Terribly Boring 6: My favourite PhD

Over the past few months, I’ve been mildly fantasising about rescuscitating my PhD (or, more probably, burying it as a lost cause and starting again). The problems I’ve got are twofold (threefold if you count the money):

1) Last time round (2002) I wonder if I didn’t just start the PhD because I had nothing else to do. I’m sure I painted a much neater picture for myself at the time, but is that nearer the truth? I had quite openly gone through a Masters degree because I had nothing else to do, and that had turned out just fine, and it was a very good Masters in terms of being prepared for a PhD because it was research-based rather than taught. Maybe I went with the flow a bit too much. It is instructive to recall that there was a year between the Masters and the PhD, a blank year, and if I had found anything searingly exciting to occupy me in that time then it seems unlikely that I would have interrupted it to go back to university.

None of this would seem quite so much of a problem except for the fact that the pattern of my life now is very similar to what it was then. The last year has been, well, not a blank at all actually because I’ve moved cities and bought a dear little house with Mr Head of State which has a leaky roof (the house, not the Mr). But it has been a bit of a blank in terms of work owing to a troublesome little thing called the recession.

We’re not anywhere near starving without my full-time employ, and I’ve rarely been entirely without work, but that’s not really the point. As I potter about from article to report-writing, occasionally pausing to paint a wall or rip up a carpet covered in cat’s piss, I find an awful lot of spare hours, and by tradition I tend to use spare hours for two things: guilt and the internet. And the guilt, in this instance, has attached itself to all the things I am not doing, viz, Pursuing a Career. Never mind that the only Proper Careers I tried were dull and awful and caused me to run away screaming and work for myself, never mind all the other areas of my life that are going swimmingly, this is the one with the fuzz currently hanging over it, therefore this is what Mortimer focuses on.

So maybe, the structure and clear end-goal involved in a PhD is what is insinuating itself onto my wishlist, and not the PhD at all.

2) All the topics, connections or subjects I can think of that really fire my research imagination are so interdisciplinary as to be, frankly, verging on bonkers. And certainly likely to meet with short shrift from proper medievalists.

Take modern policy-making, for instance, and the ideas and suggestions politicians and think tanks come out with. Perhaps it’s because I never studied modern history in any depth that to me, the modern world is basically just the medieval world with Gay Pride and big train sets. The millions of tiny threads that connect us down the billions of seconds to late medieval England are there in front of me literally all the time. Mixed-use working and living space? Sustainable farming? “Building more effective communities”? Local decision-making? Sometimes it seems to me that the entire public polity is bent on creating the biggest re-enactment the world has ever seen.

Philip Blond has made a post-academic career out of encouraging this wave of New Medievalism, but I’m more interested in the whys. Why have we suddenly decided we want these things? Why are we so collectively nostalgic for what are, in origin, medieval tenets? Is it just a different flavour of the nostalgia that made the Conservatives’ evocation of a vanished England so popular? They were talking about an England that existed in some mythical corner of time between about 1850 and 1930. The England most talked about in white papers these days is the one that existed somewhere between about 1360 and 1500.

You see what I mean? Bonkers. How do you even begin to identify the range of sources that will illustrate and expand that? You could build an entire career on studying the Conservatives’ Victorian values business alone, so taking it as one comparative reference point in a single PhD seems a little on the ambitious side.

Or, I could marry up my medievalism with another of my bonkers little armchair interests, psychological profiling. In the nature of the beast, profiling systems like those of Myers-Briggs and Maslow were built for modern people. They describe and demarcate modern society because it was the inhabitants of modern society who provided the raw materials, lay on the couches, took the tests. By implication, their creators intended them to some degree to stand for all times and cultures, but they are likely to have thought a lot more about the different cultural dimensions than the temporal ones. If you have a habit of writing tendentious blog posts, you can use their systems to identify not only individuals but whole groups, nations or movements that appear to embody the characteristics of say, the Settler, or the NT type.

