Professor, Dr, Mrs, Miss?

My biology teacher in high school introduced herself to the class as ‘Frau Dr G.’ That was how she was to be addressed. She was by no means the only teacher in our school with a doctorate, but the only one who insisted that we use her title. If we missed out the ‘Dr’ she would simply not react and, after a few failed attempts to get her attention, she would correct us with ‘ich heiße Frau Dr G.’ We were bemused, but obliged, seeing it as one of the quirks of an older teacher. And yet, she taught us an important lesson.

Frau Dr G. made a point of teaching us gently and, as time went on and some of us still didn’t get it, not so gently, that to really see a person means to take care about how one addresses them. Failing to do so is at best thoughtlessness and at worst an intentional insult. And depending on context there is always something at stake when we do not call them by their proper name and title. Frau Dr G. chose to use her title in all contexts and asked that this be respected. Many of us reserve the title Dr or Professor for professional settings in which these qualifications matter. In either case, we all clarify on first meeting how we wish to be addressed.

Why, then, do academic women find themselves often in the position of being addressed by students and peers as Mrs or Miss? And why is it so hard for our students and peers to call us by our professional titles?  The stakes in using an inappropriate form of address are highest in the forum of public peer-to-peer interaction, and yet because lecturer-student contact is an important area of communication which is enacted on a daily basis we may see that as holding a particular significance too. Let’s consider these contexts separately, starting with lecturer-student interaction.

Undergraduates in the UK come to university from a school context in which male teachers are addressed as Sir and female teachers as Mrs or Miss (apparently Ms has not made a sufficient impact). Problematic as these conventions are, students may therefore assume that this form of address is quite proper in their new educational context. It is easy to set them right and, by and large, the form of address communicated to them on the first meeting will be respected. I now have a sign on my office door which reiterates the information I send to my students, stating how I would like to be addressed: Dr Holtschneider or Hannah. Undergraduate and graduate students make their choice and that’s that. Or is it?

American students steadfastly use Dr or Professor (depending on the ease of transition from the American convention of calling all instructors professor regardless of their position in the academy). As I get older, I find myself now at an age where I can easily be the same age as the parents of my first year students. They seem to find it easier to categorise me as Mrs, and perhaps this may simply seem to them to be an age-appropriate address. So getting across that this is not appropriate in a professional context is a repetitive task which is difficult to do elegantly: signing off an email with my title, stating that Mrs would apply to my mother rather than me, etc. Students from European countries appear to find it hardest to use my title, something they do not appear to find challenging with my male colleagues (this observation is admittedly based on anecdotal evidence). This is troubling as, in my experience, continental Europeans are a lot more conscientious in acknowledging status and rank in addressing a person. Hence, the inappropriate form of address is also an implicit put-down. Evidence gathered from my FB feed – which, unsurprisingly, includes many academic women – confirms my experience and offers suggestions as to how to deal with inappropriate forms of address in professional settings. We owe it to students, who, after all, are the next generation of scholars, to educate them well. Thus it is appropriate to introduce the correct form of address as necessary – and without embarrassing the student – not least because at undergraduate level, in my experience a least, choosing an inappropriate address for a female scholar is common for male and female students alike.

One’s peers are quite another matter. In daily contact in one’s own university most academic and professional staff will call each other by their first names, signalling familiarity and a shared work environment to which we all contribute. This works for most colleagues as long as interaction is based on mutual respect. But there are settings when this informal form of address is not appropriate. When I arrived in Edinburgh in 2005, first names were dropped in all formal meetings and we addressed each other formally as Dr and Professor. This has changed in recent years and we now appear to be comfortable with first names in these settings, only addressing guests, such as external examiners, with their full titles, but we continue to expect student representatives to use our titles and will address them as Mr or Ms.

Conferences are significant public settings for professional academic interaction. They are key contexts in which we exchange ideas and further our scholarly work, look for collaboration and critique, support and professional affirmation. This is significant as we often work in departments where our colleagues work in fields not directly related to our own. Conferences are therefore the places in which we (re-)connect with scholars whose work is intimately bound to our own and on whom we rely in our professional development. A conference is a place for intellectual and personal exchange, contest, support, and friendship. While at some level scholars working in the humanities  may perhaps be seen as professional loners and individualists – we must like our own company as our research demands long solitary stretches of time spent in silence in libraries and at our desks – we are also relying on the scholarly community for our professional (and often also personal) well-being. Conferences recharge our professional batteries, and good debates – face-to-face at a panel, in the discussion following, in conversations which spin off from these discussions, in email exchanges and Skype calls thereafter – are vital for developing our research. Conferences also initiate the next generation of academics into the scholarly community. PhD students give their first presentations, take their fledgeling steps into the wider field, and venture out into their own academic future. Most of us have made vital connections with senior scholars at conferences which influenced our scholarly development and our careers. This is to say that conferences are part of the life-blood of our existence as scholars, the meetings are precious. But it is equally normal for us to have made the experience of being personally put down by a senior male colleague, disrespected by a peer, and even talked down to by a research student, all on grounds which had nothing to do with the quality of the scholarship we presented and everything to do with how we were perceived as women. To this we also need to add the experience of sexual harassment by male colleagues which many of us have suffered. Where does that leave us with regard to the use of titles as a form of professional respect and recognition?

