While it is true that English is less heavily gendered than, say, Romance languages, I believe that some nouns aren’t as gender-neutral as people like to believe.
In fact, is there even such a thing as gender neutrality? In this article, hosted by the Coffee & Cocktails Podcast, I explain why I think we can’t always rely on gender-neutral terms, and why I don’t believe holding space for all possibilities necessarily makes everyone happy.
Although we are by now well into the twenty-first century, when it comes to gender diversity we often seem to be lingering in the past. Multiple attempts to oppose an Italian lawagainst homophobia and transphobia are only the most recent expressions of this reluctance to acknowledge nonbinary gender identities.
Generally, descriptors that refer to personal attributes such as race, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age, for example, tend to over-emphasize the distinguishing attribute. We recommend avoiding the use of such descriptors unless they are relevant and valid.
Although proofreading is my main activity, I am occasionally asked to do Italian to English translations. Exactly one year ago, I was approached by the editor of one of Italy’s main history journals, Italia Contemporanea, with a request to translate 10 recently published articles for a completely new, English-language ‘Yearbook’.
The publication of the Yearbook vaguely coincides with the 70th anniversary of the institute that had launched the journal in 1949, the ‘Istituto nazionale per la storia del Movimento di Liberazione in Italia’ (National Institute for the history of the Liberation Movement in Italy). But the reason behind the decision to launch an English-language ‘Yearbook’ was another: whereas many libraries across Europe are subscribed to Italia contemporanea, historians who aren’t Italian native speakers don’t necessarily read Italian. It was therefore time to offer a new series of publications aimed specifically at an English-language audience.
To be fair, Italian scholars also tend to struggle with research published in other languages. I recall having to persuade an Italian contributor to a special issue (for a British journal) that I co-edited some years ago to at least mention a few relevant English-language publications, as the journal’s editor-in-chief had suggested. This absence was mainly due to the fact that the author didn’t read any English at all.
This is why I think both English-language and Italian-language journals should start offering selected translations, making them available in open access. Only thus, research outputs that would otherwise remain restricted to a specific audience will truly become available to a global readership. For now, Italia contemporanea has taken a first step in this direction, and I am extremely proud to have contributed to this endeavour – by no means an easy one, given the broad range of topics and the varying writing styles I was faced with.
I also strongly recommend anyone interested in Italian contemporary history to have a look at the Yearbook. It offers a very broad and versatile range of articles, from women’s political participation after WWI in the bordering cities of Fiume and Sušak to a gender-focused analysis of welfare history in Italy; from museum representations of the colonial past to the Italian ‘communist question’ in American foreign politics; from recent Italian historiography on 1968 to the relationship between deindustrialisation and industrial heritage in Italy.
And my favourite: the primary role (and struggles) of women translators in the translation industry between the two world wars. It’s amazing to see how certain things (like keeping translators on a financial leash) haven’t changed…
You can access the TOC and download the Yearbook at this link
It’s been a little over a year since the Covid-19 pandemic made its entrance on European soil. First stop: Italy. I still remember the day the first Italian victim was announced, one Friday in late February. I had just picked up my C2 English Proficiency certificate that morning, and as I started preparing my lunch I turned on the news, which was all about Covid.
Various lockdowns and millions of face masks on, it now seems like the worst is over. Perhaps we are soon to be “reborn with a flower”, as the Italian anti-Covid vaccination programme is called. But the consequences, I fear, will be felt for many years. Not just lives have been lost: jobs, businesses, (movie) theatres, archives, trade shows, festivals, street markets…everything has been affected. Our habits have changed, too, though hopefully not for good.
Although academia was hit as hard as other sectors, especially in the Humanities, as a proofreader/translator I haven’t suffered the consequences too much. On the contrary, several returning clients and word of mouth have kept me busy for most of the past 15 months. In fact, this must have been the busiest year of my post-academic career so far!
This has also meant not being able to write new blog posts. But, now that I’ve had a chance to take a (much needed) rest, I plan to make up for this absence, starting with a new post coming up soon, on gendered language in academic writing: is gender neutrality really the key?
In the meantime, if you’ve missed any of my older posts, please check out the archive below.
