Some thoughts on the Labour Party in Scotland, and why I wish things were different

A while ago I ended up in a brief Twitter discussion about the Labour Party and the independence referendum with a fairly prominent Labour activist and friend based in Edinburgh. We share much in terms of our interests and engagement; our common membership of the Iona Community symbolises a significant part of this. Twitter was not a very good space for a meaningful conversation, and so I suggested we move to email. So I sent him a long email about my worries for the party – but he never replied and never mentioned it again. Fair enough, he’s a busy man, but given that I was raising some of the issues I am raising here, I wonder if there is more to it…

Today’s Sunday Herald makes for depressing reading for anyone who has any affection at all for the Labour Party, as I certainly do. I was a member many years ago, but left when they supported the American-led Gulf War (no, not that one, the 1990-1 war – I’ve been around for a bit!). I have voted Labour more often in more elections than I could possibly count – though a little while ago I joined the Green Party and have voted for them consistently in recent times, even though I admit I’m not a very active member.  But in Council elections, for example, where I have had more than one vote and not enough Green candidates, I have still voted Labour after voting Green – but on reading the Herald today it dawned on me that I can no longer foresee a time when I could ever vote Labour again.

The wider context for this is the independence referendum on 18.9.14. I fully support independence for Scotland, but have many friends and colleagues who do not, and I respect that. Whether Scotland achieves independence or not next year, we will still be neighbours and will still want to improve our society, we just differ about the best way to achieve a better society, not in the idea that it needs to be better than it is now (for example, more just, more equal etc.). I don’t want to explain why I support independence here (some pointers to that are here), but I do want to offer an honest plea to my Labour friends about their support for the British nationalist campaign, Better Together (see the article I just linked to for more on the terminology I’m using here).

A key issue, I think, is the company they are keeping. It is perfectly ok for Labour to take a British nationalist position in the referendum debate if they sincerely believe that they can help bring about a more equal and just society in the UK as a whole, rather than doing so in smaller, more democratic structures that allow greater opportunities for change (yes, I know, my bias is showing in my terminology!). However, I think their alliance with the other parties in Better Together, the Tories and the LibDems, is destroying the soul of Labour, and it saddens me enormously that they don’t seem to realise it. Earlier this year came ‘donorgate‘, the revelation that Better Together had been funded in substantial part by Ian Taylor, someone with very dodgy sources for his money and who didn’t even live in Scotland, but hey, I suppose he’s for the union so that’s err… ok (see articles 1, 2, 3 from National Collective). But today the Herald reveals that the top 20 most recent donors for Better Together are all Tories (and many having what some might regard as problematic sources of income). This might be fine and dandy if the Tories were active in the campaign in Scotland, but insofar as there is a grassroots campaign by Better Together (and there isn’t much beyond leafleting, and certainly nothing like the Yes campaign’s creative activism), it is largely Labour people running it: even their leader is Alistair Darling, former Labour Chancellor at Westminster. What we therefore have is a campaign paid for by rather odious Tories (bedroom tax, student fees, disability cuts, privatisation of the English NHS and schools… I could go on) with Labour doing the actual work on the ground – or to put it another way, Labour have hired themselves out to the Tories and their interests.

If this is in the expectation that the referendum will be won by the No campaign and that the Labour Party will then go on to win the 2015 UK general election, then I think Labour strategists are, to put it bluntly, in cloud cuckoo land. Not only do the UK-wide polls suggest Labour will really struggle in 2015, but I increasingly see support for Labour in Scotland itself waning. I am not alone in realising I cannot vote Labour again: their positioning is costing them support from precisely the people who have the same interests they used to have. That connection to the Tories and their money is symbolic of all the things they have moved away from over recent years. The Labour hierarchy does not seem to realise that the Tories are simply using them in Better Together because the Tories themselves are so toxic in Scotland that any vocalisation of support they might offer for the British nationalist position would almost certainly ensure widespread support for the Scottish independence movement. The moment the referendum is over (whether it is won or lost), these oh-so-generous Tories will turn on their erstwhile Labour colleagues in Better Together with a vengeance.

This could then herald disaster for Labour: not wilderness years, but the practical death of the party altogether:

  1. I expect that if the referendum in Scotland results in a No vote, Labour will be blamed by many Scots and these connections to the Tories will be key in that argument. Furthermore, Labour’s activists, tired from campaigning against the vibrant and exciting prospect for independence (even if it loses the referendum it is still more exciting on the Yes side), will struggle to rally support for the 2015 election, and will almost certainly lose that, perhaps even to a Tory majority. The Tories will then gerrymander the constituency borders (that they already tried to do in this parliamentary session, only being stopped because of a clash with the LibDems) and Labour is then unlikely to win another general election for a very, very long time, defeated by their own selling-out on the one hand, and Tory manipulation on the other.
  2. If the referendum results in a Yes vote, the Tories will blame Labour: they’ll say they provided millions of pounds but Labour activists still lost them the referendum, so how can they be trusted to run the negotiations with the Scottish government over independence? Their activists, tired from campaigning against the vibrant and exciting prospect for independence (it is tiring arguing against something much more vibrant than your position) will struggle to rally support for the very last UK 2015 election and will almost certainly lose that, perhaps even to a Tory majority. The Tories will then gerrymander the constituency borders as noted above, and Labour in rUK is then unlikely to win another general election for a very, very long time, and I would doubt their ability to win in Scotland for a while too.

Either way, the present situation is a lose-lose scenario for Labour.

