Top Tips for the Part-Time History Postgrad

Once or twice a week I’ve been leaving my desk in the middle of day to swap meetings for manuscripts, reports for the Reformation.

 

John Amabilino (MA Early Modern History) discusses the pleasures and difficulties of part-time postgraduate study.

For almost two years I’ve been combining a career in communications with early modern history. Once or twice a week I’ve been leaving my desk in the middle of day to swap meetings for manuscripts, reports for the Reformation. How has this worked out? And could part-time study work for you too?

 

My part-time MA degree in Early Modern History at KCL has made me think differently about my day-to-day life. It’s also allowed me to pursue the niche historical interests which I’ve harboured since undergraduate days, read more widely, and meet fascinating people. Returning to serious study after a gap of several years has been a fantastic experience – but it’s not something to be done without some serious planning.

 

So what should you consider when applying?

 

  1. Plan and apply early: you generally apply for MA courses directly through your chosen institution – this is certainly the case at KCL. Don’t let reassuringly distant application deadlines lull you into applying late though. I actually delayed applying for a year because I’d missed various deadlines for funding support which closed around 6 months before my chosen MA was due to begin. Think seriously about your application during Christmas of the year you want to apply, and plan to apply 4-6 months in advance. Besides anticipating possible funding deadlines and helping to ensure a place on your course, this will also help you:
    1. Pull together a decent application – remember you’ll probably need supporting references and sample writing too
    2. Save towards fees/application costs/materials
    3. Make arrangements in good time with your employer

 

 

  1. Respect your employer: your wages will probably make study possible. As far as my experience goes, I’ve worked full-time in office-based jobs while studying with two different employers, private and public sector. Both have been busy career roles, so lots of notice for planning was essential. Some things to consider:
    1. I already worked flexible hours, so I made sure to check workplace policies on special and study leave. I found that my current role only allowed study leave for vocational study, but that I could apply for up to 10 days special unpaid leave.
    2. Remember that returning to study is not a one-way street: does your choice of MA bring benefits to your employer too? E.g. a highly qualified workforce, staff motivation &c.

 

What to consider when your studies start:

 

  1. Enjoy it: you may be studying towards a career change, or to broaden your intellectual horizons, and it’s crucial you give your MA the time it needs. You’ll encounter staid and badly written monographs aplenty and the novelty of being back at school quickly wanes. However, enjoying your course will make the reading and writing more worthwhile, you’ll absorb more, and working into the evening will not seem a chore. If all this fails, remember that you’re investing in yourself and have the rare opportunity to study a subject you love in a world class institution.

 

 

  1. Think of annual leave as study time: as an employed postgraduate, time is your most precious commodity. While your full-time peers may agonise over train fares to archives or the understandable urge to blow the rent money on a nice edition of Umberto Eco’s essays, you are likely to be battling for adequate study/writing time.
    1. Plan your time in advance –using a digital calendar like Google Calendar or academic Outlook can remove the risk (and angst) of double-booking. Be pragmatic – you’ll be surprised how many of your full time counterparts complain of ‘not having enough time’.
    2. Think of your annual leave simply as time to study – after the novelty of studying wears off this can be especially tough, but it’s worth the effort when you get your essay feedback
    3. Plan downtime – I’m not very good at this, but it’s crucial that you also plan time to do something neither work nor study-related.

 

 

  1. Identify ‘humps’: Your end of term essay is likely to demand the greatest concerted writing and reading time. Plan your leave well in advance around these periods of pressure, and start discussing with your course tutor what you’d like to write on around half way through term so there’s no last-minute surprises. Your dissertation is also something you’ll need to consider well in advance – I counted up free days that I had well in advance and planned around this number.

 

Make the most of your resources - know your London libraries!

Make the most of your resources – know your London libraries!

  1. Know your resources: KCL is not alone in providing access to superb online resources, and offering library hours which cater easily to the part-time student’s needs. Plan to research all available resources and facilities before embarking on your course. This is particularly important for those who have not studied for some time – available resources have multiplied exponentially in the last 10 years or so, and tablet computers make article reading ‘on-the-go’ a doddle. While this could just as easily apply to any student, it’s surprising how many of your peers won’t know they can access x resource or y reference library with their Student ID and password. All of JSTOR and EEBO await, and as a part-time history student these and similar resources will be invaluable. If inductions to libraries etc. are in the middle of the working day, then email the librarian and ask for an evening or weekend session.
    1. If you don’t live near to college, consider whether remote document supply services, like those operated by the British Library and the National Archives could be helpful. I’ve also found the London Library helpful in borrowing unusual titles, though bear in mind that all of these services entail a (potentially significant) cost.

