I’m Glad that Zoom Conferences are the Future. Here’s Why.

It’s been a lonely year for many of us. For me, the first UK Lockdown coincided with the beginning of a year of research leave which should have enabled me to travel, visit archives, and above all, network. In the end, I spent most of the year in one room (where I am now), and found myself completely drained of the go-getting spirit which would have been required to actively network in the new, online format. In the first year of the pandemic, I attended a few online conferences as a listener, but often struggled to stay focussed after about the first 15 minutes. I came to feel despondent about the future of Zoom conferences over the next few years, as it’s so important for my work that I can meet and connect with other scholars in what is, for me, a new field.

This week, all that changed.

I participated as a speaker in not one, but two online events. Both were so enriching and stimulating that I am now convinced that the online conference is better than the in-person conference. If you struggle to focus at online events, fear them, or worry that they might ruin the joys of academic exchange in the future, please read on. I have some suggestions based on the two excellent events I attended this week . I’ll call them Conference 1 and Conference 2.

For context, Conference 1 was big, global, and pretty private (only speakers were allowed to attend). It had about 30+ participants in it at any one time, it lasted 2 days, and it was scheduled in the afternoons and evening (UK time) to allow people to dial in from all over the world. Conference 2 was much smaller: a panel of 8 speakers, open to attendance from the public, who could not be seen, but could post in the Q&A function to ask questions or make points. Both events were run using Zoom. I’m going to tell you what I loved about these conferences, and how they convinced me that the online conference is the way of the future.

  1. Pre-circulating papers to all attendees before the conference itself was probably the best aspect of Conference 1. Though it took me several days to read through all the papers (and even then, I had to skip or skim read a few), it felt like being in a special book club where everyone was obsessed with the same niche interest as me. (Yay!) Having the papers to read also meant that I got a lot more out of them. I could look up references, highlight key points, and re-read complex sections that, if read aloud, would probably have eluded me. And even better, all participants now have something more-or-less ready to send to a journal. What’s not to love?
  2. Both conferences understood the importance of strict moderation. In Conference 1, we had only 2 minutes to present a summary of our paper, and anyone who waffled on for two long at that point or subsequently was politely asked by the moderator to round it up. In some ways, it’s easier to control wafflers online than it is in person. We are all familiar with Zoom fatigue, and nobody wants to be that person taking up too much screen time.  If someone does, however, they can always be muted! Or even removed altogether! I wish I could have done that so easily at one conference I organised in the past, where someone showed up just to drink the free booze and ask inappropriate questions of the speakers.
  3. The chat function can make group discussion more inclusive. In the past, some in-person events have adopted a sign language for Q&A sessions, to show whether what you want to say is a follow-up question, a new question, or a comment. (See point three on this list of chairing suggestions by the British Philosophy Association – thanks Rey Conquer of Expanding German Studies for showing me this). It is even easier to show what kind of point you want to make in an online conference. You can write ‘Sarah, new comment’ in the chat, and the moderator then has a record of the order in which people raise their points or questions, and can decide whom to call on when. This means that conversations can be run more efficiently, following one topic through to the end rather than going backwards and forwards between topics. It also means that nobody gets to call out without being unmuted or invited by the moderator, so the group doesn’t get dominated by the more confident speakers. (And remember, hecklers can be ejected!)
  4. Break times are actual breaks when you are dialling in from home. You can make yourself a snack, go outside for a breather, or do some yoga stretches… all without the fear of being thought unsociable. In an in-person conference, on the other hand, I would always feel pressured to use the breaks to connect with people. Obviously this has its advantages too, but over the course of the day this pressure builds up and leaves my brain feeling over-saturated. At an in-person conference, I usually have to resort to too much caffeine and/or alcohol if I want to make it through dinner. Conferencing from home was so much easier on the body. I even lay down at one point with my camera turned off (I’m pregnant, so it’s allowed), when I found myself feeling too drained to sit up any more. In an in-person setting, I might have had to leave the room altogether, which would have meant missing out.
  5. Finally, conferencing online can help all of us to reduce our carbon footprint. There’s no reason to fly around the world for a two-day event when that event can be run so much better online. As this recent article by some of the most well-known scholars in Genocide Studies makes out, it is actually unconscionable for academics concerned with past and present humanitarian crises to ignore our own complicity in the planetary crisis that is unfolding as we speak. If it’s so easy to shift our conferences to Zoom, surely this should become the new normal.

