Metablog XIV: What It Is

A full ten years ago, two eminent medievalist bloggers noted the tendency of at least medievalist, and perhaps all academic blogs, to descend slowly into long hiatuses, punctuated by posts that only apologise for not posting, followed inevitably by final silence.1 They knew of what they prophesied, as it turned out; one of them went silent a year later and the other lasted into 2016, having moved his operation almost entirely to Twitter, before falling silent himself, and now it seems as if his site has been hacked or camped for the last couple of years. It doesn’t bode well, but nonetheless, I don’t think this is what is happening here. For a start, I should say given the times, I am well and safe, in fact doing really pretty well given the situation, I have my job and a good wage, I am working from home, I am pretty free from most dangers and it all could be much worse. But still no blog, huh? So I ought to step out of backlog and sequence and try to explain why posting is happening here so rarely these days.

So firstly there is the work situation. I explained where some of the issues came from about six months ago, and I won’t rehash that except to say that the government is mainly to blame, but the way it looks at the moment, in short, is this:

  1. Digital teaching takes more preparation and more aftercare and curation of content (unless you want to do it very poorly, which I don’t).
  2. Alongside the live version of my modules, I also have to construct an asynchronous one for students who can’t access the classes, and together with the previous I am probably having to spend three times the time I would have spent on teaching pre-Covid.
  3. Digital grading also takes longer than marking papers the old-fashioned way, though we’ve done our best to streamline the associated bureaucracy to make up for that.
  4. Our first-year students do formative work as well as summative work, so there is approximately a third again as much marking for them.
  5. We had a much larger intake of first-year students than usual this year, and I am teaching probably twice as many of them as I would usually teach.

The obvious arithmetical result of this is that, shall I just say, I am working more hours than usual. Once one fits in shopping (in a world where every step into a shop represents a small, minimised but possible chance that one will quite literally catch one’s death), housework and the general management of a home life—despite the tremendous help of my partner, in whom I am incredibly fortunate—I can now usually only find one spare day a week, and currently I am quite often spending that outside, high up, or helping my family. This is not, therefore, giving me a lot of spare time or headspace for blogging.

Close-up of incised design on the Swastika Stone, Ilkley Moor, England

Here, for example, is a close-up of the incised design which gives the name to the Swastika Stone, on Ilkley Moor, photographed this very afternoon

So there’s that, but there’s also what to blog about. My research has more or less been on hold since mid-2019; my reading has been limited to stuff for teaching, almost to exclusion; I have not been participating much in seminars, despite the profusion of digital opportunities, because while the papers are interesting I have discovered that what I went to them for was really the chat afterwards, and besides there is the time issue mentioned; and so I do not really feel like a current part of academia who might comment on what is going on in the world of medieval history. I also don’t want to write about teaching, as that does not necessarily end well.

Well, what does all that matter, you may say, when you have literally four years of backlogged content written, stubbed, planned or plotted? And it’s a fair question, but I can’t help feeling that in the current state of things my past holiday snaps, from a time of travel we may never see again, reports on papers one could no longer go to if they were on, or even more substantial things whose moments of motivation are, nevertheless, long gone, do not represent quality provision for my readership. When I face the blog these days, I feel like a comedian who has stepped onto stage and had a horrible moment of certainty that none of their material is any good.

So where does this leave me, and you my readers? Well, for a start, I’m going, probably next Sunday now, to take a very mean look at the various things in that backlog of posts. If I no longer find them interesting, I’m certainly not going to inflict them on you, so they will get dropped. Right now, that is about as far as I’ve got with the resolves, but if people have thoughts about what they are finding useful here when it happens, what there could be more of, what is not so interesting and so on, I will gratefully receive them and see what I think can be done about them. Otherwise, right now, I just hope that you are all well and safe and not too badly affected by the pandemic and its knock-on consequences, and that at some point soon all of this looks a bit better.

