Posted in English

My History Course Turns Out To Be Both More and Less Interesting Than I Thought

I’ve been thinking for a while about writing a post on the course I’m taking about the history of Portugal, but today’s Twitter news has made me finally stretch my thumbs to do it now because… Wow, I was not expecting this!

The course is bi-weekly, presented online by the Bertrand chain of bookshops. I missed the first one so I’ve only actually attended one class so far. It’s taught by a woman called Raquel Varela, who is Portuguese, and a Brazilian guy called Roberto Della Santa. I was a bit non-plussed by the session I attended. It was about the origins or liberalism and the unification of the national market in the 19th century but there weren’t many references to actual historical events; the bulk of the lesson was given over to explaining Marx’s theories about capitalist production. OK, well, Marx does set out to explain historical processes so yeah, fine, but it seemed likes strange digression for a course on Portuguese history, going into abstract realms of economics and historiography without much reference to the real sequence of events. It felt more like a come-to-Jesus, or rather, a come-to-Karl… appeal than a lesson. That’s OK though, I’ve studied Marx at uni, and I’m quite happy to listen to other people’s points of view. I’d have asked a question if my grasp of the language was more secure but no, not today!

I’m not complaining – I enjoyed it. I hope the remainder of the course will be less abstract though.

Anyway, fast forward to today. I open twitter and there’s a tweet right at the top of my feed with a link to an article and a picture that looks familiar. It takes a while to realise it’s one of the course teachers, Raquel Varela, and the article is about a petition signed by “more than a hundred intellectuals” in support of academic freedom in general and of her specifically. It turns out she is quite a well-known figure. This surprised me because the price of the course is so low I’d assumed the teachers were just keen amateurs they dragged in from the store’s popular history counter. I wasn’t expecting star power! Its like attending a year-long study group at your local Waterstones for a hundred and forty quid and finding it’s being run by Simon Schama. You’d go “bloody hell, i wasn’t expecting this!” She’s a kind of public intellectual, attached to the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, author of several books and occasional TV pundit. She’s taken a lot of fairly controversial positions, not least on covid, but that’s another story for another day.

Anyway the reason she was in my twitter feed was to do with a public hoo-ha that has been going on for a couple of weeks now. It started when rumours began appearing on social media that her academic CV had been inflated by repeating items multiple times to make it seem like she had more academic clout than she really has. I don’t know where these rumours came from originally but she refers to them in her blog in July, describing them as a “campaign of defamation”. The matter came to a head around the 20th of September when the newspaper Público reported that the Instituto de História Contemporânea had withdrawn its support for her candidacy in a scheme run by the Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia called the Concurso de Estímulo ao Emprego Científico Individual after checking the allegations and finding that she appeared only to have published about half as many articles as she claimed. Now, I know inflating your cv is not exactly uncommon, but integrity is a big deal in academic circles, especially when you are using your track record as a platform for competing against other academics as in this case.

Varela didn’t take this lying down, instead using her legal right of reply to demand (the verb is “exigir”) an apology from Público,

Varela Claps Back

But it didn’t come and they continue to report on the progress of the ongoing investigation.

This brings us back to the present day where Sapo’s i online site reports on the letter of support from a hundred or so writers and academics. Their petition refers to a “campaign of character assassination”, involving Público, which it accuses of “promiscuity” with anonymous sources spreading misinformation. It also mentions other, more unpleasant allegations in “ultra-Conservative” sources and throws in a reference to “o crescimento de fake news e da extrema-direita”. In one particularly weird flourish of denunciation they say “Este é um caso exemplar de como o nepotismo dentro de um sector da academia e a necrofilia de alguma imprensa procura silenciar uma intelectual”. Wait… What? Nepotism? Necrophilia? Calm down lads.

The effect seems to be to associate the (perfectly legitimate, it seems to me) story in Público with some more shadowy stuff online, implying they are somehow part of a co-ordinated smear campaign. This seems a little unfair, since whatever the online muckrakers are doing, Público are at least reporting on matters of public record: either her CV is padded or it isn’t, and that question is being adjudicated by the relevant scientific bodies. Whether they find in her favour or not is up to them but fairness and transparency seem to be essential in upholding trust in the scientific process. Mixing it up with conspiracy theories doesn’t help either side.

Anyway, I will certainly carry on attending the course and I’ll enjoy it a lot more knowing the backstory!