No, I didn’t get PhD funding, and yes, I am pissed about it.

The Talmud is made up, in essence of two sections, one is a written transcription of an oral tradition of Jewish law and the second is a record of the discussions which take place around this written transcription it includes the discussion as well as the disagreements for all to read and reflect.

Right now, I would be very grateful for something similar to explain to me why I didn’t get funding. I know I shouldn’t be bitter about the situation, and I know I am not alone, but not having closure on a rejection which has, in essence, made the entirety of the last year to be mostly worthless is really, really tough. It is hard to look at my partner, my step children and my friends and feel anything other than a failure and a mug for the attempting this in the first place.

Many reasons have been suggested by those outside of the process: my undergrad degree was a 2:1 in the social sciences, it’s just very competitive, or maybe my institution doesn’t want economic historians. They are plausible reasons, but I know of at least one colleague who has been offered an interview is covering a similar topic to me, part of their first degree wasn’t history, and so I am left to wonder if the problem is the fact that I am older.

In some respects, this might be because we understand the world a little better and are less likely to accept situations which emerge in institutions or maybe because we reflect an increased risk with our children and partners. Either way, despite efforts to prove the value of my research, the contributions made while taking the MRes (writing a journal article, being one of a handful of voices who dare to speak in the seminars, helping colleagues by sharing papers) I was rejected because ‘there isn’t enough money’.

Although admittedly, Keele did say I could pay them to do my research – a final cut of the blade made to somehow force me to feel better. The reality of that is three to six years of being supported by my partner. It is three to six years of not paying off my credit card as well as three to six years of not making any pension contributions, with every penny I earn, at the same time as trying to actually do a PhD, paying a tuition fee. I wouldn’t have been wealthy with funding, but I would have been able to pay my own bills.

This wasn’t simply about funding because I felt entitled. It was about a situation shared by all of us seeking to do this. I am in no better a financial place to do this research than someone ten years younger than me, but it feels as if I have been judged that if I could afford to the Masters then apparently I can afford to do everything unfunded. If not, and it’s just my analysis is generic and mediocre at least tell me. The lack of a reason that accounts for those that receive and those that don’t is both humiliating and incredibly depressing. I knew weeks ago that I was going to be turned down, do the powers that be think that students don’t talk to each other? What isn’t clear to me is why with my experience (see below) I didn’t get at least the opportunity to make my case?

Yes, I am bitter, I am very disappointed and, frankly mortified that I left my career for this. I have no idea what to do. The lie told is that your experience benefits you as you get older – it’s bollocks, all that happens is that experience is a label stuck on the bits of your insight that other people value. It has no inherent value. Being turned down for funding reflects on me, and it is a rejection of that the experience that I understand is central to successfully completing a PhD.

Despite working in a career that saw me project manage national campaigns, despite the ten years of experience I have invested to network and promote my knowledge: not least the time I have spent tutoring and teaching others in history in my spare time. All of that experience gathered from the process of maturity counts for nothing. Basically, in an interdisciplinary university like Keele, my social science degree from ten years ago – doesn’t count, and neither do I.


Trump, Brexit and the need for a pause

Even the most cursory glance at Twitter today (9th November 2016) suggests that Nostradamus was only slightly off with his predictions. I cannot tell you how much I dislike Trump, but he won an election and the reality is that enough people agreed with him to make that possible. For me the thought process is how to respond as a Liberal.

Part of the problem is that within our liberal tendency we cannot understand this; he is a misogynist, racist and a demagogue. To me that analysis by and large  misses the point – he is not elected on the basis of his personality he was elected on the basis of his offer, and we cannot deride, ignore or assume that over 50m people are stupid for doing so, nor can we assume that the 50m+ that voted for Clinton are automatically virtuous, even in defeat simply because Clinton wasn’t Trump.

A reflection on our own electoral history suggests that despite the perceived majority view or even the institutional view, those with less than savoury personalities or portrayals win. I am personally a massive fan of David Lloyd George, but what was he, he was a philanderer, blatant in his corruption and overly self-assured. some dislike Margaret Thatcher but she won three elections and changed the country I live in. I am a Europhile but i live in a country that voted for Brexit, in essence as much as it pains me i cannot hate the people that voted contrary to how i did, but that doesn’t mean that i am subservient to that world view, or assume that what comes after represents me.

