Archives and the voices of history.

Scrolling through twitter, I came across this gem of a tweet.

I’ve worked extensively within archives across the UK. My research is trying to give voice to some of those quieter narratives in history. But, oddly enough, I hadn’t given much thought to the archival process. I look through catalogues, browse collections, and don;t question about what I don’t see.

I was most interested by this idea of choosing to tell or obstruct histories. With my research based in not only mental health history, but military/wartime too, obstruction is something I’ve faced quite a bit. Sensitive data – patient records – come with a standard 100 year closure in Scotland, and so you apply for special permission from the Caldicott guardians and NHS archives. If granted it can come with caveats, like no photography permissions, and when you’re trying to manage huge bodies of data like hundreds of patient files, this becomes a serious hindrance very quickly. I means you have to adapt sampling methods, which means less sampling and deliberately excluding voices purely for the sake of time.

‘Miscellaneous’ files and folders are a strange breed. Sometimes it can be quite exciting, hoping to uncover some wee gem that isn’t catalogued. But some of these ‘folders’ an be massive, with little rhyme or reason to them, and you sit and trawl though it, clinging to that little ray of hope.

Something I also look at are the narratives of civilian and servicemen in wartime – their letters, conversations, notes… After the ‘Voices of Madness’ conference at Huddersfield University, these records can be so hard to find in archives where they do exist, that a future conference on ‘Silences’ seems more than likely.

I have to say, the archivists I’ve worked with have been amazing. At the British Red Cross and NHSGGC archives especially, they’ve gone out of their way to source material that I might find interesting, and I wouldn’t have looked twice at in the catalogue. So I think there’s something to be said for promoting narratives in archives, too.

Conservation and access – preserving the documents and artefacts but educating the public about their meaning and connecting us with our history is the life’s blood of archives, to my mind. But are these two ideas mutually exclusive? Do they silence some voices, whilst promoting others, in the name of conservation? I think it’s a tricky one, and one that reflects the complex responsibilities of archivists and archives.

I’m quite looking forward to learning a little more about this, to be honest.



Something a bit different for your Tuesday News. I wonder if dismissing and trying to invalidate the work of his colleagues and employers didn’t have something to do with it…

Postgrads, teaching and training.


When I started graduate school and immediately became the instructor of record of a freshman composition course, I had a couple of advantages going for me. First, my parents were both educators, one in elementary school and the other at the secondary level. I had been around the theory and practice of education my entire life, and I had some minor elementary school substituting experience of my own. Second, my graduate program required that I audit a pedagogy-themed course in my first semester. This is not typical for graduate programs, even those which include teaching courses solo rather than the more traditional teaching assistantships. Having said that, I had never taught a course at the college level on my own. I had not designed a course. And I certainly had no formal training.

– Kisha Tracy, Digital Pedagogy Lab.

We are asked to teach. I love teaching. We are asked to grade. I love helping students develop their skills and improve. We are asked to contribute to the design of courses – whether this be seminar content or designing a lecture. I love being given that free reign.

But to me there is little more intimidating than any and all of these responsibilities to new postgrads taking up the mantle of ‘teaching assistant’. The training I underwent, I didn’t receive until half way through my first semester of teaching. The first module leader I had was mostly absent. Generally,  my training was pretty much me picking the brains of other tutors and ‘on the job’.

I’m all about learning by doing, but when you’re even at least partly responsible for someone’s educational experience, somehow that doesn’t quite cut it for me. I personally would love to see more training for GTAs. Have a read at the article and see what you think.

RGS-IBG Annual International Conference.

Firstly, a massive thank you to the Geographies of Health and Wellbeing Research Group for sponsoring me at the RGS-IBG Annual International Conference. It’s a bit tricky to get a hold of funds in the final year of a PhD and I appreciate the help immensely.

Not going to lie, this was the first conference I had, initially, felt a little out of my depth in. Although I look at migration between spaces and identities, and look at the regional idiosyncrasies of healthcare provision, I am by no means a geographical historian.

So a conference led by the Royal Geographical Society was a little intimidating.

