|In the third of our posts for Disability History Month, Lena Ferriday writes about the novelist Dinah Craik.
In 1881, at the age of fifty-five and six years before her death, novelist Dinah Craik took a sixteen-day excursion around the Cornish coastline. Craik’s reflections on this experience, recorded in a published travel journal, bring to attention a range of narratives regarding differently abled bodies which converged at the nineteenth-century coast, which became seen as a space which emphasised a linear pathway from illness to health, which differently abled bodies did not conform to. This post highlights the way in which discourses of different abilities have historically relied on the fit, or misfit, between body and environment.
Nineteenth-century medical discourse attested to the coast as a therapeutic space. Physicians often prescribed visits to Cornwall for a ‘change of air’, expecting that the cold, strong, fresh winds would arrest the patients’ bodies from the state of ‘melancholy’ with which they had been diagnosed. For Craik, indeed, the Cornish coast was a corporeally nourishing space. ‘The air so fresh and pure, yet soft and balmy’, she recalled ‘it felt to tender lungs like the difference between milk and cream. To breathe became a pleasure instead of a pain.’ Concurrently, however, discourses of adventure culture considered coastal landscapes an ideal place for testing the corporeal capabilities of bodies, the difficulty of navigating them integral to their appeal.
In neither discourse, however, did the differently abled aging body cohere with the landscape. It could not be ‘cured’ by the coastal air, nor its capabilities attested to by navigation across the the cliffs. Indeed, Craik wrote extensively of the continual reminders of her body’s limitations posed by the landscape of the coast, which caused her discomfort and pain. For her younger travelling companions, ‘the picturesque or romantic always ranked second to the fun of a scramble’ as the ‘descent to this marine paradise […] seemed difficult enough to charm’ them. In comparison Craik was incapable to move across the cliffs, and even as she sat watching the others ‘scrambling into the most inaccessible places’ she was physically ‘uncomfortable’, negotiating her feet with ‘the long grass to prevent slipping down the slope’.
Whilst Craik was not socially marginalised by way of her body’s abilities, her reflections highlight the extent to which discourses of medicine, health and recreation constructed the coast as a space only physically able or healing bodies could cohere with, and from which the differently abled were excluded.
|This Disability History Month, writes Dr. Andy Flack,we would do well to remember that the past is not always a foreign country.
Injustice, exploitation, and pain are happening today, and they can be stopped. Indeed, Disability History Month (November-December), like the International Day of People with Disabilities (3 December) is a present danger to people living with disabilities.
Perhaps let me qualify that: I’m an historian, and I love history for its own sake. This gives me a particular perspective on the present. Both events tend to fetishize the celebration of ‘super-human’ feats of resilience, of overcoming, on the one hand, while heavily implying that the material marginalisation and suffering of people with disabilities is a thing of the past on the other. Tokenistic, and not infrequently designed and delivered by ‘Normals’ (and often ignoring the desire of people with disabilities to be at the heart of conceptualising and delivering such events), these events risk doing more to silence than to empower.
Whatever happened to ‘Nothing about us without us’…?
People tend to avert their gaze from the ‘problem’ of disability.
The fact that COVID deaths have been sickeningly high among people with a range of physical and learning needs creeps into the news cycle, but soon enough will be conveniently forgotten. It’s eugenics in action, see, nature red in tooth and claw. The same is true of higher education institutions.
I’ll quote Lennard J. Davis at length: ‘…so much of left criticism has devoted itself to the issue of the body, of the social construction of sexuality and gender. Alternative bodies people this discourse … But lurking behind these images of transgression and deviance is a much more transgressive and deviant figure: the disabled body.’ Davis does not here articulate the assumption that such criticism assumes a norm of physical (and mental and psychological) ‘able-bodied, heteronormative, white, normalcy, nor does he directly address race here, but racialized bodies are a critical part of the diversity agenda.