I do, of course, recognise that online conferences pose greater challenges to academics with children, especially during lockdowns when those children are stuck at home. Personally, I had the problem of how to sufficiently walk my dog, given only 20 minute breaks between panels in a conference that lasted essentially all day. But I think these are issues that parents and dog-owners can, hopefully, find better ways of dealing with as we move out of the pandemic. After all, surely it’s easier to find someone else to care for the kids/dog for just one day while we work from home, than it would be if we also had to factor in travel and perhaps an overnight stay in another town or country? I guess I’ll figure this out when my own child arrives.

Overall, then, I am encouraged that the online conference is the way of the future. We can make our exchanges of ideas more inclusive, more efficient, and more sustainable for our bodies and planet by moving our conferences online.

A German Communist memoir at the height of British appeasement

[Note – This post was first published by the Blog of the Working Class Movement Library, WCML, and can be found here.]

On 20 February 1938, Anthony Eden resigned from his post as Foreign Secretary to protest against the policy of appeasement pursued by PM Neville Chamberlain. Like many others in Britain, Chamberlain was still hoping to avoid a war with Hitler by viewing both him, and his fascist ally Mussolini, as reliable statesmen who could be trusted to keep their word. There was already plenty of evidence to the contrary, however, and Chamberlain’s policy was under fire from all across the British political spectrum.  

Since the unemployment crisis of 1931, many on the British left had been increasingly drawn to Communism, seeing radical political change and even a left wing dictatorship as the only way to fight inequality in Britain, and fascism abroad. The 1930s are sometimes referred to as Britain’s ‘red decade’, although the Communist Party of Great Britain never had more than 20,000 members, and came nowhere near to taking power (Thorpe, p. 45). (By contrast, the German Communist Party had 300,000 members in 1932.)  In Britain’s case it is more accurate to speak of an ideological shift which saw educated people in the middle and upper classes embracing Marxism for the first time, and growing support among the working classes.   

This popular interest in Marxist thought inspired the London-based Left Book Club, which published left wing titles at affordable prices. Its programmes of events and ‘books of the month’ stimulated a national conversation. At the height of its popularity in 1939, it had 57,000 members (Samuels, p. 73). The Library holds a full run of titles from the LBC press, which offer a broad picture of left wing ideas during this decade.  

In the month that Eden resigned in protest over Chamberlain’s appeasement policy, the Left Book Club’s book of the month was a memoir by German Communist Jan Petersen (real name Hans Schwalm), called Our Street. It depicts the events of 1933-34, including the last public demonstrations that took place against Nazism before all resistance was forced underground. On the day Hitler was announced Reich Chancellor, Petersen and his comrades attempted to start a strike at the Berlin Siemens factory, but without success. One month later, the Nazis used the Reichstag fire as an excuse to crack down hard on all Communist activity.   

Petersen and his comrades had to risk their lives for even the most meagre of opposition activities. They still printed and delivered leaflets though, and spread illicit copies of Willi Münzenberg’s Brown Book, which argued that the Reichstag Fire had been a Nazi conspiracy. But many of Petersen’s comrades were captured, tortured, and killed in Nazi prisons or concentration camps. Indeed, estimates suggest that between one third and one half of German Communists endured imprisonment at the hands of the Nazis (Herlemann, p. 359).  

Though Our Street is inspiring for its faith in the working class struggle, in reality the German Communists had no hope against the Nazi terror. Petersen himself was lucky to escape alive in 1934, pretending to be going on a skiing holiday in order to cross the border, with his manuscript baked into two sponge cakes.  

By the time the Left Book Club published Our Street in 1938, in an English translation by Betty Rensen, Hitler’s hold on power was stronger than ever. Within a month, Germany would annex Austria, and by the end of that year the Nazis would orchestrate the Night of Broken Glass, a night of violence and destruction against Jewish businesses, homes and synagogues, in which many Jews would lose their lives.   

