Sea Narratives Symposium

Towards the end of last week I was invited down to the University of Warwick to meet with Amber Thomas, formerly of Jisc, and now the University’s Academic Technology service leader. Amber invited me down to talk about the university’s educational  resource management infrastructure and it was a real pleasure to be able to see some of the technology approaches we explored for many years with Jisc starting to be put into practice in an institutional context.

While I was in Warwick I also had the opportunity to attend the Sea Narratives Symposium organised by the Travel and Mobility Studies network.  The symposium was a truly multidisciplinary exploration of how

“humans have interacted with the sea through trade, labour, migration, leisure and exploration; how it has figured in national contexts as a site of geopolitical control; and how it has featured in the cultural imagination as a space of danger and the unknown, but also as a source of inspiration.”


The morning session, chaired by Charlotte Mathieson focused on “Making the sea: communities and connections.”

Exploring the space between words and meaning: knowing the relational sensibility of surf spaces, or, The sea is geography
Jon Anderson, Cardiff University

Jon spoke about the sea as the quintessential inaccessible wilderness, abstracted and distanced from our everyday reality.  However geographers are demonstrating that the sea is not an empty trackless void and are starting to develop a fluid ontology.  Jon made the point that we cannot abstract a representation of the world because we are slap bang in the middle of it and he called for the development of a “thalassology”, a new language for conceptualising water – human interactions.  Jon ended his talk with his film Affective Surfscapes.  Communicating Surf Convergence: Can only a surfer know the feeling? which quoted extensively from Jack London’s The Royal Sport and Drew Kampion’s The Lost Coast.

Negotiating the tsunami: the sea, memory and communities of practice in south-eastern Sri Lanka
Will Wright, University of Sheffield

Will’s case study focused on Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka, where the main economic activities are fishing, tourism and surfing. 10% of the population of Arugam were killed in the 2004 tsunami, but public memorialisation of the event is noticeably absent. The tsunami is still a present and personal event for local people, with one resident explaining “We don’t need a memorial, we live it every day.”

In Arugam, the sea is a socially significant geographical space, it is not an “other” space, it is a central part of everyday lives. If we consider the ocean as a social space then it is subject to the same contested forms of knowledge as the land.  Relationships with the sea are gendered, and in Arugam  women are excluded from sea going activities such as fishing and surfing.  Will quoted one local resident who suggested that the tsunami was punishment for women going to sea. (This point was particularly interesting to me as the same taboo existed in the Outer Hebrides within living memory.  My grandfather frowned on the idea of women going out in fishing boats and some believed the presence of a woman in the boat would endanger the catch and possibly even the boat itself.  I have even heard of men who would turn back if they met a woman on their way down to the boat.)

Following the trauma of the tsunami, people in Arugam have had to renegotiate their relationship with the sea. There may be fear of the sea, but it is not feared because it is unknown, there is an in depth knowledge of its specificity. Negotiation of the tsunami has been mediated through knowledge of the sea.

A more-than-sea geography. A case study of super luxury yachts in the South of France
Emma Spence, University of Cardiff.

Emma called for a more-than-sea relational approach to maritime geographies which takes into account the relationship of the shore to experiences of the sea.  In her case study of super luxury yachts in the South of France, Emma referred to the gendered nature of crews’ experiences of the sea. Male deck crew have a very different experience of the sea, and particularly of sickness, from female cabin crew.   Emma also discussed the excessive drinking culture that is embedded in crew culture and is fundamental to their relationship with the shore.

All three papers sparked a fascinating discussion on the gendered nature of sea narratives and on the prevalence of metaphors of colonisation and conquest in relation to the sea in general and surf culture in particular.  Will and Emma made specific reference to these gendered narratives in their presentations but to my mind this discourse was most striking in the almost hyper masculine narrative of Jon’s surf film.  David Lambert also commented on the fact that Jon’s film opened with a clip of the 1999 Guinness “Surfer” advert, questioning whether surf imagery and narratives have been appropriated by multinational corporations with neo-liberal agendas.

