Between the 4th and 7th of September 2017, UCL History co-hosted (with Queen Mary, University of London) the sixth annual London Summer School in Intellectual History. Students from around the world participated in a busy programme of master classes, lectures and seminars, developing their skills and discussing the latest research in their discipline. Below, two participants from this year’s summer school give an account of their experiences.
The UCL Intellectual History Summer School was one of the highlights of my PhD experience thus far. It was a privilege and a pleasure to hear brilliant historians such as Quentin Skinner, Ann Thomson, and Or Rosenboim in person, and take master classes with some of the brightest professors in the field. What really made the experience stand out for me, however, were the lasting connections I made with other students passionate about intellectual history from all over the world.
Everyone at the Summer School had their own area of expertise that gave me a glimpse into the different intellectual trends and interests of the moment. Students from South America studying John Stewart Mill, from Israel studying turn-of-the-twentieth-century French history, from London studying Indian philosophy, and from Hungary studying Lithuanian Catholicism. From an immediate exposure to such a variety of topics, unexpected sympathies could be found in different ideas from all over the world.
Even more notable than the content studied were the forms debated in the master classes: having been given a thorough exposure to certain methods such as the Cambridge School and other, more recent trends in areas like global intellectual history, everyone was ready to debate! Students and professors went toe-to-toe over relevant topics in the field: the continuing influence of “great man” history, recent discussions in Enlightenment historiography, anthropological meanings of the “global,” how to situate critical thinkers such as Benedict Spinoza or Giambattista Vico into their contexts, and much more. I don’t think anyone in the master classes quite agreed with each other, but that was the most exciting part of it – everyone could contribute to the discussion.
In between presentations and classes, there were also extremely helpful panel discussions featuring accomplished professors and publishers that covered the most important points in professional outreach. I truly appreciated how much time the school put into helping the students out in this regard. For someone like myself, who is easily distracted by her work, the hands-on work of academic publishing can seem either confusing or daunting. You could tell, however, that the people running the program really wanted the students to know about these other essential elements of academic life. I will definitely be remembering their invaluable, career-oriented advice in future.
But the most fun and important aspect of the whole program was the friends I made. In just a few days I was introduced to some of the nicest, smartest people you could ever meet; people I hope to stay in touch with for a long while, whether they are in Australia or Scandinavia. The dinners we bonded over in London were wonderfully entertaining! It’s hard to believe I only spent a week with them – I feel I really got to know them well and will follow their work in the future. This was much more than simply a productive experience; it was a truly positive one as well.
Anya is a second-year PhD student at the University of Cambridge. She studies education and nationalism in nineteenth-century Italy.
My experience at the Summer School was a whirlwind in the best possible sense. With seminars beginning at 9 AM, events lasting until the evening, and then group dinners after the daytime activities concluded, it was a flurry of personal and intellectual activity that will stick with me for many years.
The Summer School was my first experience at a specialized intellectual history workshop, and I expect its influence on my future work will be considerable. Intellectual history is something I ended up studying just because I was following my interests – accordingly, I had never taken part in the sort of rigorous methodological discussions that I encountered at UCL. As such, I found conversations on topics such as Quentin Skinner and the Cambridge School very helpful for understanding the actual craft of intellectual history. I left with a better understanding of how intellectual historians operate, the sorts of questions they ask, and how they frame narratives. I look forward to applying all of these methods to my own work.
The opportunity to present my work to the group was another valuable exercise. While I’ve been presenting aspects of my work for some time, this was the first time my audience was made up of intellectual history specialists. The group had questions and comments that I had not experienced or considered before, leading me to new considerations in where my project might go. The atmosphere was accepting and all the feedback I received was both encouraging and constructive.
I especially enjoyed the level of comradery between the students and instructors. It was very encouraging to have accomplished professors treat students as equals and colleagues. I think this level of comfort allowed us to explain our work more freely and get the best possible results from the conference. This warm atmosphere continued after the official daytime events concluded and the group headed out to dinner together. In this less formal space, we kept up conversations about our work and provided encouragement and feedback to each other. This personal connection was probably the best part of the Summer School. I’ve already started keeping touch with several of those I met and I hope we all run into each other again in the future.
Stephen is a PhD student at Fordham University, where he is working on American economic thought and progressive reform from the 1860s to the 1900s. He tweets at @srleccese.