Chronicle II: October to December 2015

Somewhat to my surprise, I have now reached the second of the what-was-going-in-my-life round-ups I was promising to use as the anchor of the new blogging programme here at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe, back in, er, February. It wasn’t supposed to take eight months to record what had happened in three, but as you’ll have observed there was a fair bit of hiatus and strife in there, and I hope that we can pick things up a bit now. There’s only one way to find out, anyway, and thus we now reach the point where I try and give some impression of my first semester employed at the University of Leeds. The first thing that needs to be said about that is that my new colleagues were absolutely lovely, and guided me through new offices and routines with cheerful generosity; it all unrolled a great deal more easily than it could so easily have done while I found my feet. To try and explain what I was actually up to, however, probably needs breaking down into headings, and the obvious ones would be teaching, what we might generally class as extra labours, seminars and similar, research work and, lastly, life more widely; I’ll say the least about the last, but it holds the rest together. So here we go.

Teaching

I might have had a much tougher first semester than in fact I did, because I’d offered a year-long third-year module which I wasn’t available to advertise at the relevant fair back in May, what with still having my previous job at that point, and so only two students signed up for it and it didn’t run. That still left me with first-year, second-year, dissertation and MA teaching, but there was less, overall, than I might have expected, and than there would be the next year.

The Roger Stevens Building, University of Leeds

The Roger Stevens Building, site of most history lectures in the University of Leeds, and one of the most internally bewildering buildings I’ve ever been in

Leeds runs a medieval survey module as compulsory content for its first-year undergraduate historians, HIST1090 Medieval and Renaissance Europe, which covers (then and now) right the way through from 500 to 1500, more or less, in 11 weeks. Students on it get two lectures and one seminar a week, and I had one of the seminar groups. That was a bit of a challenge in various ways, but Birmingham had prepared me for them and, well, by next year, not to give away too much, I was helping redesign the module… I also gave the lectures on the fall of Rome (in the West), the Carolingians and the Vikings, but that was (obviously) over fairly early on, so after that I just had my one tutorial group to manage. For those of you interested in comparisons, they had two essays to do over the course of the semester and an exam after it, so there was marking of those as well. Obviously it was all new prep, although the Vikings lecture at least I was more or less able to recycle from Birmingham, but it wasn’t overall too difficult a module to do the way I did it.

Physics and Astronomy, E.C. Stoner Building, Leeds University.

The E. C. Stoner Building, where my second-year option classes were taught, building site not yet visible at right. Photo copyright of Kevin McCarthy, via PicturesOfEngland.com

Then there was the second-year stuff. At second-year I’d offered a Carolingians module, HIST2005 Rule and Reform under Charlemagne and his Successors, 768–987. In fact, though, Professor Julia Barrow already runs a quite similar module on Franks, Vikings and Saxons, so a number of people chose that as well and we had to make them exclusive of each other and filter the students, and Julia got most of them! I wound up with a neat little group who gave me the chance to teach a module almost all of whose subject matter I actually knew well, for maybe the first time in my career. I was actually delighted by how often my research became part of this, not usually my published work but my knowledge of the field and where the current areas of debate were, and it went quite well overall. The structure of this was one lecture and one seminar a week, and there were assessed presentations each week and an essay and an exam to mark. The main other thing I remember about this bit of teaching by now is that my seminar classroom was right by a building site (not shown above), so we always had to choose between being hardly able to hear ourselves and somewhat overheated or being freezing and utterly unable to hear ourselves. I did feel as if I might be a decent teacher by the end of it, however. This was also the first place where I had to deal with recordings being made of lectures for revision, which opened up various new pedagogical possibilities, but I want to write something separate about this later, so I’ll not say more about that for now. The other digital problem was that I’d wanted to make sure that all readings I was expecting the whole group to do were available electronically, but since I’d arrived in post only a month before module start, the Library had not been able to digitise everything I’d asked for in time. They made heroic efforts but I had to improvise quite a bit in certain weeks anyway. By December, having learned from my misfortunes, I had my requests for next semester in bang on time…

