Past masters: The PhD students who are giving history a lift

A university society is challenging the model of doctorate study, creating a sense of community – with a flash of colour. Michael Prest visits Leicester’s New History Lab

Serious research can be a solitary affair. As Malcolm Noble and Matt Neale, two first-year history PhD students at Leicester University discovered, long hours in dusty archives and obscure collections all too often follow the bustle and camaraderie of undergraduate life. But they have found a cure for the loneliness of the historian: the New History Lab.

The Lab is an act of mild insurrection. Leicester's conventional postgraduate seminars – in which students read papers and comment on one another's work in a formal setting – lacked pulling power. "It wasn't at the centre of postgraduate life. We got a low attendance of four or five people," says Noble.

Students wanted a more stimulating forum. "Our motive was to set up a postgraduate community where history was such a good and confident activity, where ideas could be shared," says Neale.

Several students approached Rob Colls, professor of English history and director of postgraduate studies, and suggested a new format. The seminar would be held on Friday afternoons, a range of outside speakers would be invited, tea and homemade cake served, culminating in a trip to the pub.

"The inspiration for the New History Lab came from the idea that scientists sit around in labs and chat to each other about their work. Historians don't have that," says Noble, who is doing comparative research into how the urban governance of Edinburgh and Birmingham developed in the early-to-mid-19th century. Neale is studying crime in 18th-century Bath and Bristol. "It can be quite lonely" adds Noble, "especially for research students. We thought it could be better."

Professor Colls gave his blessing to the experiment and the university stumped up some cash to support it. The first meeting was held last October and was an instant success.

"We were blown away when we got 30 people," says Noble. The format has been flexible, combining the more conventional postgraduate papers with external speakers and, in keeping with Leicester's strength in local history, visits – called "peregrinations" – to other cities such as Stoke and Sheffield.

Part of the success has been the eclectic mix of speakers and participants. Archivists,librarians and academics from other departments and universities come to speak. Professor Julie Coleman from the English department gave a talk on "Cant and Slang".

Even more unusually, the group received a visit from what Professor Colls calls "the alien land of physics", when Professor Andrew King, head of the university's Theoretical Astrophysics Group, discussed how scientists handle evidence. "We picked the academic who was furthest away from history," says Neale. The idea of the falsifiable hypothesis was an eye-opener for many in the audience. It fitted neatly with the Lab's tendency to put small ideas together and discuss how to reconcile empirical approaches to evidence with theoretical approaches.

The last session of the series starred Tristram Hunt from Queen Mary, University of London, talking about his biography of Friedrich Engels, Marx's patron and collaborator. "In a fit of madness, I said, 'Let's make everything pink' to publicise the visit," Noble laughs. They distributed shocking pink posters – "we didn't want it to look like another history seminar with a woodcut" – which had to be coloured by hand because funds were short. Pink rubber wristbands advertising the Lab were doled out and everyone was urged to wear something pink at the meeting.

"You should have seen the look on Hunt's face when he saw people wearing pink jumpers and scarves. He didn't quite know what to make of it," Noble says. But the ploy worked, enticing 70 people to the event and cementing the Lab's reputation for spicing up history.

As the meetings progressed, it became clear that the Lab was also meeting its other main objective of creating a community. "Much of my life consists of sitting in an archive and writing in my notebook for seven hours and going home," Neale laments. The meetings have been attended by third-year history undergraduates and even graduate students from other disciplines, along with the history Masters and PhD students.

For all the fun, the Lab takes its work seriously. A steering committee of five students plus Professor Coles runs it and minutes of each meeting are taken. The Lab is about to start planning next year's programme and hopes to raise extra money from the university, from which it borrows a room for meetings. Visitors should expect surprises.

News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

SThree: Recruitment Consultant (Trainee / Experienced)

£18000 - £27000 per annum + doe OTE £45K: SThree: SThree are always looking fo...

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are a recent psychology graduate ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior / Graduate Graphic Designer

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Largest Independent Motor D...

Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manager - City, London

£40000 - £45000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manag...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own