 

I hope you’ve found this useful – best of luck with any part-time study you choose to pursue, and please feel free to leave questions or comments below.

A History Degree in Action: Hangmen: Re-Hanged and Live Cinema Conference 2016

Emily Brown (History student at KCL) reflects on how her degree and her interests have been brought together in the exciting new Live Cinema Conference.

As a history student, one is constantly reminded how the presentation of a strong argument is the key to a convincing piece of writing. Nonetheless, I would find it difficult to be persuaded by any claim that London is not a key epicentre of culture in Britain and that King’s College London, as a fulcrum of cultural research and innovation, is not the perfect setting for a performance which unites historical reality with theatrical fallacy. As part of the Live Cinema Conference hosted by King’s College, a multi-disciplinary performance has been devised to demonstrate the extraordinary ability of live performance, “event” cinema and “live” cinema to captivate an audience and provide a unique theatrical experience.

 Live Cinema Conference Image

Martin McDonagh’s first play in over ten years “Hangmen”, first performed during September 2015 at the Royal Court Theatre in West London, became part of the Live Cinema universe following its screening through National Theatre Live in March 2016.  The play opens in the year 1963, to the scene of a hanging, eerily paralleling the case of James Hanratty, one of the last people in Britain to be executed for murder, and defended in court by an alumni of King’s College London, Michael Sherrard. I was brought into the creative process as a researcher, working in collaboration with the writer, to excavate the historical context at the core of McDonough’s play. The process has been immensely stimulating and has ably demonstrated the applicability and utility of history in wider cultural contexts.

The performance aims to re-introduce the original play in a fresh context and through the process of research and writing, Hangmen: Re-hanged was formed. In order to provide a novel experience, it was imperative that the re-playing of the original text was grounded in historical accuracy. The predominant focus of my research was centred around particularly influential miscarriages of justice in the campaign to end capital punishment that ran through the twentieth century. Alongside better known protests and demonstrations against nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement,  protests against wrongly persecuted citizens were also gaining momentum.

Researching the lives of the wrongly executed and subsequently exonerated has brought home to me the moral difficulties and ethical dimensions of the histories we write. Although not included in the final script, the harrowing police statement of Derek Bentley, hanged in 1953 aged nineteen and finally pardoned for his murder conviction in 1998, who had suffered issues of mental health and was categorized with a mental age of ten when he was fifteen, was one of the incredible sources the research un-earthed. Reading the text and Bentley’s own words insisting ‘I did not have a gun’, which was partially written by policemen who coerced Bentley during his initial detainment, began to form part of the larger picture of the little appreciated anti-capital punishment feeling in England. Similarly, the story of the appalling trial of Mahmood Mattan, condemned from the outset by his own defense lawyer as ‘half-child of nature, a semi-civilized savage’ and discovering what lay beyond the doors of 10 Rillington Place, where four bodies were concealed within the floorboards, will always remain with me at a personal level beyond the mere facts and details of historical research.

Using the archives of King’s College London for the first time to uncover connections between the play’s narrative and King’s College, further rooting the production in a historically legitimate setting was an experience that taught me an enormous amount both as a student of history and a student of King’s. It was an indescribably satisfying experience to look back through hand-written minutes of copious Student Union meetings and leaf through the pages of Lucifer, the Student Review Magazine of the 1960s, to learn about the idealism and ambitions for change which permeate student life.

The beauty of a history degree is the diversity of possibilities it enables. As a student who previously studied for ten years at a school for the Performing Arts and currently presides as the Co-President for the university drama society, this opportunity provided the perfect amalgamation of my two passions: performance and history. Most students of history will have experienced the family dinners and meetings with strangers which nearly always result in the question ‘But how is history actually useful?’ If this experience has given me anything, it is an answer to that eternally frustrating, and short-sighted, inquiry.

Visit the Live Cinema Conference event page here.