The Brotherton Room, Special Collections, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

The Brotherton Room, Special Collections, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, where much of the MA in Medieval History skills teaching happens

Above that, while I had no third-year teaching as such, there was a dissertation pupil. Leeds usually expects a student’s dissertation (or final year project) to arise from the year-long Special Subject of which I was not this year doing one, but one student wanted badly enough to do one on the barbarian invasions that they did that with me anyway. I guess they’d been very struck by Ian Wood as a first- or second-year and now there was only me… But that was useful for learning the Leeds dissertational ropes. At Masters level I got away fairly easily with two appearances on the MEDV5110 Research Methods and Bibliography, in which I shared a class on manuscripts with Dr William Flynn and Dr Venetia Bridges and another on, would you believe it, coinage and money, with Dr Alan Murray, all of whom very kindly fitted me into classes that had worked fine before me as well. I didn’t, given my very recent arrival, have any doctoral students, but we did have one visiting from China, working on Emperor Louis the Pious, and so I got asked to join in as joint advisor to them, which gelled well with the second-year teaching.

Obverse of gold solidus of Emperor Louis the Pious (814-40), Fitzwilliam Museum, Grierson Collection, CM.PG.8162

Combining some of the subjects of that paragraph, here is the obverse of a gold solidus of Emperor Louis the Pious (814-40), Fitzwilliam Museum, Grierson Collection, CM.PG.8162

So all of that kept me busy but not too busy, somewhere between three and six contact hours a week, peaking at the two ends of the semester, plus feedback meetings after essays for the few who would sign up for them. Not a whole lot, you may think, and it’s true, but of course, it’s not all just teaching…

Extra Labours

The two other main things keeping me busy were personal tutorials and training. Leeds has voluminous levels of pastoral support for its undergraduate students, and part of it is that each has a member of academic staff assigned to them as oversight and first point of contact and, practically speaking, employability coach. I didn’t, and don’t, mind doing that at all, as such people were sometimes absolutely invaluable to me when I was an undergraduate, but it was another six hours or so bunched into a couple of weeks of term. Then there was training…

Obviously, as a new member of staff, even with quite a lot of experience, I needed some guidance in how Leeds did things, and it was also part of my probation conditions that I do a suitable amount of training. Since I could see that my load was lighter now than it was ever likely to be again, therefore, I tried to pack quite a lot in, on things I had done but needed the local picture on, was about to do for the first time, could now use different tools to do, or might want to be qualified to do in the future. The one thing I could not do was teaching training, however, as the University had that year ceased to offer its own teaching qualification and the only alternative required one to have taught at Leeds for a year first. I’ll come to that in three posts’ time (I think), but I was busy enough anyway: counting up, I see that I did sixteen hours of various sorts of training inside the University that semester, again bunching so that some weeks there was none whereas in the thickest there were five. It certainly kept things varied, and was more use than I’d expected, but still, looking back, I’m glad I did it all then while I was still bright-eyed with naïve enthusiasm or I’m not sure I’d have got through it all.

Jarrett does a MOOC

As if that weren’t beginning to look like enough, in the later part of that semester I also signed myself onto a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). This takes a bit of explaining… You see, in the second phonecall I had with Leeds’s then head of the School of History, it was explained to me that the School needed to appoint a Blended Learning Champion, and that my experience in the digital humanities made me seem the best fit for the job… I probably could have got away with doing much less in this rôle than I did, but, wanting to impress, I thought I’d better get up to speed with the field, and I was recommended to a course on Futurelearn called Blended Learning Essentials, which the University’s Digital Learning Team had partly set up.