Since disabled people are culturally constructed as the ‘ultimate deviants’, it is not surprising that higher education institutions choose to ignore (or pay tokenistic attention to) the challenge disability presents to a culture that is built on ablism at its extreme. Everyone in the academy is part of the hegemony of ablism – of ‘merit’, ‘high achievement’, ‘ultra-efficiency’, of one-size-fits-all.
What are universities doing to mark Disability History Month?
Is it being deployed as a means of purple-washing away questionable practices? And what about the International Day of People with Disabilities? We need to ask whether any events have been co-created with disabled people themselves to reflect the realities of the world in which they find themselves?
In some ways my institution does good work in rendering the ‘diversity agenda’ visible – gender and BAME pay gaps for instance – but when this is combined with the silence about, or relegation of, other issues of critical importance to peoples’ lives, nothing is achieved except the creation of new ableist hierarchies, new hegemonic marginalizations, new oppressions, new ways of pitting people against each other, and new ways of inflicting pain.
At many HE institutions, the muffled whispers of and about disability are thunderous.
The discourse and practical implementation of ‘reasonable adjustments’ rests on a very subjective view of what is indeed ‘reasonable’, and when there is no protected central budget (the kind of ring-fenced budget that most large organisations worth their salt have…) then the question of what is ‘reasonable’ and what is not becomes one framed by unnecessary and potentially discriminatory financial decisions.
Let’s be under no illusions: people suffer because of these approaches to difference.
They’re not just annoyed and upset for a while (though that’s bad enough). They suffer.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t mark events such as Disability History Month, or, indeed, the International Day of Disabled People.
Something is better than nothing, after all.
See the Disability Employment Charter here
|In the second of our Disability History Month Snapshots, Dr. Stephen Mawdsley discusses Sister Elizabeth Kenny and the Transformation of Paralytic Polio Treatment in 1940s America.
Australian nurse Sister Elizabeth Kenny reformed polio treatment in America. Poliomyelitis (polio) is caused by a contagious viral disease that attacks the motor neurons of the spinal cord, which can lead to paralysis of the limbs and respiratory muscles and, in some cases, death. Until a safe and effective vaccine was licensed in 1955, many Americans lived in fear of recurring epidemics. Before the 1940s, most medical treatments for paralytic polio were rudimentary and based on limb immobilization and surgery. Such methods were expensive, painful, and often provided limited effectiveness.
Medical orthodoxy in America was challenged by Sister Kenny, who had previously devised an approach for treating polio based on experience tending to patients in remote regions of Australia during the 1930s. She devised a method that rejected limb immobilization; instead, it employed massage, physical therapy, and hot wool compresses applied to afflicted limbs to reduce spasms and muscle atrophy. Survivor accounts from the period often describe the smell of hot wool and the feeling of the compresses on the skin.
American physicians were initially unconvinced by Kenny and her method because it challenged decades of precedent. Nevertheless, her approach to polio treatment prevailed due to her dedication, philanthropic alliances, and evidence base. With the assistance of America’s foremost polio charity, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (March of Dimes), Kenny established a professional training and treatment centre to disseminate her method across America. She traveled widely and later expanded the initiative through the establishment of the Sister Kenny Foundation. Kenny’s method proved to be an important milestone in the treatment of polio paralysis and showed the value of therapeutic innovation.
Further reading: Naomi Rogers, Polio Wars: Sister Kenny and the Golden Age of American Medicine (Oxford, 2014).
|In the first of our snapshot posts for Disability History Month 2021, Dr. Andy Flack discusses the life of Julia Pastrana.
Julia Pastrana, a First Nations Mexican woman, was born in 1834. She died only twenty-five years later, having lived with a genetic condition known as hypertrichosis terminalis and which, in conjunction with other medical conditions, manifested as a series of physical characteristics – including the hyper production of hair and the swelling of lips and gums – which thoroughly inscribed her body with a gendered, racialized, and speciesist Otherness. This triad of perceptual lenses intersected in transformative ways. In popular discourse, Pastrana was thoroughly ‘freaked’, becoming known as the ‘Bear Woman’, the ‘Ape Woman’, or simply the ‘Nondescript’, and displayed across Europe and North America in the ultimate theatre of stigmatic staring: Even in afterlife, her body was embalmed, ‘freakish’ deviance captured to satiate the probing curiosities of mid-nineteenth-century scientific communities.
