Introductions: The (Un)Committee!

So, the unconference is now underway and for our first writing session everyone wrote a few words about themselves, their proposals for the unconference, and what they’re hoping to get out of the coming days. So, to start with, here are our organising committee…

Dawn Hollis

Hello! I’m Dawn, and I’m a second-year PhD student at the School of History in St Andrews. My thesis is on early modern reactions to mountains in the early modern period (a bit of a mouthful!). I’ve been co-organising the unconference with Sarah and Jason. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post the idea for the unconference originally came to me because I felt that postgraduate students sometimes felt disempowered to talk about the policies and structures which shaped the academic world within which they work and, in some cases, hope to build careers.

I’d love it if the unconference produced even one or two ideas that were ultimately taken much, much further – and, seeing what is on offer from my fellow participants, I don’t think this is unrealistic! I’m really interested in having conversations in particular about what the role of history should be and how we as historians ought to be relating to the wider world.

My own proposal for the unconference is focused on how articles get from completion to publication, and how we might streamline the process of supply and demand. Currently, traditional and prestigious journals receive more submissions than they could ever publish, and academics sending work to them may wait up to a year for a response, whilst smaller journals (particularly newly-established open access ones) may struggled to fill issues with work of an equal quality. I’ve proposed an online ‘marketplace of history’ on which available articles could be matched much more quickly with appropriate journals. The marketplace as I envision it would also emphasise the need to see the article as a valuable commodity, and to try to avoid excessively long response times which are often highly problematic for more junior researchers who need to build up their publication record. It’s not the most radical idea by any means, but it’s the way I came up with to fix what I see as a bit of a problem. I’d be delighted to hear if there are any alternative ideas from my fellow unconferencers on solving it!

Jason Varner

My name is Jason Varner, and I am an historian.  Which means I am most comfortable working in the past.  This, of course presents a few problems—primary among them the fact that the past has, well, passed.  And so I am a bit of a vocational stranger in the present, and most certainly so in terms of the future.  I suppose this brings me to what I’m hoping to gain from this Unconference experience: how might we best take that which has passed and make it relevant to both the present and the future?  Perhaps more practically, how might we, as historians, adopt new approaches to doing historical work?  As for my particular interests, I want to ask questions of an ontological nature this week… What does it mean to be an historian? Is a proper historian bound to a certain epistemological framework?  How does an historian navigate an increasingly perspectival cultural environment?  And what about the nature of acceptable sources?  Maybe we won’t answer all of these in three days, but laying a foundation of questions and initiating good dialogue seem like great places to start.

Sarah White

Hey! I’m Sarah and I’m a first-year PhD student at the University of St Andrews. My thesis is on legal argument and the use of legal treatises in the 13th-century Court of Canterbury. I spend a lot of time in archives reading through Latin court rolls and other manuscripts looking for evidence of specific legal norms and references used by litigants and their advocates in all sorts of church court cases. Boring work to some, but I love it! In my spare time a carry on long conversations with my cat, read and go rock climbing and camping whenever I get the chance!
I got involved with the unconference after attending some excellent writing sessions organized by Dawn, where I started talking with her and Kelsey about the need for innovative approaches to the mechanics of studying, teaching, and promoting history. As a grad student, I know that if I’m going to succeed personally in my field and help the field as a whole to succeed, there are some changes that will need to be made in academia. I think that this task mainly falls to students and early career researchers, and if we’re going to motivate any significant change, we need to start working on these ideas now.
I’m so excited about the papers and discussions coming up in the next few days. It’s wonderful to see that so many of us are involved these issues and working on ways to solve problems, present new ideas, and build the kind of community we need to bring around the change we want to see in academia.

Kelsey Jackson Williams

I’m easily distracted when it comes to research topics, but I generally focus on early modern northern Europe – which at various times has meant Scotland, Sweden, England, or elsewhere – and am especially interested in early modern understandings of the past, the use of visual and material sources in intellectual history, and the community known as the Republic of Letters.  I started a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of St Andrews this past September and as a newly-minted member of staff, albeit a very junior one, I’ve been thinking more and more about the ways in which I can improve my teaching and mentoring.  That’s led me to propose a paper to this unconference that argues for treating the doctorate less as the composition of a single, large piece of work and more as a multi-faceted apprenticeship.  I’m keen to hear what others think and to apply that in the not-too-distant future when I first take on doctoral students of my own.

More generally, I’m really excited to hear about and talk over the ideas coming out of the unconference.  Academia has undergone such huge changes over the past decade or two and our way of doing things hasn’t even begun to catch up with the present-day realities of open access, impact, and the digital humanities to name just a few. Now more than ever is the time to start thinking about how we want to change our discipline and how we want it to look (and work) in the future.  For my part, I’m especially concerned with what I can effect now – or at least soon – even if that’s only on a small scale, but I’m also hoping to come away from the unconference mulling over plans for much larger and more dramatic changes in the way we practice our craft.

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