Ph.D. Octopus

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Why you should go to grad school

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by apini

As Peter mentioned, the constant stream of off-putting articles on grad school is annoying (enraging) for a number of reasons.  Although I’m sure it’s meant well – as a form of empathy with ‘our situation’ – it has the perverse effect of shifting the blame to our generation.

So this is a response: why you should go to grad school.
1) you should go to grad school because it’s an excellent place for developing your ideas in a more rigorous, fluent, and methodologically sophisticated way than undergraduate education allows.  This is true for both the arts and sciences, and is not only a good reason to go to grad school, but one that is regularly cited by grad students.  This isn’t just reading books, conducting experiments, and expanding your ‘knowledge’; it’s testing your creativity and critical thinking and exercising your brain.
2) you should go to grad school because you want to spend time with like-minded people. I know, grad school is serious business and academia is a lonely existence, but why should this career choice be different from others? Some people want to work in high-pressure, internally competitive, time-sensitive work environments like newsrooms or trading floors; others want to work in the ‘corridors of power’ in DC or Whitehall; others want to work with laidback colleagues with similar taste in music, or art, or with similar schooling or hobbies.  If you like the atmosphere, the colleagues and friends, it makes a real difference to the job.  This shouldn’t be considered a ‘bad reason’ for going to grad school anymore than ‘not knowing what you want to do’ is for law school (sorry lawyer friends!)
3) you should go to grad school because you like college and you like college (undergrad) students.  After all, you’re going to spend half of your time (at least!) teaching them! And dealing with the life of a university – that is, admin, faculty advising, mentoring, talking about and helping undergrads (and possibly more grad students).
4) you should go to grad school because you like research.  You like talking about it, you like doing it, you like writing about it.  Again, you’ll be spending at least half of your time doing this!
5) you should go to grad school because there will probably be some kind of job that uses at least one of those skills at the end of it.  Lots of people end up with jobs or careers that are different from what they’ve trained for, but they manage to use some transferable skills in their new jobs, or they cobble together a career that incorporates a few different skills, or they have to learn new skills on the job.  This shouldn’t be accompanied by guilt or a sense of failure or a sense of wasted time.
Good luck!

Written by apini

June 1, 2012 at 04:37

Posted in Uncategorized

The Roman World is 99 Days Long

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by apini

I had just finished teaching a historiography review session for my undergrads who are taking the exam in a little over a Imageweek when I was emailed this story about a new mapping tool for the ancient Roman world.  Maybe it was just because I had been talking about Braudel, but I couldn’t help but see the comparisons – and the possibilities for ‘total history’ in new digital tools.

Scott Weingart pinpointed what makes this technology so exciting in his blog review of ORBIS:

ORBIS is among the first digital scholarly tools for the humanities (that I have encountered) that really lives up to the name “digital scholarly tool for the humanities.” Beyond being a simple tool, ORBIS is an explicit and transparent argument, a way of presenting research that also happens to allow, by its very existence, further research to be done. It is a map that allows the user to engage in the process of map-making, and a presentation of a process that allows the user to make and explore in ways the initial creators could not have foreseen.

In other words, it’s not just a digital archive for historians (as so many digital tools in the humanities are), or a useful interactive database, like the Slave Voyages Database, that generates so much controversy in part because the user is not involved in the process of formulating the data.  And it’s not like the virtual Rome project, which basically just allows the user to see what Rome would have been like.  All of these are very cool, but it’s the interactivity of the research that is particularly cool about ORBIS.

I hope people use this for teaching as well as for research.  And personally, I think it’d be great if someone put this together for the British Empire.  Or for West African trade…..

Written by apini

May 11, 2012 at 04:59

Posted in Uncategorized

No taxation without representation

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by apini

Today is the day of the London mayoral election.  Ken and Boris are squaring off over who gets to claim credit for Imagethrowing money at London, and who gets to avoid blame for transport failures. And I, a taxpaying resident of London, who regularly uses public transport, do not get to vote.