If the Labour Party (and by that I mean members, not just the hierarchy) genuinely believes that a No vote is better for Scotland – and I can understand why some might think that, even if the argument is not persuasive to me – then I think they need to start campaigning away from the Tories and their money, and therefore away from Better Together. If they were ethical about their support for the union and thought worker solidarity would function better in the UK as is then that is an interesting and potentially positive position to be arguing – but they are not doing that and in fact they cannot do that whilst funded by the kind of horrible Tory capitalists who want to do away with as many workers’ rights as possible (and this also explains in part why the official No position in the referendum debate is so rotten). Of course, some would say that the Labour Party left workers behind when the crypto-Tory Tony Blair became leader of the party, but people like my friend mentioned above do genuinely support and engage with ordinary workers and the working class, as do many other grassroots Labour Party members. I want them to retake control of their party! At the moment, I am sure Labour will lose in the Scottish referendum – regardless of whether the referendum results in a Yes or a No vote – and then, almost automatically, in other contexts.

I say all this not because I want the No campaign to win the referendum – clearly, I wouldn’t be engaged in the Yes campaign if I wanted that! – nor because I want the Labour Party as it is to be resurgent, but because I worry about what I would dare to call the soul of the Labour Party. In a UK context (even though I hope we won’t be stuck with it for much longer) the Labour Party still offers the only vaguely viable left-of-centre party, and if they are to offer that to the UK electorate in 2015 after a 2014 No win, they need to recover that and be more convincing – and they’re less and less so as time goes by. If, as I hope, there is a Yes vote, Labour will similarly need to hold to a leftish position in the 2015 election, offering a viable alternative to the Tories during negotiations and after Scotland has left the UK. (Of course, in Scotland, the SNP are way to the left of the Labour Party, highlighting the fact that the terms “left” and “right” are a) not necessarily very helpful, and b) relative.  Perhaps I should add that I’m not an SNP supporter and have never voted for them, nor see myself doing so.)

So, my dear Labour friends – it is not too late, I hope, for your party to recover, to retrieve the soul it once had from the Tories in Better Together and Tory-lites who are running your party at the moment, at least in Scotland. But I think you need to act fast. More stories such as the one in today’s Sunday Herald are poison to the well-spring of support you once enjoyed in Scotland, and to survive, you need to move away from these poisonous supports, even if they appear to be full of money that you think you need. If you are going to sup with the devil you need a long spoon – and at present you neither have one, nor seem to even see the need for one.  The alternative is therefore clear – don’t sup with the devil!

Why I am on strike today

If Stirling staff or students email me today, this is the out-of-office message they will receive, explaining why I am striking today.
—–
Thank you for your email.

I am on strike today as called for by UCU and two other unions, and am therefore not responding to emails.

I do not take this action lightly, and offer an explanation of why I am striking below.

I will endeavour to respond to all enquiries as soon as possible.

Note that I will not be paid today, but our union executive has urged senior management to use any deductions of pay from strike day for student hardship funds (specifically suggesting the Discretionary & Childcare Fund).

Stirling Student Union, in a vote on 29.10., voted overwhelmingly in support of the academics’ strike.

WHY I AM ON STRIKE
Unite, UNISON and UCU are calling for industrial action in support of a pay claim. Note that this explanation deals solely with the academics’ position, but a similar situation exists for staff represented by the other unions. The strike is seeking to rebalance normal academics’ pay in light of the strikingly healthy financial position that universities are in. The union explains this for the UK as a whole here: http://www.ucu.org.uk/index.cfm?articleid=6759.

In summary: since 2009 normal academics’ pay has fallen by around 13% in real terms. This is not because the employers cannot afford to pay more, it is because they choose not to. The sector as a whole (www.hesa.ac.uk) has over £1 billion in operating surpluses. According to HESA, in 2011/12, universities committed only 55.5% of their expenditure to staff, compared with 58% in 2001/2. Income from students continues to be robust: admissions are up by 7% on last year and level with the record year of 2011/12. What is happening? Many institutions have been building up cash reserves over recent years and paying their senior staff exorbitant amounts, and they are doing so at the expense of normal academics. Attacking staff in this way seriously undermines the investment in student teaching and academic research.

Specifically in the Stirling context, normal academics’ pay is being continually squeezed, whilst the university records large surpluses and senior management pay rockets:
– in 2011 the university recorded a £5,292,000 surplus (5.2% of income), staff costs of £57,650,000
– in 2012 the university recorded a £3,519,000 surplus (3.6% of income), staff costs of £57,660,000
Staff receiving high salaries have increased dramatically:
– £70,000 – £79,999 2011: 16 2012: 17
– £80,000 – £89,999 2011: 13 2012: 16
– £90,000 – £99,999 2011: 5 2012: 12
– £100,000 – £109,999 2011: 2 2012: 2
– £140,000 – £149,999 2011: 1 2012: 0
– £190,000 – £199,999 2011: 1 2012: 1
Total number of high earners 2011: 38 2012: 48
In 2011 and 2012, the Principal, Gerry McCormac, received a total of £224,000 (salary/benefits: £193,000, pension: £31,000).
(All this information is from the University’s Financial Statement: http://www.stir.ac.uk/about/publications/)

In contrast, academic pay for Lecturers, Senior Lecturers and Readers (pay for Professors is not public) has decreased in real terms by 13% since 2009. Details of rates of Stirling’s pay are available here: http://www.personnel.stir.ac.uk/salary-payroll/salary-scale.php – Lecturers start on Grade 7, and gradually move up the scale, usually year by year (I am on Grade 8, for example). Increases have been paltry: in August 2009, someone on point 37 (bottom of Grade 8) received £36,715 and four years later received £37,382, an increase of just under 1.82%, when average inflation month by month was about 3.45% (http://www.rateinflation.com/inflation-rate/uk-historical-inflation-rate?start-year=2009&end-year=2012) – so that is a clear pay cut in real terms. As I have shown above, the university can easily afford to pay more (and senior management are clearly doing that for themselves), but in common with other UK universities, Stirling is choosing not to do so for normal academics. National negotiations between the union and the universities have ground to a halt over the universities’ intransigence.

