Bryan needed the paper that he’d left in his office at Greystone. He took one more look through his briefcase, despite knowing full well that the paper was still on his desk. He could visualize exactly where he had left it, next to the bright yellow desk tidy his colleague, Wendy, had given him for Christmas. Downloading the paper online was pointless – what Bryan really needed were the crucial, yet elusive, notes he had scribbled on a hard copy the day before his departure. He had been away for almost a month now, and was preparing for his third consecutive international keynote. It was no good. Barbara, his wife and veteran Greystone researcher, would just have to go in and retrieve it.
Following his call, Barbara made her way to the Social Science building. Standing in the corridor, she felt light headed and wheezy. She couldn’t decide what was making her feel sick. Perhaps it was the fumes from the emulsion. The breezeblock walls, it seemed, had been liberated from their bleak façade; a façade keenly unobserved by Barbara day in and day out for almost four decades, until now. How white they looked. How bright and clean. Equally, it could be the glue from the newly fitted plush blue carpet showered in tiny gold crest motifs. Soft underfoot and very unlike the brown rush matting that always so neatly soaked up the drips from spent umbrellas on rainy days.
Barbara planned to be quickly in and out but there seemed to be problem with the lock. As she stood there trying not to think about being sick, she tried the key again and then fumbled around in her bag, feeling flustered. She couldn’t believe it wasn’t the right key yet felt compelled to look for another. ‘Damn’, she said to herself, out loud. ‘He really has given me the wrong one’. She put her bag down and phoned Bryan. She’d no idea what time of day it might be at his end.
‘You do have the right key, don’t you?’ asked Bryan.
‘Yes,’ snapped Barbara
‘The one with the blue tab from my spare set’
‘Yes. It doesn’t work,’ said Barbara
‘Have you tried wriggling it?’
‘Yes, of course I’ve tried wriggling it.’
‘You need to push harder. It sticks sometimes.’
‘Bryan, I know how to open a door. The key doesn’t fit.’
‘Well, that’s ridiculous. How are we going to get the bloody paper? I can hardly come back from Brazil. Wait! Wendy will have a key. She’s always got spares.’
Hanging up, Barbara shuffled down the corridor, heading for Wendy’s office. She turned the corner and stopped. Her progress was halted by a clear glass wall painted with three towering white letters which she read out loud, ‘HUB.’
Inside there was a sign hanging from the ceiling, which read: ‘Learning & Teaching Hub: the key to your success.’
Walking through a roped off section which reminded her of the post office but without the queue – there was no-one else around – she reached a pristine counter, behind which sat a smart young girl who welcomed Barbara with a big smile,
‘Hi, how can I help you?’
‘I need to access Bryans’ office and he’s given me the wrong key. There’s a master key. Could I borrow it?’
The girl looked puzzled. ‘No office here. You can see we’re open plan… whose office?’
Barbara glanced back out into the corridor. ‘Out there… second door on the right?’
The girl shook her head.
‘Where’s Wendy? She’ll know what I’m talking about,’ said Barbara
‘Sorry, there’s no one called Wendy working here.’
‘But I really need to get into Bryan’s office.’
Perplexed, the girl called a colleague over and asked her if she knew the whereabouts of a Wendy and also, an office belonging to someone called Bryan.
‘Ah yes,’ said the second woman. ‘Do you mean that rather quaint elderly gentleman who used to pop in and chat with Wendy before she left? He did have an office here but that was cleared out a couple of weeks ago. It’s now the Hub storeroom. There were some old papers but I think they were put in one of the PGR cupboards.’
Barbara, feeling even more flustered and not quite knowing how to react, just wanted to get the paper and leave.
‘Is the PGR room still there?’ She was beginning to wonder.
‘Yes, of course.’
Barbara made her way out of the Hub, beyond what had been Bryan’s office, and stood outside the PGR room. To her frustration, she didn’t have the combination for the keypad.
Back at the Hub she was told that as she wasn’t a postgraduate researcher, she couldn’t have the number. Being the partner of an internationally renowned professor who supervises postgraduate researchers didn’t cut any ice.
As several observed in conversations for my research on ‘This book is about Heffers’, the bookshop was a haven for many interesting characters.
R D Littlechild (1889-1974)
Sidney Heffer, son of the firm’s founder, wrote in the 1950s,
‘It would be impossible to detail the numerous errand boys, apprentice boys and assistants who entered our employment but mention may here be made of a few who coming to us in almost the beginnings of really vital things have cast in their lot with us and stayed the course.’
