Category Archives: Advice from Young Historians

Researching an MA dissertation at the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History – Reflections on a Visit to Archives in Lausanne, Switzerland, Summer 2017.

We are grateful to one of our recent MA Contemporary History students here at the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History for writing this reflection on an archival visit undertaken in the context of dissertation research.

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This is a short blog about an opportunity I had this summer (2017) to undertake three days of archival research in Switzerland, for my dissertation project in the MA in Contemporary History at the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History at the University of Birmingham. I travelled there to consult the records of the Monnet Action Committee, which are located in the Jean Monnet Foundation in Lausanne, and was fortunate enough to receive partial assistance towards the costs from a research travel grant from the Centre.

My MA dissertation looked into the wider context of European integration as it developed in the mid 1950s, through the specific case study of the Monnet Action Committee. This is a relatively little-known organisation today that was active at that time in promoting European integration.

Below is a description of and reflection on my trip, which may perhaps encourage other MA students to cast their archival net more widely. Crucially, both my topic and the archives chosen offered the possibility of looking beyond solely British based sources and English language historiography.

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Monnet Archive, Lausanne, Switzerland. Photo courtesy the author.

It was important to be organised prior to my departure for Switzerland, as it would only be possible to visit once. First, from my previous research I had already gathered together existing work that others had done on the Committee. This was not a large literature, but did include a collection of published official resolutions and declarations. I studied these carefully for the period I was interested in, which was roughly from 1955 to 1958.

Secondly, I checked the archive’s website which provides additional information regarding the Committee, namely an inventory of the records held, together with contact details for the archivist. The next step was to get in touch with them, which I did by e-mail. This was essential as they are a small centre and need advance warning of any visit. I asked questions and provided them with an idea of which records I was particularly interested in. Once this was done I could determine how many days were needed onsite and could then arrange the practical details of booking transport and accommodation.

The archives are located within the grounds of the Lausanne University. I made sure to book accommodation somewhere within walking distance of it, in addition to allowing extra time for a little sightseeing. A note on language: I speak French, which made it easy, and some level of language skills is obviously needed for this type of trip. However, it is not an insurmountable barrier: in terms of the preparation described above for example, the website is in multiple languages and the archivists could speak some English. Being enthusiastic and interested in their archive also helped when communicating with them.

My impression on arrival was positive. The weather was warm and the foundation is housed in an old farmhouse set in woodland within the wider university campus and close to the shores of Lake Geneva. It is a lovely setting and each evening I went down to the lake to review the notes taken during the day and plan what to do for the following one. The archivist was helpful: I was shown where everything was and the procedure for ordering documents was explained. They have a small room reserved for visiting researchers, which I had to myself.

The majority of the Committee’s records are available on microfiche. These were created some time ago and are of variable quality, in particular handwritten notes were often difficult to decipher. However this was easily resolved as on querying it, I was provided with the originals of the unreadable microfiches. Perhaps another advantage of visiting a small archive was that, up to a certain quantity, it was free to request copies of documents. These were collated and sent to me as a PDF file by e-mail, within a few days of my trip.

On language, most of the records were in French with a few in other languages. I would advise anyone working on their research language skills with a view to a future trip to the archives to firstly focus on the specific vocabulary that arises around your particular subject, and secondly to keep in mind that you can reach a level of passive understanding of a written text on a familiar topic much sooner than attaining a more general mastery, such as being able to speak or write.

The three days I had allowed for the research passed quickly. I was aiming to build a general picture of the Committee to set it within its wider context. To do so I consulted the records in a variety of ways, following the general plan I had previously prepared, but not sticking to it so rigidly as to be unable to react to what I was finding. For instance, I studied various draft resolutions and declarations, tracing aspects that had both changed and not changed before the final published versions. This is a good example of how an archival visit can reveal a completely different story to the one that might be interpreted from simply using digital access to the final published text. In the Committee’s reports I was interested not only in what topics were being raised but in the language used to justify and explain specific courses of action, together with how they defined certain concepts.

Of particular use was a large file relating to the set-up of the Monnet Action Committee. In this I was lucky to find additional details of the background experience of several participants that I had struggled to trace previously. There was also some interesting correspondence which gave insights into individuals’ thinking and opinions. Finally, I didn’t ignore what could be termed administrative records, for example the legal statutes of the committee and details on its funding and spending, which all provided additional information on how it worked internally as an organisation.

In summary, I came away with a full notebook for my project. But it was also an interesting experience in itself to visit an archive in Switzerland and wouldn’t have been something I would have had the opportunity of doing outside the context of a History MA course. Based on my experience I would encourage others to consider broadening their research agenda to include non-British sources where appropriate, and to take advantage of the support that is available for such projects.