In order to further this pay claim we therefore, regrettably, need to engage in industrial action. I hope that you will understand why I am doing this, and whether you are a colleague or a student, I and my union colleagues would appreciate your support. I love working with my colleagues and my students, and I regret that the universities are forcing the issue to this extent.

If you are a member of academic staff who wishes to join the union and support the industrial action, click here: http://www.ucu.org.uk/index.cfm?articleid=2283.

Plural modernities and art

I’ve published a blog posting on my photography website about plural modernities that may be of interest to readers here too: Modernités plurielles de 1905 à 1970.

The comments facility is turned on there, though not here.

The Church of Scotland’s ‘The Inheritance of Abraham’ report revisited

On 23 May 2013 General Assembly, the highest decision-making body of the Church of Scotland, discussed and agreed a report on ‘The Inheritance of Abraham’.

The next day, Ekklesia published the following article that I had written: ‘Assessing the Kirk’s report on theologies of land in the context of Israel/Palestine’.

—–

At today’s meeting of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, a report from the Church and Society Council on theology of land in the context of Israel/Palestine was discussed: The inheritance of Abraham? A report on the ‘promised land’.  There are two broader contextual elements to this report that are worth outlining in brief.

Firstly, the Kirk has a long tradition of engaging in one way or another with Palestine, and then Israel and Palestine.  In modern history, engagement in the 19th and first half of the 20th century was primarily in the context of missions, in the mistaken belief that (a) it could convert Jews to Presbyterianism, and (b) that this was a desirable thing to do (it should be noted they were largely unsuccessful).  Following World War Two and the genocidal destruction of European Jews, and shortly thereafter the creation of the State of Israel (1948), this position changed, and the Church of Scotland became broadly pro-Zionist and supportive of Israel, with no significant attempt to pursue evangelism amongst Jews.  Humanitarian aid aside, little attention was paid to the situation of Palestinians until the 1980s, when growing awareness of the political complexities of the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land began to influence key debates.  By the 1990s, in substantial measure through listening to their ecumenical partners in the region, the Kirk had taken clear positions from an international law and justice perspective, abandoning the largely unquestioning Zionism of previous decades and supporting those seeking a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict through the two-state solution.  This change coincides with the 1987 intifada (Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation), the Madrid (1991) and Oslo (1993) conferences and the so-called ‘peace process’ that then developed.

Secondly, this year’s report places itself in a historical context of other reports from 2003, 2007 (both from the Kirk), and the 2009 Kairos Palestine statement, but it is also worth recalling the 2010 General Assembly debate that the Church and Society Council engaged in, regarding a proposal to boycott Israeli settlement goods.  Rev. Ian Galloway, then Convener of the Church and Society Council, famously withdrew the proposed boycott call as a result of the threat to the Church’s work in the region from Israeli laws designed to make boycott calls illegal: ‘The General Assembly “may take this legislation to be intimidatory”, said Mr Galloway, adding sorrowfully: “We are intimidated.”’  Of course, the Israeli government was not specifically targeting the Church of Scotland, but all civil society attempts to engage in nonviolent boycotts in protest against Israeli government policy, and the Kirk clearly felt intimidated.

The report that was discussed today is the second version of this report.  The first version (available here) caused considerable disquiet in certain Zionist circles, with acerbic comments in Israeli newspapers, and a number of negative reports in e.g. the London-based Jewish Chronicle.  There is certainly a case to be made that the Council approached this whole subject with some considerable naivety, and drafted the report in such a way that it could easily be misunderstood.  Two examples, one on content, one on the wider significance of the report, can be given to illustrate this:

  • One of the key areas that the Church failed to adequately address, even in the second version of the report, was the question of supersessionism: the idea that Jesus and the New Testament represent the ‘superseding’ of the Old Testament.  This poisonous trope has its origins in the centuries of European Christians’ anti-Jewish sentiment.  In the new version of the report the Council explicitly state that their approach ‘does not judge the faith of others nor suggest that one perspective supersedes another… [rather, it seeks to] challenge the manifestations of faith expressed by some on the question of land in these troubled places.’  This expression of their intent is sincere and laudable, but some parts of the report can and will still be read in a supersessionist light, and that is problematic.
  • I know that one of the key people involved was bemused that people beyond the Church would take such an interest in what he saw as simply an internal discussion document about the Church’s theology – it did not seem to have occurred to him that putting a PDF about the Middle East online might be of interest to people beyond the Kirk!

Whilst the report is about a theology of ‘promised land’ in relation to the Israel/Palestine question, the Jewish Chronicle was not alone in charactering this as a report ‘about Israel’ without any of the nuances that the Kirk sought to emphasise.  The Israeli Ambassador commented negatively on the report, and a meeting with the Church of Scotland was held on 9. May with representatives of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Movement for Reform Judaism, and Rabbis for Human Rights, at which it was agreed that the report would be withdrawn and revised (Church statement available via Andy Wightman’s site).  The revised report is what was discussed today.

The theologian Karl Barth argued that a Christian should read the Bible and the newspaper together, in other words, the Bible always needed to be read in relation to wider society.  This is what Rev. Foster-Fulton’s Church and Society Council sought to do in this case: articulate an understanding of ‘promised land’ in relation to an interpretation of the Bible AND the context of the situation in the Middle East.  It is asking a question: what emerges from interpreting the Bible and the situation in Israel/Palestine in relation to one another?  The Council report recorded different ways of interpreting Biblical texts, from literalism to more contextual approaches, whilst noting that they are ‘especially concerned at the recent actions of the Government of Israel’, explicitly commenting on settlements, the Wall, the blockade of Gaza, and the afore-mentioned anti-boycott law.