The afternoon panel, chaired by Tara Puri, focused on “Narrating the sea: traveling texts”.

Narrating the early modern French sea voyage to Asia: trajectory and text
Michael Harrigan, University of Warwick

Michael focused on two early 17th century French travel narratives by apothecary Jean Mocquet (1617) and navigator Francois Pyrard de Laval (1619), who shared a ghost writer. There is an authoritative specificity of time and place in these sea narratives. There is a singularity of trajectory in Pyrard’s narrative, events are accompanied by exact geographical and temporal markers.  Mocquet, by contrast, invokes an infernal situation where authority is continually in question.

A Sea of Stories: Narratives of Capture at Sea During the Napoleonic Wars
Elodie Duché, University of Warwick

Elodie opened her presentation with Johnson’s famous quote

“No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.”

Elodie’s research focuses on the translation of the experience of capture and captivity into narrative text. There was a large audience for captive narratives in the 19th century and some were fictionalised and rewritten for publication. The narratives of Napoleonic naval prisoners of war dramatically evoke the loss of their ships and their entry into captivity. There is no common narrative of captivity but tropes can be identified, including a sentimental separation from the sea. Prisoners mused on their capture at sea during the period of their captivity.

What prompted these individuals to narrate and publish their experiences of captivity? Naval prisoners were prompted to write their lives through their professional practice (e.g. Admiralty reports and log books), as a form of personal justification, and to communicate with their families. Many captives introduced their texts with classical quotes to emphasise the epic nature of their experiences. Escape is legitimised by emphasising prior bravery at sea.

The French prison depots were as far removed from the sea as possible and yet the naval space was reproduced here. Captives in the prison depots were “Jack Tars ashore”.  The sea is missing form these spaces, yet at Verdun in particular the landscape is perceived through its watery nature.  The locus of activity is shifted from the sea to the River Meuse and the French press continually reported on the English prisoners activities around the river.

The experiences of liberated children are particularly problematic. Returning to a land which is unfamiliar and foreign to them is almost a second captivity.  The experiences of Irish prisoners and their relationship to naval and British identity is also deeply ambiguous.

Travelling across Worlds and Texts in A. S. Byatt’s Sea Narratives
Barbara Franchi, University of Kent

Barbara began with John Masefield’s “Sea Fever” and focused on sea narratives in a number of Byatt’s texts including Morpho Eugenia, The Conjugal Angel, The Biographer’s Tale and Sea Story.  Barbara presented an intertextual analysis that explored the the opposition of “imperial navigation to the boundless seas of literature” and the creative and disruptive powers of literature, writing and the sea.

Charlotte Mathieson has blogged an excellent summary of the Symposium here and has also posted a storify of my tweets here. Full abstracts for the event can be found here.


Encouraging news from the Wellcome Library and Europeana

I’m a bit pressed for time for blogging at the moment, but there have already been two news items this week that are worth highlighting.

First of all, the Wellcome Library have followed the lead of the National Portrait Gallery, the J. P. Getty Museum and many other institutions worldwide, and announced that they have made over 100,000 high resolution historical images available free of charge.  All the images, which include of manuscripts, paintings, etchings, early photography and advertisements, carry a a CC-BY licence and can be downloaded from the Wellcome Images website.

Among many fascinating collections, Wellcome Images includes works by my favourite Georgian satirical cartoonist Thomas Rowlandson, along with his contemporaries James Gillray and George Cruikshank.

Swimming by Thomas Rowlandson

“Side way or any way” by Thomas Rowlandson

In a press release accompanying the launch, Simon Chaplin, Head of the Wellcome Library, said

“Together the collection amounts to a dizzying visual record of centuries of human culture, and our attempts to understand our bodies, minds and health through art and observation. As a strong supporter of open access, we want to make sure these images can be used and enjoyed by anyone without restriction.”