Pastrana was one among countless people – think Joseph Merrick, Stephen Bibrwoski – whose physical appearance rendered them objects of fascination and, not infrequently, disgust. Leading Disability Studies scholar Lennard J. Davis argues that ‘we live in a world of norms’ and that these ‘norms’ are cultural constructs with histories that need to be excavated. The modern ‘freakshow’ is perhaps the ultimate manifestation of an idea of what it meant to be ‘normal’ – to have a ‘normal body’ – at any particular point in time. And in Pastrana’s afflicted body, we find multiple and intersecting deviations from the supposedly standard types of the Victorian age. In her case, transgressions of gender norms (body hair) combined with culturally and historically contingent ideas of femininity and racialized physical stereotypes to position her as something not-quite-human. At the same time, her unavoidable humanity, captured in the movement of her body and the sound of her voice, meant that she could not be understood as not human (animal) either. ‘Bear woman’, ‘Ape Woman’, ‘Nondescript’; these terms meant that she could be seen as both, a liminal being whose apparently animal inferiority made her eminently exploitable. A commercialized vision of life at the margins. ‘Freakshows’ were alien worlds for the Normals.
Pastrana’s life resonates for people living with disabilities today, for the freakshow is not behind us. The token disabled person, who is thrust forward to speak on behalf of physical deviance, is still a spectacular attraction for the Normals. Public spaces often remain sites of penetrative staring, and animalized disabled lives are formed, figured, and ended at the intersections of gendered, racialized – and many other – experiences and stereotypes.
In the latest in our #PhDone! series, we catch up with Dr. Alice Would, who recently finished her doctorate in the department.
Alice received funding from the South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership (SWWDTP) to undertake her PhD at the University of Bristol and the University of Exeter. She passed her viva in September 2021 and is currently a teacher in both History and Liberal Arts at Bristol. In December she will start as a Research Associate on Dr Andy Flack’s project ‘Dark-dwellers as more-than-human misfits.’
Q: Hi, Alice! First of all, congratulations on your successful viva! Can you tell us a bit about what your doctoral research was about?
Thank you! My thesis was an environmental history of taxidermy in Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Much of the historiography on natural history sees these creatures as static, frozen specimens, and as completely controlled by human culture.
By engaging with sensory studies, and theories on agency, embodiment, and materiality, I argued that taxidermy was still lively and mobile in death. I also talked about time, and how the more-than-human world has its own temporalities which meet and intersect with human conceptions of time. This is evident in taxidermy, which is always bound up in the processes of decay and restoration – with being eaten by insects and conserved with a needle and thread.
To try to get beyond the museum focus of most scholarship on natural history, I explored the movement of skins and specimens through trade networks: from skinning in the hunting field, and transportation in barrels of brine, to recreation on the taxidermist’s table and display in frenetic Victorian exhibition spaces. I undertook archival research in four museums in the South West, and in the Bodleian, and my source base included hunting diaries, taxidermy handbooks, newspapers, museum reports, and correspondence.
To try to get some hands-on experience, and to learn about the sensory aspects of taxidermy, I also completed a one-day taxidermy course.
Q: Eeep. How did you become interested in taxidermy?
It’s a bit of a weird story! Some of my family used to live in Bristol, including my great-grandmother. She was a servant for a family in Clifton and would take their children to Bristol Zoo – this is in the 1930s. Because of the connections of the family, she and the children had the opportunity to walk the famous gorilla, Alfred, around the zoo with his keeper. Taxidermied Alfred is now on display in Bristol Museum, so I was intrigued when I learnt I had a family connection to him!