Gratitude is sent out to a few who could tell the story of Heffers from a different point of view, including R D Littlechild, appointed as bookselling apprentice in 1903, as recorded in the first company Minute Book,
‘D. Littlechild, entered apprentice for 5 years at 2/- per week on April 25th 1903’
Duncan Littlechild, a strong pacifist who disapproved of Churchill, actively discouraged customers at Petty Cury from buying Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples in the 1950s,
‘you don’t want to buy that old rogue’, he would say.
Considered as old school by his colleagues at this time, he would often be observed as ‘kowtowing’ to academic customers on the telephone.
During the First World War Littlechild was a prisoner of war. In November 1917, The Cambridge Independent reported,
‘LANCE-CORPL. R. D. LITTECHILD – Mr. E. Littlechild, 2, Park-parade, has received the following letter from an officer regarding his son, Lance-Corpl. R. D. Littlechild of the Royal Scots: “I regret to be the bearer of news which will cause you great anxiety and suspense, but your son, Lance-Corpl. R. D. Littlechild, went into an attack on the 2nd of this month, and it has been so far impossible to ascertain anything definite regarding his fate. None of the company who arrived saw him hit, but several fell in to the hands of the enemy. You will have to wait patiently, perhaps several months, before hearing news. He was a cheerful and brave soldier, and a highly efficient N.C.O.” Lance-Corpl. Littlechild had been in France since June. He was formerly employed by Messrs. Heffer and Son, Petty-cury.’
Thankfully, he survived and returned to his job at Heffers to continue his distinguished 54-year career. Like many booksellers, Littlechild had great wit and a fantastic memory for faces and books. He was outstanding in debating circles and enjoyed debates against Cambridge undergraduates. On his retirement from the firm in 1957, the Cambridge Press reported that generations of publishers’ travellers had called on him and he always liked to remember the more leisurely days of the early part of the century when the traveller would call in his silk hat and with his bag of books pushed on a barrow from the station by an outside porter.
This post is dedicated to those who went over the top.
‘This book about Heffers’ will be published 1st November 2016, and will be available from Heffers Bookshop, Trinity Street, Cambridge, UK
This book is about Heffers: the bookshop that is known all over the world
William Heffer, William Heffer,
Bowes and Bowes, Bowes and Bowes,
Galloway and Porter, Galloway and Porter,
Deighton Bell, Deighton Bell
This rhyme, sung to the tune of Frère Jacques, harks back to a golden age of bookselling in the early to mid-twentieth century Cambridge when the city was served by several excellent establishments, each with their own distinctive history and character. This book tells the story of just one; Heffers of Cambridge, founded by William Heffer in 1876. As a bookseller Heffers enjoyed that golden age. And as a bookseller Heffers was and still is, ‘known all over the world’. What may not be known worldwide, however, is that Heffers has always been a stationer and was once a prolific publisher and printer. In 1933 ‘Mr Ernest’ (son of William) wrote to The Times, challenging the notion of Heffers bookshop as a craft emporium.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES
Sir, – It seems almost ungrateful to criticize such a delicious jeu d’esprit, and we would not do it, except for one reference you make to Oxford. You say that Heffer’s of Cambridge is a bookshop known even to Oxford men, and then go on to pack that bookshop with “little crafts.” Mentally one conjures up visions of wool and of pewter, of seagrass stools and barbola, and the like, on intimate terms with and indeed almost dominating all that is best, and a great deal that is less than best, in the whole realm of books.
Now, Sir, Cambridge by experience knows better; but Oxford, knowing chiefly by repute, might be led to have a wrong conception of what our bookshop really is. May we beg of you to correct this possible misconception before it spreads too deep for correction?
The Efferini Craftelli is carried on at our Sidney Street branch, whilst Heffer’s books is in the Cury: and come there who will, they shall find neither frills nor furbelows: they shall hunt without success for wool and the silk and the straw that delight the heart of woman. The only craft “worked” there is the craft of books.
Director, W. Heffer and Sons, Limited,
3 and 4, Petty Cury, Cambridge
Published in The Times, 20th January 1933
Whilst, arguably, the impressions held by Oxford men or what delights the heart of woman may not concern us, it is a fact that the ‘bookseller’ and ‘stationer’ trades are from the same stable. Chrimes, in his 2012 portrait of Cambridge, tells us that Cambridge University licensed sellers of books to work from ‘fixed stations’, initially in churches or outside their north and south walls. As one of the few stationary trades, the bookselling trade was considered superior to that of itinerant pedlars. The Latin word, ‘stationarius’ had been used to mean a trader with a fixed place of business, but booksellers secured this term for themselves. The ‘e’ in stationers was an eighteenth century derivation. Oldfield, on the other hand, in his 1944 article on Cambridge and its Stationers, insists the derivation rests rather on the metaphysical translations, ‘that which is established by custom’ … than the literal rendering of a ‘place of abode’ or ‘station’.
