Tuesday, November 10, 2015

I wrote a book!

Yellow book cover with an image of antique keys surrounding a lock
Over the last two years or so, I've been working on my first book which, I'm delighted to say, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in March 2016!

The book is based on my PhD research, looking at how relationships between Christians and Muslims, east and west, are represented in popular romantic stories from the late medieval period and the twenty-first century.

This is the book's official blurb:

This book, the first full-length cross-period comparison of medieval and modern literature, offers cutting edge research into the textual and cultural legacy of the Middle Ages: a significant and growing area of scholarship.

At the juncture of literary, cultural and gender studies, and capitalizing on a renewed interest in popular western representations of the Islamic east, this book proffers innovative case studies on representations of cross-religious and cross-cultural romantic relationships in a selection of late medieval and twenty-first century Orientalist popular romances.

Comparing the tropes, characterization and settings of these literary phenomena, and focusing on gender, religion, and ethnicity, the study exposes the historical roots of current romance representations of the east, advancing research in Orientalism, (neo)medievalism and medieval cultural studies. Fundamentally, Representing Difference invites a closer look at medieval and modern popular attitudes towards the east, as represented in romance, and the kinds of solutions proposed for its apparent problems.

The abridged version (TL;DR):

I compare medieval and modern popular Orientalist fictional stories (including Harlequin Mills and Boon sheikh novels) featuring romantic relationships between Christians and Muslims, east and west, looking at how these relationships are made successful.

 The book's table of contents is as follows:

  • Romance in the East: An Introduction 
  • Chapter 1: Saracens and Sheikhs: Romance in Context (introducing the two literary genres)
  • Chapter 2: Geographies of Fantasy: Exploring the Romance East (setting the scene - what is the world of the Orientalist romance like?)
  • Chapter 3: "For you are a man and she is a maid": Gender and the East (about how gender identity is affected by the eastern world of the romance)
  • Chapter 4: 'Neither Fish Nor Fowl": Representing Difference, Fabricating Sameness (about how these romances deal with religious and ethnic difference)
  • Chapter 5: Romancing the Abduction Motif (about how gender and religion/ethnicity interact with the motif of abduction in these stories)
  • Romance in the East: Conclusions 

In addition, the book will have two appendices:

  • Appendix 1: A list of Middle English Verse Romances containing Saracens
  • Appendix 2: A list of Sheikh and Desert Romances Published in Britain by Mills & Boon, 1909-2009. 
 I'll post more details and hopefully some extracts from the book when it's published. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Learning and teaching round-up

 I've been involved in a few projects relating to teaching and learning recently and I thought it would be nice to round these up in a quick pedagogy-related post.

First up is a blog post I wrote on my experiences of recording verbal feedback for students on a Masters course. This was a bit of an experiment and I was surprised how much students liked it (so much so that they nominated me for an award!). This post describes why I chose to give feedback in this way, and what was good and not so good about it.

I was also involved with a project led by my colleague Ellen Spaeth (read her blog here and follow her on Twitter @ellenspaeth) who made a series of short videos of lecturers from Edinburgh talking about their teaching philosophy. In my video I talk about how I try to focus on what students do in the classroom, thinking about students as active participants, about varying teaching methods and approaches (because all students are different), and about how my approach to teaching has changed over time.

I've also blogged right here about my thoughts on threshold concepts (or the student as vampire) and about teaching research skills and methods.

The image is a woodcut from the title page of Wenceslaus Brack's Vocabularius rerum (1487) and depicts a teacher and two students.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

How to make the most of academic conferences

Port Huron, Michigan Labor Union Conference, 1946 (with decidedly more comfortable chairs than most conference I have attended)
It's conference season once again. Although conferences generally seem to happen all year round these days, the Spring/Summer break is the traditional time for academics to brush the dust off the abstract submitted months ago, and gather to talk about research (and teaching and movies and beer).

I'm currently at the Leeds International Medieval Congress (IMC) which is a huge gathering of medievalists at the University of Leeds which happens every July. This year, there are apparently 653 panels and round table discussions (that's a whole lot of talking).

