Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Dissertation Thoughts

Two years ago, student Maddy Potts posted her top-10 tips for future generations to help them through the great rite of passage of the British undergraduate degree: the storied dissertation. Reading through them, I think there was a degree of tongue-in-cheek, but also some sound advice.

Today was my "D-Day," the day when the previous several year's work is submitted for the scrutiny of academics who have seen it all before - the good, the bad and (hopefully not too often) the ugly. I thought I would put together my own thoughts on her top-10 tips. Here goes:
  1. If your dissertation supervisor isn't a good match, get another one.

    Not a problem for me, mine was a perfect fit and was very interested in my project. However, without the occasional guidance, steer in the right direction and advice on footnotes from a good supervisor, my dissertation would not have been anywhere near as easy.

  2. People you meet will be disappointed by your topic or feign interest when you tell them about it.

    My view (perhaps a little snobbish) is that maybe you should find some other people to talk to. There is, however, a serious point here. Academic history can often seem shut off from the rest of the world and one of the great challenges is to find a way to make your research relevant to the general public. In my case, I tried to find the historical roots of a recent shift in Jewish views towards Stephen Harper's Conservative government, thus grounding my work in a subject of interest to people today.

  3. Follow-up questions are for courtesy only.

    Ditto my comments for #2.

  4. Don't ask others how much work they have done.

    Good advice. In my case, I was usually ahead, but you must set your own timetable to meet the deadline.

  5. Panicking and questioning the whole dissertation.

    Yes! Well, not really panicking, but plenty of walks to and from campus trying to mull through ideas only to come up with ten more possibilities. This is where supervisors are especially useful. In my case, I changed the title to better reflect my research findings in a coherent way. A simple title change made my whole thought-process much clearer.

  6. Much of your work will never make it into the final product.

    Incredibly true, both during research and then writing. I probably used less than 10% of my total research in the write-up (there might be a lesson about more concise research) and then had to cull over 2,000 words from the final version.

  7. Lots of printing.

    Yes, but I print a lot anyway. (If any big tech companies are reading this, if you can make some sort of tablet with the abilities of an iPad and the absolute glare-free screen of a Kindle, academics would be very happy) For archival research, I took digital photos, which I then renamed to match the archival record number. That way, I could quickly find an image of the particular document. Top tip: Adobe Bridge turned out to be a great piece of software for this work. Not only does it allow you to rename the image while you are looking at it, but you can zoom in fullscreen with a very straightfurward user interface to guide you.

  8. Your dissertation will become the core of your life.

    Partially true, but this is probably more of an issue if you aren't a workaholic like me. It was my life anyway. Biscuits should not become their own food group. If you let your diet slip, so will your work. The time spent making and eating healthy food will be repaid in better concentration and work time.

  9. Time will disappear even for the super-organized.

    This really depends on how much time you can spend during the summer working on research. In my case, I spent over three weeks doing research and then organizing the research to make it usable. Come the start of the fall term, I was ready to write and spent one day a week writing. By the end, I had over a month to spare and edit my dissertation carefully. Guilt when not working is a real problem and leads to stress and, in some cases, burnout. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a good solution to this.

  10. The finished product is a triumph and something you should be proud of.

    I must admit that I felt very little emotion when it was all over. Mind you, I was balancing a book manuscript at the same time and, while an academic dissertation and a book for a general audience are two different things, the two fed off each other a great deal. The dissertation helped with the research for my book, and the book helped with my academic writing. Am I proud of my work? Probably, but I feel that my chosen topic needs further scrutiny and I finished up wanting more, which bodes well for potential future research endeavours.
There you have it, Guardian-published advice remixed by me, just for the shear hell of it. I might even eventually write another piece on my actual dissertation topic, rather than just spouting abstract notions.

*I have perhaps jinxed the entire dissertation process. It might turn out that my work is entirely flawed, in which case please ignore all my above advice. Only time will tell.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Model Railways: A New Level of Total History?