In the debate, Foster-Fulton, repeatedly highlighting what she described as ‘the huge imbalance of power’ in relations between Israel and Palestine, was very clear that the report is a critique of the Israeli occupation and not a comment on relations between the Kirk and Jewish people in Scotland.

This was given additional emphasis through passionate interventions from two Palestinian delegates, Rev. Na’el abu Rahman and Dr Bernard Sabella, who both affirmed the report of the Council.  Sabella noted that one could well regard the land as holy, but relationships between people were far more holy, and these were being harmed by the occupation.  Indeed, a number of commissioners spoke of personal visits to Israel/Palestine, and related harrowing accounts of the effects of the occupation on Palestinians.  These personal narratives appeared to play a strong role in commissioners’ voting patterns: most such accounts tended to be followed by supportive applause, and Foster-Fulton reminded commissioners that the report was about precisely how to understand the Bible’s ‘promised land’ texts in such contexts.

Has anything changed in terms of Church policy after today’s debate?  The Church’s relationships to those supporting a Zionist perspective will almost certainly have become more complex given the pointed rejection of key tenets of Zionist ideology and the potential for supersessionist readings of the report, but in broad terms, the report does not change the Kirk’s overall position on the conflict.  For a number of years now, as I outlined above, the Church of Scotland has backed a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, whilst critiquing the fundamental injustice of Israel’s illegal occupation.  The report, which is being sent to local presbyteries and congregations to study, has the potential to raise considerable awareness of these issues, and for that, it is to be commended.  Rev. Foster-Fulton’s command of her subject on the podium ensured that the debate was mature and considered, and the report deserves to be widely read, including well beyond the Church of Scotland.

I note personal connections as follows: my spouse, Rev. Sigrid Marten, was part of the group that wrote the Church’s 2003 report, and following a request by Rev. Foster-Fulton, I provided some comments on the revised 2013 report.

—–

Of course, this saga can be viewed critically from a number of angles, and in the weeks after the Assembly I have spoken with a number of people about this episode and several issues have become clearer.  The rather astonishing naivety of the Kirk aside:

  • I am increasingly convinced that it would not be unfair to characterise the pressure exerted on the Kirk as simple old-fashioned bullying.
  • key elements of the 9. May meeting correspond directly to classical memes of Zionist hasbara, and I am not convinced that all the Church representatives involved realised the ramifications of some of the things that they agreed to (such as the unqualified acceptance of the problematic phrase about ‘Israel’s right to exist’).
  • equally, the readiness of the Kirk to capitulate on key issues it had thought-through in the face of such pressure, however poorly expressed they may have been, is of concern. From conversations I have had, I am under the distinct impression that key elements of the compromise agreement came from those near the top of the Kirk hierarchy, and not necessarily those involved in the Church and Society Council who had written the original report.

That the report’s writing and reception caused these problems at all is, I think, attributable to poor planning on the part of the Kirk’s Church and Society Council.  There was an obvious failure to engage sufficiently with individuals who had expertise in the issues being addressed, both in the context of the writing process, and the reception of the report. As noted in my Ekklesia article, the Kirk has a long-standing engagement in the region, and there are a number of people from church and academic backgrounds who could have been invited to help, both informally/unofficially in the context of the writing process, and more formally/officially at the 9. May meeting. I include myself in this, not in the sense that I expect the Council to necessarily want to draw upon my background and expertise, but simply in the sense that I had offered my services in December 2012 to the Council via its Secretary, but was told no external help was needed or being sought.

My engagement in the re-writing process happened in other ways: when the report first came out, I read it and was horrified: I could see what it was trying to do, but thought it was seriously flawed in many ways, and would have a very difficult time passing the General Assembly.  I immediately offered advice to the Convener, Ms Foster-Fulton, who would have to defend it in the Assembly.  She took me up on the offer right away, and also informed me about the 9. May meeting before it happened.  I was then tangentially involved with a small group of people involved in the numerous rewrites: key versions were emailed to me, and I commented extensively upon them.  This needs to be understood for what it was: panicked remedial work on the part of leading members of the Council, seeking to incorporate the thrust of the first report, whilst trying to reconcile it with the contradictory statements made on 9. May.  My role here was tangential: I would estimate that about 1/5 of the comments I made were incorporated in some form.

What next?  Theoretically the report (in the new, amended form) is to be sent down to presbyteries and congregations to discuss.  What they will make of it is hard to know, if they discuss it at all.  However, given the bruising experience that the senior Church and Society Council members have undergone with this report, I would be (pleasantly) surprised if they returned to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict any time soon.  That would be a shame, as it obviously raises numerous important theological and moral issues that the Church would do well to address.  If they do not re-engage with this issue, then I think it fair to say that the bullying they have undergone has clearly achieved something.

—–

Given that the Kirk has removed the first version of the report from its website, and the statement from 9.5. is gone too (thankfully it is still available on Andy Wightman’s site noted above), I have put both of the reports on my site.  I am also including a third file that someone I know compiled, contrasting the two versions:

The Naked Soul

Friday, 10.5. lunchtime: Please note that the location for this evening’s event has had to be changed to Augustine United Church, 41 George IV Bridge (map), after one Council department refused permission at the very last minute – and after repeated attempts to contact them – after another two had given the green light.  We have moved the time to 20:00 to allow people to make their way there in good time.  This will be explained more fully this evening.