I often find, as I am in fact finding right now, that large conferences like the IMC can be overwhelming. Without a contingent of colleagues, friends or researcher buddies, it is easy to get lost or anxious in an event of this size. In short, even while surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds of similarly-minded people, you can get pretty lonely. This can be even more pronounced if it is your first conference, or if you are a non-academic without academic colleagues to tag along with, or simply if no-one else you know is attending the conference.

So, in honour of the IMC, and particularly for first-time conference attendees, here are my top 10 tips for navigating and making the most of large conferences, honed from years of attending (and sometimes feeling lost at) academic conferences.

1. Find your people. Conferences are about meeting new people, making connections, and thinking about some new ideas (also with other people). All of these things can be easier if you find your people; in other words, other people attending the conference who are interested in the same things you are. Start with the others on your panel (if you're giving a paper) and email them before the conference to introduce yourself and say you're looking forward to meeting them.

2. Be prepared. A couple of weeks before the conference, browse the programme for key words or themes, and strands (large conferences are usually divided into thematic strands). This will give you a rough idea of which panels you want to attend, and a draft schedule for the conference. Start with the strand your own paper is in and move outwards from there.

3. Keywords. If you're struggling to think of relevant keywords, or you have too many and need to be more specific, try thinking about your thesis, or research project. What are the key words or ideas? Key authors? Concepts? Texts? Once you have a few, look for papers and panels that also feature these.

4. Have goals. What do you want to get out of this conference? Is there someone in particular you want to meet? An organisation or network you want to join? A skill you want to acquire? Having predefined goals before you arrive can help you make the most of your time and to feel like you've achieved something.

5. Be flexible. Having a plan is helpful, but be prepared to try new things. Someone might suggest going to an interesting panel you hadn't thought of, or nipping off site for a drink. This detour might turn out to be one of the best moments of the conference.

6. If there is a clash and you want to attend two panels at the same time, consider emailing the speaker(s) in the panel you don't attend before the conference and inviting them for a coffee. People generally appreciate others making an effort and the speaker is likely to be flattered that you're so enthusiastic about their paper. If you can't make a meeting, you might ask them if they'd mind forwarding a copy of their slides or paper. 

7. If you can't decide between two panels that are happening at the same time, read the abstracts on the conference website (these are often omitted from the printed programme). This should give you a bit more of an idea of what the paper is about: remember, sometimes titles can be misleading.

8. Have your one-liner ready. "So, what is your research about?" "I'm doing a PhD on gender in Chaucer" is better than a rambling speech: you can always go into more detail later.

9. Carry some post it notes to write your email address on when exchanging details. If you've got business cards, great, but I personally find that I put these in my bag where they languish for months. Slips of paper tend to get lost, and as much as I intend to, I rarely go back to my notes. A post it note can be stuck in a wallet, on a notebook, and even on a shirt. It stands out, and offers flexibility to write what you want to make the message more memorable. You can also use post its to add notes to those you've already made; connections to late papers, for example, or additional references.

10. And finally, once you've made it home, have rested up and done your laundry, follow up on the contacts you made. It is so easy to forget those assurances to be in touch, or to email someone your paper, but this is how you keep those promising new connections going. Set aside an hour on your first day back in the office, or the first evening back at your desk, to send those follow-up emails that make a big difference and mean that next year, you will already know who your people are.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Thinking about learning and teaching: a post on threshold concepts and the student-as-vampire

An academic's life is a busy one - varied, rewarding, challenging, yet often hectic, rushed, and filled with external demands to teach, advise, write, read, assess and talk. In the world of academia, I have found that things which develop us as teachers and researchers - in other words, continuing professional development, or CPD - are often neglected, or hurriedly squashed into a spare half hour here and there.

Well, recently I've been paying a bit more attention to my CPD, and I've enrolled on a mentor-led scheme called the Edinburgh Teaching Award (EdTA) to think a bit more about my teaching and (hopefully) to gain Senior Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (HEA): the professional body for enhancing teaching in Higher Education in the UK.

This morning, we had a workshop as part of the EdTA programme in which we had an extended discussion of threshold concepts' based on Glynis Cousins' 2006 article in Planet, 'An introduction to threshold concepts' (article freely available).

