My name is Joanne, and I’m … a historian

In the last week I’ve received reviews on a grant application and I’ve been prompted to discover my student ‘feedback’ on Rate My Lecturer, the UK version of the infamous (for academics) US Rate My Professor. Both have inundated me with various feelings so overwhelming that I thought I’d take time to think about their cause as well as coping with their aftermath. The result is a a journey through my thoughts on history, emotions, and identity!


So, first, what were my feelings? My grant application was submitted in November having taken several weeks of intensive effort by me and much support from several research-team members. Perhaps I was mentally unprepared for the responses because they came rather sooner than I’d expected; some were fantastic, others more critical. Opening the documents was agony: with all the physical characteristics of anxiety (heart racing, stomach clenched, jittery legs) and at first all I could do was scan them. Any pleasure at the positive comments was swamped by rage and despair at the more critical observations. I then had to wait a couple of days, talk through the reviews, and get back to a calmer state, before I could write the response.

Just before I submitted the response online and before I could feel any satisfaction at getting a difficult job done, a colleague asked if I’d seen Rate My Lecturer. Naïvely, I had a look and came across an extremely unpleasant review of my teaching. I have already complained about this on Facebook and Twitter, so I won’t go into the detail, but it is here if you want to see it in its snide unpunctuated unpleasantness. It shocked me as my regular feedback from student evaluation (not public outside my institution) is always excellent. My feelings were rather different to those I get from peer review. I felt humiliated and viscerally offended that some people might gloat over it, or – even – that it might promote a bit of pity for me. I was upset, depressed, and I questioned my teaching abilities. This would have been the case whether this student comment was internal, but it was worsened by being the only statement of my teaching in a public forum.

On reflection, I realise that both experiences had several things in common. Generally, whenever I receive reviews of my written research or students’ twice-yearly evaluations of my teaching, I have to mentally steel myself to opening (never mind reading) them. In all cases I now realise that I personalise the comments. My research and my teaching are effectively me: my identity.

It goes without saying that I am in love with my research. I investigate issues that have a lot of meaning to me and I use historical methods which fascinate me. The result is that I end up obsessed by particular people, events, or phenomenon. I’m lucky to be able to do research-led teaching some of the time and thus I take great pains to select the historical issues and subjects that I think will enthuse and inform students and I try to model my enthusiasm through my ‘performance’ of the topics for whoever is listening to me.  It is not an empty turn of phrase when I say I put ‘everything’ or ‘my all’ into my teaching – both the module planning, preparation, and the students themselves. Fail or succeed, in the end it is ME who is writing or performing my findings.

I don’t think I’m alone in this kind of identification. I am more than delighted and somewhat relieved that historians have been coming out of the emotional ‘closet’ recently and admitting that they are emotionally connected to their research. On twitter #twitterstorians admit to being moved to tears when reading sources; others to revulsion, and we’re prone to laugh at examples of funny historical finds. Matt Houlbrooke is especially good at explaining the range of feelings provoked by his historical subject Netley Lucas, which range from affection to betrayal. Helen Rogers also admits that she is bound to the convict boys she is researching. I have talked about the complexity of feelings stirred by my historical subjects. Sometimes I have become besotted by an individual (I do love Thomas Bewick and completely fell for Mary Robinson) and am entranced even by those who really don’t deserve it (William Ettrick, the wife-beater). I can also become possessed by a moment in time – like eighteenth-century sensibility or the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – where there is something of a yearning and nostalgia.

I have always thought these ties make us better at our jobs. Yet his was frowned upon until recently, and it is only now that it attracts less criticism because emotional display is not so automatically opposed to ‘reason’ and therefore distrusted. Indeed pedagogical scholarship is acknowledging that feeling something for one’s subject does not make one a poor scholar. In fact it can be good for the field.

However, I think we should also acknowledge the repercussions of this personalisation and the creation of personal identity based on our academic work. Problematically, when aspects of our academic labours are questioned, I think that we question ourselves. Obviously, some of this is healthy – yes, I agree that we need to be reflexive and to continually develop our skills in research and in the classroom. Also I have learnt from receiving harsh criticism and it has made me profoundly regret a couple of critical book reviews I published early in my career. Thus I will never write a harsh review again and would return a book if I couldn’t write something positive. Similarly I make every effort to give helpful rather than indignant critical feedback to students.

For some of us, though, the links we forge between our research and ourselves can be more problematic. It is no exaggeration that receiving a rejection of written work which is not couched in a particularly constructive manner can lead me into to a temporary downward spiral of mood. It results in me having to make a real effort to begin writing again. Similarly, the negative comment I read a couple of days ago about my teaching has made me feel far more inadequate about my upcoming teaching than I might have felt otherwise. I truly dread to think what would have happened if I’d seen a comment like this when I started teaching over a decade ago. Indeed, one of the reasons I went public about this horrible little stain on my online presence is that I wanted to show that any academic at any stage of their career can come up against it and that we must not fear it as something that will undermine said career. My advice to new academics is to resist any urge to look at Rate My Lecturer!

LMA 20 Jun 2013 214

Some of you reading this might make the observation that I should ‘get a life’, or see that these are not really problems in the scheme of things. I’d probably agree a wee bit. But I belong to a profession whose members are so connected to our subjects that we will tattoo them on our skin, name our pets and our children after aspects of them, and  weep in public places when we find out what happened many decades before. Indeed I suspect that some of us are addicted to the very stuff of history – the smell of the records, the feel of the paper, the sight of the faded ink, the very glance into a dead person’s eyes and soul…

What I clearly need to get over this is History Rehab. Or a historians’ support group? Any offers out there?


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