Meeting people in person after lengthy email correspondence is always a little bit strange. I sat in one of Guadalupe Street’s numerous coffee shops, surveyed the door and hoped that I would somehow recognise the person I was meeting. The situation did not seem that different from London – until someone burst through the entrance with a burnt orange shirt (the university colour) and cowboy hat. Although not the historian I was waiting to meet, the coffee shop visitor reminded me of Austin’s uniqueness as a location to study British history.
I am a final year PhD student in the Department of History at UCL and recently returned from a month-long appointment at the University of Texas at Austin as a Visiting Research Associate. Historians of Britain are more common in Central Texas than one may first imagine and UT Austin is a significant location as it houses the Henry Ransom Centre, which holds one of the world’s most expansive collections of archival materials; and has run a British Studies programme since 1975, which brings together researchers from a range of disciplines, including a number of British historians.
My thesis examines masculinities and urban planning in Britain in the 1940s and 1950s, with primary sources located in the London Metropolitan Archive, National Archive, Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex and Design Archive at the University of Brighton. My research has not required me to venture beyond the London-Brighton mainline so the chance to spend some time at UT Austin presented a golden opportunity to share my work with new audiences and learn from historians working on British history in the US.
History is an international discipline and scholars routinely find themselves in institutions that differ from their geographical focus. Likewise, my own experience in Austin allowed me to explore people’s experiences of researching British history ‘abroad’. My own work engages with the research of historians such as Stephen Brooke and Chris Waters, based at York University in Toronto and Williams College in Massachusetts, who write extensively on histories of identity in mid-twentieth century Britain. Similarly, the Journal of British Studies and annual North American Conference on British Studies are two of the most respected and influential platforms for the dissemination of research, with their roots located outside of the UK.
I enjoyed discussing these questions over lunch and coffee with faculty and graduate students. A major talking point in these discussions was the differences in the PhD process in the UK and USA. In the UK, a history PhD is expected to take around four years; in the US, this process will more likely take eight years. Everyone conveyed similar opinions on what they saw as the advantages and disadvantages of completing a PhD in the US. On one hand, the lengthier US process offered more extensive training as a historian, opportunities to teach, time to proactively seek opportunities beyond the compulsory obligations of the PhD, and gave students a competent handle of a broad sweep of history. In the UK, after a few months of surveying the field, focus quickly narrowed and time spent on research outside your thesis came at a cost. However, a quicker turnaround avoided the risk of procrastination or stagnating as a graduate student, with little impetus to push forward to the next step. These discussions made me consider my own PhD experience and I left feeling appreciative that, since beginning in 2012, advisors encouraged me to understand the PhD as an exercise with a defined start and end date – as much as I enjoy my topic, I question if I could keep up this motivation for another four years.
On top of presenting two papers at the Institute of Historical Studies and Department of History, I also found opportunities in Austin to broaden my interest in how university museums bring together their collections, students and staff, and the public. I work as the Student Engagement Coordinator for UCL Public and Cultural Engagement and therefore wanted to see how other universities use their collections for public engagement. The Blanton Museum of Art holds the university’s collection of art and runs events that seek to attract both the student body and wider public. I met with Adam Bennett, Manager of Public Programs at the Blanton, to find out more about how the museum balanced its dual role. The Blanton’s approach reminded me of the UCL Art Museum, which similarly holds a fantastic collection and brings together a number of different audiences. It was also my good fortune that the museum’s autumn-winter exhibition focused on domestic design in Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela between 1940 and 1978, which highlighted a number of interesting commonalities between people’s experiences of domestic modernity in Britain and Latin America.
My visit concluded with a second paper on men’s experiences of postwar housing at the Symposium on Gender, History and Sexuality. The fortnightly symposium, organised by graduate students Sandy Chang and Liz Elizondo, offers a much-needed platform for staff and students working on histories of gender to share their research.
My time in the US recharged my passion for my research and provided a much-needed push to finish the write-up of my thesis. The opportunities available to historians of Britain in Austin are impressive and my visit made clear the benefits of engaging with academic communities around the globe, even when your research interests are located a lot closer to home.
I wish to thank UCL History, UCL Social and Historical Sciences and the Institute of Historical Studies, University of Texas at Austin for their financial and administrative support.
Kevin Guyan is a PhD student (and former MA student) at UCL History, currently supervised by Dr Michael Collins. You can follow him on Twitter @kevin_guyan