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Laura - background to the PhD
Name: Laura
PhD discipline: History
Area(s) of work: Youth worker; university teaching
Year of graduation: 2003
Date of Interview: 01/07/2008

Now Playing: Laura - background to the PhD
Laura explains in detail what led her to undertake a PhD.

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Can you tell us about the work you were doing before you started your PhD?   

Yes I had worked. I had left school without anything really, with a few O Levels and then I'd had my eldest daughter and gone to the local College of Further Education and had done one A level, with amazing teachers who managed to get groups of really disparate returning students, and consistent failing young kids who didn't really want to be there, through A Level in nine months. They were amazing teachers. And alongside that I was working as a youth worker and working on young adults projects including young adult education projects. So I'd been working as a youth worker and I got bits and pieces of work through that. I ended up being qualified as special needs assistant in a middle school. I worked as a dinner lady in a middle school. So lots of very low level jobs, there was no permanence to any of those jobs. But there was quite a lot of in service training. I think that is true for quite a lot of women, especially women without a lot of qualifications. I had experience looking after kids, looking after my own and looking after friends' kids. I was living in that child centred world and saw those as transferable skills that would get me into the work place. 

So I worked a lot with young adults and teenagers and did some school based work with the middle school aged kids. I got to the point where I had a really great boss and he just took me aside and said 'you're really quite good at this, but we're not ever going to be able to give you a proper job because you don't have any real qualifications.' So that's why I went to university and started doing a B.Ed. with English which I was really impressed that I got into. It was really competitive and I hated it. I absolutely hated it. I am in no way a natural primary school teacher. I found it absolutely alienating, really politically dubious, really bureaucratic, didn't find I had an awful lot in common with lots of the other students. Looking back on it, I think I was wrong about lots of the teaching, but I hated it because it wasn't what I needed or what I should have been doing. So I carried on – I was still working as a youth worker to supplement my income, running three youth clubs at that point. Quite hectic.

The main subject of my B.Ed. was English but I also picked up some history courses. There were just a couple of tutors on those courses who made me think that I might be quite good at that academic side, and they encouraged me to swap from doing a B.Ed. to doing a BA Honours; so I moved from the B.Ed. to joint English and History degree, and absolutely loved it. I realised I wasn't quite as thick as I had always thought I was and did quite well. Not brilliantly, I didn't get a first, I got a really good 2:1. I got some really brilliant marks when I was able to get across what I was trying to say. I struggled because my writing is appalling, my grammar is non-existent, my spelling is pretty terrible and I had no idea how to write an essay. But I had some really helpful tutors when I finally realised what they were talking about. I had quite a lot of friends who went through work with me too.

So I finished the BA and I didn't really know what to do. I think that quite a lot of students, particularly students who haven't necessarily excelled at sixth form level are like that. I think I got into my stride about half way through the third year and suddenly it was really interesting, a lot of theoretical stuff. The one thing about that university was the modular system. There was a really high percentage of us who were mature students, lots of whom were fed in through Ruskin, the trade union college movement. It was really quite sophisticated and we were expected to engage with theory and conceptual stuff from the start. You hit the ground running and for a lot of people it took a while for that to sink in for me really. Then I realised that I had loads of questions I wanted to ask and answer. I wanted to go on and do something else and didn't know where to get a job. I had a part time job in a shop for a year and I job shared with a couple of other women, and had a right laugh doing that. They were really nice women selling hippy things. I used to go in a little black dress or in a suit just to make me laugh, working in a hippy shop, and play funereal music. I did that for a year. I did apply to do an MPhil. at Oxford because my best mate was there and I thought it would be quite nice if he could help me with the difficult things. But I didn't get in. I remember being really furious and seeing it as one university looking down on students from another university. I realise now that I just wasn't right – I had applied to the wrong place. They don't even do the sorts of work I'm interested in. Then I heard about a Lesbian and Gay studies MA at a different university and I didn't even know what school it was in or what department it was in. Eventually I rang the switchboard and they told me that it is not called Lesbian and Gay Studies, it is called Sexual Dissidence and Cultural Change. I applied for that and got on, which was a bit of a shock really.

So I moved to the south coast with my daughter to study the MA part time. Have to get to the PhD bit now. I did that over two years with an incredible community of students. I think it was on a Thursday, about 10 or 12 of us would get together and have a meal in someone's house and then go to 'Dynamite Boo Blue' in town and it was a really nice community of people, particularly I think that first year. At that point it was the only post graduate taught course that dealt with sexuality or dealt with Lesbian and Gay and Bisexual sexuality – I don't even know if transgender was on the agenda – it covered history and culture. The course brought all sorts of interesting people together. There was someone who was sponsored by the pink paper and there was someone who was sponsored by their local church in some form. It brought people with an Activist background together. And it brought people who were involved in cultural productions, so quite often people who were interested in making their own installations or film, or doing their own writing. So it was a dream-like academic community to be in. It felt quite tribal really, and a bit special.

And then the second year carried on and for various personal reasons, including death in the close family, I didn't quite nail the dissertation in fact did really badly in my dissertation. That's really nice now when I'm teaching students I can say 'I've got no O or A Levels, I didn't get a first, I never got funding, and I didn't do very well in my dissertation. But I've got a job!' My MA Dissertation was about cultural representations of the Wolfendon report and Sexual Offences Act of 1967. I looked at why it took 10 years to get from having recommendations made to change the law on homosexuality, to changing the laws on homosexuality.  I thought it was fascinating and afterwards other people wrote really good books on the same thing. My supervisor was recommended to me as a gay friendly historian. I'm not suggesting any of my other colleagues are in any way hetrocentric or homophobic but he was someone who had taught with Alan Sinfield who taught on the sexual dissidence programme. I was really interested in seeing what happens if you take the really interesting work that's been done in English Literature and in Cultural Media Studies on Sex and Sexuality and you try and get main stream history to embrace it. Can you do it? Can history really take on the challenge of writing the history of the late 1980s?

So Alan supervised my MA dissertation and I had no idea how I ended up deciding to do a PhD. Because I wasn't particularly good, I was really interested and I didn't have anything better to do but I don't remember the point at which I had a conversation about deciding to do it. I think I accidentally fell into it.

I didn't get funding so I must have applied because I remember my conversations about filling in the funding applications. I think I didn't understand, really didn't understand, how all that works. I didn't engage with nearly enough knowledge about what I was entering into I think. But I did engage with the subject matter. I must have been. I still had lots of part time jobs and I carried on most of those so I just slipped into the PhD. I think I was probably so flattered that my tutor thought I could do it. I'm a bit of a later bloomer you know, I think the MA was the point at which I learnt more than I had ever learned and it re-formed a whole load of understanding.

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