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Photo of part of Dundee University campus including an Oor Wullie statue

Autumn 2021 will mark exactly two decades since I started as a postgraduate history student at Dundee University. I thought it would be nice to reflect back on my experiences then. Not least because it was a life-changing step for me.

Originally I was a science student at St Andrews University, and started an EPSRC-funded computer science PhD in 1994. But at the same time I started to develop a progressive neurological disease, aged just 22, which would mean that I had to drop out of the science PhD.

After then I fought for proper diagnosis and treatment, which I got in 1997. The treatment which started then – and has continued – was for many years extremely gruelling chemotherapy, leaving me feeling nauseous and vomiting for much of the time. To take my mind off that I started studying part-time with the Open University. From 1998-2000 I studied history and classical studies, picking up a BA(Hons), helped by credit transfer from my first degree, letting me effectively jump straight into second year. But what to do next?

The Open University offered a taught postgraduate Masters, but one I couldn’t study more quickly than over three more years. Given my life-threatening disease I wanted to get on with things quicker. At the same time full-time study was totally out of the question, given how ill and increasingly disabled I was becoming. This ruled out postgraduate taught history study with St Andrews University, who in 2000 (and shockingly still in 2021) only offered full-time study options.

Fortunately Dundee University – another local university for me (we lived in Cupar at the time) – offered a part-time or full-time taught MPhil degree that could be studied part-time over two years. This course was timetabled to support part-time students, being based around Wednesday afternoon taught seminars for the first year, helpfully followed on the same day by the weekly departmental history research seminars attended by staff and postgraduate students. Over the summer months full-time Dundee history MPhil students would work on their research projects and dissertations, while part-timers were allowed the next year. The overall subject matter of the Dundee history MPhil was Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850, using the idea of the city or town as a “laboratory” to explore cultural and other themes. A particular emphasis was placed on Dundee as an example, but other Scottish towns and cities were covered, as well as places in England, mainland Europe, and North America. Good stuff.

The course – and particularly its teaching lead Charles McKean – was a warm and welcoming experience. Also intellectually stimulating, introducing me to the field of urban history, which I found fascinating. For the assessed essays and mini projects I would often draw upon examples from my own family history or local history from the Scottish Borders, my home area. For my year-long dissertation I worked on 17th century Melrose local court records, which involved my ancestors, even a g..uncle judge. I worked from voluminous already transcribed records, building a huge computer database of thousands of court cases, and wrote an analysis of these for my dissertation.

Part way through my MPhil I started working – again very part-time – as a research assistant on Bob Harris’s new Scottish small towns project. My contract was for a year, doing the research locally in Angus and in Edinburgh for the pilot study. Sadly my neurological disease relapsed hugely just after that year, so I couldn’t continue working on the project in its main phase. But the experience deepened my appreciation for urban history, introduced me properly to the fascinating period of change 1750-1820, and also led me to the topic reading history I would research for a part-time history PhD, again at Dundee University.

I’ve blogged before about my experiences as a history PhD student, so won’t cover all the details again. Suffice to say the Dundee history department continued to be a nurturing and stimulating environment to conduct postgraduate research in. My supervisors Bob Harris and then Charles McKean were phenomenally supportive, and as a disabled student – indeed one who was becoming increasingly housebound and disabled as time went on – I felt the university was extremely helpful, making adjustments throughout my PhD and vital practical measures for the viva. Winning AHRC funding part way through my part-time history PhD also helped hugely. By the end I was studying for no more than 5 hours total a week, just way too ill. But I completed the PhD within the 6 years allowed part-time. No extensions were needed, and just a 5-month official medical break, which helped hugely when I was going through a major health crisis and couldn’t study at all for that period and needed total time out.

Although I couldn’t work in academia after my PhD – just way too ill and increasingly disabled – the Dundee history postgraduate study established me confidently as an independent academic. I’ve since had numerous published journal papers and book chapters, and continue working on new research projects. For practical reasons I focus very much on research and writing that I can work on at home, but the wide-ranging training I got at Dundee, and especially in the taught MPhil course, gave me the skills and confidence to continue to flourish as an academic, in both familiar and less so subject areas. I am also very grateful to have been awarded an Honorary Research Fellowship in History by Dundee University in the years since my PhD, which facilitates my academic research, especially in terms of publishing new papers.

My gratitude to Dundee University and particularly its history department is immense. Thank you so much for giving me a fresh chance.

