In this Special Feature, Professor David Stack, Head of Department, introduces our new members of staff
The future has never looked so bright for the study of the past at Reading. This autumn we welcome our largest intake of new students in many years, to a History Department that it is better staffed and more diverse and imaginative in its teaching than ever before. For the past eighteen months, with support from the University, we have been working on ways to improve the student experience of studying history at Reading. The result is a degree programme rich in student choice, which places research and employability at its heart, and is designed to help each student to develop to his or her full potential.
As a Department, we have always been committed to offering students a broad chronological span, from the medieval to the modern, and equally committed to teaching many different types of history, from ‘traditional’ political and economic history to social, cultural, and intellectual history. In recent years, we have added to our established expertise in British, European and North American history by recruiting African and Asian specialists. This process of expansion was accelerated this year by the recruitment of five new colleagues who each, in different ways, extend the international coverage and intellectual range of our curriculum.
Professor Kate Williams is our new Professor for Public Engagement with History. Kate’s appointment will allow our students to explore how history is packaged, commodified, and consumed – on TV, on radio, in print, and increasingly online – and Kate will lead our efforts to engage a wider public with the study of the past.
Dr Andy Willimott joins us a Lecturer in Modern Russian History, re-establishing Reading’s strength in this area at time when Putin’s nationalism, and the looming centenary of the October Revolution, is reviving interest in the Soviet era.
Dr Mara Oliva, who has already enjoyed one successful year in the Department, now joins us permanently as our new Lecturer in Modern American History. Mara’s expertise in the Cold War international relations of the US and China has lessons for today.
Dr Dina Rezk joins us as a Lecturer in Middle Eastern History, at a time when knowledge of this region has never seemed more relevant, and with an expertise in security and terrorism that is all too contemporary.
Dr Rohan Deb Roy joins us as a Lecturer in South Asian History, with an expertise that promises to make medical history an important strand in the Department’s future identity.
The blogs that follow will tell you more about the research and teaching interests of our new recruits. We hope you agree that each is an exciting new addition to the Department. We are delighted to welcome Kate, Andy, Mara, Dina and Rohan.
Dr Dina Rezk, Lecturer in History of the Middle East
I am really excited to be joining the History Department as lecturer in Middle Eastern History. I received my Ph.D from Cambridge University in 2013 and subsequently spent two years at the Politics Department in Warwick University in September as a Teaching Fellow in Intelligence and Security.
The validity of Western interpretations of Middle Eastern culture and politics lay at the heart of my doctoral research agenda. The project deployed a novel and interdisciplinary literary approach to recently declassified government documentation. We have for centuries deconstructed the ‘great texts’ of Western political thinking but what of the ‘little texts’ constituted to inform the policy-makers of great powers? How was the Middle East imagined and analysed by political elites? Do these documents substantiate popular notions of a ‘cultural divide’ between officialdom in the West and Middle East?
My AHRC funded doctorate examined how the Anglo-American ‘official mind’ conceptualized the Arab World by deconstructing diplomatic and intelligence assessments produced throughout two decades of crises. It traced the revolutions that swept across Iraq, Syria and Yemen, three devastating Arab-Israeli wars and moves towards an uneasy peace between Egypt and Israel in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The thesis revealed the centrality of cultural representations and ideas about the Arab ‘Other’ articulated by analysts. Moreover, contrasting Western assessments with Arabic sources provided a unique inter-cultural dialogue about the formative events, individuals and themes that have shaped the modern Middle East, from ‘Nasserism’ to political Islam. The thesis based- monograph, Western Intelligence and the Arab World: Analysing the Middle East will be published in 2016.
As a newly appointed Fellow for the Cambridge Security Initiative, more recently my research has focussed on the latest upheavals of the ‘Arab Spring’ across the Middle East. This has found a receptive audience in the policy world and I have been fortunate enough to be invited to brief the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Defence, NATO and the U.S. Department of Defense on my findings. My next project will look at the role of popular culture in Egypt’s post-Mubarak transition and how ideas of ‘Otherness’ have shaped the trajectory of Egypt’s ‘Arab Spring.’
I am so looking forward to sharing these interests and experiences with both fellow colleagues and students. I will be teaching a new first year option module on Edward Said and Orientalism exploring perhaps the single most important debate in Middle Eastern studies, as well as a third year module called ‘Post Colonial Egypt: From Arab Nationalism to the ‘Arab Spring’’ which provides an in-depth look at recent Egyptian history and politics up to the present day. Alongside these I will be co-teaching on the exciting and beautifully crafted ‘Journeys Through History’ core module that covers an extraordinary scope of political, social and cultural history. Researching and studying history in a diverse and engaging department like Reading will undoubtedly be an adventure that I am all too keen to begin!
Dr Andy Willimott, Russian & Soviet Union History Expert
I am joining the Department of History at Reading from the UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies, where I have spent the last three years teaching and researching as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow.
My teaching and research revolves around the social and cultural history of revolutionary Russia and the Soviet Union.
