Our Departmental Community
We seek to create a welcoming environment for all of our students and staff, irrespective of background, and are strongly committed to promoting equality and diversity. Our activities include participating in Athena SWAN (a scheme to address gender equality in Higher Education), celebrating Black History Month, and fostering community engagement through our historical projects.
We are committed to the principles of the Athena SWAN charter, which recognises the advancement of gender equality in Higher Education. We are working towards our Athena SWAN Bronze award through a ‘Self-Assessment Team’, which comprises a cross-section of our staff and students (pictured). The team gathered and analysed data and view-points to discover what we are doing well, and what we need to improve. We have devised a four-year plan to promote gender equality in the Department.
Celebrating Black History
The Department celebrates the historical contributions of people of black origin. Through our teaching and reesarch, we explore the lives of black figures of the past, from William Sessarakoo, whose story connects the three regions of the Trans-Atlantic trade in enslaved human beings, to the pioneering political activist and journalist Ida B. Wells (pictured). Learn about their place in History on our YouTube channel.
History and the Wider Community
We have a strong tradition of working with the wider community in Lancaster and across the North West. In 2019, MA students Emily and Naomi coordinated events at which people brought in objects from 1890 - 1940, to create an online exhibition for the Elizabeth Roberts Working Class Oral History Archive (held by our Regional Heritage Centre). The picture features Dr ELizabeth Roberts at one of the events.
Meet our staff
Dr Patricia Murrieta-Flores
Paty is the Co-Director of the Digital Humanities Hub at Lancaster, and convenes the modules 'Exploring the World of Digital Humanities' and 'Spatial Technologies for Historical Analysis' on the MA Digital Humanities, as well as teaching undergraduates. Her focus is the investigation of different aspects of space, place and time using a range of technologies including GIS, NLP, Machine Learning and Corpus Linguistics approaches. She is the Principal Investigator on the Transatlantic Platform (T-AP) funded project ‘Digging into Early Colonial Mexico: A large-scale computational analysis of 16th century historical sources’. Paty grew up in Mexico, and first came to Lancaster as an Early Career Researcher.
Could you tell us a little bit about your background? Did you always know that you were interested in history? Or was there a moment when you realized you had a passion for the past?
I had what one could consider to be a somewhat unusual upbringing back in Mexico. One of my aunts is an archaeologist and, since I was a kid, I grew up among beautiful Mesoamerican imagery, pottery and excavation reports, roaming around the pyramids and archaeological sites in summer, and listening to the stories of exploration and historical wonders my aunt used to tell me. At the same time my parents, being physicists, encouraged me to experiment and question why things were the way they are, and I spent much of my time in the amazing labs of the Institute of Physics at the national university. I think this led me to the realisation when I was becoming a young adult that I really loved two things: the past and technology. I’ve been lucky enough to combine both through Digital Humanities.
You work connects archaeology to a relatively new field called digital humanities. Could you tell us a bit more about digital humanities and how it can transform our understanding of the past?
In short, digital humanities, or DH as we usually call it, is the application of theories and methods from computer science to solve research questions in the humanities (e.g. in history, archaeology, or literature, among others). This is to say that we can make use of really interesting computational approaches, such as Artificial Intelligence, to help us in the analysis of the past. For instance, in my research, I’m ‘teaching’ the computer to automatically identify historical concepts of interest to me in very large historical collections, analysing patterns in a Big Data style. What this means in practice is that, for the very first time, we are able to explore and identify information that can help us with our research in a fraction of time, looking through thousands of records that otherwise would take us a lifetime to explore. And this is only one of the innovative uses of technology in history that we are developing. Virtual reconstructions, 3D scanning, and advanced spatial technologies are some of the things we do at Lancaster.
Have a look at some of the projects taking place at the intersection of DH and history:
What's the topic you most enjoy teaching? What makes it special for you and your students?
Within DH, I specialise in the study of landscape, space, and place using Geographic Information Systems (GIS). You can think of GIS as a Google Maps on steroids. Technologies such as this one can be really important to learn because history and archaeology are spatial in nature. This is to say that we are interested in questions of ‘when’ and ‘who’, as much as in issues of ‘where’ - or how geographies might play a role in historical events. GIS is a powerful technology that is used in many industries, so I truly love when my students realise that they are acquiring an important skill that can help to land them a job! In addition, I encourage my students to be highly creative in their use of technologies. This year, our students had brilliant GIS projects. For instance, one of them explored the narratives of American Psycho, while another looked at the possible uses of mapping to investigate the presence of black Africans in Early Modern England!
You also work on the history of Mexico, especially its indigenous culture before and after the Spanish colonization. Why do you think it's important for students to study this topic?
Because imperial knowledges - and related exclusive and oppressive views - are still embedded in the modern world, studying subaltern and alternative accounts in History is of utmost importance. Acknowledging and understanding the existence of different world-views and epistemologies is what might lead us someday to more equal societies. The arrival of the Spanish brought a great deal of destruction and oppression, as well as a different world-view to America (and by America I mean the continent!). Traditional and colonial understandings of history have taught that the Spanish ‘conquered’ in technological, social, political and economic ways the Indigenous civilizations. However, these 'conquered' peoples were not the passive actors that they have often been assumed to be. Most of accounts have considered the Spanish side, but there is a wealth of information produced by Indigenous societies that has barely been explored, and it has been only in the past few years that other interpretations have started to emerge.