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March 31st 2020 will mark exactly ten years since my successful history PhD viva. I thought it might be nice to reflect on how the subsequent years have gone, and where things stand now for me, in academic terms.

I live with a severely disabling neurological disease, which struck in 1994 when I was just 22. It’s gradually progressive, and prevents me from working in any paid capacity in academia or elsewhere, and limits what I can do. The last decade saw me continue to battle a major relapse in my disease, including needing high dose chemotherapy infusions in hospital throughout summer 2012. Fortunately this treatment helped stabilise my condition, although it is still progressive.

Nevertheless I have continued to be active as an academic, publishing new peer reviewed journal papers and book chapters, and presenting conference papers and participating in other ways.

In the early stages post PhD my primary focus was on publishing work from my PhD thesis. Increasingly I have moved onto new research and new topics, and have a number of interesting new research projects underway.

An unexpected more recent change of tack saw me switch from my usual eighteenth century interests to jump back into the seventeenth century. My pre-PhD MPhil (taught PG Masters) dissertation studied a rich set of seventeenth century Scottish local court records, and I felt strongly that these merited publication as well as my later PhD research. In addition I discovered a poem about the court in 1682 – written then too! I have an annotated transcript and accompanying essay about the poem due to be published soon. This might sound straightforward, but the seventeenth century context is far outside my comfort zone as a historian. Yet I have derived much pleasure working in it, and learning the historiographical ropes. Encouragingly I also think there could be more publishable outputs possible from this MPhil dissertation research.

I have also combined my historical interests with indie computer game development, specifically traditional text adventure games, or interactive fiction as they are more commonly known nowadays. Two games have been entered into competitions, one about Border Reivers in 1490s Liddesdale, the other an occult treasure hunt in 1590s Scotland based on a true story in my family history. I plan to write more in future. It’s a creative hobby that gives me much pleasure.

Another area I would like to explore more is digital humanities. I’ve always used large scale computer techniques in my historical research, probably inevitable given my previous background as an academic computer scientist. Yet I would like to do more, for example building online portals to some of the databases and resources I have built in my research, and using spatial analysis and visualisation to further explore Scottish book history and urban history.

One thing that has declined over the last decade is my participation in academic conferences. This has had a strong correlation with my neurological disease progression, and the increasing practical challenges of attending conferences given these circumstances. However I do still occasionally speak at conferences, or attend. I was due to speak at a conference in May, but then Coronavirus happened. Hopefully the event is just postponed, rather than cancelled.

Something else that has declined over the last decade is how frequently I have been able to attend Dundee University history research seminars for the university’s history academic staff and postgraduates in particular. There are various reasons for this, but my progressive disease is definitely a major factor. I was delighted recently when I managed to attend a history seminar, the first in a very long time. Many familiar faces to see and catch up with, as well as new folks to meet. Yet even largely home based I don’t feel completely cut off as an academic historian. Twitter is a particular boon, connecting me with fellow academics and historical researchers with shared interests, all over the world. I also have a good number of lecturer friends I can call on for advice if need be. Ever since my PhD I have had an honorary research fellowship in history at Dundee University, which has also been a huge help, and is very much appreciated, giving me ready access to electronic journals and other resources, so vital to allow me to continue to keep up with research in my academic fields.

I don’t know what the next few years are going to bring. But for now I look ahead with optimism, and hope to continue to build on the good progress I have made as an academic historian in the last ten years.

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Before I discovered the joys of book history and researching historic reading habits, which I studied for a PhD, I did a part-time taught postgraduate Masters (an MPhil) in Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850. This was taught at Dundee University, mainly by Professor Charles McKean, ably supported by other members of staff, and was superb. The closing part of the Masters saw students do a dissertation on a topic of their choice. And I chose to study the local court records of Melrose in Roxburghshire between 1657 and 1706. These had been transcribed and published, and so were easy to work with. I built up a very large database of cases, pursuers and defenders. There were thousands of cases heard at the Melrose court in the period, and huge numbers of the (small) local population involved with the court. It was a very unusual type of local court, dating from the pre-Reformation Abbey control of the area, and provided low-cost convenient access to legal solutions to problems.

