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Publishers, copyright and the prevention of research-led teaching: a thought experiment

Being a year behind with the blog means, naturally, that things linked to the academic year come round again as I get as far as blogging about them, and in this instance the spur is making reading digitally available for students, which has propelled me into ranting again about how daft the way we publish is. I have one particular point in mind, so I will try and keep the post on target, but I’m not promising that other things that make me cross won’t turn up in footnotes. So, this is a post about how we make our research available to students for teaching purposes.

When I started teaching in 2003 the digital thing was quite new. I was the first user in that department of some new software they had of the sort that would come to be called a Virtual Learning Environment, a clunky slow thing called Sentient Discover that still worked better than Blackboard five years later (though as I’m now working with it again, I have to admit that Blackboard has come a long way since I first met it). At that point, though, there was neither file-space nor hardware available within such an environment to digitise materials from hard copy; Oxford simply aimed to provide sufficient hard copies, and so digitising actual readings is something I only really started to do at Birmingham. This post started off as a thought when I came to be doing it again the next year, to supply students on a big survey course with access to materials that a hundred-plus people would need in the same week.1

Copyright symbol

Obviously there are copyright implications about scanning stuff and sticking it online, even behind a firewall. It struck me while thinking this post out that academics’ somewhat offhand relationship to copyright is in some ways only to be expected; we almost never get paid from sales of what we write, we usually don’t in fact own copyright in it, that being either granted to a publisher and, if we’re lucky, licensed back to us, or else held by our employers.2 Consequently copyright, intended to protect the livelihood of authors, is actually of no direct monetary benefit to us, whereas it is very often in the way of our reading or accessing other information which we need to work. This is of course why there is an Open Access movement and Creative Commons licensing and various other alternatives set up by those who believe information should be free, but the fact of the matter is that lots of it ain’t. And so copyright applies to these materials, and the law in the UK is pretty clear: assuming that it’s not an exception (published outside the EU or out of copyright) you can photocopy up to five per cent of a volume or one single article or chapter, whichever is the larger, once only, for your own use (and you may not circulate that or pass it on to someone else), and you can scan the same amount of something and place it in a private digital repository as long as the managers of that repository are tallying it and making appropriate royalty payments to the Copyright Licensing Agency. I believe the rules in the USA are similar, but I’m not a lawyer and even this much may be wrong. Anyway, we now reach the thought experiment.

Often, in interviews, I have been asked how my research enhances my teaching, how I incorporate my research into my teaching, and so on, and research-led teaching is a phrase that has become almost hackneyed in the UK in the last decade or so. I have got a lot better at answering this kind of question over the years but it was always a problem for me, because I work on Spain, which is not very interesting to the average UK student, and most of my source materials are in non-Classical Latin and not available in translation. So it struck me early on that one excellent answer to that question would be, “I use this volume of translated documents that I myself have published for exactly this purpose!” And suddenly last year I realised that because of the way we publish, that is in fact not an excellent answer at all.

Consider. Let’s say that I convince some press that charters are, in fact, where medieval studies is at, and that if they publish a volume of charters translated by me it will be hoovered up by university teachers everywhere who want to use something that isn’t chronicles or literature and therefore by default the readings of the élite. So I translate the documents, they are published, my university duly buys a copy or few, and I want to set it for a course. Let us say that that course recruits fifteen students, and that I am not either willing or allowed to require that the students buy a copy each, no matter how much good it would do my royalties money (if we assume that the press I managed to persuade was such a one as pays them). I still have to make required readings available digitally, however. How much of this, my own work, can I therefore set to my students? Why, no more than five per cent, of course!

So, by publishing that material, I actually lock most of it away from the use for which I intended it. There are only two ways round this that I can see. One is to publish with a press that will publish it as an e-book and license that in terms that allow lots of people to access it at once. These are not in fact common license terms, precisely because they are constructed so as to minimise the number of books you need to buy; it shouldn’t surprise us when companies like Routledge sell e-books with licenses that mean that only one person in a university can use them at once, they are in the business of selling books!3 The other, of course, and by far the simplest and the most use to the world at large, is just to put the stuff on the open web, but this is a path with no reward in terms of professional recognition, for reasons both sound and stupid; it wouldn’t have to pass peer review, on the one hand, so is hard to rate, and on the other some people still don’t think databases count as real publication. Such a volume is something I actually want to publish, but it absolutely does my head in that somehow things have got to the point where if I picked the wrong press, actually publishing it is about the worst thing I could do in terms of making that material accessible to students…