[Please note this offer has, in the meantime, expired]
19% proofreading discount on academic texts (Humanities and Social Sciences)
As a former academic and published author, I particularly empathize with higher education staff and students in these difficult times. Job interviews cancelled, fixed-term contracts not being renewed, archives closed…It’s a proper mess!
But the pressure to publish remains.
If you need a reliable and flexible proofreader, I am offering a 19% discount on proofreading jobs – in the fields of Humanities and Social Sciences only.
New round of posts about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research, and dissemination. Episode 4: teaching.
Covid-19. A curse, or an opportunity to change the endemic casualisation of higher education?
It’s no secret that the UK’s higher education system heavily depends on temporary staff. I’m sure you’ve all had to plough through job offers to find anything that wasn’t a ‘part-time’, ‘fixed-term’, or ‘zero hours’ contract.
A survey conducted by the University and College Union (UCU) in early 2019 estimated that “around 70% of the 49,000 researchers in the [higher education] sector remain on fixed-term contracts”, whereas 37,000 teaching staff was found to be on fixed-term, hourly paid contracts (p. 3).
And these are only the official numbers: a further 71,000 – again, mostly hourly paid – teachers are apparently employed as ‘atypical academics’ but without being counted in the main staff record. UCU also estimated that “most universities rely on hourly paid staff to deliver around 25% of their undergraduate teaching” (p. 8).
What is perhaps most disconcerting is that this situation involves some of the most prestigious universities in the country: “In 2016/17 there were 71,960 atypical academics employed in UK universities, 50% of whom were employed in the ‘elite’ Russell Group of universities” (p. 7).
Needless to add that these atypical academics included many PhD students. In fact, there’s a real hunt for casual workforce in higher education, and PhD students seem to be the easiest prey, eager as they are to gain teaching experience and, hey, who knows, maybe even get a foot in the door. Money is also an issue, especially for unfunded students.
As much as I support the idea of offering students the opportunity to gain teaching experience during their PhD, most of the time it only reflects a department’s need to resolve structural problems. This is hardly good for its stability and continuity, and potentially damaging for the PhD students, who will likely find themselves struggling to complete their PhD within the set timeframe.
Universities also don’t always give PhD students proper training before they enter the classroom, which can impact on the quality of teaching, and potentially on the students’ self-esteem.
Last but not least, allowing only some PhD students within a department to teach can create hierarchies between students, with some having access to an office while others are forced to roam computer rooms and libraries in search for a study space.
This can be highly exclusionary. I didn’t teach during my PhD, and had no access to office space or staff printing services. When I once had to ask a fellow PhD student and teaching assistant for the printer/copier code (to assist a conference attendant), she snobbishly walked off to make the photocopies herself. The thought that she was worried I might make improper use of her code deeply saddened me.
Early career researchers are another easy target. I had to teach up to 5 hours per week as part of a 3-year postdoctoral fellowship. I won’t say I was exploited, but I did spend a hell lot more than 5 hours on my teaching: course design and preparation, exam supervision, oral examinations, marking, honours supervision, feedback forms – it was a lot more than I had bargained for! By way of expressing gratitude, the department eventually forgot to mention me in a list of recently departed staff, in a School Newsletter published shortly after my fellowship ended. As if I’d never been there.
If this is the status quo, then just imagine the situation now, with the Coronavirus raging across the globe. What has been a long-term problem is now exploding in everyone’s face. Permanent staff is forced to shift to online teaching or being furloughed, something that isn’t guaranteed though for casual workers on short-term or zero hours contracts.
The universities of Bristol, Newcastle and Sussex set a sad record in this perspective, as they made staff on fixed-term contracts redundant, or simply did not renew their employment.
The crisis is also affecting young researchers, with funding schemes or job vacancies being cancelled “due to Covid 19”, for example. Fortunately not all funding bodies resort to these extreme measures: the British Academy has just published its call for BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grants 2020-21, extending the latest project start date in order to provide flexibility in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
It is difficult to predict how this will all work out. Some universities seem to be taking on a more responsible attitude, and the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has just announced that funded doctoral students who have been impacted by Covid-19 will receive an extension to their research with additional grants, to complete their studies by 31 March 2021. There are also various petitions calling for more sustained support of casual workers (here’s one from the @CoronaContract).
Obviously the emergency situation requires immediate action, which may not have a long-term impact. Still, if the academic community manages to keep the pressure on government and institutions way beyond the crisis, perhaps Covid-19 could have some positive outcomes as well.
