Some notes on the USS strikes

Since we have come to the end of an unprecedented four weeks of striking across many UK universities, I thought it was worth setting down some thoughts. Although I was nervous about the strikes as they began, I found that the last few weeks have changed completely how I think about my job. The conversations I’ve had on the picket line would suggest that I’m not alone in this. I think most academics are probably not typical strikers or activists – in order to get to our positions we are more likely to have been typical good students, who are used to working within structures which have mostly worked for us. I have also felt grateful and privileged, considering the very difficult employment climate and the many years I spent myself on insecure fixed term contracts, to have a secure, permanent job doing the work I love.

But something is happening to erode that sense of gratefulness. Universities have been taking advantage of the fact that their staff love their jobs and are committed to their work. It’s becoming increasingly clear from conversations on the picket line and on Twitter that academics are beginning to be more aware of this, to connect things together and to talk about it. There have been many conversations about workload. There is also a growing frustration about the fact that due to the limited nature of funding for conference and research travel and books it is increasingly difficult to do the work we are paid to do, unless we pay for it ourselves.

While these strikes are over pensions it is clear that there is wider disquiet over much more than this. It also seems, at least from looking at my own university that humanities academics have been much more visible on the picket lines than those in STEM disciplines. Most of us have already been aware of the unequal distribution of resources among disciplines. Could the greater mobilisation, and anger among humanities staff also be a reflection of this?

My experience on the picket lines has actually been a much more positive experience than any of this might suggest though. I’ve had great conversations with colleagues from other disciplines, and got to know some of my own colleagues in History better too. Being on the picket lines has created a space for the kind of intellectual exchange and solidarity for which there just is not time for in the normal working day. In these conversations, and in the teach outs organised almost daily by different disciplines, glimpses of a different university have started to emerge, driven by curiosity and solidarity rather than the market values of neoliberalism.

As a historian interested in ideas among other things, I also feel I understand a little more about how protest and collective action actually work now. It’s not just the ideas, but the actual doing of it that creates the momentum and the motivations. Having researched the opposition to fascism in 1920s Italy and taught the Italian ‘68 I feel that the last few weeks have given me a better understanding of what it was like to actually ‘do’ activism. Something like this is made up of big moments and small moments, the serious conversations and the less serious ones. It’s also, apparently, about raiding my toddler’s music box for day 13’s carnivalesque noisy protest.

It’s along these lines of doing rather than thinking that might make a good place to end these notes too. Another conversation sparked by the strikes is the need for universities to recognise that we as academics are not just our work just as our students are not consumers: we are people with minds, bodies and families. There are more conversations about mental health, while it’s being highlighted that the importance of defined benefit pensions has a gendered dimension too.

If we are the university, then hopefully we can transform some of these conversations into meaningful change.


My thoughts on Brexit


imagesI woke up in Dublin ths morning to the depressing news that Brexit is actually a reality, having flown here in the evening after casting our votes, for remain, as UK residents. I’m been in shock pretty much all day, never quite believing it would come to this. This evening I had dinner in Dublin in one of my favourite Italian restaurants – entirely staffed by Italian staff living in Dublin – with family who had flown from Germany and Turkey as well as ourselves, from the UK. It’s saddening to think that the world we now live in will be a smaller, narrower one than the one we’ve made in the last few decades.

As an Irish citizen and a historian of modern Europe, I’ve always taken for granted the existence, and the positive impact of the European Union. Growing up in Ireland in the 1990s, the impact of the EU was obvious whether that benefit came in terms of funding for infrastructure and development or legislation for gender equality. My own education and career has benefitted enormously from the EU – it’s unlikely I would have the career that I do without it. As an undergraduate student I spend a semester as an Erasmus student in Pisa, where I grappled with lire for the first s d last time on that trip, returning to Ireland just as the Euro was coming into force. A few years later I spent the first year of my PhD living in Turin where I did archival research and worked as an English language lecturer at the university. I was able to move there so easily, without any restrictions on my right to work, only because of the freedom of movement afforded by the EU. My postdoctoral research was funded by a Marie Curie fellowship, co-funded by the Irish Research Council and the European Commission. This fellowship afforded me the opportunity to spend two years as a visiting researcher at the university of Milan and to develop my research into changing experiences of love and marriage in post-war Italy, the subject of the book I am currently finishing. Six months ago I moved to take up a position as a lecturer in twentieth-century history at the University of Southampton, and again it was only as an EU citizen that I was freely able to take up this position, barely giving a thought to my right to work in another nation. All of these experiences have of course also encouraged me to develop my awareness of myself as a citizen of Europe and not just of Ireland; my imagination and my outlook are now firmly European.