Beyond the SS Empire Windrush: London’s Black History in the Archives

An invaluable London resource for reconsidering black British history, explored by Charlotte Taylor (KCL).

Earlier this year I, along with my fellow classmates on Dr Alana Harris’ module Society and Culture in Twentieth Century London, visited the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton. Officially established in 1981, the archive hosts not only records from (mainly) the twentieth century, but it also operates as a ‘living archive’ actively taking in (or generating through oral history interviews) records every week. The historian Laura Miller describes archives as ‘cultural touchstones to the past’, and this statement holds particular resonance for this archive – without it, a significant proportion of black British history may well have been forgotten amongst the vast sources for white British history.

Amy Barbour-Jones, born 1906 in Acton, West London.

Amy Barbour-Jones, born 1906 in Acton, West London.

When considering black British history, the popular narrative marking the 1948 Windrush voyage from the Caribbean to England as the beginning of a collective and definitive black British presence in Britain seems to dominate. However, the records at the BCA provide resources for the scripting of a different narrative – for example, the original photo of Amy Barbour-Jones that we examined (alongside others of her mother) contradicts this typical chronology by demonstrating a young, black toddler in a photograph reminiscent of those we saw in our visit to the London Metropolitan Archives to view the Victorian London in Photographs exhibition. The Barbour-Jones family were a middle-class black family from Guyana who settled in London around 1904, whilst still conducting business abroad through imperial connections, and who increasingly became involved in black British affairs. For example, the pictured Amy went on to become Secretary of the League of Coloured Peoples in 1942, an organisation which aimed to promote racial equality and black achievements.

Excavating the stories of individuals such as Amy is incredibly important as it complicates seemingly settled histories: the Barbour-Jones family defy the typical assumptions of an early twentieth-century black British family both through their class and wealth, but also through their pre-1960s political engagement. This theme of activism fits perfectly into the ethos of the BCA itself – its origins lie in a grassroots movement to create and maintain a distinct Black British history. Throughout our exploration of other archival materials, we discovered rich resources for writing about black presence and activism in 20th century London, such as the black women’s movements of the 1970s, and collectives such as the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD).

Ban the Jab poster from OWAAD’s campaign against the Depo-Provera jab.

Ban the Jab poster from OWAAD’s campaign against the Depo-Provera jab.

OWAAD, the organisation set up by Stella Dadzie, was an organisation aiming to promote equality and protest specific issues for African and Asian women. One particularly prominent instance was their ‘Ban the Jab’ campaign in which they rallied against the testing of the Depo Provera contraceptive jab on African and Asian women.  Some examples included women being unwittingly given the jab immediately after giving birth, being too exhausted to properly give consent. OWAAD in their 1979 Conference highlighted the pressure placed on African and Asian women to take contraception, contrasting it to the reluctance that doctors had providing birth control to white women. Such targeted, racialist practise seems abhorrent (and almost inconceivable) now, but OWAAD also identified key issues that sadly remain all too relevant to today.  For example, the pressure on black women to meet beauty standards that equate whiteness with beauty, and the structural exclusion of black and Asian children from the best standard of education. When reading these original conference papers held within the archive, it seemed astounding to us all that issues so hotly debated in 2016 were already being aired back in 1979.

The Black Cultural Archive is an invaluable (and highly accessible) institution which is crucial to the development and maintenance of black British histories. Its records demonstrate the narrowness of many ‘British history’ narratives which neglect the importance and contribution of black British individuals and organisations as black history is often still relegated to the position of a recent, and sometimes contentious side note within the wider narrative. All of the records we examined on our fieldtrip explored themes we were familiar with from our module, however this visit complimented and complicated these perspectives through allowing us to interrogate fascinating primary sources – such as Stella Dadzie’s satirical feminist board game, Womanpoly, devised as a humorous consciousness-raising tool as well as a rallying call to action. Our immersion in primary source materials relating to Black Edwardians and Black (and Asian) feminists allowed us to ensure that race and ethnicity, alongside gender, class and locality, remain central in the histories we will write about 20th century London.

The Challenges of Researching in India

My research in India has been the best thing about my PhD. I initially dismissed the idea, especially as an unfunded student, all that expense and effort put me off, but during my upgrade I was encouraged to go. I couldn’t have anticipated what it is like standing in front of the buildings you’ve been writing about for years. Experiencing India has made my project betteLEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01r and not just because of the archival material I can now add.