I was already interested in environmental history by this point, so I decided to develop a project researching the animality of the taxidermy in Bristol Museum. This became my MPhil project. My PhD took this further by exploring the liveliness of taxidermy on the journey to and beyond museum sites.
Q: Any top tips for lunch spots near your archives/libraries/museum collections/the Bristol University campus?
Near the campus, Eat a Pitta is always a great option, and you can sit and eat in Brandon Hill with a fabulous view. This also goes for Pinkman’s sough-dough-nuts, which you could have for lunch if you ate enough of them. I also have a soft spot for Beijing Cooking Pot, on Perry Road, especially if you’re feeling really peckish. For anyone researching at the Wellcome Library, the King of Falafel stand just outside Euston is phenomenal.
Q: Let’s talk about the viva itself. What would you advise someone who is preparing for their own viva?
When preparing for the viva think about big themes, overarching questions, and any problems – these kinds of things will likely be helpful for lots of different lines of questioning.
I did a mock interview with my supervisors the week before, and this was handy for getting used to speaking about the thesis. I was very used to writing about the topic but speaking about it feels completely different!
I’d also recommend thinking carefully about the words in your title and coming to the viva prepared to explain these choices to your examiners.
Q: What’s next for you? Where can we find your research now?
In December I will be starting as a Research Associate on Dr Andy Flack’s project ‘Dark-dwellers as more-than-human misfits’, exploring perceptions of the adaptations of nocturnal and dark-adapted animals. I’m really excited about this – Andy’s research combines lots of my interests in sensory, animal, and environmental histories. I’m also very pleased to be staying in Bristol for the time being!
I have an article called ‘Tactile Taxidermy’ in Environment and History. I’ve also written blog posts and essays for History Today, Environmental History Now, and the White Horse Press, and hope to turn my thesis into a monograph in the not-so-distant future.
Sarah Jones is Lecturer in Modern British History. She is a social and cultural historian, and most of her work looks at themes around gender, sexuality, and the history of science and medicine in the 19th and 20th centuries. Her current research looks really closely at print culture, thinking about how the public engaged with scientific ideas about sex through magazines, advice texts, and the news.
What’s the title of your new article, and what’s it about?
My latest article is ‘Science, Sexual Difference, and the Making of Modern Marriages, 1920-1940.’
In it, I look at how advice texts in the early twentieth century discussed sexual difference, and specifically the idea that men and women had specific, and very different, roles to play in the marital bedroom. I essentially show that during a period of great upheaval and anxiety, advice authors argued that notions of sexually passive women and sexually active men were biologically mandated – even if they didn’t provide much proof for those claims, or make use of much scientific evidence at all.
In doing so, they cobbled together material to try and show that heterosexual marriage was right, natural, somewhat inevitable, and that anyone who strayed away from this was abnormal or even pathological.
Long story short, it is about how apparently ‘scientific’ ideas were marshalled to uphold a particular, quite conservative sexual status quo during a moment of real social change. This all speaks to my broader interest in ‘popular’ sexual science – I’m slowly putting a book together called The Science of Sex Advice: Popular Sexology in Print.
How did you become interested in histories of sexual science?
I’ve been interested in the relationship between sex, science, and print culture for a long time.
My PhD looked at how print culture facilitated sex radical networks in Britain and America, and particularly how ‘free lovers’ on both sides of the Atlantic used scientific ideas and rhetoric to challenge the idea that orthodox marriage was a good idea. After that I was a research fellow on a project called Rethinking Sexology at the University of Exeter, where I started working on popular sex advice and magazines. As part of that I spent a lot of time reading some of the brilliant new scholarship on sexual science, and also camping out in archives in both the US and UK to work through some amazing primary materials – stuff like sex advice pamphlets sold in vending machines and train station platforms for a couple of cents a go, slightly racy texts sold through mail order in the back of newspapers, and expensive manuals written by scientists and sexologists that were apparently only for the eyes of ‘professionals and academics.’ There’s such fantastic work being done on histories of sexual science, including some exciting new bits of scholarship on how the public engaged with science when making sense of their own sex lives. I hope my work can be part of those conversations
What is the importance of the history of sexuality today?