Turning to Trump is appears he represents a voice in America that is perhaps missing in our own world view, I doubt everyone who voted for Trump is like him, or even like all of his characteristics, but he represents them and that is what the electoral process is. The bigger problem is that we might have to revisit our frames of reference to understand what is going on. Personally, and I am writing without much reference material, there is something of seeing the process of Brexit and Trump being elected as expressions of groups of people who wish to be heard. They are not all racists, they are not all anti-immigrants and they are not all-right wing they just appreciate the world is different from the one we L/liberals either hope for, or presume.

In some respects we have forgotten that history is often a form of compromise with all ideas, this means that we have forgotten to compromise with ideas that do not chime with our own. This risks liberalism becoming a chimera in which we forget that we haven’t arrived at a societal stage where one idea or opinion is simply morally right and that diminishes everything else. Although there are moral absolutes; these are in essence related to us individually, or collectively shared within a class or group. It doesn’t follow that these ideas automatically resonate with another group. The task is to compromise and see that there is often worry and concern on all sides but for different reasons. The compromise isn’t to diminish our own values it’s a means of ensuring that all values are understood, and a solution derived.

This may not be palatable, it may mean within a Trump presidency we see thoughts expressed which horrify us, but being liberal requires the resolve to accept that all thoughts are held despite some being horrific. Silence doesn’t bred consent any more than it proves that some people aren’t racists, and the need to discuss and compromise is part of the response needed. Brexit and a Trump Presidency are only really comparable because how we got there – they are however different; this is not a new age of extremes but perhaps a new age where the certainties of the immediate past need reconnecting with a longer history of the world in constant change.

Rather than being the end of the world, it is a wake-up call to look at what people think and feel even if that doesn’t chime with how some think they should. This isn’t about acceptance, but a robust review of ideas and their meaning. In my own way, I feel this is because the economic institutions have changed in a way that political ones haven’t, we need to realise that some gain and some lose, and if enough people feel they have lost they will want a representative that fixes that. In the same way, each nation and the world will fix itself and although the Republicans rule in America they won’t want a Trump presidency which effectively destroys them and their credibility; likewise things, elements and ideas change to re-evaluate what has happened and we need time to think.

So today – at least – I am avoiding Twitter….

Brexit, the Government and Parliament

I voted remain, I am not a ‘remoaner’ nor a traitor. I have worked in this country, paid taxes in this country and whilst I support a free press, I reserve the right to highlight the extremities of that press. I don’t wish to overturn the referendum result – personally I have always believed that you should accept the result of an election, its part of how things work.

However, I also believe that the system should work as it is supposed to. If the referendum was about sovereignty then the issue must be debated in parliament – referendums are an incredibly poor means of making decisions, especially when we have a press more focused on generic demagoguery than facts, and a population unable to accept facts from anyone that doesn’t charm with that side they have chosen. This has always been the case and I no more blame Twitter than I blame Gutenberg for printing, but a binary choice on issues which affect all government services, the economy and the wider world would suggest it to be more complicated than yes or no.

What worries me is that we appear to be slipping into a Whig sense of the immediate past, and using it to corrupt the history of the country in a way that creates worrying precedents. Firstly. When the British people spoke in the summer they presented us with a divided nation, I have never felt more alienated from my country than I do now. Accepting the result is not about accepting a blanket notion of what Brexit is or should be – we had a binary vote on what i consider to be a spectrum of options, we could be forgiven for assuming that the detail would be worked out within the system. Instead the government has sort to portray the referendum as some sort of enabling act for their actions, decisions and approaches – it isn’t, it is an expression of popular will which provides a set of constraints and options for the government & parliament to pursue.