 

 

I spent 5 weeks in India in 2013 splitting my time between Delhi and Kolkata: the latter was certainly my favourite. Returning to Kolkata in February 2015 for a short archival visit was easier than my previous trip. I gained access to the reading room in a day rather than a week. I had a clear plan for tackling as many records as the bizarre rules and haphazard opening hours would let me get my hands on. The city itself felt familiar, this is mainly due to all of the colonial architecture, but also because it is during my research trips that I have felt most connected to my project.

We all know that archives are full of challenges. How to tackle the archive as an institution and as source is something we frequently discuss as historians. India has a unique set of hurdles ranging from the political structuring and staffing of the national and state archives, the working conditions, the rapidly disintegrating records, and the illogical rules that seem to only exist in the archivist’s head. As historians we pay a lot of attention to methodology but not enough to logistics. We don’t seem to acknowledge how complicated, confusing and frustrating it can be just to get to the archive, especially for international and global historians. It can be infuriating listening to someone moan about the Bodleian when you’ve sat with rats crawling over your feet and an inexplicably angry archivist screaming at you in Bengali because you’ve had the audacity to request a file.

It is not just the differences in the archive experience at the research level that we forget to talk about, it is the reality of being an academic abroad. I’m not asking universities to hold our hands – we are after all adults – but in the social sciences it’s common practice to have some kind of training, especially if you are visiting developing countries or challenging environments. Most historians do not have to pass ethical research committees, but just because the content of the research does not present risks does not mean the research activity is without potential issues. As an institution which prides itself on global history we at King’s cannot pretend that archives exist in a vacuum.

Most of the basic advice feels pretty obvious, like budgeting an extra week in your research trip for illness or paperwork. We can all be sensible enough to ignore the funding criteria which stipulates that you get the cheapest hotel or the cheapest train ticket. Yet as a research community would it not be productive to share information and discuss best practice?

The elephant in the room of this discussion is the specificity of the female academic experience. I can only share my own experience and while I am more than aware it is not a universal one it certainly isn’t unique. I was not prepared for the constant sexual harassment in India. Most days just getting to the archive to conduct my research activity was distressing. I was shouted at, groped on public transport and followed in the street. I had to entirely change the way I dressed and behaved just to feel fractionally safer. In India my femaleness was a constant obstacle I had to overcome to just go about my business.

The moment that really sticks with me was at 4pm in the National Archives in Delhi when a fellow female researcher lightly touched my arm and said “this is when we leave”. The daily late afternoon exodus of women hurrying to get home before sunset was a reminder of how unsafe the city was and how different my archival work has to be.

My academic career will be shaped by whether or not I am prepared to face being a single female researcher abroad. I love India, and I will certainly be going back despite being aware that it will be challenging. To really successfully develop my thesis into a book I would need to go to Bangladesh which totally terrifies me, and it is a very difficult decision. Honestly, without a stronger, supportive, and more aware academic community, it would be easier for me to turn my focus towards a more British history of Empire and away from more exciting research adventures than the British Library.

Amy Kavanagh is a Postgraduate Researcher in the History Department working on District Officials, Representation and Power in Nineteenth-Century India

 

Deciphering the Archive

I hate handwriting with a vengeance. This is not because I see no value in writing things by hand, nor do I disagree with the idea that the use of handwriting influences the way we learn things, as some neuroscientists claim. My problem is with reading it. Just as the past is a different country, Victorian handwriting is a different language. However, even contemporaries complained about the handwriting of their day. In 1861, it was observed that the increased pressure to write quickly in the Foreign Office meant that ‘despatches received from some of our Ministers abroad [were] so ill written that the originals could not be sent to her Majesty’. At the end of the decade, An Old Rugbeian wrote sympathetically to the editor of The Times, claiming that the English public school was to blame for the ‘abominable’ handwriting of the English gentleman.

handwriting

As someone with a dreadful handwriting myself, I sympathise with this inability to write intelligibly, but my difficulties in reading other people’s jumbled words still makes my archival visits a bit of a hassle. The writing I come across is often leaning heavily in one direction, giving the impression that the entire page is about to capsize. Then there is the kind of handwriting that at first glance seems to be composed of random dots and dashes rather than any characters known to man. Tiny fluctuations mark the delineation between the letters, making the words seem like series of small waves, on a calm ocean, gently lapping against a shore of incomprehensibility.