The bonkers question is, therefore, does it work on the medieval world, this whole other world in my head, whose people I do know at least slightly. We’re already swimming out into my ignorance, because I’ve done a lot of high politics and very little social history, so there’s a vast literature I need to absorb just to become better-acquainted with the medieval psyche. Would we find, on application, that everybody in the medieval era is stuck on a particular rung of the Maslovian hierarchy according to degree?

That’s what we should find. “Those who worked” would never have had their material needs fulfilled to the point where they progressed beyond Settler. “Those who fought” are surely the very personification of Prospectors with their conspicuous wealth displays, elaborate social codes and sumptuous death monuments and rituals whose purpose has (by definition) absolutely nothing to do with the dead self and everything to do with the onlooker. And those who prayed ought, if they were following their callings properly, to have been Transcenders. And yet it’s messy, isn’t it? Because some of the most famous Transcenders of the medieval period, mystics, saints and funny men sitting on the tops of poles in the desert, were also among the poorest. Whole monastic orders of Transcenders cultivated poverty – the hardcore ones to the point of malnutrition, self-flagellation, and constant exposure to disease and danger –  as a necessary condition to their being effective Transcenders. They reduced themselves to Settlerhood. That utterly flies in the face of Maslow’s hierarchy.

And of course, those monastic Transcenders did what they did in part as a reaction to the sections of the clergy who were pure Prospectors, concerned with worldly wealth and display as much as their lay counterparts. The Maslowian hierarchy is all about rising up, evolving. The harsher monastic orders were all about reducing down, paring their lives to the basics and beyond. Indeed, since the notion of progress is itself tricky to the medieval mindset, with its fixed social degrees, Judgement Day and ever-revolving Wheel of Fortune, does the application of Maslow fail altogether? Or does the very fact that kings needed to do things like pass sumptuary legislation indicate that the great unheard bulk of medieval society were very much in favour of advancing their lot in life, thank you, and all the things that we think of as characteristic of the medieval psyche were just the Tools of the Bosses. There already is a literature on that.

And after I’ve been rambling on like this for a while I start to wonder whether I’m quite in the right frame of mind for the rigours of study again. I’ve got awfully used to talking to whatever wall it is I happen to be painting.


  1. You still remember all this VMs business, eh?

    I am interested in it but I became a bit more sceptical once I realised that everyone who actually writes a blog is going to be a pioneer, as are the leaderships in all parties & what have you, & there are essentially pioneer reasons for being a conservative or libertarian.

    But one way, if you’re going to use this, in which we do differ from our forefathers is that the number of pioneers has risen steadily in very recent times, so no longer can we say it was ever thus. Because in fact, the vast majority of people in past times were settlers, including the ones who pushed society forward & “pioneered” their way through.

    So it is that I have certainly become a bit more sceptical & it has been impressed on me that behaviour is not a very good guide to the values a person holds, whereas at one stage I thought it was. I have moved onto MOSAIC now as the focus of interest 🙂

    I suppose this is what we do- go over ideas & test them for soundness or lack thereof.

    It doesn’t help that I have been on this CULTDYN webshite & they never seem to properly update with the sort of lengthly & detailed business that, oh, say 40% of people & 100% of their viewers want 🙂

    I did do the test again a bit back & apparently I have advanced from being a Concerned Ethical to a Flexible Individual or some shite like that. I think it’s funny how my earlier self appeared to be all over the place but actually had everything together, if only he could have seen & stopped waving his arms around frantically. So I was right all along, apart from on a (very) few issues on which I have changed my mind, but only because I come to realise that some things are not compatible with my values, such as are unchanging.

    I will still be paying attention though. Did you ever read “Akenfield”? That was done in 1968, at a time when really old-school patterns of life were just about giving way to the modern age under the impact of the motor car, more efficient practices making farm labourers redundant, & what have you- but not “the 60s” in any recognisable way. I always laugh at how right-wing twats will complain about councils celebrating “Winterval” but have nothing to say about neoliberalism being the sworn foe of social conservatism.