To briefly summarise the article, Cousins suggests that rather than 'stuffing' our curriculum with information, what we should do is structure our programmes and courses with a 'less is more' approach centred around 'threshold concepts'. Cousins defines these as key ideas or concepts which are fundamental to understanding the field and which are transformative, often irreversible (once you 'get it', you are unlikely to forget it) and 'troublesome', in that it can be challenging and difficult to grasp such a concept, which may seem counter-intuitive.

So far, so clear. However, something that resonated with me during the workshop this morning, was a question we were asked to respond to:

"If we think of learning as crossing a threshold, then it follows that..."

Now, it might be because I've been rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer this week, however the first answer that sprung to my mind was "it follows that they have been invited in"; in common mythology and popular culture a vampire cannot cross the threshold into a home unless invited.*

If the vampire must be invited to cross the threshold, then the person who lives beyond that threshold retains control over who can enter, but once invited, the vampire can come and go as desired.

Indulging this metaphor to create an idea of the student-as-vampire, we might suggest that:

* the vampire is (often) an unwelcome guest
* the vampire will be a temporary guest, as eventually the sun will come up and they will have to leave

Equally, who invites the vampire in, and why?

As an analogy for teaching, the student-as-vampire is also excluded from crossing the threshold of their own volition: in this scenario, the threshold crossing is a mediated encounter, carried out under surveillance.

What might prevent the student-as-vampire from kicking the door down? What is it that stops a vampire from crossing a threshold uninvited?* In the 2008 Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In there is a scene where Eli, the little-girl-vampire who lives next door, enters Oskar's home without permission and proceeds to start bleeding violently (warning: contains blood). Does the student-as-vampire experience threshold crossing in a similarly violent way?

So the student-as-vampire who is invited in does not have control over their crossing and does not belong in whatever is beyond the threshold. Yet, equally, the student-as-vampire who crosses the threshold without an invitation encounters violence and possible pain and are equally not at home beyond that threshold.

So, is the manner of crossing the threshold less important that what actually happens or what actually is on the other side? Whether you are invited or not does not seem to make a huge difference to whether the student-as-vampire belongs: they are equally 'unbelonging' in both scenarios.

To make the student-as-vampire feel welcome, we need to 'vampirize' the space; we need fit shutters or blinds and install a few coffins, making the vampire far more likely to feel at home and to stick around.

So rather than changing the student and de-vampiring them, perhaps we need to change what is beyond the threshold to fit the student as they are. And the point of entry needs to be equally shared or owned by both vampire and teacher so that the student-as-vampire can take ownership over the reason why they are there.

The student-as-vampire must be:

*not invited, but welcomed
* not a guest, but a resident
* what comes beyond the threshold must not be pre-defined, but flexible, adaptable and customisable.

Now, this is a playful analogy (and please note that I am not suggesting that students are in any way vampires!). But it did make me think a little more about how we incorporate or make use of threshold concepts in our teaching. For a start, why do we want students to cross this threshold? What is in it for them and how can we give them ownership and belonging in what lies beyond? What are the problems in the teacher controlling the threshold? Can students take ownership over the threshold and let themselves in?

In terms of threshold concepts and the way we design our teaching, perhaps we need to think less about letting the right one in, and more about letting the one in right (or right for them).



Image: Vampire by JNL. Reproduced from Wikimedia Commons under terms of the Free Art License


Glynis Cousin (2006). An introduction to threshold concepts. Planet, Issue 17, 4-5.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Putting women into a cage? Some thoughts on containment, gender and sexuality

Courtisane au Caire by By Edmond Comte De Grimberghe
I’ve been to a couple of events this week that have got me thinking about the idea of containment in relation to gender and sexuality. 

On Tuesday, I attended the eighth Sexgen network seminar at Sheffield Hallam University: “What (not) to do: Young people, gender and sexuality”. 

Sexgen is a network of research centres in the North of England that brings together researchers from a range of disciplines (at the last two meetings I’ve attended I’ve chatted to academics from education, literature, cultural studies, politics, sociology and social work, as well as practitioners in health, education and social care) (here’s the full programme).

As sometimes happens at research events and conferences, a specific part of one paper resonated with me, and set me pondering on the long train journey back to Edinburgh: the idea of containment

Jenny Slater (@jenslater_) and Kirsty Liddiard (@kirstyliddiard1) from Sheffield Hallam gave a paper on young people with disabilities and their development into adulthood alongside the discourses of containment this entails. 