While Foreign Office handwriting might be dreadful, it seems Victorian army officers wrote with utter contempt for their readers. While on a recent research trip to Edinburgh I was looking through a number of letters from one such officer. As I had only a limited amount of time to spend in the archive before I had to get back to London, and as I was anxious both to make my time there count and not to miss anything important, I was uncertain where to begin.

I suspect that all researchers, more or less openly, hope to find something through serendipitously stumbling over it in an archive. Preferably something that no one else has used before, a juicy lost letter or memorandum that will change our ideas about a particular aspect of history. The real Hitler diaries; a forgotten manuscript; or a letter from Heloise, telling Abelard to grow a pair. Though not as lucky as this, I have had archival visits where, through sheer luck, I’ve struck gold, finding something useful by accident. The discoveries we make by chance, as an aside to what we were really looking for, are often those that drive the research forward. At least, they can add flavor to the argument. But serendipitous discoveries cannot, naturally, be planned in advance.

This raises the question of how we read archival material, and what we search for when flipping through papers. I look for words or phrases that stand out and relate to what I am looking for. But since handwriting is so difficult to read at times, the things that actually make me pause and that I notice are often the sentences that I can actually decipher, whether related to what I am looking for or not. In this instance I also looked through other papers, including a letter book where the handwriting was legible and pleasurable to read. Therefore, those papers were what I ended up spending a lot of time reading. Like the proverbial drunkard, looking for his keys under a streetlight, rather than where he actually lost them.

However, while useful, the letters I read as an aside because of their intelligible handwriting were not where the important discoveries of the archival trip were found. Sometimes, annoyingly enough, the process of wading through seemingly incomprehensible handwriting is necessary. And it was in the Victorian officer’s letters that I found what I was actually looking for, in addition to some juicy, previously unused material. The serendipitous discoveries were, of course, right in front of me. All that was needed was deciphering the language they were written in.

Christian Melby is a Postgraduate Researcher in the History Department working on invasion scares between 1870 and 1914 

The Colonial Archives of Brazzaville – Website and Online Inventories

I never thought that my research would take me to the basement of the building where the conference of Brazzaville took place in 1944. The room smelt of moisture and hundreds of documents created by the French colonial administration were stacked in front of me on rusty shelves. Even if most colonial files are not decaying in the basement but are located in an arguably safer room, the colonial archives of Congo are not in a good shape.

Knowing the relationship between France and its former colonies (especially Congo-Brazzaville), it might be necessary to ask why these documents are still quite hard to access. The slow disappearance of these archives might be in everyone’s interests. The building in which they are located is only a temporary building shared with the Congolese Centre for Dramatic Arts. Compared to other archives in Africa, the situation seems concerning to say the least.

Congolese National Archives - January 2015

Congolese National Archives – January 2015

This is exactly why I planned to travel to Congo at the beginning of January 2015. I have worked on the history of borders in the north-eastern corner of Nigeria but because of the Boko Haram insurgency, going back to Borno in Nigeria was out of the question. My aim was to determine whether future studies on Congolese borders were feasible but I also wanted to help future researchers to study Congo or French Equatorial Africa.

I did not travel there on my own. I went to Brazzaville with Jean-Pierre Bat from the French National Archives. With the support of the director of the Congolese archives, Brice Owabira, and the head of a Congolese ministerial agency in charge of the archives, Raoul Ngokaba, we digitised sample documents taken from the archives. The Institut francais of Brazzaville also helped us digitise the inventories of the files. Cataloguing can take quite a long time and if researchers can have access to the inventories before even setting foot in the archives, this could save us precious time.

The next logical step was to create a website dedicated to the colonial archives of French Equatorial Africa. The site gives details on access conditions for potential researchers and retraces the history of the colonial archives kept in Brazzaville. More importantly, users can find a few sample documents and the inventories of the Gouvernement Général and the Inspection Générale de l’Enseignement. A pdf file containing the reference numbers for a document is always a good way to start a research project.

This project was a pilot project to determine whether this experiment should be repeated in other archives centres in Congo or in the rest of Africa. The answer is yes and, clearly, this is how digital humanities can help researchers to learn more about the African past.

Vincent Hiribarren