Monday, October 17, 2011

A Myriad of Randomness

Blogging is a funny thing. Some blogs are about very specific things (i.e. travel, cooking, research), some set out with a specific goal, some are funded or sponsored, some corner a specific market, and then there are the ones that just kind of exist. Arguably, the time of personal blogging is no longer in its prime. There was a time when having a blog was new and exciting and everyone jumped on the band-wagon, eagerly putting their thoughts out there for all to see. But then social media came along, and the phenomenon of putting your individual thoughts in 140-character snippets somewhat overshadowed the more organized, in-depth character of sitting down to write a blog post. As a couple of my fellow students and I sat around a seminar table this morning (waiting for others to arrive), this came up in a way. One student (in fact, the aforementioned adamant early medievalist) was complaining about the incessant emails he's been getting from an undergraduate tutorial student who seems to email at all hours of the day, just to communicate thoughts that come to mind. I put forward that a good solution would be to just tell this person to get a blog - because then they have the satisfaction of getting thoughts out without having to annoy anyone specifically with their inane or irrelevant chatter. The young man sitting next to me sniggered a bit and quipped that blogs are just fancy "circle jerks" where people self-indulge and pretend they're important. On one level, that's true. If I didn't have at least some ego, I wouldn't write my thoughts down and then publish them for anyone with an internet connection to see. [But then, if I had no ego, I wouldn't be a tour guide, either.] On another level, that's not necessarily the case because there's no guarantee that anyone at all will read one's blog. The internet is littered with useless information and sites no one ever visits. Food for thought, I suppose, but I enjoy writing this blog, and I enjoy reading other people's and so I don't plan to stop any time soon.

That being said, I find it increasingly hard to find topics to really write about. I could go on and on about totally boring, single-incident moments, but that's not even interesting to me. I have toyed with the idea of making this more personal, but then... is that crossing a line into an online journal? Hmm. But then I decide to just bite the bullet, begin writing, and see what happens.

Edinburgh is still basking in some crisp, relatively warm Fall weather. Or rather, it was until this morning at about 9:30am when gale-force winds and soaking rain rolled into town. I, sadly, had not dressed for wet weather and so I have been quite wet several times today. No bueno.

For some reason, I woke up on the wrong side of the bed today. I could not tell you why, nothing is really out of sorts in my life at the mo. Well, that's not entirely true, but life is pretty damn good. Last night I curled up on a couch with home made hot chocolate (melted dark chocolate and warm milk), almond thins, and Downton Abbey. I absolutely love the show, and the addition of snuggles, cocoa, and cookies certainly made it that much better.

I've been reading some pretty interesting articles recently, as well, on the Loyalists during the American Revolution. It's a funny topic - everyone knows they existed, their presence is well-documented and well-acknowledged and yet they are still under-studied. Just reading about their treatment in the colonies after the war as well as in Britain (including other parts of the empire) made me realize how little we are actually taught about them. I'm not interested in them personally for research reasons, but I'm part of an Early American History reading group that will meet later this week, and Loyalists are the topic we'll be discussing. If nothing else, the culture of reading groups, seminars, lectures, and workshops outside of any prescribed course activity or my own research is the number one thing I like about being a post-grad at such a large university. That and chatting over tea or pints with my supervisor. Which I must go do now. Ciao!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Methods, Shmethods?