When it appeared in February 1938, then, Petersen’s memoir must have stirred further anger against Chamberlain’s desire to treat Hitler as a normal, respectable statesman. Yet by this time, the support for Communism in Britain was also on the wane.  Stalin had been purging his party members of any opposition in a series of show trials and executions for the last few years, in a display of terror methods not unlike Hitler’s own.  How, then, would British readers have reacted to Petersen’s inspiring accounts of the Communist struggle in Germany?  

 German Communist election poster form 1933. The text at the bottom reads ‘down with this system’. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Economist’s review printed on 29 January 1938 gave an enthusiastic recommendation: ‘There have been many books describing the cruelties attendant upon the extermination of Socialist opposition to the Nazi regime in Germany. Few have been so arresting as this one’. On the other hand, Sir John Squire’s review for The Daily Telegraph captured the spirit of denial at the heart of appeasement: ‘It is impossible to read [Our Street] without hoping against hope that the author has exaggerated.’   

Printed in a new edition by Faber in 2012, readers of Our Street today can rest assured that its account is in no way exaggerated. On the contrary, Petersen’s chilling memoir offers a stern warning for our own times about the fragility of democracy in the face of far right violence.


Herlemann, Beatrix, ‘Communist Resistance between Comintern Directives and Nazi Terror’. In Between Reform and Revolution: German Socialism and Communism from 1840 to 1990, ed. by David E. Barclay and Eric D. Weitz (New York: Berghahn, 1990), pp. 358-371  

Samuels, Stuart, ‘The Left Book Club’. Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 1, No. 2, Left Wing Intellectuals between the Wars (1966), pp. 65-86

Thorpe, Andrew, Britain in the 1930s: the Deceptive Decade (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992)    

‘Lefty lawyers’ and ‘law and order’: Who is the law for?

Priti Patel and Boris Johnson’s scorn for ‘lefty lawyers’ is a threat to British democracy.

This week both the British Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and the Prime Minister Boris Jonson called into question the integrity of lawyers on the political Left. Patel made her comments last Sunday, in the context of the discussion on immigration. She suggested that lawyers and politicians on the Left are ‘defending the indefensible’ by standing up for asylum seekers. She accused these ‘lefty lawyers’ of employing ‘grand theories about human rights’ to support their own agenda. Johnson’s comments came in the wake of Patel’s, and seemed intended to back her up. He likewise accused ‘lefty human rights lawyers, and other do-gooders’ of trying to ‘hamstring’ criminal justice.

Let’s unpick some of this rhetoric. When Patel calls the idea of human rights a ‘grand theory’ she undermines its validity by suggesting 1) that it is a theory, which can therefore be questioned, and 2) that it is somehow pretentious, unrealistic, or implausible. In fact, human rights are enshrined in British law under the Human Rights Act of 1998. Of course, laws are man-made and must be scrutinised if they are to be applied fairly. But when two of the most powerful politicians in the country are openly mocking people in the legal profession, calling them names, and undermining their motivations for upholding the law in the first place, we have a serious problem.

Patel went so far as to suggest that the lawyers seek personal gain in defending the rights of asylum seekers in the UK, saying they know ‘how to play and profit from the broken system.’ Here again, her implication that the system is ‘broken’ suggests that our country’s laws are invalid, because the system itself is faulty. What Patel’s statement really means is that the laws don’t matter, and that the left-wing lawyers who hold to them are actually behaving immorally. Johnson’s similar accusation that the Left is trying to ‘hamstring’ justice suggests an image of physical violence.

Of course, some of this is undoubtedly intended to make ‘lefty lawyers’ a catchphrase for the next election campaign against Keir Starmer, who has spent decades working as a human rights lawyer. In this regard, it hits as low as Trump’s ‘nasty woman’ comment, reserved for women on his political opposition. It has a similar ring to it, and works in the same way, by presenting something neutral (that is, women and lawyers) as inherently undesirable.

When democratically elected representatives undermine the value of law, they are undermining the principles which put them in power, and which also protect their own safety. Lawmakers should not be allowed to choose which laws to uphold and which to bend or break. Although, as is proved on a weekly basis, Johnson’s government and advisory team are unusually ready to twist or break the law whenever it suits their agenda.

