The PhD viva: the five things that made a difference, part II

Back in April I posted shortly after submitting my PhD thesis on the five things that made a difference to me in getting it done.  The viva seemed a distant prospect.  Maybe you have to invest so much in getting the thesis (and yourself) together that however long you have to wait between submission and examination it seems an age away…

In the end, with other things demanding attention, I only had just over a week to prepare.  In retrospect, this was, at least for me, a Good Thing.  Having only two months to wait, I did have the advantage that the material was fresh-ish in my mind.  But only having that week kept me focused on a small number of tasks, which could otherwise have expanded to fill the time available without adding to my preparedness.

The other advantage I had was knowing and working alongside a lot of people with PhDs and PhD students.  Even if you only have access to your supervisor, number one is as simple as: ask!  Ask what it’s like to be examined – and to be an examiner.  Ask what experience they had and what they’d do differently now.  Ask what they expect a candidate to be able to do – and what not.

Which leads me on to number two.  Like any other work of scholarship, there is no such thing as perfection (and there’s extensive scholarship on just that issue).  Remember in particular that a PhD is an apprenticeship in scholarship.  An original contribution to knowledge does not mean a definitive one…

In this sense, the thesis and viva are the final stages in a process, in which you get to demonstrate the critical powers and command of subject material you developed over an extended period of time.  So number three would be: try to enjoy the intellectual exercise that this demonstration entails!  I couldn’t always maintain it, but I tried see the viva as an opportunity to discuss my research area with three eminent historians, in detail.  To test my thinking and get their advice.  Not that that gets rid of nerves, but it probably sends you into the room in a constructive frame of mind, which is another Good Thing.

On a more practical note, number four would be reading the thesis carefully and anticipating questions and concerns.  These can range from the broad (what is the role of x concept or y theory in your work?) to the very specific (on page z you claim…) so flagging and annotating your copy is a useful exercise.  Even if you don’t end up using the copy in the viva (I didn’t), the process makes you engage in a focused way with your work, but from an examiner’s/future reader’s perspective.  It should also help with answering opening questions, for example on the key themes, ideas or findings in the thesis (as well as highlighting corrections you may need to make).

Finally, test then rest.  Doing a mock viva or just fielding a few searching questions can help you feel ready.  You know your research best and being (gently) tested on that knowledge just reminds you of that.  It may also point to a couple of areas for final preparation so is probably best done a day or two ahead of time (but not too far).  Once I’d done that, had a read-through and made some final notes, I found that having to detach was really helpful.  Lunch out with colleagues turned out to be the best way I could have spent the last couple of hours beforehand.  Some discussion was had about the impending viva but not too much, because frankly other people shouldn’t have to talk about your PhD the whole time.  And maybe you shouldn’t either.  Taking a rest from having it at the forefront of your mind can also keep it fresh for the viva – and also give those closest to you a well-earned break…

Q: How many historians does it take to change a light bulb?

alixrgreen:

In what might be the finest opening gambit for a paper on public history, Rebecca Conard – in this morning’s session at the NCPH annual conference in Ottawa – introduced us to the concept of the historiographical joke (just the mention of which was enough to elicit laughs).

This is the joke she introduced us to.  Funny for insiders but pointing, like a lot of good jokes, to something more substantive. If this is what history looks like, how can we ever make sense of it for outsiders?

Originally posted on The Dispersal of Darwin:

A: There is a great deal of debate on this issue. Up until the mid-20th century, the accepted answer was ‘one’: and this Whiggish narrative underpinned a number of works that celebrated electrification and the march of progress in light-bulb changing. Beginning in the 1960s, however, social historians increasingly rejected the ‘Great Man’ school and produced revisionist narratives that stressed the contributions of research assistants and custodial staff. This new consensus was challenged, in turn, by women’s historians, who criticized the social interpretation for marginalizing women, and who argued that light bulbs are actually changed by department secretaries. Since the 1980s, however, postmodernist scholars have deconstructed what they characterize as a repressive hegemonic discourse of light-bulb changing, with its implicit binary opposition between ‘light’ and ‘darkness,’ and its phallogocentric privileging of the bulb over the socket, which they see as colonialist, sexist, and racist. Finally, a new generation of neo-conservative…

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The PhD thesis: the five things that made a difference to me

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I’ve just submitted my PhD thesis (I can’t actually believe it).  This doesn’t really entitle me to start dispensing advice, but here are five things that, right now, I think made a difference.

1. Be open-minded and sceptical at the same time

Scholarly material isn’t infallible.  Wikipedia is sometimes revelatory.  I read a recently-published textbook that said public historians were ‘promiscuous’ with their sources.  Which is rather revealing of the authors’ view on public history.  I would rather say I’ve been eclectic, but I guess promiscuous will do.  Anyway, it can pay to be willing to look for evidence almost anywhere – as long as you ‘read’ it with a sceptical eye, wherever it comes from.

