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.


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.  

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Playing with history: the problem with historical gaming and education

I love games. Board games, card games, computer games - I'll try all of 'em. I didn't grow up in a particularly game-y house, so the recent growth in popularity of tabletop gaming - up 20% in the past year, according to research quoted by the Guardian newspaper - has been really exciting for me. 

Reproduction of a lithograph by T.A. Steinlen (from Wellcome Images, operated by Wellcome Trust)

As a medievalist, I am a particular fan of historical games, especially those set in the Middle Ages. There is something about immersing yourself in a medieval game-world that really makes the period come alive. Examples of these kinds of games are:
  • The battle-simulation game Lion Rampant.
  • The board game Lancaster (set in England in 1413).
  • The computer game Crusader Kings (which has a sequel, Crusader Kings II).
  • The videogame series Assassin's Creed (variously set during the Third Crusade, the late fifteenth-century in Italy, and Ottoman-era Constantinople).
  • The board game Bruges (takes place in mercantile fifteenth-century Belgium).
  • The medieval version of the ubiquitous Sims franchise, The Sims Medieval.

My interest in these kinds of historical games is part of the reason why I attended an event hosted by Blackwell's bookshop in Edinburgh called 'Gaming with History'. A collaboration between academics and games developers, the evening asked the following of panellists:
  • How does the games industry make use of history?
  • What role does it play in shaping historical knowledge? 
  • How can it be interacted with?
I learned quite a bit about how historical games are created in order to strike a balance between gaming and history. Creators will often look to the specific history of a period for help constructing the game's rules. I even found out that board games were used in centuries past to train the military. 

The latter part of the event focused on the use of historical games in education. There are LOADS of games out there that claim to be or have been used in some kind of educational context; this list, on Jeremiah McCall's website, gives a pretty good idea of the number of educational historical games out there. The benefit of games for learning has been discussed for a long time - one 1992 article reviewed 67 studies dating as far back as 1963 looking at whether games help students to learn (they conclude that "subject matter areas where very specific content can be targeted are more likely to show beneficial effects for gaming"). The panel (and the audience) at 'Gaming with History' were certainly in favour of games being used to make the study of history more interesting.

But therein lies the problem. Most of the historical games we have (especially the medieval ones) tell particular stories - of Europe, of white people, of men. Alternative narratives are often excluded from these games. Now this isn't necessarily a problem in and of itself (gaming has long been recognised as a less diverse cultural medium) but when we are using those same games to educate young people, this lack of diversity becomes more of an issue. Statutory guidance for the English National Curriculum - that determines what is taught in schools - states: 
"History helps pupils to understand the complexity of people’s lives, the process of change, the diversity of societies and relationships between different groups, as well as their own identity and the challenges of their time." (my emphasis)
If the games we use in education never feature women or people of colour, or, worse, routinely present certain groups of people negatively (e.g. Muslims in the Crusade-era games) this is perpetuating a dangerously homogeneous and one-sided view of history that isn't meeting that guidance. In short, the lack of diversity in historical games is a problem.

Some might point out that the lack of diversity in games simply reflects the historical past - game creators are using the research produced by historians. While it is important for the academic study of history to be diverse (which, to its credit, it is increasingly doing), I'm not sure historical-accuracy is an excuse that works for gaming. I've written, in the past, about how contemporary historical romances set in the medieval period change elements of the past to make it more palatable for modern readers (e.g. they ensure the heroine is at least 16 years old before she gets married). Why, then, could historical games not do the same - adapt their historical settings to make them more diverse? Gamers have long enjoyed 'fantasy' wargaming scenarios, where historically anachronistic combatants battle each other (Caesar vs. Richard the Lionheart, anyone?). So why not extend that fantasy to include women, people of colour, those with disabilities, LGBT+ people? Why not make games a place where alternative histories can be told? 

What seems more likely, to me, is that rather than history not being diverse, it is the modern world of gaming that lacks diversity. The sexism entrenched in gaming was highlighted in 2014 by #Gamergate and its fall-out, but it's clear that gaming (in the UK at least) is still dominated by white men, who live (and learn) predominantly in North America and Europe. As ever, when it comes to history, the choices of whose story to tell reveals much more about the modern world than the past. 

I should point out that at the 'Gaming with History' event some people in the audience approached me afterwards to suggest historical games that do focus on the experiences of women and minorities. A few to mention include:
  • Night Witches which tells the true story of an all-female Soviet night-bomber regiment in World War Two.
  • Steal Away Jordan, a role-playing game about slavery and "the social and psychological implications of life in a society where people can be property".
  • any game by Emily Care Boss who has created some brilliant games about love and dating (and there's a medieval variation for Under My Skin called 'Ere Camlann).

So why not try one of these games next time you want to play a historical game? Because history (including the Middle Ages) is full of incredible, fascinating, game-worthy women and it's about time we made time for their stories.


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Being a #seriousacademic - research and social media

A few weeks ago, I gave a talk to a group of PhD students about academic blogging. This summer, I realised I had been blogging for five years, since I was a PhD student myself. While I'm not by any means an expert, I have managed to gather quite a few do and do nots around blogging about research.

