Postgraduate Spotlight: Nathan Alexander

Nathan A 1Nathan Alexander was born and raised in the town of Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada, but has lived in various locations across Southern Ontario. Before coming to St Andrews, Nathan spent two and a half years teaching English in South Korea to every possible age group, from kindergarteners up to adults. Although he misses the hustle and bustle of Seoul (not to mention the kimchi), he is glad to be back in academia and studying in the comparatively laid-back atmosphere of St Andrews.

Nathan became interested in history in high school, when the September 11th attacks and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq spurred his interest in world affairs and led him to want to make sense of why the world is the way it is. Considering the study of history the best way to do this, he undertook his B.A. in Honours History at the University of Waterloo and later his M.A. in History at Wilfrid Laurier University (both in Canada). Nathan’s historical interests have seemingly changed from year to year. He initially intended to focus on Canadian history, but then became interested in American history, before settling on African history for a time. For his master’s, he combined his interest in African history with yet another new interest, the history of the idea of race. Studying under Professor John Laband, Nathan examined British views of the Asante (a West African people in modern-day Ghana) in the nineteenth century.

A cartoon which appeared in the American atheist periodical, 'The Truth Seeker', in the late nineteenth century.

A cartoon which appeared in the American atheist periodical, ‘The Truth Seeker’, in the late nineteenth century.

A convert to the New Atheist movement ­– although not always agreeing with its chief proponents – Nathan has once again moved on to a new subject and now studies atheists, agnostics, and other freethinkers in nineteenth-century Britain and the United States, and considers how they engaged with the idea of race. Nathan’s doctoral research, supervised by Professor Colin Kidd, brings together two bodies of literature, on the history of race and on the history of atheism, that have previously seen few points of contact. While the influence of Christian thought weighed heavily upon conversations surrounding race, from the origins of supposed races to the legitimacy of slavery, surprisingly historians have not yet studied how non-religious people thought about race. More broadly, the history of atheism at the university level is regrettably understudied and Nathan hopes to contribute, if in a small way, to reversing this trend. Nathan’s fingers are crossed that his historical interests will remain stable for at least long enough to complete his dissertation!

In addition to the work on his PhD, Nathan is kept busy through his involvement with the Institute of Intellectual History and his work as editorial assistant with the School’s communications team. In this role, he prepares the fortnightly School of History Gazette, as well as working on the School’s annual alumni magazine. He is also an editor of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network’s blog. Nathan has presented his research at the University of Victoria (Canada), the University of Glasgow, the University of St Andrews, and in the summer will present at the University of Newcastle.

Outside of his academic pursuits, Nathan enjoys swimming and playing basketball. He is a keen follower of the Toronto Raptors basketball team and, as a Canuck, is an obligatory (ice) hockey fan. He is a chess player as well and likes to imagine himself as a modern-day Bobby Fischer, hopefully minus the conspiratorial rants.

Postgraduate Spotlight: Amy Eberlin

postgraduate spotlight pictureOriginally from Toronto, Amy has spent the last six and a half years living internationally. Her university education has taken her from a small town in central Ohio to Aberdeen before, finally, settling in St Andrews. Studying for her PhD was not part of her original “plan,” but you know what they say about the best laid plans…

Amy’s love for history began at a young age. Her schooling was littered with projects about important historical figures from Florence Nightingale to Eleanor of Aquitaine. While she enjoyed history, Amy entered Denison University in 2007 as an International Studies and Communications double major. This did not last long. In the second semester of her first year, Amy took a class on twentieth century history through literature. She was a goner. The next three years were filled with every history class that she could get into, particularly medieval European and modern African history classes. As a product of her liberal arts education, Amy’s research interests ranged from the socio-political identity of religious military orders in medieval England and France to the efficacy of judicial systems in post-genocide Rwanda. Shortly after she completed her BA in History with a minor in Sociology/Anthropology in May 2011, she began a MLitt in Medieval Studies in Aberdeen.

She attained her MLitt in Medieval Studies in 2012 under the supervision of Dr Jackson Armstrong. While at the University of Aberdeen, Amy developed an interest in the social and political history of fifteenth century Scotland. This enthusiasm for late medieval Scottish history led her to the University of St Andrews in 2012 and the Institute of Scottish Historical Research (ISHR).

Amy’s doctoral project is part of the Scotland and Flemish Peoples Project. Her research is supervised by Dr Katie Stevenson. Her thesis argues that there was no substantial Flemish settlement in Scotland after 1347, as has previously been thought, and instead sophisticated networks of Scots with interests in Flanders emerged to deal with the increasing volume of trade and diplomacy between the two regions. This thesis will contribute to the limited historiography on late medieval Scotto-Flemish relations and, more generally, on Scottish diplomacy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

A fifteenth century document from the reign of James III.