These themes are explored in my book, Living the Revolution (forthcoming with Oxford University Press), which has grown from my interest in how people understood and engaged in the changes taking place around them after the October Revolution. This book tells the story of Soviet youths who, inspired by the possibilities of socialism, acquisitioned city apartments and student dormitory rooms to form their own domestic ‘communes’. Here, these youths tried to live what they understood to be the ‘socialist lifestyle’, self-consciously putting Marxist and Bolshevik theories into practice. Many put all their money into a ‘common pot’ and agreed to share everything, even underwear. Some banned marriage, labeling it a ‘bourgeois habit’. And some took to knocking down walls, with a view to eradicating the idea of ‘private space’. Starting out as a small trend among members of the Communist Youth League, the commune initiative expanded during the 1920s, with an estimated 50,000 young activists experimenting with this form of living my 1929. By telling the story of the urban communes, this book reveals how grand revolutionary ideals, such as collectivism, equality, proletarian ethics, and comradeship, were experienced and understood on a human level. This enables us to better understand the messy realities of the early Soviet state, showing how ideological beliefs and revolutionary contingencies actually came into being at this time.
In addition to this monograph, I am currently completing an edited collection entitled Rethinking the Russian Revolution as Historical Divide (forthcoming with Routledge). This book is the product of a series of workshops held in the UK and the USA, the premise of which was to suggest that 1917 is the wrong departure point for a full analysis of the social and cultural particularities of the Soviet Union. Breaking away from the binary of ‘change and continuity’, however, we asked how the new and the old came together to make the Soviet experience across 1917. Among other things, this book will examine the social and cultural frameworks that helped determine Soviet perceptions of social duty, justice, and governance.
I will be incorporating much of my research into my teaching at Reading, where I will be offering specialized modules on the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union under Stalin—‘Making Revolution: Russia, 1905-1929’ and ‘Stalinism: The Struggle for a New Civilization, 1929-1941’. These modules will utilize documents direct from the Russian archives, including materials that I have uncovered in Moscow and St. Petersburg over the last few years.
In my free time, I can usually be found buying enough books to sink a small ship. I also enjoy football—I’m a Norwich City fan for my sins. And my favorite theatre is the Young Vic in London—I like the fact you can see up-and-coming or avant-garde productions with a pint of beer in hand.
Dr Kate Williams, Professor of Public Engagement with History
Kate Williams is our new Professor of Public Engagement with History and works with students to explore how history is commodified and consumed. In the documentary below (written and produced by Dr Jacqui Turner, Director of Outreach and Widening Participation), she discusses the reigns of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth. You can learn more about Professor Williams’ research, teaching and media work in the blog below.
I am delighted to be joining the University of Reading as Professor of Public Engagement with History. I have been working in public history since my first book was published in 2006, and I am fascinated by the question of how history is communicated across the world.
My DPhil from Oxford was in Eighteenth Century letters and I have since written books on Emma Hamilton, Queen Victoria, Elizabeth II and Empress Josephine, as well as three historical novels and part of a book on royal weddings.
I’m co-curating a new exhibition on Emma Hamilton at the National Maritime Museum in Autumn 2016 – and I’m thrilled to be co-editing the book that accompanies the exhibition. My research interests focus on the history of women, constitution and royalty, specialising in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.
I regularly contribute articles to the major newspapers and I frequently talk on television about royal affairs and historical events – discussing everything from the commemoration of great events, such as the recent VE Day celebrations on BBC One and last year’s marking of the outbreak of World War I on BBC Two, to modern political events such as the live coverage of the Scottish Referendum on BBC One.
I am the in-house historian and royal analyst at CNN and I also frequently appear on news shows across all channels, including Newsnight, Channel 4 News and the Today programme.
I was the social historian on BBC Two’s Restoration Home and I often pop up talking about history on documentaries and shows including The Great British Bake Off. I am a regular on panel and quiz shows such as BBC4’s The Quizeum, as well as the in-house historian on Frank Skinner’s Radio 4 show The Rest is History. I’ve also presented my own documentaries on history on Channel 4 and BBC Two. Before joining Reading, I taught at Royal Holloway for five years.
My film for the University of Reading Website is about Queen Elizabeth becoming the longest reigning UK monarch on 9 September 2015. Queen Victoria previously held the record– but now she has been surpassed. The two Queens reigned over a hundred years apart – but both saw Diamond Jubilees, and their country change almost beyond recognition. Victoria ended up ruling a quarter of the world’s population, but the final embers of Empire died in Elizabeth’s reign – and the Commonwealth has also contracted. Victoria proved a woman could rule – and that she certainly didn’t need a husband to be a ‘joint King’ with her – and she was brilliant at exploiting the potential of public occasions. It was thanks to Victoria that we have gigantic royal weddings – previously, they were quiet evening affairs – and her golden and diamond jubilees set the standard to be surpassed. Her clever use of her royal image to please the middle classes (simple gowns, no ermine) set the trend for those who succeeded her. But the great difference between Victoria and Elizabeth is that Victoria loved to meddle in affairs of state – but Elizabeth has stayed out of politics. Political neutrality – in an age when we all want to give our opinions – is hard to maintain and the Queen has done so with aplomb. It’s not an easy legacy for her successors to keep up…
I’m delighted to be a part of the history department in Reading. I’ll be teaching courses on public history for undergraduates and post-graduates, and also an undergraduate course on The History of Women: From the Fifteenth-Century Nun to the 1950s Housewife, as well as supervising dissertations and theses. I’ll be working on a Mooc on food history with Historic Royal Palaces and leading the engagement with public history in the department. I’m really excited to be working with all my wonderful new colleagues at Reading, and being part of the University. I hope that, together, we can engage people with our fascinating and varied history, and show how important an awareness of the past can be.