Just in time for Mental Health Awareness Week, I spent most of Friday in a training course with departmental colleagues on Mental Health First Aid, aimed at improving our understanding of mental health and our ability to help support students and colleagues. Highly recommended for all teachers in higher education, if you get a chance (we did the one-day course specially for higher education, rather than the half-day taster or the two-day full qualification); plenty of things that I found moderately annoying, especially the ridiculously small amount of space left for discussion in order to fit everything essential into the day, but the ratio of useful stuff to moderately annoying stuff was far better than on the majority of training courses I’ve done over the years. Continue Reading »

“The best are those who are raised in the severest school.” To the best of my knowledge, my grandmother never read Thucydides (whence that quote comes; Archidamus at 1.84), or Herodotus, or Plutarch’s life of Lycurgus, or any of the other ancient accounts of Sparta and its values, but she didn’t have to; she could draw on a substantial popular tradition of images of Spartan life and attitudes, including her favourite admonitory story of the Spartan boy and the fox. As a child I was never sure what the lesson was supposed to be – don’t get caught? if you get caught, never confess? – but in retrospect I think it was more a kind of mood music: big boys don’t cry, that’s just a scratch, a family of starving Bangladeshis could live on that for a week (on failing to eat one’s crusts), and in my day we’d have been sent to bed without any supper for less than that. The Spartans tell you why you shouldn’t ever have more than one slice of cake. Continue Reading »

I have had one of those Thoughts, which, in the absence of an effective brain-scrubber, can be dealt with only by forcing other people to share it: how about an academic version of Love in the Countryside? For those who haven’t encountered this yet, it’s a new BBC2 series – echoing if not actively ripping off a rather sweet German series that I’ve seen occasionally, Bauer sucht Frau, which according to Chris Dickenson on the Twitter (@cpdickenson) originated with a 1983 Swiss programme – in which an assortment of farming types post dating profiles and select a few of the respondents to spend some time with them out in the countryside, ‘cos it’s difficult to form or sustain a relationship when you spend your days slogging away in isolation at unsocial hours for very little money. Not a huge step away from the university…

Well, no, I don’t get a lot of practice in talking to other people in a social context. I talk to my students, of course, but it’s not what you’d call a real conversation. It’s not the sort of life that’s for everyone. I’m not necessarily looking for a research assistant, but I do need someone who’ll put up with the long hours and understand that those articles aren’t going to write themselves, and obviously they have to be okay with a bit of mess and dust and books everywhere. It’s a pretty quiet life, and I know some non-academics might think that I’m incredibly dull, so maybe it would help if they came from the same sort of background, but then Richard Dawkins married one of Doctor Who’s glamorous assistants so that’s the kind of thing I have in mind…

In subsequent episodes, the lucky respondents have to amuse themselves in Glasgow for two days in February with only £15 while the academic is in a conference, survive a departmental picnic, look after three homesick overseas students, and cope with the meltdown when a funding application is rejected. I’m sure my wife will be able to think of other amusing and dramatic scenarios…

992 Arguments

How do we teach our students to argue, in an appropriate academic manner? At least one of the key elements is to help them to recognise, and criticise, different sorts of arguments in the secondary literature – and then to encourage them to turn this critical sense on their own work, to question every statement that they make and probe every possible weakness. But this needs to be critical criticism, so to speak; criticism that’s tempered by a sense of realism, of what is actually possible in historical studies – and by an awareness that there is rarely a single straightforward answer to anything, or a single correct approach. For example, identifying every source, ancient and modern, as ‘biased’ may be true, and better than total credulousness, but it’s generally unhelpful; at best it’s a first step rather than a conclusion, given the impossibility of finding a source that doesn’t have its own perspective, concealed or unconscious or otherwise. And if I thought it would help, I’d spend a lot of time citing Matthew 7.1-5… Continue Reading »

Expert Opinions

As I’ve remarked before, I am never going to become a popular writer of history: my books will never be sold in railway stations or airports, or reviewed in proper newspapers or included in celebrities’ Books of the Year choices; they won’t ever have embossed gold writing on the cover; I won’t ever be invited to the Hay Festival or the Chalke Valley History Festival or the like, and as for television… Partly this is the result of wilful refusal to submit to mainstream tastes (no, Lord Bragg, I won’t talk about bloody Spartacus…), and partly sheer inability to think or write in the right sort of terms even if I wanted to – I mean, my idea of an accessible work for a general audience was a polemical account of modern theories of imperialism and the reception of the Roman Empire… Continue Reading »

Never mind the hover board, what I was really expecting by 2018 was that we’d all be projecting ourselves into overseas conferences as holograms. Sorry, Belfast, but while I did find some quite nice beer, I still would have preferred to experience the round table discussion of Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler and other delights of this year’s European Social Science History Conference without all the rain… Continue Reading »

There’s been a minor flurry of references to Thucydides in the context of the BBC’s bizarre decision to give Enoch Powell’s notorious 1968 ‘rivers of blood’ speech the historical monument treatment. It’s an interesting variant on the argument put forward by opponents of ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and similar campaigns to protect the legacies of racism and imperialism, that something can be simultaneously incredibly important for historical understanding (and so must be preserved) and yet absolutely separate from contemporary concerns (and so shouldn’t be attacked). The claim is that Powell’s speech matters because of its role in history (so celebrating it now has nothing to do with contemporary politics, honest, and we’re going to be really critical of it), and yet the only reason anyone pays any attention to the racist pronouncements of a failed politician is the persistence of such racism as an undercurrent in British society ever since, with the increasing tendency of mainstream political parties to treat it not as a problem and source of shame but as Very Real Concerns that Should Be Addressed. A healthy, modern society would be one in which Powell’s speech was of purely historical concern – in which case this anniversary would be of interest only to a tiny number of specialists. Ours clearly isn’t – but that doesn’t mean the BBC should be pandering to such tendencies. Continue Reading »