How we choose to address a female scholar in a public professional setting is a sure indication of how we perceive her presence in the academy. If our male peers even have to think about whether to include our title in contexts in which they would insist on this for other, male colleagues, even if they  brush this off as a sign of forgetfulness, it really is an indication of how little they value us and how alien they find our presence in the academy.

British Association for Jewish Studies Conference 2017

I am delighted to share that I am the new president of the British Association for Jewish Studies and will be hosting the association’s 2017 conference in Edinburgh. More information on the conference theme and organisational details as they become available can be found below:

BAJS Conference 2017

Jews on the Move: Exploring the movement of Jews, objects, texts, and ideas in space and time

10-12 July 2017, The University of Edinburgh

This conference is hosted by the British Association for Jewish Studies, in cooperation with the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh.

On becoming a ‘slow professor’


Frankly, too much time has elapsed since the last entry in this blog. Pulled into all directions by competing demands on my time and a resultant ‘poverty of time’, I could not help but think about the effects of the modern university on scholarship and teaching.

So, over the weekend I read the short book by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber The Slow Professor (insightfully reviewed by Emma Rees in the THES), advocating for changes to the working practices of scholars in Canadian universities. The university system in the UK is similar enough to that in Canada to transfer the analysis to Britain. Taking Stefan Collini’s What are Universities For? as a starting point, The Slow Professor offers a good few home truths about the current academy in this book, and it made for both challenging and affirming reading. Many times I found myself exclaiming in recognition of the analysis of the transformation of the scholarly profession in the past few decades.

The premise of the Slow Professor is simple: as universities have changed from institutions of learning, essential to the well-being of society, to corporations which sell ‘products’ (degrees) to ‘customers’ (students), they have come to abide by the market forces of late capitalism. Universities, politically frequently branded as ‘luxuries’, now need to prove their worth to society (the elusive ‘taxpayer’) by producing quality ‘outputs’, measured in publications and graduates (and their grades); knowledge is a commodity which can be marketed, sold and bought, and scholars are in service to the economic goals of the institution. The book examines effects of this ‘corporatisation’ of the university on lecturers and students, and advocates for a subtle gear-change in the behaviour of (tenured, Berg and Seeber are well aware of the privilege afforded to those of us who enjoy tenure) academic staff along the principles developed by the ‘slow’ (food) movement.

Applying the principles of the slow movement, Berg and Seeber draw on the ability of faculty to subvert aspects of the university system with values which transcend the short-term ‘productivity’ focus of the university as a corporation in which everything can be measured in monetary terms. The main purpose is to regain a sense of agency (both of faculty and students) in the face of the corporation, and to rediscover the pleasure of the processes of academic work. In small steps the book advocates for the possibility of overcoming, or at least continually challenging, the reality of the time-poor, overburdened lecturer scrambling madly to keep on top of an ever-expanding to-do list (and failing) by setting small, achievable, and valuable ways of engaging positively within the academy. Revolution would be too strong a word, but resistance captures well the attempt to challenge the current academic climate of economic competition which endangers education by curtailing creativity, insight, collegiality, and pedagogy.

Refocusing our pedagogic practice on classroom interaction between real people who read, think, and grow in engagement with complicated texts (in the widest sense) and contexts, encourages taking the whole life of class participants into the learning context and promotes a refocusing on the process of thinking and learning together, rather than merely concentrating on the ‘output’, that is the achievement of learning outcomes as reflected in grades.

Similarly, by us insisting on taking the time research needs to mature, by us purposefully seeking out and making time for engagement with our colleagues, by prioritising our intellectual and creative work, we can set a signal in our workplaces which re-humanises and re-directs our energies towards the creation of an environment conducive to exploration, scholarship, and intellectual creativity.

This may read like small beer, but cumulatively, in daily practice and with keeping an eye out for the vision of a university as a place of learning and discovery essential to the well-being of society (and far from a luxury which can be sacrificed to the ‘god of the corporate economy’), the ‘slow professor movement’ may be able to do for the academy what the slow food movement has done for local communities.

