How to make history historical…

Yesterday, an entirely farcical event took place on the Thames in London, as a stunt by the Brexit campaign, designed to highlight the concerns of fishermen, turned into a scuffle carried out with water hoses, sound systems and rude gestures. Soon, twitter and news sites referred to a ‘naval battle’.

Today, I came across this map.

Naval battle of the Thames. A skirmish in the great Brexit debate of 2016.

Naval battle of the Thames. A skirmish in the great Brexit debate of 2016.

It is entirely without source – a Google reverse image search reveals that somebody very cleverly photoshopped  new captions into this map of the battle of Lowestoft (1665), and did so while the event was still going on. But I could not find anybody who used the picture with reference to a source, so the wit who came up with this will have to remain unnamed.

What struck me about it is how historical this ridiculous event looks if you choose to present it in this manner. Does the presentation alone change the meaning of an event? Not on the first day, of course. Today the mismatch between what happened and the serious presentation makes this a brilliant joke. But what would it look like with a bit of distance? Can historians confer gravitas where none is deserved?

It also makes me realise how much I am used to seeing these maps. I ‘grew up’ as an ancient history student consulting the wonderful battle maps in Kromeyer & Veith’s atlas of ancient battle fields (1903-1931, marvel at it here), a work so legendary that as students, we all heard the story that one of the authors (Georg Veith) was beaten to death by shepherds on the site of the battle of Zela (67BC): surely the most historical of historians’ deaths  (Wikipedia knows the story, too).

Wikipedia* in particular tends to have very beautiful battle maps like this (cf. the battle of Lowestoft, see above). They are usually accurate enough as well: forgive me if I resort to stereotypes for a moment, but the Wikipedia editors’ demographic skews heavily towards people who might be fans of battles while also taking details very seriously.  Such maps confer a certain authority – not least because like all maps, they fudge uncertainties, and  they really do make it a lot easier to explain what happend in a battle.

I use such maps for teaching, too, for example this one of the battle of Salamis, a version of which turns up in somewhere in my lecture slides.

Battle of Salamis - map courtesy of Wikipedia

Battle of Salamis – map courtesy of Wikipedia

Of course, nobody would doubt that the battle of Salamis was a proper battle. But what about other events? Does it matter if you start calling an event a battle, start writing the battle account, and ultimately, perhaps, draw the  map, too?

How often did my ancient sources make that choice… or not?

I am looking at you, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon…

*in a blog post full of Wikipedia links I have to declare my hand. Of course, as academics, we have to keep telling students over and over that you can’t reference Wikipedia in an academic context (and you really can’t). But of course I use it, and I bet most of my colleagues do, too. Just not as actual historical evidence or proper scholarly argument – because it isn’t.




Posted in Critical Thinking, Current events, Exploring the Past, History, Inventing the Past, Remembering the Past | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why we should all get our roofs from Sparta*

Work on my Peloponnesian League book is finally starting to happen, so it’s time to dust off the blog again. I hope odd little things like today’s discovery will go here.

At the moment I am working on what might be the trickiest bit: figuring out what may have happened in the sixth and seventh century that made Greek cities start collaborating in the Peloponnese. There is hardly any written evidence, so it’s all about piecing things together from whatever is available.

This is how I came to spend a few hours today on roof tiles, specifically roof tiles from the ancient sanctuary in Olympia. Whether they really tell us anything about politics in the sixth century Peloponnese is something I have  yet to decide. But here is today’s chance find:

The oldest temple of Olympia is the Heraion, built around 600 BC – stone base, mudbrick walls, wooden columns and a nice terracotta roof in a Laconian style – the kind of roof they also used for temples in Sparta at the time.

Heraion at Olympia

Temple of Hera (Heraion) at Olympia – look closely: the three standing columns are all a bit different.

This building went through a few changes over time. As the wooden columns were rotting away, they were replaced, one by one – starting in the sixth century, just decades after the temple was built, until, in the second century AD, only one wooden column was left, and duly reported in Pausanias’ Guide to Greece (5.16.1). Pausanias, however, reports a much more intriguing story about the temple.

I must not omit the story told by Aristarchus, the guide to the sights at Olympia. He said that in his day the roof of the Heraeum had fallen into decay. When the Eleans were repairing it, the corpse of a foot-soldier with wounds was discovered between the roof supporting the tiles and the ornamented ceiling. This soldier took part in the battle in the Altis between the Eleans and the Lacedaemonians (Paus. 5.20.4).

I’d like to think that this was somebody Pausanias actually met, rather than an older guide book, so nobody ever even looked inside the ancient roof between c.400BC,when the battle took place, and sometime in the second century AD, over 500 years later.

