Why ‘Nineteenth Century Matters’ Mattered to Me

victorian-supperThe PhD is a strange thing. You spend three years (or four, or seven, depending on where and how you’re working) fixated on a single topic. You read lots of things you don’t need to read, and explore many avenues that will turn out to be dead ends. Your time is largely yours to spend how you choose, although there are more than enough obligations to choose from. In many ways, it represents a kind of academic freedom that you’re unlikely to ever see again.

After your PhD, potential employers seem interested in everything but your thesis. They want to know what you have published, what you have taught, and what additional impact and engagement skills you can bring to the table. The interstitial space between the PhD and the mythical academic job is feared, densely populated, and vigorously prepared for. Speaking to those who are there already, it can also be incredibly soul-crushing. Applications require a great deal of time and effort, but you are competing against hundreds of other highly qualified people, often your friends, and your chances of success are slim. The sea of tick-boxes, online forms, and buzzwords can be depressingly dehumanising.

Th graves of Jane Austen's mother and sister at Chawton House
Th gravestones of Jane Austen’s mother and sister at Chawton House

This is why I was especially glad to be able to attend the Nineteenth Century Matters training day at Chawton House Library, a public engagement event organised by Catherine Han and sponsored by BARS and BAVS on 28 January, 2017. I’m not going to give a content summary of the day—that’s already been done by a number of different reviewers. You can also check out the live tweets using the #c19Matters hashtag. I do want to comment on a couple of things I particularly enjoyed about the event, though.

Most people at the training day were what we call ECRs (Early Career Researchers), and many were in that uncertain space between the PhD and full-time employment. The first thing that became immediately clear was how much everyone cared about their research. Yes, we exchanged the usual banter about the dire state of the job market, the gruelling commutes between part-time teaching jobs, and our lack of future prospects, but the subject always turned back around to the work. Most had a clear idea of why the research they were conducting into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was still important and relevant. If the world couldn’t see that, we would find a way to show them.

Chawton House
Chawton House, in Alton

This was one important difference Mark Llewellyn, research director at the AHRC and one of the speakers, identified between scholars of his generation and ours. Where some established academics don’t see the need to make their research directly relevant to the public, ECRs tend to immediately see the benefits of getting their research out there. This willingness to get out there and do the work is partly born out of necessity, of course, but Llewellyn sees this as vital to the future of the humanities.

Llewellyn and the other speakers (full programme here) also did a great job of breaking down the meaningless buzzwords that circulate around funding and public events. What does ‘engagement’ actually mean, for instance? Addressing the neo-Victorianists in the room, Llewellyn asked whether the Victorians even mean the same thing to us as they do to the people we’re trying to engage. In the mad dash for employment we often feel it’s our job to somehow make people care about our work, but the process is much more organic than that. It requires connecting with specific people and communities, learning about their needs, and building up a relationship that is fulfilling for both parties. We need the public to engage, but they also need us to be engaged.

Sound a bit saccharine? Fortunately the tone of the day wasn’t at all patronising or abstract. Claire Wood had a few useful tips about identifying who this mystical ‘public’ actually is, and who we should really be talking to. Gillian Dow, Mary Guyatt, and Holly Furneaux all shared direct examples of the strengths and pitfalls of public engagement. The presenters also did a brilliant job of dispelling the Romantic myth of the scholar, who dispenses knowledge from an irony tower to the ignorant masses. For each speaker, engagement had impacted their own research in profound and resoundingly practical ways. It was precisely the act of doing something for and with the public, without worrying about the immediate relevance to the research, that yielded new and unexpected results.

Four of the speakers at the training day
Four of the speakers at the training day

The training day also did a remarkable job of making us, the participants, feel like human beings again—no mean feat for an event with so many big names attached. Each speaker was very approachable, and was not only excited to talk about our ideas, but also keen to offer help and advice. The staff at Chawton House were kind and very professional, and the day was organised without a hitch. Because there weren’t too many of us—several dozen in total—there was just enough opportunity to chat without making the networking feel like a chore. The location itself was also quiet and intimate, and made the whole thing feel like a relaxing retreat rather than an ideas mill.

Image © Vic Jane Clark
Image © Vic Jane Clarke

The only thing I would have liked more of were the workshops, for which we split into small groups based on our research and expertise. I’m still in the early stages of my public engagement plan, and so was matched with a group designed to generate some ideas for how to bring your research to specific groups of people. Our research was randomly paired with two categories: a target group and a type of project. Target groups included easier audiences (retired adults) and more challenging ones (youth not in education or employment), and it was interesting to think about which groups fit best with which topics. The projects also ranged the gamut from exhibitions to podcasts to board games. Everyone in my group was encouraging and full of ideas, and though we had to move quickly from project to project, many of us exchanged contact information so we could take these ideas further after the event.

Despite the renewed confidence in both academia and in public engagement this training day has given me, I remain convinced that the current state of affairs is not a good one. As Furneaux pointed out during her talk, the ability to build bridges outside of academia and engage in impact research still requires a fair amount of privilege. It is often done out of pocket or in a volunteer capacity, and not everyone has the luxury of that kind of free time or disposable income. Researchers are still required to be jacks of all trades—extroverts, scholars, teachers, self-publishers—which ignores the realities of twenty-first-century academia and the value of individuals who don’t fit this mould. Until we figure out how to build a fairer system, however, it’s good to know that people on both sides of the job divide are committed to being there for each other, and ensuring that this important research has a future.

Selfie at the training day
Selfie at the training day