The EU is seen as something of a bureaucratic monolith (although no more than any government or large multinational organisation) and it can be difficult to summon real emotional enthusiasm for an organisation that is concerned largely with the mundane day-to-day work of cross-national collaboration. As a triumph over nationalism – which persists in holding real emotional currency for many people – it will perhaps always be a difficult sell at a popular level. However the impact on ordinary lives across Europe – from development funds to the Erasmus scheme for university students – has been enormous. More recently the EU has disappointed me greatly with its deeply damaging and flawed economic response to the crisis, and it was difficult to escape the feeling that the European project was already dying with the EU response to Greece. However I’m also aware that the EU is a diverse, sprawling organisation with many different people, ideas and projects within it, and that the best way to continue the discussion about what the EU is and should be, is from within. Neither did this have anything to do with the motivations of the Leave campaign. It’s pretty clear now that the reasons people voted Leave had a lot to do with poverty, decline, alienation caused by the long term fall out from industrial decline and the continued impact of cuts from the current government, teamed with a xenophobia cynically exploited by careerist politicians. Obviously, leaving the EU will in no way address these issues.

Britain will now be leaving the EU so it’s obviously too late to make the case for the European project. It’s clear though that the EU – large, bureaucratic, earnest but not especially exciting – has failed to capture the imaginations of twenty-first century Europeans (although not entirely since the younger demographic voted overwhelmingly for the UK to remain). it seems quite possible that if membership was put to a popular vote elsewhere in the European Union, the answer might be similar. As a lecturer in modern European history, perhaps I’m part of this problem. I’ve never found the history of European integration the most exciting of topics, nor paid much attention to it. Undergraduate modules are filled with Europe as a century of war, with little consideration given to how peace was made or maintained. Britain and Europe are also usually packaged apart from each other, even though British history is a part of and continually linked to the European story. Assuming that I will continue to have the right to work in the UK, this is something that I will have to work to address as a historian of post-war Europe. As it is, it’s a pretty depressing day for Britain and for the idea of Europe.



Feminist rhetoric and family values: Forced marriages in Sicily after Franca Viola

Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 15.27.24I’ve written before about the case of Franca Viola, the 17 year old Sicilian woman who in 1966 made huge steps towards ending the practice of kidnap and forced marriage in southern Italy. Kidnapped by her ex-fiancé Filippo Melodia in December 1965, she was held by him for a week before an extensive police search tracked them down. Melodia made one last desperate attempt to flee onto the rooftops of the adjoining houses with Viola before he was taken into custody. Continue reading

Conference report: ‘Criminal Law and Emotions in European Legal Cultures: From the 16th Century to the Present’

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 14.55.27I’m just back from Berlin after an excellent few days attending the ‘Criminal Law and Emotions’ conference at the Max Planck Centre for the History of Emotions. I presented a paper on the case of Franca Viola, the 17 year old Sicilian woman who was kidnapped by her ex-fiancé in 1966 with the intention of forcing her into marriage, and became the first woman to refuse the so-called reparatory marriage offered to her, forcing her kidnapper and rapist Filippo Melodia to be tried and sentenced for his crimes. I’ve written more about her case here. Continue reading

Embroidering Emotions? Exploring the history of the trousseau

I’ve been thinking about dowries and trousseaus a bit lately. While the dowry was on the decline by the 1950s, most Italian women still married with a corredo or trousseau. Traditionally this was a collection of hand-sewn linens and typically included bed sheets and pillow cases as well as towels, napkins and table cloths. A girl might work steadily on her corredo throughout her adolescence. Sandro lived in a village south of Rome and met his wife in the late 1950s; he knew she was responsible and serious since she worked on her corredo each evening after a day’s work on the farm. This was before she had even met her future husband. In rural Tuscany, Laura listed in meticulous detail the items she had brought with her when she married in 1950; a blue cotton bed cover, four sheets, four pillow cases, one dishcloth, six towels, two night dresses and twelve nappies. The fact that she was able to remember the exact number of each item she brought more than thirty years later, is an indication of the value – practical and sentimental – that the corredo held for her. She had almost certainly sewn everything all herself and in the small sparsely furnished home than she and her husband shared in their first years of marriage, each of the items she brought would have been put to continual use. read more

‘Wretched’ and ‘humilated’? Writing agency into history


Stefania Sandrelli as Agnese in the 1964 film ‘Seduced and Abandoned’

Despite having probably hundreds of ideas that I meant to blog about I have written barely anything for this blog lately. Partly that’s because I’ve been busily writing up my research and trying to cobble together the first draft of a book manuscript. However as I begin to revise some of those chapters, I’m thinking again about how I approach the people I research and write about.

During the summer I spent some time researching and writing about honour crime and forced marriages in 1960s Sicily. I’m still hoping to blog about that research more soon. However at the moment I’m reflecting more generally on the Sicilian women I encounter in my research and how I can capture their subjective experiences in my writing. read more