But there is more about that roof: many tiles and roof decorations were excavated in the sanctuary. Looking at this material, the experts** conclude that apart from a few repairs, the original roof, with the original roof tiles, stayed on that building until c. AD300. That roof lasted 900 years and survived several earthquakes, while underneath it the temple was more or less rebuilt in a different material.

So, who wouldn’t want to hire a Spartan* roofer?

Leonides selling roofs

Irresistible (thanks to Rob Marshall)

*Laconia really. Or perhaps a Laconian-style roof made in Elis. No way of knowing.
** Joachim Heiden, who studied every single roof tile found in the sanctuary (how?!) concluded this based on the material.   [Heiden, J. (1995), Die Tondächer von Olympia, Olympische Forschungen 24 (Walter de Gruyter: Berlin, New York), 68].

Posted in Archaeology, Greece, History, Peloponnese | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

On Pledges Carved in Stone

Ed Miliband and his inscription

Milistele unveiled

Yesterday, just four days before the election, the Leader of the UK Labour Party, Ed Miliband, unveiled an eight-foot limestone slab, carved with his six main election promises.  Reviews were mixed, but it was a delight to all  who regularly get to look at ancient inscriptions: political texts in stone have become so rare!  Enough to bring me back to blogging after a long hiatus.

The media faced quite a dilemma: They weren’t actually sure what to call such an object.

Most went for ‘stone monument’, but some plumped for tablet (way too big for that!), monolith (technically correct), obelisk (wrong shape), plinth (no, a plinth is a base for something) or tomb stone (ominous!). Even the term ‘statue’ was used (it’s definitely not a statue!). And there is the inevitable hashtag #edstone.

Since there is no proper technical term for this kind of monument in English, let’s use the Greek term, as experts do when they talk about ancient inscriptions. This is definitely a stele (pronounced STEE-lee, plural stelae – STEE-lie) – a flat slab of stone, usually with carved decorations and/or letters on it.  I propose to call the object #milistele. It’s got a certain ring to it, doesn’t it – and perhaps the fact that we don’t have a modern word for it shows how outlandish this object really is in the context of a British general election.

But what’s more, this is as good a time as any to think about those letters carved in stone. What does such a stele actually tell us?

In many cultures, an inscription is a sign of power and wealth: rulers set up monuments with inscriptions, and wealthy people invest in lasting tomb monuments recording their names (and, in the case of the Romans, lengthy CVs).

The Decree of Aristotle

But in ancient Athens, inscriptions were indeed a sign of democratic accountability: important decisions of the democratic assembly were inscribed and set up in the city, as were the city’s laws, to make it possible for all to check those texts and to observe whether officials and citizens stuck to these decisions. So in this respect, Miliband’s pledge stele is not so far off the mark, although he really should set it up in a public space, not behind the walls of Number 10 (if he ever gets there, and if planning laws don’t get in the way).  The stone’s size reminds me less of the decrees of the Athenian assembly (which were usually smaller), but of the massive towering stelae listing the tribute pressed from Athens’ ‘subject-allies’, a sign of imperialist pride rather than humble accountability.

But there is one inscription which, I think, provides a particularly apt comparison for Miliband’s promise in stone: it is the Decree of Aristotle (merely a namesake of the philosopher, no connection), issued in 378/7 BC.

This document was issued by the Athenian assembly at a time when Athens was desperate to gain allies again, despite the memories of a few decades earlier, when the city had turned from an ally to a rather heavy-handed hegemonic power. The Aristotle decree is the prospectus of a new interstate collaboration – a kind of leaflet in stone – guaranteeing a very different regime, particularly with a promise that no tribute would be charged and that the allies’ status as independent states would be respected. More details and a translated text can be found here.

City names on the decree

A few of the city names on the Aristotle Decree

This stone also shows what may have happened with promises carved in stone:  perhaps it was not all that hard impossible to change one’s mind even after the text was inscribed. A drawing of the text with details highlighted is here. Large images of the inscription are available at Oxford’s Centre of Ancient  Documents website.

The stele used to record Aristotle’s decree was designed for additions to begin with, since the names of the new member states were inscribed at different times and by different hands – presumably as they decided to join in the years following the issue of the decree. Did Miliband leave space for additional pledges?

But the text itself was also changed. Just look at this part of the stone:

Erased text on the decree of Aristotle

You can see that a part of the text was erased: remains of letters are still visible at the bottom of the erasure. Experts have managed to guess what is missing  (read text with restored passage): the Athenians originally promised to make sure that the new alliance adhered to a peace treaty concluded with some forceful prompting from the Persian king: but at some point, the Athenians clearly changed their mind on this matter. One of the names of the member states on the side of the stone was also erased. So, if the Milistele really ends up in Number 10, watch out for people arriving with chisels and leaving erased pledges in their wake.

Another way of changing one’s mind is re-interpretation. The Athenians’ cast-iron promise not to charge tribute (phoros) was kept. However, they asked for ‘contributions’  (syntaxeis) instead.

