Tools of the Trade 1: Some thoughts on using Ubuntu and Markdown as a historian

This is the first post in what I hope will be an ongoing series on the tools I use as a historian. I’ll link future posts in as they appear.

In recent months, as Elon Musk’s new regime on twitter has careered from crisis to crisis, many academics have been looking for alternative social media sites or networking tools.

I’ve seen some revive old blogs, others have shifted to Instagram, while others argued that the public square should not be ceded to the likes of Musk and the far right trolls encouraged by his support for ‘free speech’. Several smaller sites have attracted new users as people either left twitter altogether or set up alternatives in case of complete collapse.

Of these Mastodon has been the most discussed and attracted many new users, including me. But this isn’t a post about Mastodon (here’s a good Mastodon starter guide if that’s what you’re after), it’s a post that started life as a Mastodon thread. I’ve edited it to bring it more in line with a blog format. This is a post about an operating system: Ubuntu.

Why and how I made the switch to Ubuntu

While we are thinking about the power of social media platforms, it feels like an appropriate moment to think about the tools we use more broadly. With that in mind, I think it’s worth publicly discussing some changes I’ve made in to my working patterns in recent years. These were intended to reduce the role of commercial tools in producing my research and writing. I hope this post may be of interest to fellow historians, humanities scholars, writers, and others, who are considering the challenges of big tech monopolies.

When I started my PhD I scraped together what money I had to buy a new HP Windows laptop. It was a decent workhorse and I enjoyed the easy integration with OneDrive; I wrote my thesis on Word, using Zotero (desktop version) as a reference manager and citation tool. These tools all played pretty well together, but there were times of concerning, mysterious failures. OneDrive in particular, although brilliant when working, needed regular doses of TLC to keep it functioning properly. By the end of my PhD the computer was deadly slow.

Having been fortunate enough to secure some funding after the PhD, I felt that it was time to invest in a more professional level tool. I spent a lot of the last year of my PhD imagining the next machine I would buy myself (we all need our procrastination techniques!). I felt that some of the speed problems I had were not just because of ageing laptop hardware, but the greediness of Windows processes and software running in the background. After all, the computer was only a few years old.

(At some point I installed a Linux partition running ElementaryOS. I don’t want this post to get too bogged down in technicalities, but I suppose this sentence needs some explanation: Linux is the basic core of a whole host of open source operating systems; a partition is separating out some of you computer’s storage so that you can use it to run an additional operating system; ElementaryOS is a Linux operating system, similar in look to the MacOS that Apple computers run. Having installed this partition, I now had a computer with two different operating systems available.

This was an interesting experiment, enough to give me confidence that I could work in a Linux environment. At the time I couldn’t switch over yet, because my thesis had progressed far enough that I was pretty much stuck with Windows tools. The fact that the partition seemed to run noticeably faster than the Windows part of the machine reinforced the idea that it wasn’t the hardware that was the real problem. So when I looked into buying a new machine, I was willing to think seriously about Linux options.)

I was unwilling to spend a significant amount of money locking myself into either the Windows or Apple universe. In the end I bought a laptop from Juno Computers, running Ubuntu (you can install Ubuntu on any computer, but having one designed for and shipped with it makes compatibility issues less likely).

I should say that although I am very interested in technology, I am not a high-level user of it really. I had messed about with Ubuntu as a way of saving an old Windows XP machine once, but couldn’t get it working properly. Things are far less finicky than they were back then though: Ubuntu may have its differences from the dominant operating systems, but I haven’t found these to be any huge barrier.

I did have one recurring issue with sound, but was able to fix this eventually thanks to the lively community of Ubuntu users. Any problem I’ve had so far has been discussed by others already, so you can piggy-back on their solutions and discussions. Although I’m not techie, I do quite like investigating these solutions, so perhaps I take some pleasure from a bit of trouble-shooting that others wouldn’t. That said, I lost more work time fixing Windows issues than I have fixing anything on Ubuntu.

My writing workflow on Ubuntu

Now then, it’s all very well to say I’ve escaped the two major commercial operating systems, but how do I actually work? How do I get things done? For some time, alongside my experiments in operating systems, I had been fiddling about with alternatives to Word. Of course, there are good open source word processors out there (I use LibreOffice Writer), but the more I considered what my objection to Word was the less it seemed about Word itself and more about writing directly in a word processor at all.