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Gillian, 2016/17 MA Contemporary History student, University of Birmingham.

 

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What Should Universities Be?

What are universities becoming? A plea from the future

By John-Erik Hansson, European University Institute; Nguyen Vu Thuc Linh, European University Institute, and Ola Innset, European University Institute

The role of the university as a place of education and research, as an employer, and as an important part of the social landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade.

As PhD students from various European and North American academic backgrounds, we are keenly aware of these developments and have been involved within or against them – often both at the same time. One of the most pressing issues from our perspective is that of the workforce in universities, especially the collapse of working conditions for many academic and non-academic staff.

Professors, who once enjoyed excellent working conditions in Europe and North America, are now being subjected to stricter, stranger, and more noxious standards. They are pressured into constant external grant applications, and are threatened with severe sanctions if the administration considers the results of this search inadequate. The case of Stefan Grimm, a professor at Imperial College London who was found dead in September 2014 shortly after a distressing email exchange about funding, is one tragic example.

Professors are increasingly being judged according to various forms of ranking, both state sponsored (such as the Research Excellence Framework in the UK) and international ones such as the Shanghai ranking and the Times Higher Education ranking of global reputation. These rankings, as Cambridge historian Stefan Collini argues, do not actually reflect the excellence of the research, or the quality of the university. And yet, they matter tremendously to university administrators, students, and state officials.

Working conditions under strain

Of course, professors are not the only academic workers at a university. There are throngs of other individuals involved in the production of knowledge. These include temporary teaching staff, “research assistants”, or graduate students who often combine their own thesis-related work with teaching and with non-thesis related “research assistance”. It has been argued that some of these schemes provide valuable experience for graduate students, allowing them to be more competitive in the clogged-up academic labour market.

But this experience can come with unpleasant strings attached, such as less than adequate working conditions. Or teaching opportunities without pay, as recently proposed by our own institution, the European University Institute.

Temporary teaching staff are frequently employed in dire conditions, as in the United States, but also in the “social-democratic paradises” of Scandinavia. High competition, low pay, few to no benefits and very unstable contracts have become the rule, rather than the exception. In Norway, for example, as much as 20% of all university and college employees are hired on temporary contracts.

Such harsh conditions make it particularly difficult for members of historically disadvantaged groups, such as women, people from lower social classes, and those with a migrant background to succeed, as they are the ones most affected by the low pay and lack of benefits. The result is a less socially and intellectually diverse university.

Labour issues boil over

We should not forget that an often neglected but huge part of the university-employed labour force consists of non-academic staff. As an institution, the university does not simply produce knowledge – it also consumes a vast amount of services. These run from university administration to cleaning and catering.

The workers who perform these tasks are to a significant extent, the life-blood of the university. And yet their important contribution often remains unnoticed even when their working conditions, and therefore their livelihoods, are being attacked, as has happened in recent years. As with young academics, those who are overwhelmingly affected by these degrading labour conditions come from underprivileged backgrounds. They are often women, migrants or both and do not usually have ready access to the media to fight back.

Protests at McGill University, Montreal, in 2011.
shahk, CC BY-ND

In late 2011, in Montreal, members of the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association went on strike for almost four months. They did so in opposition to a new contract proposed by the administration. The university wanted wage cuts in real terms, and negative (or dangerous) changes to benefit schemes including pensions.

Across the Atlantic in 2013, students and staff at the University of Sussex, occupied a medical school lecture theatre, protesting against the university’s continued privatisation of services that threatened working conditions of staff including porters, caterers and security workers.

State-led privatisation

The responsibility of national governments for “marketisation” and the drive for privatisation in higher education is sometimes underestimated, both within and outside academia. Reforms aimed at privatisation are very often the result of government intervention in the management of universities, and have been imposed from the top down. This has been done by governments of both the centre-right and the centre-left.

Similarly, resistance to these trends comes from both a diverse alliance of the radical-left, who draw on theories of financialisation and neo-liberalism to explain our current economic situation, and from more conservative scholars who see themselves as the protectors of ancient academic tradition.

As young scholars, we are part of the university’s future. It seems evident to us that we should ask questions about what universities are for. But in so doing, we must not forget to ask another, bolder question: “what should universities be?”

There is no “going back” to any perceived golden age, but it is beyond doubt that there are aspects both of the academic tradition and of the post-war ideal of affordable or free higher education that are worth defending. As institutions charged with the important task of producing new knowledge, universities should not be desperately mimicking already outdated forms of corporate organisation, but rather be leading the way towards something better.

This article was written with the assistance of Tiago Matos, Kimon Markatos, Hannah Elsisi and Tommaso Giordani. It is part of a series on Universities at the crossroads.

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This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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