That being said I was, as per usual, worrying for nought. But my impression was that, this was the type of conference where your panel chairs and the people who share your panel could make the event for you – just because the sheer scale of the conference makes it difficult for the organisers to be everywhere, obviously. So even though the organisers were very thorough and helpful, my panel, ‘Examining troubling institutions and geographies at the nexus between care and control’, was in the very capable hands of Tom Disney and Anna Schliehe. This is what impressed me the most, I think. The speakers couldn’t have expanded on a wider range of topics. Carceral and psychiatric spaces and spaces of care, children, the elderly, the mentally ill, tenants, asylum seekers, prisoners, soldiers, Scotland, India, America, Norway, Switzerland, France, Finland, Denmark and Mexico. All were represented in this panel, and represented bloody well. I was so impressed with the quality of the papers throughout the day. I took more than one tip away with me for future presentations of my own.

But I also took away something else – and I think this is what makes these huge, international, interdisciplinary conferences so important for final year PhD students especially. Listening to the papers on carceral spaces, the tension between duties of care and control and the identities of the men and women and children confined in these spaces, I was led down a few paths I would quite like to tease into my own research. Listening to papers on therapy, expression and communication (all in Scotland, I might add), I was again reminded just how closely linked these studies are. Listening to papers exploring the body itself as a site of care, of the complexities involved in exercising spatial control over vulnerable groups, helped me look back on my own research with another perspective.

A perspective that’s easy to lose in the tunnel vision of a PhD.

So, given that I’m writing up now with some restructuring to do on a couple of chapters, I’m hoping to take all of this back into the office with me. Who knows, maybe it’ll make my viva pass a little more smoothly whenever that day comes, but for now I’m quite content that conferences like the RGS-IBG Annual International Conference expose you to a dozen other worlds of research disciplines, methodologies and schools of thought that aren’t so isolated from your own research as you may have first expected.


I have never experienced this myself. All members of department I’ve worked with have been encouraging, supportive and respectful. As a doctoral candidate I’ve worked in an exclusively female team. Given however, the the twenty-first century seems to be ushering in an age of uber-liberalism in terms of gender and sexuality equality, I think it says something that this discussion is still necessary.

We’re in a generation that is redefining gender boundaries and traditional concepts of sexuality (aided in no small way by social media). Sexual harassment, to all genders/gender identities, isn’t exclusive to universities obviously, but is the slog and toil you go through to get even to the position of an Early-Career Researcher, engendering a culture of tolerance with these incidents. I’m not quite sure – but this is a provocative read at the least. Take a look for yourself.

Access to Higher Education.

Twitter was afire yesterday.

Why, you ask? Well have a look for yourself….

Lately, a lot of the discussion around Higher Education and the State has focused on access. Germany recently abolished tuition fees. Scotland introduced the payment of tuition fees for Scottish students attending Scottish Universities.

And note, I’m speaking to you from a Scottish perspective.

Teaching and researching in the humanities, you’re pretty well aware that funding/support can be an elusive monster, especially before you’re a well established academic. Humanities postgrad programmes are quite honest in this way, I think, and if you make the decision to move forward into a career in the humanities, you do so with the knowledge that occasionally it’s going to be a bit of a struggle in terms of funding.

Undergrads haven’t really been exposed to that rhetoric, however. And taking away any support including grants towards living costs is going to be devastating. And remember, this is coming at a time when hikes in tuition fees have been announced in  Ireland and England, and an oh so generous cap has been set at £9250. Scottish students might get it easy, but non-national students don’t fare much better than, say, English students studying at home this year.

It’s something I’ve come across in my own experiences as an undergrad and now teaching. Students from council estates were a bit of a curio (my friends and I began our undergrad courses in 2008, a year after free tuition was rolled out). It was a surprise amongst some (a minority though, I have to say) when we did well. A friend of mine was actually told by another student that they were stunned a student from a council area grasped the nuances of some text or other so quickly. This friend is now an English teacher.

Teaching, the socio-economic backgrounds of students are a lot more varied than they were when I was a student. But even so, lower-income students don’t form even half the class. You can argue whatever position you like for this: they’re discouraged away from university and into employment, especially with the concern over high numbers of unemployed graduates and a flooded labour market; access to secondary education was problematic; support in secondary education was fare, far more problematic; even with no tuition fees to pay, living and travel expenses exclude some from taking places on university courses…

To name but a few.

Point is, university is a difficult, arduous experience if you want to come out of it with a useful, competitive qualification, regardless of your background as a student. But low-income students find it more difficult to take up university placements in the first place, and removing the few sources of support that don’t saddle them with debt that’s going to eat up any significant earnings for a few years in employment…one can’t help but wonder if it’s a deliberate move, an attempt to push certain groups out of Higher Education not necessarily to privilege others, but to force these would-be students down other routes.

