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.

Independent learning or isolated learning? Squaring the student satisfaction circle

Our Dean of Students was telling me today about a presentation he recently gave, in which he highlighted views expressed by students on what ‘independent learning’ meant.  They essentially said that it meant ‘learning on my own’.  The sense is of an ‘absence’ or ‘lack’ – so independent learning is the same thing that happens in a seminar, lecture or tutorial, just without the support that such contexts provide.  Independence seems to mean isolation, not autonomy.

In the humanities, we emphasise the importance of independent study.  It’s part of learning and practising our disciplines.  It develops skills that we describe to students as valuable for their future lives: defining a problem or question, pursuing a line of enquiry, synthesising evidence, critiquing others’ interpretations, constructing an argument.  The products of such a process – still often essays – provide the raw materials for assessing students’ academic achievement.  Far from being a deficit model, independence is part of being intellectually resourceful and productive (which can be brought to bear not just in individual but also in collaborative work).

The apparent disjuncture between the student and the academic understanding of ‘independent learning’ could be a real issue, not least in terms of students’ capacity to develop that ‘graduateness’ that seems to be associated with an ability to be reflective and to take responsibility and ownership for learning.

Recent UH graduates Lewis Stockwell and Florence Afolabi’s reflections in their recent post on the Guardian learning and teaching hub on collaborative/partnership vs consumerist/transmission models of HE delivery seem relevant here.  In a context where student satisfaction stands as the main indicator of ‘quality’, the belief that they’re just being ‘left on their own’ is a potentially damaging one.  Maybe it’s akin to the perennial issue with feedback.  Do we need to invest more in explaining what independent study actually is, what it looks and feels like, its dead ends and u-turns as well as its moments of insight and discovery – and, importantly, its place at the heart of academic practice?  Or is something more fundamental involved?  Can we square the circle and remodel and describe independent study in a way that enables students to develop academic initiative and independence and allows them to feel supported (and, yes, satisfied) in doing so?

‘Science’ and ‘arts’: should we play in each other’s fields a bit more?

I find science and maths a real draw.  I often listen to The Life Scientific, Material World and More or Less podcasts ahead of more predictable favourites Making History, The Long View and History Today (though maybe not Friday Night Comedy…)

It was interesting to hear the recent  interview on TLS with Sunetra Gupta, novelist and professor of theoretical epidemiology, in which she refused to recognise a division between science and arts, only different ways to express ideas.

From this perspective, the early commitment of Hatfield Technical College to Liberal Studies seems ahead of its time.  All students were to have 10 per cent of teaching time allocated to subjects such as History, Economics, Politics, Geography and Modern Languages.  It was thought that educating the next generation of engineers and technologists in this balanced way would serve the national interest.  So it was rather fitting that C P Snow became the then Hatfield Polytechnic’s first Visitor in 1972.

The humanities have since come into their own as the institution broadened its scope and the model of reserving time for accessing another ‘culture’ did not survive.  Now it seems an unrealisable ideal – and student choice may be delivering a narrower range of experiences than was imposed in the 1950s.  Would we now be prepared to mandate that all students should take a module a year from different Schools or Departments?  What would be the demands on lecturers or the effects on the ‘home’ students?  What would be the implications for students’ grades?  Then again, if we did do it, what might be the returns?

While academics tend to have a strong sense of disciplinary identity, many of us also have an inclination for greater integration of different ways of expressing ideas.  And these may well currently be manifested only in podcast preferences.

But there is often more than unites than divides us.  I often find Alice Bell’s blog Through The Looking Glass setting off some mental sparks and work aligning scientific and historical method has proved hugely interesting and useful. The case for interdisciplinarity between ‘science’ and ‘arts’ in meeting some of the biggest challenges we face, such as climate change or an ageing society, is now being made in stronger terms. But how often do we actually bridge the divide? Or if we do, do we tend to contribute to the greater whole from our respective positions as specialists in our disciplines, rather than getting to ‘play in each other’s fields’?

Getting students thinking again

An interesting post by John Taylor on the Guardian teacher network this week on the need to stop ‘teaching to the test’ and focus on developing pupils’ critical thinking skills.  As a philosophy teacher, he refers to the Socratic method of rigorous but non-dogmatic questioning, which aimed to show students ‘that they didn’t know what they thought they did and to goad them into critically examining their ideas for themselves’.

He helpfully points out the false antithesis between teaching ‘information’, the content knowledge required for exams, and teaching the skill of critical thinking.  It’s the skill that allows students to develop and then demonstrate the ‘real depth of understanding’ that impresses examiners (not to mention employers).  It can also be developed in any subject.  The debate is one that has particular relevance for history given the dissonance that has emerged between curriculum aims around developing ‘critically sharpened intelligence with which to make sense of current affairs’ and the ‘arrangements and systems for delivering them’ (see Haydn in White, 2004).  The knowledge vs skills debate is a costly distraction, if not diversion.  “Mass of content” and “dislocated skills” approaches are both inimical to critical thinking.