In a similar fashion to E. W. Heffer’s eloquent retort, I aim to convey something of the style and character of the Cambridge phenomenon that is Heffers. The stories revealed in the forthcoming book, kindly shared by eighty past and present employees and customers, will testify to the many sides of the firm.
‘This books is about Heffers’ will be published on 1st November 2016.
I’m now writing in earnest and over the coming months will share some of the stories as we lead up to the publication and launch of the book at Heffers in Trinity Street, Cambridge, in November 2016.
Meanwhile, an image has come to light of a bust of the firm’s founder, William Heffer.
The image is contained in an envelope with “Ralph Heffer” written upon it in Stephen Heffer’s handwriting. Ralph (1893-1974), son of Harry Heffer and grandson of William, was not involved with the firm but according to his family, enjoyed working with his hands and would possibly have had a go at creating something like this. The Heffer family were not aware of the bust and we cannot ask Stephen who sadly died in 1996.
I hope the bust has not been destroyed and would be delighted to hear from anyone who knows of its whereabouts. Perhaps it is in someone’s house. My parents have a bust of my grandfather, Sidney Saunders. Or perhaps it is nestling in the corner of a college room or library somewhere. William had good relations with many Cambridge establishments and rented the shop at Petty Cury from Emmanuel College. Even if the bust has been destroyed, it would be nice to know who created it and when.
Here is a brief biography of Stephen Heffer, a gifted artist who worked in the family firm.
Stephen John Heffer(1948-1996)
Son of John Heffer and great-grandson of William, Stephen worked with the firm for fifteen years from 1971. He assisted Managing Director, John Welch, on the bookselling and publishing side, and played an instrumental role setting up the Children’s Bookshop and the Bookworm Book Club. He also made regular visits abroad both in Europe and America, retaining very useful personal contacts with librarians overseas. His travels were noted regularly in the staff newsletter, Trinity Street News and he managed the Grafton Centre shop when it first opened in 1983. An artist, Stephen decided in 1986 to leave the firm in order to train at the Camberwell School of Arts and at Winchester. He then worked as an artist in Barcelona, London and Norfolk and he died in London in 1996. An exhibition of his paintings was held at the Sidney Street Gallery in 1998, providing, as described in the brochure, a unique opportunity for friends and visitors to view the breadth of his vision.
If you recognise the bust and know where it can be found, or if you simply know the story behind its creation, please do get in touch:
I enjoyed Deborah Harrison’s blog about the challenges and inspirations of her New Year’s resolution. Like Deborah, I’m trying to walk everyday. And like Deborah, there’s still so much I want to do with my life:
I recently wrote a short piece for a non-fiction course with Midge Gillies at Madingley Hall, Cambridge. We were asked to write about a pair of shoes.
A well-trodden testimony
We’re pleased to be part of a long accomplished line. We appreciate that our kind must be renewed on a regular basis. No doubt Julie has lost count of how many forerunners we have; how many she’s worn in, and then out, since 1975 when she started upon what would have been described as the running habit of a lifetime, only the habit now appears to be dwindling.
We’re proud to have ancestors that made the grade. We look up to those who’ve achieved the seemingly impossible. Crossing the finishing line after the ultimate distance, not once but twice. We’re proud to wear Julie’s triumphant red laces on ten K treks, a distance that would have been classed as modest in comparison to a marathon but is now no longer attempted.
We’re content to take a daily stroll that’s not too taxing. It’s not that we don’t want to live up to our name. On close inspection, our irregularities signify the extensive use that we have had, borne down by Julie’s increasingly uneven gait that at one time would have been declared perfect but is now favouring left over right.
We’re relieved to bypass the fields and the mud. We have dirt ingrained in our treads and we’re grey, not white. Julie put us through the washer after a January park run so that our metallic strips may still flash like new. The prospect of a cross-country route through farms and rivers, which at one time would have been exhilarating, is now rather daunting.
We’re delighted to see the sun when we leave the house. We know the spirits can be lifted by a sky that beckons the spring. Previously, the necessity of preparing for a special race has taken Julie out in all weathers, temperatures from minus five to plus thirty. An icy, fourteen-mile slog that would have been taken in one’s stride, need now no longer be contemplated.
We’re not afraid to go off the beaten track. We understand how being solitary can open up space for contemplation. But once, in the twentieth mile, away from anywhere and anyone, Julie ran out of fuel and had to phone for a pick up. No matter what distance, training alone would have been the preferred option and now, whilst it’s good to get away, it’s also good not to be too far from home.