I’m interested in the events of the 16th century because this is the time when the contact between these two very different world-views take place. The Indigenous societies certainly adopted and adapted western conceptions and technologies, but they also contested and challenged them. It takes just a look at the incredible maps of the Relaciones Geográficas (the Geographic Reports of New Spain) to get a sense of how Mesoamerican civilizations used and combined European and Indigenous understandings of space, creating new discourses that are alive still today. Historians and archaeologists have the power to bring these alternative narratives to the forefront, but also to provide a better understanding of past dynamics and how to change them.
#decolonise #blacklivesmatter #brownlivesmatter
We'd love to hear more about your journey into history. What would you say is the biggest challenge you had to overcome to get where you are today?
At an academic level, the biggest challenge for me was to find people I could dream ‘crazy’ projects with. This is to say, to imagine research that could combine unusual views and approaches that have never been attempted before. I started to encounter like-minded people during my postgraduate studies, but I found these really creative and unusual partnerships when I first started working at Lancaster as an Early Career Researcher.
At a personal level, I think my biggest challenge has been to overcome damaging ideas about my own self. Growing up I felt great pressure to do well at everything I attempted. There is in me a sort of Latin American mentality that states that in order to ‘make it’, you have to work harder than anyone else. Although one might think that this can be an advantage, it actually provokes a constant state of anxiety for ‘not being good enough’, which was really difficult to shake off. That’s why I love to engage with students not only in academic terms, but also at a more human level. I know the anxieties and expectations that being at university can bring, but also how, with the right support, you can thrive.
And what's the thing you love most about your research?
I think there are two things that immediately come to mind. The first is the process of discovery. I enjoy immensely taking an idea, a hypothesis or a research question and attempting to solve it, whatever the answer might be. The second is interdisciplinarity. I love to work with people that bring different perspectives to my own. To learn from others is one of the most rewarding things about my research, and the process of building knowledge together is really exciting to me.
Meet our students
In autumn 2020, Meredith started the second year of her PhD, having come to Lancaster from the USA for her Masters degree. She is working on a comparative study of minority governments in England c.1200-1500, with a particular focus on authority and practice in the conduct of domestic politics and foreign diplomacy. Meredith is also a member of the Centre for War and Diplomacy at Lancaster, where she holds an Iredell Digital Internship, and is Coordinating Editor and Deputy Editor for Medieval History of EPOCH magazine, a non-profit publication produced by members of the history community at Lancaster University.
How did you end up deciding to do a PhD in history? Is it something you've always wanted to do?
I come from a family that values the historical imagination, but I took the scenic route to the PhD. I did my undergraduate work at the University of Texas in Austin (2004) and then spent several years working in small business development. There is a surprising amount of overlap between the study of history and small business management that was not apparent to me for a long while. After a decade of rewarding work, I found myself in the position to make some changes in my career path. I landed on medievalism after several years of independent learning and came to Lancaster in 2018 for my Masters.
You work on medieval history. What attracts you to the period?
Medieval history brings together an intriguing combination of analytical thinking and storytelling. All historical research requires some detective work (an admittedly fanciful term, but one that I think holds true). Because medieval history in the academic sense can be fairly far removed from modern sensibilities, it forces the researcher to approach the source material in often abstract ways. You then have to construct the conclusions in a manner that non-specialists can appreciate, letting some creative processes unfold. The same can be said of many avenues of historical research, but I think I landed specifically on medieval history because of the political structures and ideas of power that were evolving in those centuries. I find it fascinating that people today wrestle with many of the same questions as people from the thirteenth century.
Could you tell us a bit more about your research project? What do you hope to accomplish through your work?
My research looks at English minority governments - in other words, those instances in the medieval period when a child or minor came to the throne. These are interesting periods of transition when the systems of central government had to be modified or recontextualised to accommodate the immediate needs of the kingdom. My research looks both at how those at the helm of government formed these interim regimes and, subsequently, how they addressed certain political challenges that arose during their administration. Understanding the principles that guided the political elites as they managed these crises speaks to how ideological parameters were adapted out of practical necessity.
What would you say is the most challenging thing about doing a history PhD? And what's the most rewarding thing about it?
They are one and the same. History requires great cognitive flexibility: the ability to think abstractly and creatively within the limitations dictated by time and place. It requires that the researcher explore a range of seemingly infinite possibilities, refine questions and methods, and then develop a measurable and practical plan of execution. This process works concurrently with the panning of data and sources that inform our understanding of the past. It can be extraordinarily challenging keeping all this information mentally filed away for reference, even with the best digital aids available for modern researchers, and especially to shift between differing sets of mental faculties. It also cultivates a deep sense of personal pride as the process unfolds.
What's it like doing a PhD in history at Lancaster?
Lancaster has an exceptionally active and dynamic postgraduate community that is bolstered by a supportive faculty. The department ensures that postgraduate researchers have access to both professional and personal resources, and this integrated research community allows for our natural curiosity to thrive under the pressures of rigorous academic standards. The university is situated in an area of rich natural beauty and the city has a distinct sense of identity. When considering all aspects of Lancaster’s qualities, the university is remarkably well-equipped to provide room for academic research and professional growth.
We've heard that you're involved with a fantastic new history publication called EPOCH magazine. Could you tell us more about, and how it came about?
EPOCH is the history magazine produced by the PhD students in the department. Our original intention was to provide a supplementary platform for our annual Lancaster Postgraduate History Conference. When the complications of the COVID-19 pandemic became more apparent, we saw an opportunity to offer a free public forum for postgraduate research. With the support of the department, the postgraduate community has created a scaffold on which we can develop our professional skill sets that simultaneously serves the wider historical research community.