I think, for me, there’s so much to be said about how an engagement with science has shaped the way we think about sex. It might seem like a bit of a niche topic, but actually the way we talk and think about sex – even today – is absolutely replete with scientific ideas.
Why, for example, do we often use terms like ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ (which emerged from nineteenth-century sexology) to categorize ourselves? Why are some people so obsessed with looking for a ‘gay gene’?
Why are we told that certain sexual behaviours and identities are good or bad for our health, or are perhaps ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’? Part of my work speaks to these kinds of questions, thinking through how and why science has come to have so big a role in how we understand, discuss, and experience sexuality.
More broadly, I think that in a fraught social and political moment histories of gender and sexuality are more important than ever. I’ve been lucky enough to work with scholars trying to use history to find more helpful and inclusive ways to do sex education in schools, and to help young trans and non-binary people navigate the modern medical system. Historians in the field have been called on to shape policies around things like access to abortion, gay marriage, and how to tackle sexual violence. Doing histories of gender and sexuality helps us develop our understanding and appreciation of the past but, beyond that, engaging with that history also allows us to gain new insights into urgent and timely issues in the present.
What advice would you give to a student interested in the history of sexuality?
Be careful when opening some kinds of primary sources in public areas.
I was working on a train once and the person in the seat next to me threatened to have me arrested. It wasn’t even anything that bad, but that’s public transport for you.
What’s the best advice you ever got about history?
Someone once told me that it’s a gift to be able to indulge your curiosity, especially for a living. Not always a particularly accurate depiction of my job, to be fair, but I try and remember it when I’ve got a huge pile of reading to do.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?
That’s a tough one. History-wise, I really enjoyed Martha Robinson Rhodes’ article on Bisexuality, Multiple-Gender-Attraction, and Gay Liberation Politics in the 1970s, so probably that.
I’ve finally gotten around to starting Kate Lister’s A Curious History of Sex, too, which is really fun so far. I also read some good books this summer that were very much for pleasure, not work. Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi was mind-boggling (in a good way, I think) and I quite enjoyed Emily Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines.
If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go?
My official answer to this is that I’d go back to have a raucous dinner party with some of the Victorian sex radicals I studied as part of my PhD. However, the truth is that I’d go back to 1997 and watch the Spice Girls at Wembley again.
What’s your must-do Bristol experience?
I’m pretty new to Bristol so don’t have many suggestions, but so far I’d recommend Pinkmans for donuts and Bakesmiths for cinnamon rolls. All the major food groups covered, what more do you need?
What are you working on next?
Loads of stuff!
I’m slowly making progress on the book, and I’m also working a new article on the concept of happiness and how this has been connected to ideas about good sex. I’m starting a new project which looks to encourage people to engage with queer history though playing games, and am also doing research into how we can help students transition from school to university.
Should keep me out of trouble for a little while, at least…
In the latest in this new series, we talk to Dr. Jiayi Tao about her doctorate, recently completed in the department.
Under the support of the China Scholarship Council, Jiayi Tao carried out her PhD project at the University of Bristol, passing her viva in September 2021. Her research interests lie in the history of international humanitarianism and modern Chinese history.
Hi Jiayi: first of all, congratulations on your successful viva! What was your doctoral research about?
My doctoral research focuses on the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA)’s operations in China (1943-1947).
It is a brief but crucial episode for us to understand the rise of non-western actors in the history of internationalism and that of humanitarianism. As the first executive organisation of the United Nations, UNRRA had a far-flung scope. It was aimed at solving various post-war problems through international cooperation.
While historians have highlighted UNRRA’s role in dealing with Europe’s refugee crisis in the aftermath of the Second World War, we still know little about UNRRA’s cooperation with the Chinese Nationalist government, at a time when China was released from its one and only task of resisting Japan, a task that had lasted for eight years.
