FullSizeRenderOne of the best bits about being an historian is that “reading” features prominently in the job description. From archival letters to articles and scholarly monographs (and ok, yes, just as often twitter and random bits of the internet) words crafted by others are at the heart of my daily practice. They take me out across oceans and pull me into the intimacies of others’ longings and fears. And in doing so they bring the past and the future into my present, both slowing me down and dragging me along.

But I find that often this longer-form reading gets lost in the textual flood that is the internet and email and the administrivia of daily life. I want to keep better track of my textual meanderings and I want to be more conscious of their value in my week.

I know, I know, book lists are annoying. I can’t stand the endless “best of” inventories generated by book sellers and reviewers. The words “inspiring”, “gritty” or “hilarious” invariably appear in every single precis. They seem wholly too worthy, and usually make me itchy and impatient. Yet I love love LOVE the LRB, which is basically a big list about books written by people who live in North London. I love the conversation into which it draws me, and the unexpected connections it helps me to make.

So, in the spirit of the latter rather than the former, I hereby offer you:

Occasional dispatches from my big green reading chair #1

  • Zoe Williams, Get It Together(Hutchinson, 2015) – Zoe Williams is freaking great. A journalist for the Guardian UK, her writing combines deep awareness of people in the realities of their daily lives with incisive analysis of the structures and interests at work in our political and economic systems. This book is talking about wtf is going on in Britain now and the massive transfer of wealth that has happened since 2008 and what can be done. It has wide resonance beyond Britain because so many of these issues are present in post-industrial societies – they include the changing nature of work, housing (un)affordability, service outsourcing and much besides. The tone is one of controlled rage mixed with wry humour.
  • Tomás Irish, The University at War, 1914-25: Britain, France and the United States (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) – I am writing a review on this, but I had bought it before the journal contacted me, which has got to be a good sign. It both exemplifies and contributes to a new breed of university history that is coming out of the cloister and stepping beyond its traditional institutional and national frames. I’ve got a particular interest in this book because, as well as focusing on the mobilisation of universities during the First World War, it takes up questions of expertise and the nation in the aftermath of the conflict. These latter themes are at the heart of the major ARC-funded project that I’m running, together with colleagues from the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne. To get a sense of it, imagine a national version of USyd’s Beyond1914 database which collects information on graduates who served in the war. What did these soldier experts do after the conflict ended? Why is their story not more central in our accounts of nation building?
  • Alecia Simmonds, ‘Why we need a reminder about Australia’s imperialist history with Nauru’ Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Feb 2016 – This is an important piece because in all the talk about refugees the history of Australia’s relationship with Nauru is too often ignored. Why has Nauru agreed to set up a detention facility? It’s because decades of Australian-led phosphate mining have stripped it of its natural assets such that 90% of the island is depleted and its people live in the narrow strip around its coast, vulnerable to rising sea levels. The failed tax-haven plan of the 1990s only left it doubly bankrupt. As Naomi Klein has so powerfully shown, on Nauru ‘the people who could very well be the climate refugees of tomorrow … play warden to the economic and war refugees of today.’ In this piece Alecia Simmonds reminds us that the border between Australia and Nauru has long been little more than a convenient fiction.

ON INSTITUTIONS

BY TAMSON PIETSCH

 

I LOVE INSTITUTIONS.

It is not a very fashionable thing to admit, I know. In our age of individual freedoms, mobile and flexible work, and myriad commercial opportunities for self-fashioning, institutions seem to invoke a world of constraint and bureaucracy with which many people would like to do away. And worse, from the banking crisis and parliamentary expenses scandals to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, institutions have been shown to have perpetrated crimes and damaged individuals in ways that involve fundamental abuses of trust. Institutions do not get very good press and, in many ways, nor should they.

But institutions hold us in time and they connect us to each other. This is why I love them and this is why they are part of explaining what has gone wrong, and central to working out what we might do to make it right.

The institution I know best is the university. Universities still work with an understanding of time and human capacity that stretches beyond the frames of annual reports, funding cycles, government elections or even of individual careers. For all their problems, they are still places that recognise the messy, uncertain and often troubling aspects of human life. Universities are founded on an acknowledgement that we are meaning-making creatures, that so much about life is uncertain, and that expertise takes years to develop. Their power lies in their relational character: it is not monetised exchange and short-term benefit that underpins their mission, but rather an encounter with ideas and with each other. With their buildings, books and bequests they draw us into a form of time that stretches out beyond the life of any one of us; and with their bars and playing fields and classrooms they bring us into an engagement with one another. In doing so they equip us with thick forms of connection: knowledge, ethics of participation and relationships that give us ways to live and to flourish in the fractured and fluid world of what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has called ‘liquid modernity’.