Preparing for that session, I realised that while there was a whole load of helpful information out there on blogging, there wasn't really any one resource that gathered it together, particularly from the perspective of a PhD student starting out blogging for the first time. So, here's the information I gave those students (who may or may not have found it helpful). Feel free to use this yourselves if you're doing something similar for students or colleagues (crediting the resource creators, of course).

Why should I blog about my research?

Blogging or otherwise talking online about research has been a hot topic this year. At the start of August there was a Twitterstorm about being a #serious academic, after this Guardian article was published criticising academic blogging as not serious.

The article said: 
Surely the dedication I show in the lab, and the subsequent data I collect, should speak for itself. I do not – and should not – have to parade myself online to please my employer or to stake my claim as a good researcher. Can’t we save the showing off for where it’s really needed, in the dreaded grant applications?
The (anonymous) author may have had a point, but many MANY others have talked eloquently and persuasively about their #serious and #notsoserious reasons for blogging and tweeting about their research (e.g. Rachel Moss, History, University of OxfordThe Tattooed Professor aka Kevin Gannon, Professor of History at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, and Stirlingretail aka Leigh Sparks, the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling). 

For me, there are three reasons why talking about research online is helpful.
  1. Recognition – it gets your name out there and associates you with a particular research topic (useful for job applications and conference invitations). It can also draw attention to your publications (altmetrics can show where people have accessed your papers from a Facebook post, for example).
  2. Networking – it’s much easier to connect with other researchers if they know you exist and what you do.
  3. It’s a fundamental part of academic research – public engagement/outreach is a core part of research and something you’ll need to demonstrate in an academic career. Making a pre-publication version of your journal articles publicly available is also important to meet REF (Research Excellence Framework) guidance in the UK. 

What kind of social media should I use? 

  • Blogging – blogs are a great place to hash out ideas, review books, talk about teaching, and to store those ideas that don’t fit in your thesis. Longer posts mean you can explore a topic in greater depth. Common academic blog sites include: Wordpress, Blogger, Tumblr, Medium.
  • Twitter – there's a huge academic community on Twitter - look for relevant hashtags (e.g. #medievaltwitter or #twitterstorian) and follow other researchers. Twitter is, of course, very short form (140 characters) and is more helpful for pointing to longer pieces.
  • or LinkedIn – A sort of professional social network, this can be a place to post longer, more formal publications, but you can also publish or link to your blog posts here. 
Whatever you use, make sure you connect up your social media (so Tweet about your blog posts, consider including your Twitter feed on your blog site).

Getting started

What to include in your posts

You can blog about many things (teaching, an event, a book review). These tips are helpful for thinking about what to write about.

Getting people to read your blog

  • Don’t worry if you’re not getting tons of hits. These will build up as you develop your online network, and you’ll get a lot of lurkers – I’ve had people come up to me at conferences in the past to say they’ve enjoyed my blog posts, but they’ve never commented!
  • Use your analytics. Twitter, Wordpress, Blogger will all tell you who is viewing your blog, when, and how they accessed it. Use these to get more views for your blog (for example, if most people read your blog in the evening, think about publishing a new blog post then).
  • Put your Twitter handle and blog site url on your conference slides – it means people are more likely to mention you when they tweet your presentation and you can follow up on connections afterwards.
  • Include a link to your blog in your email signature.

Finally, here are five things I wish I'd known when I started blogging. These are the main things that I wish I had thought about when I started blogging five years ago. Every blogger will have a different list, but here are mine. 

  1. Think about your blog title and Twitter handle – will it still work in 5 years when you’re researching something completely different? Top tip: if dr[yourname] is available on gmail or Twitter GRAB IT NOW.
  2. If you want to get an audience for social media, you need to post regularly. Don’t underestimate the time commitment (and don’t let it get in the way of other stuff you’re doing). Plan what you might write about for the next 6 months – are there any events you’re attending that you can write about? If you’re not sure you can devote regular time to blogging, why not set up a group blog to split the work? Collaborative blogs can produce a lot of content – multi-author posts are better for a shared purpose (i.e. research centre or project). On a related note, you can contribute guest posts for blogs with bigger audiences – some will commission posts on particular topics. You can often cross-publish on your own blog, and gain more readers.
  3. You don’t have to separate your personal and public profiles online (unless you want to). I tried to do both, but found I neglected my public research profile, Now, I use Twitter for research and general chat, Facebook for friends and family, and blogging for research. You can also use a pseudonym (e.g. the Tattooed Professor, The Thesis Whisperer) but think about how you want to use your blog (i.e. if you want others to know what you do professionally if you don’t include your name this won’t work). But, bear in mind your digital footprintIf you’ve never done it, Google yourself this afternoon and look at what comes up. Is it what you want to come up? What would you like colleagues, interview panels, and other researchers to see?
  4. Read other blogs to get a sense of what you want from your own. What kind of blog is it? What do you like about its content and style? What don’t you like? What is the blog’s purpose and audience?
  5. Writing for the web is different to academic writing. The posts where I copied and pasted my thesis content were the least interesting and the least read. You’ll need to rework your academic writing considerably, removing any jargon, and bearing in mind that readers will need introducing to unfamiliar texts, theories, and jargon. 
Good luck with your blogging!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

