Category Archives: Current Projects

Conference season …

A4 - BAJS 2017 posterThis year, for me, the summer conference season kicks off right on my doorstep with the British Association for Jewish Studies 2017 gathering on the theme of Jews on the Move: Exploring the movement of Jews, objects, texts, and ideas in space and time. I have had the immense privilege and pleasure to serve this year as the BAJS president, and arrange the conference.

From the earliest accounts, travel and migration, movement across space and time have been a definitive feature of Jewish history. This is more than a historical fact, it is also a characteristic feature of the representation of Jewishness: Jews are associated with travel and migration, historically and in cultural production. In this history, no less crucial than the movement of people we see the movement of texts, objects, and ideas, which travel both physically and intellectually as generations in distant locations engage with them at different times and places. As you can see from the programme, this conference brings together a rich offering of papers, interpreting the conference theme in innovative ways, through various academic disciplines and time periods.

Much work has gone into the creation of this exciting line-up of panels and papers. First and foremost, this work has been that of each and every one who contributed a paper or panel proposal, and who is travelling from far and wide to present here, particularly our amazing keynote speakers. Those who have followed the organisation’s work over the past decades will have noticed a shift in the composition of the annual conferences. BAJS started out to showcase, promote, and bring together scholars at British institutions. When the BAJS conference was last held in Edinburgh in 1990, the then President, Peter Hayman, welcomed very much this kind of home crowd, promoting British scholarship in that sense. And, as you can see, the conference continues to do so, but now also attracts scholars from the European continent, and reaches academics further afield as well, from Israel and from Turkey, from right across Asia, from New Zealand and from the United States. This international outlook is not only a tribute to the strength of this comparatively small subject association, but also an encouraging acknowledgement and commitment to the place of British scholarship in the international community of scholars advancing the range of aspects of Jewish Studies, in terms of both research and teaching. As we will discuss in a number of forums during this conference, there are difficult times ahead for British scholars and we are delighted to see so much support for our work from outwith the British Isles.

The theme of this year’s conference draws not only on Jewish experiences across the ages, it also speaks to the location of this BAJS conference in Scotland, a country which has seen more Jewish emigration than immigration, and a country for whom immigrants are presently an important part of the nation-building project, of the public (re-)articulation of national self-understanding of pressing concern to many in Scotland today. The term ‘Scots by choice’, which is used by some Scottish political groupings, points to the desire to be inclusive, to welcome the stranger, and to invite immigrants to call Scotland their home. Jews became a noticeable group of immigrants most evidently from 1880-1914. However, its first Jewish community was founded two centuries ago, in 1817, here in Edinburgh. A couple of panels in this conference focus exclusively on Scotland, bringing together recent and ongoing research on Scottish Jewish history; another panel casts light on Jews in the British Isles, exploring the place of Jewish immigrants in wider British society. These panels are designed to contribute to a better understanding of an important part of Jewish and British history, and to draw attention to the place of this study in the development of Jewish Studies in the UK. At the same time, the year’s thematic focus on migration draws on the very evident place of the topic in current political affairs. During the AGM, we will also consider both the effects of Brexit on our own fields of study and likely future developments for collaboration between scholars based in Britain and elsewhere in the world, particularly on the European continent.

I very much look forward to the conference next week. Watch out for conference-related tweets at #BAJS2017 and follow the work of BAJS @JewishStudiesUK.

Switching gears …

With a wonderfully stimulating and busy April behind me – we travelled, visited family and friends, and I participated in two excellent conferences – May is the month of switching gears back to sustained writing (and some exam marking, but that comes later).

The first part of this week was spent tidying up lose ends, catching up on email, and attending a series of meetings. But today I had the happy experience of settling back into research mode and preparing to write by spending most of the day reading.

Transnational Traditions: New Perspectives on American Jewish History, edited by Ava Kahn and Adam Mendelsohn offers refreshing perspectives on migration in American Jewish history. Individual chapters present case studies of specific people and phenomena, but the overall drive of the beautifully crafted volume is a historiographical appetite to push beyond Jewish history within specific national contexts. Rather the aim is to discover more about the influence of and interaction between Jews migrating between different parts of Europe and America, and further West to the Australian Pacific coastal regions.

What intrigued me about this book, is the care the editors and contributors took to join eleven different chapters into a coherent whole by cross-referencing each others contributions and historiographical insights. This is what good scholarship and rewarding working together looks like, a mutually enriching endeavour just like good conference experiences and encounters.

And savouring the experiences of the past month and the intellectual delights of Transnational Traditions (which I have been invited to review), I return to my book draft on early twentieth century British-Jewish religious history. Oh happy month of May!

Vacancy: Research Associate: ‘Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces’, University of Glasgow

Reference Number 015271

Location: Gilmorehill Campus / Main Building
College / Service: COLLEGE OF ARTS
Job Family: Research And Teaching
Position: Type Full Time
Salary Range: £33,943 – £38,183


To join the AHRC research project Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces: Jewish Migration to Scotland, 1880-1950, in order to carry out archival research along with the PI (based at the University of Edinburgh) and the Co-I (based at the University of Glasgow). The RA will be based in Glasgow and play a key role in analysing, publicising, and presenting relevant materials on twentieth-century Scottish Jewish life and culture, both available at the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre (SJAC) and related repositories in the UK. The RA will contribute their own research, including conference papers, and articles, under the thematic umbrella framed by Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces.

For details, please see:

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.