What is it that historians do? My generation keeps being bombarded with post-modern theories, we are constantly warned of our biases and made conscious of our narrative structures. Until this past week, I would have mistakenly made the generalization that historians of my age and position have moved beyond this - that we understand that we are not, in fact, looking for the truth, that history is amalgamous and ambiguous and porous. Of course we have biases, of course we all interpret things differently, and of course this comes out in our writing. The very acts of deciding what to include in our writing (let alone our research), how to structure it, and which words we will use all impact our eventual readers. The professor conducting my methodology seminar this week made the point that the title of that day’s seminar, “Theory and History,” falsely implied the two could be separated. You cannot write history without theory, without employing some methods, whether conscious or simply background to which you pay minimal attention. That point seems obvious once made, but it struck me in the moment. And yet, as discussion progressed, and indeed it was actually a continuation of our introductory “Historians and Historiography” session of last week, it became clear that there are a couple people, and definitely one very adamant young man, who still ascribe to the traditional, out-dated “Historians look for and present the truth” maxim. This not only annoyed me, it surprised me. How, in a world where we acknowledge the relevance of individual interpretation and experience, how can one possibly still think that there is a definitive right answer to “what happened”? Yes, of course, one cannot claim complete falsehoods. You cannot go around saying that Robespierre died in 1800, it’s simply not true. But there is no single correct interpretation of the French Revolution, of its various phases, of what the Terror was. There are traditional, conventional, normally agreed-upon versions, bien sûr, but we are not beholden to them. If I wanted to, I could play with the dates, claiming that, actually, the French Revolution began in 1787, when active resistance to Louis began at Versailles, rather than the “normal” 1789 argument. I can claim that the French were actually spurred to action by the residents of the Austrian Netherlands (today’s Belgium), who had begun a serious resistance to Joseph II in 1787 when they refused him his taxes. [For the record, these are all simplifications.] How can this colleague truly continue to think that we historians search for a truth and (more scarily) that we will one day find it?
What frustrated me perhaps more was an incredibly condescending discussion of the difference between “popular” and “academic” history. Words like “the public” get thrown out with derision dripping from the speaker’s mouth, a snotty smile crossing their face as they mention historical fiction or the audacity of that television series to bend dates and simplify ideologies. It’s entertainment, you jerks. Cinematography, publisher demands, and pure time and space sometimes dictate changes a “pure history” would prefer not to make. This does not have to make it useless. Entertainment is fun. Willing suspension of disbelief. Stop over-thinking for a minute and enjoy, damnit. A large part of my class jumped down the throat of popular history, drawing a massive gulf between it and “real” or “academic” history. What’s the difference? Academic history tends to be more technical, drier, more boring, more into minutia, they answer. Why? Dear god, why? I actually brought this up: why do we write “boring” things for academic journals and exciting, more literary-stuff for “the public”? Surely it comes down to style and it would be completely possible to write less dryly for an academic article. No, I was told, that would make my work look less professional. And besides, “the public” does not want to know the origins of a specific Pictish word, they want the romance of William Wallace. Again, why? And who the hell are we to decide? “The public cannot handle the complexities and nuance of real history.” Fuck off. [Clearly, this is a pet peeve of mine.] Museum exhibits tend to be more popular when they confront people with new ideas, new approaches, or contradicting interpretations. [For a powerful example of this, see Eric Foner’s essay on his career as a historian. It’s chapter 1 of his Who Owns History?] People like to be challenged. There is a dignity and a flattery in turning to someone and saying, “What do you think?” This is not to say that professional historians shouldn’t have jobs. Please, I need to be employed someday. But we can certainly engage with “the laymen.” Afterall, history is everyone’s. Everyone has a history, everyone can engage with the past. Ok, everyone probably does not want to sift through the archival material on the Brabant revolutionaries of 1787-1790. But I bet their story would be interesting to someone. Presented in a relatable, exciting way, any history can be captivating. Lists of names and dates are boring, even to historians! They are not history, though, which brings me back to the original question: what do historians do?
A list of the facts, of the empirical evidence, is nothing. It is a chronicle. It has no inherent value. Not until someone picks it up, reads it, and begins to think, does a set of facts become real and important. [Jenkins discusses this a bit in Re-thinking History, to those of you looking for footnotes or references.] The choice of things included and the choice of things excluded are the first elements of importance, of shaping that a historian undertakes. Then there are the inferences drawn from the list. Will I present it as a list? Will I give explanations of each thing? If I do, what kind of language will I use? “Democratic” takes on many meanings. I may write it with one intention and my audience read it with another. Historians interpret. We give voice to what we find in the archives, and that voice is none but our own. We can pretend that we are “objective,” as I’m sure my particular colleague would, but we are not. We never will be. We are human beings, with feelings, thoughts, prejudices, and value systems. I’m currently reading R. R. Palmer’s Age of Democratic Revolution (1959) and it is so dated, it is laughable. He speaks of parallels between the 18th and 20th centuries and their “revolutions” - the 20th being communism. He makes moral judgments on both, coming down hard on the Western side in opposition to communism. He reminds his readers that, just because we do not like revolution now (in the 50s) and the implications of what happened in Russia are mostly negative to his audience, doesn’t mean we should write off the 18th century revolutions as inherently negative as well. Now, that last point does make sense, but to be preached at about the evils of communism is quite annoying when reading about the Atlantic world of the 1790s. And yet, his example proves my point (which, for the footnote enthusiasts, is again closely related to some Jenkins): no historian can be taken out of their own context. Palmer’s book will undoubtedly paint the Jacobins and more leftist revolutionaries as extreme, and I will have to account for that as I read, but that does not make him wrong or irrelevant. It makes him dated, certainly, but his is only one available interpretation and anyone reading it is free to agree or disagree as they see fit. This should be obvious, I lament again. Of course everyone has an opinion. Somehow, though, historians have come to be seen as some kinds of scientific experts, giving the world the “right” versions of past events. 
When are we going to get to a point where everyone knows to read with a grain of salt, to take people’s backgrounds and ideologies and interests into account? When are we going to move past needing rights and wrongs and into a world of maybes and gray areas? When are we going to enjoy the debate for its own sake and revel in the availability of different points of view? When, when, when?! 
When I get my PhD and get out there into the real world, that’s when. [She writes arrogantly.]
NB: The above is all my own interpretation, shaped by my own interests, history, current events, and world view. You are free to disagree.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Take That, Maudlin Post