The Naked Soul is a film by Syd Krochmalny. Ostensibly about Stephen Gough, better known in the UK as the Naked Rambler, the film explores essential questions about freedom and liberal modernity. This is not just a film, however, but a more expansive performance art event. This is suggested by the location of the screening (the Old Calton Cemetery, Edinburgh), and as might be guessed following Krochmalny’s comments at a seminar in Edinburgh recently. At a time when debate in Scotland over questions of freedom and the kind of society we want to live in are at the fore in the context of the independence debate, this event promises to offer some alternative ways of reflecting upon and engaging with key topics. Krochmalny’s artistic background in Argentina gives him insights into these issues that are very relevant to contemporary Scotland, as the seminar discussion demonstrated.

The screening will take place on Friday 10. May at 19:00 – all are most welcome.

Here is Krochmalny’s description of the film (click the image to download a large version of this leaflet):

The Naked Soul, by Syd Krochmalny

The Naked Soul, by Syd Krochmalny

Please share this posting and the leaflet widely – and I look forward to seeing you on Friday!

Visual Cultures in Scotland and Argentina: an interchange

I have been involved in the organising of a seminar by the University of Stirling (Centre for Scottish Studies; Languages and Literature; Social Science) and the University of Edinburgh (Department of Sociology).

The Argentinian artist and scholar Syd Krochmalny will be in dialogue with Simon Yuill, a Scottish artist and writer.

This seminar will bring together artists, academics and interested others from Argentina and Scotland in an exchange around contemporary developments in visual culture. The focus is the relationship of visual art to local communities and broader cultural institutions at a time of uncertainty, debate and change in both countries, in broad terms and specifically in relation to cultural policy.  The seminar is being chaired by Scott Hames and Sarah Wilson from the University of Stirling.

Thursday 25 April, 5-7pm

Seminar Room 3, Chrystal Macmillan Building, 15a George Square, Edinburgh, EH8 9LD (just off Middle Meadow Walk)

All are most welcome!

A poster with more details is available to download here (PDF).

Whilst in Scotland, Syd Krochmalny will also be involved in an art installation under the heading The Naked Soul, exploring issues of freedom and control.  I will post more details about this at a later stage.

Update, 27.4.2013 I wrote a short piece about this event on my photography blog.

Sources: building on circles of trust

I completed my undergraduate degree in Aberdeen and Erlangen; in the period that I was in Aberdeen, I was active in the radical left-wing Student Christian Movement and in that context met a philosophy student at Edinburgh, Clare Thornley, who was active in the Edinburgh branch of SCM. We kept in touch after our graduations, and a few years later we both found ourselves returning to academia to write PhDs: Clare wrote her thesis at Strathclyde University (in philosophy and computer science, on questions of meaning in e.g. search terms – I think!) whilst I wrote mine in Edinburgh. We’d meet every six months and moan about how awful it was to be writing our PhDs, whilst being very clear that there was probably nothing we’d rather be doing. 🙂

Clare is now living and working in Ireland, and we are still in touch. She recently contacted me as she is a researcher for an international project looking at how academics use sources, in particular electronic ones, and how trust in sources is established. She came to visit and interviewed me about my usage of sources, asking general questions and then using references in an essay I had recently published as a case study. This was an interesting experience, and I want to offer some reflections on my usage of sources: being interviewed by Clare not only helped her research, but also has also helped me to reflect on these questions.

Firstly, many of my primary sources are manuscripts and are not stored electronically. Digitisation of manuscripts makes little sense for most institutions: there are simply not enough readers of most of these sources to warrant the cost of digitisation. Some archives, such as the Israel State Archives, are pursuing this, but mostly for sources that are used far more frequently than, for example, the hundreds, nay, thousands of pages of church mission committee minutes and other documents that I have used for much of my work. There is also a problem with digitisation, in that it doesn’t necessarily capture everything that is important. This might involve studying signs of wear (the way a document was folded can be of significance, but there are also more prosaic examples of wear), or less visible marks: in February I was in Aberdeen University Library examining a passport issued in the late 19th century, permitting the bearer travel to the Ottoman Empire. Being able to see the physical document meant I could see the embossed receipt, which provided me with interesting information about when the fee for the passport was paid. This is not something that a digitised version could easily capture – in fact, it took me some time to even notice the receipt, and I had the passport in my hands! Of course, archivists have long dealt with such matters, and perhaps solutions exist that I am not aware of. And yet: there is something tangibly intangible that is added to the experience of working with a manuscript that has, in the case of this passport, travelled from London across Europe to Egypt (and probably Turkey) and back to London and then to Scotland – and that was more than 130 years ago. Perhaps I’m just a hopeless romantic?! 🙂 Another issue that arises with digitisation is understanding size: where digitised versions of documents exist, they don’t always have indications of size: even placing an archaeologist’s centimetre ruler next to the document when it is photographed would help, but my sense is that this rarely happens and so a ‘feel’ for the document is lost. There are further issues that arise around the digital indexing of documents, but I won’t go into that here.

Secondly, with regard to secondary sources, these fall into two broad categories. Journal articles are almost always now in electronic format, though I often print them out as I find it much easier to read paper items. Regarding books: my university library has taken the (in my view) bad decision to always try to buy ‘ebooks’ if these are available; I much prefer real books. My notes are partly kept on scrap paper in my books (try doing that with an ‘ebook’!), in notebooks, and partly in a digital reference manager system (I use Zotero, which I strongly recommend – it is free, was created by humanities scholars and works well for in that context, and it is very good at ordering all kinds of sources).

