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Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Life Writing Group

Last year, I expressed interest in attending a Life Writing day which was being organised by Professor Elaine Chalus, in which colleagues across the department of humanities at Bath Spa University presented their work in the area of life writing to one another. Immediately it was clear that whether English, History or Heritage based, life writing  as an approach crossed disciplinary boundaries and presented opportunities for collaboration and mutual interest between us all.

This initial meeting led to my full involvement in the Life Writing steering group, along with fellow doctoral candidate Annabel Wynne (English) With our organisational skills to the fore, we met to plan the first year of events. Later we were joined by Dr Jackie Collier and Rosie Waine (both historians) This is a great team to work with, as they bring experience, enthusiasm and a tremendous range of knowledge with them.

Two evening events were held, featuring in-house presentations and the opportunity for senior and junior members of the school of humanities to share and discuss research; a valuable and secure forum in which to trial ideas and air current work. To echo the initial 'research day', we also planned a day colloquium on the subject 'Writing Women's Lives'. 

The response was overwhelming, to the extent that a two-day conference with parallel panels was what we finally held. This event, which took place on 25th/26th April at Newton Park campus, was a resounding success, drawing scholars from all corners of the UK as well as international speakers from India, Austria, Hungary, France and Ireland.

The range of papers was fascinating, with equally engaging discussions to follow. I found that of all the conferences I have attended, I enjoyed this one the most. This has led me to consider the stage I've reached in the doctoral process.

First of all, I have gained sufficient confidence to appreciate my capabilities. This seems to me as important as the stage of research I've reached. We are all products of our life's experience, and an event like this brings all my own skills together. I know I can organise, communicate, work in a team, encourage others, work flexibly (and add to this certain experiences in catering and customer service) But now I know I can network more comfortably with other academics, talk confidently about my thesis, speak happily in front of large groups, chair a panel effectively, and handle questions from the floor. This is all easier from the perspective of 'member of the organising team' but I think that now I've done it 'at home', it will be a lot easier 'away', too. It feels almost natural. 

I am basically a shy person, but have learned to deal with this so effectively over the years that nobody believes me any more! But that helps me to demonstrate to others that anything is possible, and particularly helps me to support my students. And looking around me, it's clear that other people are struggling in similar ways. It's learning from life's experiences which is important, and this one has been altogether wonderful.

Thanks to the rest of the Life Writing team - Elaine, Jackie, Rosie, Annabel (and Georgie, who stepped into the breach at the last minute) 

Monday, 23 March 2015


Teaching - the thing on which university life rests. Where would we be without the undergraduates?

I've been lucky enough to be given teaching hours over the past two years - quicker than expected, but as I've been mentoring students since I graduated in 2011, I'm building on previous experience.

I also have 'previous' as a teacher, because before I came back into education for my own sake in 2008, I had been a preschool leader, at a sixty-place community preschool setting. It always makes people giggle when I say there are similarities between preschoolers (aged 3 and 4) and undergraduates (aged 18 to 70)

Not in behaviour, habits or volume, I hasten to add. No, its more in the way they all grow into learners; by experience, by stages and by self-discovery. I noticed it in myself as a mature student; the way I began to question everything around me (as promised on the Open Day) the way that all learning became exciting and full of possibility again. At the age of 46, this was a revelation. The process of learning has always interested me, but now I find it quite amazing.

Currently, as a tutor, I find myself puzzling over the barriers to learning. I've met reluctant students here who fail to engage, partake, or take up most of the opportunities on offer.  They are paying a great deal of money for these opportunities, so why do they then seem to avoid them? Their motivation, and lack of it, is very confusing.

However the vast majority are hard working, enthusiastic and great fun. I find it very exciting to watch them develop as they pass through their undergraduate years. One or two of the ones I've mentored have gone on to postgraduate study too. Being proud of them must mean I feel responsible for the non-partakers too; I can't have it both ways, surely? I'm told I should be professional, offer everyone the same level of attention and pass on any issues to the appropriate people. Having established a rapport with students, and seeking to get the best out of myself and of each group, its hard not to care.

Of course this is easier with one or two groups - what about the full-timer staff with dozens of students to monitor? In a teaching-led institution, the quality of tutor/student relationships is hugely important. Research-led universities also need to retain the personal touch - it could be what marks out an institution in the future.  

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

On conferences

Having just submitted an abstract for one conference, and almost immediately received notification of another, has reminded me of the fascinating beast that is the Academic Conference.

The last twelve months has given me further insight into conference life, from the wide perspective of organiser, contributor and audience, and they are no longer as terrifying as I found them at first. Although the reputation of the Academic Conference is fierce, the ones I have attended have been supportive, stimulating and - I was surprised to discover - rather kindly affairs.

No doubt in many situations, academics are well able to intimidate one another, but at the gatherings I've witnessed, they've mostly been willing to encourage the more junior members amongst them. In fact, on every occasion, its been those outside university life who've proved the most troublesome. The academics have been unfailingly supportive.