We’re grateful to welcome a new sense of tranquillity. We know how much courage it takes to break away and seek out a new life. For Julie, meeting John – whilst running –was a mixed blessing. It took a sustained effort to leave him behind and at the finish, much more than endorphins were released. Pressing on regardless of pain would once have been normal, and now we see how right it was to take a different route.
These running shoes, aged 3, belong to Julie Bounford, aged 54.
How are you getting on with your New Year’s resolution?
‘We are not just ranked in the top; we are in the top 20 ranking’
In writing my PhD thesis on the topic of the idea and experience of academic community, I followed Andrew Sparkes’ less traditional approach and produced three fictional vignettes, aimed a revealing elements of academic life within a fictional setting. All three pieces illustrate the institutional culture of contemporary higher education, or as observed, it’s brutality and crassness. They also illustrate the day-to-day lives of the research participants. Bryan (an emeritus professor) is subject to a surprise move as, in his absence, his office (and his status) is eradicated; Jonathon (an academic leader) introduces a new member of staff to a different way of meeting the team, and the Vice-Chancellor gives an address that is steeped in the language of excellence that pervades the institutional discourse, a language from which there is no escape.
The Vice-Chancellor’s address, given below, is made up from phrases selected from the official corporate narrative of the University of Greystone, the site of the research. The confidence of the institutional discourse is emblematic of the grand narrative that tends to be a strong feature of universities today.
Greystone itself is included as a player in the research, with an articulated position in relation to idea of community. The institution is given a voice by the selection and presentation of corporate documents, including a number of corporate plans. Thirty-one letters from the Vice-Chancellor to all university staff were also analysed. Written in the first person, the letters reveal something about the character of the Vice-Chancellor as a person, through the way in which he chooses to convey his message, his observations and the language he uses. Through them he appears to be speaking directly to the staff and is creating an impression of sharing an almost intimate perspective on what is happening. The (not so) fictional address below, however, is less intimate and evokes what Readings described as the ‘University of Excellence’.
The Vice-Chancellor of Greystone gives an address.
‘Let me state at the outset that it is our leadership that is at the forefront of an outstanding reputation. The major contributions we shall make will undoubtedly be our greatest impact. Our particular strength is that we are well equipped for the pursuit of excellence. We are agenda setting internationally, avowedly ambitious and world-leading due to exceptional strengths that make us world-class. Being among the best with our high-quality, high-achieving and highest standards, which are undeniably of the highest quality and thereby market-leading at a high-level. This high-class and high-impact status must be the highest possible. Our highest ambitions, driven by the highest calibre leadership, enable the highest achievements and therefore the highest possible global influence. Inevitably this highest possible performance from our high performing team ensures a high academic engagement. From such a high base we can gain an edge. Our standards will be ratcheted up, supported by a long and proud history with its international distinction making us excellent in our excellence. This excellent achievement, regarded by all as an exemplar of good practice, is not just exemplary but is regarded as internationally excellent. Being internationally recognised, and being internationally aware, our international significance ensures us the strongest international position. Such international recognition of our extraordinary potential keeps us firmly in the top, in the top flight and on the top tier. And we are not just ranked in the top; we are in the top 20 ranking. Recognised as globally strong, the University excels and we can contribute equally with the best universities in the world. And this enviable reputation delivers an exceptional education, and with excellent research our excellent achievement is second to none. Building on the successes, which put us well within the world top 100, our intellectual power and influence obliges us to play a leading role. Our consistent top-20 ranking is an outstanding contribution, which is ranked in the top quartile. Being successful, inevitably there is public good flowing from what we do. This public good ensures a strong culture and our pioneering work in this area is a powerful combination, and a powerful platform. We are, simply, inspiring and innovative.’
What phrases would you suggest to make this excellent address more excellent?
Heffers & E.M. Forster, libraries, books & a Del Boy moment
As I eagerly anticipate a period of desk research at the Cambridgeshire Collection in the Central Library next week, I recall the times I’ve used libraries in various locations over the years, for a myriad of reasons.
My current project is a social history of the long established Cambridge Heffers Booksellers, Stationers and Printers, to be published this autumn. I’m particularly excited about this due to the family association with the firm, which began with my great-grandfather’s employment as a boy at the end of the nineteenth century.
‘One lad was anything but a bright specimen – practically uneducated and from a miserable home.’ William Heffer helped the lad, ‘by insisting that he should write in a copy book and work out simple sums each night, bringing the results to his employer the next morning. The boy profited by this strange tuition, so much so that he eventually became head assistant in the science department at Petty Cury – no mean achievement.’ (a 1952 biography of William Heffer 1843-1928, by Sidney Heffer, presented to Heffer’s staff, ‘With the Author’s Compliments’)
The ‘boy’ was my great-grandfather, seen here sitting at his desk.
