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

Sunday 05 January 2014 02:23

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.

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