By Jessica Douthwaite |

The place of one’s ‘self’ within the research process is a subject that no historian can avoid. Subjectivity has become an essential facet of academia, respected because it takes into account the personal influences that impact our work. Now, thinking about our present lives in our practice is not just the work of ‘loony left’ historians. This perspective is celebrated because it suggests that by remembering our present selves the histories we write are saved from becoming flat, redundant versions of the past.

In my work on the everyday lives of British people during the cold war in the 1950s, this approach is inescapable because the topic remains extremely ‘present’. Equally, as an oral historian it is my obligation to recognise that the present is a defining factor in shaping my interviews as historical sources. This has required two things: a careful consideration of people’s interior selves in another era, and an honest account of my ‘self’, and people in the present, during the process of history-writing.

Everyone goes through this in academia: we are held to account, of course, made responsible, asked to justify and legitimise our work, required to trial our instincts, feelings and beliefs in public, on behalf of authenticating the research. Without ‘being present’ we will do bad research. This is important because as I have argued elsewhere, research that isn’t honest about those influences falls foul of pop psychology, lazy analysis, careless and sometimes offensive use of real people’s words and lives.

What we don’t necessarily acknowledge is that despite that self-reflection, many things in our academic lives remain unspoken, yet distinctly influential in our careers. I’m talking about things like depression, anxiety, medical issues, eating disorders, alcoholism, and drug dependence. When it comes to how personal life intersects with an academic career I have become increasingly disturbed by how repressed the sector can be when it comes to non-intellectual, perhaps mundane, taboo topics of our daily lives.

Of course, I want to be clear about my intentions, no one has to talk about any of these issues. Personal lives are personal for a reason. Yet, I often hear honest accounts from the community about other personal difficulties inherent to this starkly competitive sector – low wages, poor living standards, lack of social mobility, regional disparities, or discrimination. What is frequently referred to as a ‘dream job’, belies a wealth of mental and physical health experiences. I hardly know anyone who hasn’t at some point described academia as gruelling, demoralising, anxiety-ridden, ego-bashing, sleep-deprived, pharmaceutical-fuelled, hedonistic, or unsociable.

Sometimes I get the impression that there is a puritan culture of punishment playing out; in which talking about our ‘selves’ doing the research, adds an extra layer of intellectualisation to an academic workload that obscures what our states of minds and bodies are under while carrying out that work. We are discursively spot on with the language of emotions and psychologies, without ever being completely honest about the basic needs we require to be thoughtful. Just like everything else in higher education we sometimes seem to be using our ‘selves’ as a point to score on a framework of excellence.

But this doesn’t strike me as excellent. The pain I have had over the duration of my PhD was not, I need to be clear about this, caused by my research, but it is not necessarily given a place in my day-to-day work. I have unveiled the parts of myself that suited my oral history research. Not always being honest about how I feel as a result of my intellectual approach to research. In my opinion, we are working in a culture in which competition and excellence drive the need to maintain a ‘healthy’, employable, marketable reputation – based on a well-functioning intellect. In celebrating subjectivity we sometimes ignore the fact that even our ‘selves’ are basic and changeable…

Could we perhaps celebrate not always functioning? And, no, I am not saying could we be more ‘mindful’, soften our ambitions, be less intent on climbing career ladders. I am asking: could we create a community in which scaling ladders need not result in making our mental and physical lives purely academic endeavours? I wonder if the higher education sector has even started to mould the way we think about our daily ‘selves’ – not only in methodology – but in general too.



Jessica Douthwaite began an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award, entitled ‘Voices of the Cold War in 1950s Britain’, in October 2014. As a partnership between IWM and the University of Strathclyde, the primary focus of this research will be an under-investigated topic in British history: the experiences of the Cold War by ordinary British people in the 1950s through oral history testimony.