What can be observed, in fact, is human nature writ large. Nervousness is heightened; social difficulties exaggerated, pomposity exposed. There's nowhere to hide, and so its best to behave politely and honestly. Someone (and someone usually quite senior) will always be finding it harder. When you  realise and notice this, fear dissipates rapidly.

At an Academic Conference, the experienced can share with the relative novice, pointing them towards fresh discoveries. The novice can learn from everyone, and observe styles of delivery, modes of communication and the way that experts in the research field function.

As well as showing you what you have still to learn, being at a conference makes you realise how much you already know, as well as what you can do to improve. And you realise that those published authors, the 'real' historians, read and revered, are human too.

I'm looking forward to the next few conferences, and will hopefully be presenting fresh papers. Now in my second year of doctoral research, I still feel a novice, but thanks to these past experiences, my confidence is growing and the 'imposter syndrome' is abating all the time.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Post summer review (or, where I am now)

Back in June, my supervisors Bobby and Alison asked me to write my first chapter, alongside a paper about the archive work I've been doing. Just as I was looking forward to a summer of holidays, family visits and wall to wall reading, my mental goal posts shifted, and I had to quickly buckle down.

First thoughts were 'how?' and I have to admit to being wracked with uncertainty and self doubt.
These, I know, go with the territory of writing, and so I had a firm word with myself and started to plough through. I read Dr Inger Mewburn's book 'How to Tame your PhD' and took the advice she gives. Dr Mewburn, also known online as 'The Thesis Whisperer' is an Australian academic, and we were lucky enough to meet her at a PhD Researcher's workshop at Corsham Court recently. She recommends working in chunks, and disciplining yourself to tackling daily 'chunks', which makes you more productive, less likely to go off the boil, and also enables a life to take place in between. It was sound advice, and one I would highly recommend.

Even so, the mental challenge of keeping going has been extremely challenging. This is the part of the process I'm going to struggle with the most, particularly since depression and I have been close acquaintances over many years. On a positive note it does mean that I have an understanding of how depression affects me, and a helpful degree of self knowledge, but I can see that this is going to become even more important over the coming months and years of PhD research.

I managed to write both the chapter and the Archive development paper, hand them in two weeks ahead of schedule, and do quite a few other fun things as well. Nonetheless this first 'Writing Summer' has been a steep learning curve, for me as well as the rest of the family.     

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

How a conference on George I and a trip to LA lit some more PhD sparks

James' paper, questions about Bath Corporation, linking my story to his, paper which took my research in another direction, more to think about,
Questions from the floor which made me consider the role of the GL family in relation to the city, links to the reasons for their demise….

Now that the dust has settled and I've had a holiday, its time to reflect on events at the end of term. There were two notable events, namely a Heritage trip to Los Angeles, and conference organised by the postgraduate team. The former was a last minute arrangement for me, and a delightful and fascinating opportunity. The latter was nine months in the planning, and I had the role of team leader in the organisational group (working along with the rest of the team, notably Georgie Moore and Rachel Smith)

Neither of the events were directly linked to my PhD research, but yet again, it seems that in academia, all routes lead to important thought processes, greater skills acquisition and opportunities for development. There is, it seems, no such thing as a wasted day…

The conference organisation was a brilliant learning curve, and Georgie and I both now feel able to tackle this sort of thing again. Our past experience in catering and organisational roles helped a great deal, it must be said, but added to this was the fact that (again) we work well together; its a complementary arrangement.

The Conference was arranged to coincide with the 300th anniversary of the succession of George I, and featured an international cast of scholars, each with their own unique slant on the events around the Hanoverian succession of 1714. Fellow PhD researchers James Camp and I presented papers, and the panel was chaired by Georgie Moore. Although the period was outside both James and my areas of work, our supervisors had encouraged us to explore beyond our comfort zones and to deliver papers in the relatively safe environment of our own conference. The experience proved extremely useful, and rewarding. I chose to reflect on the transition of the country house around the Georgian period, with Newton Park as a case study. I was able to use some of undergraduate archive student Adam King's research into the Langton's of Bristol. Adam carried out this research alongside his dissertation work, with visits to Bristol Record Office. His discoveries complemented and illuminated some of the documentary clues we have within BSU Archive itself, relating to the background of the Langton family at the time they purchased Newton Park in 1666, and their motivations in developing the estate in the 18th century.

James' paper provided a description of Bath's Royal patronage and aspects of the city's demonstration of loyalty to the crown. The questions which followed served to combine public and private demonstrations of wealth, influence and power at the time of the succession, and the ways these ideas were transmitted by the early Georgians in Bath itself. The whole experience made me reflect on Newton Park's role as an important establishment, and how it fitted into the life of Bath, then and now. This has led to a reconsidering of the way the college of the 20th century saw and used its own history. The corporate use of a historical landscape has changed over the years, but in essence it remains the same - history is used to enhance the present, in order to present a particular image; it creates or sustains a certain message to the rest of society.