In essence I felt as though using such high level software for all stages of writing distracted from the words and put too much focus on the look. Anyone who’s ever tried to write anything long has surely shared this Bojack Horseman experience to some extent

I found much discussion of Latex online, and attempted to use this for a while, but I found it very complex and I never felt I had control of it. Instead, at some point in the early months of switching to Ubuntu, I started experimenting with Markdown and this has become my favoured mode of first draft writing over the last two years. This is very minimal compared to Latex, but I found this opened-up a free-er style of writing, where I progress from notes to first draft more easily

Writing in Markdown means writing in plain text, so there is no time lost in the first phase writing to thinking about how it looks on the page. The formatting stage, which comes later, can feel as though it takes longer, but there’s great value, I think, in separating it out. You can also edit Markdown files with any plain text editor, so your documents are not tied to one version of one proprietary software. This is a nice intro to how to use Markdown and why you might want to.

What this means In practical terms is that all my documents start life as markdown files. Only when they are quite well progressed do I generate a document for formatting through a word processor. I use libreoffice for this, though one could just as well use Word or anything else. There’s a way of integrating zotero with markdown so that full citations in your preferred style are generated when you generate this document.

It’s taken quite some time to be fully comfortable working like this and I still look up how to do even basic things, but it’s put me in a healthier relationship with my writing tools. My work progresses in clearer stages from ideas (writing by hand) to drafting (markdown) to final editing and formatting (word processor). Having several stages also gives me lots of opportunities to make small changes in phrasing that improve things gradually. I’m very happy with this workflow.

This has all been about how I go about doing my own work. When it comes to collaboration I’m all for tools that work in browser, and using Ubuntu is no barrier to these. So long as things remain in browser, my working practices don’t look any different from someone using an apple or windows machine.

I hope this post has been of interest! I am a historian of the built environment, currently working at The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. If you have questions about how I use any of the tools mentioned, or would just like to chat about alternative ways of working, please drop me a line at

How to write a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship stage 1 application

Recently I’ve been in touch with a couple of people who had questions about the British Academy postdoc scheme that is funding my research project ‘Making North Sea coasts in England, Flanders and the Netherlands, c.1800-1950’ at The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London for the next three years. I shared some advice with them, but it occurred to me that it would be more equitable to have this available to anyone interested. So I’m writing this post. It’s a bit late for the current application cycle, but hopefully can be useful to people already preparing their stage 1 applications or thinking of applying to the British Academy next year.

Rather than jump straight into the advice I offered, I’m going to start with a brief bit of background on UK postdocs. This will help anyone unfamiliar with the UK research funding landscape; if you are already some of the way into preparing an application you can probably skip this next section and go straight to the next part where I give some specific advice. One thing I’m not discussing here is whether the UK is a good research environment: there are many issues with it, and also many reasons you might be attracted to it, that are all probably best left for another time!

(A quick word on advice I found useful: the talk that really convinced me to go for the BA scheme was Sarah Arens at ECRday2021, available here (from about 31.30). All of the talks that day were interesting, you can find them on this page.)

Types of UK postdoctoral positions

The terminology around postdoctoral positions can vary in different countries, funding systems, and universities, so before I get into specific advice about the British Academy it’s worth giving a brief overview of the various positions a postdoc might have in the UK (as I’m a historian, what follows concerns humanities disciplines although many sciences and social sciences are similar):