Or maybe that’s too cynical. Maybe it’s simply a cost-cutting measure. And don’t we all just love those? Only thing is, cost-cutting where is impacts the quality of the student body and therefore the quality of future graduates, and then future professionals…seems a bit like cutting your nose off to spite your face, to me.


SSHM Annual Conference 2016: Medicine in its place

And what a place it was.

Fresh of the back of the SSHM annual conference (I was naughty and left a day early, sadly), I naturally felt a blog coming on. First and foremost I wanted to say…what a good bloody time I had. Canterbury is wonderful. It’s a place I’ve always wanted to visit (one of a very long list) and I reckon I’ve fallen a little bit in love. I’m going to have to find plenty of excuses to go back there, I think. More than that though, it was such a friendly, encouraging event. I’d previously helped to organise a SSHM/Wellcome postgrad conference and found it very much the same. Helpful direction on your work. People taking a genuine interest. The incredible variety of research fields and topics represented that gave you the research envy… for postgrads, especially those of you just getting used to conferences, these are events I’d highly recommend.

Because networking can be hard, as I’ve whinged about on here before. Forget teaching, marking, quantitative research and SPSS and all of that; networking is the hardest skill I’ve had to learn as a PhD student or doctoral candidate or whatever you want to call it. Coming in from a taught masters on a course where I already pretty much knew everyone from undergrad, networking made me feel awkward and anxious the first couple of times but the only I’ve found to get over that is to approach people and then you realise, ‘Hey, no one’s not looking at me like I have a third head. Huh.’ It’s what you’re expected to do at these events, and there are always!! people thinking/feeling the same as you. So take the plunge.

But, back to the conference. Needless to say there were some brilliant panels. The first I attended ended up a brilliant, integrated group discussion about gender and alcoholism with Lesley Hulonce, Kate Taylor and Craig Stafford. Craig’s talk in particular caught my attention as he spoke a little bit about pressure to drink amongst women in working class communities and the quite malicious intent behind this sometimes. It’s a perspective I’ve never encountered before and I think adds something quite significant to perspectives of alcoholism, class and women.

Natasha Feiner and Lynsey Shaw Cobden’s paper on Psychology and Pilots was great, too, though it had to compete with – and I am definitely not kidding here – ‘Putting Shit in its Place: Excremental Politics in the Twentieth Century’. See this, this, is why you just have to love history. Here’s some of the finer tweets the #sshm16 tag got on twitter



My own presentation got a pretty good reception I’m grateful to say, and got some really helpful feedback and food for future thought. I was on a panel with Louise Hide and, quite rightly so, her paper went down a storm. Neurology, Psychiatry and Psychology, mental health and mental health services were represented pretty brilliantly, actually, at this conference and #teammadness, managed to work ghosts, blind river dolphins and a direct Trump-Caligula-Wilhelm II comparison which may have been my favourite moment of the conference. Make no mistake, I am in the best field ever.

These conferences are also pretty great for postgrad events and the SSHM seems pretty keen on integrating these events rather than isolating us wee PGs into a conference corner. I personally gave Ray Laurence’s talk on ‘Social Media and Future Historians’ a try. Now – obviously I’m a fan of social media, but I’m still learning how to use it to its full potential. We got some really good pointers here in how to use social media, who to approach and potential projects – and a good giggle out of it, too, I might add. Social media is becoming more important. It’s not just about relevancy but about access, too. It’s about reaching a wider, more varied, international audience and doing it far more quickly than you would otherwise be able to. And, on a teaching not, not giving students and excuse for not checking emails and notice boards. Sorry, what was that?

The good thing about these kinds of conferences, too, is that they give you a chance to step out of your comfort zone. I went to the panel on ‘Sites for Medical Education’ and was introduce to the lovely worlds of Dutch scrofula, seventeenth century medical guest books and post-war medical education and I have to say, the speakers did a great job in making their work accessible to completely ignorant audience members. Kate Grauvogel’s paper was one of my favourites though – and anyone who reads this will know my soapbox position on saving the poor , wee, desolate asylums going to ruin. Sweden knows how it’s done. Be more like Sweden, world. Be more like Sweden.

