This whole process began way back in 2001, with my first degree in archaeology, during the London odyssey. Back then, I had wonderful time of things, highly indulgent, with the occasional academic intrusion into the three years of opulent loitering. I came out with a 2:1, which was all well and good at the time, but I knew that I had more in me, that perhaps were I to do a degree properly, I could actually come out with something more impressive. It was with that rationale that I made way for Leicester, a postgrad in archaeology and heritage. Studying via distance learning – where I spent most of my day time on an isolated farm, a far cry from the distractions of London, meant I had all the time in the world to work on my degree, and it went great. The 60 percents were coming in, then came the 70 percents, and by the end of it, I even brought in the odd 80 percent mark – these were great days. However, going into my dissertation, I liberally ignored the word count, got whacked with a vast penalty, which sunk my overall degree average down to 69 percent. Gone was my distinction, and established was my very unhealthy relationship with word limits. Ultimately, another disappointing academic experience had been registered.
For a time I walked away from the whole environment. The word limit debacle had broken my spirit, having come so close to my ever elusive top tier grade. Into museums I stumbled for a period of time, and it was only when I had made peace with the career dead end that that prove to be, did I find a final opportunity to crack the academic walnut.
When a bursary was put together for the then University of Wales, Newport, to lecture in heritage studies, and conduct a PhD in the same area, I jumped at it. Granted, options were limited, and this was going to make money – so the mercenary in me gave me a big shove. But here was a University looking to pay me to do a PhD, a beautiful thing indeed. The heritage angle was attractive for a wide range of reasons, partly in that it would allow me to pursue an academic path distinct from that other, most established, Dr Howell. I would wave farewell to my beloved archaeology, and dive head first into my heritage research.
I’ve written at length on the actual research, and, at this particular point in time, have no inclination at all to face it again in detail. Covering heritage and politics in Wales, with comparisons in Iceland and Greenland, this was a very interesting, utterly unique and incredible well travelled investigation into Welsh heritage themes. It also took place what feels like a very, very long time ago. It was some point in the autumn of 2013 that I actually submitted the final draft. For one reason or another, most of which were completely unforeseeable and unfortunate circumstances, it took almost a year for us to reach examination. Day by day, my research became a little more dated, a little more contestable. By the end of my revision period, I was probably spending more time analysing events that had taken place after my research had ended, rather than exploring the research itself.
In terms of the actual viva, at the second time of asking (having prepared for one already several months earlier), I took a pretty pragmatic approach. I had conducted the research, I had lectured on the subject matter for the last few years, and I had stayed on top of the actual subject field during the last year, all in all, I felt confident in the fact that I knew my stuff. Still, I read through the thesis again, though only the once. I thought I would tackle it several times, but one read through seemed to be enough to jog the memory. I was also finding all sorts of my own minor corrections, cursing the air every few pages as a ridiculous typo jumped out at me. I quickly tried to put such distractions to one side. The main revision ‘event’ took place the day before the viva, where I started sticking neon labels on to a range of pages. I just wanted to make some sort of map of the thesis, mark down where key arguments appeared. I sat sticking neon labels on to paper for the better part of six hours – in the viva, I did not refer to them once. Still, I’m confident that process played its part, I had an instant recall for the position and context of key quotes and themes, a familiarity with my work which surprised myself on the day.
As the questions started coming in, I found that I had answers. Maybe one or two questions came as a slight surprise, but I had prepared for all eventualities. In my preparation for the first and cancelled viva, I had pinpointed areas where questions might be asked, and written down, by hand, a page worth of noted responses to each question. I had around eighty of these – it had been some time since I had written so much with a pen in hand. The result was a secondary mind map, full of practiced responses to the more obscure questions that might come my way. I certainly felt tense going in, as if a great weight had been attached to my chest with the expectation that I would carry it around all day. With each question, that tension eased, each response successfully executed felt like a nudge towards successful completion.
The actual examination felt very quick, and I don’t think we were in the room for much more than an hour. I had prepared myself for things rumbling away for the better part of two hours, and it was with surprise more than relief, that the examiners began apologising for taking, what they felt, was so long – I would have been happy continuing for some time. Having left the room and grabbed a tea, it was less than ten minutes before I was being called back in. Spilling tea over one hand as I scurried back into the room, I received the news that I wanted to hear – a congratulations. That would have done for me, but some of the platitudes that I received were incredibly touching, and I have no shame in saying that while I was being complimented for my work, I had my tongue firmly bitten in the corner of my mouth to stop myself from bawling my eyes out. That tension, built up from eight months of preparation and waiting was finally over.
The words that will last longest in my memory, was being told that my viva defence was the best that the examiners had seen in decades. I usually would not cite something like that, and prefer to keep it private, but for me, those words were the validation I think I had been looking for over these many years. Those were the words that washed away the laziness of London, and the blown distinction of Leicester – I had finally got this academic game sorted. All those shortcomings were obliterated in that moment, and for the first time that I can think of, I feel genuinely confident in my academic potential. I knew I could do this stuff, I think I actually believe I can now.
So there we are, a journey that began over a decade ago in London is at an end. Of course, there is that whole needing to find another job thing which is somewhat pressing – and hopefully this will go some way to helping with that, but maybe that can wait until Monday. For now, I can sit back, ignore reality for a moment, and indulge in the ivory tower. Cigar, port, along with some other indulgences all seem in order. Cold, hard reality can wait, I’ll catch up with you next week. After a quest that lasted fourteen years, the start of the next one can wait a day or two.