  • Teaching Fellowships/temporary lectureships: there are a wide range of temporary (aka fixed-term) teaching positions in UK universities. These are sometimes given names that clearly distinguish them from permanent positions (a Teaching Fellowship, for example) or they sometimes use the same job title as a permanent position (such as Lecturer or Senior Lecturer) but in either case the job advert should clearly state the length of contract being offered. These positions are focused on teaching; sometimes there may also be some support for a small amount of time spent on research. These are not generally termed ‘postdocs’ in the UK, as that is generally taken to imply a research position.
  • Postdoctoral Research Assistantships (PDRAs): these positions are research-focused, and involve working on a specific part of a larger project led by a Principal Investigator. As such, these positions involve working as part of a team, with varying levels of support for your individual work. They also vary a great deal in length, from a few months to a few years. Again, these are advertised positions so the length of contract should be clearly stated. It is difficult to make general remarks about these as the terms vary so much, but one thing worth noting is that postdocs are often sought to bring a specific set of skills or area of expertise into a project that cannot be supplied by the rest of the team.
  • University/College Research Fellowships/Junior Research Fellowships/Chancellors Fellowships etc: some UK institutions fund promising researchers directly, through a range of different schemes, some regular and others occasional or one-off. These can vary in length from one year to as long as five years. They are sometimes called Chancellors Fellowships or something similar relating to university administration. A small minority of schemes (such as NUAcT at Newcastle or the Nottingham Research Fellowships) offer a tenure-track path, although the route to tenure is often dependent on securing additional external funding, and these schemes generally only run for a fixed number of years. These will generally involve presenting a coherent research plan for the next few years; some schemes will require more details than others. The colleges of Oxford and Cambridge have a tradition of offering Junior Research Fellowships (JRFs) to promising scholars who have recently completed (or are just near the end of) their PhDs (if you see an advert for one of these that says it is unremunerated this means that it is intended for someone who already has postdoctoral funding at the relevant university, this should not be confused with paid JRF schemes). Historically these were awards to scholars with strong PhD theses, so although the application processes vary there is generally an assessment of written work involved and less weight is given to future research plans.
  • Postdoctoral Fellowships with external funding (British Academy, Leverhulme Trust, Wellcome Trust*, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions**): these are research-focused positions, generally around three years in length (the schemes linked to here vary between 2 and 5 years). These are not jobs that seek applicants: rather, they are funding schemes that award money to a research project with one researcher, the postdoc. Eligibility criteria vary and can be found on the websites linked to above, in particular it is important to note how long you remain eligible after being awarded your PhD (three years in the case of the British Academy) and any requirements about existing connection to the UK (the Leverhulme Trust scheme is for scholars who have a UK PhD or a job at a UK university). Generally funding covers salary and a research budget of some level. The applicant must approach a university to host them, generally through an academic that they identify as a potential mentor for the project. This mentor role is a little like a PhD supervisor, but less hands-on as the postdoc should have the skills needed to complete the research. The British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust both require the host university to provide some funding in addition to what they contribute: 20% for the BA and 50% for Leverhulme. This means that these applications involve a significant commitment from the university, and not all will be able to support applications to these schemes every year. Universities (or departments) sometimes run a competition of their own to select candidates to put forward for these schemes, as they are highly competitive. If you are interested in working with a UK academic on an application for a scheme like this, be sure to contact them as early as possible, as there may be additional hurdles to clear such as an internal competition or funding approval. And be aware that their university may not be able to support such applications in a particular year: this is not a comment on you or a sign that your potential mentor does not support your work! Universities that are supporting applications sometimes advertise this, but this varies.

This is just a general overview, but gives some flavour of the sorts of things you might see advertised or hear discussed. Almost all academic jobs in the UK are listed on, so if you are interested you should look at that site and consider signing-up for email alerts. It is worth saying that the formal minimum qualification for a permanent lectureship in the UK is usually a PhD (generally with some teaching experience), so there is no embedded tradition of tenure-track jobs, although sometimes these do appear.

My personal advice on British Academy funding applications

The BA is a bit of a black box even to those of us who are successful, so what I’m about to say is just the strategy I followed, in consultation with my mentor and the research office at The Bartlett. In terms of understanding how the BA scheme is positioned, I think it’s probably useful to compare it to Leverhulme’s: the Leverhulme Trust thinks of itself as a funder that supports research that might not otherwise find a home. Of course it cares about excellence but it also values originality in an expansive, potentially quirky sense that is consciously distinct from the supposedly more traditional stance of the BA (or the expansive well-being agenda of the Wellcome Trust). The British Academy seeks to fund what it considers ‘outstanding’ humanities researchers, so their focus is on finding the strongest applications (in this they are similar to the PhD funding bodies such as the AHRC in the UK system). One specific aim of the scheme is to equip applicants with the skills and experience for a permanent job, so it’s worth thinking about how it fits within your overall career trajectory and how this is precisely the thing you need to take you to the next level.