“like medieval times”: Being modern in the Middle Ages

Crusaders and Saracens Battle,
Boulogne sur Mer BM, MS 142, f. 153v (detail)

On Sunday 9 October, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton engaged in a second Presidential debate. Deflecting a question about his sexual assault of women, Trump said:

You know, when we have a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads, where you have -- and, frankly, drowning people in steel cages, where you have wars and horrible, horrible sights all over, where you have so many bad things happening, this is like medieval times.
It’s clear, from Donald Trump’s comments, that what he’s calling ‘medieval’ – ISIS chopping off heads, drowning people, wars, horrible sights – is, for him, associated with or located in the modern Middle East.

Two days prior to the Presidential debate, I gave a talk to mark the launch of my book Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). This book, which originated with my doctoral research, compares the way that romantic relationships between Christians and Muslims, East and West, are described in popular fourteenth-century and twenty-first century British romance stories. In it, I talk extensively about the labelling of the modern East as medieval and how this is problematic.

There’s been plenty of discussion on Twitter (search for #medievaltwitter) and elsewhere about the problems with associating the modern East with the medieval where 'medieval' is understood to mean backwards, barbaric, or anti-modern. This isn’t a new discourse either: Fred Robinson pointed this out back in 1984.

But given that this association of the East and the medieval keeps coming up, I wanted to share three of my concluding thoughts from that talk (and from the book) to give a more nuanced view on this kind of rhetoric.

1.                  Sameness endures

In my book, I look at how romantic and sexual relationships between people who (given the backdrop of conflict in each period) should not be romantically involved. So, a Harlequin Mills & Boon sheikh and a North American woman, for instance, or a Saracen sultan and a Christian princess. I discovered that despite 700 years of textual history, multiple genres and forms, divergent audiences and different contexts, when it comes to sex and romance, a desire for sameness rather than difference persists.

While the audiences of both medieval and modern romance might enjoy the way these texts play with ideas of difference, the possibility of significantly breaking cross-cultural, interracial or interreligious boundaries is never really considered. In order for a romantic relationship to be successful in these stories, the two characters have to be of the same religion or ethnicity.

2.                  The fact that there are similarities between the two textual genres challenges the binary association of East/medieval and West/modern

On the one hand, Harlequin Mills & Boon novels exploit the Orientalist association of the east and the medieval in order to define themselves (i.e. the west) as having modern values in contrast to the ‘backwards’ medievalism of the east. On the other hand, the modern solutions proposed to deal with the medieval east are rooted in a romance tradition from the actual Middle Ages – changing your religious or ethnic identity so that you and your romantic partner are the same. While these are presented in twenty-first-century romance novels as modernizing, western values, their effect -- to create the sameness required for the romantic relationship to happen -- is distinctly not modern: in fact, it is medieval. 

In a special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, John Dagenais and Margaret Rich Greer wrote
perhaps the most common use of The Middle Ages is as one of the hiding places (along with the nearly always brutish nature of the colonized native) which Europe finds in which to tuck away some of the violence of imperialism. By insisting on the brutality of its medieval past, it distances itself and others from the violence of its present: “we used to be like that” (i.e. “we aren’t anymore”). (p. 444, n. 2)
The argument of my book -- that we in the West are indeed ‘still like that’, or, to put it as Trump did that we are still ‘like medieval times’ -- is a riposte to the ‘us and them’ way of thinking central to Orientalist discourses. 

‘Disentangling the layers’ (to borrow a phrase from Lisa Lampert-Weissig) of history and discourse in Orientalist romance fiction -- figuring out what is and what is not medieval -- offers a chance to rethink our relationship to the past and encourages a more sophisticated and open conversation about the perceived differences between East and West, rather than a simple repetition of the kinds of prejudices perpetuated by Donald Trump. Pointing out that western modern romance stories use strategies lifted from medieval romance challenges the labelling of the east as medieval (i.e. barbaric) because it shows that the west is medieval too.

3.                  It is important to engage with medieval history and texts.

Viewed from the somewhat simplistic perspective of medieval/bad, modern/good, it might seem that the continued relevance of the medieval to modern popular culture is negative and unwelcome: a millstone around the neck of modernity. But, the very act of exposing the relationship between the two periods shows that the study of medieval history and culture is relevant and important for the twenty-first century.

When you show how medieval texts underpin modern ones (as I did with these romances), it reminds us that medieval studies is so important today. Many have mourned the marginalised position of medieval studies in education. However, it seems to me that studies like this one, showing how we can see modern texts differently because we’ve looked at them alongside medieval ones, are precisely what we need in order to answer the kind of question Trump’s comment poses: ‘Are we actually “like medieval times”?’

In other words, in order to really get a full idea of what’s going on with this modern political rhetoric, we really need to find out what “medieval times” were actually like.


If you're interested in reading more scholarship on this topic, I created a free online reading list to accompany my talk.