for much of the twentieth century she wrote romance novels.

Kailyard fiction contains many elements which were also present in early-twentieth century romance - mainly, people-centred emotional drama. It's also undoubtedly true that Swan influenced later writers such as D. E. Stevenson whose first novel, Peter West (1923), contains many of the elements also present in Swan's writing, such as a romance between a laird and a lower-status woman (or vice versa), a small community described in minute detail, long passages of dialogue, and descriptions of travel and landscapes of Scotland.

In turn, D. E. Stevenson's works were republished later in the twentieth century, likely informing the work of later authors like Jean S. Macleod, who wrote more than 100 romance novels for Mills & Boon, many of them set in Scotland and sharing many of the same elements as Swan and Stevenson's works. Jean S. Macleod wrote all the way up to 1996 - incidentally five years beyond the publication of Gabaldon's Outlander (1991), a book that claims (not erroneously) to have influenced much of the subsequent craze for Scottish-set romance fiction in North America.

So, for me, there is a clear line that can be traced from the Kailyard fiction of Annie Swan all the way through to today's popular Scottish romances. While today' authors are more likely to cite Walter Scott or Robert Louis Stevenson as influences (both mainstays of Scottish literature) I wonder if the writings of women like Swan, Stevenson, and Macleod, themselves drawing on Scott and R. L. Stevenson, might also have a (mostly invisible) role to play in the development of Scottish popular romance. In short, are today's Scottish popular romances literary cabbage patch kids? 

I'm going to be giving a paper on this topic at the Popular Culture Association conference in San Diego next month so I'll write a follow-up post after that with more about these three Scottish women authors. 


Ian Campbell, Kailyard: A New Assessment (Edinburgh: Ramsey Press, 1981).

Richard Cook, "The Home-Ly Kailyard Nation: Nineteenth-Century Narratives of the Highland and the Myth of Merrie Auld Scotland", ELH, Vol. 66, No. 4 (1999), pp. 1053-1073. 

Christopher Harvie, No Gods and Precious Few Heroes: Scotland Since 1914 (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1981).

Roderick Watson, The Literature of Scotland: The Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). 


The photograph of Eilean Donan Castle is by Sorin Tudorut (@sharpixdigital) from the free-for-use website 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

How romance controls your sex life: Medieval advice for modern girls

Today's post, appropriately coinciding with Valentine's Day, is about sexualisation in medieval and modern advice literature for young women, in particular the way that 'romance' is used to control young women's behaviour. It's drawn from a longer journal article just published in the Journal of Gender Studies which you can read via the journal's website.*

As a teenager, I thought I was pretty clued up about love, sex, and relationship stuff. I'd attended some sex education classes at school, I'd definitely spoken to my friends about it, and I also read a lot of advice columns in magazines like More, Just Seventeen, and Bliss. For many girls my age, these magazines provided an additional (and, for some, perhaps only) source of information about the adult world of dating, relationships, and sex.

As I've learned more about the lives of medieval women, it has become clear that my generation was absolutely not the first to rely on written advice, or wise words from older friends or family. In fact, in the late Middle Ages in England (from the fourteenth-century onward) conduct texts specifically for women and written in the vernacular became more popular.

One of the most popular of these texts is How the Good Wife Taught her Daughter and was composed around 1350. It survives in five manuscripts today that date from 1350-1500, indicating that it was popular. It's written in Middle English rhyming verse from the perspective of a mother to a daughter, and is quite short - only 209 lines long. The text is quite colloquial and proverbial, and offers the imagined daughter advice on day-to-day bourgeois life - go to church, make sure you pay your tithes, manage your household - as well as advice on dealing with men and negotiating a potential husband.

Reading this text, it becomes clear that the advice given to the young woman is designed to control her behaviour. She is told where to go (not the the market or the tavern) and how to go there:
When you walk on the path, don’t walk too fast
Nor turn your head from side to side
[…] Go not as though you were a frivolous person (lit. a goose)
From house to house, to seek distraction (57-58; 61-62)
She is warned not to accept gifts from men ‘for good women, with gifts / May have their honour lifted from them’ (93, 94). She should not wear fancy or fashionable clothes, and certainly must never meet men alone. In short, while the advice might be framed as for the benefit of the young woman, it also reveals how worried older generations were about what young people were up to, especially as they were now living away from home in town and cities much more often than before.

