Art Historians and their Hierarchies

A response to the AAH New Voices Conference: Art and its Hierarchies (The University of Nottingham, 24th November 2012)

Last Saturday I attended the morning sessions of the AAH New Voices conference held within The Department of Art History at The University of Nottingham (I unfortunately had to leave at half-time). The diverse array of papers was enticing: from the use of art in fashion images, ceramics, the development of the I.L.E.A collection, Irish political satire and the relationship between art and writers during the 20th century (and they were only the morning sessions!). None of the papers disappointed, with the authors supplying clear and interesting perspectives on the types of hierarchies currently faced by the new generation of Art Historians.

The one thing that struck me, however, and this comment was also made by Laura Gray from Cardiff School of Art, was the distinct lack of males in the room. Out of a 30-strong audience, only three men were in attendance; all of whom had specific roles to play during the event. Why had this happened? Are the new breeds of Art Historians mostly female and if so, is this going to cause an oestrogen fuelled riot or an all-out party, at some point in the not-too-distant future?! Or, do the male Art Historians like to keep themselves to themselves in fear of their safety?

Within The Humanities Department at The University of Nottingham (upon which I base my limited experience), there is an obvious imbalance between male and female academics. However, within The Department of Art History there is an equal weighting between male and female staff members. The undergraduate and postgraduate cohorts on the other hand are drastically female dominated. I can only speculate as to whether this is the same at other institutions, but I wonder why a discipline which was only twenty years ago (or less) rigorously male-orientated is slowly becoming female-friendly. Alternatively, Art History classrooms may always have been comprised of largely female students, leaving me to wonder about the gender bias existing in some institutions…

These are not new or radical observations, but it was strikingly obvious on Saturday that there may be a specific gender hierarchy emerging amongst the new generation of Art Historians.

On the art of writing abstracts – and summer in Utrecht

One of the things research students are always being told is the importance of publicising our work.  A key way of doing this is through giving papers at conferences.  The organisers send out a call for papers, to which potential speakers are invited to reply with an abstract; this is a summary of the proposed talk, with a word limit which is generally somewhere between150 to 500 words.  But how to write a good abstract?  Formulating something that will get your work noticed, and, more importantly, accepted for a conference, is something of an art.  It can be dispiriting when abstracts are rejected, especially as submitters are rarely offered feedback explaining why their work has not been included.  As a first year PhD student, I have had a few rejections, but, having sent off lots of abstracts at the start of the summer, am now enjoying more success (my next paper will be delivered a conference on Global Commodities: The material culture of early modern connections at the University of Warwick – http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/history/ghcc/research/globalcommodities/finalconference/).

So what is it that makes a successful abstract?  This post includes my thoughts on the topic, but I can’t claim to be an expert, so all comments and feedback are much appreciated!

Two questions you should ask yourself before you even consider writing an abstract are ‘does my work fit with the theme of the conference?’, and ‘do I know what I’m talking about?’  Abstracts are a lot of effort, and if you are trying to distort your work to fit with an unsuitable theme, it is much less likely to be accepted.  Although it might be tempting to propose a paper on research you have yet to do, especially if it fits well with the conference theme, it’s a much better idea to write an abstract based on work you have already completed.  If you don’t know your stuff, it will be obvious if your abstract is read by a specialist in the field – how embarrassing!

If the conference applied for is a recurring event, it is useful to read the abstracts from previous sessions.  This gives a good idea of the sorts of approaches the organisers welcome.  Make sure that your title is brief but informative, that the abstract itself is written clearly, and proof read to eliminate errors in spelling and grammar.  Having been on the other side of the fence myself, I know that reading hundreds of submitted abstracts with the aim of selecting just a few is a challenge, and that organisers simply don’t have time to disentangle the meaning from a garbled abstract.  Relatedly, stick to the word limit.  Surprisingly, many don’t, and this may lead to your work being rejected without even being read.

Perhaps the most useful piece of advice I have come across was in a call for papers, which suggested that ‘abstracts should define the subject and summarize the questions to be raised in the proposed paper.’  This might sound obvious to seasoned writers of abstracts, but it is incredibly useful advice, especially in that it suggests a clear structure.  It also ties in with another piece of advice I was given by a friend who seems to have innumerable abstracts accepted: don’t give too much away.  He suggests that the abstract should be an intriguing series of questions, which grab a reader’s interest without detailing the key findings or argument, so that they feel they need to hear more.

Finally, if an abstract is rejected, make sure you look at the final conference programme.  Sometimes it is very obvious why your paper didn’t make it.  For example, even if the call for papers suggested that your research would fit in perfectly, the final programme may indicate the opposite!  That way you know it wasn’t the quality of your work that was the problem.

On another note, last month I spent ten days in Utrecht, at a summer school for research students on court residences as places of exchange in early modern Europe.  This was organised by Palatium, a research networking program of the European science foundation.  The programme was crammed full of talks from eminent academics, including Monique Chatenet, Konrad Ottenheym and Krista de Jonge (who will all be familiar to anyone working on early modern courts and their architecture), and visits to palaces in the Netherlands and Germany.  35 research students from all over Europe took part.  As we were all working in related areas, it was incredibly useful to talk about and compare our work, and I gained lots of valuable new perspectives, and suggestions for reading.  The summer school will be running again in 2014.  Anyone interested in it, or the excellent work of the Palatium program, can check it out at www.courtresidences.eu.

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Tate Student Conference

New Perspectives – Call for Papers

There is currently a CFP out for a student conference (postgrads) I am co-organising at Tate: New Perspectives on the Romantic Period. The theme is deliberately broad, with the aim of encouraging anyone working in this period to come along and create a supportive network and showcase their research. It’s a 2-day event (6-7 Nov 2012), including a (professional) pub visit and hopefully gallery tours etc.

