Back to the Past: Michael Vernon on doing research in the UK

Tue, 01/31/23
Michael Vernon in London
I am in my 4th year in the grad program, I became ABD last year. I got drawn to history through a couple of fantastic history teachers in high school. They were good at telling the story of history, especially US history, and they did not shy away from talking about the parts that are more uncomfortable. In addition to being great story tellers, they also asked why something was happening and guided us to understanding causal factors. Lastly, they were concerned to transmit the lived experience of people who were experiencing the events we were talking about. These three things combined were incredibly intoxicating for the 15/ 16-year-old me. It let me to double major in history and education as an undergrad and for about a decade I worked as a high school teacher.

One of my big goals had always been to go to graduate schools and become a professor.  I stumbled onto British history by accident. When I started my MA program at Pittsburg State University, I had planned to study the early federal period of US history. I had a minor field in modern Europe, and the first course I took was on 19th-century British politics. It took that one course for me to fall in love with British history, and I decided to focus on it. Once I have completed my PhD, I would like to work in a liberal arts college or one of the smaller state schools, ideally using my knowledge in both education and history to teach social science education majors. It was the history teachers in public school that inspired me, and I would like to give back on that level.

 What is your project about? 

I am focusing on how successive British governments have used land policies to create loyal subjects, especially by appealing to masculine ideals of the householder, the small-hold farmer, in Ireland and South Africa between 1870 and 1910. From the Land Law Act (1870) in Ireland to the Union of South Africa in 1910, we see a move from coercion to conciliation and collaboration through this period to ensure loyalty.

I came up with this topic in a roundabout way. Throughout my coursework, I focused on topics to do with gender and sexuality. I wrote a paper on masculinity and how it factored into the portrayals of popular British politicians in the late nineteenth century. Then I wrote a paper on the history of masculinity in South Africa concentrating on sport, politics, and small-hold farming. Then I wrote a paper on British landholding policies in Ireland as a way to stave off Irish nationalism. That’s when I noticed that a lot of the policies in S Africa and Ireland were introduced at the same time. And I decided that I wanted to work on both countries together.

How did you prepare for fieldwork? 

We were a cohort of three who joined the grad program with the same supervisor, Dr. Upchurch.

He was very helpful in preparing us for our fieldwork. That preparation started long before our prospectus defense. Almost from the beginning of our time at FSU, Dr. Upchurch has had us look at the catalogues of the British Library and the UK National Archives to highlight documents that we might want to use in the future. In my case that has meant going through their catalogues a few times as my project changed and evolved but it has given me a very good grasp on what the two institutions hold and what might be useful for me.

Another piece of advice that Dr. Upchurch gave us was to look at and mine the footnotes of authors that we were reading and whose approach we wanted our work to be in dialogue with. He said to look specifically at what kind of resources these authors were using – and that has helped me the most in preparing for fieldwork. Knowing what sources I wanted to work with has also been very useful when applying to fellowships, as the applications usually ask about that.

When I started my research at the British Library, I had a list of several hundred sources that I wanted to look at. Some turned out to have been lost over the years, but it still gave me a good number to start with.

One thing that combing the catalogues has made me very aware off is that people at the time used many different terms to refer to the same thing. For example, they used Boer, Dutch, Afrikaans, Afrikander, Afrikaner, or Burgher all referencing the same group of people. And when I did key word searches, I got different types of material and different perspectives on events depending on what term I used.

What is it like to work in archives in the UK?

It was a little overwhelming at first. When I set foot in the British Library for the first time, I faced a three-story high glass wall stacked with books. It was a bit intimidating. Once I got to the reading rooms though, it did not feel much different from working in the library at FSU. The only difference is that instead of reading a monograph that was published in 2010, I am reading a government pamphlet that was published in 1910.

I had to change my mode of reading though. During my years doing course work I had mastered the art of ‘reading’ an assigned text. I had figured out what sections I needed to read more closely and what sections I would only need to skim over. That is very different now. In the BL, I am reading a variety of sources, newspapers, telegraphs, personal papers, and political pamphlets, as well as treatises that can be several hundred pages long. And here’s the dilemma, you want to read every word as primary sources are not material that you can skim. But if I read a three-hundred-page document word for word, that takes me one or two days, and that means less time for other documents. I am still struggling with deciding how much time to give to different sources as there are so many to get through. In the back of mind is also always the question: will I have enough material to write the dissertation? It’s the scale of the project that sometimes overwhelms me. This is the largest enterprise that I have ever been involved in so far.