As I’ve previously written, studying African colonial history can help to prepare you for the weird and wonderful rules of citizenship, and remind you that there is no ‘natural’ truth to this stuff – it’s all a series of compromises and contingencies.  So in the UK, citizens of Commonwealth countries, the Republic of Ireland are allowed to vote in all elections, and the European Union are allowed to vote in local, supralocal (today’s), or regional assembly (Scottish parliament, etc) elections.  So (some) former subjects of the Empire are treated locally as citizens.  And current members of the EU are treated (sometimes) as citizens.  Image

Americans in Britain usually get told in this kind of situation that we fought a war and so if we wanted those rights we should have stuck around in the Empire, etc etc.  But since the Republic of Ireland gets these rights, that seems a little false in this case.  On the other hand, the US doesn’t let foreigners vote at all.

So why does this always come back to colonial history?  Well, growing up in the US, the story that you get is that the British Empire was bad because it taxed its subjects without allowing them to have elected representation.  And there’s a general feeling across the board that part of what makes imperialism so damaging is that it is run by unaccountable autocrats.  And a lot of that comes down to tax extraction again, and the idea that the taxes being bullied out of Africans or Indians were not being used to develop the local infrastructure, education provision, etc, but were being used to build parks and public works in London and Manchester.

In other words, there is an immigrant class of most countries today that is not represented in the system in which they’re paying tax.  And when a lot of public vitriol is directed at this class, and silly policies are put into place, it becomes clear that their under-representation creates a delightful new way to ‘other’, and to exploit from the inside.

We like to think that all of the great voting struggles were overcome by the anti-colonial revolutions, the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements, women’s suffrage…. we like to think of the West as being complete democracy and of being the only way that modernity could have happened.  But as I’ve said in previous posts, there are a lot of different ways that things could have turned out (and could still), and the assumption that immigrants should not vote is just that – an assumption, not a ‘truth’.  As the inclusion or exclusion of different types of immigrant in various countries shows, citizenship, and the rights and responsibilities that come with it are invented, and could easily change again.

Written by apini

May 3, 2012 at 04:28


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by Bronwen

In case you were getting discouraged by the state of the media in America, take a look at the newest ‘-gate’ to hit Britain: Pastygate.

Yes, that’s right: the Chancellor has added VAT to hot takeaway foods from places other than restaurants.  Apparently this is unfair because Osborne hasn’t had anything from Greggs lately.  This has ignited the popular press of the country, as well as launching new ad campaigns for pasty proprietors.










This in turn was followed by a predictable stampede of politicians to the local Greggs, Cornish Pasty Company, etc.

Dave prefers West Cornwall Pasty Company

As the Economist notes:

Like a glacé cherry topping off a Greggs iced tart, the media day culminated with Ed Balls, the Labour shadow chancellor of the exchequer, inviting the television cameras to film him confidently striding into a branch of Greggs to order eight sausage rolls. These were not all for him it emerged (though he is a big chap, and in training for a marathon). Some were for the awkward, besuited southerner behind him who turned out to be his party leader, Ed Miliband.

We love Greggs!

But the Economist points out that this is all about class and the perceived end of British institutions.  I can see that, I guess. The Greggs ad pointedly uses George Osborne’s real first name, Gideon, for instance.  And the Daily Mail pretty much comes right out and says that Cameron is out of touch with normal people.  This is veering pretty close to the dangerous ‘real America’ territory of Fox News.

But as a neutral observer, what I really see is further indication that The Thick of It is spot on in its depiction of the complete lack of control that politicians have over the media here.  Unlike in the US, where the Right thinks there’s a ‘Liberal Media Bias’ and liberals know that Fox News is basically a paid propaganda arm of the Republican Party, in Britain it’s pretty obvious that no one in the media likes or has any respect for any political or governmental figures.  Add to that newspapers’ desire to make anything into a scandal, and you have tabloid gold.

Fittingly this all emerged in the same week that The New Yorker ran a piece on Paul Dacre and the Daily Mail.  But really, nothing says it better than the Daily Show.