They pointed out that containment is the expectation of normative adulthood (which is also heteronormative, cis-gendered, able-bodied); the normative neoliberal body contains its fluids and excretions which are expelled in a controlled manner at socially-acceptable moments. Thus, toilet-training teaches children how to contain their bodies, and this containment is something that is particularly marked for women. We only need to think about the recent ‘controversies’ over talking about menstruation to see that fluids and bodily containment is deeply gendered in our culture. 

Slater and Liddiard talked about containment in the context of disabled bodies, in particular some of the difficulties those with disabilities face when engaging in sexual behaviour. Their talk made me think a bit more about containment and about how I could think about my own research in this context. 

The medieval city of York (photo by Ljuba Brank)
On Saturday, I gave a Pecha Kucha presentation for GenderJam, an event showcasing gender studies at the University of Edinburgh organised by the student’s union, EUSA. I presented (for six minutes and forty seconds!) on my current research looking at sexualisation from a historical perspective. I’m comparing late medieval advice texts for young people with twentieth and twenty-first century relationship advice, mainly magazines, websites and educational resources. In all of the texts I’ve looked at so far, both medieval and modern, young women are subject to strict rules, regulations and guidance that create a narrow idea of femininity that must be adopted. 

The late medieval advice texts I’m looking at are generally aimed at an upwardly mobile, ‘middle-class’, bourgeois audience. The migration of young people to towns and cities from the countryside led to heightened concerns about young women, in particular, living away from home and engaging in risky activities, as Felicity Riddy points out. 

This led to the popularity of texts such as ‘How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter’ (mid-fourteenth century). This short poem, typically, advises particular kinds of behaviour for young women that emphasise containment; women should not talk too loudly, they should not swear, they should be careful to walk in certain ways and should certainly avoid particular locations (such as the tavern, that well-known den of vices).

Kim Philips argues that this is about constraint; these young, non-elite women were clearly not seen as capable of controlling their own desires, and so required a strict framework of behavioural expectations and boundaries. The most important kind of constraint for medieval women relates to sexuality – for women, all conduct can be reduced to sexual conduct. 

I’ve found, equally, in modern advice, that similarly narrow models of femininity are endorsed that directly relate to the concerns of sexualisation; that young women are becoming too sexy too soon through things like sexualised clothing and media. 

Connecting this to wider conversations about, it seems that the idea of containment is multifarious: this is about young people containing their own bodies and behaviours, but it is also about young people being contained within an idea of normative (hetero)sexuality – of being protected from a sexualised world which some deem unsuitable for them. 

A quick search for synonyms of ‘contained’ brings up ‘controlled’, ‘suppressed’, ‘repressed’, ‘limited’, ‘restricted’, ‘confined’, ‘enclosed’, ‘inhibited’ – all ways in which young women’s sexualities, femininities and identities are forced into normative models and frameworks – the same models and frames which problematize sexual activity for young people with disabilities. 

So, if containment is part of ‘normative’ adulthood in a material sense (so, controlling urinary function for example), how does this fit with the sexually-contained body? There is clearly a relationship between containing particular bodily functions (such as ejaculation) and containing, or regulating, the sexual body.
But the sexually-contained adult body is about more than physical emissions, it is also about verbal emissions, appearance, movement and context: it is, in short, everything a body is and does (particularly a female body). So is the adult body always sexualised or sexualis-able in predetermined, limited ways? And to what extent do these discourses of containment intersect?

Equally, in our desire to ‘protect’ children from sexualised media and culture, are we subjecting them to containment? By determining that young people should not be exposed to sexualised culture (so, current media such as lad’s mags or, in medieval advice, particular spaces, such as the tavern) are we containing them within an artificial idea of what we think their childhood should look like?  

It’s clear that these are huge questions for which I do not profess to have ready answers. But I do think it is worth drawing attention to these frameworks of containment, as Slater and Liddiard did, so that we do not take them for granted, and so that we can question and challenge them. 

Today, on International Women’s Day, I think it is more important than ever to call out and recognise some of the implicit (and not so implicit) structures that continue to shape our bodies, our societies and ourselves. 