Finally, looking at the state of the stone, the stele may have been smashed in the end – perhaps when the Athenians were finally forced to dissolve the league (probably by the Macedonians in 338BC). This is how decisions carved in stone could be dissolved: smash the stele and the text on it is null and void.

But there are various things that can happen to a stele once its text is no longer relevant, and Ed Miliband should give some thought to the afterlife of his stone monument, too. What happens to it if he never gets to install it in Number 10, or, if he does become Prime Minister, once his term of office is over?

Many ancient inscriptions were re-used. A nicely flat stone can be very useful in walls, as thresholds or lintels, and as paving slabs.

Ephesus: reused inscriptions. Left: inscription of all the victories of an athlete (framed in wreaths) built into a wall. Right: tomb inscription cut to size in the floor of the basilica of St Mary

Perhaps the Milistele will find such a use eventually. Re-used inscriptions are often better preserved because they are protected from the weather and further destruction: six pledges for May 2015 preserved for posterity. What will future archaeologists say?

But Ed Miliband should probably be very careful to dispose of his inscription very safely – because sometimes posterity plays games with such texts, and subverts their original meaning.

Here is an example from the Cathedral at Pisa:

these few letters, reading IMP(erator) CAESAR, neatly cut out of a monumental Roman inscription, have been set into the wall upside down, carefully at a level where you simply cannot miss them. It is set in a wall of stone quarried for the purpose: this one block was not used because it happened to lie around. I am not entirely sure what exactly this meant in medieval Pisa – but perhaps one might guess at a not-so-subtle verdict on the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire who were still using those titles, or perhaps it is a comment on Christianity overcoming ancient Roman secular power.

An even more worrying cautious tale can be found here, where the strategic removal of a few letters has turned Mussolini into an ass.

And this kind of mockery, set in stone, too,  lasts a lot longer than a few jokes in yesterday’s papers … or even this blog post.

(Addition, 9th May 2015: here is an excellent post from Peter Kruschwitz, suggesting a whole range of recycling options for inscriptions)



Image sources:

  1. Miliband:  Independent
  2. Decree of Aristotle:
  3. Letters of names: cropped from detail picture at target=”_blank”>
  4. Erasure: cropped from detail picture at
  5. Ephesos pictures:  (c) A. Rupp, 2012.  (with thanks to Kaja Harter-Uibopuu.
  6. Pisa: my own photograph.


Posted in Archaeology, Current events, Political Parties, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Call the Royal Baby Mohammed – here is why:

As everybody is still speculating about the names for the royal baby, there are two distinct approaches: one is to find the name that would seem silliest with the royal number I behind it, and the other is to speculate, on the basis of family tradition and genealogy, what the name might really be in the end.

This post goes for neither of these options: I look at the genealogy, and the resulting suggestion is certainly not silly, but quite impossible. But why should it be? Throughout history, ‘East’ and ‘West’ have been much more connected than many would like them to be. But this is something we really should remember.

Thus, if the Royal family really values genealogy, and wants to choose the name of their most illustrious ancestor, they should probably go for Mohammed. Let me explain why:

There is indeed a pretty good chance, as far as certainty ever can go with genealogies going back that far, that Queen Elizabeth II is a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. The connection is via Edward IV and the royal house of Castile, who in turn were related to the Muslim rulers of Seville, and they had a claim to being descendants of the Prophet. Since Burke’s Peerage seems to have accepted it, it’s good enough for me.*

How much chance is there that this is correct? Descent from the Prophet was soon important in early Islamic politics, and is likely to have been recorded or remembered in detail early on; as the number of people with the highly prestigious claim to descent from the Prophet himself grew, it is more difficult to tell how well this would have been policed, and how easy it would have been for high-ranking families to invent such a connection. One thing is clear, however: during what we would call the Middle Ages, much of the Muslim world almost certainly had better standards of record keeping than any part of Europe.

If you try to define how European aristocracy defines the importance of ancestry, you’ll find that both an early date and historical impact or fame are crucial factors. Hardly any European aristocratic family can point to securely documented ancestors before the eighth century, yet the Windsor family can point to a famous ancestor in the seventh century. Moreover, it is difficult to point to any other of their ancestors (try it!) who has had more impact on the world, and who is considered important by more people around the world than the Prophet Mohammed.

Thus, the choice is obvious, isn’t it?

Call him Mohammed!

What would the world say?


* I have not found a direct link to the original letter written by the then editor of Burke’s Peerage to Margaret Thatcher on the issue in 1986, but here is a blog post which quotes the press release about it.


Posted in Current events, Exploring the Past, Inventing the Past, Life in the UK, Memory, Remembering the Past | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

I am back!