In terms of how to develop the proposal content, the classic trio of questions that people often mention are relevant: Why this? Why now? Why you? Think about how you can take your reader from not knowing anything about your topic to really wanting you to find the answers! This might sound basic, and is similar to framing a PhD application, but is still at the heart of this kind of postdoc application. You should also have clear reasons for the choice of mentor and department, although there isn’t space for these to be long. One thing that came up in early conversations was my mentor said that my first draft of the application didn’t really have explicit research questions as such; I rephrased and moved these closer to the start to make them more apparent.

A couple of things to consider in terms of how you set out the application itself:

– Disciplinary boundaries: are you moving disciplinary settings (for example from an English department to history) for this project? If so, how do these disciplines relate in your work. In the application form you must identify a main discipline and can add a subsidiary one. Think about how the choice of discipline affects how your application will be assessed. There’s also space for you to label your project as belonging to an emerging new field or one that’s at risk. If you think you could make a case for either of these, probably makes sense to do so although officially BA say they don’t favour these applications. I argued that my project contributed to the emerging field of environmental architectural history, citing recent symposiums and new publications and showing that my work is already part of this agenda.

– Relation to existing scholarship: there’s no part of the form dedicated to a bibliography, but think about whether it’s worth including one in your main project description. Maybe it’s because I’m a historian, but I find it hard to see how an application could work without at least something in this direction, though I imagine it varies in size.

– Previous projects: the BA is wary of funding that just covers your time while you publish work from earlier projects. Make clear that this work is new, and present your previous projects as completed. (Of course this project might continue something you’ve already started working on, that’s not an issue, but make clear how this project is distinct to the next three years.) Think about this when completing the CV elements of the application form and how you describe any existing/forthcoming publications.

– One thing my application was praised for by people at UCL was a coherent link between the aims and outputs, events involved, and the timetable and costings. I started with the key outputs I wanted to achieve and events I wanted to attend and sort of hung the timing around those. In the first stage application I roughly used academic terms for the timetable, but in stage 2 when you do costings these are quarterly, so I changed to quarterly planning. As the timetable is just a text box you can describe it however you want, but something that is visually easy to skim and which clearly links to other parts of the application is useful I’d say. (Don’t be put off by the Full Economic Costing element at stage 2: this is all worked out by the university research office, you just have to estimate a budget.)

– When you’re approaching the key dates, be very clear with your host institution and referee about what is needed when. Bear in mind that their research office will have a very clear idea of their own processes but only a more general one of the BA, so it’s down to you to keep everyone on the same page organisationally.

– This shouldn’t need saying but be polite and professional with everyone involved and do thank them! Remember that this scheme involves the university committing funding to you as well as the British Academy, so you are also asking for an investment from them and should behave accordingly. With that said, part of the process will involve negotiating your salary; do not devalue yourself. Provide an extensive CV which puts your existing experience and expertise in the best light, and look at the university’s payscale yourself to understand the logic by which your pay offer will be made.

These are the general points that seem especially important to me! If you have specific questions about any of this please don’t hesitate to contact me on

*The Wellcome Trust Early-Career Award is open to all disciplines but applicants must show how their project ‘will deliver shifts in understanding that could improve human life, health and wellbeing’.

**This is a European funding scheme and the post-brexit relationship between the UK and Europe for this kind of research is still being argued over, so exactly how this scheme will work in the future isn’t entirely clear.

What is the point of the Report of the UK Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities?

Map of the world with the British Empire shaded in pink. Framed by images of a White Britannia and various colonial rulers and subjects

Writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) Blog on 31 March 2021, Dr Mohammad S Razai, Prof. Azeem Majeed and Prof. Aneez Esmail, tell us: ‘This report is a missed opportunity. It lacks the scientific credibility and authority to be used for major policy decisions. Its methodology and language, its lack of scientific expertise, and the well-known opinions of its authors make it more suitable as a political manifesto rather than an authoritative expert report.’ They are responding to the report published by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities released on the same day (yesterday as I write). This 258 page document has already been attacked by many experts in the fields of knowledge that it claims to have summarised. Here, rather than add to these critiques directly, I want to take up the idea of the report as a political manifesto, to try to more precisely identify what its authors are seeking to do. For this is a text that is seeking to make a landmark intervention in ‘a pivotal moment in our nation’s race debate.'(9)

