The e-mail notification came through and I took a deep breath.
My course mates and I had been badgering our lecturer for a week or so to get this information and finally, it had arrived. Navigating my way to the university’s submission portal; I clicked refresh and there it was.
My first piece of submitted academic work in years had finally been marked. ‘Ah, I’ll write it like a blog!’ I told myself as I planned its outline, in a typically cavalier manner. One thousand words? That’s roughly one hundred more than what I usually write for this website. ‘This is do-able!’ I told myself.
I’m nearing the end of my first semester as a mature student studying for my masters in Public Histories at the University of Birkbeck. I detailed my intentions in an earlier blog and much in the same fashion I did when I was training to be a tour guide all those years ago, I thought it would be good to touch base and update you all on how I’m doing.
This also explains why my update schedule has been a little erratic of late. So many cemeteries and voices from the past to tell you about but I must, for once, spend time in the land of the living and develop myself!
The course has been wonderful. I should have paid attention to all the people who have been badgering me to do this for years and it’s been utterly fascinating to learn and consider things from a public historians point of view. So periodically I’ shall update you all with how I’m doing.
But firstly, what’s a public historian?
According to the Christopher Newport University:
Many historians spend time conducting research and generating key findings about the past. The purpose of public history is to communicate these results and insights to the public at large in meaningful and inspiring ways.
Admittedly I do a lot of the above with this blog and my tours, but the qualification seeks to formalise that passion and do something with it that’s recognised academically, as well as helping to hone and develop my interpretive skills as a historian. Public History has a bigger presence in the United States than here, but that is changing.
This semester, every Monday evening I’ve been joining my fellow students of the History, Classics and Archaeology department hear a lecturer speak about various topics ranging from empires, material histories and how migration has affected cultural and national identities.
These are then followed by a seminar led by my lecturer Dr. Julia Laite and these have been superb, with debates ranging from questioning the role of a historian to analysing whether TV shows like The Crown and The Tudors offer a form of history that’s acceptable to be learned from and consumed.
You’re enjoying it, then! What’s been the biggest challenge?
The reading, without a doubt. Pouring over a book from start to finish is something I rarely do. I scan the index, take what I need and move on: for this reason I probably have somewhere in the region of thirty books on the go at any given moment – not all of these are for my masters admittedly: I have a few blog posts in the works which is all running concurrently with one another.
I was discussing this with Mikey Fox recently and he said when he was at university he wished he’d read more and where possible I’ve tried to delve into more texts than what’s been listed on the predetermined reading list. This then leads into my very scatterbomb approach to note taking, which isn’t especially refined as I tend to write EVERYTHING down. But, I’m getting there.
So what happened with your essay?
The essay brief was to write a 900 – 1100 word review on a book relating to public history or two journal articles or a London monument.
Oh, the temptation to write about a gravestone. I wanted to push myself though: I instead opted for a review on one of the most fantastic bits of sculpture I’d ever seen from years ago. I have fond memories of visiting it after it had rained in 2012: it was the sweetest smelling statue in the country yet the fact it was made of soap was rather ironic as it was in the image in one of the most murderous, blood-soaked men in our history.
Meekyoung Shin’s Written in Soap was, for eighteen months, the focal point of Cavendish Square and sought to reassess what sculpture regarding forgotten people means. Using first hand historic sources a well as contemporary reviews to the work I explained the importance of the recreation of a statue of the Duke of Cumberland that was removed in the 1860’s amidst a reappraisal of his character and how the work relates to public memory. How are today’s heroes tomorrow’s unknowns and how using a medium that dissolves echoes our collective living memory. Such was its popularity it was remade for Seoul and Taipei.
So, to return to the start of this blog, I opened that link to see the grade I’d been given.
I got 68/100 for it, which is a high merit. At first I was a bit crestfallen: a product of being schooled to pass your exams rather than have any real sense of thinking ‘bugger me, I did alright didn’t I!’ and it was the praise and reassurance from the likes of Sacha Coward, Dan Vo, Nick Coveney, Mark Small and my other half that made me stop comparing masters scoring to GCSE or A Level. I did alright! Not bad considering that I don’t have a degree.
One thing I neglected to say was what the statue looked like and seeing as I was two hundred words under the maximum word count – fool! There was me trying to be succinct.
So what are you up to now?
I’m in the middle of working on my four thousand word essay which is looking at contentious histories of people from the empire: a certain soldier buried in Tower Hamlets Cemetery is proving to be a useful case study. I’m also trying to get some Christmas blogs for here lined up, as well as me and Sacha’s festive walk through the aforementioned Tower Hamlets Cemetery. We’ve rewritten the ’12 days of Christmas’ to suit the people we’ve found there – the female Ebenezer Scrooge and plenty of orphans!
It’s nice to have a bit of time to myself and put all my energy into what I love.