Wipes away the cobwebs…
I have been absent for a long time. There are reasons, and I hope to blog about that sometime in the future. In short, I haven’t been very well, but I hope things are getting better now.
It’s a topical post which got me to come back….

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Critical Reading, Online Scare Stories – and the Death Star

Yesterday, a petition from avaaz started going round the internet. It spread very rapidly, through twitter and Facebook. Many generally thoughtful, concerned people passed it on, some with words of anger or concern, urging others to sign the petition as well. This kind of thing happens every day, and I keep wondering whether anybody ever actually looks at this kind of thing properly.

I do sign online petitions sometimes, so I looked at this most recent one, too. But my only reaction was: don’t people actually READ this stuff before they sign and inflict in on their friends and aquaintances?

If you teach Classical texts or history, one skill you really want to teach your students is critical reading: scrutinising a text and trying to read beyond the superficial message it contains, to comprehend subtleties, ways of making you react in a certain way. In a world which is full of advertising, this skill is more important than ever before.  I really despair when I see that it is so terribly hard to make it a habit. Responsible citizenship and effective protest require critical scrutiny of communication, otherwise it’s easy to create outrage and exploit people’s perfectly well-intentioned anger (read an excellent discussion of a recent example which circulated in the UK)
Let’s look at the scare story in question, which is here (link may change one the specified time is up).

Here is the ‘information’ provided as per 13th September 2012:


3 Days to Stop the Corporate Death Star

‘Corporate death star’?! Really? – This wouldn’t be taken seriously in another medium, but it’s a pretty effective way of appealing to a specific readership for whom ‘corporate’ is going to sound suspicious from the start. We might also conjecture that the target audience will be found particularly in a certain age range – people  for whom the term ‘Death Star’ will be most effective in conjuring up the most effectively scary images. Many of these might be  well-meaning people who used to be activists back at school or university, and who might be worrying now that  they aren’t doing enough. Clicktivism is a comfortable solution: little time and effort, high good conscience factor. Find the right language to make the right demographic angry and click before they check the detals, and you’ll get a good turnout.

Also note that it was 4 days yesterday, so somebody is carefully counting down: urgency is one of the simplest marketing tricks in the book, and if you don’t have time, you might just click before you think.

Is that too cynical for you? I happen to think that this kind of clicktivism is a cynical business exploiting people’s good intentions. But let’s look at the ‘information’ provided to explian the context of this particular petition.

Details are leaking of a top-secret, global corporate power grab of breathtaking scope — attacking everything from a free Internet to health and environmental regulations, and we have just 4 days to stop it.

Question: Just how top-secret is this ‘powergrab of breathtaking scope’ (and what does that man anyway, once we get around the hyperbole)?
Answer: so secret that if we were actually told that the dastardly plot in question is the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (the term is mentioned in the actual petition, but not in the explanatory text), a bit of googling will get you a lot of information from a mix of sources (friendly and hostile). Claiming that something is so very ‘secret’ is, however, a good excuse for not providing any evidence   (see the Australian Government’s take on the agreement here).

What conspiracy theorists often forget is that top secret plots, especially if they are world wide and involve governments are VERY difficult to sustain. Actually, scratch that and make it ‘impossible’ rather than ‘very difficult’. And do they ever wonder why they are reading, on the web of ll places, about a lot that’s allegedly so secret?

Leaders of the 9 states involved in the TPPA

Picture of the leaders of a top secret global plot of nine states, as available on the Australian government website

And how global is this dastardly plot? It’s nine countries: The United States, Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam.
How many of those who signed the petition bothered to check what it was about?

 Big business has a new plan to fatten their pockets: a giant global pact, with an international tribunal to enforce it, that is kept top secret for years (even from our lawmakers!) and then brought down like a Death Star on our democracies.

More emotional buzz words. How exactly would a giant global pact  with a tribunal to enforce it be kept top secret? Even if ‘global’ actually means nine countries, that’s pretty difficult, when you have democracies like Australia involved. And how can states actually engage in these negotiations, let alone signing a treaty, if it is being kept secret (drumroll) even from our lawmakers?!

Yoda and Luke Skywalker

'An Avaaz petition create you must, young Jedi'

And do we really want to trust somebody whose best shot at a scary metaphor is ‘Death Star’? Wouldn’t that suggest to you that they might not be entirely in touch with the reality of  events in a real world? Perhaps they see themselves as jedi knights with shining sabers, saving the universe from a dark shadowy empire. Well. If that’s he case, let me break it to you, Luke Skywalker, an avaaz petition isn’t going to do it.

 Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Walmart and almost 600 other corporate lobbyists are all in on the final draft — including limits on smoking laws, affordable medicines and free speech on the Net.