When it came to the essay that Clare examined with me, I offered her two or three pieces, and she chose an essay that had recently appeared in an edited collection edited by Hilde Nielssen, Inger Marie Okkenhaug and Karina Hestad Skeie: Protestant Missions and Local Encounters in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. The central theoretical focus of this essay was based on a short article by Michel Foucault entitled ‘Of Other Spaces’(1) that I had first encountered in a presentation in my own department about fashion in a postcolonial setting by Prof. Gen Doy of De Montfort University. As I sat listening to her, it quickly became apparent to me how Foucault’s ideas on heterotopias could help my thinking, and after the presentation I went and read his essay immediately. I then used it to argue my case, deploying examples from my study and knowledge of Scottish missions to the Middle East to discuss historicisation processes. Having explained this context to Clare, she then picked random footnotes that pointed to secondary sources, and asked me how I had located them.

The first reference she picked identified a book I thought I had used in my PhD and several times since (actually, on checking later, I hadn’t used it in my PhD: it had just been published as I was finishing the thesis). This is Ann Laura Stoler’s brilliant Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule. Stoler is a well-known scholar in postcolonial studies, and I know her book well. I have also used other articles and essays that she has written.

The next reference Clare chose referred to an article by Hélène Gill that analysed Foucault’s thesis. This appeared in a French studies journal that I would normally have no reason to peruse: Modern and Contemporary France. I had found this article by searching for “heterotopias” on Google (not Google Scholar); I had to access it through the university library as it appeared in a closed-access journal. Reading it helped explain key points that I wanted clarifying. I do not know the author, but I found her argument convincing.

The next source Clare chose related to an interpretation of heterotopias that enabled me to make a particular point: Foucault lists a number of criteria that constitute heterotopias, and I was arguing that it was not necessary for all of these criteria to be fulfilled for a space to be heterotopic. In a meeting with my then head of department, Prof. Bill Marshall, I mentioned that I was working on an essay about heterotopias. His immediate response was to pick up a book he had written about the film director André Téchiné and say: “I’ve written about that, see this section…” And there he argued precisely my point: that not all of Foucault’s six criteria needed to be fulfilled for something to be heterotopic. Excellent: I could use this to strengthen the argument I was already making.

The next source Clare picked up on related to an example that had been drawn to my attention by one of the book editors, Karina Hestad Skeie. She had noted a similarity between the topic I was seeking to address and a context that she had written about when describing certain aspects of a Norwegian mission to Madagascar; her essay had appeared in an edited book. I read her essay and I found I could further substantiate my argument using her examples – just as she had thought I would be able to do.

Clare and I concluded our meeting with a discussion about canonicity: there are clearly some texts that I use that I think it is reasonable to assume other scholars working in similar fields will have read. Of course, sometimes these are not even texts: I can point to ideas, knowing that other scholars in my field of postcolonial studies will have read the relevant texts. For example, on p312 of the essay I point to opening up ‘‘more authentic’ Spivakian understandings of the periphery, of the subaltern.’ Most of my readers will know what I mean by pointing to Spivak – she wrote a famous essay on the ‘subaltern voice’ and I do not need to cite it directly.

So what am I to make of all this?

Of the sources Clare had chosen to look at:

  • one had come to me via a presentation (Foucault/Doy)
  • one I had used before (Stoler)
  • one had come via a search engine (Gill)
  • one was from a colleague in my department (Marshall)
  • and one came via my editor (Skeie).

So: Gill’s essay was the only one I had “found” myself for writing this essay. Of course, there were other secondary sources in this essay that Clare had not chosen which I had “found” by myself, but it is interesting to note that I had a personal connection to a number of the key sources in my essay.

In our concluding discussion, I told Clare about an article I had once read about identifying sources. A older professor was quoted, saying that he no longer even tried to keep track of the important new articles in his field: “If it’s important enough, it’ll find it’s way to me.” What he meant was that he could rely on colleagues to forward key essays or book suggestions to him, rather than spend a lot of time searching for things himself, or using the numerous email notifications that virtually every journal seems to offer.

I think there is something to this. The vast amount of information bombarding us each day via email and Twitter and web-services and so on makes it impossible to follow all the developments in our field – especially if we work in more than one field. My own interests cross numerous disciplinary boundaries: mission history, gender studies, conflict transformation, postcolonial studies, theology, political science and so on. This is not unusual, but it does make following new journal articles, for example, very difficult: I have subscriptions to various journal notification lists that I try to scan fairly diligently, but I do find I sometimes have to simply delete them in order to get through the enormous amount of email I receive each day. There are days when I receive notices from three or four journals, and most of the time it is simply not possible to digest all this material (I can’t quite bring myself to unsubscribe from these lists…yet).

It is far easier to let important material “come to me” – and that is the point the afore-mentioned professor was making. I am delighted to receive emails from colleagues around the world saying, even just in a PS at the end of an email, “did you see the new essay/review/book by XYZ?” Better still: “here is a PDF of an article I’ve just published” – whenever I receive such emails, I always check the references and read the text. Of course, I reciprocate and tell colleagues about interesting items that I might have found, and this enables the “virtuous circle” of mutual feedback and encouragement to continue. I know that I can trust my colleagues in this regard, even if we disagree about some things!