Looking to the United States, it is curious that ‘Law and Order’ is a catchphrase of Trump’s election campaign, yet his own behaviour frequently pushes or flouts the rules of his country. What that phrase means in his context is that law will be enforced when it suits him and his supporters, but not otherwise.

Ultimately, these politicians’ way of twisting the meaning and value of the law raises the question of who the law is for. In a democratic state, laws exist to prevent the use of violence by anyone except the state. The state alone may use violence, and may do so only in order to protect its citizens, in accordance with the law that elected that state’s leaders. When a state’s leaders seem inclined to flout the rule of law, we need to worry because that means that we can no longer trust them to protect all citizens from violence. Indeed, they may begin to use violence in ways that conflict with the laws of the state, or even against their own citizens.

For an example of this, we can look to Nazi Germany. Hitler was adamant that his party would only seize power by legal means (reinforced through violent terror campaigns), yet he was open about his plans to tear up the rule book as soon as he was in power. When called as witness to a Leipzig court in September 1930, three years before his take-over, Hitler threatened one day to murder the current lawmakers with his famous ‘heads will roll’ comment:

“Just as soon as German Fascists by legal means have captured political power in Germany they will tear asunder the Versailles Treaty, if necessary by means looked upon by the world as illegal. National Socialists do not regard the international agreements as law, but as something forced upon us. […]. If we are victorious then we certainly shall establish a new State tribunal whose duty it will be to deal with the criminals of November, 1918. Then heads will certainly roll in the sand.” [my emphasis]

Patel accuses our current lawyers of immorally ‘playing the system’ for their own profit, she is verging on Hitlerain rhetoric. He called his contemporary law-makers ‘criminals’, and Patel is in effect saying the same thing of lawyers who stand up for the human rights of asylum seekers. Johnson’s willingness to break international law in leaving the EU only further strengthens the comparison with Nazi rhetoric, and, indeed, with their international policy.

If we are to avoid the kind of slide into lawlessness that makes Nazism possible, we must uphold the value of law for its own sake, and protect democratic processes at all levels of society. We must make these Hitlerian comparisons not for the sake of spectacle, but because they cannot be ignored. Not if we believe that laws should be there to protect us all.

On Knowing the Nazis

I realised recently that my current project of researching life in Nazi Germany, the idea of ‘knowing the Nazis’, is something I have specifically avoided in my study of German literature and culture up to this point. In my first year at university I had to read the poem ‘Todesfuge’ (Death Fugue) by the Romanian-born poet Paul Celan, and I remember the tutorial on it being one of the most difficult hours I ever spent at university. There was a lump in my throat and I could not speak. This poetic rendering of the murder of Jews in a Nazi death camp was too much for me to comprehend, certainly not without a display of emotions that would have been out of place in that setting.

I decided then and there that I was never going to take modules dealing with the Holocaust or the Nazi past, and the choices I made after that show a decided aversion to any aspect of German culture after about 1900. The most modern author I ever chose to study was Thomas Mann, and the novels I read by him only ‘dealt with’ the Nazi phenomenon though allegory or metaphor. Otherwise, I went as far back in time as possible, studying eighteenth-century German literature of the Enlightenment, Medieval German, and Old Norse. After graduation, I once tried to watch the film Schindler’s List because I loved the violin music in it, but had to turn it off when the female architect got shot without warning. I am a highly sensitive person, and I find it hard to ‘unsee’ things once I’ve seen them. I think I made the right choice not to engage with the Holocaust at university. So why do I feel drawn to it now?