Along the way and with purpose, we may also be able to set a sign that the goals promoted by the ‘equality & diversity agenda’ will hardly be achieved in the corporate university. They require an environment which takes seriously the whole person in their creative work, rather than value them only by ‘outputs’ generated in a specific amount of time. Implicitly, if not explicitly, the market-driven model of education and research works against the goals of e&d, promoting a traditionally male approach to ‘productivity’ which devalues the contributions of those do not (for many good reasons) devote 24/7 all year round to the service of the never-ceasing appetite of the corporation. No workload allocation model which seeks to capture all our activities, allocate a specific time for each, and cost it all up, is going to satisfy the appetite of the corporation. Indeed, it would be impossible to do so as our work as scholars, by its very definition, will never be done. Rather, we need to turn to ask what constitutes scholarship and create the conditions in which the fascinating, all-consuming, and time-consuming (in the most positive sense) activity can thrive and leave us stimulated, satisfied, and creative, communicating with colleagues and students, and thus contributing to our mutual growth as people and as scholars.

With that in mind, I turn back to my research files and the pleasure of discovery these afford, relishing the time this takes, and losing myself in their content. And I look forward to picking up my children from their place of play and learning to hear about their day.

Conference-season and the new academic year

Last week I was privileged to participate in the Parkes Jubilee Conference at the University of Southampton. Privileged, because it was a gathering of speakers of exceptional quality, and because I was able to engage with the entire event, luxuriating in three days away from all other commitments, a rarity as any academic with family responsibilities will know.

The conference offered a wealth of papers focusing on Jewish/non-Jewish relations from antiquity to the present. With three parallel panels participants were spoiled for choice, and inevitably one had to miss interesting sessions and papers. Organised over three full days, the conference was punctuated by six keynote lectures which offered focus points bringing all participants together in plenaries. While networking and time to catch up with friends and colleagues was formally confined to short breaks and mealtimes, this did not feel problematic. Everyone skipped one or two sessions to concentrate on other important work, possible only when scholars gather from various corners of the world.

There is much to learn from this conference. An important take-away for me were the keynotes. These were, on the whole, of exceptional quality; on the one hand because all speakers were very well prepared, taking the opportunity to address an interdisciplinary and very diverse scholarly audience by offering the right mixture of specialist and more general reach of their papers. Above all, all keynotes were inspiring simply for the sheer enthusiasm well-established scholars and those in the latter parts of their paid careers communicated for their research areas. The joy these seasoned speakers projected, their enthusiasm and boundless fascination with their research was in and of itself energising.

Energy is needed to organise and attend conferences, but for me and I am sure for others as well, conferences are also ‘refuelling stations’ for my own work. When working in departments where one’s own research area is represented only by oneself as many of us are, conferences offer a rich ground for face-to-face conversation with scholars in the same and adjacent areas, thus re-establishing, for me at least, a tangible research community which is lacking in my daily life as an academic.

The Parkes Jubilee also offered the exciting opportunity to connect with scholars across historical periods and disciplinary boundaries and see connections between topics and approaches emerge. I found rich ground for my book project on Jews and Judaism in the work of other participants and am already looking forward to asking my newfound and long-standing contacts for advice on my writing. Additionally, I was delighted to see a range of papers engaging with British-Jewish history and I am grateful for the vibrant academic community in this area for my project on Jewish migration to Scotland.

As the new semester starts, I am grateful to the organisers of and participants in the Parkes Jubilee Conference for a rewarding and energising conference experience which carries forward into the enjoyable and difficult challenges of researching and teaching this academic year.

Conference season

This week I had the privilege of participating in the British Association for Holocaust Studies (BAHS) 2nd conference hosted by this year’s president Isabel Wollaston at the University of Birmingham. There is some dispute whether to count the ‘founding conference’ of the organisation in Southampton in 2013 as the first, rather than last year’s official ‘first’ conference in Edinburgh. This probably just goes to show that new organisations need a narrative mystifying their origins in some way already at the very beginning of their history. The theme of this year’s conference was Another Time, Another Place? Challenges in Commemorating, Teaching and Researching the Holocaust 70 Years On. Setting the tone for a range of good quality papers was the first keynote lecture by the remarkable Caroline Sturdy Colls from the University of Staffordshire. In ‘What Lies Beneath? Forensic archaeological approaches to Treblinka’, she spoke about her groundbreaking research on Treblinka and the fascinating insights into the history of the death camp generated by an interdisciplinary approach which served both to generate and interpret the archaeological findings. The second keynote of the day was given by Rochelle Saidel, a pioneering researcher on women and the Holocaust and founder of Remember the Women. Her lecture ‘Giving women their place in Holocaust history’ was a retrospective on Saidel’s work, offering a valuable insight into the history of research on women and the Holocaust in the English-speaking world. Both keynotes tallied well with papers in other conference sessions, particularly that of Gilly Carr on her research in the Channel Islands (‘Breaking the last taboo? Addressing the Holocaust in the Channel Islands’); and Caroline Sharples’ exploration of the politics surrounding the burial and remembrance of perpetrators in the German town of Hameln (‘What do you do with a dead Nazi? Commemorating Holocaust perpetrators and victims since 1945′). Similarly, Zoë Waxman’s paper on the historical and conceptual framing of research on sexual violence during the Holocaust, placed rape and other violence directed specifically at women in the context of research on genocides in which such actions were used as a form of assault explicitly linked to the genocidal aim, such as in Rwanda and Bosnia (‘An exceptional genocide? Sexual violence in the Holocaust’). And Karen Skinazi’s research on Satmar constructions of post-Holocaust group identity through reproduction connected with another perspective on the female body (‘“… That their seed would not die out”: I am Forbidden and Unorthodox, stories of Satmar women’s biological imperative in the aftermath of the Holocaust’). Sadly, it was neither possible to listen to all papers, nor is it practical to summarise here all the excellent contributions I was able to hear. Thus a link to the conference programme must suffice. Other highlights, for me, were the enthusiasm of postgraduate participants in the conference for developing a new postgraduate research network in Holocaust Studies; and the successful (and probably unique) integration of scholarship with education research and practice pioneered at BAHS conferences. The energy postgraduate students exhibit, and the collaboration between researchers and educators is promising for the future development of the BAHS. Next year’s BAHS conference will take place in Sheffield with Sue Vice as president.