1. FIRST RANT. Last year I was, of course, curating coins, so this teaching I did as contract staff for the Department of History. I don’t want to single Birmingham out here, because as far as I know their system for paying temporary teaching staff, often postgraduates, is usual, which is to say that it’s the system I’ve been paid with everywhere else I’ve done it or, in fact, better. The pay is by the hour, paid for contact time and an additional hour of preparation time for every classroom hour. That prep time, of course, is meant also to cover all the other work of teaching, which is to say marking, delivering feedback, answering e-mails and attending meetings with other staff, so in effect it all disappears. There is also a structural assumption that you know enough to teach a subject which is often explicitly not enacted. By this I mean that if you are new to a topic and have also got to do the reading, or even just refresh yourself about something you last read ten years ago, that hour is very quickly gone, with no other class prep done at all, but obviously it is expected that you will in fact learn enough to teach that hour anyway. So, maybe you’re more efficient than me, but I find that even now a classroom hour on a course that’s new to me takes me between two and three hours to prepare, and then there’s all the admin., so really one is getting paid at something like a third or a quarter of the rate per hours worked that one is in fact offered, all of which brings it very close to and even below minimum wage. Of course, universities largely couldn’t afford to deliver seminar teaching any other way, which is a system problem for which I don’t blame their staff, though I do blame staff who don’t recognise these economics. But therefore, when you are course leader for such a course, with five or six people being paid like that teaching for you, don’t expect them to do your photocopying or digitisation for you as well. You’re the one being paid a full-time wage: do what you’re paid for. I intend to stand by these words now that I am in fact the one being paid, of course, but it really does annoy me when people leading such courses don’t consider what their TAs actually get paid for.

2. The second rant would be about people who don’t realise they’ve signed away these rights and then protest about how unfair it is when the people to whom they’ve signed them stop them making free with what are no longer their own writings. Read your contracts.

3. I instance Routledge because these were indeed the terms under which they had licensed Dorothy Whitelock (ed./transl.), English Historical Documents volume I: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), to Oxford when I taught there.


Dead scholars’ books II

This gallery contains 4 photos.

In very late August 2014 I found myself the recipient of a slightly morbid parcel of books that had once been in the library of Professor Nicholas Brooks. His academic library was sold off via Amazon to raise money for … Continue reading

Big News VI: Leeds for the future

So, I promised something about the hiatus and what was going on in it and this is that post. I made a serious attempt to get back up to date with the blog from July 2014 to Christmas 2014, but then Christmas happened and in that time someone heard me saying that if I was going to get another job after this one I probably needed to heed one academic’s advice and get myself a second book. That someone pointed out that I had been going on about the one I’d write for ages, and would probably be both happier and more successful if I actually got on with it, and they were right, of course, but really the only time I could free up for that was the time I was using for blogging. So I wrote and wrote, hoping that I would still be able to blog on some days, but as you will have seen, that didn’t really work. In any given day I was trying to write a thousand words or so, put in a day at work or teaching, deal with at least the minimum of housework and e-mail and get through the three most immediate three things on my to-do list and, if there was time, read or blog, and basically I never got beyond the three things before midnight. From January to March I was also teaching the fourteenth century for the first time in my life and trying to keep up with the same basic reading I’d set my students. There wasn’t much time spare.

Folie Charles VI forêt du Mans

That said, I did rather enjoy meeting Froissart properly for the first time...He goes on my list of medieval figures I'd like to have a drink with.

Also, I had committed myself to heroic levels of over-achievement rather than fall out of the machine, so that even once there were two sample chapters out for review with a press (about which process I will write separately), I also submitted two articles to journals, went to Catalonia again, then had to consider what I was presenting at Kalamazoo and organise my parts of the travel, and then I was in the USA and then I was giving a paper in Oxford and then it was time to start on the work for Leeds, during which time there was also a big funding bid going in of which I was part. And once I’m done on the Leeds paper, indeed, I’ll be needing to put together one for the week after and then I’m not committed to speaking before an academic audience until September but I do have two chapter-length pieces to write on coins at the Barber… So it’s been pretty busy (and there’s lots to write about).

Jonathan Jarrett standing atop the Castell de Gurb

Me standing on the Castell de Gurb, vainly trying to convey a sense of scale, image used by permission

But also in that time, as you may have noticed if you’re inside the Academy on the British side of the pond, in late January the government’s Research Excellence Framework published its initial results, allowing everyone in the top 30 universities in the UK to claim to be in the top 10 but also allowing them all to guess roughly how much money they might have for the next five years, and there was a consequent deluge of academic vacancies the like of which I have never seen before in this country, pretty much all permanent. So I was also applying for more or less a job a week after that started, and that lasted for two months. In total I applied for seven, I think, and had got some of the way with three other applications when, as it turned out, the first one of all offered me first an interview and then, to my surprise and delight, the post. And thus the real news of this post, already known to many it seems but very much worth announcing even so, is that as of September I will be moving to the University of Leeds to become a Lecturer in Early Medieval History, making up in some way for the retirement of Professor Ian Wood, and that will be my base and job for the foreseeable future!