Moat Gate

Written by apini

March 30, 2012 at 06:52

Posted in class, politics

Campus Lit

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by Bronwen

Since I wrote my last post on campus novels, I’ve read some more of them – mostly from the student Imageperspective: Starter for Ten, I am Charlotte Simmons, and, most recently, Noughties.  All were good in very different ways (and extremely different stylistically).  It’s interesting to note that while the differences between academic life in the British and American campus novel are significant (again, as discussed previously), there are far more commonalities for the students themselves. Most notably, too much drinking!

But all of them also dealt with a fear that one of my students voiced at the end of term last week.  My student, very interested in the topic we were covering that week (Africa in the Cold War), had decided last minute to change her essay topic to this more interesting one.  But she was finding the reading so interesting (and upsetting) that she felt overwhelmed.  When she came to my office hour, she explained that there were fundamentally too many options at university!  She wanted to do all the things offered: play a sport, attend research seminars that looked interesting, go to film screenings, make friends, do all the reading that she found interesting, take all the classes….. and she was feeling overwhelmed with guilt for not being able to do it all.

I completely sympathized, and maybe I should have recommended one of these campus lit books, because they certainly laid out the Read the rest of this entry »

Written by apini

March 23, 2012 at 05:26

Posted in Uncategorized

Why Studying African History is Good For You

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by Bronwen

I’m teaching about the post-war African colonial empires at the moment, and came across NYU Professor Fred Cooper’s lecture for the Stanford Humanities Centre while putting together the ‘further reading’ materials for my students.  I highly recommend this podcast.  (Number 29 here).

Listening to it, I was reminded why African history should not be a niche subject, but should be integral to all history curricula: the shape of how we think about the world owes a lot to how the world has engaged with Africa over the past 400 years. From humanitarianism to ‘development’, from ‘modern’ warfare to understandings of agricultural technology, from acceptable capitalism to unacceptable exploitation, concepts that we take for granted have emerged from our engagement with Africa.  What is the state for?  Are political parties inevitable in a democracy?  If ethnicity is defined by a shared cultural heritage and language, where does that break down territorially? What are the smallest and largest effective political structures?  All of these questions are raised by studying African history.

But even more fundamentally, studying African history is important for challenging the narrative of progress, as Cooper does so effectively in this lecture.  Yes, in some ways learning history is about learning how we got here.  But in other, equally important ways, it is about the roads not taken.  Learning African history can help demonstrate that the nation state has never been an inevitability, for instance, and that citizenship is a pretty arbitrary category.  The shifting categories of citizen, subject, and national in French Africa (the subject of the podcast) were not different ways of getting to the objectively ‘true’ form of citizenship as now practiced.  Citizenship, national identity, and supranational identities have always been negotiated and what we have now is just as arbitrary and negotiated a category as the forms that existed in the nineteenth century empires or in the mid-twentieth century Unions or Federations or Communities or Commonwealths.

This is particularly relevant teaching in the EU, where despite the contested nature of that body within English opinion, national and supranational citizenship are part of daily life.  But I imagine it would be equally relevant in both the EU and the US, where countries increasingly cling to an ‘origins’ notion of citizenship and nationality in an attempt to define the limits of social citizenship and its entitlements.

There are so many reasons to study history more generally.  But African history can provide a unique insight into the assumptions we all make about the ‘modern’ world, how we got here, and how completely different fundamental conceptions about how the world operates could be if one small thing were different.

Written by apini

February 24, 2012 at 04:52

What are universities for?

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by Bronwen

Poor English universities.  No one knows what they’re for anymore.  But it’s so obvious!  So here’s my handy guide to help you figure it out.

Are they for developing business, innovation and skills?

Of course!  The government department responsible for them is the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.  (No, not  the department of education, don’t be absurd).  You’ll find them here, listed amongst BIS’s other policy areas:

Our policy areas

All our policies aim to drive balanced and sustainable growth.