Birmingham holds many memories for me, having studied for my PhD here in the 1990s. It was a treat to meet up with old friends whose careers had taken them to various destinations in the Midlands, and see the transformations of the city centre and the university campus. Birmingham’s city planners are bold and not afraid of radical changes to the city’s layout, as demonstrated by the new Bullring and Birmingham New Street Station which are daring, impressive and imposing pieces of urban architecture. Campus felt surprisingly timeless and simultaneously transformed, sporting a number of new and renovated buildings, as well as artworks amidst the charms of unrevised 1960s architecture. I look forward to another trip combining intellectual nourishment with visiting friends and seeing the city , most likely next summer when the British Association for Jewish Studies will hold its annual conference at the University of Birmingham with Charlotte Hempel as president.

New developments in Jewish Studies

With the summer (or what is pretending to be summer in Scotland this year) in full swing, I am picking up several threads following a lovely holiday in the Mediterranean. I am delighted to announce two new appointments in Jewish Studies, here at the University of Edinburgh.

First off, Dr Kenneth Collins is the second Edgar Astaire Fellow in Jewish StudiesKenneth Collins MBChB FRCGP MPhil PhD was a GP in Glasgow for over thirty years, He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for the History of Medicine and is currently Visiting Professor at the Department of Medical History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His work in Jerusalem concerns mostly mediaeval Jewish physicians, such as Moses Maimonides and Isaac Israeli and he is associate editor of Korot: Israel Journal for the History of Medicine and is an Academic Consultant for the renewed Medical History Museum at the Hebrew University Medical Library. He has been the Editor of Vesalius: Journal of the International Society for the History of Medicine since 2008. He has been researching aspects of the history of refugee practitioners from Nazi Germany in Scotland for thirty years and has recently joined a group of international scholars researching Medicine and the Holocaust with meetings in Berlin, Germany  (October 2014) and Akko, Israel (May 2015). He was a founding Chairman of the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre in 1987 and remains its Chair. He has published extensively on many different areas of Jewish history in Scotland, with books including Second City Jewry, Be Well, Go and Learn, Scotland’s Jews and Jewish Glasgow. During his Edgar Astaire Fellowship, Kenneth will engage in research on Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe. He writes: 

Several hundred refugees from Central Europe were in Scotland in the 1930s seeking to requalify to practice medicine in Britain. The practitioners in psychiatry and psychoanalysis were particularly well represented especially after the Anschluss when many refugees from Vienna entered Scottish medicine, especially in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dumfries. Additionally, with the establishment of a Polish School of Medicine within Edinburgh University in 1941 some Polish Jews formed part of the student body and the School’s faculty. I have made a detailed study of the contribution of the medical refugees in Glasgow to the development of mental health services in the West of Scotland and this study seeks to examine the Jewish refugee presence in Edinburgh and its contribution to medicine, and especially psychiatric medicine in the city.

We look forward to hearing more about his work, in particular, the public lecture he will contribute next academic year.

Secondly, it gives me great pleasure to welcome (back) Dr Nina Fischer. Nina was the first Edgar Astaire Fellow in Jewish Studies, researching on Muriel Spark. In September 2015, she will return to Edinburgh for a three year appointment as Teaching Fellow in Religious Studies, replacing much of my own teaching in New College while I am occupied with the major research project Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces: Jewish Migration to Scotland, 1880-1950. Nina’s expertise in cultural and literary studies will benefit our students and expand the course offerings with honours level teaching on Israeli history and culture and pioneer the teaching of Modern Hebrew at the University of Edinburgh. We are delighted with Nina’s appointment and look forward to fruitful collaboration.