For our wider history –the government believes it is supreme to parliament, whilst I avoid the usual hyperbole about the brilliance of the parliamentary system, the point is incredibly simple; government is the embodiment of the monarch’s powers and is subservient to the will of parliament. Any other approach to this means essentially that the monarchs powers are being used without the consent of parliament and this is not how things work. I believe that if presented to parliament the bill would pass – but it would be a close vote simply because this isn’t a simple case of cancelling our gym membership. It is supposed to be debated; otherwise, if there is no point in the debate, then why bother with a parliament – it cannot be selectively used to ratify the government, it has to be a permanent which is part of the process.

I have to confess that I am a worried citizen, I do not believe we are sliding into fascism, but the portrayal by the government of a divided vote as a clear expression on a complicated topic can only lead to disaster, especially when mixed with a ‘whig’ history that presumes that we have a level of development now whereby the old system of checks and balances through parliament no longer apply to this government because it is listening to the people.

Historical Economists v Economic Historians

Reading and ever growing pile of books and papers brings many joys, none of which is the constant biting that goes one between different groups. If it isn’t Dimmock repeatedly attacking anyone who defames his beloved Brenner, its Vries disagreeing with pretty much everyone.

Academic disagreement is to be expected, and it largely keeps the machine running, but it seems to be less about grease for debate, and more about bile to be hurled which i find particularly unpalatable.

The reason for my sudden outburst is because of a problem entirely of my own making: i am writing my first academic paper. Now i am very much enjoying the process (even if i am petrified that i am going to be laughed out of university when i submit it)and its one hell of a steep learning curve .

I shall not go into the gory details here about what i am writing but the emerging issue for me is that there is a considerable level of friction between what i call Historical Economists (HE) and Economic Historians (EH). Briefly, the former are economists which use historical evidence to underpin their concepts and the latter are historians obsessed with the economy and how it develops in previous periods.

To me these are different, separate approaches which often converge around key areas and set points. To me this suggests the opportunity to breach the gap between the two for a piece of good’ ol interdisciplinary collaboration. From HE we can get new theories and concepts to investigate and from EH we can get the evidence and the test of the new theories. A wonderful opportunity for cross learning that will create a tide to raise all vessels.

Alas, rather than Socrates parlour, its like that world war two cartoon of Hitler and Stalin meeting:


I am still not sure who is who, but you know its going to get nasty.  It seems that the objective is to prove the other side wrong, not just on technical points but on all matters – that the concept can be rejected if their is an absence of data.

Now, granted that appears to be a fair means of settling a debate, and it would work if the counter-claims made where not so shaky and based on  either a) a particular interpretation or b) the same period with its well know paucity of data and information. But because the counter claims are often based on the same set of data or issues the entire process becomes incessantly cyclical. Maybe i am just being a naive.

Part of the problem, it seems we have forgotten that one side are ‘economists’ and the other are ‘historians’; each is adopting the methods of the other but their fundamental conception will remain based on their training. I am not suggesting that we cannot disagree, clearly there is evidence and counter evidence, but i am suggesting that we should perhaps have little more comprehension as to what each side is trying to achieve.

HE’s are trying to build models which can tie in with the wider gambit of economics, and they are doing so to engage in a much wider battle about explaining the development of economics today based on the past. In contrast, EH’s are trying to understand the economy in previous periods, its linkages to what came before and after.

To be blunt i hardly expect either side to surrender, but there are rare exceptions where the insights of both sides are credited. Besley & Persson’s ‘Pillars of Prosperity’ is such an example looking at the contributions and critiques on both sides.

I am not looking for everyone to get along, it just would be nice when we remain aware of the limits of our own work and ideas rather than just pointing out the flaws in everyone elses.

Anyway – back to my bunker….


On periodisation: unanswerable questions, questionable answers

From the excellent series on periodisation is this nice piece of reflection – hope to take my blogging and work to such heights eventually.

the many-headed monster

Laura Sangha

The many-headed monster’s mini-series ‘On Periodisation’ really struck a chord with our readers, prompting an outpouring of comments both below the line and on twitter. I have captured many of these in this Storify – thanks so much to everyone who took the time to offer their thoughts, and my apologies to anyone whose comments I missed, but it was hard to keep up!