All in all it was a fantastic event. I met some brilliant people, postgrads like me, early-career researchers and established academics, the lovely folks from the Wellcome Trust and funding and publishing gurus… although as is the way with the massive conferences, there were some I unfortunately missed. A conference poet and a conference artists? How many can say they had that?

Losing asylums

Arsonists strike at former Denbigh asylum for third time in a month

Denbigh is far from the only building being targeted by vandals.

Some of you might remember back in 2004 and 2011, Hartwood Hospital, formerly Lanark District Asylum, caught the attention of some arsonists, too. Rumour had it that magnesium had been stolen from local schools and used to set the fire that quickly got out of control in a building where most of the original features, furniture and even the paperwork were left behind.

Everyone expected those Towers to be ripped down after that. Yet, despite that they’re still standing today.

The most recent attack was in March this year. Another fire, pretty sizeable, in a different building from the original one that pretty much burnt the central block up from the inside and left only the stones and architectural structure behind.

And again came the chatter about tearing it down.

From the Centenary Pamphlet for Hartwood Hospital/Lanark district asylum, (1995).

From the fire in March, 2016. Posted on:

Now obviously I’m biased – I love these institutions – and there was quite a bit of grumbling in the community about the possibility of demolition. I mean, everyone and their nan worked in that place. But there were just as many who seemed quite cheerful for them to go.

Could it still be the spectre of the towers looming that makes people uncomfortable, I don’t know. Or maybe I’m just naive and don’t realise that people just see an old. burnt, meaningless building that using us land that could be used for something else.

Like a luxury housing complex. Ugh.

And arson isn’t the only way people are stripping back these old, forgotten asylums. The copper wires, old piping systems etc were looted years ago, probably not too long after the hospital’s closure in 1995. But they’re always going back to find more.  Various little snags of history have been pilfered from the floor, filing cabinets, library, wards… though I can’t be angry about this much at all really, because at least they’re going to people who’ll preserve them. See – so idealist. The fire department also took their turn, using the fenced-in complex to train and repeatedly setting a skip or container on fire. But in order to do so, the mortuary was taken down.

I would love to see something done to preserve these buildings. They were built with palatial facades and are beautiful to look at. We know the history didn’t always reflect this but still.  I wouldn’t even mind following the lines of Colney Hatch and turning it into flats (if just a bit more affordable), if the original character of the building – the external masonry and the complex at least, could be preserved.

Then I read this on the Canmore website:

The remaining buildings of the former Hartwood Hospital site are an important remnant of the extensive late 19th century asylum hospital complex which was designed with fine Scots Baronial features and stonework including prominent paired clock towers and near symmetrical flanking wings. The surviving buildings act as striking architectural landmarks in the wider open landscape.

Let me tell you a bit about Hartwood asylum.

It opened in 1895, and took about 75,000 tons of building material to finish.Including the farm it eventually covered around 200,000 acres. It’s first Superintendent Dr Archibald Campbell Clark was an advocate of occupational therapy (especially out of the wards), non-restraint and open doors, and reportedly recognised the danger of the monotony which could so easily develop inside the asylum. He even contributed to Scotland’s first ‘Handbook for the Training of Mental Nurses’ in 1885. In it’s first two years, Hartwood had one of the best release rates in Scotland.

But. It also used patients as a means of generating income – it actively looked for private and out-district patients. If oral histories are to be believed, it had real problems with keeping patients away from the onsite lake. Patients who ran away, we brought back – like one 19 year-old boy who was scheduled to get ECT in the Summer on 1968.

It’s significant. It’s significant to the wider history of mental healthcare in Scotland and it’s significant to the stories the communities like to tell each other.

And I’m sure this is true for all the asylums falling into dereliction or already demolished.

I obviously don’t know the finances around any project that could possibly save buildings like Denbigh and Hartwood. We all know that pockets are being pulled a little tighter these days. I know charities have been interested in Hartwood. I know that private builders have been interested. I know that the NHS is most certainly not.

But I do hope something can be done for them. They;re an important part of our history – socially, professionally, and an important part of community identity and shared experience, I’ve found. Would be a shame if they were left to be burned down again.


Publishing for Historians

It was one of those workshops I’d signed up for weeks in advance, and then proceeded to forget about completely until a couple of days beforehand.

I did the obligatory wheedling – did I really want to go now? I only really want to see such and such a panel. Is it worth it…

Well, yes. Yes it was.