I’m also thoroughly enjoying the research conversations with former employees, customers, authors and academics about their own memories of the firm. I must admit it’s a labour of love.
Do you have a Heffers story you’d be willing to share? If so, please do drop me a line via email@example.com or see the project background on the website –
One service Heffers provided was the valuation of libraries for probate. Heffers also bought libraries to sell through their second-hand and antiquarian department. A family friend, Eve Stafford, who worked for Heffers, recalled the time when the firm valued E.M. Forster’s library after his death in 1970. Not long after, Eve left Heffers to work for King’s, Forster’s college and home for many years.
In my 2014 blog post, ‘Choosing books, living life’, I wrote about the Saturday morning library routine and how I treasured the time with my children at the library.
Where did I hide from those higher education Alan Sugar wannabes, the chequered suited troopers of Enterprise who loudly proclaimed that profit is king?
Where did I find solace for a day as I regained my composure after an absurd contretemps with Trevor?
Neil Gaiman said libraries are about freedom, ‘Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.’
For me, the appeal of the library most definitely has an affective dimension; an emotional attachment that doesn’t exist for some of the other places I may have retreated to in troubled times such as cafés, hotel lobbies, sports centres, galleries and museums. I guess museums come the closest. Museum artefacts, like books, bring different worlds and perspectives to bear on the problem I’m grappling with. Like the books, I don’t have to examine them intently to seek the answers. I just know they’re there, giving the long view informed by lives that have been lived over tens, hundreds, thousands of years. They remind me that I’m not the first to face this problem (whatever it is), nor will I be the last.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve been an inveterate reader and keeper of biographies and memoires. I feel the presence of the lives I’ve observed through other people’s interpretations; people such as Iris Murdoch, D.H. Lawrence, Frida Kahlo, Tony Judt, Jennie Lee, Ada Lovelace, Lorna Sage, Zelda Fitzgerald, John Lennon, Augustus John, Vincent Van Gogh, Bernard Shaw, The Brontes, Elizabeth I, Thomas Hardy, Karl Marx, Elizabeth of York, Ottoline Morrell and Virginia Woolf. I sometimes look at the volumes and reflect on the years lived though it’s not always a conscious thing. Similarly, living in our five hundred year old home, I feel reassured that many others have lived here, and have faced and overcome their own challenges, whatever they may have been.
In ‘The Comfort of Things’, Daniel Miller says relationships ‘flow constantly’ between persons and things. His extraordinarily moving portrait of thirty households in a street in modern London, focusing on our relationship with material things, reveals the centrality of stuff in our lives and what it means for our relationships with people (Miller, 2008). Like my Great Aunt Winifred Anstee (another family member who worked at Heffers) I’m very attached to my books. Hunter Davies said we are a people divided between those who accumulate and those who chuck out. Like Aunty Win, I’m in the former camp. As a child I loved to browse through her overflowing bookcase. I later learned that she had purchased the bookcase for 5 shillings from Heffers when they made the move from Petty Cury to Trinity Street in 1970, and I’m pleased to say that it is still in the family.
I did have a spell working in a library, though it wasn’t in the role I had dreamed of as a teenager. A history fanatic at fourteen, besides wanting to meet Mary Queen of Scots, I wanted to be an archivist. Instead, I worked as the Senior Housing Adviser at Norwich Advice Services in the ‘90s when it was located in the old Norwich subscription library on Guildhall Hill. I recall two memorable days; first, when I heard the news that Margaret Thatcher had resigned in November 1990, and second, when I became trapped in an interview room by a highly disturbed client for two uncomfortable and alarming hours. The building is now a restaurant.
The most significant event in the history of libraries in Norwich (and perhaps in the UK) was when the central library burned down on 1st August 1994. My (first marriage) wedding anniversary, as it happens. I recall watching the news with horror and fully understanding Councillor Brenda Ferris’ distress as she stood in front of the smouldering pile of bricks and pages – a very real Farenheit 451.
I recently visited a friend who gave her address as, ‘The Old Library’. I was delighted to find a stunning and stylish home, still full of books and a most fitting abode for an inspirational, intelligent and incredibly well read woman, writing up her National Trust funded PhD on the history of adult education at Attingham Hall in Shropshire. My own library at home (not the genuine article like Sharon’s), expanded significantly in 2012 when Trevor and I joyfully conjoined our lives, along with our not insignificant book collections. Is there such a thing as a marriage of libraries? Our small publishing venture, Gottahavebooks is certainly an expression of our shared love of books and of social history. And now my pile of postdoc reading material is getting out of hand as I buy and borrow publications that I had wanted to read for years but dared not for fear of neglecting the doctoral thesis.