[read the rest of this piece on the Griffith Review website.]

Read the rest of this entry »

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Last week I gave a talk on social media to post-graduates from the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Foolishly (but only fairly) I promised to practice what I preached. So here are the salient points (and links) as I remember them.

Why you should think about the social media

Increasingly scholarly conversation is happening online – in curated and individual blogs, on twitter, and through other electronic forums. If you are not engaging with these forms of publication you are likely to be missing part of what is happening in your field.

Participating in the world of social media helps generate a bigger (and more diverse) academic audience for your research. Much of this will be  in aligned disciplines, or in different national contexts. If you are not engaging online, you’ll be missing part of your potential audience.

Social media also helps generate a broader non-academic audience, especially with those industries to which your thesis may connect. Try to consciously develop and promote your “shadow expertise”; that aspect of your work that might inform a non-academic sector. It’s tough in the academic job market, and this could well be where your post-phd career ends up going.

And finally, social media is increasingly a factor in every employment sector. Engaging online gives you skills that will serve you well, wherever you work.

But always remember the golden rule

NEVER LET YOUR MOUTH EXCEED YOUR VOICE.

This is Stefan Collini’s advice to public intellectuals in Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain and it should be etched onto the computer screens of every academic who reaches for the internet.  Have something to say that is well founded and established, and well supported. Be respectful of other people’s work and opinions and give them due reference. The last thing a junior (or indeed any) academic needs is to have a ruined reputation all over the internet.

If there is a second rule, it might be this: VALUE YOUR TIME – blogging & tweeting can be very rewarding because unlike most other parts of academic life you get direct feedback. But it’s a drug. Keep your main game in view and remember: your authority to speak will in 98% of cases come from your research. So respect it, foster it, prioritise it.

How to start

See how other people are doing it. Set up a twitter account and follow scholars you admire (and those you don’t!) Read the relevant blogs in your field – some of these are likely to be co-authored. If you are totally lost, The Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog page is as good a place as any to begin (and you have discovered this blog so you’re not doing too badly!)

People disagree on the merits of maintaining an individual blog as against contributing to established co-authored or other forums such as The Conversation, but my view is to go for both:

  1. Set up a blog site for yourself that will act a bit like your online CV:
    • use it to a) experiment with writing pieces and b) as a place to collect any material you publish on other platforms. WordPress is easy to use and integrates well with other social media.
  2. Generate content:
    • Work in progress & the process of working (see for eg. the Thesis Whisperer or Trickster Prince).
    • Communicate research you have published (eg https://t.co/UCbgE8RslC)
    • Wait for news item & apply research
    • Provide context through your “shadow expertise” – are you writing a Phd on the history of fashion? Contact fashion magazines and pitch articles to them.
  3. Maximise your reach
    • Connect to other people’s online content through using links, and cross-promote on twitter (using #hashtags), facebook, linkedin and academia.edu.au, among other social media outlets.
    • Write for established platforms, such as co-authored blogs, The Conversation, print outlets, your university, industry publications. The internet is a big place with a lot of shouting people on it, and you need to find a way to be heard. Established sites offer you support and a readership that is invaluable.

Parting comments

Academic research usually takes a long time to produce. It frequently works with complex information and tells stories that complicate what we think we know. The interwebs do not thrive on such complexity. This doesn’t mean you should go for simplifications , but it does mean you need to work with people’s attention spans. Put your argument up front, rather than at the end; try to stick to 500-800 words maximum. Inject some personality. Too often wonderful academic research is communicated in ways that do not make it easy for people to access or connect with. Paywalls and professional convention carry part of the responsibility, but as scholars we can do a lot more too to reach out to a public that has demonstrated a robust appetite for ideas.

Reading list

Prof Patrick Dunleavy’s Shorter, better, faster, free: blogging changes the nature of academic research, not just how it is communicated and How to write a blogpost from your journal article

LSE public impact blog and in particular their twitter guide and reading list on using social media for research

The Times Higher Education magazine’s Tips for academics on Blogging and Social Media

 

 

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