This prurient concern from an older generation has echoes in the sexualisation debates of the twenty-first century - the idea that young people are becoming 'too sexy, too soon' and that this is damaging their ability to form lasting, romantic relationships. Generally, this concern has focused on overly-sexy clothing (high heels or padded bras for children), music videos, television, movies, video games, online content, and magazines. Predominantly focused on the effect on young women and girls, reports commissioned by multiple governments (Scottish; UK; Australian) in the twenty-first century outline the extent of public and media outrage.

And we can see echoes of medieval restrictions in modern advice too. I looked at articles and agony aunt questions on the website, a companion lifestyle website to the now-defunct magazine Bliss containing (mostly heteronormative) advice on health, beauty, friendship, love and sex, aimed at teenage girls aged 14–17. Girls are advised not to wear overly fashionable (read sexualised) clothing; an article entitled ‘Love Lessons’ that promises to point out ‘where you’re going wrong’ and how to ‘bag that lad’ has ‘don’t be too fashionable’ as its number 1 tip. Elsewhere, girls are advised that ‘not all lads like obviously flirty girls’ and ‘superflirts make boys want to run a mile’ and that  men are 'put off' by women who have too many sexual partners.

MyBliss is clearly attempting to engineer particular kinds of (non-sexualised) gendered behaviour in its advice by claiming that it leads to romantic failure. A bad reputation can damage a woman's romantic chances and thus the threat of remarks is enough to control her behaviour and make her careful how she behaves around men for fear of being called a slut, slag, tart, or similar. In short, if you don't follow the advice given, you won't get the romantic happily ever after you're hoping for. This is the patriarchy at work, where men are allowed to do things that women are not (men can still have the romance even if they've also had the sex).

According to these texts, the key to romantic success for young women in both the Middle Ages and twenty-first century is to shut up, cover up, and stay home. Today, on V-Day, it seems like the right time to call out this kind of discourse to put an end to this narrow way of thinking about young people, sex, and romance and look for a different kind of sexual, feminist future.

I've blogged about this research elsewhere on Thirty-Fifth Century Romance (March 2015 and July 2016) and in a short piece at Notches, Thinking Medievally: The Sexualisation Debate and Medieval Advice Literature.   

* If you can't access the article (i.e. if you don't have a University or Library login) and would like to read it drop me an email ( and I'll send you an eprint copy or read the pre-print copy via this link


The image is by Jessica Ruscello @jruscello from the royalty-free Valentine's Day collection at

Monday, January 30, 2017

How romance is political

Spiegeltent, Sheffield Festival of the Mind (credit: A Burge)
I was alerted to a thread by Camille Hadley-Jones (@camillehjones) on Twitter yesterday that called bullshit on “Romancelandia declaring itself politics-free, created for escapism, only supposed to be about happy things”. Hadley-Jones rightly says that “Romance has always been political. Not the bland "it's feminist bc it's the only genre for women by women [but also] the erasure of servants, the poor, POC, LGBTQ, etc AND the emergence of those voices.”

She writes, "Romance writers and readers make political acts every day. It's political to write. It's political to read. What you choose to read or write […] Derives from your personal politics. Deciding to write/read smalltown romance with zero diversity is political.”

It’s true that in straightforward representation terms, there is a lack of diversity in popular romance publishing. I was on a panel at the Sheffield Festival of the Mind in September 2016 with authors and editors from Harlequin Mills & Boon. Following a question from the audience about diversity in romance novels, I pointed out an imbalance in how different races and cultures are depicted. A Senior Editor for Harlequin Mills & Boon who was on the panel highlighted some examples of diversity in the publisher’s output, but ultimately concluded that the diversity of the company’s output depended on 1) what readers wanted to read, and 2) what authors sent them. The argument was that Harlequin Mills & Boon would love to publish more diversity, but authors are not writing diverse characters, and readers don’t want to have them in their books (although this seems a little self-perpetuating). Laura Vivanco has written more about the panel discussion on her blog.

All this is essentially to say the same thing as Hadley-Jones; romance, like almost everything else in popular culture, is political.

I think romance is political in three core ways. First of all, writing a romance is a political act on the part of the author. Hadley-Jones points out that it’s not just what you write, but it’s what you don’t write that reveals your politics. So, only writing white protagonists, or having heroes and heroines drawn from an oddly narrow vision of the world (where are the Chinese or Ghanaian heroes?) is a (deliberate or unconscious) political act. In others words, romance reflects the political world and views of its authors.

