Friday 28 January 2011

The loneliness of the long distance postgraduate

Our last LAB of 2010 had the wonderful irrepressible Will Kaufman singing the wonderful irrepressible Woody Guthrie. To a packed house. They were hanging from the power point. What a way to do America! What a way to do History! What is more Will who is a top professor but Who Played Glastonbury, did it for us for free.

Our first LAB of 2011 changed tack and went back to classic origins with Labs and Labbettes simply sitting round a table talking about research. It was a terrific discussion which, typical of the LAB, very quickly sniffed out what matters in what university bosses now call 'the postgraduate experience'. And what matters, when you get down to it, according to NEW HISTORY LAB, is the simple but in fact very complex business of processing words: words that translate archives into data; words that transform data into evidence; words that argue evidence into history, and of course words that turn that history into hard bound theses that pass the test and make it all worthwhile.

A million issues came up - from writer's block to shifting desks, from solitude and loneliness to being bearable to live with, from time management to multi tasking, from how much to read to what to read? and when? and how? with or without pen? or laptop? or forget the history and just read a nice book - for the words.

As postgradute researchers, some of us felt like less than proper persons. Some of us even feared that we were doing less than proper work. We loathe it, but also feel elated by it, and obsessed by it. But whatever the experience, being a postgraduate - whether for a dissertation or a PhD - is a very strange way of life. Ben called it a limbo existence between education and job and yet it seems to demand the most delicate sensitivity to the archive, to the most intensive discipline in the text, and the boldest move through the argument. What's worse, all these processes are connected and you've got to stay nice to your partner. Jack's even having a baby!

There's nowt so queer as historians, so me awld tutor used to say. It is said that Keith Thomas used to put index cards in a shoe box until it was full and when it was full he knew he had a book. Well, he didn't do too bad did he?

This semester promises to be the most exciting LAB ever. What's more they're springing up all over the country. Latest one is at Sunderland and going like a bomb apparently - which is all to the good because Sunderland University library has no history books. Well, a couple. But small intimate LABs like last night's do the business. We do university degrees and hardly a words is said about words. Yet that is what it's all about when you get down to it and boy, do we get down to it.