Revisiting Grad School - Professors' Edition: Dr. Ben Dodds
Dr. Ben Dodds is an associate professor in the Department of History, specializing in the history of late medieval England. He received his BA, MA, and PhD from Durham University (2002) and taught there from 2003 to 2017. Dr. Dodds joined FSU in 2017.
How many years did you spend in graduate school?
I spent four years in grad school. Graduate programs in the UK tend to the shorter than they are in the US because UK undergraduate degree programs are very specialized. As an undergraduate, I only took History classes and so was able to specialize in preparation for grad school. That is because undergrad pathways are very specialized. While there are some combined degrees, most students apply to university to study only one subject. In my case that was history. All my courses were in history. It allowed me to go into great depth in the topics I was interested in. By the time I started grad school, I had taken a lot of history classes.
Why did you want to be a historian? Did you ever consider other careers?
I had a very enthusiastic history teacher in high school, who had studied medieval history. He inspired me to do it. I was aware that the academic job market was unpredictable, and that much depended on getting the right opportunity. I was very interested in teaching history at high school, and I assumed that that would be my career. I spent a lot of time as a graduate student teaching in schools in addition to doing my research. I was quite fortunate that there were jobs to apply for when I came out of the PhD program.
How did you decide on your research topics?
When I was an undergraduate student, we had to complete capstone projects. These are similar to the honor’s thesis here in the US. I had no idea of what I wanted to work on. I was walking along the streets of Durham, which has a medieval city center, and its cathedral looms very large above the other buildings. While I was mulling over the capstone issue, I suddenly realized that I wanted to work on a topic related to the cathedral. I kept this focus for my graduate research too.
I worked on printed medieval accounts for the BA’s capstone project. For the MA and PhD, I worked on the unpublished manuscript account rolls produced by and for the Benedictine monks in Durham. There are very large numbers of handwritten accounts; only a small proportion are in print.
All the work I did on the account rolls concerned the impact of economic change in the late Middle Ages, including the Black Death and later epidemics. More specifically, I worked in detail on the post-Black Death period for the BA. For the MA, I tried to work out how the managers of the monks' estates responded to change. Then, for the PhD, I tried to work out how the peasants working the land responded to change. I was very lucky because this trajectory connected all my projects. When I started my doctoral work, I was able to go to the archive on the first day and start working straight away, because I knew exactly what I was looking for.
What were some of the challenges you had to overcome in grad school?
University was overall a very positive experience. But I had to deal with two problems. One was something which I imagine lots of people experience in graduate school: working on your dissertation is quite isolating—it is just you.
The other challenge was almost the opposite. It was talking about my work to larger audiences. I found that a very intimidating process; I remember not sleeping at all the night before I gave my first conference presentation. I was terribly anxious about it. In the end, it was quite an enjoyable moment because it gave me the opportunity to talk about my research with other people who were interested in the same stuff. It allowed me to get feedback and I made some new friends.
I found the stresses of both isolation and presenting in an academic environment very challenging, to be honest.
What was it like doing research in the archives?
I absolutely loved working on archival documents. During the Middle Ages, there was a large Benedictine monastery connected to the cathedral in Durham.. The archive was part of the monastery, I could see the cathedral while sitting in the archive. It was a very beautiful work environment.
I had a long series of 13th- and 14th-century account rolls to work on. This was quite a laborious undertaking, going through them year by year, gathering the data I wanted. Account rolls don’t sound like a very riveting type of document to study, but they were fascinating - once I got the hang of reading them. They were full of chatty little bits of information on day-to-day life. In themselves, they were formal documents, lists of receipts and expenditures, but that is how I discovered what the monks were spending their money on, what they bought, what they ate.
Initially, I worked with the printed edition of these documents. Then I moved on to the hand-written versions. The first time I looked at an original account roll, I couldn’t read a single word I’d had no training in reading medieval handwriting. I sat at the archive pretending that I could read these documents, so I didn’t get told off or banned from ever going there again. But with some training and a lot of practice, I got used to them. It was intellectually satisfying to read these obscure account rolls. I became so involved with the material, that I collected too much information. In the end, I had to make cuts in my writing.
What surprised you about your PhD project?
Being the only one who knew my area of research in depth. While taking classes, the instructors set the questions we worked on, and they had a good idea what the answers should be. But when I started researching my own project, nobody but me really knew the material and what the findings were. My advisor was concerned to tease out the bigger picture. He’d ask questions about my findings and, by making me see the broader context, he provided support and helped bring organization to my observations.
Did you ever question the conclusions you drew from your research?
I have, every single day - from the beginning of writing up until today. The more you know about something, the more you realize how extremely difficult and complex the matter is. The evidence you have gathered will point in many different directions at once. As a graduate student I had a sort of brash confidence but as I have come to appreciate the levels of complexity, I have become more cautious about making absolute claims and statements.
Is there anyone you are most grateful for helping you complete your degree?
There were a few. First and foremost, my PhD supervisor Professor Richard Britnell was very patient and tolerant of my outbursts of wild enthusiasm. Britnell was very good at asking sharp and perceptive questions. I would write those questions down, but it wasn’t until later that it would gradually dawn on me how significant they were. He was the perfect guide in the sense that he let me go my own way, but provided support and feedback when needed.
Secondly, there was Alan Piper, who was the archivist in Durham Cathedral. He was one of only three people who had read through the whole of the monastic archive in Durham: the other two were a monk in the 15th century and a clergyman in the 19th. Piper came back to the archive in the evenings and read through the material himself. He knew these documents better than anyone else. Although Mr. Piper could be rather intimidating, he was also very generous with his knowledge.
The third person was Dr. Dick Lomas, who first suggested researching in the medieval account rolls when I was an undergraduate student. Also a kind and generous man, Lomas had taken a gamble when he pointed me in that direction to see what I could find out on my own. The project which he suggested became a big part of my life.
Do you have advice for PhD students on how to find a dissertation topic?
When you get to the dissertation stage, the topic you decide to work on has to be something inspiring to you so that you want to do the research. You need to find a project, a period, or a subject that engages you so much that you just want to work on it for its own sake. The key thing is making sure that you want to do the project, not that someone else wants you to. The topic has to engage and motivate you for a few years, and you have to care enough about it to put the pieces back together again should things fall apart along the way. Then despite all the stress of graduate school, it will be well worth it.