  • Better regulation
  • Business law
  • Business sectors
  • Consumer issues
  • Economic development
  • Economics and statistics
  • Employment matters
  • Enterprise and business support
  • Europe, trade and export control
  • Further education and skills
  • Higher education
  • Innovation
  • National and official statistics
  • Public Sector Innovation
  • Science
  • Shareholder Executive

And don’t forget that one of its key roles in that capacity is Preventing Violent Extremism.

Are they for improving the public and the quality of life of the country?

Again, yes.  Everyone knows that more education means a better educated population.  But what you didn’t know was that education isn’t actually what universities are for (see point 8 below).  No, universities are intended to benefit wider culture.  How will this be measured, you ask.  By impact:

  1. Definition of impact for the REF
  2. For the purposes of the REF, impact is defined as an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia (as set out in paragraph 143).
  3. Impact includes, but is not limited to, an effect on, change or benefit to:
  4. the activity, attitude, awareness, behaviour, capacity, opportunity, performance, policy, practice, process or understanding of an audience, beneficiary, community, constituency, organisation or individuals in any geographic location whether locally, regionally, nationally or internationally.
  5. Impact includes the reduction or prevention of harm, risk, cost or other negative effects.
  6. For the purposes of the impact element of the REF:
  7. Impacts on research or the advancement of academic knowledge within the higher education sector (whether in the UK or internationally) are excluded. (The submitted unit’s contribution to academic research and knowledge is assessed within the ‘outputs’ and ‘environment’ elements of REF.)
  8. Impacts on students, teaching or other activities within the submitting HEI are excluded.
  9. Other impacts within the higher education sector, including on teaching or students, are included where they extend significantly beyond the submitting HEI.
  10. Impacts will be assessed in terms of their ‘reach and significance’ regardless of the geographic location in which they occurred, whether locally, regionally, nationally or internationally. The UK funding bodies expect that many impacts will contribute to the economy, society and culture within the UK, but equally value the international contribution of UK research.
  11. The REF panels will provide further guidance in relation to the kinds of impact that they would anticipate from research in their UOAs; this guidance will not be restrictive, and any impact that meets the general definition at Annex C will be eligible.

So, for example, if you had been George Orwell, you would have made a measurable impact on the society or culture by creating (and presumably licensing to your university [see below]) the term ‘Orwellian’ or writing the essay  ‘Politics and the English Language.’

Are they for generating income?

Well, yes, that too.  Obviously universities, like banks, hedge funds, and private equity firms, need to attract the best and the brightest….administrators.  So they need to generate income for their vice-chancellors’ enormous salaries.  But beyond this, universities can also generate income for the state.  According to the Times Higher,

Referring to suggestions that Hefce might next year raise over-recruitment fines to £10,000 per student under the higher fees regime, he said such a move would cause difficulties for universities, which would find it hard to judge their conversion rates between offers and acceptances under the new system.

But don’t forget that for both the vice-chancellors and the government the real money comes from overseas students (soon to be paying over £15,000 a year for postgraduate courses).  Of course, some people will complain.  Again, the Times Higher

The remarks will make uncomfortable reading for UK universities, which rely on international students to prop up postgraduate studies in certain key disciplines. Institutions will also be aware of the income such students provide through tuition fees, and of the long-standing concerns that they can end up isolated from UK students. The paper’s authors, Lorraine Brown and Steven Richards, both senior lecturers in tourism, note that previous studies have highlighted the “unfriendly, unapproachable and indifferent” attitudes, and in some cases outright racism, faced by overseas students in the UK. However, little work has been done on home students’ attitudes, they add.

Hello!?  Do you see ‘improving the overseas student experience’ on this list of what universities are for?  No?  Didn’t think so.

Are they for broadening the mind?

This is what academics have begun to stress recently.  But honestly, I’m not sure when they’ll have the time.

Written by apini

February 17, 2012 at 05:40

Posted in Academia

Shut Up, Jonathan Franzen

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by Bronwen

Jonathan Franzen is driving me nuts.  He seems to be clinging to celebrity more and more tenuously every day.  First it was David Foster Wallace bashing.  Then it was e-book bashing.  And now it’s a grudgingly sort of positive review of Edith Wharton.

