I think it is fair to say that student representation has played some sort of role, large or small, in the life of anyone who has been a part of the education system of this country in recent years. At my own school we had School Council, and, once we got older, all the usual positions such as Head Boy and Head Girl, Prefects, and more. Student representation, at least in my school experience, was taken very seriously. I remember, when my secondary school was looking for a new head teacher the Head Boy and Girl were part of the board that made the final decision as to which candidate to hire. They held real influence.
Student representation and student politics at University level is certainly taken seriously. The Student Union at the University of Hull is very active. Our SU alumni have gone on to participate with student politics at a national level. On a departmental level, however, I never really knew much about student representation. As an undergraduate from 2010, I knew we had course representatives, but cannot recall ever really hearing much more about it other than a circular email informing us who our representatives were near the beginning of each academic year. During those early years though, it has to be said, student representation was not high on my list of priorities. Studying, cheerleading and generally having a good time took top billing up until 2013.
In 2013-14 I undertook my masters degree in Historical Research. All of a sudden my cohort of hundreds of students shrank to what can have been no more than 20. In terms of academia, my MA experience was a good one. My research was fascinating, I gained confidence, I continued to build an already strong working relationship with my supervisor, and decided that a PhD was definitely something I wanted to pursue. But it was a lonely year. Other than one core module in the first semester, there was no occasion for all the MA students come to together. We were without a course representative to turn to, other than a general ‘Postgraduate Representative’, and had little chance to integrate with and get to know the PhD students (who this representative was mainly for). It was during this MA year that I began to understand the true significance of student representation. Not having adequate representation definitely had a negative impact on my first year as a postgraduate.
When I found out that I had been offered a PhD I decided that the next three years of my postgraduate career would not be like my MA year. There was no change in the inadequate representation at first, so I decided to take initiative in other ways. I made a conscious effort to get to know some of the other PhDs. I organised an Interdisciplinary Historical Workshop to try to build and foster cross-departmental working and social relationships. But the first really big change came at the beginning of my second year.
At the beginning of the academic year 2015-16, a room was made available on campus to act as a shared office for PhD students, and a group of us applied to have desk space. Gaining workspace where postgraduates could work together in the Larkin building, the hub of the History department, was nothing short of a game changer. I made friends for life and established cooperative working relationships. More significantly in terms of a wider postgraduate community, however, I was able to identify the shared problems of the students. There were universal issues that were not being dealt with in any real way.
I consequently organised a careers workshop, aimed at providing valuable skills and discussion sessions. We covered not only what was needed in order to pursue a career in academia but also other potential career avenues for those in possession of a PhD in History. I also took over the organisation of the Annual History Postgraduate Conference, aiming to make it a more inclusive and better-publicised event.
Some of the other PhD students around me were also making positive changes. Edd and Juliane, for example, started a postgraduate reading group where they encouraged students to come together to read about and discuss historical theory. Not only was it clear that there were shared issues within the postgraduate community, but there were lots of people looking for way to better the situation. What we all really wanted, when it came down to it, was representation. We wanted to have someone fighting our corner in student-staff meetings. We wanted to have someone who cared about ameliorating the position of the postgraduate students within the department. We wanted someone to argue our case for teaching experience, more chances to present our work, and the creation of a more cohesive community.
When Jenny Macleod (who was appointed new Postgraduate Director for the academic year 2016-17) approached Edd, Lizzie and myself with an idea to create a History Postgraduate Committee to represent the needs of PhD and MA/MRes students we were thrilled. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to work together to better represent the postgraduate community of the new History School. Together we came up with a list of potential roles and started circulating information.
The resulting committee, I am very proud to say, is a group of experienced and committed postgraduate students who have already started working together to create some changes on behalf of the wider student community. Ultimately, we want to work for you – the postgraduates of The University of Hull History School. If you have a problem, get in touch with us. If you have an idea for the community, let us know. If there are some skills you need that are not being addressed by the training scheme offered by the University, ask us to put on a workshop. Need to de-stress with people who understand the pressures of academia? We will arrange a postgraduate social event. As President of the History Postgraduate Committee I want to make sure that we, as students, all benefit from full and adequate representation. My number one goal in this position is to ensure that the postgraduates, current and continuing, feel like their voice is being heard and that they are a part of a wider, supportive community.
So, to end this inaugural blog post launching the History Postgraduate website and, in a sense, the new committee itself, good luck! Have a fantastic year everyone, and please do not hesitate to get in contact with us if there is anything we can help you with. Take advantage of the representation we offer. To echo a campaign of the truly brilliant, yet sadly fictitious, Leslie Knope: ‘No Problem Too Small’.
President of the History Postgraduate Committee