1. Brantley L. Bryant and Carl S. Pyrdum, “On medieval blogging” in postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies Vol. 2 (Goleta CA 2011), pp. 304–315 at p. 315.

32 responses to “Metablog XIV: What It Is

  1. Well, for me, the most interesting part is all about sharing ideas (in the post but also in the comments). It’s always a pleasure to read an informed dialogue between experts about specific (or not so) historical matters…

  2. I find it all interesting so whatever you blog about from the last 4 years will be appreciated.

  3. Allan McKinley

    If you are open to reader feedback here, the first thing I would say is don’t post on anything if you don’t find it interesting. Your interest and enthusiasm are what makes this blog readable after all.

    That said, you seem to be suffering from a sort of liberal pessimism in your wider analysis of the environment around the blog. Isolation from the sources of our inspiration tends to reduce our enthusiasm (I’ve got a paper that’s been almost ready to submit for a year now, but needs a couple of details checking in the library I’m currently not going to: weirdly this means l have hardly worked on anything else, such is the importance of those library sessions to me). Remember though that for many readers you are a source of enthusiasm for medieval things as for whatever reason they are limited in their ability to undertake historical tourism or attend seminars: your reports give them a link into an area of interest to them. If your blog has a reach beyond academia (and people with weirdly strong views on the prehistory of New Zealand) then at least some of your readership are not cut off from what you regularly report by coronavirus but by normality. Your view that you shouldn’t therefore report what might be a lost normality in your life is hardly universal for your readership therefore.

    I’d also note that I’ve seen no evidence in the global higher education sector that we are likely to have a new normal markedly different from the old. Online seminars might please finance departments but everyone else seems to see them as short-term measures, students still expect to travel, and universities are planning to re-open not change. Acrosd the sector management is looking for efficiencies (as ever…) but as far as I can see they aren’t looking at how to operate in a different world, just one with less funding.

    Having said that, the key thing is my first comnent above: if you aren’t going to get any satisfaction from posting certain things yourself, I wouldn’t worry about mine or anyone else’s opinions. If it doesn’t make you happy, go and enjoy something instead!

    • Isolation from the sources of our inspiration tends to reduce our enthusiasm

      Yes, that, that is the main problem here. Though I do think the persistent defunding and conversion towards employability training is also not helping. I am hoping that the summer will let me finish the last of the articles I arrived at Leeds promising to finish and move onto the last of the ones I promised to start…

      Still, I think I expect differently about the new normal. I am not getting that much out of online seminars, but there is still no question that more people listen to them, because we have all the people who simply couldn’t attend in real-space but can in virtuo. I think hybrid seminars, once they can be made normal, will probably replace ‘closed’ ones. The ‘digital pivot’ has probably done something about the inability of some of my readership to hear these things for themselves. Likewise, everyone I know seems to think that in-person office hours are never coming back, though I have to say, I’m not sure why not assuming that we are in fact ever allowed to use our offices again (Leeds Estates are being extremely difficult about this, though of course have had to concede that classrooms, far more serious infection vectors, must be put back into use); we’ll be there anyway. But if a student can just phone us or Teams-call us during them rather than climb the stairs, maybe that’s enough…

      • Allan McKinley

        I’m pretty certain that office hours will come back about the point the general realisation that students might feel more comfortable discussing difficult issues (academic, personal or intersecting) in person occurs to the right people. It might take a few bad cases o be publicised first…

        I’ve no issue that office hours might be partially virtual, but remember students (the consumers here) actually seem keener on campus education now than two years ago. Its almost as if trying virtual education hasn’t caused it to be popularised (no fault of the academics there: from an administrator viewpoint I think there’s almost universal admiration and appreciation for what academics have achieved recently).

        And if the growing HE markets out east don’t adopt a virtual model (not seen any indicators of this in communications from them) and the dysfunctional messes in Europe and the US probably can’t, any UK university leadership that tries is probably going to end up like the University of Virginia under the President who saw no reason for the academics to travel out of state: falling behind rapidly and losing key staff. Remember that Leeds Estates can cause short-term difficulties but are unlikely to be able to defeat long-term trends.