We can’t all afford to buy the books we read, and we may not want to anyway. Joining a library gives us access to books and so much more. Being a member of a library also entails certain responsibilities. If you don’t follow the rules there are sanctions. Trevor says it’s about having a sense of order and discipline. He says whilst you don’t have to be a member to use the facilities, one should, for example, be quiet. I do get that. However, my children enjoyed the ‘Dick and Dom in ad Bungalow show’ in the mid-2000s, which featured a game called ‘Bogies’. Celebrities took part and I recall Carol Vorderman shouting out ‘bogies!’ possibly in Cambridge University Library (though I may be wrong). It broke the rules and it was funny.
I’ve had my own entertaining library moments. More embarrassing than funny at the time, my backpack was once so overloaded with library books that I fell backwards whilst making polite conversation with one of my college lecturers outside the library at Norwich City College. I went down gracefully, landing on my back, feeling grateful that the books cushioned my fall. The incident, which now makes me smile, reminds me of Del Boy’s famous fall.
Confident, not corporate: the way to a ‘no corrections’ PhD
We’ve all had that recurring fantasy, the one where the examiners pronounce that we have passed the viva with ‘no corrections’. In my case, I was convinced that it would remain just that, pure fantasy. Then, on 27th November 2015, it became a reality. I had passed with ‘no corrections’.
I couldn’t believe it and my examiners said, ‘what did you expect?’ A few days later I received their formal report which stated,
‘The thesis was very impressive and was well-defended. Both theory and methodology were well-developed and clearly explained and justified’
It wasn’t a dream. I thought my responses during the viva could have been more specific. Also, I was rather taken aback with the first question which was, ‘what motivated you to do the PhD?’ I had rehearsed the presentation of a summary of my thesis but not an account of why I did it. On reflection it seems an obvious question to ask, as I hadn’t gone the normal route. I started the PhD in my forties whilst working full-time and it was not funded. I had, however, lived with it for so long that I’m still, even now, adjusting to the idea of living without it.
In a previous blog post on, ’15 lessons from doing doctoral research’, I reflected on some aspects of the doctoral experience. The final stage of my doctoral journey involved preparing for the viva, and this is what I did.
I read, and re-read the thesis.
I marked up the typos (n14). (I had decided not to ask Trevor, my husband, to proof read before the submission because he was under a great deal of pressure at the time with two major commissions. I did make an enquiry with a professional proof reading service and received a response stating that ‘proof reading is not a ‘cheap’ exercise when undertaken properly, and it is important to ascertain that your budget is in line with likely costs.’ Whilst appreciating the point, I decided to go it alone).
I wrote forty pages of notes on the following:
The conclusions of my research and how my findings fit in with or contradict the rest of the literature in the field
A sketch of the thesis, a summary of the eight chapters and eight appendices.
What my work tells us that we did not know before, and implications for the future development of the field
How the topic was framed, my reasons for using reflexive sociology and my specific take on my chosen theoretical framework
The practical and ethical difficulties encountered in conducting the research
Concerns about representativeness and how the data may or may not appropriately relate to the theoretical concepts and measure what is actually going on
The additional techniques and data I would like to have used and why I didn’t use them
Making such extensive notes was like revising for a major examination. The fact that I was revising my own work, words I had so diligently crafted, didn’t stop the fear of having my mind go blank. How on earth am I going to remember it all in the final interrogation? If I took all my notes and my annotated thesis into the viva, perhaps they would act as a reminder. (Yes, I did take them in. I laid them out neatly on the table in front of me. I pointed to the notes a few times and opened the thesis once).
I had two mock vivas, the first with a brave and kind colleague from Cambridge, and the second with both supervisors. I hadn’t prepared sufficiently for the first and it (inevitably) ended in tears; I was annoyed with myself more than anything. The second was fine and gave me some useful pointers that I hadn’t previously considered such as reconciling the difference between a constructivist and structural reading, the longitudinal dimension of the research encounter, and why it is not a case study but still makes sense in an institutional context.
I wrote and practiced a short presentation under the heading of, ‘Please provide a summary of your thesis, describe its rationale and what you consider to be its main aims, key findings and contributions to knowledge’. I tested this out on colleagues at a research meeting where I handed out copies of my research poster and an explanation of the ‘Infinity Model of Academic Community’. They responded with constructive questions and I felt encouraged.
I researched papers written by my examiners and looked for similarities in their arguments to mine. Gewirtz had declared that collectively, as sociologists, we need to be more ethically reflexive (Gewirtz & Cribb 2006) and Stronach, on professionalism, had emphasised the need for a theory of tension; tension between ‘economies of performance’ and ‘ecologies of practice’ (Stronach et al 2002 – online 2010). Stronach et al had called for a ‘more fissiparous employment that will keep tensions in movement’; their metaphor for professionalism (‘pulse’ rather than ‘push’) chimed with something one of my supervisors had said about envisaging my Infinity Model of Academic Community as pulsating.