In the meantime…maybe it would be an idea to set up a platform (a blog, a webpage) where people can post their experiences of cancelled job interviews, funding schemes, and so on. It might give a clearer indication of the vastness of the problem, and perhaps offer a starting point for a nationwide campaign against the endemic casualisation of higher education in the long run.
[Please note this offer has, in the meantime, expired]
Being a former winner and special issue guest editor of Modern Italy (the journal of ASMI, the Association for the Study of Modern Italy), I can help bring your submission into excellent shape for the ASMI 2020 Postgraduate Essay Prize.
Proofreading includes corrections of grammar, syntax and punctuation (following the journal’s style guidelines), content check and, if necessary, rewriting of author voice and style (at an extra cost).
10% discount on proofreading – 15% discount on translation
For inquiries contact me via the module below.
About the competition:
Every year, the ASMI Postgraduate Essay Prize is awarded to an outstanding piece of unpublished work by a postgraduate student, dealing with modern Italian history, society or politics from c. 1780 to the present.
Articles should not exceed 8,500 words (incl. notes and references).
New round of posts about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research, and dissemination. Episode 3: dissemination.
Tackling the peer review system
A few years ago, the renowned scholar Mieke Bal made a provocative call to abolish the peer review system. Don’t hold your breath: it’s not likely to happen. As pressure to produce 4* publications increases, the peer review system will continue to be adopted widely.
This is why it is essential that you take the time to prepare yourself, and your manuscript, for publication, regardless of the fact that the peer review system is problematic, or perhaps precisely because it is!
In this blog post I want to offer a short, practical guide on submitting articles to peer-reviewed journals, based on both my experience as a published author and as a journal editor.
Lesson 1: Know your reviewer
Nowadays most academic journals draw on the expertise of peer reviewers in their selection of manuscripts deemed worthy of publication. They will assess the quality of your article, as well as its suitability for publication in the selected journal. Their feedback will eventually form the basis of the editor’s decision.
So how to get off to a good start?
Get some background information about the journal, especially its editorial board: peer reviewers are often selected from there.
Always check that you’ve correctly referenced other scholars’ works before you hit the ‘send’ button; they might end up reviewing your article, and people won’t appreciate seeing their name misspelt or their works cited wrongly (I once reviewed a paper where the author incorrectly referenced my work, from which I gathered they had probably never read it – I was not happy).
Some journals let you suggest peer reviewers. Given the difficulty to find reviewers nowadays, journal editors will appreciate you providing them with a list of potential. DON’T name colleagues or supervisors, though, as this may compromise your anonymity (in case of double-blind peer review procedure, i.e., author and reviewer identity remains hidden throughout the peer review process).
Lesson 2: Patience is the magic word
The peer review can take a really long time, so don’t expect quick answers or decisions. Here are a few factors that determine the length of the process:
Peer reviewers are generally unpaid, and the number of people willing to cut out time and energy to review a paper has – understandingly – diminished over the years. So it may take some time for a journal simply to find a sufficient number of reviewers.
When the reports contradict each other (for example, you get an “accept” and a “reject” recommendation), editors will have to find a third or even fourth reviewer in order to get a clearer picture. This will obviously prolong the process.
Your article may also go through multiple review “rounds”. In fact, it is not uncommon for journals to send a revised paper back to one or more – original or new – reviewers, who will check to see if and how you’ve addressed their feedback.
If the process is delayed for any of these reasons, there’s not much you can do, except one thing: when resubmitting a manuscript, always provide a detailed list of changes you’ve made. This will save both editors and peer reviewers time when reassessing the quality of your manuscript in further rounds.
It’s also fine to contact the editor to ask for an update, but please don’t harass them!
Lesson 3: Dealing with negative criticism
Peer review reports can be painful and even devastating, and Professor Bal is right to point out the problem of “grudge-bearing scholars” destroying articles just to get back at someone, although I wonder how common this really is.
In my experience reports are generally quite helpful, also because most journals will gather multiple reports, so even if you get one very short piece of feedback, the other reviewers will usually make up for this lack.
Still, if you get negative criticism, don’t take it to heart. Put aside your pride and try to learn from it. This doesn’t mean that you have to accept anything the reviewer says; if you can motivate your choices or defend your position, you don’t necessarily have to apply the suggested changes.
