#PhDone! With Dr. Alice Would

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.’

Portrait picture of Alice, with sunglasses on her head, rural background

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.

Image shows an extract from the Pall Mall Gazette October 3 1884, with the edges of print text surrounding a cross-section of a lion, labelled with the letters A to G. The original caption reads 'How to set up a lion'

‘How to set up a lion’, in case any readers wanted to give taxidermy a go and have a dead lion to hand.

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.


PhDone! With Dr. Jiayi Tao

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.

portrait picture of Dr. Jiayi Tao

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.

Black and white photo of trucks being unloaded

UNRRA trucks and gasoline being unloaded in Changsha, capital of China’s Henan province (UNA: S-0801-0011-0001-00007)

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!

PhDone! With Dr. Daniel Booker

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.

Black and white portrait of Dan Booker, wearing glasses

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.

Image of a medieval manuscript

PR 1 John (TNA: E 372/45, rot.18d m.1)

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!

PhDone! With Dr. Blanche Plaquevent

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.

Portrait image of Blanche Plaquevent, standing in front of a canal

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?

Don’t overprepare!

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.

Black and white photo shows the wreckage of a car in the foreground and graffiti in the background reading 'je sevis dans les pavés'

Photography by Jo Snapp, published in Walter Lewino, L’Imagination au pouvoir (Paris: Allia, 2018). Available online: http://docpresse.esj-lille.fr/archives/index.php/page/5/

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.

PhDone! With Dr. Xiao Liu

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.

Portrait picture of Dr. Xiao Liu

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.

Black and white photograph shows esuit-made instruments at the Imperial Observatory in 1945

Unknown photographer. Image courtesy of Stanfield Family, University of Bristol (https://www.hpcbristol.net/visual/js04-045)

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.


PhDone! with Dr. Thomas M. Larkin

In the first of a new series, we talk to recent doctoral graduate Dr. Thomas Larkin about his  research project, viva, and plans for the future.

Thomas M. Larkin is the Augustine Heard Fellow at the University of Bristol, and a member of the Hong Kong History Project. His current research concerns nineteenth-century Anglo-American and Sino-American social and cultural interactions in China, and the application of global-microhistorical and transimperial methodologies.

Picture shows a portrait of Thomas Larkin

Q: Hi Thomas. First of all, congratulations on your successful viva! Can you tell us a bit about what your doctoral research was about?

My doctoral research focused on the American firm Augustine Heard & Company, active in China and throughout East Asia in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. I used the case study of the firm and its leading partners to argue that the American merchant community active in Hong Kong and China’s treaty ports selectively adapted to British colonial society and culture to advance their personal and commercial position in China, and that in the process they helped consolidate and entrench the racial and socio-cultural hierarchies developing in these ports.

The project was also designed to play with scale and to provide a framework with which global and microhistorical methodologies could be combined. The case study of the firm was analysed within increasingly broad geographic and temporal contexts to better understand how it fit in with the histories of China, Britain, and the United States.


Q: How did you become interested in Augustine Heard & Co?

I had originally applied to Bristol with the intention of studying Western indigents in Shanghai’s International Settlement. My early interests were in the relationship between race and class in China, the ways foreigners structured their society to uphold barriers between themselves and the Chinese, and how Chinese observers viewed these potentially embarrassing lower-class Whites. A study of the elite partners of Augustine Heard & Co., with its prominent position amongst the Western firms, seemed a rather dramatic step in the opposite direction. But when I started doing early research into the project and what might be done with it, I found that many of the themes I was interested in remained accessible through the company records – if from a different perspective. Perhaps more significantly, the Heard brothers seemed almost omnipresent in the history of nineteenth-century Sino-Western contact. At least one of the brothers at some point or another bore first-hand witness to the major developments that shaped Sino-Western commerce and politics. I had always wanted to write a global micro-history, and the ubiquity of the Heards made it an increasingly tangible possibility.

Black and white photograph depicts St John's Cathedral and the Augustine Heard & Company house.

St John’s Cathedral and the Augustine Heard & Company house, see www.hpcbristol.net, vh03-29

Q: What did you enjoy most about your project?

I think the most gratifying aspect of the project was deep-diving into the Heard archive and sharing my discoveries with the project’s benefactor, George Cautherley. George is a descendant of the Heard family, and as a tangential product of this research we have been able to confirm many of the particulars of his relationship with his ancestors and with Hong Kong, including the direct line that connects him to one of the firm’s earliest partners, John Heard. It has been fantastic getting to share some of the more significant discoveries with George, and he has been both open to learning more of the family and forthcoming with his own thoughts, advice, introductions, and input. While there were always significant academic contributions that I intended to make with my project, I have also greatly enjoyed these informal exchanges.


Q: Any top tips for lunch spots near your archives / libraries / museum collections?


I am currently based out of Richmond, within walking distance of the National Archives, and I can’t recommend highly enough escaping the archives on a sunny day and doing your readings by the riverside. At Harvard’s Baker Library I kept to the school cafeteria which is, admittedly, excellent, and has the added bonus of only requiring two minutes of outdoor travel to reach on frigid February mornings. Anything further afield was risky, as while I am Canadian, four years in the UK has ruined my tolerance to the cold.

I’ve a bad habit of forgetting lunch when working, but I do love a good coffeeshop. My preferred café-turned-workspace in Boston, Explorateur, seems to have not survived the pandemic, but if a seat can be found the Tatte Café on Charles Street or the Thinking Cup on Newbury are both good spaces. Classified on Hollywood Road in Hong Kong eased the completion of both a journal article and a chapter, as did Café Libero in Da’an, Taipei (although neither is particularly close to an archive).


Q: Let’s talk about the viva itself. What would you advise someone who is preparing for their own viva?

The best advice I received from Robert Bickers and that I would pass on to anyone else is not to over-prepare. I’m not suggesting slacking off, but there is truly no sense in trying to guess what the examiners are going to ask. Both my examiners had excellent questions and insight, but almost none of it was anything I had anticipated beforehand. Reread the thesis a few days before, relax the night of, and treat the viva as a very productive opportunity to get some targeted feedback that will, ideally, make the eventual manuscript a much stronger piece of research.


Q: What’s next for you? Where can we find your research and/or writing now?

At the time of writing, I am currently preparing to move to Bristol in September, as I have continued on with the university as Augustine Heard Fellow. I have been remote for the last three and a half years of study, and its about time to do away with the tedious commute from London. I’m in the process of revising an article and working on developing the manuscript to pitch to publishers. I’ve got a couple other projects in the works and am solidifying a plan for the next big research undertaking, but have mostly been enjoying the chance to dig deeper and write about some of the topics that I didn’t get to explore much in the thesis.