Felicity Riddy. “Mother Knows Best: Reading Social Change in a Courtesy Text.” Speculum 71.1 (1996): 66-86. 

Kim M. Philips. Medieval Maidens: Young Women and Gender in England, 1270-1540. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003. 


The images used in this post are freely available for reuse under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licenc via Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Sex in Europe: Gender and Sexuality in European Popular Culture

 What is European popular culture? And how does it represent gender and sexuality? These are some of the questions explored by a recent special issue of the Journal of European Popular Culture (5.2) which I’ve had the pleasure of editing with my colleague Claire Jenkins. 

Borne out of a strand at the 2013 European Popular Culture conference in Turku, Finland, the articles collected in the special issue collectively explore aspects of distinctly European popular culture, moving away from a focus on culture produced by or consumed in North America. A snapshot of current research on sex and gender taking place in Europe, it discusses aspects of popular culture as diverse as the British musician Morrissey, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series (that inspired the TV show Game of Thrones), popular romance literature, the reality TV show Geordie Shore, Sam Mendes’ Skyfall, representations of transgenderism in European cinema, and the British comedian Beryl Reid.

Check out the journal here. And here’s a full list of the articles and their abstracts:

 Amy Burge, ‘For you are a man and she is a maid’: Performing masculinity in Orientalist medieval and modern popular romance fiction’. 

Dominant, virile, brooding: the alpha male is quintessential in modern western popular romance published by companies such as Harlequin Mills & Boon. One persistent iteration of the alpha is the Middle Eastern sheikh, whose hypermasculinity seems initially at odds with the ‘feminine penetrability’ of the Oriental east with which he is connected. Yet, the modern sheikh romance was not the first genre to persistently represent eastern romantic heroes; in late medieval England, the most popular secular texts were romances, several of which contained Orientalist heroes. This article scrutinizes the masculine performance of the sheikh hero in light of the romance genre’s medieval history. I consider how the masculinities of modern and medieval eastern romance heroes are inextricably connected to their eastern surroundings. Focusing on the Middle English romance Floris and Blancheflour, I identify two contrasting models of eastern hypo- and hyper-masculinity that make overt deviant gender performance and the associated anxiety and effect on heterosexual gender relations. Finally, I re-examine the presentation of the hypermasculine sheikh hero, arguing that these romances too exhibit anxiety about male gender identity in the east. These romances, medieval and modern, thus acknowledge and deny Said’s effeminate Orient and its destabilizing potential.

Anne Grafer, ‘‘Charlotte makes me lafe [sic] sooo much’: Online laughter, affect, and femininity in Geordie Shore’. 

Highly successful structured reality television shows such as Geordie Shore (UK), The Only Way is Essex (UK), Made in Chelsea (UK) or Jersey Shore (US) draw audiences wide beyond their regional and national appeal, thereby exerting a considerable influence on contemporary popular culture. Lying at the intersection of documentary, soap opera and drama, reality television’s specific form – its immediacy and its emotionality – invites viewers to judge and moralize the lives depicted on screen. In this article I explore the affective ways in which ‘Geordie Shore’ produces ideas about femininity and how comic moments in the show influence this emotive process. By analysing online comments on the show’s official Facebook page I argue that the humorous quality of the text does not merely reinforce the disciplining white, middle-class gaze through which ‘Geordie’ femininities are produced as hypersexual(ized) ladettes worthy of social derision. Rather, the online laughter that I found in some online comments highlights that these representations are also animated through feelings of joy, affection and emotional attachment. Attending to online laughter can help us to further understand the movement between connection and disassociation through which audiences make sense of reality television.

Ruth O’Donnell, ‘M is for mother: Skyfall’s Kleinian phantasies of maternal destruction’. 

