Friday, 29 March 2013

An Easter break

I'm going off-grid for a couple of weeks so forgive me if there's no posting till mid-April.

In the unlikely event that you are hungry for some of my thoughts in the meantime, I cannot but mention this YouTube video, released today.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Soft furnishings

Nothing to say about the Reformation today: my week has been consumed by nail-biting (and exciting) senior appointments processes. But in the meantime my wife Victoria has published a website for her newly launched small business. If you have had enough of Anabaptists and papal names, and would prefer a cushion or to get a dining chair recovered, look no further.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Anabaptists, witches and terrorists: who's next?

I keep thinking (it's not an original thought) that the Anabaptist kingdom of Münster and the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US have a lot in common. Both were immensely shocking, immensely newsworthy atrocities which permanently changed the worldviews and the policies of a lot of people in or close to positions of power when they happened. The Münster episode, for those who aren't familiar with it, was when this German city was taken over by an apocalyptic sect in 1534-5: they declared the end of the age, imposed polygamy and community of goods, killed or exiled their opponents. The city was beseiged and in the end they were all slaughtered. And 9/11 ... I take it we all remember that one.

The reason both episodes had such an impact was not because of the immediate damage they did. If the twin towers had collapsed in some sort of accident, that would have been awful, but it wouldn't have transformed Western politics for a decade. But in both cases, the political establishments thought they'd glimpsed the future. These were warnings of much worse atrocities to come, and so it was essential to strike against the ideology responsible, hard and relentlessly. Otherwise Anabaptists / Islamists were going to destroy civilisation.

Now maybe those counter-strikes were in fact decisive in neutering existential threats: we'll never know. But in retrospect both atrocities appear like ghastly one-offs, rather than the beginnings of some new paradigm. Of course violent Anabaptists and violent Islamists both continued to exist, but with the passage of time the one event no longer looks quite so world-shaking.

OK: so what? Here's where a book I much admire, and have been re-reading, comes in: Gary K. Waite's Eradicating the Devil’s Minions, published back in 2007. Waite's book tackles one of the big mysteries of early modern history, the great witch-hunt, in which 60,000 or more people, mostly women, were put to death for an imaginary crime. It's long seemed obvious that there must be some sort of connection between the witch-hunt and the Reformation - the two coincide pretty closely - but what? Catholics and Protestants killed witches with equal enthusiasm.

Waite's theory, which I find very persuasive, is that the Anabaptists are the link. Catholics and establishment Protestants alike hunted Anabaptists, and (literally) demonised them as a diabolical conspiracy. And once they'd driven them underground, the paranoias of demonic conspiracy which had been legitimised took on lives of their own and began to look for new targets. In fact, the more the Anabaptist threat was eliminated, the more fear it engendered. After all, the fact that it had disappeared only proved that it was hiding more effectively.

So my question is: now that the Islamist terrorist threat to western societies has, mercifully, been both contained, and exposed as much less serious than was originally thought, what new victims will we find to satisfy the fears which we have conjured up?

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Of course what's most interesting about the new Pope ...

... is his name.

Yes, I know all the stuff about being the first Jesuit, first from the Western hemisphere, first from the Southern hemisphere, all matters, but for all you ecclesiastical trivia-hunters out there, this is the best bit, isn't it?

Full disclosure: I was saying in a meeting on Monday that my personal wish for the new Pope was a new papal name, knowing that we haven't had a new papal name since the oddly Star Wars-ish Pope Lando, who was elected just a few months short of 1100 years ago. (Unless you count the composite John Paul.)

In other words, ever since the emergence of the papacy in something like its modern shape in the 11th century, Popes have always wanted to present themselves through their names as being part of a succession. So I thought I was as unlikely to be granted this wish as I am to be granted my wish one day to be a subject of King Henry IX. Hurrah!

But here's the thing. Pope Francis is being referred to across the media as Pope Francis the First. Uh? He won't be Francis I unless and until Francis II comes along. Queen Victoria, for example, isn't called Victoria I. Perhaps it is simply that we expect papal names to take the form 'Pope Someone the Somethingth' and without the second part it doesn't sound complete - as if the number has become a kind of surname.

Or perhaps the media know something we don't ... are there plots afoot, murder being planned, and Francis II is already waiting in the wings? Where's Dan Brown when you need him?

In the hope that that is not the case, and in a lonely act of defiance: I shall continue to refer to him simply as Pope Francis. Join my struggle.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Teaching: not simply the poor relation

My colleague David Gehring sends me this article, one of several things I've seen in recent weeks which remind me that American academia can sometimes take teaching, especially undergraduate teaching, a little more seriously than is the case in Britain. In this vein I've also enjoyed reading, with a group of postgrads and staff in Durham, Ken Bain's wonderful What the Best College Teachers Do, which is a good antidote for academics like me who tend lazily to think, yeah, I'm probably quite good at teaching. (That said, part of this American discourse valorising good teaching also seems to be to describe its polar opposite: I am glad to say I have never come across teachers as jaw-droppingly crass and awful as those who feature in Bain's horror stories.)

So at the risk of sounding pious: yes, this is good. Read the article.

But it also makes me question this widespread assumption that academics' work can be divided into neat boxes called 'research' and 'teaching'. 'Research-led' teaching is a mantra in Durham now, and quite rightly, on the grounds that research feeds teaching in a whole range of ways (this is supposed to mean teaching students to be researchers, not just teaching them about your research). But that is just the beginning. Equally there's teaching-led research: the idea at the heart of my very first journal article arose from teaching I did as a postgrad.

And more than that, isn't all research teaching anyway? Writing a monograph isn't all that different from writing a lecture: whether you're teaching students physically in front of you or those who are consulting your book, it comes to much the same thing. We only research in order to digest, interpret and share our findings. And the process of doing so is an essential part of clarifying our own thoughts.

So perhaps the trick is finding ways to teach research less didactically and more discursively, less lecture-wise and more seminar-wise. Or at least to recognise that when I deliver a lecture, it may be that the only person whom I am teaching really effectively is myself.