As someone who has been the cause of feminist opprobrium in the past, maybe he thought his article on Wharton would get him into the good books.  Or maybe the New Yorker just wanted someone to write something about her and he wasn’t busy.  Who knows.

The review is meant, I think, to be a positive endorsement of Wharton’s novels.  Instead, what comes across is Franzen’s inability to sympathize with Wharton because 1) she’s rich (but not in a ‘good’ way, like Tolstoy) 2) she was conservative (because she didn’t like populist politicking) 3) she left America 4) she acted like a spoiled writer (‘writing in bed after breakfast and tossing the completed pages on the floor, to be sorted and typed up by her secretary’… no other writers ever did that…..).

He claims, in fact, that her only ‘sympathetic’ characteristic (his words: ‘potentially redeeming disadvantage’) was that ‘she wasn’t pretty,’ and that this made her a social outsider, which made her a good writer.  After speculating about her love life (or lack of one), her relationship with her mother (who apparently drove her father to an early death), her lack of friendships with women (of whom she was apparently jealous), we finally come to the crux of Franzen’s problem: ‘Edith Wharton might well be more congenial to us now if, alongside her other advantages, she’d looked like Grace Kelly’ etc.

Now, I get that the rhetorical purpose of all this is probably to then set up the peculiarly sympathetic characters that Wharton created and who are the reason that Wharton’s fiction ‘matters’ in contrast to her, whom we apparently don’t like.   But the standards for not liking her?  They could be applied to hundreds of writers!  These same qualities, in fact [feminist outrage alert], applied to male writers are usually seen as the eccentricities, graces, and charms befitting a Great Novelist.  Wealth and privilege?  There are literally too many wealthy, privileged writers to know where to begin, but F. Scott Fitzgerald being mentioned in the article  (in a different context) comes immediately to mind.  Expatriatism? Again Fitzgerald, but also Henry James who is, yes, also mentioned in the article in a different context.  And acting like a spoiled writer?  Well, even Franzen doesn’t let that one stand, recanting near the end of the article.  And really, attributing her writing genius to the fact that ‘she wasn’t pretty’?













Shut up, Jonathan Franzen.

Written by apini

February 9, 2012 at 20:18

Posted in writing

Third Chimurenga

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by Bronwen

Africa’s having a bit of a renaissance moment in the news lately.  Between the Economist‘s retraction of it’s claim that Africa is doomed, the Guardian’s report on Africa’s middle class, and a new EU-funded project that highlights Africa’s other class,  it seems that people are waking up to the fact that there’s more to Africa than the grim war-torn, famine-stricken, refugee-filled images of the 1990s and early 2000s. But most of the attention so far has been on the growing material wealth of Africans (or at least, Eur-Americans’ growing recognition of the material wealth of Africans).  The Africa Report and the FT’s This is Africa are both focused on convincing the business world that Africa is a sound investment.

In a different vein, this past weekend’s FT Magazine, Simon Kuper’s column featured a promising new angle that looks beyond ‘hey, Africans can buy things’ to ‘hey, Africa has a thriving intellectual culture too.’  (Again, in the mainstream media.  Africa is a Country has been doing this for a long time.)  As my own research is on middle class West African diaspora contributions to Atlantic intellectual and social developments in the nineteenth century, and I spend a lot of time convincing my students that much of Africa has a long history of a thriving business class and a thriving scholarly tradition, this shift can only be good for furthering my case.

The focus of Simon Kuper’s article is Chimurenga, a magazine published in Cape Town and founded by Ntone Edjabe (pictured) in 2002. Chimurenga bills itself as ‘a pan African publication of writing, art and politics’.  It’s also published in Nairobi with Kenya’s literary magazine Kwani and Lagos with Nigeria’s independent publisher Cassava Republic Press.  In fact it’s a little McSweeney’s-esque, with different formats and conceits for each issue.  The writing, however, tends to be more non-fiction: hard-hitting journalism; book and art criticism; interviews; and a variety of other forms. Beyond the magazine itself, Chimurenganyana is the book publishing arm of the project.  They are ‘ a pavement literature project consisting of low cost serialized monographs culled from the print journal’ and have published 6 books to date.  They also collaborate with academia, putting out a biennual publication on Africa’s cities with University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities.  All of this is very cool, and certainly does its part to show Eur-America that the Africa we think we know is just an Africa of our imagination.