This is definitely something I could write a whole separate post about, but I won’t. I do want to write something about MOOCs, but I’ll let this specific one alone bar saying here that it got me a flavour of the field, taught me that ‘blended learning’ doesn’t really mean very much but is not the same as technology-enhanced learning, which is what I’d expected to study, even if it overlaps, and that quite a lot of the exciting ideas for technology-enhanced learning it suggested were not very practical in our environment, mainly because of issues of accessibility.1 For example, probably every one of my students does have a smartphone. If I set an assessment that relies on that, however, I have to be sure that we can provide a smartphone and training to any student who does not, and that our assessment absolutely will work on whatever smartphones my students might have. Also, I don’t have one, though that might matter less. In practice, therefore, we don’t do that, however inspiring and engaging it might be, because we’d risk disadvantaging people by doing it. Issues like this kept cropping up, and the end result was firstly that I, shall we say, reprioritised my time away from finishing the course, and secondly that I departed it with a much more critical idea of the digital learning movement than that I’d begun with, which possibly wasn’t their intention. It was, however, quite a lot of my November and December 2015.

Other people’s work

None of this, as my sheaf of notes from the term tells me even now, stopped me making it to seminars and lectures. I even still showed up at the Institute of Historical Research in London a few times, somewhat to people’s surprise I think, but I wanted to keep those networks alive, since they have always been so good to me. As decided long ago now, I can’t report on these in the depth I used to, and in any case, this is all three years ago now; most of them that were going to be anything are probably already published. It seems simplest to do this as a list, therefore, with some very summary comments, and indicate where I intend to pick things up in more detail in separate posts.

  1. Paul Hyams, “A View of Possession and Ownership in Anglo-Saxon England”, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, London, 7th October 2015, about the words used for ownership in Anglo-Saxon texts, what they might in fact have been understood to mean and, most interestingly, what structures of local knowledge and understanding would have had to be in place for that to work in practice; Paul is always interesting and this was no exception.
  2. Jane Taylor, “Newes from the Dead”, Renaissance and Early Modern Seminar, School of English, University of Leeds, 13th October 2015, about a play Professor Taylor had written around the story of Anne Green, a woman hanged for infanticide in Oxford in 1650 whose body was used for anatomy study; the dummy used to represent her in the play sat in on the seminar, which was suitably disconcerting.
  3. Nicholas Evans, “Cultural Contacts and Debates about Early History in Northern Britain: the evience of Historia brittonum and Lebor Bretnach“, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, London, 14th October 2015. Nick had to follow my first ever conference paper and I like to check in with him and the Picts when I can. As I recall much more of this paper was about Lebor Breatnach, the Irish adaptation of ‘Nennius’s’ Historia Brittonum, than about the source text, and there’s a seriously in-depth handout along with my notes.
  4. Kit Heyam, “Writing and Not Writing about Edward II’s Sexual Transgressions: the fruitful ambiguity of minions”, Renaissance and Early Modern Seminar, School of English, University of Leeds, 20th October 2015. This I went to mainly because one of the Institute of Medieval Studies’s postgraduates was presenting and I thought I should show the flag, but I should have gone just for the paper as I got a very smart update on how sophisticated medievalist work on sexuality has got in the last few years. I should have known about this, probably, but this was a good awakening as well as how hard some of our postgraduates at Leeds are thinking about their stuff.