Of course, search engines and database search facilities will always be important (I really like the new beta-version search JStor is trialling at the moment): I would not have found Gill’s article without a search engine. However, I think our relationships to other scholars are more important. After all, we belong to a community of scholars, working in related fields, with whom we engage. This community and this engagement happens in conferences, in workshops, in public lectures. We create and nourish this community by email, by telephone, and in face-to-face meetings (some of which will be in university offices, and some of which will be in cafés and pubs). This is what networking really means, and we need to work at this, but not necessarily in the way that universities want to prescribe for us. As neoliberal government decrees are followed ever more closely by irresponsible and ignorant university senior management teams in an attempt to turn universities into marketised competitive spaces of capitalism, such co-operative scholarship is at risk of being lost.(3) Prioritising competition in the name of capital has serious consequences, since, as Marx shows us, capital ‘has to destroy… [such] relationships as independent forms and subjugate them to itself.'(2) Therefore, even when we are engaged in the apparently solitary pursuit of reading, we might want to think about how we came to be reading the text we happen to have in front of us at that moment – did it come from a friend or colleague? In turn, sharing epiphanic moments in our reading with others is key to furthering our connections not only to the new scholarship that is being produced, but also to one another. In that latter sense, it also has the added benefit of subverting the rise of university managerialism that would isolate and negate the co-operative pursuit of learning that we are actually trying to do!

——

(1) Foucault’s essay is not long, and well worth engaging with. The link provided here is to the original journal, but the text has been reproduced in several other places online if you are interested in it, but do not have access to the journal.
(2) Dipesh Chakrabarty Provincializing Europe: Potscolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000, p64.  I have strong critiques of the latter parts of this book, but the chapter that this is taken from is very helpful.
(3) if this applies to you, I strongly recommend joining the University and College Union and the Council  for the Defence of British Universities if you have not already done so: they are trying to work hard at undoing some of the damage neoliberalism is causing to our sector.

Make your email work for you…

… rather than have you work for your email.

Many of us will have encountered the problem of email taking over: I can receive several hundred emails a day at times.  These come from a variety of sources:

  • students
  • immediate colleagues
  • useful administration (related directly to my work, usually in teaching)
  • other academics from beyond my institution
  • useless administration (the endless nonsense from central university services that all academics have to endure)
  • mailing lists
  • other

It is a struggle to deal with this volume of email, especially since much of it is not urgent.  Even if someone marks it as ‘urgent’ (as some university admin people like to do to everything they send), it is only urgent to them – and only rarely to me!  I used to wade through them all, file some away, respond to others immediately, but somehow still ended up with hundreds waiting to be dealt with in some way in my inbox.  J.P.E. Harper-Scott, a musicologist at Royal Holloway, has described a system to manage this volume of academic email, and at this juncture, you need to go and read his posting (click that link now: it’ll open in a new window/tab so you can easily come back to this page; don’t worry, I’ll wait for you…).

I wanted to add something to his system, because I do use it, but slightly differently.  I am an ‘early adopter’ of email, and I have most important emails I have ever sent or received going back almost two decades (yes, I have good backup routines – that’s a topic for another day).  I do use IMAP, but not to keep my email on a server.  There are various reasons for this that I won’t go into here, but if you do the same, or – like me – don’t want to use GoogleMail, the instructions below may help you.  My version of Harper-Scott’s system is slightly more cumbersome and has one notable disadvantage: because to-be-sent emails are connected to your email program, they will only be sent at pre-arranged times if your computer is on and your email program is running; if it is off, they will send when you next start your email program.  This is not a problem for me – if it is not for you, keep reading.

My instructions are oriented around using a Mac – if you still use a Windows computer, it is probably much the same.

Your email client program

Firstly: you need a better email program than Apple’s Mail.  A key function of Harper-Scott’s system is timing the sending of emails in advance, whether in the morning, or in the afternoon.  Apple’s Mail is functional but basic – and can’t do that (at least, not without resorting to Automator, which loses some Mail functionality and is clunky beyond anything you want to put up with; I’ve tried it, believe me on this).  There are two mainstream options for you that I am aware of: one is Microsoft’s email client, and the other is Thunderbird.  I try to have as little Microsoft software on my computer as possible, so the former is out of the question for me, but Thunderbird is a great piece of software.  Either will work.

Harper-Scott does not sort emails, relying instead on search facilities.  I can’t quite let go of filing my emails, but I have minimised doing so, recognising that email client searches have improved enormously from my early days when filing was essential or nothing would ever be found again.  My main filing system of ‘dealt with and just need to keep’ emails (and that obviously includes almost all emails I’ve sent) is organised by year, so this year’s folder looks like this:

2013
– Stirling (ALL my university emails)
– Einzelpersonen (ALL emails to or from non-Stirling individuals)
– Organisationen (ALL emails to or from non-Stirling organisations)

Yeah, I know, German – quirky, huh?  When you have nearly 20 years of emails and the main folders have always had German names, you just stick with it…

Then I have a few other temporary subfolders in the Inbox (yes, these have English names…!) that I’ll describe below.  Some of these are automatically filled, and others are manually dealt with:

Inbox
– internal
– Programme Director
– students
– print then file
– responses coming
– memos to read sometime

And this is how I use them: Thunderbird has simple to use filters that I have set to automatically move student email into the ‘students’ folder, and all other Stirling emails into the ‘internal’ folder (easy to do: undergraduate student addresses are in a uniform format so a filter for @students.stir.ac.uk catches them all; another similar filter deals with @stir.ac.uk which covers everyone else at the university).  My actual inbox now contains only emails from outside the university – so as soon as I download my emails, they are automatically sorted into three main categories, making it easier to deal with them.  Thunderbird helpfully marks folders with unread emails in two ways, in bold, and with the number of unread emails, for example:

Inbox (3)
– internal (12)
– Programme Director
– students (6)

I can now deal with these emails following Harper-Scott’s scheme.

But what is the Programme Director folder?  This concerns emails that come to me in my administrative role as Religion Programme Director.  I move ‘to-do’ emails in there and mark them as unread so that the folder name is bold and has a number.  These are things that I know I need to come back to very shortly.  If I think I will forget, I set myself an iCal reminder.

