Thursday, 28 August 2014

Delenda est laptops

I read this screed against laptop use in classes with initial scepticism and then increasing belief. It goes against my generally nonconfrontational approach to life but I think I might give it a go.

Imagining Christianity

Fresh from a summer holiday, my rare annual chance to read the odd novel, and to this year's discovery: Maria McCann's The Wilding, set in 1670s Dorset, in which a young man who believes himself to be an upstanding citizen progressively uncovers a whole regiment of skeletons in the family closet and realises that he is simply sheltered and na├»ve rather than virtuous.

It isn't the perfect novel. I did find that the ending fizzled a little. But it's a gripping read. McCann writes both beautifully and compellingly, which is not an easy double. The characters are appealing, particularly the young hero - who, by the end, is considerably more heroic than he himself recognises - and his parents, who you can't help but love as much as he does. It does the historical-novel thing unusually well: it captures lots of atmosphere and subtle detail, and much of the plot turns on one crucial incident from the Civil War, but most of it is as timeless as most human lives are. There are no attempts to dress a history lesson up as fiction, and no walk-on parts from big-name characters. And I challenge you to read it without thinking that you'd rather like a mug of cider.

Still, my point is not simply to plug it but to pick out a more unusual virtue. I think McCann manages to get her hero's religion right. He's not a particularly pious young man, but his character is underpinned by the assumed religious framework that pervades his life, from which he draws considerable strength, and which - briefly, at one pivotal moment - he openly questions. She doesn't draw attention to it very often. It simply seems normal, and it adds to his humanity.

Is it just me, or is successfully pulling this off in a historical novel really rare? I have read a series of historical novels recently, all of which I have enjoyed, all of which fall down on this point. Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders, another rollicking post-Civil-War read, ends with the heroine sloughing off her religion. Jill Paton Walsh's Knowledge of Angels, a much better book, is about the struggle and inevitable failure of a cleric to hold onto his faith when confronted with an alternative. Even the incomparable Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies present Thomas Cromwell's religion as a species of modern secular scepticism.

I was beginning to wonder if the novel, as a genre, is capable of dealing effectively with characters who genuinely hold to and draw strength from their religion. Or is there a cult of individualism so deeply ingrained in it as a form that we can only construe adherence to truths beyond the self as a form of oppression? I struggle to think of many modern novels whose characters' religion is simply part of them (aside from those like Susan Howatch's Starbridge series, where that is the point). So McCann is a breath of fresh air. I've ordered her first novel, and may even get to read it before next summer.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014


Ex-Durham theology students go on to do all kinds of wonderful things, but I've recently come across one of the more wonderful ones. Rich Wyld, formerly a doctoral student here, now a C of E parish priest in Dorset, runs a delightful blog called Theologygrams, which mixes some serious and perceptive points with ladlefuls of straight-faced silliness. And he now has a book out, which if you have the faintest taste for Biblically, theologically or mathematically based humour (any one of the three) will make you laugh out loud. Buy a job lot now in time for Christmas.

This one (below) isn't in the book but will give you a flavour!

Liberation Theology

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The job presentation

Having blessed the world with my thoughts on the other stages of academic job-hunting, I’ve been asked for views on this too. It is now standard for most academic jobs in the UK to include a formal presentation followed by a Q&A, in addition to the interview. Typically the presentation is open to all academic staff and research students in the relevant Department. The audience will usually give their feedback to the interview panel at the end of the process. The panel isn’t bound by what the audience say, but they invariably take it seriously, and most of the time end up agreeing with them.

Some candidates self-destruct during the presentation, so much so that we only allow them to finish and to come to the interview out of courtesy. Some candidates ace the presentation so well that they nail the job there and then. From the couple of dozen I’ve attended and chaired over recent years, some tips.

1. Read the brief. Then, read the brief again. There is no standard form. You may, especially for a junior or temporary post, be asked to perform a teaching-related task, such as giving a lecture as if to a class of first-year students. You may (this is the Durham standard) be asked to give a paper on an aspect of your current or recent research. There may be some hybrid of the two, or sometimes, for posts with particular requirements, something more specific to that job. Make sure that you understand exactly what you’re being asked to do. If you don’t understand it, ask for clarification. And, if you can do it without being clunky, it can be useful to mention to the audience what your brief was: it’s perfectly possible that they haven’t all been told.

2. But also, don’t be fooled by the brief. They have asked you to do one task, but they will use your performance in that to assess your all-round suitability. Typically, the presentation is in practice used to assess both whether you are a good teacher and whether your research is high-quality. You may be asked to give a research paper, but the audience want to know that you are a clear, engaging and lively communicator who could safely be put in front of a room full of undergraduates. You may be asked to give a beginners’ lecture, but the audience want it to be fizzing with ideas and demonstrating your scholarly qualities too. This double bind is infuriating but it is also one of the things which makes the presentation such an effective test.

3. Stick to time. I’m sorry this should have to be said, but it does. If you are asked to speak for 20 minutes, ensure that you speak for between 18 and 21 minutes. Less is much better than more.