The distinctiveness of the case of UNRRA in China also lies in the fact that China emerged in the post-war era as a fully sovereign state, after the 1943 abrogation of the so-called ‘unequal treaties’ with imperial powers.
My thesis not only explores the ambition and capability of Chinese nationalists to utilise international aid, but also shows the response of Chinese civil society to changing Sino-foreign relations and the experience of foreigners who worked for China’s post-war relief and rehabilitation undertakings.
How did you become interested in the history of UNRRA in China?
I was initially interested in the history of post-war China. My Masters dissertation looks at the staff reorganisation and post-war rehabilitation of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service in the mid-1940s.
This research led me to the topics of rising nationalism and anti-foreign, notably anti-American, sentiment in post-war China. Just before 1945, the United States was still China’s most powerful and reliable ally and enjoyed reputation among Chinese public. I want to understand this rapid change in Sino-foreign relations on the ground, and I find that the scholarship of modern Chinese history has been almost exclusively focused on the Chinese Civil War (1946-1949).
I then shifted my focus to the UNRRA China Programme and sought to situate this case study in a broader scholarship of international humanitarianism.
Let’s talk about the viva itself. What would you advise someone who is preparing for their own viva?
I would say: don’t have prepared answers or try to guess what the examiners will ask, as some viva questions will always be unexpected.
But I think it is useful to try to conclude your key argument and key conceptual contribution. This is a step back to look at your thesis thoroughly, not just as an author but also as a reader. There are other tips that can help build your confidence, such as reading your examiners’ work and being familiar with your own thesis.
I would quote my supervisor’s words of encouragement for anyone who is preparing for viva: you have worked on this research for years and read more widely in this field than anyone else… including your examiners. So, whatever your examiners ask, you will have something to say!
Lastly, keep in mind that viva is a constructive process!
What’s next for you, Jiayi?
I will soon start a post-doctoral programme in the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. It is a new but exciting challenge. And I am working on developing a chapter of my thesis into a journal article, as well as developing a book proposal.
We look forward to seeing this work out in the wild! Thanks for talking to us today!
In the latest in this new series, we talk to Dr. Daniel Booker about his doctorate, recently completed in the department.
After studying for his undergraduate and masters degrees at the University of East Anglia, Dan Booker (He/Him) received funding to undertake his PhD in History at the University of Bristol in 2018. Dan passed his viva in September 2021 and is currently a tutor at the University of Bristol and Research Associate at the University of Lancaster.
Hi Dan. First of all, congratulations on your successful viva! Can you tell us a bit about what your doctoral research was about?
My research explores the ways in which medieval bureaucratic institutions, routines, and cadres of officials could shape the exercise of power in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Specifically, my thesis focuses upon King John of England’s relationship with the exchequer (the body responsible for collecting and auditing debts owed to the king within his kingdom), as well as similar bureaucratic organisations operating within John’s various other domains, to explore the ways in which this institution could facilitate and/or impede the exercise of power by the king over his subjects.
Whilst my research deepens our understanding of how the exchequer could serve as a potent tool of political, social and financial discipline, my thesis also argues that institutionalisation, inertia and officialdom within this organisation simultaneously constrained royal agency and the king’s ability to raise finances in ways that carried profound consequences for the tenor and development of royal government in England and Ireland in the thirteenth century and beyond.
Overall, my thesis demands that we consider how rulers’ behaviour was shaped by the institutions and officials which underpinned their rule.
What did you enjoy most about your project?
Whilst the majority of my primary sources are available in print, the most enjoyable and exciting aspects of my research involved visiting archives to engage with original manuscript documents in situ. You’ll always be surprised at what you find (or what others have missed) when you work with even the most well-known or well-studied documents, and some of the most important findings of my own research came from chance discoveries in manuscripts.
My best piece of advice for anyone about to undertake archival research is to take pictures of everything you look at, as you never know what will become useful further down the line!