In the Bond film Skyfall (2012), director Sam Mendes offers an interpretation of gothic horror that explores 007’s maternal ambivalence. Exploiting the genre’s tropes of the persecutory double, psychotic son, and monstrous feminine/mother, the film provides a ‘working through’ of the oedipal terror that is so redolent of the gothic. Taking as a reference point the work of Freudian theorist Melanie Klein, Skyfall can be seen as presenting ‘M’ (Judi Dench) as the Kleinian ‘bad mother’, one half of the ‘split’ that the infant conceptualizes to explain the inadequacy of the mother in meeting his needs, phantasizing his revenge in terms of oral aggression. Bond (Daniel Craig) and villain Silva (Javier Bardem) are each victims of exploitation by the British secret services – and by extension the figural mother M. For Silva this means being given up to the Chinese government for torture and likely death. It is this previous act of maternal mistreatment that serves to ‘explain’ his (sexual) perversity, i.e. renunciation of the phallic, which includes his perverse attachment to M (other). Silva serves as 007’s shadowy counterpart – as well as cautionary tale – in granting the phantastical wish-fulfilment of both sons: revenge upon the mother.

C. Patel, ‘Expelling a monstrous matriarchy: Casting Cersei Lannister as abject in A Song of Ice and Fire’.
In the fantasy genre where the female characters are so often in the minority, it is disturbing that George R. R. Martin chooses to reinvent the traditional male fantasy hero with female characters that are presented as monstrous for attempting to gain power in a patriarchal society. This article will be discussing Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (1999–), examining the character of Cersei Lannister and the reasons as to why she cannot gain power in a patriarchal system. In the first part of this article, I will depict how Cersei gains power by creating what I term ‘political prostheses’, which serve as substitutions for her female body and create a masculine armouring through which she can take part in the political field and patriarchal society. As I will demonstrate in the second part of this article, unlike the other mother characters, Cersei’s monstrosity comes about through the amalgamation of incompatible images of womanhood, which is complicated further by incest. Consequently, as I will emphasize in the last part of this article, Cersei is expelled from society at the end of the last published book through a ritual that can be read as one of abjection.

Aileen Dillane, Martin J. Power And  Eoin Devereux, ‘I Can Have Both’: A queer reading of Morrissey’. 

Using the song ‘I Can Have Both’ as a case study, we examine the ways in which Morrissey’s creative output has consistently recognized the fluidity of sexual and gender identities. We demonstrate how Morrissey’s work invites a deep textual reading that reveals a complex counter-hegemonic stance on the issue of gender and sexuality. Queering and queer discourses play a fundamental role in achieving this. Our study adds to the emerging body of scholarly literature on Morrissey and contributes to our understanding of how queering processes occur within a popular culture setting.

Rosie White, ‘Beryl Reid Says… Good Evening: Performing queer identity on British television’.
Beryl Reid Says… Good Evening (1968) was a comedy revue series broadcast on BBC television in the late 1960s that showcased the talents of a renowned British character comedy performer. Beryl Reid’s career spanned music hall, variety theatre, dramatic acting, radio comedy, film and television. She was a celebrity figure from the 1950s to her death in the 1990s but never became a ‘star’ as such. Reid’s work is addressed as a form of queer performance, both in roles that reference lesbian sexuality and roles that depict eccentric femininities. This television series was one of the few attempts to showcase her talents, and it is discussed here as an example of how character comedy queers heteronormativity through its camp attention to the everyday.

Keeley Saunders, ‘Gender-defined spaces, places and tropes: Contemporary transgender representation in Tomboy and Romeos’. 

Recent trans-cinema releases, Tomboy (Sciamma, 2011) and Romeos (Bernardi, 2011), present compelling alternatives to the traditional representation of transgender characters and issues in mainstream Hollywood productions. They are just two of a number of films in the last decade that challenge the lack of attention given to the complexity of individuals’ identities and the neglect of trans-subjectivities in mainstream representation. These contemporary European independent productions exemplify a shift towards a clearer sense of films being about transgender life: depicting elements of real-life experiences, and transitions, of trans-identities. Utilizing the work of academics Marjorie Garber, John Phillips and Judith Jack Halberstam and the now-out-of-date ‘canon’ of trans-cinema (including Mrs. Doubtfire (Columbus, 1993) and Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960)), this article explores the evolution of fictional cinematic representation of transgender identities. Focusing on a common trope developed in the earlier ‘classic’ Hollywood films – the depiction of urinary segregation – this article will argue how the theme of gendered spaces and places is reappropriated in the contemporary films and used to portray transgender lives and experiences more adequately.

The image of the European Union flag is public domain via Wikimedia Commons.