4. Visual aids: not essential but probably helpful. Of course it depends on the task and your own style, but simply speaking from notes may be braver than you need to be. But if you do it, do it well. PowerPoint presentations which simply list your talking-points are rarely a good idea: they work better for pictures, quotations or other material best delivered visually.

5. If you do an AV presentation, especially an online one such as Prezi, be in touch with the relevant person to ensure that it can be set up and tested in advance. Never assume it’ll be all right. Personally I recommend the method by which my old colleague Catherine Richardson helped to persuade us of her unflappable omnicompetence: showing up with a complete set of handouts in your bag in case the technology fails. It is a very nice demonstration that you are a safe pair of hands.

6. And anyway, don’t underrate the old-fashioned paper handout, which your audience can digest much more easily than they can a succession of projected slides, and which they can also take away with them. Get the organisers to confirm the expected numbers present beforehand, and then add at least 50%. Make your own copies and bring them if you possibly can: your hosts may offer to make them but (I say with a hot pang of shame, having once as a host done this to a candidate … sorry, again …) they may not actually do it. And don’t forget to include your email address on a handout. Even if you don’t get the job, you may make some worthwhile contacts.

7. Regardless of what sort of visual aid you use, make it look good. It is worth spending time on this, and indeed getting help from the people you know who are better at it than you. Something with high production values pleases and tickles and audience; it makes you look professional; and again, it reassures them that you’ll be a competent lecturer.

8. Proofread, both your visuals and what you will say. Slips in grammar and punctuation will always be noticed, and I am afraid they genuinely do undermine academics’ confidence.

9. To read from a text or to ad-lib? No clear answer, but this is one of the key questions. A droning, dull or inaudible performance can sink you immediately. So can a rambling, inarticulate, over-chatty or (I have heard this) half-shouted performance. Reading allows you to control your text and your timings much more, and also helps if you are nervous. Speaking from outline notes or even unprompted can be much more engaging, but risks either stumbling or being over-glib. Do what you are comfortable with, but if you have a full text, don’t forget that this is a rhetorical performance, in which delivery and eye contact are crucial, so rehearse it sufficiently that the text becomes little more than a prompt. (It can be helpful to print it in a large point size.) If you are ad-libbing, again, rehearse it often enough that you know what you are doing. If you are worried about how you will come across, make a video recording of yourself doing the presentation. It is excruciating, but an excellent way to confront yourself with whatever aspect of your presenting style doesn’t work very well.

10. Content is harder to advise on. You will have a brief to follow and multiple boxes to tick. But some suggestions. Unless you have to, try not to lapse into autobiography. The presentation which begins ‘First I will give you an overview of my research projects of the past five years …’ rarely stirs the blood. And try to give the audience something to take away with them: one really striking idea, discovery, image or interpretation which will be new to most of them, and which will persuade them that you are a good teacher, a strong researcher and an interesting colleague. Better to give them one thing in enough depth to show your talents than to skate over too much too quickly: leave them wanting more.
11. You are, probably, not a comedian by training. But if you have a chance to make your audience smile, take it. Again it helps persuade them you are a good communicator. It makes them feel more warmly to you; and, if you are nervous, there is nothing like a few grins from your audience to help you to relax.
12. Questions at the end. You can’t do much to prepare for these, but again they can make or sink a candidate. Often it makes sense to answer the room, not just the individual questioner: both to avoid getting caught on one weirdo’s hobby-horse, and to help you broaden out a question which may be uncomfortably precise. Of course, if you don’t know the answer, say so. But if you are directly challenged on something, don’t be scared to fight back. One recent presentation in Durham turned into quite a charged argument between the candidate and a lecturer about an abstruse point of detail. The consensus afterwards was that, although the lecturer had probably won that bout on points, the candidate had put up a good fight. He got the job.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Blood money

A last thought on the moral history of Atlantic slavery, before I move on to something happier.

The history of this subject is so focused on Britain and the United States - and not without reason - that we can lose sight of the wider comparisons. One striking fact from those comparisons which was new to me: in every Atlantic jurisdiction but one, when slavery was abolished, financial compensation of some sort was paid to the slave-holders. They were being deprived of what the law had until then recognised as 'property', and they needed to be compensated.

Which prompts two, contradictory thoughts.

First, while of course you can see why it happened at the time, this is grotesque. Rewarding people for ceasing to commit a terrible crime, well, yes, OK. It's a bit like giving an amnesty to a dictator who agrees to step down: it sticks in the craw, but if it's the price of getting a deal done, there's a case for it. But the implication that slavery was legitimate - that, in fact, all that has happened is that the state has used compulsory-purchase to acquire the slaves and then to free them - that's not very nice.

I can see an excellent case for compensation being paid when slavery was abolished. But not to the enslavers, for pity's sake! And the fact remains: neither enslaved people nor their descendants have been compensated in any jurisdiction for the awful crimes that were committed against them. And we all know that those crimes' after-effects are still being felt across the whole Atlantic world.

Who should pay? Perhaps, at the least, the inheritors of those who were paid compensation.