Let’s talk about the viva itself. What would you advise someone who is preparing for their own viva?
I would echo a lot of the advice my peers have already provided.
Try not to overprepare, but in the end do whatever makes you feel most comfortable and confident going into the viva. Before my own viva I re-read my thesis once in full, as well as some key pieces of secondary literature and some of my internal and external examiners’ publications. Whilst you can’t ever predict exactly what your examiners will ask you, I did find it useful preparation to go come up with answers to some of the most common questions that are asked by examiners (the BDC’s training sessions on vivas are great in that respect!) and rehearse them with friends, colleagues and family members.
When re-reading my thesis I also found it beneficial to try to reframe any potential ‘weaknesses’ or shortcomings that came up as conscious choices and to think carefully about why I chose to structure my thesis/approach a subject in this or that way. Apart from that, always take a moment to collect yourself when you’re asked a question and always address the examiner’s question first (even if you don’t know the answer) before going on a tangent!
What’s next for you? Where can we find your research now?
For now I am splitting my time between teaching at Bristol and working as a Research Associate for Lancaster University on a project that will create a class-list of documents relating to the earldom-duchy of Lancaster’s Lancashire lands (1267-1348) which are held at The National Archives in Kew.
In terms of my research and writing, I published an article earlier this year within the Journal of Medieval History, and I have a co-authored chapter coming out next year as part of the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to the Age of William the Conqueror.
Now that I have finished my PhD, I am looking to approach potential publishers with a view to converting my thesis into a monograph.
We’re looking forward to it, too!
In the latest in this new series, we talk to Dr. Blanche Plaquevent about her doctorate, recently completed in the department.
After studying in Paris, Blanche Plaquevent received funding from the SWW DTP to do her PhD at the University of Bristol. She passed her viva in July 2021 and will be working as a lecturer in history of gender and sexuality at the University of Glasgow from September.
Hi, Blanche! First of all, congratulations on your successful viva! Can you tell us a bit about what your doctoral research was about?
My thesis explores how the idea of sexual revolution got constructed as a political concept in France between 1945 and 1970. Historians have debated on whether a sexual revolution really took place in Europe and North America in the sixties-seventies. My research sheds a new light on this debate by approaching the term of ‘sexual revolution’ literally, as a political concept used at the time to articulate revolutionary politics and sexuality. I explore how revolutionary sexual politics emerged and circulated nationally and transnationally. Relying on published sources about sex and politics from the period 1945-1970 (books, magazines, journals), testimonies, private archives from activists and intellectuals, leaflets, billboards, university and police archives and newspapers, my research traces the emergence of the idea that the personal is political before its widespread advent in the seventies.
What did you enjoy most about your project?
For the period that I was studying (1945-1970) and the type of sources I used, very few documents were digitised. It meant that I travelled a lot to access my sources and I really enjoyed it. Although it required a lot of work and organisation, I discovered many different archival centres and visited various cities, such as Paris, Dijon, Strasbourg, Marseille, Caen, and even Amsterdam. It made research really fun and exciting. I guess I was lucky that it was all before the pandemic!
Let’s talk about the viva itself. What would you advise someone who is preparing for their own viva?
I read my PhD once (and worryingly realised I had already forgotten full passages!), and then re-read a few key passages like the introduction and the conclusion. If you can, get one or two friends/colleagues/family members to ask you questions. It can be useful even if they are not really familiar with your research. Being asked very general questions forces you to take a step back and consider your research from a different perspective. Finally, be honest with yourself and acknowledge the potential issues you can identify in your research, and try to articulate why you have made these choices, or even what you would have liked to do differently. I found that being aware of my own shortcomings and trying to understand them (without defending my past choices at all costs) helped me to consider my work confidently before the viva.
How did you manage the submission of your PhD and job applications in the last year?