Jonathan Jarrett plus contract from the University of Leeds

Incontrovertible evidence!

This is obviously really great news. Leeds is a brilliant place to wind up, with many colleagues of like interests and a great deal happening, and I’m really looking forward to it. I now have quite a lot to finish very quickly at the Barber, of course, and I’ve very much enjoyed Birmingham generally in academic terms, it’s been extremely supportive and very good for me as a scholar as well, broadening my comparative range and encouraging me to try for things I wouldn’t have before, as well as much improving certain other crucial details of my life. Still, it’s hard to see what a better outcome could be than this. Neither am I entirely leaving coins behind, not just because of various publication projects ongoing but because of local coin collections whose curators are willing to let me use them for teaching. So it all looks very much like development and success and that all-important security of knowing where one lives for long enough actually to put down roots. Mind you, it also looks like finishing that book, ideally an article or two and starting three new courses all of my own all at the same time; but actually that sounds pretty great too. It has already been suggested to me that I won’t have time to blog any more, of course, by someone who presumably hadn’t checked in in a while and realised I’d stopped already, but I have great hopes of managing it, you know. I may not in fact have blogged last year’s Leeds International Medieval Congress before this one again, I admit. But stay tuned anyway, I’ll be catching up. And now we know what the future holds, who knows what that will cause to happen!

The Parkinson Building, University of Leeds

The most obvious face of the University of Leeds, the Parkinson Building. By Tim Green from Bradford [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

This post was written with the aid of Clandestino by Manu Chao and Maui by Kava Kava.

Metablog X: academics and the blogosphere

Returning to the blog after a long absence means contemplating viewing figures that are a fraction of what they once were, my own fault really, and some of the peculiar questions about audience that I have explored in print.1 In particular, the blog now has more followers than it gets views per day, a new and rather odd development, given how few of the followers seem to have medieval interests. But is this blog confined to medievalists? Well, evidently not; even from the commenting population we see—and that is all we can see, really—that there are people of many fields reading here, and that’s great, I love it. But there are some medievalists too, challenging me both to write for them and for the untrained but interested who presumably make up most of the readership.

Picture of a WordPress comment box

This is not an actual comment box, this is just a picture of a comment box. I’m sure it won’t be confusing at all.

The other side of this coin, however, is that I know that many more medievalists read this than ever comment, because they’ve told me so, either in person or by e-mail (usually with corrections…). Only a very few leave comments. I struggle to profile them, but they are much outweighed by those who do not. Now, this puzzles me to an extent. It’s an open forum, after all, you only need to enter an e-mail address to comment and it doesn’t have to be real, so I’d expect the old Usenet rule to work and to be corrected in the open pretty much every time I make a mistake.2 I’d welcome that, except for the bit where I make mistakes, but I’d also think that there are conversations here in which people could usefully participate, either by demonstrating their own expertise or by helping in our greater mission of outreach and the modelling of scholarship to an interested but untrained audience, which anyone who has a blog that has run long enough to get an audience knows we have.

My pet example, showing both sides, is the argument that blew up about my attitude to Alcuin in this post. Probably rightly telling me off for being dismissive of the character and work of Charlemagne’s own teacher, the scholar commenting told me I should have read a piece of theirs in Peritia, which is not an easy journal to get. After a few exchanges this conversation went to e-mail, in which among other things I tried to persuade the scholar to put it back on the blog and explain to people who could not get at a copy of Peritia, which is to say, all but maybe two per cent of the readership, what they had said in this article and why it mattered for the argument. I could not persuade them—I guess because I was essentially declining to do the work of reading them while asking them to do the work of free writing for my blog, kind of fair enough—and eventually—most of a year later—I read the article and tried to fill in the gap. But we could have kept the conversation going here, and I think people would have been interested.

Beyond my guesses, I’ve heard three sorts of explanation for non-participation on this blog, but each from one person only and there must be more. One, the most obvious, is that it’s my blog, and that people feel they need some kind of permission to participate. (I had one person even ask me if I minded if they read it, and this was not someone new to the Internet.) And yes, I do exercise some kind of control here; I’ve only ever deleted one comment that wasn’t plainly automated spam, for explicit racist attack on another commentator, but I’ve warned a few people and I argue back. But on the other hand anyone can comment and sometimes this produces wonderful meetings of minds that could never happen in real life (though if I ever could get Joan Vilaseca and Alex Woolf together in a bar that would be a grand gathering indeed). I don’t know how I would make it more appealing for such persons to join in. Then secondly there is the old time argument, ‘I just don’t have time to do more than read’, which is also very hard to argue with given I don’t even have time to read others’ blogs any more myself. And thirdly there is the answer I got from one very senior scholar, that they felt that their participation might intimidate other people from joining in, more thoughtful, if bewildering when one knows how approachable the scholar in question is in real life, but understandable, although I hope misjudged. I have no idea which of these might be more common more widely.