The BBC also published a rather entertaining article about the collection here:  Grin and bare it: buttock cupping & other health ‘cures’.

The other announcement that caught my eye was the launch of the second release of the Europeana Open Culture app.  I haven’t had a chance to try the new app, but I haven’t had too much success searching Europreana in the past, so I’m hoping that it will be an improvement.   The new app promises to bring “enhanced functionality, new content,  a more user-friendly layout” and is available in seven languages (English, German, French, Spanish, Dutch, Bulgarian, and Swedish).  The press release states:

“you can now download the hi-res image for free and use it however you want to – for your work, study or leisure projects”

However, as I haven’t had a chance to load up the app, I don’t know what licence or licences these images carry.   However the app code for the Muse (Museum in your pocket) Open Source iPad App used by Europeana is available from Github.

It’s really encouraging to see more and more museums, libraries and galleries making their content freely available under open licence, these are invaluable resources for teachers, learners and researchers worldwide.  I just hope we will see more education institutions joining them!

Interesting Times

May you live in interesting times is a well known, but seemingly fictitious, “Chinese curse”, and boy was 2013 an interesting time!

I’m not much given to end of year reflections as I tend to see this as a time to look forward rather than back, however I can’t let this year pass without comment.  My former Cetis colleague Sheila MacNeil has already written a lovely reflective post over at her blog called That Was The Year That Was; my equivalent post is rather more That Was The Year That Wasn’t.  Unsurprisingly the year was dominated by the University of Strathclyde’s decision to terminate the Cetis Memorandum of Understanding and make all Cetis staff at the university redundant at the end of July.  However this was just the end of a long, drawn out and bitter process that started with the controversial closure of the department that housed Cetis, the Centre for Academic Practice and Learning Enhancement, in early 2012.  Over the previous eighteen months most of my time had been devoted to increasingly hostile wrangling with HR and university senior management.  University College Union representatives at Strathclyde were helpful and supportive but ultimately neither they, not I, were able to prevent the university serving us with compulsory redundancy notices, or to negotiate better terms than statutory redundancy.   I would be lying if I said I wasn’t bitter about loosing sixteen years tenure and a considerable amount of funding, left behind in various project budgets.  Unfortunately, as I had spent most of the previous year and a half embroiled in HR negotiations,  I had no alternative employment lined up when our redundancies finally came into force, and I found myself unemployed for the first time since graduating in 1990.  To add insult to injury, due to lack of funding, I was unable to attend the ALT Conference in September, and the paper Phil Barker and I had had accepted was dropped from the programme. I was also gutted not to be there to see Sheila accept her immensely well-deserved Learning Technologist of the Year Award, which Cetis’ Christina Smart and I had sneakily nominated her for.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom though.  Determined to leave Strathclyde on a high, we organised the highly successful Open Scotland Summit, which brought together representatives of Scotland’s education authorities, agencies and institutions to discuss the potential of open education policy and practice to benefit Scottish education across the sector, and which featured a keynote from Creative Commons’ Director of Global Learning, Dr Cable Green.

I spent the three months after my redundancy working on variety of project proposals and consultancy bids and it was great to reconnect with several colleagues who I had lost touch with including Lou McGill, Allison Littlejohn and all the great people at Jisc RSC Scotland. I made some great new contacts through the Open Knowledge Foundation too, and got involved with helping to organise the OKFN Glasgow meetups. I also migrated my professional blog from Lorna’s Cetis Blog to Open World, I set up the Open Scotland blog and continued working with colleagues to further the goals discussed at the Open Scotland Summit.

In October I was very much relieved to be back in the saddle as Cetis Assistant Director, this time at the University of Bolton.  Working from home on a regular basis has required a bit of adjustment, but there are worse things to have to put up with!   Shortly after re-joining Cetis I was delighted to see some of the proposals I’d been working on over the summer come to fruition and I’m looking forward to starting the new year with some new projects that I hope to be able to start blogging about soon.