... But second. There was one case where no compensation was paid: the United States, where slavery was ended by war and by a dictated peace, in which slave-holders did not need to be appeased. America did not pay in money to free its slaves, it paid in blood. As Lincoln said, 'every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword', which is certainly more stirring and virtuous than paying the South off would have been.

But was it better? I don't know. If compensating slave-holders has a merit, it's this: the slave-holder who takes the money has consented, indeed bought into the new system. The white South, by contrast, took a century to accept the terms of the peace imposed on it in 1865. And since it couldn't be subject to indefinite military occupation, that meant that it quickly reverted to something which, while it wasn't slavery as such, wasn't exactly freedom either.

It couldn't have been any other way, of course. The South would never have accepted a deal to pay it for abolishing slavery, at least not until the North was in no mood to pay and had no need to. But in retrospect, almost anything that could have drawn some of the racial poison which still flows through America's veins would have been worth it.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Slaves and extra miles

I've spent much of the last six weeks reading about Protestantism and Atlantic slavery, which is as ghastly a subject as I have ever researched. The scale and relentlessness of the horrors quickly render you numb. I am not surprised that so many slaveholders denied that their victims were human: if you are going to treat people that way, how else can you retain your own sanity?

But for all the ghastly atrocities, and the attitudes ranging from active malice to paternalistic bigotry which committed them, there are some stirring tales too. One of the most delightful is told in this exceptionally lovely book, Jon Sensbach's Rebecca's Revival.

Cover: Rebecca's Revival in PAPERBACK

That terrific picture on the cover tells half the story itself. It is a painting of a woman born with the name Shelly, who took the name Rebecca for herself, later adding her husbands' surnames. She was born on Antigua, probably as a slave, in about 1718; then kidnapped or sold to the Danish Caribbean island of St. Thomas, aged six or seven; kept as a house-slave by a Dutch family, who allowed her to be educated and baptised, and eventually freed her in her early teens. She became a linchpin of the Moravian mission to St Thomas ('everything depends on her', one of the missionaries wrote), married one of the missionaries, was imprisoned and nearly sold back into slavery. In the end, however, she went to Europe, remarried, and then spent many years running a mission school in West Africa. The painting is part of a family portrait from the 1740s. It is the face of a woman who has seen both hell and heaven; that smile is not meant lightly.

Incidentally, she also appears to be the first black African and perhaps also the first woman to be ordained in a Protestant church (she was made a Moravian deaconess in 1746, which entitled her to lay on hands to admit new members, and to preach to other women).

It's a great book, written for a mass readership but scholarly, and I'd recommend it to anyone at a loss for a Christmas present. It does, though, come up against one of the persistent problems to do with Christianity and slavery. It is not so much that the Bible treats slavery as a fact of life, rather than an evil to be opposed - slavery was a fact of life in the premodern world. Rather, the Gospel ethic of non-resistance - turn the other cheek, go the extra mile - is strained to its limits by slavery, in which the moral authority of nonviolence is completely swallowed up by the slaveholders' expectations. Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became one of nineteenth century America's most powerful antislavery activists, described how he once fought back against his master; how he, astonishingly, escaped being killed for it; and how he then vowed never meekly to submit to punishment again. It was part of his own, complex alienation from Christianity; and who will say he was wrong?

But there is non-resistance and non-resistance. Sensbach's book mentions the case of a Moravian convert on St Thomas named Abraham, a slave, who became one of the leaders of the church on the island. During one of the planters' campaigns of intimidation against the Moravians, Abraham was attacked on the road one night, bound, and viciously beaten before being dumped at their church. Later, he carefully sent the ropes back to his attackers: along with a note apologising for the fact that they were a little torn and damaged.

UPDATE: Not quite the first ordained black African Protestant. The much more ambiguous, but equally interesting, Johannes Capitein beat her by four years. He was ordained in the Dutch Reformed church in 1742, the same year he published a book arguing for the legitimacy of slavery. His avowed reason was that, unless slaveholders were persuaded that missionaries were not a threat, they would never allow the Gospel to be preached to their chattels.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Academic discipline

I like the generally egalitarian and faintly anarchic atmosphere of British higher education, in which there is not too steep a power-gradient between academics and students, and something close to collegial equality between academics of different ranks. The stultifying hierarchies of some other systems I've met, or the sharp division between tenured and non-tenured academics, are not attractive.

And while British academics like to grumble about the consumerisation of higher education, as students start demanding more value for money in exchange for their fees, I'm not persuaded this is a bad thing. We should be in a position where students expect a lot from universities and universities expect a lot from students. My old friend Corey Ross, back in his days working on East Germany, used to say there was something late-Soviet about British higher education: students pretend to work, and staff pretend to teach them. We are mercifully leaving that behind.

Still, I am reminded that another age achieved this in a different way, by this delightful article on the former student jail at Heidelberg University. Be honest, academic readers: doesn't a sliver of you wish your university had one?

But what really cheers me is the images of the jail itself, suggesting that the German academy is, or was, more anarchic than it is given credit for; or, perhaps, that the intellectual and political stimulation provided by jailing students is not to be underestimated.