Sometimes you can find things in unexpected places.  Only a week before I submitted, I worked out (from Wikipedia) that Charles Clarke – he of the dismissive comments about ornamental medieval historians – was the son of Richard Clarke, the senior Treasury official who’d been a major advocate for the experiment of “funding experience” in the 1950s and 1960s (basically, using history to improve policymaking).  OK, it was only a footnote, but an interesting one in the context of my comments on changing political culture and attitudes towards history.

I’ve been told, in a research student training course, that only journal articles and academic books “count”.  Be confident enough to more promiscuous – just take the necessary precautions.

2. Invest in your references

EndNote is great (other reference management packages are available).  Importing direct from the British Library or JSTOR is rather satisfying, in geeky kind of way.  But you can store up a whole load of work if you don’t check (and refine) as you go.  Are there transcription errors?  What conventions are you going to use for footnoting and bibliography?  (Because publishers have very different practices).

You don’t want – believe me – to be editing hundreds of individual records for consistency just before submission…

3. Structure early, restructure as you go

One of the best things my supervisor did was get me to get chapter headings and sub-headings down early.  They changed as the research progressed, but probably only went through three iterations.  They kept me, my reading, thinking and writing, focused and coherent (mostly).

It may have been particularly helpful as a part-time student, who could only write in blocks of a week or so, often months apart.  I could, within a couple of hours of being back at my desk, locate myself again in the overall project – and pick up the thematic threads connecting the chapters.

Formulating chapter headings can be daunting.  It feels like a big commitment.  I’m not sure what the best analogy would be – a scaffolding system maybe, which allows you to build your thesis soundly behind it, move between sections and stand on different levels to work on and view the edifice.  However you see it, it does, I think, bring a certain discipline that helps you move between the big picture and the detail.

4. Write – almost anything

I’m sure every student gets this advice, and I’ve certainly dished it out.  But it does genuinely help.  The first thing I wrote, to write anything, was a ramble about some issues that interested me.  I still have it.  It’s called ‘rabbis, Romanticism and Seeley’ and is essentially me thinking about the (admittedly unlikely) connections between a Master’s on Prussian rabbis in the 1840s and doctoral research on using history in public policy.  God only knows what my supervisors thought…

‘The religious reformers of Wissenschaft des Judentums,’ I wrote, ‘took on the roles of archaeologists and historians to enable them to be architects. The past, present and future were essentially linked for them. This perspective on time i.e. that it must be viewed as a continuum and that the viewing is purposeful, is another area to consider. Seeley expresses similar idea in the Expansion of England, 1883…’  I wrote that just over 2 years ago, and the ‘stream of time’ became one of the central concepts.

Which is a very long-winded way of saying – writing’s rarely wasted.  It may only get you writing: not a bad thing at all.  But it may also take you somewhere.

5. Be grateful

Just as a final note – doing a PhD is a very personal experience.  But other people often have a major role.  Supervisors, of course, but also parents, partners, friends, children…  I couldn’t have done my PhD without my husband being willing to pick up the slack in all kinds of ways and my Mum’s advice (not to mention keen historian’s mind).

It’s easy to get wrapped up the enormity of what you’re doing, and, to an extent, you have to.  But it does help things along to acknowledge from time to time what others do to enable you to pursue PhD research.  I’m not sure I was always successful on that front, but I tried.  You know who you are – so you can always come chase me for a drink/Lindt bunny/flowers/other reward of choice…

No doubt once I’ve got over the initial post-submission high, rather more sober and considered thoughts on the experience of doing a PhD will come to mind.  Maybe the June viva will put paid to my sense of having any thoughts worth sharing at all.  But for now, these are the things that feel like they made a difference for me being here now.  I hope they are of help to someone.

(Teaching) history in the news

michael-gove-007I had an interesting exchange with Robert Gordon VC, prolific Tweeter and blogger, Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, over a post he put up about students’ apparent lack of awareness of a major news story: the French intervention in Mali.  I mentioned that at the start of every workshop with my third year Public History class, the students bring along and present examples of ‘history in the news’ for discussion.

Having filled a whiteboard with all the many ways in which the past is present in the present, the students have found an impressive array of material.  Royal and papal stories were easily idenitifiable.  But they also started to tune into the role of anniversaries, and the calls for commemoration that often accompany them (such as the Bethnal Green Tube disaster of 3rd March 1943), and to pick up on international news (such as the burning of historic manuscripts in Timbuktu) and on history in politics (Michael Gove’s curriculum reform efforts providing a particularly rich seam). 

The students quickly developed a capacity to read the news like historians, rather than consuming it.  They already had the skills to do so, it’s just that they weren’t necessarily being exercised.  Maybe ‘historianship’ was compartmentalised in their minds, something you only access when writing an essay.  Doing public history has, I hope, given them a sense that historianship can be a habitual practice, a mode of thinking that can shape how they see and interact with the world.

