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Russell - lecturer and Reader in history
Name: Russell
PhD discipline: History
Area(s) of work: BBC archives; university teaching
Year of graduation: 1998
Date of Interview: 02/06/2008

Now Playing: Russell - lecturer and Reader in history
Russell describes his current role as a lecturer/reader in history. He talks about his work environment and practices and his future plans.

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What is your current role? 

I am officially – from October – I'm a reader in history which means I am, well, teaching, doing seminars, lectures, I am expected to do lots of research, write articles, write books, bring in research money to fund projects for myself and for others, supervise undergraduates, postgraduates. I'm also in charge of admissions this year so I'll be busy in October with clearing and stuff like that and assessing who comes into the university, who we keep (laughter).

And how long have you been working in your particular role within this institution?

Well it's kind of evolved over the years slightly different. I started at this institution in 1999 in a part-time capacity so every year I've had slightly different things to do, if you like, it's been quite a, mine's quite an unusual story I imagine, if that's possible amongst a lot of unusual stories.

In what way is it unusual?

Well because I started off here part-time, I was also doing part-time work at a couple of other universities, I was down on a series of contracts that were initially part-time and they were, what's the term? Set-term? I think set-term, a set-term contract for one year and then two years and then they had research funding which funded me for a part of my time here and part was coming out of the central department. Then I got a full-time post and then within two years I got the readership so it is kind of, it started off quite slow in undulation and then it kind of sped up as it went on so it's a rather, like I say, I mean of all you said earlier as well, all the stories are slightly different but mine's quite a protracted, a strange one I think.

When you said that you did part-time work, was it like sessional teaching?

Yeah, the first thing I did at the university I'm at now was one course for one term because somebody was leaving I think so I covered their course and that went ok and so I did the course again the next term and also did a first-year course as well and so it kind of built up, bit by bit, like that.

What does your job involve?

As a lecturer or reader?


On paper it's meant to split three ways and it kind of does split three ways. It's, you have an administrative task or tasks to do, you have research tasks to do and you have teaching tasks to do. So I tend to kind of think of it in those three brackets. I think on the contract, they're broken down as being equal but they never are. I mean it depends on the year and the time of year and all that kind of thing. I'd say the bulk of my time is taken up with the teaching and research so I teach usually three or four courses a year which can be up to a hundred students, I also supervise a couple of PhD students. Research-wise, again depending where on I am, I'm in a project at the moment, I'm writing up a book at the moment of my evidence and so my research is sitting at a computer typing up my research rather than sitting in an archive but it can depend, depending on where the project's at. And then there are these kind of administrative kind of things that I like to try and fit in around things rather than give up too much of my time to administrative tasks but there are obviously things that you have to do. And in the kind of grey areas there are things like marking, comes at different times of the year, after the exams and during the coursework submissions and stuff like that.

You said you were teaching four courses a year. So what does that involve and how much preparation do you have to do for it?

When you first start a course there's a lot of preparation. How I did it was, you have ten week term so you've got to teach usually the course of about thirty hours per course; I'm generalising here, they're all slightly different, but thirty hours. And so you have to break it down into seminars and or lectures and research what you're going to teach, plan your lessons, sort out handouts, think if, how you want to involve the students in the class discussion, whether you set them tasks or projects to do and all that can change as you go through the course because each group you teach is slightly different and the dynamics in the groups are different. Sometimes students need a bit of prodding and other times they're all quite enthusiastic so it can all depend. So initially when you set up a course there's an awful lot of work that goes into it but once you've done it once or twice you got the bulk of the materials there and you can add to it and you rethink it as you go through. Some seminars go well, you can more or less turn up and do them each year knowing they're going to be good. Other ones you kind of have to play about with and think about like that. But I'd say the bulk of the work in terms of courses comes at the very start and once they're set up they kind of manage themselves and given that you're teaching stuff that's your subject as it were, you're kind of up to, well you should be up to speed with the historiography. In my case it's going on around it so you just add to it as it comes really.

And how did you learn how to teach?

I was thrown in at the deep end really. I was, when I did my PhD, the way, we might come onto this later but the way I was funded was as a graduate teaching assistant so part of the deal was I got a certain amount of money a year in return for six hours of my time teaching a week. So I all of a sudden started my PhD and straight away was told 'you'll be teaching the first year group for six hours, or six different groups for six hours', and so I literally had to, because it was a first year group the course was sort of laid out for me, I didn't really have to do too much planning, of course, but I obviously had to decide how I taught it and what information I discussed. And so yeah it was literally a case of being thrown in and I wouldn't say there's always a case of sink or swim but it went ok enough for me to think 'this is all right and I can do this and I know how I can', I could see immediately the ways that this, that it would be a bearable way to go on. But it is difficult, I mean the first time you teach and usually, again it depends on the people, but usually you're not too much older than the people you're teaching - that's quite strange and as you get older it gets easier because the gap opens up and you don't kind of, you don't quite feel the same affinity. In a good way.

Can you describe what your work environment is like?