2013 might have been difficult career wise, but in terms of our history research it was a huge success.  My research colleague Heather Noel-Smith and I were delighted to have two papers accepted for peer reviewed conferences run by the University of Portsmouth (Port Towns and Urban Cultures) and the National Museum of the Royal Navy (Press Gangs, Conscripts and Professionals) and to have a research seminar scheduled as part of the National Museum of the Royal Navy Seminar Series in the new year.  Our research was also featured at the National Archives Explore Your Archives event in November.  I also really enjoyed connecting with a diverse and lively group of #twitterstorians on twitter, not least the irrepressible Port Towns crew.  It was through these twitter connections that I had the opportunity to contribute to a blog post written by Joanna Bailey of Oxford Brooks University, and co-authored by Isaac Land, Indiana State University, Steven Gray, Warwick University and myself. “The six best conference questions: Or, how not to paper-bomb at a conference” turned out to be the most popular post on this blog in 2013 with over 2,300 views!

So that was 2013.  There was plenty to say “good bye and good riddance to”, but there were also many real high points among all the doom and gloom, not least of which was the support of colleagues, family and friends.  It’s also been hugely encouraging to see so many of my former Strathclyde colleagues from both CAPLE and Cetis move on to new posts where their talents are very much appreciated.  It’s great to be able to keep in touch and I hope we can look forward to working together again in the future.   So here’s looking forward to 2014, and here’s hoping that it’s a slightly less “interesting” time than 2013.  Onwards and upwards and all that!

The six best conference questions: Or, how not to paper-bomb at a conference

Recently Times Higher Education published an article by Allan Johnson about the six questions every academic dreads to hear at conferences, which started an interesting discussion among a group of historians on twitter about the kind of conference questions we really like to hear.  Joanne Bailey, Reader in HIstory at Oxford Brookes University, suggested this would make a great topic for an article and took the lead in turning the twitter discussion into something more coherent, and it gives me great pleasure to post the resulting article here.

The six best conference questions: Or, how not to paper-bomb at a conference

By Joanne Bailey, Isaac Land, Lorna M. Campbell and Steven Gray

Giving a conference paper can be a daunting and sometimes even an unpleasant experience, as Allan Johnson reminded us in his article in the Times Higher about the six conference questions every academic hears, and wishes they didn’t. They range from the helpful, to the ambush, to the direct attack. There are the well-intentioned, if condescending offerings: the ‘Courtesy Question’ and ‘The Tell-Us-What-You-Want Question.’ Then there are the conference versions of photo-bombing: ‘Talk-To-Me-Personally Question’ and ‘Wandering Statement’ where the questioner sticks their research in front of the speaker’s. Finally, the argumentative: ‘Obstinate Question’ and ‘Display of Superior Knowledge’.

Well, we’ve all been there, possibly on both sides of the desk. Some of us even avoid giving papers to escape these questions. One of us remembers the joy she felt at a conference when the fire-alarm went off as she finished the paper, which avoided questions altogether. But of course we need other researchers’ questions to make our research efforts worthwhile. Their questions are the life-blood of conferences. That is why we give papers. We want to test our direction, our findings, and our approach. By the way, if you go to a conference in order to monitor the competition rather than to survey the field, we suggest you should save your money as that kind of attitude is unlikely to be helpful to you or anyone else.

So in the ideal world what should conference Q&A sessions be like? A short survey on Twitter asking academics what kind of questions they’d benefited from after delivering conference papers came up with several horror stories but – more importantly – the sort of interaction and enquiries we want and need when we bravely set our work in front of others.

The supportive Question

Okay, sometimes the audience is silent because of its state of exhaustion, hangovers, desire to have lunch, or need to get the train. So for the kindly soul who breaks the ice, we like questions which show that the audience member has actually listened to our presentation, so ask about a specific point that was raised. It can be robust: ask for clarification as that actually gets the speaker to engage and explain; particularly useful for researchers at the start of a project.

