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

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?

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.