Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Awesome abstracts anyone?

So, things are starting to get a bit more serious for me in this whole postgraduate study adventure, and my supervisor is starting to push me (oh-so-gently and enthusiastically) into submitting abstracts for conference presentations. I'm used to giving presentations - I've been doing it for years in my work so I have no great anxieties about public speaking. And I'm also pretty confident my research is starting to generate some interesting and worthwhile things to say. BUT I have no real experience of academic conferences and I'm not quite sure how best to go about writing the abstract. (I'm not even worrying about the actual presentation content at this stage. I figure I'll tackle that as and when something actually gets accepted!)

The first conference I'm looking at is a big medieval/early modern shindig here in NZ early next year. They require a 200 word abstract for a 20 minute paper. Some of the other CFPs my supervisor has pushed my way ask for anything up to 500 words, but presentations always seem to be about 20 minutes in length. (Curious: is this some kind of 'gold standard' in terms of academic conferences?) I figure such a short time slot requires something really tight and specific - like a brief source-based case study or example that illustrates a wider theme or interpretation - rather than anything broader or more generalised. Does that sound like a good way to approach it? And is it normal to quote from or reference sources in the abstract? Or would you just give an outline of your argument and where it fits into the existing scholarship on the topic? (Or do you even worry about that second bit?)

So, questions, questions. Naturally, I'll be asking my supervisor for her help, but do any of you have any tips for writing a really kick-ass abstract? Or links to good posts or advice on the best way to structure it? I remember Notorious PhD had some good stuff up towards the end of last year (maybe?) on seminar presentations, but damned if I can find it now.

On that note, I'm presenting my current research project to the world (well, to all the bods from the School of History, Philosophy and Classics anyway) for the first time at a postgrad Research Seminar this Friday. When I was doing the methodology weekender a couple of weeks ago, a few of us were talking about what we were going to be presenting and my topic seemed to arouse quite a bit of interest. On the face of it, it sounds pretty racy - there's nothing like a medieval chronicler for giving you good opening lines to work with. I just hope I don't disappoint!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A medievalist meets Maori history

It’s Sunday evening, and I’ve just returned from one of the periodic two-day intensive courses on historical methodology I’m being put through this year. Today’s session was on Maori historical methodology - whether there is such a thing, and if so, what it is and how, and by whom, it should be applied. As someone steeped in medieval European history, you might think this would be completely irrelevant for me - and that’s what I thought, too, at first - but that didn’t turn out to be the case. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think it was quite a revelatory session.

The crux of the matter we discussed was the question of who ‘owns’ history, and there was much conversation about contemporary debates over whether or not Pakeha (New Zealanders of white European descent) can write Maori history, and if so, how they should go about it. For historians trained in the western tradition of academic history, where documents and archives are often considered the authoritative starting point, it must be something of a mind shift to be told that they cannot even access those archives until they have talked to the kaumatua (tribal elders) and established a relationship of trust. Often, too, the written archives - which are most frequently, though not always, ‘outsider’ views of Maori history and cultural traditions - are considered inferior to the oral traditions maintained on the marae.

I’m a complete neophyte in this area, so I hope any tangata whenua who may read this will not be offended by my naivety, but the aspect of Maori historical epistemology that really entranced me was that Maori do not view time as linear, but as cyclical, where past, present and future all co-exist. It’s not just that Maori have enormous respect for their ancestors, but that they are their ancestors and their ancestors are (in) them. Sir Tipene O’Regan, an historian and Maori ‘elder statesman’, put it this way:

“I and my tribe are the present expression of our tupuna [ancestors] and the source of our uri, our descendants. We are both past and future, as well as ourselves…To inquire into my history or that of my people, you must inquire into my whakapapa. My tupuna may be dead but they are also in me and I am alive. To know them, you must know me! In order to deal with them, you must deal with me!”

For me, the most compelling aspect is whakapapa, which is genealogy but also so much more than genealogy. It is tracing a relationship back to its beginning, to the elemental forces that formed the sea and the land, human life and all that sustained it. As I observed at one point today, during a (rather heated) debate about Pakeha doing Maori history, and about the ‘ownership’ of histories which involve both Maori and Pakeha ancestors, it seems to me that at some point, all Maori history is also ‘family’ history, with all the fraught emotional baggage and byzantine politics that can entail.