More language designed to make you nod along in disgust and distrust. The language and choice of examples suggests that this was created in the febrile political atmosphere of the States, where evidence counts little in political discourse these days, and many people are willing to believe the worst of anybody they consider ‘not us’. Shouldn’t we ask whether a multilateral trade agreement can actually do all this, and how?

The latest round of negotiations ends in just 4 days — but outcries in each of our countries could shake the confidence of negotiators and scuttle the talks forever. Let’s get to a million against the global corporate takeover. Sign the petition on the right. Avaaz will project our petition counter on the walls of the conference so negotiators can see the opposition to their plan exploding in real time.

Surely, by now the choice of words has made us suspicious? … ‘outcries’… ‘scuttle (sic) the talks forever’  … ‘global corporate takeover’. Well, apparently not …. the signature counter keeps ticking over mightily fast – over 200 000 in less than 24 hours. How many of these actually checked the details?

This makes me sad, it really does. Trade agreements are a very tricky matter. They can do enormous damage, and some have in the past. Mostly they do damage to poor states, and I think that people, particularly in the affected countries, should engage with the process, and ask some serious questions (it can be done a lot better, e.g. here, a random example I found through a simple web search). It seems true that preliminary negotiation positions (and a text, if one exists) haven’t been released. I should wonder, therefore, why so many people seem to know what’s going to be in it. I wish they did release a text or basic principles: it’s so easy to fill a vacuum with vague, meaningless scaremongering.

People are cynical these days – and rightly so. But I always find it worrying that people who are sensibly skeptical of the traditional channels of political discourse drop any form of suspicion and cynicism when they come across somebody who claims to fight ‘vested interests’, ‘stand up for the exploited majority’, etc., without any evidence or credentials. It’s important to do stand up to vested interests, and it can be done well (the Occupy movement comes to mind, and note their insistence on lectures and open discussion forums in many of their camps). We need to keep our wits about us.

Masses falling for emotive language instead of thinking for themselves are never an edifying spectacle, even if they don’t all stand in one large square cheering political oratory.

I don’t know about everybody else, but my signature is dearly bought, and I am not about to fall for empty words designed to make me angry and fearful, stirring (if clunky) prose making we want to be part of something greater. I don’t care whether it was done with good intentions, or just to prove to some geeks that five hundred thousand signatures can be got in a few days. Even if the cause seems good, it’s worth watching out for the signs of manipulation, especially if they are aimed to stroke our consciences and tap into our preconceived opinions: if it’s too easy to agree it’s worth checking whether grand rhetoric or pithy polemic hides a lack of substance or evidence.

Posted in Critical Thinking, Politics, Protest | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Welsh Higher Education Madness

During the last few days universities have been concentrating on Clearing, the process whereby students can find places in university courses in the days after they receive their A-level results, and change their plans if their A-levels are significantly different from predicted grades. The two weeks after results are published are also the period when universities find out whether they have been able to hit their admission targets, and since funding is increasingly determined by student numbers, it’s a nerve-racking time, when those academics and administrators who handle admissions frequently get visits from colleagues with the question ‘how are the numbers?’

This year, there has been a drop in applications throughout the UK – this was to be expected, since last year’s eighteen-year-olds applied in record numbers to escape the higher fees which are kicking in this year. However, compared to two years ago, the drop is not so dramatic (some say the figures are up since 2010, but the only set of figures I found, from January, had them only slightly down). But while this drop in numbers has been observed everywhere, the Welsh government is responsible for a policy which can’t cope with such a (predictable) development.

In Wales we are therefore faced with a situation where lower numbers are likely to exacerbate a situation which is already dire, as even a part of the opposition in Cardiff has now finally realised. It is well known that the Welsh government decided, a few months before the Welsh elections in May 2011, that students living in Wales would not have to pay more than the current fees (c. £3500), even if they went to an English university. As it turns out, this scheme will only work if we attract a significant number of English students (24 000 at last calculation, see previous link) who pay the full £9000 fees, and, quite predictably, we are unlikely to meet the necessary target under the current circumstances.

The result will be a wider opening of a funding gap which has been developing for over a decade now, and this is well documented by the government’s own higher education funding body, HEFCW (e.g. here, for 2007). Yet, the responsible Welsh Government Minister, Leighton Andrews, continues to refer to it as ‘the so-called funding gap’, even when challenged with the facts (e.g. here, @ 4:40 pm).

The Learned Society of Wales has tried to make the minister and the government see sense, but the correspondence, as published on their website, suggests that he minister prefers to stick to distorted figures and half-truths which conceal (albeit only very superficially) the shambles over which he has been presiding. It’s worth a look: read it and despair…

Just one paragraph of Andrews’s letter of 14th June shows how disingenuous (or willfully ignorant?) his approach is, even when he is not talking to voters who might not be so clear about the facts, but replying to somebody who clearly knows more about Welsh universities than anybody in the current Welsh government does.

