16-03-2019 01:03

In October, I presented at my first big academic conference. Not a postgrad conference, not a one-day showcase, not a symposium, but BrANCH, the annual conference for British historians of nineteenth-century America. That might not sound like a big constituency to you, but trust me, it’s a moderately huge deal. The organisers had hired out Madingley Hall near Cambridge, a striking Tudor pile lightly edited by the Victorians and set in a Capability Brown landscape. After getting a panel accepted and holding a brief consultation with my advisor, I decided to book myself in for the whole weekend.

Everyone had told me it would be fun. Days full of highly specific historical discussion and country walks; nights full of professors and grad students getting wasted together in an English country house. All over Twitter, the postgraduates declared their enthusiasm for the event. ‘The best conference ever! Sign up now! Can’t wait to see you there!’

The problem is – and, silly 23-year-old me, I just didn’t know this – conferences are not fun.

The affair kicks off with awkward attempts at ‘networking’ over lukewarm coffee, then, in my case, straight into the presentation. There are too many people presenting this year – not like the more intimate events of former years, the Old Guard mutters – so panels are run in parallel, dividing the audience between three or four rooms. The panellists sit nervously before rows of empty chairs for fifteen minutes, checking their PowerPoints, praying people will come, and then the room fills to capacity in the last thirty seconds before papers are due to begin. The chair introduces the speakers, most of whom he hasn’t met before, so he leans heavily on the brief academic biographies we provided in advance, and waits a few seconds for corrections after each sentence.

What made all of this so memorable for me was really my own paper – sounds arrogant, but give me a second. I had decided to take this opportunity to present the first fruits of my first ever summer in the archives to a community of historians outside Oxford. Where the more seasoned participants probably started writing a day or two before, I had spent two weeks at work on the paper, using exclusively new material. In the sweaty few moments before we were to begin, I noticed with excitement that two highly-regarded historians from London were in the audience, people with whom I had hoped to discuss my research.

The three papers came to an end – mine was last – and the chair opened the floor to questions. I waited. One for Nicholas. Another one for Nicholas, and now one for Jack. The chair wanted a follow-up. Time for one last question – for Nicholas. And now we’re out of time: time for coffee before the next panel, thank you all for coming.

I was, as they say in football, gutted. I felt all the energy drain out of me. A couple of people I didn’t know came up to express their interest in my work – one of the saving moments of the day, for which I am still grateful – and then we all drifted out. In tears, I told my advisor that I couldn’t possibly make it through the entire weekend, but he talked me down. I should at least stay until tomorrow, hear some more talks, and then, if I wanted, I could go home.

Dinner, the bar, an uncomfortable night in a room shared with another (admittedly very nice) girl I’d never met before, the cold light of breakfast, and a couple more panels later, I ordered a cab to the station with the lightest heart I think I’d had in years. The relief of leaving was so great I nearly fell asleep on the train. I felt physically and mentally exhausted by the experience for at least a week afterwards, just when term was starting in Oxford. A very big lesson had been learned.


Back in spring last year, I received the news that I had won a short-term fellowship at the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia. I was absolutely thrilled, and rightly so. Fellowships mean CV points; they mean that when you apply for more fellowships, or other funding, you’ve already proven your worth. Beyond that, though, at the time I applied, I didn’t really know what fellowships were like, or what their purpose was.  After BrANCH, I went to see my advisor in a state of deep anxiety. What if the fellowship at Monticello was just like a month-long conference? Endless networking and events and other people and ‘fun’?

Over the course of our conversation, happily, my advisor and I established that fellowships are not fun, either. They are an opportunity to buy yourself out of your everyday responsibilities at your everyday university. For as long as you are on fellowship, you do not have to organise or convene any seminars. You do not have to teach. You do not have to deal with faculty. You can just go to the library, every day, for as long as you want, and work. A fellowship’s purpose: to be your own master.

So that’s what I’ve been doing. Whenever you go to a new place, you have to be a tourist to some extent, so I’ve been over to Jefferson’s plantation, looked around the house, visited his ‘academical village’ at the University of Virginia down the mountain in Charlottesville, sipped coffee with a dear friend on the Downtown Mall on a sunny evening. But mostly, this particular fellowship, up on Jefferson’s Little Mountain, is about putting in the hours. In my line of work, that means a lot of alone time.

A friend of mine at Oxford was doing his DPhil while I was doing my BA. He was a very serious classicist from Luxembourg, writing about Ciceronian rhetoric, and used to go away to a monastery to be secluded with his work for a few weeks now and then. When I arrived here, I realised that Monticello almost replicates that experience, in an Enlightened deist sort of way. Why else build your house on a mountaintop in the Virginia backcountry in the late eighteenth century? Jefferson, of course, shot himself in the foot, seclusion-wise, by trying to get everyone he knew to come and live with or near him – seriously, ‘Why don’t you and your wife and children come and live with me in my tiny house?’ – and then becoming one of the most celebrated men of his age, subject to multitudes of visitors whenever the roads were passable. Still, even now, with the road, and even I think if I had a car, I would still feel a long way from everything out here. A friend came up to visit me from Knoxville at the weekend, and I swear when he drove off on Sunday evening, I’d never felt more alone.

It has been a beautiful experience so far in many ways. Yesterday I went over to the mansion on a sunny day for the first time and stood on the west lawn looking at the house and out over the mountains, on one side, and Charlottesville, on the other, and for the first time realised what was so beautiful about Monticello, with the wind whipping thin clouds over the blue sky overhead, everything moving, everything bright. I get to run on the beautiful trail up the mountain, through the woods, whenever I like. And when I flew into Charlottesville last Monday, only a couple of thousand feet up, and we banked into the sun, I saw the Blue Ridge Mountains for the first time from the air and gasped. The Blue Ridge runs from Virginia down into North Carolina, the eastern edge of the formidable Appalachians that confronted settlers making their way westward toward Kentucky and Tennessee in the eighteenth century. I wish I had been able to take a proper photograph of that hulking range fading blue, ridge over ridge, into the western distance.

But it’s also not fun. It’s going to a place where you don’t know anyone to live miles from anywhere and get up every day and work. That’s great – an exceptional opportunity – but it’s not fun. It’s not a holiday. I think what confuses me, and other people, is that trying to be a historian is the definition of ‘doing what you love.’ To work very hard in expectation of relatively little financial reward and have everyone, including yourself, constantly question whether you have any societal value – you’d really have to love the job. And, truth is, most historians do – they do it for love of the subject, of writing, and of teaching – but that doesn’t mean it’s fun. It’s still a job, where you have to spend time with people you don’t necessarily like very much, jump through hoops, tick boxes, fill out paperwork, and often feel like all that ‘stuff’ is drowning out your vocation. I guess that’s adulthood.