A fifteenth century document from the reign of James III.

In addition to her research, Amy is the ISHR Intern, co-section editor for the Bibliography of British and Irish History (IHR), tutor on ME1006: Scotland and the English Empire (1070-1500), and is working on both a blog and a workshop for the Scotland and the Flemish Peoples Project. She has presented part of her MLitt research at the New Frontiers Conference at York University (Canada) and will be presenting papers at the Renaissance Society of America Annual Convention (New York City, March) and the International Medieval Congress, Kalamazoo (May) this year. Amy and her fellow ISHR 2nd year, Liz Hanna, will be giving papers at the last ISHR seminar of this academic year on April 17th. She has also recently been awarded a 2014 Schallek Award by the Medieval Academy of America to support a month-long research trip to Bruges and Middelburg.

Besides her academic interests, Amy loves musicals, crime procedural TV shows, good food and sports. She is a huge fan of softball (having played it competitively) and ice hockey. You might have seen (or heard) her cheering for Canada’s hockey team in the Winter Olympics. Her officemates were subjected to more ice hockey chat than should be acceptable in a two week period. You can find her, more often than not, in the basement office of St Katharine’s Lodge (lovingly termed “The Dungeon”), listening to her music and working through her lists and networks of medieval Scots.

Postgraduate Spotlight: Darren S. Layne

DSCN3948Originally from the suburbs of Detroit, Darren Scott Layne spent much of his life in and around the San Francisco Bay Area before making good on his childhood threat/dream of invading Scotland. He came to study in St Andrews by a circuitous route that meandered between business and academia, using one as a tonic for the other to the minimal detriment of both. The academy was never on his docket until a perfectly-timed, late-night history course in community college took him by the scruff of the neck and shook him awake, and the rest…well, is history.

Darren obtained his BA (High Hons) at University of California Berkeley where he focused on the Eastern Front in World War II and 18th-century Jacobite Britain under the late, great Tom Barnes. He worked for a few years before moving to Edinburgh in 2003 to undertake his MSc (Dist) in Scottish History, narrowing his study to the role of impressment and coercion within the Jacobite ranks in the Rising of 1745. After moving back to San Francisco to tan up his ivory-tower-whitened skin, the clarion call of a terminal degree beckoned him back to Scotland where St Andrews saw it fit to allow him entry into the Scotland and the Wider World Project under the keen eye of Professor Steve Murdoch.

Darren’s doctoral project is a secret blend of Scottish History and its application within theIMG_6277 Digital Humanities, alchemically distilled into an ambitious study called The Jacobite Database of 1745. JDB1745 is a prosopographic examination of the social history of Jacobitism that seeks to answer many questions about the agencies of Jacobite support and constituency. Drawing from a wide variety of sources, its goal is to eventually house every name that can be associated with Jacobitism in the years 1740-1759. Beyond the findings that will make up his doctoral thesis, Darren’s curation of JDB1745 is destined to be a life-long project that will provide a significant contribution to the discipline of Jacobite Studies for historians and genealogists alike.

In addition to his academic duties, Darren is the current curator of the Twitter and Facebook accounts for the Institute for Scottish Historical Research at St Andrews, as well as the webmaster for The Scottish Society for Northern Studies. He is a keen advocate for green Open Access and digital preservation, and strongly supports technology education at all levels of learning. He transcribes historical documents for digitization at Scotland’s Places and Papers of the War Department, and once a year he helps to organize a historical wargaming day for the National Trust for Scotland at the Culloden Battlefield.

IMG_5621Aside from spending long stints at the archives where he has been reprimanded more than once for smelling the documents too enthusiastically, Darren has spent twenty years in the analog gaming industry and dedicates much of his time to the running of his business in San Francisco, the venerable Gamescape North – a hub of hobby and community for hundreds of people. He is an avid painter, a student of pugilism, and cares more than he should about the San Francisco 49ers. He currently lives in Edinburgh with a librarian, a few dozen fountain pens, and two aging California cats who can barely remember what laying in the sun was like.

Follow the Jacobite Database project at the website above or on Twitter and Facebook, and feel free to keep your eye on Spines of the Thistle, a Virtual Research Environment for Jacobite Studies that is currently in development.

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Postgraduate Spotlight: Dawn Jackson Williams

IMG_7920aDawn Jackson Williams grew up in a small hamlet near a small village near a small town in the middle of rural Suffolk, which perhaps explains why the small town of St Andrews feels like a veritable metropolis to her. From an early age she was interested in history, particularly in moments of drama and tragedy, ghoulishly absorbing every book about the Titanic disaster and the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine on Mount Everest in 1924 that she could get her teenaged hands on, foreshadowing her current twin interests in the history of landscape and the history of emotion. She undertook her undergraduate degree in History at Oxford and completed the MPhil in Early Modern History at Cambridge, before coming to St Andrews to undertake her PhD under the supervision of Dr Bernhard Struck. She likes to joke that not only has she managed to collect the three most ancient universities in the British Isles, she has also done so in order of foundation. This was a complete accident, but she is very happy that it has resulted in her ending up at St Andrews.