I think it was Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie(2) who pointed out that western academic history is utterly wedded to a Judeo-Christian linear view of time, involving a one-way trip from Creation, through Fall and Resurrection/ redemption, to, eventually, an end times/Apocalypse scenario. This linearity is so fundamental to the epistemologies of western societies that I suspect even those of us who are non-believers are probably incapable of ever really escaping it in order to see life on Earth in some other way. Having said that, it seems to me that some of the new work on the ‘post-medieval’ is beginning to challenge and disrupt that linearity from the inside, by consciously interrogating the role a certain idea of the ‘medieval’ past plays in constructing our own ‘modern’ or ‘postmodern’ worldview.

That’s a topic for another discussion, but in the meantime, can I just say that I am heartily glad I have settled on 14th century England, rather than 19th century New Zealand, as my field of research?

1. Tipene O’Regan, “Who Owns the Past? Change in Maori Perceptions of the Past”, in John Wilson, ed., From the Beginning: The Archaeology of the Maori, Auckland: Penguin Books, 1987, p.142.

2. I could be wrong here. Maybe it was Braudel? I know it was one of those Annales dudes, but it's Sunday night and I'm too lazy to go and dig out my notes...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Francophilia: Pour Bastille Day - Le Tour

It’s Quatorze Juillet, and I’m celebrating Bastille Day by watching the six hours of Tour de France coverage I taped overnight. I enjoy watching other cycling events, like the Giro d’Italia and that uniquely gruelling madness known as the ‘Hell of the North’ - the one-day classic from Paris to Roubaix that is distinguished by the bone-shattering, tire-tearing sections ridden over the narrow cobbled pavĂ©. There, the weather gods frequently conspire to produce a combination of rain and cold that is misery for road cyclists (though it makes for great entertainment for us armchair athletes).

But there’s something special about the Tour de France. Something romantic in the true Byronic sense about some of those epic high mountain climbs like the Col de la Croix de Fer, the Col du Galibier and the monstrous Col du Tourmalet, where the epic battles of the Tour are waged. Sometimes it’s men pitting themselves against other men, more often it's men battling against themselves, simply to survive to the finish and ride again the next day.

When I think back to some my favourite moments of Tours past, it’s always those elemental dramas that stand out. Tiny, gnomelike Marco Pantani, all guts and teeth, soaring up Alpe d’Huez in the boiling heat miles ahead of the rest of the field. Thomas Voekler, amongst the most unlikely wearers of the maillot jaune ever, dropped over and over again on the vicious slopes of the Pyrenees and, every time, clawing his way back to hang on to the jersey for another day. Tyler Hamilton riding the entire 2003 Tour with a broken collarbone but still winning stage 16 from Pau to Bayonne with a ridiculous solo breakaway and finishing fourth overall. In the same Tour, Lance Armstrong taking a hair-rising ride across an alpine field - on a road bike!- to avoid hitting Joseba Beloki after the latter’s sickening crash on the descent into Gap. (Sadly, Beloki never really came back from that one. He returned to racing, but never again came so close to winning one of the ‘grand tours’.)

Yeah, yeah, I know - over the years, most of these guys have been implicated in drug scandals, and those that haven’t are probably lucky and/or particularly well-served in the undetectable chemicals department, as opposed to ‘clean’. (Lance Armstrong, I’m looking at you.) But I sometimes wonder if you’d have to literally be superhuman to ride some of these routes - and not only that, but to do them day after day for three weeks - without some kind of artificial help. I’ve driven up Alpe d’Huez, and it was so steep for such a long way, we had to have the car in second gear! In some strange ways, the dopage has only added to the distinctive nature of the Tour. I mean, who can forget the oh-so-Gallic Richard Virenque, all-time King of the Mountains, sobbing unashamedly on national television during the infamous l’affaire Festina? It all seems quite consistent with the early history of the Tour, when to stop off for a stiffening brandy or even a hit of cocaine ('the natural stimulant') was not unheard of, and competitors accused the organisers of trying to murder them by making them ride the high mountains. Stages were up to 300 miles long, on virtually unpaved roads with bikes that had no derailleurs. Who wouldn’t take drugs to survive that??

So, in honour of today’s Bastille Day stage (which the French will go all-out to win, as they always do), I leave you with a clip of one of the great stage wins of Tours past: Marco Pantani screaming past King of the Mountains Richard Virenque (in the polka dot jersey) and eventual Tour overall winner Jan Ullrich to take the victory on Alpe d’Huez in 1997.