I looked up recent publications on my topic. (I used to eagerly trawl the SRHE Research Into Higher Education Abstracts as a way of catching up on the latest literature. However, as I prepared for my final submission, I found that I couldn’t open the June edition for fear of finding something that would somehow crush the whole argument of my thesis. When I did finally look, I found a particularly interesting paper on ‘sense of community’ in academic communities of practice. It seemed fortuitous more than anything).
I booked a short holiday in Suffolk with Trevor, who accompanied me to UEA on the day of the viva and spent a happy hour or so at the Sainsbury Centre’s Alphonse Mucha exhibition as I underwent the examination.
At the School, when I came out to await the final verdict, a kind colleague handed me a slice of cake, declaring it was just what I needed. Within two minutes I had been called back in and I had to leave the cake outside. After congratulations and hugs from the panel members, I rushed over to find Trevor, as I wanted him to be the first to hear the news. I then phoned my children and my parents. Afterwards Trevor and I drove to Suffolk and spent an enjoyable but tiring three days visiting more galleries and museums, (not so) gently floating back down to earth.
Finally, in wanting to appear (and feel) more confident than corporate, I chose to wear my red patent leather DMs with a gorgeous mini-skirt my daughter, Phoebe, found for me in Top Shop.
Blue hair, green jacket, multi-coloured skirt and red boots.
What did you, or what will you… wear to YOUR VIVA?
Gewirtz, S, & Cribb, A 2006, ‘What to do about values in social research: The case for ethical reflexivity in the sociology of education’, British Journal Of Sociology Of Education, 27, 2, pp. 141-155
Ian Stronach , Brian Corbin , Olwen McNamara , Sheila Stark & Tony Warne (2002) Towards an uncertain politics of professionalism: teacher and nurse identities in flux, Journal of Education Policy, 17:1, 109-138
Having submitted my PhD thesis on 28th July, I planned to take a well-earned break. Much as I love writing, the marathon effort involved in completing a 100,000-word thesis was exhausting and I needed to re-charge my batteries. As it turned out, I didn’t actually get that break, for reasons explained below, and I’m now preparing for my viva, scheduled for 27th November.
A good way to begin that prep, I thought, was to read the thesis. My first reaction on picking up this weighty tome was to wonder who had written it. It looks far too good for someone who failed the 11plus back in ’72 and who always had to work doubly hard to make the grade. But then, it’s surprising how good a script can look when printed and bound. It can still, of course, be crap.
No matter (I tell myself). My enthusiasm for the topic was quickly rekindled, boosted by a recent positive exchange with the Senior Commissioning Editor of Palgrave Macmillan about a possible book publication based on the thesis. I had already decided that I wanted to make a statement with my research and a book seems the ideal way to do it. All well and good but now I must press the pause button on the book plans and focus on the prep for November.
If I want to make a statement (in whatever format), I must demonstrate that I have something original to say. It may be useful, therefore, to consider the notion of originality, as in ‘original contribution to knowledge’, the doctoral requisite that strikes fear into the hearts (and minds) of all postgraduate researchers as they lurch or limp towards the final hurdle. It is of course sensible to check what is stipulated in the guidelines for examiners (don’t want to trip up by not understanding the question). The University of East Anglia requires,
‘the discovery of new knowledge, the connection of previously unrelated facts, the development of a new theory or the revision of older views.’ (Guidelines for Examiners)
Dunleavy, who imparts indispensible advice on doing doctoral research, stresses the importance of grounding your originality in your research. He warns against, ‘value-added’ artificiality and observes that coining new concepts or terminology that are not really needed is not being genuinely original. (Dunleavy 2003 p110)
In my own case, I declare that my newly devised ‘Infinity Model’ of academic community provides a cohesive framework for critically appraising academic community, by balancing extrinsic (value) and intrinsic (values) elements, taking us beyond the notion in its most limited form (the form that is dominant today).
In order to avoid an accusation of artificiality, or to be ready with a convincing repost if I do stand accused, I must explain my approach to constructing the research object (the idea and experience of academic community) and to engaging with the literature and the data. Doing so in a way that clearly demonstrates how the act of construction was necessary (it was a problem that needed addressing) and how it has brought about new knowledge. At the very least, I plan to demonstrate that I’ve made a connection between ‘previously unrelated facts’ about the topic.