The Selfless Question

When you give a conference paper you want the questions to be about your paper or aspects of your research. So the questioner who focuses on your research is more helpful than the one who dwells on their own work.  It means the panel member can think about their own research and not get distracted by trying to guess who the speaker is from the clues in the question, or if they already know who the speaker is, trying to (a) avoid offending them, or (b) offend them.  For the egotist academics out there, why not see your questions as an opportunity to publicly help others? They’ll be eternally grateful!

Another way to do this is to try to ask questions about more than one paper. This makes the conversation a three-way discussion between the questioner, the speakers and the audience. We can all learn something then.

The Tough-but-Fair Question

This is probably the most rewarding question. Tough makes us explain and clarify. It can turn our research around. One PhD student advocates the kind of questions which ‘point out the holes and inconsistencies in my arguments/proof, or extrapolate off my argument and then poke holes. I find those questions to be really useful, because they show me where I need to do more work, especially at expressing my ideas’. But, the question must be fair. Try something like: ‘You mentioned your (evidence type) which poses problems, can you say a few words about the solution?’ Or how about offering the speaker an exception to their case and ask them to reflect on it?

The Practical Recommendation

Everybody loves this question. We need to know what we have missed in the primary and secondary sources, but phrase it positively please!  Don’t demand to know why the speaker has omitted classic work a, b, or c. Try: ‘Have you consulted such and such because it reinforces your argument?’ Or, admit that there isn’t a reason for the speaker to have looked at this, but tell them it is similar.

The Think-Outside-the-Box Prompt

Another popular question is one which gets the speaker to think outside the box in which they have neatly confined their research. Remember this is not an attack, nor should it be about the questioner’s own work. Simply ask the speaker to think about a specific comparative case, or comment that their findings may be reflected in other fields or time periods. Not only does this challenge pre-conceptions in a useful way, it may help speakers to think about expanding their work in new directions. This should be exciting rather than threatening. One medievalist offered a question that had helped them: ‘You were talking about women in England, I know that in Germany at the time this was happening, is that the same?’

The Tell-Me-What-Else-You Know

We all cut loads out of our papers. Very often, speakers comment on this while delivering the paper, partly because we are so desperate to point out that we haven’t missed something obvious, we just haven’t had time to cover it. So ask the speaker about the areas they had to leave out! Useful questions, like: ‘You mentioned that time did not permit you to go into XYZ. Can you elaborate now? Speakers appreciate the chance to flesh out details and demonstrate the depth of their research.

When academics give conference papers we don’t necessarily want everyone to agree with us and praise us, though admittedly that can be nice. What we seek is for our audience to take us seriously, whatever stage of our careers we are at.  And that means not dismissing speakers because they are at an early stage of their research and have not yet read the ‘seminal’ work.  As one well-established academic observes: ‘Never greet a young scholar’s paper with “that’s not where the field IS,” which is self-evidently incorrect’. Similarly, those of us at the other end of the academic life-course need to be challenged by ‘new’ approaches and techniques. Early-career scholars can offer so much here, even if they might feel vulnerable about questioning more senior academics. Try phrasing questions along the lines of: ‘How do you respond to (specific scholar) when they say (specifically X)’, rather than dismissing them with ‘You are out of touch’.

What emerged from the Twitter survey is that we give papers in order to think things through and to learn. Audience members are at the panel for the same reasons. This puts us on the same team, not on opposing sides, even when we hold alternative views! So questions should be about personal and collective development, not scoring points off the captive speaker. Next time you ask a question in a conference be a giver, not just a taker. Learn, but offer your learning too, so that it is helpful rather than confrontational.