        Mind you, I do still have that theory that history as an academic subject almost entirely run through universities is a moment that may be passing, so there’s a trend that might be accelerated, especially by bad management.

        • I thought we were seeing that last trend when you and I published Problems and Possibilities, indeed, and since then, until quite recently, it seemed to me that publish-or-perish metrics were just driving academic production of history far in excess of what those outside could hope to manage, even if by the skins of our teeth. Then the pandemic hit in the slough of a REF cycle, in the UK at least, and it turned out that actually research was completely dispensable if it came at the cost of students staying on their courses. Though since neither research nor teaching (domestic) students actually generate their own costs in revenue, I suppose what this shows is that in financial terms research was marginal even before the pandemic, being the inadequate revenue that in a pandemic they can dispense with in order to retain the other fatter slice…

          As for the virtual concern, my sense is that an awful lot of the anxiety to be in a classroom which we’re seeing right now is, firstly, a distant worry among the current crop of students that they will be somehow disadvantaged for being the Covid university generation, as opposed to those who got ‘proper’ degrees, but secondly and much greater, they want some kind of structured interaction with humans because they’re so awfully isolated and lonely. The idea that teaching is better than being by themselves is not one we would all necessarily have guessed our students would choose, I think, but many of my colleagues have shared the impression that this intake is way more diligent than usual in at least some ways, though they have normalised downwards over the year. I raise these possibilities not to emphasise the student plight, particularly, though it’s not great, but because both of these are probably temporary factors; once a few years’ worth of students partly educated digitally are in the workplace and nothing has fallen apart too badly, it’ll just become an experience to spin on a CV. The real question is whether, once they can socialise with each other again, they’ll still want to see their teachers in person, or go out to attend class…

  4. I wonder how many historians are considering writing a book on, say, A Thousand Years of Plagues. It’s an ill wind, etc.

    Anyway, chin up!

  5. I have always found this blog a useful way to learn things about medieval areas I don’t actually work in, for a bit of cross-fertilization and ability to keep up with interesting people at conferences outside of my own little area. So I’d be happy to keep reading whatever you post about talks you attended. I used to be terribly jealous of your ability to go to such things, but one bright spot in the pandemic is getting to hear talks from Bangor and other far-flung places! Like you, I enjoy the chatting and would prefer to do it in person, but online is better than nothing, and discussion depends on how these things are organized. The Piers Plowman society has a PP reading group that is a good combination of chat and direction. I wish I could be a more informed commenter, but I certainly learn from your posts!

  6. “research was completely dispensable if it came at the cost of students staying on their courses”: it’s worth asking why the modern university is based on the principle of students being taught by people who practise research.

    One decent answer is because all university teaching should be based on the sure knowledge that there’s less sure knowledge than students might assume – that research might overturn what’s taught, just as it might support it or extend it.

    So a temporary suspension of research might not do much damage – teaching is still being done by the people who were doing it a couple of years ago with, I assume, the same mind sets.

    If there isn’t a swift return to normal, or normalish, I suppose academics will feel that the deal that they understood they had when they entered academic life – that they would be given time both to prepare their teaching and to pursue their research – has been reneged upon.

    Some can chuck in the towel and clear off to pursue different careers. But times could be very frustrating for those who can’t or believe they can’t.

    Still, things are rarely as bad as people fear. Good luck.

    • If there isn’t a swift return to normal, or normalish, I suppose academics will feel that the deal that they understood they had when they entered academic life – that they would be given time both to prepare their teaching and to pursue their research – has been reneged upon.

      I think that’s it, added to the sense many of us had that we were already effectively expected to research in our spare time (because we obviously would! So why make work time for us to do it?). Now the spare time is also full and no path to it being emptied back out is clear.