Dunleavy believes that originality is a cumulative achievement, that new ideas,
‘most often reflect the patient accumulation of layers of small insights and intuitions that only taken together allow an alternative view of a problem to crystallise.’ (Dunleavy 2003 p40)
Whilst many of those layers are set out in a fine-grained analysis, no thesis can truly impart the extent and depth of the incremental cognitive activity that doctoral research entails; how, as a researcher (and a human being), you never totally switch off the cogitation, no matter what you’re doing or how long it takes (nearly seven years, part-time in my case). Perhaps the viva is an opportunity to communicate some of that as a way of demonstrating originality. However, best not to bleat about the protraction. And it wasn’t really that bad. Tony Judt, in his exquisite memoir, ‘The Memory Chalet’, describes how he did much of his doctoral reading whilst working in the kitchens at the Blue Boar Hotel in Cambridge,
‘Once mastered, short-order cooking does more than allow for the life of the mind; it facilitates it.’ (Judt p133)
I can’t imagine the mundane travails of doing doctoral research would be of any interest to the examiners. It comes with the territory.
I mentioned that I didn’t take a break after submitting the thesis. Instead, I went about setting up our new small publishing venture called ‘Gottahavebooks’, including pre-selling our first publication and assisting Trevor with preparing a 124,000 word manuscript for press. The publication is a compilation of first-hand accounts of ‘60s Rolling Stones concerts, told in the words of those who were there, gathered by Richard Houghton. It’s a great read. The stories are original and the book contains previously unpublished images of the band. By bringing the fans accounts together in this format, Richard has helped to shed a new light on the social history of the period, on the Rolling Stones and on the fans themselves.
This in itself is new knowledge but it is different from the sort of knowledge created through doctoral research. For example, Dunleavy tells us to focus on ‘added value’, to keep a critical eye on the extent to which you have transformed or enhanced or differentiated the starting materials of your analysis (Dunleavy 2003 p31).
Whilst the fans’ accounts may be viewed as starting (or primary) materials and whilst they’ve been through a transcription, editorial and publishing process, they’ve not been analysed or interpreted – not in an academic sense. That wasn’t the intention. As I understand it, Richard’s intention was to retain as much as possible the authenticity of the fans’ voices. I too, in my research, wanted authenticity; the title of my thesis is, ‘The academy and community: seeking authentic voices inside higher education’. But the similarity ends there.
The accounts that I had gathered through conversations and focus groups with academics were also transcribed but then subject to a detailed and extensive heuristic analysis. The object of my research (the idea and experience of community) is interpreted and (re)constructed in a way that blends its disparate elements, as revealed through the research itself. The approach to my analysis is briefly explained in my blog post published 28th February 2015 –
Dunleavy says that doing genuinely new theory at PhD level is now very difficult in all of the humanities and social science disciplines,
‘The large empty spaces and opportunities for making major intellectual advances available earlier on have tended to be colonized.’ (Dunleavy 2003 p38) He says,
‘being original in the modern social sciences and humanities is rarely about coming up with an entirely new way of looking at things… it is mostly a more moderate activity… originality involves encountering an established idea or viewpoint or method in one part of your discipline (or in a neighbouring discipline) and then taking that idea for a walk and putting it down somewhere else, applying it in a different context or for a different purpose.’ (Dunleavy 2003 p40)
It is true that much has been written on the topic of academic community. The tone of that literature implies a sense of something that may have been lost but is on the brink of being found, if only we knew where to look. That’s where the contribution of my thesis comes into play, by setting out where to look and by developing a framework that helps us to do so; a framework that leads to a fresh insight and a new model. Yes, I have utilised established constructs, such as the infinity symbol, for the purpose of describing and understanding the relations of the homology that is the idea and experience of academic community. The model is an outcome of the research and it is to be taken forward. It has significant potential as a conceptual framework for exploring, through research and through dialogue, the conditions that create, define, sustain or destroy community inside the academy.
This is the key message for my examiners.
Does it sound convincing?
Dunleavy, P (2003) Authoring a PhD: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation Palgrave Macmillan
I have precious little time for new writing this month as I put the final touches to my doctoral thesis, which goes to print in mid-July (hooray!). One of the appendices is the poster that I presented at the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) Annual Conference in 2012. I recall it was enormous fun working with Trevor Bounford on the poster design. Trevor, a talented designer and illustrator, ably captured my ideas and ‘cut-out’ tea-party concept in his drawings. The text in the poster is from the research data, not my words but those of the research participants. It was also fun presenting the poster at the SRHE Conference, especially with the design being a little out of the ordinary. As well as A4 handouts of the poster, I gave out postcards printed with a design on the front, based on the poster content, and an explanation of my methodology on the reverse.
You can see the postcard and download the full poster as a pdf via this website using the link below –