‘History in the news’ generates some of the liveliest discussions – maybe because in a sense the students ‘own’ that part of the class.  Having three exchange students has been particularly interesting and has made us all aware of the extent to which our referents and understandings are conditioned by context (and rarely inspected).  Explaining Remembrance Day, Bonfire Night or the Battle of Britain (or indeed, Australia’s Sorry Day or Martin Luther King Day in the United States) has also helped us really get at some of the key issues in the scholarly literature.

‘History in the news’ is only one way of doing it, but making that connection in public history teaching between history as a scholarly activity and history as a mode of thinking and viewing seems to me a priority.  Even if students never end up working in history, they can always be thinking with it.

Policy advisers: out of the top corridor and into the classroom?

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The university policy adviser is now a fixture in higher education.  At least, there are enough of us that we’re now getting organised.  There’s a large Political Affairs Network under the auspices of UUK that brings together policy, comms, strategy and related staff as well as a smaller, more informal collective of VCs’ policy advisers and exec officers, now named the Lighthouse Group (after Plymouth’s Caroline Chipperfield handed the attendees of the first get-together snazzy lighthouse phone charms).

We work to very different VCs with very different institutional aims, but in practice the similarities are surprisingly many.  One of the main similarities is also the source of one of the main challenges: we work in VCs’ offices.  Maybe not in physical terms that far from where the core business of the university happens, but sometimes it may as well be.  It would be relatively easy to stay in the bubble of the ‘top corridor’ and only interact with other parts of the university when we need a ‘crunchy’ case study for an MP’s briefing note, some figures for a speech or an amenable group of students for a ministerial visit.  That is of course a crude characterisation (all the HE policy advisers I’ve met have genuine dedication to their institutions).  And we do need access to – and the trust of – the executive team to be effective. But I wonder if that’s only half the argument.

Would we be better policy advisers if we were also part of ‘core business’?  More aware of operational realities, more part of the fabric of the place and more able to bridge the corporate and academic ‘levels’, both as advisers and advocates?

Some could get involved in teaching and supervision, building on (or developing) their academic credentials or team teaching to integrate their professional expertise on politics, government, journalism or management.  Others have come by different routes and could contribute to student administration, marketing or recruitment.  Of course, some of these roles would need significant commitment – a genuinely dual or hybrid role – whereas others could be fulfilled on a less formal basis.  And there would need to be mutual benefit and a collaborative approach – no-one would want a tokenistic effort that involved more trouble to accommodate than it was worth.

Personally, the best and most fulfilling thing I have done has been taking on an academic role.  It has clarified my sense of self and opened up a whole new future.  But even if you’re a dedicated follower of policy, getting some experience of ‘core business’ has got to be worth considering.  From the university’s perspective, why shouldn’t policy advisers be expected to  ‘practise what they brief’, if only to make them better advisers and advocates?  From the adviser’s perspective, we can develop that rare combination of profile and substance that is often lacking in politics (with the well-established special adviser route to ministerial status).

As I’ve argued before, it’s a shame that university systems and structures create parallel tracks for staff that make any such innovation difficult.  Making it happen relies on the entrepreneurship and enthusiasm of those involved (on both sides).  But maybe working on the ‘top corridor’ is only worth it if you also know how to work outside it.

IHR Public History Seminar: Business archives, 19th December

This week we’re talking business under the title ‘Selective History – The absence of business archives in the retelling of the past’.  Seminar convenor Judy Faraday, Partnership Archivist for the John Lewis Partnership will be in conversation with Professor Peter Scott, Director of the Centre for International Business History at Henley Business School, University of Reading, will be the main speaker.

The seminar will be held on Wednesday 19th December in the Montague Room (G26) of the Senate House, University of London, at 17:30 and followed by seasonal drinks and nibbles.  All are warmly welcome.

Thousands of dissertations, journal articles and research papers are created each year.  Some of these become seminal works used by future generations of researchers to continue their quest for the truth.  But how much truth is there if certain groups of relevant sources are not fully utilised?

This seminar will question the way business archive sources are viewed by academics and how researchers can skew the balance of research by avoiding the use of records which may be less obvious, more difficult to view or which are not located in a digital or easy to access location.

Given the perceived limitations on the use of business archives, have the academic world chosen the easy option avoiding the need to address issues around access or responsibility to the creating body, preferring the warmth of their office desks to the chilly strongrooms which may contain those nuggets of information which could add another dimension to their research?

The view from both sides of the searchroom will be discussed by Professor Peter Scott of the Henley Business School and Judy Faraday, Archivist for the John Lewis Partnership with comment designed to stimulate debate and encourage the development of a greater rapport between the academic researcher and the gatekeepers of the historical record.