…I hope that you now welcome our recent announcements on what I regard as the most equitable student finance system we’ve ever created in Wales. At the same time, the level of public funding for the Welsh HE sector (through HEFCW) will be higher than that available to English institutions. Our proposals are far more generous over forthcoming years [than] that are predicted for England, where teaching budgets are expected to fall significantly. These changes effectively abolish the so-called Funding Gap.

I have argued elsewhere on this blog why the new fees system in Wales is anything but equitable, and will particularly disadvantage Welsh youngsters from poorer backgrounds who aspire to go to university.

But let us look at the rest of this statement, claiming that state funding in Wales will be higher than in England. This is correct, but it doesn’t mean that Welsh universities will get more money than those in England. Whatever one thinks of the new fees regime in England, one ought to stick to the facts, and fact is that most of the teaching grant has been withdrawn and replaced by income from higher fees. In Wales, the fees haven’t been raised, and so the grant remains, which is why it is, and has to be, higher than in England. However, what Leighton Andrews isn’t saying is that Wales can’t afford a teaching grant high enough to make up for the significant shortfall. Only a significant influx of full-fee paying students from England could do that, and at last count, English teenagers haven’t been willing to help out Leighton Andrews in sufficient numbers. Not many people (apart from Leighton Andrews, perhaps) will be surprised.

Of course, he seems to think that this isn’t a problem, since he is sure that universities are so wasteful and inefficient that there is a lot of room for more savings – but unless he has some special Welsh fairy dust to allow universities to provide teaching and research a lot more cheaply than universities anywhere else in the UK, this looks like wishful thinking at best (see Sir John Cadogan’s letter of 8th July in the correspondence also linked above for a thorough refutation of Andrews’s arguments). There is no such thing as a cheap higher education sector. The most likely outcome, in spite of valiant efforts on the part of Welsh universities to improve quality and output with inadequate funds, is that more Welsh students will want to go to the better funded English universities, taking ever more HE funding with them, while fewer English students will be ready to provide development aid for Wales by paying full fees on courses in a cut-price environment.

Somebody stop this madness. Please.


PS: Swansea Classics, Ancient History & Egyptology have yet again managed to admit more students than (optimistically) predicted, and in spite of the circumstances described in this post, our students tend to be very happy with my department, both in History and in Classics. I am very proud that we are able to achieve this – I just wish the government would appreicate our work and understand that it doesn’t come cheap!

Posted in Education, Universities, Welsh Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Open Access Publishing – but who will pay?*

Guardian front page 16th July 2012

Guardian front page, 12th July 2012

Today’s Guardian front page offers an encouraging headline: Free access to British scientific research within two years. The idea is that by 2014 all publications of all research which has been funded by the British taxpayer has to be accessible to universities, companies and individuals.

This is a response to the real problem of expensive academic publishing, where companies accept (for free) research papers from academics, ask other academics to peer-review those papers (also for free, usually) and then sell the published product at a very high price back to the same group of academics who can’t be full participants in research activities without access to these publications. In the UK, the situation is made considerably worse by the REF, which makes many universities dismiss publications unless they appear in a select group of ‘top journals’, which further increases the market value of some titles.

As a result, the publishing companies have universities in a stranglehold, and library budgets are feeling the pinch. In some areas, journal subscriptions are now purely online and defined in a way which does allow access only to members of the subscribing institution: for the first time since the invention of libraries, this means that even traveling to a well-funded library will no longer give you access to all material you might need to read. In the sciences this situation has led many scholars to boycott the most ruthless of these publishing companies, Elsevier.

The government’s initiative therefore looks like an excellent move – and the Guardian clearly considers it good news. But I see some very worrying problems which will arise from this proposal, particularly for scholars in the arts and humanities (as so often, a solution tailored to the sciences is not going to suit everybody in academia).

Here is the problem: as the Guardian reports,

British universities now pay around £200m a year in subscription fees to journal publishers, but under the new scheme, authors will pay “article processing charges” (APCs) to have their papers peer reviewed, edited and made freely available online. The typical APC is around £2,000 per article.

Of course, in the arts and humanities, the situation is different (read Mary Beard’s description of how a top ancient history journal works), but somebody will have to pay for publication here, too. In the sciences, most projects, virtually all, in fact, are funded through grant income. Write publication costs into proposals, and it’ll all work out fine. But this is not the case in arts and humanities. Funding pots are very small in these areas, and much of the research is done by scholars working around teaching and administration: salary costs and reasonable library budgets (usually equally necessary for students) is all that is needed. Much of this will be funded by tuition fees in future, since state funding is retreating from higher education, but it’s hard to believe that journals will be able to stick to the subscription model if the government’s free access proposals become law. The cost for publishing research becomes the responsibility of the author. Perhaps universities will divert some of their current subscription budgets towards publishing, but in concert with REF publication pressures, how will this funding be handled? Who will decide preferences? Or will we end up with a situation like in Germany, where many scholars already pay publication costs (currently mostly monographs) out of their own pockets? A PhD thesis there has to be published to be considered valid, yet publishing a book with a reputable publisher can set you back thousands of Euro, and funding is often not available. Is this where we want to go? Thus, while arts and humanities currently hardly contribute to the problem, they might be hit particularly hard by the impact of the government’s ‘solution’.