Now, the report does make a range of recommendations, and no doubt the authors would argue that these should be the heart of any analysis of what they have tried to do. Surely, if the recommendations are sound then all is well, whatever scruples one might have about the details of the research? But that question is deeply political, because, as the BMJ authors say, this document is really a manifesto: it brings together a wide range of social, educational and economic policies that it says would help with ‘Race and Ethnic Disparities’, but which largely reproduce completely standard general aims for a Conservative government. For example, rather than asking whether police should have stop and search powers, the report calls for body cameras to ‘Increase legitimacy and accountability of stop and search’ (recommendation 14). Recommendations 15-17 call for better support for children to plan their future careers, wider access to and information about apprenticeship schemes, and action to ‘Encourage innovation’. These are all pretty conventional policy approaches, packaged here as solutions to racial inequalities but not specifically built for them. One could equally imagine them being proposed as a solution to post-Brexit skills shortages, for example. One can agree or disagree with them, but they do not seem to have emerged from a deep analysis so much as been chosen off the rack.

Not all the recommendations are so bland. Recommendation 4, for example, on creating ‘partnerships between the police and communities’ has some rather more specific detail, which I am not qualified to comment on. Recommendation 8 on workplace fairness calls for organisations to move away from unconscious bias training and for the government to work with experts to produce better guidance on diversity. When it comes to specific policies, no doubt we will see further responses from expert individuals and organisations in the coming days. Given the responses already available, I doubt that many of these will go uncontested.

What I am more interested in here is how the report stitches together this rather grab-bag set of proposals into a general position on racial divisions in the UK. The conclusion claims that the aim was ‘to present a new race agenda for the country'(233). Thus, the text is a historical document, making specific claims about continuities and differences between the UK of 2021 and earlier times. This divide is, in fact, central to how the report develops, and it’s an element well worth shining a light on.

The Chair, Dr Tony Sewell, draws on Linton Kwesi Johnson in his introduction, to set up a generational account of racism in the UK. He contrasts the overt exclusions of the 1950s to the rebellions and running battles with police of the ’70s and ’80s. This spirit of rebellion he claims continued into the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests of 2020. Then he announces that ‘this report speaks to a new period, which we have described as the era of “participation”.'(7) Here the distinction between past, present and future is not used for descriptive purposes, but as an accusation against those who would rebel against the racist structures of UK society. BLM protestors, notable for being a diverse group of people with broad interests in social justice, are here being presented as stuck in the past; they are not, Sewell is saying, a dynamic new global movement trying to break open the space for genuine racial justice, but instead a bunch of throwbacks to confrontations from Sewell’s youth.

He goes on to say that this new period can only be spoken of ‘if we acknowledge that the UK has fundamentally shifted since those periods in the past and has become a more open society.'(7) This is another peculiar rhetorical slippage: the era of participation exists simultaneously as something to aspire to and as a description of the present. If you want to reach it, you have to accept that at some loosely defined period within the last few decades (perhaps after the 1980s, perhaps since last summer, it is not at all clear) the UK became ‘open to all its communities.'(7) This last is caveated immediately by saying that ‘the door may only be half open to some’; the implication presumably is that in the new UK things are only ever half-open, never half-closed. In a boringly predictable move, we are told that the White working class also find themselves outside half open doors sometimes. It may be worth repeating, for the record, that campaigners for racial justice are simply not claiming that society oppresses nobody else or that some anti-working class systems affect people across racial divides, but that systems of structural racism act against People of Colour in the UK.

Sewell’s account of his era of participation sheds light on a strange sentence earlier in his foreword: ‘For some groups historic experience of racism still haunts the present and there was a reluctance to acknowledge that the UK had become open and fairer.'(6) He claims that this openness is shown by the data, although throughout the report as a whole there is a confusion between whether things are actually fair and open in the UK or whether they are simply better than they were in the past. In any fight for justice, one must surely keep these things clearly separated: if you are to punch me, I would rather you do it without knuckle dusters, but we should not celebrate the UK taking off its knuckledusters as sufficient amends either for people currently being punched or for those already punched.