The Melrose court went through a lot of upheaval in the 1680s, after the Earl of Haddington who controlled it refused to agree to the Test Act, a measure by King Charles II to try to reassert royal authority, which was resisted by many peers in Scotland. As a result the control of this court passed to the Earl of Roxburgh, who appointed as his bailie-depute, in other words the sitting judge, local man George Pringle of Blindlee. Pringle would become one of the starring characters of my dissertation, as I showed how he changed the purpose of the Melrose court to now be primarily to root out conventicles, secret meetings for worship by people opposed to the imposed Episcopalian religion. And significantly Pringle also used the court to line his own pockets, as he fined the local population heavily, and seems to have taken deliberate steps to – wrongly – keep the money for himself.

So it was a delight to discover a contemporary poem written about Blindlee’s appointment to the Melrose post. It’s held in the National Records of Scotland, and as the catalogue says it’s called ‘A strange truth, a recommendation of Blindlie by the laird of Meldrum to the earl of Roxburgh, to be his depute in Melroseland’. The poem is undated, but looking through it looks to be pretty authentic to events of the changeover of 1682 as I know them already, and presumably was written by someone who knew the facts well.

I’ve started to transcribe the poem. It’s lengthy, not great poetry, almost McGonagall-like in places. But the rhyming helps as I battle to read the faint handwriting. I’m hoping to publish it in the form of a journal paper in future. I already have a paper with reviewers based on my Melrose court research in general, and hope to get that published in a good journal.

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I’ve just been reading an article in The Observer about university lectures, where two academics debate their pros and cons. And a few weeks ago I read a blog post by classicist Mary Beard on the same subject.

I was a full-time undergraduate science student at St Andrews University between 1990 and 1994. We had very variable lectures. Some were massive, hundreds of students in the lecture theatre, particularly in earlier years before students specialised for honours. Others were smaller, often a few dozen students, or even in the case of one of my honours courses just me and the lecturer!

The biggest problem I had with the traditional large-room university lectures is that they varied hugely by quality of lecturer. With an experienced lecturer they could be a lively stimulating experience, inspiring the student and communicating ideas effectively. Although the student could still end up at times fleeing from the room, running to the nearest academic bookshop to buy a textbook so they could further understand the subject! I remember doing that after the very first cosmology lecture in my first year astronomy course with Dr Carson. But with poor lecturers, especially beginning ones, it could be very different.

In my second year computer science course a new lecturer, not long after finishing his PhD, was assigned to teach the C programming course. In many ways this was the most fundamental course that we studied that year, the one we would need to understand best of all to be able to prosper in the subsequent honours years. And the lecturing was appalling. The new lecturer mumbled all the way through, and did not project himself to the class, who were only sitting a foot or two in front of him. We couldn’t understand what he was teaching, and we were not learning how to do C programming. As always loads of us had to rely on textbooks, me buying Kernighan and Ritchie to teach myself. But we should not have had to do this. In many ways I’d have been better if I hadn’t sat through those lectures – and I never missed a lecture in any course – and just taught myself.

Indeed the experience was so bad that it led to a student rebellion in the 1991/2 Second Year computer science class. A few students, me included, acted as spokespersons for the whole class, and sat through a debate (which was quite intimidating) in the John Honey building with all the computer science staff, putting our concerns. I think they took on board what we were saying, but by then it was too late for that year of students, and masses who should have carried on to honours computer science switched to other subjects instead. As a result there were only 3 honours students in my class: 2 single honours, 1 joint honours with another subject. That was the lowest number of computer science honours students at St Andrews for a very long time.

Another bad experience with lectures is where the lecturer – and this happened in one of my senior honours computer science courses – forbade us from taking notes, saying we would get the lecture slides at the end. He was really insistent about this. And of course he didn’t give us the slides, until we went round and demanded them, explaining he had promised them, and had told us not to take notes. He’d completely forgot about it. Well again what was the point of sitting through those lectures? Did we really engage properly with what he was saying?

After leaving St Andrews I started studying history part-time with the Open University. I couldn’t even attend many tutorials held locally at Dundee, so was managing on my own at home. And although the teaching there had to be primarily through pre written course books, I found it to be of generally a much higher standard than the variable lectures in my science degree.

Now small seminars, they’re a totally different matter. I’ve sat through excellent examples of those, including in teaching context, in my postgraduate history Masters at Dundee University. There you can have good quality interaction between teacher and students. But the numbers must be small. Even with a relatively poor lecturer the students can help to stimulate the discussion.

But I guess I’m not a fan of traditional one to many lectures!

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