But there are more general problems as well.
– Firstly, one might ask (as Stevan Harnad of the LSE does here) why scholars cannot give each other open access to publications, bypassing expensive subscriptions completely. Unsurprisingly, the publishing companies are against this practice, and government has clearly listened to their lobbying.
– Secondly, even scientists, may have to battle over publication grants in future, and the idea that publication no longer merely depends on (perceived) quality, but also on the ability to pay will make it even harder for newcomers to enter an academic career.
– Finally, it seems doubtful that library budgets will remain the same: this may well mean another excuse for further budget cuts, with no guarantee that any of the money no longer needed for journal subscription will be invested in publication costs or (might we dare to dream?) in books.

In the end, the question is whether we do need a much more radical overhaul of academic publication. Journals originally were the best (and often the only) way to make research results known to the scholarly community. As academic publishing became more professional, peer review was developed to provide quality control, and recently, journals have also become a tool for measuring perceived quality for the purpose of research assessment by universities and governments. In the age of the internet, journals are, however, non longer the most efficient mode of disseminating research, and scholars continue to use them because they need the recognition which only publication in a reputable journal can provide. Do we still need journals? Is there another, more practical way of organising rigorous peer review?

*This blog post started its life as a discussion between colleagues: thanks for insights, links and ideas – particularly to Mark Humphries (who started the discussion) and Birgitta Hoffmann (who showed that my initial suspicion did not go far enough). Errors and opinions in this post are, of course, all my own.

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London 2012 and the Pastoral Idyll

(Do shepherds dream of idyllic sheep?)

Danny Boyle's set for London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony
Danny Boyle’s set for the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony

A few weeks ago, when the design for at least part of the Olympic opening ceremony was revealed, I was nothing short of appalled. You see, I grew up in a small village surrounded by farmland, and I have little time for the romantic longing for the countryside. Radio 4’s endless pastoral idyll, the Archers fills me with horror, and the idea of presenting a world audience of potentially four billion with grazing sheep and village cricket strikes me as perfectly ghastly. Did I see correctly that the set even includes a figure ploughing a field with a team of horses? Nineteenth century nostalgia madness, I say.

Is this really the best way of celebrating one of the most exciting, urbane, multi-cultural, creative cities? It looks like an image of imagined English countryside, as stuck in c. 1880 or thereabouts, at least as the 1880s might look in the nostalgic mind of somebody like Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, complete with the lovely tint of the evening light and some decorative (but neither too hard working nor too dirty) peasants in the distant background.

But on second thought, this might actually be uniquely appropriate for London of all places. Because the pastoral idyll, this impossible longing for a fantasy countryside, is a unique phenomenon of the megacity, and in Europe at least, London has one of the longest histories of a large population almost entirely separated from the countryside and therefore prone to conceiving romanticised notions of it.

The idea of writing about a countryside unencumbered by the many complications of sophisticated life seems to have taken off, for the first time, in ancient Greece. But it was not Athens which gave us this particular genre, but Alexandria, the new, impossibly large mega-city founded by Alexander, populated, within two generations, with hundreds of thousands of new immigrants from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. For the first time in the Greek world, there was a city where most citizens did not farm, and where walking out into the countryside would no longer be so easy as to be part of normal life.

Theocritus, a poet probably working at the court of the Ptolemies, the Macedonian/Greek kings of Egypt, first hit upon the idea of setting his poems among lovelorn, simple shepherds (for example, look at Idylls 1, 3 and 4). Wealthy, educated inhabitants of these big cities enjoyed to imagine life in Theocritus’ fantasy version of the Sicilian countryside or in an idealised Arcadia. Later, similar themes became fashionable in Rome, yet another cosmopolitan city with hundreds of

Laurent de la Hyre, The Arcadian Shepherds
Laurent de la Hyre, The Arcadian Shepherds

thousands of inhabitants: once Rome had become large and urban enough, Vergil’s Eclogues (example: Eclogue VII)  appropriately allowed them to return to yet another idealised Arcadian shepherds’ world. Early modern Europe rediscovered the fascination with the genre once city life yet again became the focus of the sophisticated classes: 18th century aristocrats enjoyed playing at being shepherds in carefully stage-managed faux rural landscapes.