Following the advice of my supervisors, I began to formulate a postdoc proposal in the middle of my third year and it came in very handy when I had to start applying for jobs during the 4th year of my PhD. I started applying to grants and academic jobs at the end of 2020, and it intensified between March and July 2021 as more jobs were advertised. I submitted my PhD for examination at the end of April and then had more time to prepare my applications. I must say that receiving waves of job rejections just after submitting the PhD was sometimes challenging. It was hard not to let it cast a shadow on the achievement that is finishing a thesis!
What’s next for you? Where can we find your research and/or writing now?
I am joining the University of Glasgow as a lecturer in the history of gender and sexuality. I’ll be teaching undergraduates and postgraduates students and I will be in charge of the International History Summer School.
To find out more about my research, if you speak French, you can read an article I published in Ethnologie Française in 2019 to introduce my research. I am currently working on an article in English which aims at exploring the specificity of postwar French sexual politics in comparison with other forms of sexual politics we are more familiar with today. I hope to submit it soon and I will also shortly start working on the publication of my monograph.
In the second of a new series, we talk to recent doctoral graduate Dr. Xiao Liu about his research project, viva, and plans for the future.
Xiao (Shawn) Liu just completed his PhD in History in the University of Bristol, studying with Prof. Robert Bickers and Dr Adrian Howkins. His research interest is modern Chinese history, especially the development of science during the period of the Republic of China.
Q: Hi Xiao. First of all, congratulations on your successful viva! Can you tell us a bit about what your doctoral research was about?
My PhD project is about ‘Meteorology and Politics in Republican China, 1912-1949’, which aims to understand how science was applied by the Chinese Republican State to serve its state-building ambitions. As meteorology achieved a certain development during the Republican era, my thesis demonstrates meteorological achievements as well as explains aspects benefited from meteorological progress. This project intends to advance discussion of the relationship between science and the state, arguing that emerging nations in what we would now call the ‘global south’ also accorded strategic importance to science in national development, including both economic development and their challenge of imperialism. As a soft power tool, boosting national science became a means to contest foreign power in early twentieth century, thus with focusing on the case of the Chinese Republican State, my thesis provides some insight into understanding history of science in others countries as well.
Q: How did you become interested in the history of meteorology in China?
I always have a strong interest in history, especially Chinese history. Although my undergraduate major was not related to history, I did attend several courses from the Department of History, which laid a solid foundation for my future research.
In recent years, the history of Chinese science has received more attention than before, and I became curious about scientific development in China. I chose to focus on the period of the Republic of China. After I started my PhD project, I found that meteorological factors were involved in many historical events, so it motivated me to further study it through my research.
Q: What surprised you most doing this research?
Regarding my research, what surprised me most was that there were a huge number of materials relating to my project, much more than I expected.
I did make research on the archives I planned to consult but was a little worried about it because their online websites did not include much useful information for my own project. But when I visited the archives in China, they did store rich materials to support my research. Thus, basing on my experience, it is really important to do field research or archival trips.
Q: Any top tips for lunch spots near the Bristol University campus… or the archives you visited?
As my flat is very close to the campus of University of Bristol, I have rich time to walk around our campus and to explore it more comprehensively. There is a small garden behind the building on the Priory Road which is a very nice place, so it is quite convenient for people of our department to go for a walk there when they want to have some relax.
Regarding archives, most archives in China do not have café, so it is better to bring some food in case there is not any restaurant near the archives.
Q: Let’s talk about the viva itself. What would you advise someone who is preparing for their own viva?
I highly recommend the examinees to read their PhD thesis again before attending the viva. Do not take ready-made answers because the examiners may ask questions from the high-level conceptual to the detailed ones, so there are always some questions you do not prepare. If you have enough time, maybe read the work of the examiners in advance. When you attend the viva, be confidence with yourself, because it is your thesis, you are the expert on it.
Q: What’s next for you? Where can we find your research and/or writing now?
I just participated the 26th International Congress of History of Science and Technology on 30th July, during which I presented my paper about the ‘Application of Meteorology by the Republic of China in the Development of Rural Areas’.
I will return to China in the autumn and will pursue a post-doc.