Strangely, the path that took me to seek a deeper understanding of the rise of the Nazis in Germany came via studying the West German protest movement of ‘1968.’ This was a time when younger generations forced a reckoning with their parents’ past actions, criticising the many aspects of Nazi authoritarianism that had survived in their society, as well as their nation’s readiness for war, shown by their support of the USA in Vietnam. Many ‘1968ers’ had to face the fact that their parents had supported the Nazis, or at least tolerated them. This generation of activists was determined not to allow their nation to repeat its mistakes, and they took their protest into every significant institution in the country. I am inspired by the so-called 1968ers for their insistence on putting their ideas into practice. They knew what happens when people denounce wrongs, but do not resist them, and their spirit of protest did create lasting change in German society: equal opportunities for women and the foundation of the Green Party are two obvious examples. But in order to bring about these changes, and to resist what they saw as harmful in their society, they first had to confront their reality, rather than look the other way, as their parents had done.

The Brexit vote in 2016 shook my worldview for a couple of reasons. First, I had not been paying attention. I had not seen it coming. I realised I was not in touch with the reality of my country and its feelings. I had been looking the other way. Second, it led me to question the value of democracy, and stifled my ability to engage in a healthy difference of opinion. I do not think I am alone in this. Owen Jones has described the current climate of conflicting opinions as a ‘culture war’. The ideas of ‘wokeness’ and its opposite, ‘anti-wokeness’, similarly encourage a brand of absolutist ‘either/or thinking’ that can never lead to genuine understanding or healthy compromise. When dialogue shuts down, there is no hope for change. Instead of certainty that we are right, we must be open to ideas that seem repugnant to us. In doing this, we can then, reasonably, critique them. I decided it was time to study the Nazis. I wanted to understand how people were drawn to them, as well as what people did to resist them, both in Germany and Austria as well as around the world.

The main goal of my project is to tell a story that looks beyond the simplified narrative we have in Britain, that the Second World War was a ‘good war’ that ‘we won’, ‘by ourselves’. (Red army? What red army?) This narrative is drawn on again and again by right-wing speakers in this country, and used to justify Brexit as well as white supremacy, despite the fact that WW2 was a war AGAINST a racist regime. But then Winston Churchill believed in white supremacy too, didn’t he?

Our nation’s popular understanding of the Nazis and the ideological fight against them is incredibly vague and confused. But the sources are there. It is possible to read accounts of what really happened – why did so many Germans and Austrians like the Nazis? What resistance was offered by the many who didn’t? How did British people react to news of what was happening in Germany? Why did thousands of  British people join the British Union of Fascists? Why do we not talk about the years in which we did nothing to stop Hitler? Why do we so rarely talk about the official Nazi hatred of all black and brown people, as well as Jews? Is it because, at that time, we still had a white supremacist Empire of our own?

I am grateful to the men and women in the 1930s and 40s who refused to look the other way. Their memoirs hold the answers to these questions, and it is time for me to listen.

Reflections on ‘Learning Outcomes’, Research, and Writing in Academia

In current university pedagogy we are encouraged to plan our teaching around ‘Learning Outcomes’. The course ends with an assessment to see if the ‘Learning Outcomes’ have been achieved. But now I’m on research leave, no longer teaching, I am floating freely, drifting from one idea to the next, and for the first time in years(!) there is no framework that I’m supposed to be in. I’ve had the space to pursue knowledge that, until recently, I didn’t even know I didn’t have. That’s how research works. You start with one question, but that leads to more questions, and those lead to even more questions until you have learned an awful lot, but still have more questions than you could possibly have time to answer within the time you have. I’m not sure how I’d translate this onto the pattern of ‘learning outcomes’ even if I wanted to.

It’s taken me a while to switch into curiosity mode and to allow my brain to work in this inquisitive way again. My last ten years, on both sides of the assessment and teaching sausage machine, have indoctrinated me with the idea that there are ‘desired outcomes’ and that either my own or my student’s knowledge will at some point be quantified. It’s hardly surprising, then, that in the first weeks of my research leave, I found myself compelled by the urge to be ‘productive’, but not knowing what to produce. Nor did I realise that I had to water the soil in my brain before anything was going to grow in it.

After a few weeks of giving my poor, dried out brain some gentle watering and a sprinkling or two of fertilizer (art! novels! sleep!), I am now surprised each day to have ideas growing in all directions. I find myself hurtling down internet rabbit holes, clutching at whatever I see on the way down, occasionally dangling for a while before tumbling gleefully on my way. Aha! This is what learning is supposed to feel like! And at the end of each day, I feel I want to shout from the roof-tops what I have learned.