Maybe it is to do with assessment methods, which can more easily capture the completion of routine tasks than the complexity of real intellectual engagement and the wide differentiation in answers that result.  There are also more cynical perspectives that argue governments have an interest in the kind of citizens their education systems produce.  The lack of a proper public debate about history and history “in public” probably contributes.  We shouldn’t be satisfied as historians and teachers with the occasional  tendentious exchanges in the press about the state of school history and historical knowledge.  Maybe this is where we are feeling the lack of a strong public history field in the UK – a community of professionals who can lead an informed and ambitious debate about the role and purpose of history individually and collectively?

Postscript: Sam Wineburg’s Historical thinking and other unnatural acts is a good read on this topic (a hybrid like Prof. Wineburg of educational psychology and history)

Parallel tracks 2: Academic/professional divides in universities

I blogged back in March about how the development of intellectual capacity and that of employability skills are too often regarded as parallel tracks in higher education.  Such false dichotomies often create impasses, and impasses inhibit the ability to adapt, respond and innovate.

Another such divide is that between academic and other staff in universities.  In newer institutions, such staff may be called ‘professional’ rather than ‘support’ staff as a way of capturing their ‘different but equal’ status in the running of the organisation.  Many other companies and organisations have taken similar measures.  As a symbol of corporate-level recognition of the contributions different roles make to the whole, this is to be welcomed.  Moves towards equalisation of pay and conditions often follow (such as the single pay spine in HE).

There is certainly more to be done to realise a university culture in which the different roles are truly valued and respected, but to see this just as an HR issue is to miss an important dimension.

As Paul Marshall, ABS Chief Executive, reminded the assembled Hertfordshire Business School in a keynote last week, we live in a VUCA world: Volatile; Uncertain; Complex and Ambiguous (and Higher Education feels to many particularly VUCA).  It wouldn’t be saying anything new to suggest that such an environment calls on a wider range of skills, experience and capacities in leaders than were needed in more stable times.

‘It’s time to end the myth of the complete leader,’ Ancona et al argued in the Harvard Business Review back in 2007, a call that resonates to an even greater extent now.  The modern executive’s role is ‘to cultivate and coordinate’ – not ‘command and control’ the actions of others.  By seeing themselves as incomplete, they can then start to rely on others to ‘make up for their missing skills.’

So we’re back to complementarity.  In an HE setting, this means building management teams with expertise in different aspects of university activity.  Many universities, particularly the newer ones, do indeed have directors of key services at the top table.  Such arrangements imply recognition of the complementarity of academic and professional roles.  But recognition solidifies those categories – and the lines of demarcation between them.  ‘Different but equal’ makes sense in theory, but in practice it makes rigid and definite what could productively be flexible and fuzzy, particularly in the VUCA world of HE.

An alternative (and complementary) way of looking at complementarity in terms of skills for HE management is to think about the individual.  An individual with an ‘academic’ role could develop complementary skills, knowledge and insights through a secondment internally, or into a company, government department or local council; one with a ‘professional’ role could do so through undertaking doctoral study, teaching or contributing to a collaborative research project.  One route that has worked is from professional practice (such as nursing, law or business) into academe.  But those transitions tend to be one-time (and therefore one-direction) movements.  They also seem to be coming under pressure from demands for academic accreditation and research activity in many universities.

Assembling such a portfolio of experience may not be for everyone.  But why would we not want our leaders to be so equipped given the uncertainties and volatilities of the future?  It wouldn’t make them ‘complete’ of course, but it might make the incompleteness more conscious and therefore productive.  Building a team, developing strategy, making decisions – these processes could all draw not just on an intellectual awareness of the need for complementary skills but a real ability to identify with the questions, concerns and priorities of the functional areas that hold those skills.

The transformation of the ‘support staff’ to the ‘professional’, even though nominally based on parity of esteem, addressed the symptoms not the problem.  Those symptoms badly needed treating, and we must finish the course.  But we shouldn’t forget the underlying problem: parallel tracks.  Maybe it’s up to each of us to be an entrepreneur in our own careers – just like Darlene Roth’s public historian – but then at least the environment needs to be conducive to innovation.  Why shouldn’t university policies support ‘academics’ to bring discipline-level nuance to website development and marketing, or ‘professionals’ to undertake the advanced studies that allow them to bring their specialist knowledge to students’ learning?  Why shouldn’t hybrid or dual roles be more common, even encouraged?  We need a new kind of blended learning and a new, more open and flexible approach to progression and recognition to help develop the incomplete leaders of tomorrow’s universities.

History ventures: skills vs knowledge in the public history marketplace

“The skills of doing history are more frequently used, needed, and recompensed than the expertise of knowing history”

This is Darlene Roth, writing in the NCPH’s Public History News.  Roth goes on to talk about the successful model of ‘developmental history’ work her consultancy The History Group undertook for planners, developers and government agencies.  She also refers to corporate histories and museum curation.  These examples open our eyes to the range of tasks and projects that can done well – or best – by historians, whether academics working ‘across borders’ or the historically-trained working in professional contexts.