But I could suspect especially also, that people fear that, like blogging themselves, an exercise that even now it’s de rigeur for project outreach most scholars leave to their department’s or project’s postgraduates, it makes them look unserious. Yet this is, I do believe, one of the easiest and most important ways to be out there among the wider world, our notional public, showing what we do and how and why it might be fun or even worth supporting. So I also suspect a basic discomfort with doing that, with somehow being answerable to a demand to explain one’s work. We do, after all, get paid to teach, so in some ways this is pro bono labour. But the fear of explaining and demystifying what we do leaves us vulnerable to charges of living in ivory towers, unable to contend with pop historians who tell people what they remember from school dressed up as research, and in general making a poor impression, as well as depriving the audience of the value of your contribution. So, please, if you’re a scholar and reading, and your interest is piqued by a post, do consider leaving a comment on it; and if your interest was piqued and you’re not a scholar or don’t think of yourself as such, don’t let that stop you doing so too. This is all a conversation worth having!

1. J. Jarrett, “Views, Comments and Statistics: Gauging and Engaging the Audience of Medievalist Blogging” in Literature Compass Vol. 9 (Oxford 2012), pp. 991-995, doi: 10.1111/lic3.12016.

2. Though if you are using a fake address, I do hope you are Internet-savvy enough to use <>, the only e-mail address guaranteed never to exist.


Is this thing still on? Is anyone still here? Well, whether you are or not, I think I’m back. I’ve been complimented on this blog by so many people in the last few months, all apparently unaware I’d more or … Continue reading


Obviously there are deaths all over and many much less expected or peaceful than these, but nonetheless, with Terry Pratchett yesterday and Daevid Allen this morning, to the latter of whom I still owed a hug as well as years … Continue reading

Seminar CCII: the modern decline of Charlemagne

My progress through my ridiculous seminar report backlog now picks up in the summer of this year with none other than old acquaintance and collaborator Charles West, who on 6th May 2014 found himself in Birmingham addressing a new seminar of the Institute of German Studies, the Not the First World War Centenary Seminar, which was concentrating on alternative anniversaries to the one that we aren’t allowed to miss this year. Therefore Charles was brought in to address us on the topic, “Charlemagne and the Future of the European Past”. Now, as it happens, of recent years Charles has ventured onto the Internet himself along with a cadre of colleagues from Sheffield who contribute to their History Matters blog, which I recommend, and thus it is that you don’t have to take my word for it what Charles thinks about this issue, because he had already written something about it here. So I’ll be brief here and refer you over there if you want to debate things.

A perfectly-arranged photograph by Andreas Herrmann of the statue of Charlemagne outside the Rathaus in Aachen

A perfectly-arranged photograph by Andreas Herrmann of the statue of Charlemagne outside the Rathaus in Aachen

The short and essential pitch of what Charles had to say is that Europe used to be a lot more fussed about Charlemagne as a figure of importance than it has now become. Whereas he was the point of origin for the Holy Roman Empire and the man whose achievement in bringing a swathe of Occidental territory under one rule both Napoleon and Hitler expressed an intent to beat, and even after the war still the figurehead of various prizes and speeches intended to foster European unity, this has fallen off of late. In this, the 12th centenary of his death, which has sparked a number of exhibitions and celebrations around the Continent, that at Aachen was expecting only a third as many people as attended a similar exhibition at Paderborn in 1999 (and I’ve no idea how many it in fact got).

Poster for the triple exhibition at Aachen, Karlder Grosse: Macht, Kunst, Schätze

Poster for the triple exhibition at Aachen

Charles put this down to two related things: in the first place, the early European Union was surprisingly close in extent to the territories ruled by Charlemagne (including the British Isles obviously attached but clinging to ideas of sovereignty anyway); Spain, Portugal and Greece kind of sneaked in, Scandinavia in general has some explaining to do but the lines east and south were otherwise close, whereas now that we count Eastern Europe in full and the Baltic States and are dithering over Turkey, the old model no longer fits even slightly. This larger Europe also has no collective history together: this group of countries have never been a unit, even Rome never ruled them all, so appeals to our great common history and its unifying figureheads (of whom, after all, there are few enough if that’s your aim) cease to have anything like as much traction. The whole paper thus served as another reminder that whatever we think we’re doing as historians, our work is put to use by people with political agendas that determine why people are interested, and when those agendas don’t need our work they instead put it out to grass. Charles concluded that the best way we can proceed is to tell the story we have and let it find its own audience, but of course we would also usually like it to find financial support and, well, there has ever been the rub…