More details available in the PDF link above or at the New Perspectives on the Romantic Period blog.

The Impact of Digitisation

After the successful launch of my project Think Tank: The Flash Journal, and after a few engaging conversations with several different people, I’ve been thinking a lot about digitisation of archives and the digitisation of research in general. These thoughts were stirred to a greater degree yesterday when I read Researchers Confused by Copyright and Open Access – Report (tweeted by @copyrightgirl and retweeted by @GabrieleNeher) and Research Students of Tomorrow: The Research Behaviour of Generation Y Doctoral Students (tweeted by @mattlodder and retweeted by @GabrieleNeher). Consequently, I wrote the following ramble:

Creating digital archives of significant artworks, documentation and objects seems to be essential in our increasingly media-over-medium orientated world. Programs such as the Google Art Project and the Tate’s Gallery of Lost Art, or the digitisation of important collections favoured by many top-ranking creative and educational institutions, attest to the importance placed on preserving perishable information.  Providing increased access to such information is also incredibly important in a world where many people ask questions of Wikipedia; expecting reliable and informed answers in reply. Such a movement is highly significant to the accessibility and dissemination of knowledge as well as art, and although internet experience is never a sole substitute for experience itself, it is an alternative means of interpreting the world around us. It seems fairly logical to suggest that  artworks, documentation and objects should therefore be recorded and available for access online: to extend the reach of such information beyond the individual and into a wider, digitally connected community.

It is fairly straightforward in my opinion: digitisation is a very good thing. Access means new knowledge will eventually be formed.

On the other hand, from an academic perspective, how does the move towards digitised knowledge affect me, as a researcher? I am wholly supportive of Open Access journals and social media for disseminating and obtaining information – evidently points of concern for many British Generation Y academics, as the British universities Film and Video Council noted (Researchers Confused by Copyright and Open Access – Report). I would rather submit my thesis to an Open Access journal so people can easily and quickly find the information they are looking for (should they happen to be looking for it) than submit it solely to a library. I am worried that this will implicate me because of imagery copyrights – but this is an issue I will have to face regardless when submitting my thesis (as once it is published it is no longer exempt of copyright because it is no longer classed as a piece of work produced for an examination).

However, the main problem for me, as a researcher, isn’t whether or not I, as an individual, am supportive of Open Access journals or the use of web-based data within my research, it’s the fact that I’m unsure as to whether the generation preceding mine will be quite so receptive. I’m lucky to work within a department (and university) that is technologically forward-thinking – but is this the same for the academic world at large? Within the report, Education for Change asked:

“Are the mechanisms of establishing authority and legitimacy in research resources (such as peer review, citation, publisher/origin etc) still valid and adequate to help doctoral students make choices, and might these be widened to include, for example, the allowable citation of web-based datasets?”

and

“Can the key influencers in higher education institutions, such as doctoral supervisors, library and information support staff, become more effective in providing models of best practice and legitimacy?”

Firstly, I would agree that widening acceptable research resources would undoubtedly strengthen the breadth of research, and the need for ‘models of best practice’ would definitely be a welcomed relief to me. I would, however, suggest that such models may still be hard to come by from doctoral supervisors, alone (after all preferred methods of supervising, and referencing/citation varies greatly between institutions/publications, already). It seems to my like we (Generation Y) are in a strange situation: with one foot held in the older style of PhD research, and the other foot in the digital age. A successful balance needs to be ascertained in order to avoid producing unworthy research.

The Future of Art History in Progress

On the 28th March 2012, The Art History Department held its first Art History in Progress session in a delightfully airy and spacious room in The Humanities Building, University Park. All PhD candidates (and staff members) from the department were invited to attend, with the premise being that rarely do we all have the chance to find out about the research being conducted within the department, beyond our immediate circle of supervisors/supervisees and colleagues. The sessions would therefore offer a place for us all to familiarise ourselves with everyone’s work and to informally offer our own opinions and ideas in response. The outcome of this, we hoped, would be to encourage termly/monthly (weekly seemed ambitious… ) meetings which would eventually develop into informal talks or debates, where people could practice upcoming papers, dissect difficult issues, and generally reinforce the sense of commune in our small research collective.

The agenda for the initial meeting was fairly unstructured in order to encourage a conversational atmosphere, but we soon slipped into a “you talk, we’ll listen, next person” format, which ultimately allowed everyone chance to talk for as long as they wanted. It was certainly useful to hear how everybody’s work was progressing and undoubtedly highlighted the diversity of our research approaches. The meeting also acted as a means for us to offer ideas for future sessions and modes of interaction which would allow us to promote our own activities at conferences and beyond. It was suggested that we make a trip to London to visit The Palace of Westminster (where James Ford is conducting his CDA) or to Tate Britain (partners in another CDA with Hayley Morris), or even just to convene in a pub somewhere to discuss our research (in a very academic and serious fashion) over a few drinks. Mini-paper presentations or novel ways of presenting our work (in timed-slide presentations akin to PechaKucha sessions) were also proposed, as was the creation of this: a blog.

The beauty of blogging means that we can create a platform that is communal, accessible and above all easy (on the eye and on time), so the community of the department doesn’t disintegrate given its far reaching geographical range: from Nottingham, Birmingham, Hertfordshire, Manchester, London, Italy and back again. This blog means we can communicate with each other without having to see each other’s ugly mugs! In all seriousness, this isn’t a substitute for meeting in the flesh but an additional tool for communicating our experiences, and one which will allow us to keep up-to-date, as-and-when we want to. As a result, we would also attend the termly Art History in Progress meetings armed with at least a small degree of knowledge about other people’s work and activities, before delving into the mini-papers and presentations.

Hopefully this blog will prove engaging and useful to those outside of the department, the university and Nottingham, too!