Christ Healing the Blind Man, by Philippe de Champaigne, c.1655-1660; hardly an image of 'mountain gloom'.

Christ Healing the Blind Man, by Philippe de Champaigne, c.1655-1660; hardly an image of ‘mountain gloom’.

Dawn’s PhD research is focussed upon European reactions to mountains and mountain-climbing before 1750. When she first became interested in the topic she was struck by the tension between the current commonly-held belief that people in early modern Europe found mountains distasteful, and the number of sources from before 1750 – or even before 1650 – that attested to significant levels of mountain activity and, indeed, appreciation. However, the embedded perception of early modern ‘mountain gloom’ has meant that relatively little research has been done to recover the ways in which people actually thought about or interacted with mountains in the early modern era. Dawn is therefore interested in asking a number of questions in order to reconstruct a picture of the relationship between people and mountains before 1750, including: what did people know about mountains, what did they do in mountains, and did they perceive them as having any utilitarian and/or aesthetic value? She finds the topic fascinating because it requires her to interrogate and step outside of unspoken and often unconsciously-held ‘modern’ ways of thinking. For example, her MPhil research on a related topic suggested that although the early moderns often perceived ‘usefulness’ as a quality which imparted aesthetic value to an object, the modern perception that utility and beauty are distinct or even mutually exclusive had led many historians to disregard any positive comments about the utility of mountains as irrelevant to the question of whether or not they were visually appreciated.

Team-members of the 1924 Everest expedition.

Team-members of the 1924 Everest expedition.

Dawn’s other research has included an edition of the letters of Elizabeth Elstob (1683-1756), an early Anglo-Saxon scholar, and a study of the cultural preconceptions of Tibet as expressed in the sources relating to the early Everest expeditions (1921-1924), both of which she ultimately hopes to publish. She feels strongly that academic research should be disseminated beyond the real and metaphorical walls of the academy, a conviction which she recently used to excuse the immensely enjoyable process of writing a chapter on Chinese history for a forthcoming edited volume entitled A Game of Thrones and History. She will also shortly be giving a lecture on her research to the Alpine Club in London.

Beyond her research, Dawn is both the co-convener of the Early Modern and Modern History Postgraduate Forum, and the Communications Intern for the School of History, which means that most people in the School probably know her best as the person who gently nags them either for copy for the blog or paper proposals for the forum. Running the EMMH Forum – which is intended to provide postgraduates with a space for supportive academic discussion, as well as opportunities for socialising – has proved to be a particularly satisfying experience.

Outside of her academic and administrative duties, Dawn pursues a somewhat eccentric variety of hobbies. She is a member of the St Andrews Renaissance Singers, plays for the ‘Snidgets’ (the university Quidditch team), and attempts to write fiction, recently participating in the month-long challenge of NaNoWriMo. For slightly less active relaxation she watches sci-fi, and detective shows with her husband. As the topic of her thesis might suggest, she is also a keen hiker and – when time and funds allow – occasional mountaineer.

Dawn blogs about PhD life at The Historian’s Desk.

Introducing Postgraduate Spotlights

King James LibrayAs many of our subscribers will know, one of the regular features of the School of History blog is the Spotlight On series, which has been running since November 2012. The very first post featured Dr Sarah Easterby-Smith, whilst the latest showcased the work of Dr Abaigéal Warfield. In between, the Spotlights have featured many of our medieval, middle eastern, early modern and modern historians. They are an opportunity for staff to discuss both their research and teaching interests, and how these relate, and keep our friends, alumni and other supporters up-to-date with some of the research pursued by historians in the School.

The School is very fortunate in the range of talents and interests of its staff members and postdoctoral researchers, but it is equally lucky in its cohort of postgraduate students. We are thus extending our Spotlights series to include a new run of Postgraduate Spotlights. Those who are currently postgraduate researchers in the School are welcome to submit content, detailing their research, teaching commitments if applicable, and pursuits outside of academia.

The first Postgraduate Spotlight will be posted on 8 February. The School of History will continue to post Spotlights focusing on staff: the next Spotlight features Dr Heidi Mehrkens of the Heirs to the Throne project.

Any postgraduates wishing to participate in the Postgraduate Spotlights series are warmly invited to contact the School of History Communications Intern Dawn Jackson Williams at hiscomms@st-andrews.ac.uk .