The heritage trip to Los Angeles followed the next day, and provided the opportunity to carry these thoughts further, as a group from BSU were taken to a number of heritage sites, and attended discussion meetings with a range of arts management professionals. This all took place against the backdrop of the Claremont Colleges, just east of LA itself. Again, the use of the historical built environment to enhance the present was evident, and provided even more chances for reflection on this aspect of Newton Park's representations of itself. Mary Dawson, the college principal in the post war era, used these representations of longevity, solidity, tradition and heritage to inform her ideas of cultural reproduction and the making of a new generation of women. My reading has revealed that this balance of a solid background of tradition for a modern world was a strong thread in the immediate postwar era, before they grew into dichotomous ideas by the late 1950s and 1960s. I plan to explore this period and feeling as I believe its a clue to the ethos of the college in its founding years.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

IHR Spring School: Advanced Oral History

I've just completed a three day advanced training school in Oral History at the IHR in London. 

On arrival on Thursday I was pleased to discover that it was being chaired and led by Graham Smith, the author of the booklet we encourage undergraduate helpers on the archive to read. He also wrote the guidance pages of the Oral History Society web pages; his writing on this topic has always struck me as clear, concise and extremely helpful, both to newcomers and to the experienced, as a useful background to the discipline of oral history.

The other members of the OHS team who lead the training course were Joanna Bornat, Jenny Harding  and Joel Morley. Each chaired a session or two during the course, providing their own individual take on topics like memory, emotions, secondary analysis, outcomes and impact, and many other aspects of the practice. 

Each delegate (there were around 20 of us) provided a detailed poster of their research areas and challenges, and during the course of the three days, we were invited to share aspects of our research areas and present the challenges at a round table discussion. Certain issues were common to several people, and others unique to the delegate's specific area. Shared issues included those of relevant analysis, practical problems around time and relevant data gathering, and how many respondents should be interviewed. My own challenge was presented first, which allowed me to test some ideas and develop my current thinking. 

It struck me that this chance to meet with and discuss topics alongside others engaged in similar work, was the most useful element of the three days. It also occurred to me how much I have grown in confidence over the last year or so. 

Last July, I attended the IHR Summer School, and although it was useful (see previous entry) I was quite reticent about speaking up and sharing ideas. This time, I felt on secure ground in my topic area and happy to explore the issues around my PhD without fear of being dismissed or feeling belittled. This was partly to do with an atmosphere of encouragement, but largely to do with how I feel myself.

Yes, I acknowledge that I know more now, and having carried out a literature review, feel broadly capable of discussing a number of areas with some level of experience, but it's more than that.
I feel much more able to engage with other academics and feel part of the conversation, knowing that I have something to add. 

I know this has come about through all my experience of study and university life over the past 6 years.  This morning, the delegates talked about their varied backgrounds, and how they became involved in oral history to begin with. As not everyone was involved in academia, the range was wide indeed. Those involved with university departments reported on how their own setting addresses the topic and discipline of oral history. It seems that BSU has begun (through history, heritage, Bobby, the Humanities at Work module, and myself - first as guinea pig, now as archivist) to develop a strong thread of oral history practice which can only be strengthened. The act of simply writing an outline of my involvement in the topic (for group discussion) made me realise just what has been achieved. I first learned about it as part of my first year Heritage module. During the second year core module we had one seminar which examined oral history, whereas this year I lectured the second years myself. I have contributed to module writing, teaching, lecturing and student's experience. The act of writing down my varied involvement was illuminating in itself.

The extra exposure of oral history to students means that several in each year use the skill as part of their dissertations, and a quick tot up of students tells me that over the past three or so years I've helped around a dozen undergraduates do this. 

It's been a good three days. Eye-opening, constructive, and very enlightening. And it's made me realise how far I've come.

Thursday, 27 March 2014


My PhD has grown from the work I'm involved with at the BSU Archive, and there are days when the two things are so intertwined that I lose sight of the goals slightly.
However, there are other days when this is a great help. 

Here's an example: We have established contact with Anne, daughter of the College head gardener in the 1950s, and her good friend Bill, who is Mary Dawson's nephew. Bill used to spend holidays with his Aunt Alice (her full name was Alice Mary Dawson) 

The two have been friends since their childhood days in the 1950s, when they had the run of the Newton Park grounds. During the meeting we had a couple of weeks ago, they reminisced happily about playing in the ice house, boating on the lake and exploring together.

Beyond this initial meeting, both Anne and Bill have offered further help. Bill has family photographs and information about his aunt, the sight of which will allow me to build up a fuller picture of her in situations away from her professional life as College Principal. 

Anne, a former teacher herself, is a keen family historian with access to further sources through her own college. She attended the Froebel Education Institute in London, where Miss Dawson had links, and on her recommendation. The Institute had connections with Whitelands College (Miss Dawson's previous job had been as education tutor there.) Both were later incorporated into Roehampton University. 

True to her word, Anne has forwarded census data, birth certificates and teacher registration documents, using her Ancestry UK membership. In addition, she has made personal contact with the archivist at Roehampton; something I had tried last year to no avail. 

So getting in contact with these two people has proved enormously helpful already. Its exciting to speculate where their contributions will lead me next. 
Alice Mary Dawson and her family, on the 1911 Census
sent to me by Anne