Herding sheep in the real Arcadia

Herding sheep in the real Arcadia

And what about real Arcadians? The people who lived in the mountains of the central Peloponnese did indeed base much of their wealth (as far as it went) on mountain pastures. When they had a chance, c. 370 BC, the first thing they did was to combine the population of many small villages into a city which they ambitiously named Megalopolis. Shepherds are more likely to dream of the big city, and would hardly recognise townies’ vision of the romantic countryside.

Thus, however counter-intuitive it may seem – Danny Boyle’s recreation of a rural idyll may be the most urban creation the Olympics have ever seen.

Shepherd in what was once Arcadian Megalopolis

Shepherd in what was once Arcadian Megalopolis - probably not dreaming of idyllic sheep.

Posted in Exploring the Past, Inventing the Past, Remembering the Past | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

British Academia: abandoning the next generation

The fate of young academics in UK universities looks increasingly bleak: the chance to reach paid employment as an academic in the Arts and Humanities increasingly depends not only on talent and a willingness to work hard, but also on access to considerable funds.

The problem is that universities increasingly expect early career academics to take on heavy teaching loads for a pittance, and often such jobs are paid only for eight or nine months. Yet, when those same institutions hire people for ‘real jobs’, they expect CVs with large amounts of research – the kind of CV you can’t achieve when you don’t actually get paid research time.

Where, then, do these people with appropriate CVs come from? A very few have the privilege to get one of the few coveted fully paid post-doctoral research positions – in the Arts and Humanities most of these are junior research fellowships in the old universities. To stand out among hundreds of applications, you’d better have a CV with special prizes back to prep school – and if you are from the UK, that kind of CV is certainly easier to get if your parents have the money to put you through a private education.

Beyond that exclusive world many excellent young researchers find it increasingly difficult to an academic career without drawing on private funds. The exploitation starts at PhD level – many undergraduate courses could not be taught without postgraduate students who are willing (feel compelled to) provide teaching for a pittance which is usually well below minimum wage if you take into account all that is actually required in order to do the work properly.

But once the PhD is finished, the difficulties really start. Our young aspiring academic is now perhaps 26 or 27, has three degrees, and has to be ready to survive for several years on low-paid short-term contracts, with regular gaps of employment  in summer, little mentoring while in employment, and hardly a chance for any help with long-term planning and career development. Some have to be grateful to survive on a patchwork of minimal contracts or some lecturing paid by the hour; often commuting between workplaces will be necessary to stay afloat at all. Count in all the unpaid preparation time, and this tends to be highly qualified and specialised work paid at or below minimum wage.

Why am I blogging about this today? Because the situation looks as if it is getting worse. Today it became public that Birmingham university had advertised ‘honorary research positions’ for graduates – in essence a very intensive form of unpaid internship. Unpaid internships are common in many sectors of business, media and the creative industries – and they are a major obstacle for anybody who lacks the connections to get one of these posts and the money to maintain themselves while working as an intern. Yet, these internships are often a crucial precondition for landing a proper job in any of these professions. No wonder that so many in leading positions in the UK are from wealthy backgrounds! This advertisement has now been withdrawn, but I think we all have to remain alert: unpaid internships are an obstacle to giving chances to the most talented in any area – but academia can least afford to select its personnel by wealth rather than by ability.

UK academia has never been entirely meritocratic, it’s impossible with a school system that so clearly favours the wealthy, but one might argue that a generation ago, people with outstanding degree results had a good chance to get into an academic career, even if their parents couldn’t support them into their early thirties. Just ten years ago, I started in my first academic job a week before submitting my thesis, I managed to get to a permanent position some years later without ever being unemployed, not even over summer. I’d consider many of our early career academics very lucky if they could still manage to achieve that: temporary positions which last twelve months are hard to come by these days.

Under these conditions, it is extremely hard to accumulate the kind of research record departments matter-of-factly expect from anybody applying for a permanent position. Without money to pay themselves some research time, our own homegrown talent finds it hard to compete with candidates from countries where postdoctoral research is still funded more generously, for example Germany, which produces many highly qualified postdoctoral researchers just to throw most of them onto the academic scrap-heap in their mid-30s.

What I find particularly despicable about the situation in the UK is that universities seem happy to abdicate their responsibility to nurture talent to the level they themselves expect from those they employ in permanent positions. What other sector can allow itself to be so short-sighted  in neglecting the development of the next generation?

I wish I knew how we can turn round this situation. I remember trying to raise the alarm about the increasing number of eight-month temporary teaching contracts when I first got my permanent(ish) job. But if departments have to choose between being even more severely understaffed and abandoning the moral high ground, there seems to be little chance to insist that we should not exploit young academics so shamelessly.

Birmingham had to withdraw its unpaid internships this time – but for how long will we be able to resist the pressure to adopt yet another practice from the corporate world which is entirely unsuitable for academia?

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