    They also did “Return To Akenfield” by which time (2006) it was complete. Those times will never be back, & nor do I want them back. But I do feel a twinge when you see rows of old terraced houses being knocked down. There were always a fair few of them in Sjoke- we have one of the highest concentrations of “Coronation Street” in England- but you can forgive a sentimental old tosser for asking whether these new houses are any kind of improvement, especially given how shoddily built many of them are.

    My grandparents always took the view that the old days were fairly shite, actually, & they were glad to be alive in these times. But what we should be doing is at least keeping a memory- which is why I fully admire projects like “Akenfield” & people who chronicle old songs & what have you.

    I have also considered what a tragedy it is to humanity when a language dies or is killed, especially when people had no literate culture. Being as I always felt vaguely guilty about being a monoglot (but never quite enough to learn another language, eh?) it was impressed on me.

    1. Of course I have not become a “Transcender”- whether I never will, or I will at some unidentified point in the future, is something for vaguely disturbing speculation.

  2. I got a bit lost on your point two but I do have something to say on your first point.

    If you have only really been working part time, then do your PhD part time – that way you are not actually giving anything up but are doing something fruitful that may turn into something fantastic!

    At the point where there starts to be a conflict (that is, the recession ends and you get more work) then you gut will tell you which way to go.

  3. No expert in mediaeval history (as mentioned before, I was only taught Nazis and Tudors and everything else is Orl Mi Own Wurk) but I can’t help thinking that whilst basic psychological tropes probably don’t alter all that much over a paltry few hundred years or so, the main issues with the mediaeval world are:

    a) a genuine and very real dependence on the land, and

    b) a seemingly genuine belief in the supernatural, and particularly the relationship between God and therefore goodness, and social orders.

    Now, I’ve always been slighltly unnerved by the exaggerated reverence given to the Enlightenment (and anyone who buys the ‘dark ages’ myth clearly should read more) as if the whole thing was fully formed by Hooke and Boyle in about 1646 and before that everyone ate dung sandwiches and had the gleet and cured everything with leeches and astrology*. But notwithstanding all that, when you are dependent on the land – and I’m not just talking about rural areas, there were famines in London when the harvests failed or the winters were bad – social betterment seems to me to become by and large a function of owning some. And unlike money, there’s only so much to go around. A fact that the Tories used in the late c.17 when they tried to form the Land Bank to oppose the BoE.

    The second thing – the whole religious bit – also seems to be counter to the whole idea of progress and betterment. If things are God’s Will, then betterment is blessing, not progress, and attempting to subvert that is a crime against God (who ordained where you should be in the order of things). Unless you’re a Calvinist, of course, but that’s later or at least elsewhere. Now, I don’t believe for a second that they all bought that wholesale, and it’s pretty convenient for the ruling classes, but it does mean that there probably isn’t the sense of entitlement that most people now have.

    By this stage, I’m not even sure what I’m saying, except that I don’t think that people are nostalgic for mediaeval tenets, because they don’t have the mindset to understand them.

    On the other head though, viz whether you shoud do a Phd; they’re a fucker to get funding for, and part time ones take forever and ever and ever amen. Why not just write a book instead? Then you could write it on what you wanted without having to justify why it’s so interdisciplinary…

    /rambling nonsense.

    *though it’s nice to see that both leeches and bullshit have come back into fashion as quasi-medical methodology.

  4. Um. Can I write a short comment?

    Something to do with the move from modernist to post-modernist actually ending up with pre-modernist and discovering that everyone actually needs roots?

    As discussed previously, Mark Pack will know, even about PhDs and political phenomenology, and why Tony Blair would have been a perfect Tudor.

    Are MPhil’s easier? Sorry, that’s by definition – are MPhil’s more suitable?

    1. “Something to do with the move from modernist to post-modernist actually ending up with pre-modernist and discovering that everyone actually needs roots?”

      I think that’s probably my starting thesis, yes. Just cos it’s hokey doesn’t mean it can’t be true.

      1. of course, etymologically, ‘radical’ comes from radix and ‘revolutionary’ from revolvere so the whole modern-postmodern-premodern thing has been going on for a while.