But what I find the most exciting about this is that it’s not for Eur-Americans.  Sure, I can subscribe and can see articles on their  Read the rest of this entry »

Written by apini

February 3, 2012 at 03:25

The Greats

with 8 comments

by Bronwen

This week I lectured on ‘The First World War and Africa’.  My students seemed to really enjoy the topic, which isn’t surprising; in a course (African History since 1800) where so much is new to first year undergraduates, the First World War is a topic they know quite a lot about and for which they have an extensive frame of reference.  This is because the First World War is constantly talked about here.  Between high school course work on the causes of World War One, and the pervasive cultural memory – enhanced by Downton Abbey and recent BBC miniseries like Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong – students arrive at university with a pretty solid foundation in World War One history.

Obviously, the First World War was pretty devastating to Britain.  Not only did 2.19 per cent of the population die in the war, but over a million and a half servicemen were wounded as well.  Its social and economic impacts in the British and French colonies in Africa were similarly devastating.  Contrast this with America’s 0.13 per cent casualty rate (as a percentage of the population) and its easy to see why this is a topic that has a much greater, more lasting emotional impact here. World War I was the event that catapulted Britain – like it or not – into the modern age. Add to that the historiographical line that has made its way down to the classroom level – the futility and pointlessness of the war – and it becomes clear that all my student essays this term are going to be about the impact of the Great War on Africa.

I think all of this is interesting because, although I feel like I had a really excellent high school history education, and a fantastic undergraduate history education, I arrived in Britain knowing only a few key facts about the First World War: that it had been the first major conflict in which the flame-thrower was used; it gave rise to Egyptian nationalism; and it was a major influence on Hemingway.  My husband was pretty dismayed when I explained that in a lot of American schools, World War I is taught as basically the pre-World War II: the same actors, basically; the same plot-line from an American perspective (we come in late and end the war); and pretty much important (from our perspective) because it lines up the causes of the Second World War.  Obviously this is not the case everywhere in America, and I’m sure that if you chose to focus on this in college, there’s loads of good teaching out there.  But it is possible to come through the American education system without too much emphasis on this conflict.

Despite my explanation, I’m not sure he believed me until we (finally) watched the first season of Boardwalk Empire.  Talking about it afterward, we were commenting that if this had been a story set in Britain at the same time (1920), it would have been all about the war, the changes in society after the war, the crumbling British institutions, etc that are all the fodder for Downton drama [in fact, the first episode of season 2 of Downton drove me nuts a little because they just wouldn't shut up about the war! even though it was supposed to have been going on for a couple of years by that point!].  Instead, the characters who fought in the war are outsiders, are really not supposed to bring it up, and are even shunned a little for having participated (especially for having volunteered).

In fact, the big cultural shared moment that pushed the US into modernity in the way most like World War I for Americans is the Great Depression, an event that really didn’t affect Britain to the same degree.  For both countries, there’s a heyday for the wealthy before an almost hubristic crash, which brings about more equality and more social programs. A recent piece in the FT Magazine by Gillian Tett points out that the reality of economic austerity is much closer for those in Britain than for those in the US precisely because our big cultural shared memory of austerity in America is over a generation ago, while the memory of the pain Britain felt in the 1970s is still relatively fresh.

Perhaps, following on from Gillian Tett, this all helps to explain both countries’ recent behavior, then.  If the First World War is such a dominant theme in British life and education, maybe that explains their unwillingness to get sucked into the entangling alliances of European politics and finance.  And if the Great Depression is a strong cultural memory in America, perhaps the idea of austerity and life before safety nets, and the pre-modernity it implies, makes the total return to Gilded Age politics distasteful enough to prevent too many cuts.  Here’s hoping, at least.

Written by apini

January 27, 2012 at 08:35


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