Do, however, carefully read and reflect upon the comments, and most of all, never dismiss the reviewer’s opinion. It won’t get you anywhere and you will not make a good impression on the journal editors.
Last but not least: show gratitude, even if you’re boiling with rage! Peer reviewers take out valuable time to read your work, usually with tight deadlines, and most of the time they will help you improve it, so acknowledge that.
For more advice, tips and encouragement, check out these online resources:
New round of posts about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research, and dissemination. Episode 2: research.
Breaking out of the cocoon that is called a PhD
The topic of mental health in higher education is usually debated in relation to the rising number of mental healthincidents among students, or the growing stress levels experienced by staff.
The Guardian, for example, recently revealed how “British universities are experiencing a surge in student anxiety, mental breakdowns and depression”. The topic gained media attention after a series of suicides affected one university in particular, between 2016 and 2018, although it appears to be a more widespread phenomenon.
Similarly, workloads have become unmanageable for many academics, having to juggle their time between teaching, marking, course development, board meetings, examining theses, producing 4* publications, grant income, and so on. In fact, staff increasingly falls back on counselling and occupational health in universities, as a recent HEPI report by Dr Liz Morrish, entitled Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff, has shown.
Who tends to be overseen in this context is the PhD student. Embarking on a PhD project is exciting: you’re at the start of a – hopefully great – career, maybe you’ve won a PhD studentship, or your university is highly ranked. BUT, it can also be really daunting: you need to produce something good now, become an expert in your field, and you have to do it all by yourself.
In sum, doing a PhD can be empowering, but it can also shred your self-confidence. Competing fellow students. Insensitive dinosaur-professors slagging you off at conferences. Pressure being put on you to finish your thesis on time. Feeling cut out when you can’t join your peers because you’re having to work on the side.
Sure, you have a supervisor, but they won’t be holding your hands, or chasing you up. You have to learn how to manage your time, develop research skills, and write academically.
Now it’s OK to make mistakes. Like I replied to one of my proofreading clients, when she apologised for her “crappy” writing: it’s a PhD student’s prerogative to write in a crappy way. For the record, she got the highest score in quality of written English, and she didn’t only have my proofreading skills to thank for it.
Nevertheless, a PhD puts a lot of pressure on people. It can be daunting.
Doing research – be it in a public archive or at home – and writing a thesis is generally a solitary routine, which can be thoroughly demotivating, especially if you don’t have an office to go to.
I used to migrate between home, library, and computer rooms (regularly leaving behind my pen drive), and I remember how it made me feel lost. I was the only new PhD student in my year, and those who had started their PhDs in previous years were all teaching, or doing it part time. I hardly ever saw them, and we never organised anything as a group.
This is another issue: PhD isolation also prevents you from confronting your research with other people, and as a result, it’s harder to grow as a scholar. Talking about your project, what it’s about and why it’s so interesting, can help you clarify your ideas, maybe even open your eyes to things taken for granted, or that skipped your attention.
So if you risk being isolated during your PhD, here’s five practical tips on how to break out of that cocoon:
Groups. See if there’s a postgraduate community in your department or school, and if there isn’t, why not start one? It can be as simple as having lunch together or a coffee break in the common room. And if you’re a “PhD orphan”, have a look outside your department as well.
Seminars. Your department or school is bound to be running postgraduate seminars, which are nice and informal. Also try to attend some postgraduate conferences in your discipline (some of which award travel grants for unfunded students). Avoid major conferences, though, at least in the first two years of your PhD, unless you have a smashing conference paper that you know will make you a superstar overnight.
Training. Most universities offer a postgraduate training programme, which are free to attend, and usually come with coffee and biscuits. Great way to meet new people and also take a break from your research/writing routine.
Study areas. Another good way to break out of your cocoon is to do your research in a space where you’re bound to meet your peers. This is particularly relevant if you work from home, where it’s easy to get demotivated or distracted. Instead, identify a public space where you work well but can also talk to people. It gives your day structure, and it will get you out of your pyjama!
Social media, I didn’t start using Twitter until fairly recently, but I see a lot of PhD students and ECRs talking to each other there, sharing feelings of anxiety and frustration, but also supporting each other (for example at #PhDchat). I guess it’s not as nice as chatting with people over tea and biscuits, but it’s a fair alternative. And it’s always good to get a rant out of your system.
