FEEGI 2014 – global history in New Orleans

A few weeks back I had the great pleasure of attending FEEGI’s biennial conference in New Orleans.  Following on from a few days spend in the most mind-numbingly dull city on the planet (DC’s Capitol Hill could do with a cafe or two, block after block of neo-classical office buildings just doesn’t do it for me) the charm of the South was easy to appreciate.   Landing to realise I was there for the start of Mardi Gras was also a nice surprise.  As a city, it represents much of what global history is meant to be about.  With a complex history built on European overseas expansion and its associated atrocities, it was an excellent location to delve into an entangled, global past.

Like all ‘world history’ events, some presentations did little more than fetishise the European experience of new worlds,  revelling in detailed descriptions of the exotic and laughing at the simplicity of European understanding.  At times, these anecdotes left something to be desired, the depth of analysis limited to simply stating that the exotic was a popular early modern trope used to sell books more than seriously educate fellow Europeans. It may have been meant ironically, but with so much modern scholarship sold through the promise of exotic tales and sexual promiscuity, is any historian really in the best position to condemn the fetishes of authors past?

Of course, beyond these anecdotes were some excellent presentations and updates on current projects.  The work of younger historians (a term not intended to be patronising – I was the baby of the conference at the wee age of 26) on display was encouraging and interesting for the ‘global’ historian.  These included topics as wide ranging as Matt Brannan’s (Tulane) work on voodoo practices in New Orleans in the eighteenth century to Jon Gebhardt’s (Yale) analysis of the Chinese impact on Portuguese and Spanish trading networks in the Pacific or Rebecca Simon’s new interpretation of piratical sovereignty in the Atlantic world.

Rigep Dandulo, by Thomas Cross, mid 17th century - NPG D29244 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Rigep Dandulo

Personally, and selfishly, I found the presentations of Laura Perille (Brown) and Kate Mulry (NYU) particularly fascinating.  Laura’s work explores the relations between England and the Ottoman Empire throughout the early modern period, with case studies exploring the relationship through cultural engagement.  Her presentation brought to life the baptism of Rigep Dandulo, part of an Ottoman embassy from the Barbary Coast, and explored how baptising the Turk was a common image in England, used to highlight the strength of different religious perspectives.  In this tale, Rigep, a Greek, was given the heritage of the famous Danalo family from Venice, while representing both the Turk and the Moore in diplomatic proceedings.  In addition to the conclusions drawn in Laura’s work about the role of the Turk in England, it’s a great example of the ‘global’ lives of some early modern individuals, and the transnational nature of their identity.

The second presentation that really struck me was Kate’s interpretation of the role of gardens, and horticultural exchange, in the Atlantic world towards the end of the seventeenth century.  A fine topic by itself, particularly considering the growing interest in this field in England during the period, Kate’s work takes it a step further by including the East India Company in her analysis.  Specifically, the questions is asked as to why the Company granted the Crown access to their spices and other East India goods as part of a royal initiative to re-plant them in Barbados.  Was this a simple bribe by the Company?  Was it part of an English endeavour to pacify nature?  Was it, as this paper suggested, the first stage of an East India Company plan/plot/scheme/strategy to expand their interests into the Caribbean?  It might be a step to far to say that gardens reveal London’s merchants’ secret plan to take over the world, but there is certainly a lot more for us to understand around topics of early modern science, trade and Empire.

Finally, with the hard work done (and tweeted!), business cards exchanged, and new friendships conceived, there was little to do but head out into the weird, wonderful world of a proper Southern party…

Matt, Kate & Edmond

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Teaching v Research: the battle for the soul of the humanities

Over the past couple of weeks it’s become increasingly difficult to focus on my thesis without turning more and more to questions of my academic career.  First, many friends are currently applying for post-doctoral positions, and the spectre of my own applications next summer is rearing.  And secondly, I’ve recently conducted my first significant set of teaching – both lecturing and supervisions.  The two link together, and have highlighted how research and teaching are less mutually supportive than I had previously believed.

With the words of Willetts’ Robbins Revisited echoing in the ether around me, and brought into focus through conversations with the Richard Blakemore and John Gallagher, it’s been an odd moment to really teach for the first time.  Willetts’ demand that history at university should refocus around teaching would, you’d have thought, inspired me during this period, and made my initial foray more important – both for my personal growth and training, but also for my CV.  I’m not really sure if this is the case.

It’s not that I don’t think the experience has been useful for me personally – it has been a very enjoyable learning curve to step on to – but that it has made me question the roles of teaching and research in academia.  As researchers we seek to undertake original, and often very niche, projects for the purpose of specialist publication and academic recognition – in part to let us dive into our next intellectual adventure.  As teachers we advise the next generation in writing method, argument and critical thinking.  History is the focus of their writing, argument and thinking, but understanding or exploring the past is not the most important part of their study.  Does delivering a lecture about broad historical trends (like those I’ve recently delivered) really help students develop those skills?  And do students still engage with lecturing as a teaching method at all?  If, as Willetts suggests, university should be a place to train people for the workplace, then skill based teaching would take precedence – and in turn a change in universities’ approach to teaching is surely under way.

With this in mind, where does our research offer benefits for students in Willetts new university order?  Does spending months completing an article or book transfer to students in terms of their teaching experience?  I suspect, regrettably, that most of the time it does not.  In the sciences a lot of teaching in undertaken to develop the skills necessary to understand and undertake more creative research and it would seem that the humanities are slowly heading in this direction.  This is not just through government interference, but through changes in fees leading to increased consumer demands (from students) regarding their education.  If teaching is the main responsibility of the historian, how can we justify additional funding and time to dedicate to our own research?

This is a question that is obviously under the consideration of many academics with a better grasp on the issue than me, but it’s certainly given a certain edge to my recent experiences.   I will personally endeavour to develop my thesis, publish academic articles and build a career based on mutually supporting research and teaching experience – but wonder whether a system will exist where I can do so.  With wider engagement research might be seen to deliver greater utility, but the era of funding research for the sake of intellectual exploration alone might be reaching a sad end.  The solution isn’t about nudging and adjusting the balance of research v teaching in funding applications.  History as a discipline is entering a period of introspection and reform within itself.  I think the question, really, should be ‘what’s the point of it all?’

Introduction

While a great fictional academic once claimed that academia is a world of abstract thinking and imagination, it seems sensible that, once in a while, we write something down.  In essence that’s why I’m here, to share my thoughts with the greatest network ever created by man (the internet) and hopefully bump into some interesting nodes within it!