Again, well it depends on time really. In term time and in a normal term my work environment is probably two, I'd say three days a week, I'll be in the university in my office doing – or in seminar rooms teaching, doing administrative stuff. I tend to like to do my writing and research out of the university so if I'm in, I'm in my office or in the department, I can't get anything done like that and there's always somebody coming knocking on the door or you know, you go out for a cup of tea and all that kind of stuff. So my work environment oscillates between being at the university in my office with colleagues and students, and being at home and doing all my research, quiet, isolated, cut-off and thinking about what I do.

Does you job have any connection with the subject area of your PhD?

Yeah I still teach the same subject and I like to think my research has evolved from it and my teaching's evolved from it and that my PhD was about British communists and that came out of just a interest about kind of, I suppose I like the idea of kind of, I like two things, firstly I like to see people kicking against the grain a bit which I find very interesting and secondly I think I've a love of glorious failures and I think the British Communist Party kind of sums it up and everything I've ever done since, you could probably fit under that umbrella of glorious failure really so yeah everything is all bound in.

Do you feel that you're using your PhD experience?

Yeah, very much so. In lots of different ways. First of all, the knowledge you gain from spending that time researching a subject so in depth and then applying it in a teaching environment. You're using it when you go to research your next project, everything you've learned from your PhD you take with you and some things you discard and other things you keep and some things you do slightly differently but everything relates back to that experience. And thirdly and very importantly on that score is your own postgraduate students and when they're doing their PhD and they're having the crisis everyone has after nine to ten months thinking 'I can't do this' is to say well, you know, everybody goes through that and there are ways around that in how to structure your research and all that kind of thing. I mean everyone's slightly different in how they do their PhD, there's no generalised pattern but I think there are common experiences, which, you know, having been through it you can talk to people about.

Do you think there's something about the PhD experience that equipped you or equips you to do your job?

On the research side of things definitely because it teaches you a kind of, not just an intensive, an intensive period of actual research and how to sift through an awful lot of material, construct it into an argument and all that kind of stuff which you learn as an undergraduate and as a postgraduate but doing a PhD it's really quite intensive so yeah definitely on that side of things. With the teaching it's more a transfer of knowledge, it's not like your practice of your PhD doesn't affect your teaching per se, I wouldn't have thought.

And do you have an idea about where your work might go in the future?

Yeah I tend to have ideas as I'm going on about what I want to do next and usually I have two or three that are kind of in my head and as I get closer to the end point of what I'm doing those ideas I begin to narrow down to whatever project is next. So I suppose in terms of my own research life at the moment, I'm onto my, I'm just coming to the end of my third, if I kind of divide it up into stages, my third stage of research. I did communist parties and I did a big project on the labour party and now I'm doing a project on Sir Oswald Mosely when he left labour to become a fascist eventually. So I'm looking at that thing and they all kind of link up and they were all in the same period but they're all kind of part of a stage and at the moment I'm only thinking that two or three projects in the future – that once I finish the Moseley project which will be next year, I'll then start on that.

Are they all books?

I tend to think around books yeah. One of the ideas I've got for a future research involves teaming up with somebody from another university and setting up a project that would include hiring, if that's the right word, postgrads that do research so that maybe PhDs or postgraduate research would then spin off the project so – and as that suggests that would be quite a broad ranging topic of which I'd be doing something in it but also supervising other people doing other strands of research relating to it. And this is in the very beginning stage at the moment. We're literally mulling over the logistics of doing such a project and talking about it with a colleague at another university, about how we could perhaps have one person at one end of the country and one at the other supervising students in and around those areas and doing certain research into, into the whys and wherefores – sorry, the relationship between communities and politics within certain constituencies around the country.

Do you feel that the pressure for research mainly comes from you or from externally?

There is pressure externally on people, not so much to do research because I don't think you'd be in the job if you didn't like research I wouldn't have thought. But there is pressure to produce and so there is a debate that goes on amongst colleagues about how those old projects when people used to spend ten years on something and at the end of it would be a book or even just one article or something and you know, they'd absorbed all this information and produced what they'd like to see as the definitive piece of work, that's perhaps less the case now. There's more of an emphasis to do with the RAE, of kind of making sure you keep up a steady stream of publications so whenever I think of a project I think in terms of a book and at least two articles that could come off it, that's how I sort of picture it in my head, given that, say, to write a book you're looking at a five to six year period from start to finish, from having the idea to publishing it. So there is, from myself I tend to put deadlines on myself which occasionally I get in a tizzy about thinking 'well, you know, I've got to meet that deadline' and I then I usually realise 'oh no well I set that deadline so I can just revise it if I really want to', but there are obviously other deadlines, my funding body – I've got research money from the AHRC and they wanted me to say when I would finish a project so that's what I gave them, a date and I'm aiming at the at date and nothing's ever fixed in stone but I want to try and meet that. I've aimed for it and I've signed a contract with a publisher so there's a date there. So there are these deadlines that do come in and then they're never insurmountable I wouldn't have thought, but personally I find it good to have something to aim at rather than a big open-ended field in front of me, which seems more daunting than having a deadline.

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