I may very soon be living in a new flat! So exciting! It isn't entirely secured yet, but unless a reference falls through or the agency decides we suck, it shall be ours on November 4th. It's lovely - views to the castle from both bedrooms and the potential to get a cat. Aaaaand it's in a lovely part of town, quite close to Bennets (my views on which can be seen here). So hoorah.

The morning after we viewed said flat, as I rode the bus into work, I thought about how wonderful it will be to begin to carve out a little space for myself here. To live in Bruntsfield, to have a 20-minute walk to work, to be so close to the Meadows, to have a little flat (and possibly a cat) where I can put my things just as I want them and possibly buy some new little knick-knacks. How exhilarating! And as I thought this, sitting on a double-decker bus, watching the world go by, I realized that I love Edinburgh. I do. I have become quite fond of this city, and I'm finally beginning to feel at home here. Gone is that feeling that I don't quite fit. Gone is the sense that I cannot belong. Maybe it's the fall weather, maybe it's the fun of wearing scarves and sweaters while seeking out my favorite spots to show new friends, but whatever it is, it feels great.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Happenings, Happenings the World Over

Today I had my second meeting with my PhD advisors. Yes, I have officially begun! It's a scary prospect to think that in three years I have to have finished my project, complete with an 80,000- to 100,000-word thesis. It's going to be a comparison of the revolutions and resulting constitutions in what became the United States and Belgium. Not entirely obscure, but definitely not a run-of-the-mill topic. Each meeting reinforces why I am here, why I have always wanted to be here. Talking about the project, the things that may (or may not) prove relevant, the directions my research could take, the possibilities of further research is not just engaging, it is purely enthralling. To a degree that I find rare in other corners of my life. I remarked to one of my supervisors today that I'm genuinely intrigued to see where this will all lead. At this point, from this vantage, none of us can really see the clear path - no roadmap has been hammered out yet - but the elements are beginning to surface through the murk and the mud. In many ways, academic work takes on a life of its own. Everyone always says that, I realize in typing it, but there's a very good reason: it's true. You cannot tell where a project will go until you are in the middle, or possibly near the end. And that is a pure joy. People sometimes liken a PhD thesis to someone's child, usually jokingly. But, like children, someone's thesis takes them to unforeseen intellectual spaces, challenges their limits and their sense of self, and grows into something quite different from what was perhaps expected. I'm just at the beginning. (In the child analogy, probably still pregnant, really.) Already, though, I am excited and ready and rearin' to go. Ah, the sweet smell of academia. How I missed you these past (4) weeks. [NB: the break was welcomed with open arms.]