Photo credit: Hippolyte Aucouturier (could you get a name - or a moustache - that is more French??) at the start of the 1905 Tour in Paris, from a great series of historical Tour photos at The Wall Street Journal.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Oral histories and medieval texts

It's been an unconscionable time since I last posted anything here, and (a few) inquiring minds have been asking what I’ve been up to. The fact is, up until last week, I was buried deep in an oral history project. (Well, to be honest, it was that and the World Cup. Viva Espagne!)

So, this oral history lark has turned out to be a much more interesting project than I expected. For history postgraduates in this country, training in the theory and methodology of oral history is pretty much required if you expect to work in the field, as much of the historical research done by organisations like the NZ History unit and through the Waitangi Tribunal and the Treaty of Waitangi claims process involves gathering oral histories from people who are still alive. Suffice it to say that as a sworn medievalist, I didn't initially expect this to have much relevance to my own research. But a few of you pointed out on my last post that oral history could potentially provide me with a new perspective on medieval history. This thought was echoed by one of the oral history advocates I’ve been reading up on, who noted that many of the documentary sources we rely on as medievalists – such as chronicles and inquisitorial proceedings – were originally based on oral testimony. They therefore raise many of the same practical and theoretical issues as oral histories, such as the ways that collective or public memory (the 'master narratives', if you will) shape the memories of individuals, questions around the validity and reliability of memory, and the difficulties inherent in capturing meanings conveyed through the sounds and silences of a human voice and translating those into words on a page.

As I’ve been discovering through my work with fourteenth century English chronicles, these accounts were not only based at least partly on oral testimony, they were also designed to be read aloud in the abbeys within which they were (usually) created or to an audience of aristocratic or royal patrons. This has led me to dig deeper into theories of authorship/authority, readership, and reception, and has enhanced my awareness that meanings in historical texts are not fixed, but are constantly shifting in response to the changing relationships between authors, readers and listeners.

Interviewing people for my own oral history project really brought home to me how much ‘editing’ – intentional and unintentional – goes into creating a historical source. For example, I was very conscious of how much I was 'shaping' my evidence simply through the questions I chose to ask or not ask during the interview process. I also got a strong sense of how my interviewees were shaping their memories of the past in order to fit with their experience of the present and to create a coherent narrative of their own lives. One of the big theoretical debates in the field of oral history seems to be the fact that historians in part create (through recording oral history interviews and then making written abstracts or transcripts from them) the sources they later rely on to support their analysis and interpretation. Try taking any oral conversation and turning it into written text and you'll quickly become aware of these problems. How do you deal with slang or idiomatic expressions that your readers may not later understand? What do you do with repetitions, contradictions, and 'crutch words', such as "like" and "you know"? How do you represent tonal changes and body language, which can utterly contradict what is actually said? And how do you handle gaps and silences, which may contain as much or more meaning than the spoken words themselves (as any good post-structuralist can tell you)?

Many medieval documentary sources often involve a high degree of mediation. For example, in the case of a legal deposition or inquisitorial record, the original oral testimony (which may or may not be heavily shaped by the inquisitor's questions) is given in, say, fourteenth century English or French or Catalan. This is translated and written down by hand in Latin, and later, the hand-written document may be converted into a printed Latin text. Finally, the medieval Latin is translated into modern English or French or Spanish, if one happens to be working with recent translations. So I think many of the same issues of interpretation and shifting meanings arise as with oral histories. For the research I’m currently doing, I’m working with several fourteenth century chronicles where the original Latin version is printed side-by-side with a modern (late nineteenth to early twenty-first century) English translation. Working back and forth between the Latin and the English, I can see where different translators have interpreted the Latin in quite different terms, and even where translators have simply not translated into English some of the more controversial elements of the original Latin. This applies especially - but not only - to translations done in the late nineteenth century and the earlier part of the twentieth century. It’s hugely frustrating, but also very instructive in terms of giving a perspective on how the historian’s own socio-cultural context and political position colours the history they write, even in something so seemingly transparent as a straightforward Latin-to-English translation.

I'll write more on this translation issue soon, as I have some great examples to share with you. In the meantime, I'll be busy watching the World Cup final and, naturellement, my beloved Tour de France. Today's stage from Epernay to Montargis went through the gorgeous medieval town of Provins and straight past the cafe where I once drank (gagged down) possibly the worst cup of coffee of my life.