  5. Institute for Medieval Studies Medieval Group Twenty-Second Annual Research Afternoon, Institute for Medieval Studies, University of Leeds, 24th October 2015: this one I will write about separately, mainly because I was in it!
  6. Richard Thomason, “In pane et aqua to Esus carnium: changes in Cistercian diet in the later Middle Ages”, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 28th October 2015: another of our then-postgrads, Richard was then just completing a doctorate on Kirkstall Abbey, and so not only did I learn a reasonable amount not just about what they ate there, but how much they worried about it, but I also got an expert to explain some of what I’d not been able to figure out when I’d visited the place. I wish he was still handy every time I go now…
  7. Conor Kostick, “Digital Linguistics and Climate Change: a revolution in the digitisatuon of sources since 2000”, Digital Humanities Seminar, Leeds Humanities Research Institute, University of Leeds, 2nd November 2015: this one definitely deserves separate treatment…
  8. Jonathan Dugdale, “Dynasties without China and Pagodas without Buddhism: shifting the narrative in Liao history and archaeology”, Medieval Group Seminar, Institute for Medieval Studies, University of Leeds, 9th November 2015. This was a little surreal, as I’d met Jonny Dugdale in Birmingham where he was even then a Ph.D. student, and talked to him about his work there but didn’t actually hear him present till he came to Leeds, at which point my old Birmingham teaching colleague Geoff Humble also turned up and turned out to be a Leeds resident; I spent much of this seminar slightly disorientated. It was good, though, with many categories questioned. Jonny’s project was looking at Buddhist pagodas as a cultural phenomenon, and he had found that the regions they occupy don’t easily fit to Chinese boundaries. He has subsequently got onto television with his research, though, so I won’t go into more detail here as anything I can say is likely behind the times!2
  9. Mark Laynesmith, “St Alban, Britain’s Lost Martyr: Romano-British, Merovingian and Anglo-Saxon devotion, c. 400-900″, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, London, 11th November 2015. This is, I believe, now published, so though I enjoyed it I don’t think it needs my coverage!3
  10. Richard Broome, “OA and a Postgrad’s Perspective of Open Access Publishing”, Digital Humanities Seminar, Leeds Humanities Research Institute, University of Leeds, 16th November 2015. This one I must pick up separately, as it is best done as part of an explanation of a publication of mine that never, alas, quite was…
  11. Luca Larpi, “So You Wanna Be a Medicus? Medical Occupational Identities in Early Medieval Italy”, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 17th November 2015. It was good to see Luca again, but I had seen him quite recently before this, and can refer you to that old-style report. There was extra material and progress here, but the short message was that doctors show up very rarely in early medieval Italian documents, and when they do are usually people also important for other reasons, which leads one to wonder just what kind of medical practitioner might actually boast of being a medicus
  12. Clare A. Lees, “Men Again, in Early Medieval Studies: Gender, Masculinity, Literature and Culture”, Public Lecture, Institute for Medieval Studies, 23rd November 2015. This was the second of the IMS’s signature public lectures I’d been to, and drew a substantial audience. It was nice, apart from anything else, to see that these events bring in people who are not necessarily part of the University, though I would love to be able to see the feedback they give some day…
  13. Rebecca Darley, “What Does the Science Mean? Interpreting Metallurgical Analysis of Byzantine Gold Coinage”, British Museum/Institute of Archaeology Joint Seminar, Institute of Archaeology, University College London, 15th December 2015. Keen readers will realise that this was in fact the second public outing of the All That Glitters project, and so as I am implicated in it, I should definitely say something separate about this one too, the last seminar of the year 2015 for me.