In other news, I finally browsed the NY Times today for the first time in quite a while. Not having internet at home (crazy flat-moving going on... too much to mention) means my forays onto the wonderful worldly web have been fairly specific, short, and sweet. But today I have some time and so news came to the top of the heap. The first article to jump out at me was one on the general anti-establishment nature of recent uprisings the world over, and a sister article about the protests in Israel. It was interesting to consider the idea that the world at large is moving beyond the governmental structures we know so well. It was a joy to everyone to see the use of Twitter and Facebook during the election protests in Iran over a year ago, and it seemed everyone in the West could unite in condemning state shut-downs of internet access to stop peaceful organization through social media. Hell, the very fact that I can write about social media on this here blog says a lot, considering this girl only got Twitter to follow the great Rachel Maddow. That all made sense without necessarily impinging on our own little worlds. But that first article I mentioned puts forward an interesting premise: that even in the West now, people are going around normal "democratic" processes and using social networks to take matters into their own hands. The article emphasizes a true disappointment on the part of the public when it comes to the effectiveness of their governments and the legitimacy of their voices in elections and polls. It struck me as I read that we are at the precipice of a brand new world, one that could potentially exist without traditional structures and nation-states made up of vast, intricate systems that require cloak-and-dagger diplomacy and special ops forces. Are we as humanity moving beyond the nation-state? Is there about to be a break that, for students of the future, will represent a new fall-line, demarcating the start of a post-Treaty of Westphalia universe? I doubt anything that drastic will actually come to fruition, but the implications are mind-numbingly awesome. How tantalizing to think of tearing down structures that have given Wall Street, bankers, and career politicians the power that monarchs, viceroys, generals, and career diplomats used to have. [You didn't think I'd be able to leave my study of 18th-century revolutions out of this did you?]

[Side note: my Twitter feed just popped up with this tragically hilarious (and relevant) article from the Onion.]

In truth, part of why all of this caught my eye to the degree it did is because I've recently been on some outings with a charming PhD in Education student whose interests lie in social media, technology, etc. and the implications for education. Interesting stuff. I don't get on the Twitter all that often and I don't use LinkedIn or any of that jazz, but I realized that maybe in letting that kind of thing pass me by I'm doing more than sitting in a comfortable cocoon of insulation. Maybe I'm missing out on something. Maybe not.

Whatever the status of the world and its revolutions, Edinburgh is proving itself splendid as ever. An Indian summer has descended upon us, and I welcome it with open arms. Today I actually sat in the Meadows in a tank top... I think I even got a little tan. Being a funded student has meant that I can finally take a little advantage of this fantastic town. In the spirit of revolutions, the other night involved a fantabulous dinner at Pancho Villa's in the Canongate and dessert at Chez Jules (both extremely highly recommended). I'm looking forward to the next three years. For their academic fun, their opportunities, and for the chance to know and love Edinburgh even better.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Slightly Maudlin Post (it had to come sooner or later....)

Why are some things easier to obsess over than others? Admittedly, I'm prone to obsessing. My true nature is a classic hypochondriac-worrier-worst-case-scenario kind of person. Over the years, though, I've worked hard at being less neurotic and more able to go with the flow, as it were. I don't always succeed and I do always have that nagging feeling like I should care more, but for the most part I've been able to become fairly laid back about most of what life throws at me. Until something comes along that, for some reason, sticks in my craw. There's generally no rhyme or reason to what that thing will be but once it's there, oooh boy, it is tough to get rid of.

Without going into unnecessary detail, suffice it to say that the latest unwanted kernel of thought relates to a relationship. (Serious pain in the ass.) It's been ages, I've tried everything. The pain has dulled, the emotions come through like haze on a hot Carolina day, but for some reason my thoughts still turn to it way more often than they should. This morning as I walked across the meadows in glorious Fall sunshine, the castle to my left, Arthur's Seat to my right and Edinburgh a true feast for the eyes, I hit on a possible reason. There is a small part of me that does not feel welcome here. Not in any immediate sense - the hospitality of this country certainly rivals anything Southerners have ever offered this Yankee - not even in any way social. It's a deeper, nationalistic feeling. There is a part of me that can't shake the countless times I was told, "You're not actually Scottish. This isn't your country." That may sound trite. It certainly sounds lame to just look at it like that. But over months of hearing that, of seeing severe reaction to anyone claiming any kind of Scottish heritage (which, for the record, I do not -  we're from Sligo in Ireland, way back when...) it's hard to feel like I can ever own a piece of this. It's hard to get that feeling like I could maybe adopt Scotland, or it could adopt me. And, as a citizen of the world who would gladly change her passport, that's hard to come to terms with. Even Paris - a city owned by no one, a city as wild and free as any I've ever come across - even Paris took me in and gave me a small part of herself. Perhaps my tendency to turn my thoughts to that affair does not stem from anything to do with the events between two people. Perhaps it comes from a search for why I don't feel quite at home here. For why I can't hear the bagpipes on Princes Street and feel a sense of belonging. Who knows? What I can say is this: what a ridiculous way to feel. And all because there's someone out there who doesn't think you should look back several generations to understand who you are. As a historian, I cannot accept that. And so, as a person living in Scotland, I will not accept this. I am going to change this - I am going to own my own little part of Edinburgh. This city will be mine in some little way. And I will love it, pretensions and all.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Bedknobs and Bathtubs

So, I've moved into a new flat. It's in a very lovely part of Edinburgh (in fact, a very posh part) but it's just that extra bit further away from both my jobs and the center of town to be convenient. Also, it's a one-bedroom that my flatmate has lived in for 5 years. We're meant to be moving to a larger, two person flat soon. Soooooon.