Once I got over my whingeing I’m really glad the Royal Historical Society and the Institute for Historical Research had decided to run this workshop.

You get introduced to publishing from day one of the PhD, but often beyond the ‘this is something you absolutely must do’, you hear little else about it.

Well this workshop broke all that down for you. I had no clue what was involved in producing my first monograph. Now I do, and really, that particular journey starts now. And publishing isn’t just about specialised niche journal articles and turning your doctoral thesis into a book, no no. The panellists all had different perspectives, different areas of expertise and this opened my eyes to a whole host of new ways to approach getting different pieces of work out there.

Those experienced with the REF and REF panels, un-demonised the whole thing when it came to doctoral candidates and early-career researchers and our often limited publication records. We had a publisher on hand who gave us their perspective and what they were looking for (which does not begin and end with your supervisors). Maybe it could be an idea to approach journal editors with an idea first, to see how they react? And what about deciding where to publish? Look at the editorial boards – do you recognise any names or faces?

I also discovered some of the ‘myths’ about publishing. In terms or the humanities, really impact-factors are a really poor way of testing the relevance and importance of your work. They’re more a measure for the sciences. Apparently someone else had heard that co-authoring was bad practice for historians. I know, it was news to me too, but the panellists were quick to shoot that one down. Speaking of bad practice – only send your article/book/conference proceedings etc to one publisher at a time. The time and effort it takes for publishers and their review boards to go through a piece of work demands this courtesy, at least.

And, something I don’t think postgraduates hear enough of to be honest, you have power in the relationship between publisher and researcher. You can decide whether you’re work is being reviewed or published in a reasonable time-frame. A reviewer’s comments aren’t gospel and get into that dialogue with them and come to some kind of agreement.

All in all this was a seriously informative day, full of stuff we postgraduates get introduced to, but that are never fully explained to us. I no longer balk when I see ‘REF’ scribbled or typed or stamped anywhere, and I feel far more relaxed as I step forward and continue to develop my publishing record.

The only issue I had – and in one way it’s a minor issue and in another way it’s not – was the almost-assumption that you would use a post-doc position to fund your first monograph. Like it’s that easy to get one. They did go on to clarify that publishers don’t look for you to be established within a university in order to get published, but realistically how else are you going to afford it – even in most cases with Open Access publications?

Post-doctoral positions: research associates, teaching associates etc, are not that common these days, and the competition for them is fierce. I love what I do. I have went above and beyond for what I do, well aware that academia is not a 9-5 leave your work at work type of job, especially in the early stages when you’re trying to gain a foothold. But even so, with my publishing, continuous professional development, my participation in public engagement events, my development of future projects to attract outside funding (which I can’t apply for until I’m finished the PhD) am finding it quite difficult to ensure a position come my (expected) submission date.

A minor blip in an otherwise helpful workshop, however. The University of Glasgow’s Simon Newman and all the panellists did a great job, and if you get the opportunity to go to this next year, I’d take it.


Beyond Epilepsy

What started as a pretty creative public engagement idea turned out to be a brilliant exhibition which launched yesterday at Glasgow’s CCA.

It’s running until the 19th and is free (!!) so go and see it.

Now. Stop reading and go now.

In a nutshell, the project brought together artists and historians to explore the history, representations and experiences of epilepsy in the past, present and future.

And boy did it.

For weeks we’d been hearing about the artists’ projects and we were getting really excited about seeing it all come together, but I don’t think any of us expected all the artwork and all the panels to complement each other so perfectly.


The past few days have been frantic. Getting last minute supplies for artists, tech, historians and the guests. There were people to calm down, rooms to clear, enormous foam board to collect, wine glasses to assemble (yes, assemble) and the biggest bucket in the world to fill with ice.

But, after a few days of harried running around and an unhealthy dose of stubborn determination on the parts of many (I’m looking at you Rachel Hewitt, Si Walker) the launch as a GO.

We got so much positive feedback from everyone who came along. There was something for everyone: animation, literature, interactive exhibits, conceptual art and sketches, paintings…

It was almost enough to make you forget the heat. Almost…

This may have been my favourite exhibit though.


Mirror writing! Everyone can have a go and its a great way to interact with the exhibit. My handwriting has never been so wobbly.

So if you’re in or around Glasgow, I highly recommend you take a look. You don’t need to be a bona fide historian or artist to really appreciate what’s been done with this exhibition. It’s a truly enjoyable space and well worth a look.