The other folders:

  • print then file: I can’t print long documents at home, but if a PhD student sends me her latest chapters for comments, or I receive papers for a meeting, I need to print these.  I put the email in here, and when I’m next in the office, I save and print the attachment, remove it from the email, and then file the email away.
  • responses coming: often these will be emails I have sent to someone and for which I need their response.  This is my reminder folder – if need be, I forward the email again.  Once the query has been dealt with – or the question is no longer relevant! 🙂 – the email is filed away in the relevant 2013 folder.
  • memos to read sometime: this is as inspiring as it sounds – these are mostly the tedious memos that go round the entire university dealing with subjects that I know are totally irrelevant to me, but that I feel I should read.  Sometime.  When I have a moment.  Just now I have a couple in there from September 2012: maybe I can get away with not reading them at all – after all, the world hasn’t stopped just because I haven’t read yet another amendment to regulation 18.24.3.7, has it?  Before you even start tutting: I am very aware that this folder’s sole purpose is to assuage guilt.  I know I should read these terribly important emails because many of them come from people who see themselves as terribly important (coincidentally, they’re often people at the top of the university hierarchy), but eventually any residual guilt is gone and I can file them away unread.  And the world tends to keep turning despite my dilatory approach to these emails…

Sending email at specified times

One of Harper-Scott’s key points concerns sending emails at specific times in the future.  I am convinced that this is absolutely essential if you want to keep control of your email and not let it control you.  Since adopting his system at the beginning of January I think I have sent two work emails (that concerned urgent pastoral matters for a student) outside the hours of 9-17h Monday-Friday, though I do, of course, write quite a number in the evenings and at the weekends.  As he points out, keeping to a standard working day is not just important for you, it is a moral issue in relation to your colleagues and students.  Read his post again if you need convincing of this (it’s ok, I’ll still be here when you’re finished…).

As I understand it, Microsoft email clients have a ‘send later’ function that you can use for this.  The default Thunderbird ‘Send Later’ function is not as fully featured – it’s a leftover from days when we had dial-up modems and lets you write emails that are then sent as soon as you go back online.  That’s obviously no use for delaying emails when most of us have broadband that is on all the time.  But… one of the glories of Thunderbird is that you can easily install plug-ins to do all kinds of things, and there is a clever one with the imaginative name ‘Send Later‘.  This allows you to specify exactly when an email should be sent, and it then stores it in your ‘drafts’ folder, ready to go.  You can customise the ‘Write:’ new message toolbar with the relevant buttons (right click the toolbar if you haven’t done this before, and a menu will open – only American format dates, but time is 24h!).  Mine now looks like this:

Thunderbird Send Later menu

Thunderbird Send Later menu

And that email will now go at 9:00 tomorrow morning – simple…  At the moment I have 24 emails in my drafts folder ready to go tomorrow morning, and one ready to go on 28. February concerning a document I was asked to complete and return – by 28. February.

Mobile telephones

One of my pre-reform email practices was to check and respond to emails in bed before getting up.  I also did this at night when about to go to sleep.  In bed!  My day bookended by email.  This is MADNESS.  But I know many others who do this, so it is a collective madness.  I would do this on my mobile telephone, and write replies to students and colleagues.  Who did I think would benefit from getting my thoughts on any subject at 6:30 in the morning, or at 23:50 at night?!  So I’ve stopped being so stupid, and now my telephone only has my work email turned on if I am away and need to use it to respond to email during the day.  If you have an iphone or ipad etc., it is very easy to turn your email on and off, and no settings or emails are lost.  This is how you do it: in the Settings menu, select Mail, Contacts, Calendars, and then select your work email.  Then turn it off (go on, you can do it!):

Work email off!

Work email off!

Doesn’t that feel good?  And if you have more than one work email (for example, I also co-manage an email account for a project we run in our department), do it for all of them, so that your main email settings screen looks like this:

ALL work email off!

ALL work email off!

Did you notice the time at the top of the screen?  It’s Sunday evening, so I don’t want to see my work email!  You’ll see that I’ve still left my personal email on – if my friends want to invite me to the cinema, I want to know about that.

I also have a basic folder system in operation on the IMAP server just for my mobile.  There are four folders:

– Stirling
– Einzelpersonen
– Organisationen
– to-do

Anything that can be filed away into one of my three archive folders is filed away, and every now and then I will copy these to my main computer.  The ‘to-do’ folder contains emails that I want out of my inbox because I’ve read them, but responding to them can wait until I get back to my main computer.

I hope this helps liberate you from your email, and allows you to use your email, rather than be beholden to it.  Comments on how you find this system, or alternative implementations, are welcome.

Finally, if you want a stimulating read, I’m about half-way through Harper-Scott’s newest book, and I can highly recommend it!

End the hypocrisy! A new academic blog

I have been a terrible hypocrite, and I want that to change.

I am actively involved in two main blogs: one, my personal blog that is mostly about photography and is based on my main website, and the other a joint blog for the Critical Religion Association (I am one of the writers and currently edit the blog).  And yet: despite encouraging (and to some extent demanding) that my research students write a self-reflective blog about their research, I have not done so myself!  So that is what this is going to be – and I will no longer feel such a hypocrite.

At the moment, I expect there to be two kinds of posting:

  1. ongoing reflections about my research, including occasional notes about books and articles I have read;
  2. practical notes about surviving in Higher Education in Scotland/the UK.

My first posting will almost certainly be something about reclaiming email, which sounds tedious, but is very important.  I’ll also write something before too long about the book I’m currently (trying) to write, which might be more stimulating.

I am aware that my schedule will almost certainly mean very irregular posting, but self-reflective writing is important, and it may be that others will be interested in some of my reflections.