But, despite the crampedness, living in a real-person house with a person I actually can have a conversation with is such a breath of fresh air. Take it in. Breathe. Feel the relief. The best way to maximize such relief is in the bathtub. Some of my friends think I'm a little crazy when it comes to baths. They don't quite get my apparent obsession with them, my poetic odes to them. But if you were incapable of having one for months on end, I imagine your love of them would increase as well. At least in part. But I do recognize that I have a serious affection for them that is not entirely common. This, I think, is in part tied to the lack of emphasis our society puts on truly relaxing - on a daily basis. Yes, we have ads about getting away and taking time for yourself, but they're generally for 5-star getaways at fancy spas. They're not for your everyday life - that's apparently meant to be hectic and insane. Why? Why do we have to allow ourselves to get so overwhelmed that our only escape could be thousands of dollars worth of massages and plane rides and mai tais? (I've never had one, I don't know if that's actually how you spell that particular cocktail.) It's like cleaning, or organizing, or meeting a massive deadline: do it a little at a time and it's never too much to handle. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time, of course! Take a bath every so often. Not a quick one, a real one. A long one. With a glass of wine, or whisky, or Bailey's, or a beer (or orange juice if you're teetotal). Let yourself really soak. Think about how the water feels between your toes, over your tummy, behind your neck. You'll suddenly realize you're not thinking about work or laundry or dinner or anything else. Really concentrating on your body can be so therapeutic. It can allow you to recollect yourself so that, when you get out of the tub, you can face the world again with determination and hit-me-with-your-best shot pizazz.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Oh Hello, Autumn, We Missed You

It's officially September. The time of year when you break out sweaters (or jumpers if you like calling them that), get out scarves and coats, and wait for the leaves on the trees to turn fantastic shades and then fall under your feet as if begging to be crunched. Unless, of course, you live in Scotland. Here, the demarcation from Summer to Fall this year was hopelessly underwhelming. It's been scarf weather for at least 2 weeks here and the tree outside my window has been yellow for at least 10 days. Everyone has been saying that this summer was particularly miserable, even by British and specifically Scottish standards, but I don't think that's accurate. I think that somehow, for some reason, the gods of nature forgot Scotland this year. Time stood still or sped up or was warped somehow, because summer never came. This year, we in the land of haggis, neeps, tatties, kilts, and whisky were left behind in Spring and then fast-forwarded to Fall in the blink of an eye. Doomed were we to hear of others' afternoons at the pool sipping daquiris, to hear of romps in shorts and bikini tops, to dream of sizzling barbeques and content ourselves with a pub dinner in jeans and long-sleeved shirts, hoping to catch a glimpse of a tourist looking bewildered by the rain that stops and starts 10 times in as many minutes.

Ah, but still... life, she is good. For how could one drink a whisky and a pint in hot weather? How would one get adequate use out of umpteen scarves if not to wear them all-year-round? And - best of all for those of us who wear aprons at work - how else but by freezing rain will customers stop ordering bloody Frappucinos? Yes, this weather has its advantages, and though I cursed and swore and ranted several times this summer, I refuse to have my optimism squashed. And now that it's officially September, balance has been restored and wearing a scarf does not need to induce rage.

In other September news, it is the start of a new school year. In my case, a new degree! Ha! I've just handed in a Master's thesis (literally - 2 weeks ago) and now I get to start my PhD! The good thing is that PhD's are much more personal and self-based research and so it's not like finishing one year of undergrad and hopping into the next in a fortnight. (Yes, I said fortnight). I'm looking forward to getting back to the academic part of my world, if for no other reason than it means I get to forcefully scale back my hours at the Bux and have a great excuse not to take tours when the office calls looking desperately for a guide. Hoorah!