The reason ‘historic’ racism ‘haunts’ its victims is that Sewell’s definition of history is what most people think of as the very recent past: he is claiming that people should let go of racism they have themselves lived through, all on the basis of carefully choreographed data that he says shows that racism is much reduced in the UK. He never even goes as far as saying that it is fully ended, but is telling People of Colour that they ought to get over it if they want race relations to improve. This is never quite delivered as a threat, but one can easily imagine it as one without changing anything about Sewell’s core argument.

History is at the heart of how Sewell imagines the UK and its various ethnic communities, as shown by the longest paragraph in his foreword, in which he discusses a new ‘Making of Modern Britain’ teaching resource. Apparently this is a response to ‘negative calls for “decolonising” the curriculum.'(8) Whereas the recent past has been dismissed as a period of rebellion Britain can now move beyond, here Sewell suggests that colonial history ought to be recovered so that it can be reclaimed by all children. Those of us calling for decolonising the curriculum actually would like to see the history of the British Empire taught well, but by labelling such moves ‘negative’, what kind of allegiance is Sewell claiming? Surely to decolonise is only negative if you are a supporter of empire, a position openly claimed by many on the right in British politics, but surely not something that is obvious to the majority of people in the country (or indeed the rest of the world). To seek to understand ‘how Britishness influenced the Commonwealth and local communities’ as if economic exploitation delivered through violent oppression was not the central point of colonial rule is to adopt a dangerous kind of false innocence. To do so in a text that claims to have discovered a UK that is almost free of racism must make the reader wonder how many of these conclusions could simply have been written up without any investigation at all, so little grounding do they have any kind of reality.

This report is actually far more closely bound up with colonialism than its authors would likely admit. By treating persistent racism in society as a problem that can be solved by goodwill from individuals rather than through determined structural measures to bring down the historic apparatus of a British state that was built more to run the empire than to govern Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it carries out a vast exercise of victim blaming and gaslighting. Sewell would have us believe that racism exists more in the minds of the oppressed than in the actions of those with power, and he seeks to dismantle the intersectional alliances that have fought against racism in the UK. BAME, a fraught term standing for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic, may well be less useful than some existing alternatives such as People of Colour. But the point of such a term is to quickly identify and bring together people historically held at the bottom of the racial hierarchies that structure British society; the report claims that this name lumps together groups of people who are unified only be not being White. This is factually accurate, and of course there are many differences between groups, but racism also puts these groups into one category, through exclusion and oppression.

I have focused on Sewell’s foreword for its value as an indication of the dominant ideology currently running the UK. This claims that whatever forces of oppression may have dominated past societies have now been largely ended, and that the only remaining obstacle to true equality of opportunity (the only kind of equality that these people lay claim to) can now be achieved if only the victims get over themselves and learn the ways of the victors. It draws a hard line between today and the recent past, as if those who grew up in poverty, excluded from large parts of the public sphere and damaged through the education and health systems can simply take off these wounds like an old set of clothes and become raceless Britons. It is easy to think of examples of similar arguments applied to women, disabled people, members of LGBTQI+ communities, immigrants, Travellers and Gypsies, and so on. If you didn’t have a chair when the societal music stopped, that was probably your fault and no one who has a chair need do anything, or even feel bad about it. The world is almost perfect, and noticing that it is not perfect is an affront to its near perfection.

One further note on the question of history in all this. Sewell reproduces a common myth that somehow the history of race in the UK only extends back as far as postwar immigration from decolonising countries. This not only treats the empire as some separate space that played no part in the making of the UK, surely false in itself, but also feeds a pernicious vision of a White Europe only recently entered by outsiders of other races. This is simply an illusion. For example the Roman Empire, itself part of foundational ideas of European exceptionalism, was deeply multicultural and some of the first colonists in Britain were likely from the Middle East and North Africa. Go deep enough back, and we are all descended from just a handful of people in Africa. To set up Britain or Europe as once White places is to contribute to a discourse that is already steeped in racial ideas from nineteenth century colonialists. Any decolonised curriculum will have to find new ways of bringing these human stories of movement, difference, conflict and hybridity together, but whereas Sewell apparently thinks this would be negative, I for one would think this a most exciting development in our sense of who we are and what we could be.