Now all this might not be your thing. Maybe you’re perfectly happy working from home, and your weekly yoga class is all you need to satisfy your socialising needs. Maybe your PhD community includes someone like Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory, and you rather have a quiet lunch on a bench outside, taking advantage of a beautiful autumn day.
That’s fine. As long as you develop a routine that you’re comfortable with.
New round of posts about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research, and dissemination. Episode 1: writing.
Commas save lives
I recently discovered that 24 September is National Punctuation Day. Well, in the States it is. Yes, people actually celebrate punctuation! A certain Jeff Rubin launched it, and even designed a website, which is all about punctuation: rules, gadgets, games.
I guess fetishes come in all shapes and sizes.
Right, I’m taking the mickey out of poor Jeff. Actually, punctuation is quite important. If you look up #PunctuationDay on Twitter, you get a string of Tweets featuring tons of examples of punctuation gone wrong.
The most popular seem to be in the line of “Let’s eat grandpa” or “Let’s eat grandma”. Not sure why grandparents are such popular objects in these examples, but it does prove a point: commas save lives.
In my job as a proofreader, some of the errors I most regularly encounter regard punctuation. In this blog post I want to have a closer look at commas. As easy as they may seem, they are the most common sources of punctuation errors.
So here are my top 3 tips on how to use commas correctly:
Commas are mainly used when two independent clauses are joined by words such as “and”, “or”, and “but”:
I did the exam, and I went down to the pub.
Only leave out the comma when the subject is omitted before the second verb (“went”):
I did the exam and went down to the pub.
What’s important to remember is that commas can’t join clauses by themselves, as in this sentence: I did the exam, I went down to the pub. Here it’s best to just use a conjunction word (“and”). In other cases you might need to do more, like splitting the sentence up using a period or a semicolon.
Commas are also used a lot to separate words, in a series of three or more items:
I had wine, cheese, and crackers.
Note that I’ve added a comma before “and”. This is called an Oxford (or serial) comma, and it’s used a lot in the US – less in Britain. It serves to avoid ambiguity, especially if the list already contains conjunction words. For example, in this sentence “and” is used twice: I had wine, cheese and crackers and strawberries.
As a result, it’s not clear whether cheese, crackers, and strawberries represented one dish, or were eaten separately. You wouldn’t eat a cracker with cheese and a strawberry on top, would you? If we add a comma after “crackers”, though, the situation is clearer:
I had wine, cheese and crackers, and strawberries.
Awe, brings back so many good memories of conference drinks…
A third error I often come across is when a nonessential clause is NOT set off from the main sentence. A nonessential clause contains information that you can leave out of the sentence without changing its overall meaning:
Libraries, which are full of dusty bookshelves, aren’t my cup of tea.
If we were to remove “which are full of dusty bookshelves”, the meaning of the sentence as a whole – namely that you don’t like libraries – doesn’t change. It’s not essential information, so you would use a comma to set it off from the rest of the sentence.
Things change when you’re dealing with an essential clause, also called a restrictive clause (because it restricts the noun):
I don’t like libraries that look like coffee lounges.
The restrictive clause “that look like coffee lounges” says you don’t like a certain type of library, not that you don’t like all libraries. You do, just not this kind of library! In other words, the restrictive cause gives relevant information, and without it the meaning of the overall sentence changes. It’s integral to the sentence, so it can’t be set off by commas.
So you see, commas should never be underestimated, and must be used wisely and responsibly. Not just for the sake of poor old grandma.
For more detailed explanations, examples and tests, check out these online resources:
Some years ago, I was gathering interviews for a project on Italian feminism. At one point I contacted a feminist association in Milan, which was running a crowd funding campaign for the launch of a women’s centre. I interviewed one of the project’s promoters, and at the end she gently suggested that I could perhaps use some of my funds to support their cause. I tried to explain, somewhat embarrassed, that grant money is meant to cover research costs and expenses only, and I half promised to apply for some other grant, knowing it would never come through.
In about the same period Giulio Regeni, a doctoral student from Cambridge University, went missing in Cairo. It was the fifth anniversary of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak. I instantly got a bad feeling. Students rarely go missing like this, don’t they? A few days later his corpse – showing signs of…