But once I’m up there on the roof I often find myself asking, what if everyone else already knew that anyway? I worry that what I’ve learned might have been obvious to everyone else, that it’s not worthwhile if someone else already knew it.  That’s the old internalised sausage machine again – telling me that what I’ve learned should be measurable against some kind of standard (and preferably, in some way, excelling beyond that standard), rather than affirming my sense that the journey I’ve been on has been valuable in itself.

As I’ve been thinking more about writing, and who I write for, I have been asking myself about the differences between writing for my academic peers and for those exotic, unknown readers outside of that category. I feel that when I write for academics I am supposed, first, to find out what they know, so that I can show them what I know that they don’t know. But, to be honest, I’m getting a bit tired of this way of approaching knowledge. Of course I can profit hugely by reading other academics’ work, but do I want to write exclusively back to those same people? If so much of that process entails telling them what they already know, in order to show them where I’ve done something ‘ground-breaking’, then perhaps not.

The concept of a ‘literature review’ is also bound up in the idea of intellectual property, isn’t it? We cite scholars in order to not plagiarise their work, not to ‘steal’ their ideas. But the concept of intellectual property is a bit bananas, given that two people can come to the same idea on their own, without realising. Or given that we often write, not to show off what we know, but actually to find out what we know. This is where, I fear, academic writing under neoliberalism has come unstuck from its actual purpose, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Socrates supposedly said that ‘Wisdom is knowing how little we know.’ He didn’t say that ‘wisdom is being able to show you what I know that you don’t.’ And when Hannah Arendt was asked what she thought the effect (Wirkung) of her work would be, she replied, ‘When I work, I’m not interested in the effect of my work. […] That’s a masculine question. Men always want to be seminal. […] I just want to understand.’

This period of leave from teaching has shown me, above all, that I need practice in writing and thinking outside of ‘learning outcomes’, and that’s why I’m writing these posts. If you’ve read this far, thanks for sticking with me, and maybe we can free ourselves together.

Hot Dog!

Recently, I think my dog has been trying to tell me something. Around the time during lockdown when the weather suddenly got nice, she started doing this thing on walks which is both adorable and annoying at the same time. We’re walking along, she on the lead, me already thinking about the jobs I need to do after the walk, and then she slowly comes to a stop and looks at me, slyly. It’s like she can tell my heart’s not really in the walk. She takes one step with one foot, but then rather than continuing to propel her body forward in the direction of the walk, she lets her bottom half swing round and down until it lands on the grass with a thud. She then either simply flops over onto her side, letting her head loll on the ground, or she proceeds to roll about in a state of complete abandonment, legs in the air, tongue out to one side ­­– all the while still looking at me as if to say ‘there! what are you gonna do about it?’

At first I interpreted this as a challenge. She’s a rescue dog, and I’m used to the fact by now that she adjusts to her new life with me in phases, displaying new behaviours or anxieties about every three months. My immediate thought was both ‘oh how cute!’ and also ‘oh no, how am I going to get her out of this one?’ I assumed she was rebelling against me, against being on the lead, against the decision to go back home again ­­ — yes, we’re all getting bored of being stuck at home. But today I had a different idea when I saw that now familiar look in her eye.

Today it occurred to me that perhaps this dog is the live-in spiritual teacher and life coach I have wanted all my life. She is not procrastinating. She is not making a political stand. She is simply doing what she wants, which is, at that precise moment, to lie down, and maybe have a bit of a roll. And that is inspirational.

My mantra for the past few weeks has been ‘I am not working from home, I am at home during a pandemic, trying to work.’ But from now on I am going to simply ‘be more dog’ and if I want to lie down and maybe roll around a bit, then that is what I’m going to do. Usually I love Audre Lorde’s phrase that self-care is not self-indulgence, it is ‘an act of political warfare.’ I completely understand what that meant for Lorde, a black lesbian, ill for the second time with cancer. But for me right now? I’m too tired for political warfare of any kind, even if it does involve lying down. I am going to work on just trying to be an animal first, a person in the world first. I thank my dog for reminding me that that, for the time being, is also ok.