Picture2The digested version is that comments tended to fall into three categories: those who were prompted to reflect on periodisation in relation to their own research; those who offered a transnational perspective; and those who added an interdisciplinary slant to the discussion. Whilst debates on this topic are a constant of historical research, social media has the benefit of creating a more diverse conversation which encourages broader perspectives and raises new complications. If the debate continues I intend to add to the…

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Arguing for history: If not skills, then what?

I was thinking about how i could blog about the Queens Uni (Belfast) VC idiotic comments on History – but this is simply the best blog i have read.


The quiet, leafy corner of Twitter where I spend increasing amounts of my time exploded this morning with responses to the following statement:

Society doesn’t need a 21-year-old who is a sixth century historian. It needs a 21-year-old who really understands how to analyse things, understands the tenets of leadership and contributing to society, who is a thinker and someone who has the potential to help society drive forward.

Non-academics may be surprised to learn that the author of the statement was in fact not a Trump advisor or even a random sentence generator, but instead the vice chancellor (president, for North Americans) of a major research university, Queen’s University Belfast. Meanwhile, historians on either side of the Atlantic will find the sentiment familiar and the source all too predictable. In light of my last couple of posts regarding the use of “skills” language to defend history and the humanities, Dr. Johnston’s…

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In the shadow of economics

I will get on to my point shortly, but here a sort of prologue for you:

When you leave a career to return to academia as a student, your friends and colleagues want to know why.

A few weeks ago I met up with a colleague who i havent seen for about a year, he had heard that I was leaving and wanted to know why. Over the last Bank Holiday weekend, I was at a wedding which acted as a mini-ten year reunion for my University friends – who also wanted to know why.

The problem with the question why, is that the person asking it often feels the need to follow-up your answer. inevitably when you tell them you are studying History, then Economic History and then explain your interest in the Elizabethan period, specifically monopolies and economic institutions; your friends follow up question often remains: why?

To boil down the variety of responses into a few of bullet points my friends are:

  • Generally supportive – not one has said don’t do it
  • of a belief that the world has ‘moved’ on from an earlier period
  • of a view that there is little to learn about an earlier stage in the economy

now, I have great friends but the responses have reinforced to me that expectation that research has to have some pre-ordained purpose, it must intend to fix things. The problem with that is that it undermines the brilliance of discovery.

When I undertook an PG Dip in Finance, i was taught Macroeconomics, International Finance and Public Finance, these where the basic building blocks of my diploma and i wanted to receive a basic grounding in how the economy works. I was taught about the price system, allocation of resources, the debate around fixed vs flexible exchange rates etc. All of it from a fixed canon that had evolved and yet hardly changed. I read Keynes, Greenspan and Friedman among others and at each stage learnt models which allowed me to ‘predict’ the economy.

Except it didn’t, learning this in 2011-13, in the shadow of 2008 crash seemed less of an enlightenment and more of regurgitation. However, it taught me a lot namely that there is always an orthodoxy of some extent and part of the problem is that expect too much from it. Now as i prepare for my MRes, I find that since 2013, when i finished the Diploma, the field of economics is enduring something of a reformation. Now, i know that using a historical event to explain a contemporary event is perhaps not quite of the standard i should use, but i really have no other way of explaining what appears to be happening.

This reformation will not lead to bloodshed, may lead to some (academic) persecutions but is unlikely to radically alter anything other than the practice of economics. But, economics is being challenged from within, its orthodoxy is facing its heterodox challengers face to face and new ideas and debates are happening.

To give a selective snapshot, the heterodox (or New Economics) position is summarised best by Eric Beinhocker giving an outline of what the position means and how its has developed. So far, I havent found a suitable overview from the orthodox position, however this article from Project Syndicate has had me read it time and again. Both pieces have me intrigued, but also slightly disappointed, the reason i keep using the term ‘reformation’ is because the authors on both sides appear to have the same dislike of the other. Both want to cast the other in a particular light and espouse the virtues of their ‘true path’.

Much like the Reformation this will be a battle of zealots and converts, with everyone just simply getting on with life; but it does seem to be an opportunity for me one day (hopefully) as a historian to make a contribution. This point was made perfectly in a BBC Radio 4 piece from April, one of the key points is the need to look at the role of economic history, there is a real need for historians to engage here – we shouldnt pick a side, but contribute to the debate.