This isn’t a new thing. Medieval romance, the precursor of today’s modern romance novels, had a similar role reflecting contemporary politics. In fact, this is one of the many reasons historians and literature scholars read medieval romance today – to find out what people thought about what was going on at the time. For example, it’s commonly been argued that the fourteenth-century growth in romances with characters who gain social status through marriage is indicative of shifting social boundaries with a growing gentry class, to whom status was vital. There are also large numbers of crusade-inspired romances with characters and settings either in the Holy Land or with Saracen (Muslim) characters – these continued to be popular long after the actual Crusade wars ended, reflecting the long legacy of the conflict.

Romance is political because of its settings. I’ve written in my book, Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance, about how the places mentioned in romances changes over time in accordance with shifting geopolitics. Later versions of the medieval romance Bevis of Hampton contain far more geographic references to sites associated with Crusade, trade, and pilgrimage, as well as detail of travel between these places, reflecting new ways of mapping, and understanding medieval Europe. Modern romance novels too, have changed; while romance novels in the first half of the twentieth-century were set in real North African countries, such as Egypt, or Morocco, from the 1980s onward, most sheikh romances were situated in fictionalised Emirates located on or near the Arabian Peninsula. As British and American politics shifted, so too did the settings of romance novels.

Reading a romance novel can also be a political act on the part of the reader. While it is true that readers might be more likely to read romances with diverse characters if such stories were more prevalant, there is still an extent to which we as readers are political in our choices of what to read. As the Senior Editor said on the panel in Sheffield, publishers make choices about what to publish based on what readers buy. By extension, then, if we buy romance novels with diverse characters, publishers like Harlequin Mills & Boon will be more likely to publish them.

But what’s more reading about different places and people is a really good way to broaden our minds and become more diverse in our thinking. Indeed, before Harlequin purchased the British company Mills & Boon in 1971, almost all romance novels published in North America were set outside of North America. While readers were eager to read ‘home-grown’ stories, they also appreciated the ‘armchair’ travel they were able to do by reading novels set in, for instance, the Netherlands (Betty Neels was a popular author at the time who set many of her novels in Holland).

In letters to Harlequin magazine, a subscription magazine run by the publishing company, it is clear that readers gain much from reading about other places. C. Hotzinger from Placentia, CA, writes:

“I too have found them full of information about other countries. For instance, it was Harlequin books that taught me the people of Scotland are Scots, not Scotch, and (for Mrs. Downs, who wondered in her letter what court shoes are) I have decided that they are what we Americans would call ‘pumps’ or ‘heels.’ Harlequin magazine vol. 1. no. 4.
Mrs C. M. Rinehard, of Pacifica, CA comments:

“I especially enjoy Betty Neels’ stories as I have traveled a good bit in Holland visiting relatives and I get out my Road Map and follow the story and I can even picture some of the roads. Now I see you have an Atlas out, and I will order that soon and learn some more geography as I read.” Harlequin magazine, vol. 2. no. 12.  

The catch, of course, is that these readers are reliant on the depictions of authors, who are themselves affected by political and cultural tides.

Finally, researching romance is political. In the most obvious way, simply defining oneself as a romance researcher is a relatively significant statement from which (some) people will make all kinds of assumptions (I’ve written about my experiences as a #seriousacademic researching romance elsewhere on this blog). Time and again, myself and my colleagues have to justify, defend, and uphold the importance of researching romance and taking it seriously. This is a political act.
But beyond this, it matters what we research when we research romance. Choosing to focus on questions about race, sexuality, disability (as several fellow researchers do) is deliberate and important in changing the way we, as researchers, authors, and readers, think about romance as political. In other words, as researchers, we have a responsibility through our research to show the ways romance is political.  

So, when I compared the way medieval and modern Orientalist romance represent romantic relationships between Christians and Muslims, I was able to conclude that, despite claims to contrary, romance novels are not necessarily more open-minded in the way they deal with cross-cultural, cross-religious relationships. Looking more closely at the cultural identities of Harlequin Mills & Boon romance heroes, I have collected data that shows the narrow cultures from which they are drawn (spoilers: they are never African or East Asian) (you can read more about my research on cultural masculinity here). And, extrapolating from fictional romance slightly, I’ve looked at the way medieval and modern advice literature for young women exploits cultural understanding of romance to control their behaviour (an article on this will be published in the Journal of Gender Studies in February 2017).

As I see it, romance is deeply political, and it’s up to us, as readers, authors, and researchers, to say so.