But for me it also suggests the need to open our minds.  Can we articulate clearly what ‘the skills of doing history’ are and be creative in identifying tasks that are not necessarily explicitly historical in character but would be done well – or best – by historians?  There are fields where there is often a ‘history gap’, such as in policy development, marketing or organisational strategy, but these should not constitute the limits of our imagination.

Working this out is not just a self-serving exercise.  Humanities applications for the first year of the new funding system are down in many institutions.  It’s too early to say whether concerns about employability in the context of higher debt are a major factor, but it’s a strong possibility – particularly for certain student groups – that we need to consider (league tables of salaries are rather unhelpful here).  More needs to be done to ensure prospective students and their parents understand the student finance system, but  universities have a role too, and not just their recruitment and marketing departments.  Open days and school visits are important opportunities for university staff to meet students and parents and discuss what studying a particular subject at a particular institution is like.  If, as historians, we can share with them the many ways in which the skills of doing history can be meaningfully and usefully applied in the world of work, and our commitment to helping students develop those skills, we can start to counteract the belief that a humanities degree ‘just equips them for standing in the dole queue’ (as one Tweeter said to me recently).

Students come to university for many reasons.  To further their job prospects may only be one reason, but it’s a legitimate one, and one with which we need to engage.  We shouldn’t give in to the cynicism that divides knowledge and skills and denigrates the latter as empty, instrumental or devalued.  Nor should we section off ’employability skills’ in the curriculum; by teaching students to be historians, we are developing skills needed for work – we just need to bring awareness of that connection to the surface (see my earlier Parallel Tracks blog post).  I hope the emerging field of public history can provide a context to help us frame the terms of the debate rather differently.

Roth goes on:

I am saying that it pays to look at how you do what you do as a historian, and how you think as a historian, and follow those routes to marketability, not just the standard one of equating historical knowledge as the thing being sold.  Ergo: “I am an entrepreneur, and history is my product” becomes “I am an entrepreneur and history is the source of my products”… If history is the answer, what is the question?  Who needs it and why?

We may prefer a somewhat different language in this country, but I think we can take on the idea of entrepreneurship and interpret it for our own context.  Can we be entrepreneurs for the discipline, for the practice of history, but also for our students so that they can see history as their future?

What would you teach if you could teach anything?

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe, who teaches history and American studies at Northwestern University, posed this question today.  Here is an extract from her answer:

I want students to step into the past with me and embrace its unexpected lessons. I don’t care who begat whom among the high or low born. I like to pass among the ghosts and see the world through their eyes to the extent I can. When that happens as I read a poignant diary entry or detailed newspaper description, the veil of eternity lifts. I want to share that…

So many men, women, and children flit though my mental landscape from Portland to Pune all while I realise that I’ve missed millions more who could shed light on the delights and dilemmas of the human condition. If I could do anything and teach anything, I would visit them all with students in tow. I just need that machine….

I’d be interested to know what others think.  For me, it’d be about making students feel full of sheer intellectual power of history: the potential of their historians’ minds to take statements and positions apart; inspect the evidence; analyse the claims and the associations made; stretch their thinking diachronically and synchronically; expose, challenge and reframe.  And then to consider how that power could be put to use not just in the service of historical knowledge and understanding, but in many other contexts.

Parallel tracks? (Higher) education for employability and intellectual development

Updated: I enjoyed speaking today about the Wilson Review alongside Trudy Norris-Grey at the Westminster Briefing event on graduate employability.  One interesting question from the floor followed up on Trudy’s comments about the mismatch between the skills developed by students at university and those needed by employers.  What did she think higher education was for?  By way of explanation, the questioner suggested that universities were trying to do many different things at the same time, and that maybe the development of employability skills and intellectual capacity were two such parallel tracks.  (I don’t quote her exactly but hope I have captured the essence of her contribution.)

I thought this was an interesting perspective and one that is often raised in discussions about the role and purpose of higher education as preparation for the world of work.  But can we see employability and intellectual capacities as overlapping domains rather than parallel tracks?  I’m interested both from a research and from a teaching and learning perspective in the skills and cognitive capabilities history students learn through their academic training.  Is it the case that those skills and capabilities are separate from, and therefore need to be supplemented by, employability training?  Or is it that it’s difficult to recognise and articulate the ways in which they have value and applicability in both academic and work-related contexts?

It may be that a mix of both is required, but I wonder if we do enough to help students really engage with the processes of academic training and the implications for their future careers.  Can we ourselves explain well what that training is equipping them to do, whether it’s history, philosophy, life sciences or economics?  I put down these initial reflections in one of the ‘thinkpieces‘ we wrote as a way of getting going on the Wilson Review.  I hope that the spirit of trying to see past potential dividing lines (such as between employability and academic training) came through in the final report.