        Quite a mediaeval idea, really. Boethius would have thought so, anyway…

        *may not have actually read Boethius*

      2. Um, isn’t the field of history all about how there is no point of origin?

        Any starting point or parameters of definition you take is a matter of choice, so it’s more about discovering the universal in the particular than rewriting genesis.

        I really don’t like the definitions of psychological profiles because I find them unhelpful and unnecessarily constraining in the casting of people into stratified classes, groups or types – so describing a means of breaking these constraints which explains how mobility and progress is inherent within even the least dynamic society would – I think – be a powerful addition to the political debate.

        Generally speaking I think you’re struggling to find a way to marry your political perspective with your academic interests and may be in denial about the possibility to resist this in the interests of being fair and objective. I would say you shouldn’t worry, because after all it is called a ‘subject’, so just get your thesis out there so your critique can be reviewed and debated itself.

        I think everyone who visits here has confidence in your ability to make a significant and interesting contribution, so it’s really about you deciding where you want to feed into at the end of it all and then the journey which will take you there will be laid out stretching from the station ready to depart.

    1. Now that is a marvellous idea. A modest income and social meltdown all at the same time.

      Also, you’re right, I’m so used to thinking of Count Packula, Prince of Markness as a political colossus with ears that I forget he actually has the Dr bit for reasons other than as part of a mad scientist persona. I will pester him. I also seem to have invited myself to an open day at the Centre for Medieval Studies at York next week.

      I already have an MPhil. Though I spose there’s no reason not to do another.

  5. having done a phd I would recommend against it unless you have a very, very clear objective in mind. What I’ve seen is that those without one tend to lose motivation, and really struggle. The first year is wonderful; even the second. But when you get to the third you realise 1. you’re sick of your topic; 2. you still have another year to go; 3. everyone else in your life seems to be becoming vaguely successful while you’re still a ‘student’; 4. did I say only a year to go? wait till you get into your fourth and fifth years…. 5. the academic ‘marketplace’ is horrible.

    I haven’t even started on getting a bad supervisor; colleague and staff relations; or teaching–if you can get it.

    Sorry to sound like a downer….

    have you read David Lowenthal’s the past is a foreign country? This might be of interest.

  6. Interdisciplinary PhD: So much good work is interdisciplinary it is a shame for that to stop you if you want to do it. Disciplinary boundaries are so overlapping in the social sciences now it would a sad shame if false barriers were put in your way. Many PhDs have two supervisors now. Each can have a different specialism. The most important thing is that the boundaries and responsibilities of each are clear from the outset.

    Book: There is also the option of a PhD by special regs, and this is where the book option comes in. It is where someone hands in their published work and receives a PhD in recognition of its originality/increase in knowledge/influence on the subject etc., This is possible in some universities and available to alumni of that university. It is not unusual in the Law where few people used to do PhDs. Not all universities do this, although Cambridge and Leicester do. It is worth checking this option with your past places of study (was one place Oxford?).

    Motivation: The long slow grind of an arts PhD is a chore if you are not passionate about the subject, and while I endorse the comments of ‘no-on Says’, it still very do-able. I did my PhD as a single parent mature student and although it was a full-time PhD I also worked and taught 3 days while doing it; I could not afford otherwise. Respecting and liking your supervisor is key, as is having a definite end-date by which you have to finish. Starting alongside a ‘class’ of other PhDs in the same intake helps too, as there is much shared ground and it gives a support group that otherwise would not exist in the arts. The sciences are very different where students have a whole laboratory full of people to help, support, vie with, and who can be dependent on the findings a PhD for a larger project. In the solitary old arts it helps to recreate at least a small part of this by being part of an ‘intake’.

    If there is a subject about which you are passionate, and feel there is something to be explored, it is well worth doing a PhD. There are tremendous highs that go with doing a PhD, and they are not to be discounted in the experience. For example, when you present your work at conferences and the feedback you get, when others are enlightened or inspired by the work, the critical view it can provide to current politics etc.,

  7. Would happily edit a book for you, but only if it contains thousands of sentences in the form “If X, see Y”.
    Alternatively, it must have the footnote somewhere: “EURATOM. Not to be confused with MYATOM.

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