What academic speakers need and want is simple: courtesy, civility, and interest. Rephrase your ‘Obstinate Question’ into a ‘Tough-but-Fair’ question that allows the speaker to think and respond. Turn your ‘Wandering Statement’ into a ‘Practical Recommendation.’  If you are desperate to fill a silence, make the ‘Courtesy’ question a ‘Supportive’ one, or help out constructively with a ‘Tell-Me-What-Else-You-Know’. We all like to talk about our own work, but recognise that you aren’t giving a paper, so make ‘Another Place-or-Time-Prompt’ which introduces your interest but asks a question of the speaker, encouraging them to think beyond their chronological or spatial boundaries. Be brief, be focused, be answerable, and respond to something specific in the actual paper.

There is, perhaps, a seventh type of conference question that deserves consideration here. What to say when the disagreement is genuine and large, so large that downplaying it would be an injustice to your own intelligence and the speaker’s?  Consider that civility is more important in this situation than in any other.  It may be helpful to frame your comment as a request for clarification (“are you arguing that…” or “perhaps I misunderstood, but…”).  Even if you heard the argument correctly, you are offering them an opportunity to introduce nuances or climb down altogether from an untenable position. If you back a speaker into a corner with an accusation, they are likely to respond in a purely defensive spirit.

A good rule for the statement of strong disagreement is to keep it brief.  Jane Austen said it best: try ‘… to unite civility and truth in a few short sentences.’ You can register your dissent and the reasoning behind it without taking up so much time (or unleashing such strong emotions) that others in the room cannot go on to engage with the speaker on their own terms in the remainder of the Q&A.  If the reasoning behind your point is widely shared in the room, you won’t need to belabour it; if it is not widely shared, a lengthy intervention will not win you many converts. Remember that you can discuss the issues with the speaker after the session.

A practical problem remains unexamined: How should a speaker respond when faced with a question that feels inappropriate or hostile? We should bear in mind that people have different natural styles and levels of social skill, and a bluntly worded question is not necessarily a malicious one.  Audience members have little time to prepare their questions.  It may be helpful to respond in a tone and style that is slightly friendlier than the questioner’s. In some cases, this is all that is required to smooth the waters and enable dialogue. Avoid the temptation to shrug off the challenge with a minimalist reply, ask for clarification if needed, for instance. Honesty is disarming: ‘that is very interesting, but there really isn’t enough time to expand the scope of my work in that direction.’ Do consider that one source of belligerent audiences and long-winded questions may be past history with speakers who came across as dismissive.

We should also be sensitive to the ways that acerbic questioners may be imitating aspects of their own rough treatment at the hands of (anonymous) peer reviewers or (named) book reviewers.  We cannot expect a Rivendell of civility at conferences to last for long if the trolls have taken over elsewhere.

Useful Links

Six conference questions every academic hears by Allan Johnson
How not to ask questions at a conference by Kevin Burke
How to disagree with civility by Lincoln Mullen 

The Authors

Joanne Bailey is a Reader in HIstory at Oxford Brookes University where she a historian of early modern, Georgian and Victorian Britain, with particular interests in marriage, marriage breakdown, family relationships, the domestic economy, parenting, masculinities and identities.  Joanne blogs at Joanne Bailey Muses on History.

Isaac Land is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Indiana State University  where his teaching and research interests focus on the intersection of national and international histories, and the history of sailors and port cities.

Lorna M Campbell is the Assistant Director of the Centre for Educational Technology, Interoperability and Standards at the University of Bolton.  Along with her colleague Heather Noel-Smith, she is also undertaking an independent research project on the the careers of young officers in the Napoleonic navy.  Lorna blogs at Open World and Indefatigable1797.

Steven Gray is undertaking a PhD at Warwick University with the working title ‘Imperial Coaling: Steam-power, the Royal Navy and British Imperial Coaling stations circa. 1870-1914’. Steven’s research concerns the expansion of a steam-powered Royal Navy in the second half of the nineteenth century and the wider ramifications across the British empire. Stephen blogs at