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.

Contemplating approaches to History

I am currently off work. Two weeks ago i twisted my knee moving some boxes (of books) and have been sat at home.

During that last 14 days i have done the following: i have read, i have played Fallout 4 and i have watched a lot of Time Team the Channel 4 archaeology programme from yesteryear. Aside from my reflections on how Tony Robinson is clearly a synth (he never seems to age) i have been struck by the relationship between the discussions/arguments in my texts and some of the arguments in the programme and others i have watched.

Before i go on, i appreciate that Time Team isn’t necessarily an expression of best practice and in some ways is either dull or repetitive. My own love for the programme came from a time when all History documentaries where either the brilliance of monarchs or battles. Time Team gave me as a youngster an insight into how people lived, and whilst i always appreciated Phil Harding playing with a cannon, knowing where people came from even within the confines of an hour-long programme edited appealed to me.

As part of my general preparations for Keele i am currently reading a few texts which i feel will be useful ahead of my general historical studies i will have to do. As much as i would like to keep focused on reading Tudor Economic Documents, the MRes is an opportunity for a formal historical grounding which i lack.

So this is my current reading list:

  • History in Practice by Ludmilla Jordanova
  • In Defence of History by Richard J Evans
  • Rome by Michel Serres
  • Reason, Truth and History by Hilary Putnam
  • Historical Economics by Charles P Kindleberger

this is an entirely subjective collection of books that i have kept out of storage before i move house so i make no claims or judgements about them other than they interested me at the exact moment i had to make a selection, but they are important for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they represent my reading around the subject of History. Serres is a French Philosopher and somewhat off the wall, and Hilary Putnam is a (recently Deceased) philosopher from America. Secondly, Jordanova and Evans represent a view of History as it is in practice and praxis. Finally, with all of them i have varying ways of writing which interest me enormously.

As i have stated previously i am tend to look at History as both a discipline and as a subject. These texts help with this process and assist with the reflective practice which i get the feeling is central to my studies.

However, watching re-runs of Time Team has given me the chance to ‘apply’ some of the issues which seems to repeatedly arise from the reading. All of it stems from the epistemological, the ‘knowing’ of what the evidence is telling us as researchers. Often in the programme we will have some sort of disagreement which is either:

  • Archaeologists v archaeologists
  • Archaeologists v historians
  • Geo-Physical archaeologists v everyone
  • Archaeologist surveyor v everyone

And as it is a programme these disagreements are concentrated for the viewing public, but they also reflect the very obvious fact that it is possible to present the same evidence to differing groups and arrive at differing understandings. The debates and discussions, from the voracity of the evidence available through to the conclusions of what the dig means generally reflect the debates i am reading about in Jordanova in terms of the practical ‘doing’ of history.

But more subtly, the philosophical work is also being reflected. For example, Serres book ‘Rome’ is the first of his ‘Foundations’ trilogy and its broadly defined as a work of History looking at the foundation of Rome. Personally, i view Serres work as being a work with History, an almost literature based approach to explore the origins of structures and systems.

Crucially, Serres claims to have ‘no method’ as such he simply follows sources and resources and see what they tell him. Such an approach is perhaps difficult to understand but a version of it can be seen in how in certain circumstances on Time Team, when the evidence is different from expectation forces a change in approach either to open another trench or to review the assumptions held. Because of its condensed time scales, a process that would take place over a longer timeframe, is in fact condensed and that process itself relies upon what the evidence states rather than having the time to prove your point.

But i have also been struck at the question ‘why did they do that?’ Putnam, in his works used the example of an Ant which had drawn on sand a perfect portrait of Winston Churchill. Putnam’s work in part focuses on the intention of participants, the Ant didn’t intend to portray Churchill, it just did.

Whilst excusing the Mathematical improbability of that happening, the idea of intention behind someone’s existence is also interesting to see reflected in how i approach History. Looking at the evidence i assume a certain amount of intent on the part of the people i am studying and observing. The reality is however, i cannot be sure ‘what’ that intent is.

A recent re-run of Time Team looked at a cave where bones had been discovered. The debate focused on whether the bones were involved in a ritual process or if they had been dumped. On the last day, evidence was found for a causeway that lead up to the Cave, and based in part on the evidence of some of the people found in the pit being sick or even murdered, the suggestion was made that the cave was in part ritual because those people where ‘victims’ of social pressures and outcasts.

To me, the intention in that theory is separate from the evidence, but i found it fascinating to watch the episode when reading in Jordanova and Evans talking, in essence, about historians and their facts. Taken together, it presents a neat contradiction, between looking at what the evidence states and what we want it to. In fact, as Jordanova highlights, the complexities of causes and impacts across a wide variety of issues from economic and political have affected how we try to decipher the intent of the people we have collected evidence for.

Reading and watching at the same time, it seems that the methodological faults of Time Team are simply a neatly packaged version of the ones we already have in History. In fact they give a visual representation of how History has evolved in recent years, even if the debates can’t be resolved. Unpicking this will be fun.



Obama, History & Brexit

The President of the United States has suggested that the UK should remain in the EU because of a ‘post-colonial’ grudge. This nugget of insight has come from Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.

Whether you have decided about the EU referendum, our national History is a key part of understanding the identities we create in forming our opinions. Thus, although i doubt the voracity of Messrs Johnson and Farrage statement, Obama having a grudge is a perfectly reasonable position for him to have. Likewise, if Mr Johnson wanted to invoke the great statesmen of our past, or even use Mr Obama’s campaign statements, he is doing a similar thing referencing a portion of his own historical experience to make a point.

However, if Obama truly held a grudge against the UK wouldn’t he encourage us to leave? With all of the economic uncertainty and the potential reduction in our world standing wouldn’t that be a worthy means of screwing the British as Mr Johnson presumes is the motivation, and one laudable bearing in mind the appalling way in which Empire’s tend to treat people who oppose it?

Obama’s statement on the EU is far from using his ancestry as a stick, and more a profound recognition that the world has moved on and changed. History shows us Empires rise, change and fall, but also that our institutions tend to evolve as well. America appears to be grappling with this same issue, following a long century of economic stability and strength, its reconciling the cost of its conflicts and its domestic institutions with the way the world has changed.

I doubt Mr Obama, whose stuggles to close Guantanamo Bay, is judging the British for the way it treated the Mau Mau rebellion, but if he did – he would be right (in my opinion) to do so.

Rather like the legacy of Guantanamo and the Mau Mau, this is an issue of recognising that the ability of nation states to project themselves on the world stage is undertaken through supra-national bodies.

It’s why Argentina and Spain are using the UN as a means to raise the colonial issues of the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar, and they have more reason than Mr Obama to propose Brexit. But it’s also the reason that these issues take longer to resolve, because no one nation has enough power to force its will on the others.

Far from a grudge, this is a friend warning his mate that he is about make a fool of himself at the party.