So that’s not too bad, right, only four promised posts? Maybe five? This is, of course, how it took so long to get through the last period of this recounting, but I think there’s a point to all of them still.

My Own Research?

The thing that is obviously missing from this, of course, is much sign that I was doing research of my own, and in truth, I was struggling with that. Some of this was just life, changing the boiler in the new house (which, of course, broke down less than a week after we’d moved in), settling in two new cats, learning a new commute—pretty much every journey in Leeds needs you to start down one hill and climb another, or else the reverse—and generally working out the new routines of life. Also, I was doing all of the above, and teaching preparation always tends to expand to fill the space available because one has to deliver on it in front of real people in what is usually only a few days’ time, so it’s always most urgent. But I was also suffering from a severe change of gear and direction, as I demitted the frantic work of being a numismatist and started being a Carolingianist-flavoured early medieval textual historian again, yet still had a myriad of numismatic projects left over to finish before I could consider myself free to start the things I was now being encouraged to produce in my new/old identity at Leeds. It was more difficult than I think I realised at the time to keep thinking in the old tracks while living in the new ones.

Thus, looking through my files, I see that the main thing I produced in this semester was a draft of a review of one of two volumes I’d been asked to review for the Numismatic Chronicle while at the Barber. It was massively overweight and only did half of what they’d asked, so they kindly but firmly turned it back and said it could be a review article if I wanted, but needed to be complete. So that then went onto the back burner for a short while and I started looking for other things I could quickly send out; I managed to learn that a book chapter that I’d hoped would form part of Rosamond McKitterick’s Festschrift as then planned would not in fact be happening, and Magistra had a short while before kindly sent me a very relevant-looking book proposal, so I worked that paper over accordingly and sent it out on the day before Christmas Eve, by which time, not to trail too much that I don’t intend to talk about, I was convalescing at home after an unexpected surgical operation and the second break-in attempt on our new house. There probably were reasons I wasn’t getting more done…4

Copper-alloy asarion of Tasr Ivan Alexander and his son Michael, struck at an unknown location in 1331-55, provisionally numbered Barber Institute of Fine Arts BH0088.

Some day this may yet be published… Copper-alloy asarion of Tsar Ivan Alexander and his son Michael, struck at an unknown location in 1331-55, provisionally numbered Barber Institute of Fine Arts BH0088.

All that said, I did spend some time trying to get others to work with me to make that easier. My mail from this period includes a certain amount of stuff about trying to publish the Heathrow Hoard, which may yet happen but I admit, hasn’t so far; it includes me sending out a call for papers for sessions on frontiers at the 2016 International Medieval Congress, which did happen (both Congress and sessions); and as the list of seminars above implies, the All That Glitters project was still active, and almost immediately after term stopped I was in Birmingham helping to zap more coins with X-rays. That too, I will talk about separately, but it was—unconnectedly—that trip from which I went direct to hospital…

Even broken down like this, this report seems to me now as if my life was running in utterly chaotic fashion, bouncing from one thing to the next and never fitting in the things that really, as opposed to urgently, needed doing. This is odd because I mainly remember it as being fun, if challenging. There was of course the regular rhythm of the teaching week keeping it more or less cyclical, but with London, Birmingham and also Cambridge all featuring in my travels and the irregularity of much of the teaching, I’m still a little surprised looking back that I turned up to everything I was supposed to, although I believe I did. To be honest, I’ve always found term-time academia very much like that picture of barely-controlled chaos, but hopefully one of the things that these posts will in due course document is my passage towards a (slightly) better grip on it all. This one, however, can end here, and once I’ve worked through the promises I’ll pick up with the first half of 2016.


1. My main source of anger here was the term ‘flipped classroom’, which essentially just means preparing for the class in advance and then using it to discuss what people have learned, rather than using the classroom as the point of content delivery. That is how pretty much all humanities teaching has worked since maybe the 1960s, as far as I know, and being able to do lectures as previously-viewed recordings doesn’t change its basic merit. These days I can cite stuff on this, and would pick D.Randy Garrison and Heather Kanuka, “Blended Learning: uncovering its transformative potential in higher education” in The Internet and Higher Education Vol. 7 (Amsterdam 2004), pp. 95–105, for the statement for, and Hannah Strawson, Sue Habeshaw, Trevor Habeshaw and Graham Gibbs, 53 Interesting Things to do in your Seminars and Tutorials: Tips and strategies for running really effective small groups, 5th edn. (Sydney 2012) for an alternative informed by the ordinary classroom as well.

2. On Sinification in Chinese historiography see Bodo Wiethoff, Introduction to Chinese History from Ancient Times to the Revolution of 1912 (London 1975), pp. 134-167, not entirely a critical view.

3. Mark Laynesmith, “Translating St Alban: Romano-British, Merovingian and Anglo-Saxon Cults” in Simon Ditchfield, Charlotte Methuen & Andrew Spicer (edd.), Translating Christianity, Studies in Church History Vol. 53 (Cambridge 2017), pp. 51-70.

4. I should make clear that that chapter’s enforced rehoming was not the fault of the editors of Rosamond’s actual Festschrift (which is Elina Screen and Charles West (edd.), Writing the Early Medieval West: studies in honour of Rosamond McKitterick (Cambridge 2018)); this was for an earlier Festschrift project that never got off the ground.

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4 responses to “Chronicle II: October to December 2015

  1. Gee, wish I was younger, with more energy and money, I’d have Loved these courses.

  2. While I am delighted to know another non-smart-phone-owner, I have to observe that you are amazingly good at burying the lede! “Settling in two new cats”—moar cat pix pls kthxbai.

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