Railway modellers are a strange and varied bunch, ranging from those who find it fun and a form of artistic expression (like me) to those who count every rivet and seem to never find any fun in it at all. The hobby is often branded as pedantic, but what if it was in fact a new horizon for total history?

Total history emerged in the early 20th century as the preferred historical method of the Annales School, a group of French historians who valued detailed analyses of change over time. These accounts often included microscopic detail, most notably seen in Fernand Braudel's multi-volume history of the Mediterranean, which examines everything from politics to crops. The link between total history and model railways may not be immediately apparent, but I think it is worth discussing.

I first thought of this comparison while browsing through back issues of British Railway Modelling at the National Railway Museum the other day. The cover story in the February 2014 issue featured the latest layout from the Luton Model Railway Club, a detailed and accurate representation of the "Great Train Robbery" in O Scale.

In August 1963, a group of robbers tampered with the lineside signalling near Ledmore in Buckinghamshire. With the broken signal showing danger, an approaching Royal Mail Train stopped at Bridego Bridge, where the gang was waiting. Overpowering the crew (some of whom were seriously injured), the gang made off with over £2.6 million (1963 money). The crime was well-planned and included extensive research of railway operations. After the heist, the gang split up, with members scattering around the world. Most famously, Ronnie Biggs eluded British police by hiding in South America until he returned to the UK for medical treatment in 2001. The "Great Train Robbery" shocked Britain, largely because it was an attack on the Royal Mail - a national institution - and because the train crew had been hurt. The gang's years of evading the law afterwards remain raw to this day.

With the 50th anniversary in mind, the Luton Club decided to build a diorama of the scene that was as accurate as possible. Their attention to detail is indeed incredible. For instance, their research showed that the modernization of the West Coast Main Line had seen the up fast line redone with concrete sleepers. On the layout, all the other tracks retain the wooden ones. Similarly, the partially-installed overhead electrification is accurate for August 1963. Virtually every other detail has also been carefully researched to match the night in question. The locomotive emits exhaust in a pattern accurately representing an idling diesel. The road vehicles are correct - down to both Land Rovers having the same registration plates. The Royal Mail coaches are also accurately detailed (including a great deal of interior detail), no mean feat given that the original one carrying the money was destroyed under police guard decades ago. The Robbery has become the stuff of legend and for the Club to spend a great deal of time cutting through the myth to get to the actual events is exemplary.

Is it total history? In a sense yes. The careful attention to detail would have made the Annales School proud. However, this diorama does not show change over time or have an argument. It is instead a carefully-crafted attempt to set the record straight, which is a core principle of the conscientious historian.

Railway modellers are a very picky bunch and tend to be very self-righteous (there is only one right way to do something - and naturally theirs is the right way). However, the level of controversy that this layout has generated is quite surprising. In the March 2014 issue's letters to the editor, one reader described the layout as shameful and tasteless, concluding by announcing that he had cancelled his subscription to the magazine in protest. In April 2014, other letters appeared, supporting this view, advising British Railway Modelling to never feature such layouts again and calling for a boycott of all model railway shows where the layout is on display. It's hard to tell whether this is the majority view or simply a very vocal minority, but is slightly worrying coming from a hobby which is often associated with historical research. Do these views suggest that it is somehow immoral to revisit and analyze past events? Would an accurately researched model of last summer's Lac-M├ęgantic derailment garner similar comments, even if it helped explain what the scene actually looked like? Is every battlefield reconstruction wrong? Does every museum displaying a photograph of a less-than-savoury scene no longer merit our patronage?

Why do people object to this model? I don't believe it glorifies the events and in our 24/7 news culture, surely it is nice to find a carefully-researched account of a crime? I honestly cannot comprehend why anyone would boycott the layout.

For those of you interesting in reading the article and seeing the accompanying photographs, you can purchase a digital back-issue of the February 2014 magazine here.

*I should probably make a distinction (and massive generalization) here between British railway modellers and North American model railroaders. In my experience, the hobby in North America is much more relaxed and more open to multiple ideas. The British fraternity tends to be far more exacting and prickly.