  7. I like that you post, and whatever you post, but, then again, i know, without knowing, that it must be a chore, so, perhaps, using the blog to engage you rather than your audience might be the go? So, just go crazy or go quiet? Or both? I mean I’m up to number 2 in my ‘train crash’ series of research papers, caused precisely by the need to write what I ‘want’ rather than write what I ‘need’. I have had 2 beers. And I am unemployed….

    • I do like “go crazy or go quiet” as an ethic. Very punk! I’m not sure it fits the purpose of the blog, which really is to talk to people, or maybe at people, but either way it wants people to listen (read). But if we’re effectively past the point where active researchers other than yourself and Dame Eleanor are reading, then I can probably count myself a lot freer in what I talk about. (Half a bottle of wine and probably not wanting to quit my job just now…)

      • No worries. I think I was trying to say, in a slightly more sober hindsight, to move away from thinking about reception and thinking more about how it might work for you as a ‘storehouse of sanctity’. If that makes sense. Anyhow, you’ve just posted another blog, so now I have to go off and read it, specially as Gregory the Great leapt out at me on a parse.

        • Yes, I see. It definitely does function that way for me; I often go back to the blog for things I wrote long ago. The question then becomes why I am inflicting it on the Internet rather than just keeping a thought diary offline, though…

          • because a diary will undoubtedly fall by the wayside (in my mind), whereas posting here will activate and engage your thoughts. In a sense, the difference between scratchy handwritten notes (with the usual poorly cited significant reference one can never re-find) versus the annotated bibliography. i think, from my perspective, the blog functioned originally to establish you as a scholar (of note), but now that you are a scholar of note, maybe it can change. i am struck by the number of “yes I did think that at the time I wrote it, but didn’t think I could push it that far” conversations I’ve had with scholars recently. Hence my urging to go ‘crazy’, which, when applied to you, might be as ‘crazy’ as citing wikipedia, whereas, for me, of course……don’t press the Arthur button, Steve…. oh dear…. :)

            • Oh, I don’t usually cite Wikipedia just because it’s impermanent and may not say what I was looking for if someone checks. I probably link to much worse things if I can be reasonably sure they’ll stay put. However, I take your bigger point. I have now got to the point of publishing work that began as blog post, and I hope there’ll be a few more like that. I suppose what I’m missing is the conversations with scholars, one way or another. Yourself and Allan and Joan excepted, of course!

              P. S. hands off the damn button Steve!

  8. “expected to research in our spare time”: I never noticed having much spare time during term. But you ought at least to have some time free for mind-clearing pleasures in the vacations.

    We eventually discovered that we could fit in a week of holiday in Madeira between the New Year and the start of school and university term. I warmly recommend it for the time when air travel to Portuguese territory in convenient again.

    • Well, the Rome photos I will shortly be resuming, like the Istanbul ones before them, came from such a squeezed-in vacation just before the autumn term started, so I am sympathetic to the strategy. I think I’d need my stuff to be way more prepped than it usually can be to be able to take a week in January but as an aspiration I am very much inclined to it… But, as my ultimate boss has lately discovered when bestowing extra holiday on us and getting anger rather than gratitude from some academics, if the workload doesn’t decrease and one takes more holiday, there is just more to do in the days that are left…

  9. Pingback: Finding the Medieval in Rome II: trying to be noticed in the Forum Romanum, c. 600 | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  10. The former blogger known as Geoffrey Chaucer let his site get hacked too. Future generations of medievalists will never know why their elders break out in titters when they hear “and lyke unto the river Flagelon”!

    Der Twitter ist dem Blogger sein Todt. I weakened and spent some time looking at birdsite last year, but it seems to do scary things to users’ minds. I never came to respect someone more after reading something they tweeted.

    • I was quite disappointed to find how long it has apparently been since le nostre GC had looked in on his blog to clear out the rubbish, indeed. But he probably still has a bigger public now…

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