I am so lucky that I am able to spend time in the UK and work in the archives and libraries with original sources. Looking at digitized material is one thing, and when you are unable to travel, that is an incredible resource, but working with the ‘real’ material takes things to another level. It gives you a very different ‘in’ to the material you are studying. When you open a box of documents and you find that there are hundreds of items in there, you can grasp the scale of a topic or an issue.

For example, I had ordered a folio that contained hundreds of telegraphs all cabled within a period of a couple of months. Each one asked the same question and received the same reply. Just after the end of the Boer War, the telegraphs asked if it was possible again for ships to dock in South Africa and passengers to disembark. I counted 187 telegraphs. Some bureaucrat had to read and reply to each one of them. Holding those pieces of paper and seeing the sheer volume of them, gave me a very different feel than seeing a few sample telegraph cables digitized online. It gave me a feel for both the mundane and grander scale of events. 

What surprised you about doing research? 

What was really shocking to me was how bad I am at deciphering handwriting that is not my own. Reading non-printed primary sources slows me down. When I looked at the correspondence of Henry Campbell Bannerman, it took me several hours to figure out just two words. The words were ‘Prime Minister.’ Luckily, once I had cracked those two words, they unlocked the rest of the writing.

What continues to be surprising is the sheer volume of sources available. But not just that, also how much material was generated around specific topics and not others. And even more staggering is that what I am looking at is the material that was archived and has survived. At every step in the archival process, people made choices about what to collect and what to preserve. These choices reflected the political agendas of the time – as well as later campaigns to weed out material that was no longer seen as desirable.

What major challenges did you have to deal with? 

The major challenge is that there is so much material to choose from. I had to make hard decisions about what to read and what not, what to take photos of to read later.

But a much more fundamental challenge I have to deal with is that my research will be limited to British archives and libraries. I would like to be able to go to South Africa and look at sources that are preserved there to find out more about Boer perspectives on the policies I am researching. Also, to see what concerns they had at the same time. I found some such material among the documents I have seen so far, but these were isolated instances. If I had the money, I would fly to Pretoria to continue my research there, but that is not possible right now. I am hoping that I will be able to access some of the same sources, the Boer perspectives, from material held in the New York Public Library. Boer leaders corresponded with a number of anti-imperialist organizations based in New York at the time, and their correspondence is available.  

What advice would you give to other graduate students before they start doing their research?  

Even if you are in the first year of the program, if you have a clear idea what you want to work on, it is never too early to start looking at the archives you will need to consult and review their holdings. Especially, if you need to travel abroad for your research, don’t just leave it to the months you will be away to scan the archival catalogues for material. Start early and continue to refine your searches. Get a feeling for how things are organized, and what type of material you can find where.

Also – don’t just look at the two or three largest archives available, look at smaller collections, at regional institutions, to get sources that can provide you with a more multilayered perspective.

I am very fortunate that I am doing my research as part of a cohort and am not doing it alone. I can only speculate that if I were here in London alone, I would be much more torn between spending time exploring the city and all its offerings and going to the archives to do my research. Finding someone who can hold you accountable while you are on research is a good thing. Knowing that someone else is here who does the same thing helps me stay on track.

Doing research is a full-time job. You are going to work forty-hours weeks. The archives are open from 9am to 5pm. Spending the entire day reading and taking notes can be very tiring. It is exhilarating too when you find things. But it is tiring. You need to take care of yourself too. Remember to balance work with exploring a new town and a new country. I am in London for the first time. In addition to working in the archives, I am also going out and enjoying the city.

And my last piece of advice: Don’t be discouraged when your research changes as you move through graduate school. I started out wanting to work on U.S. history, and now I am looking at nineteenth-century British history. Since coming to London, my focus has shifted again. You need to respond to your sources and be flexible in how you frame your research. The sources should shape your dissertation, not a theoretical approach.