A Creative Enlightenment is a programme aimed at arts and humanities researchers across Scotland, and is designed to provide PhD students with an insight into creative enterprise and how it might intersect with their work - and career aspirations. I attended the first two days of the course, at the University of Strathclyde, in Glasgow, at the end of last month.
I must admit that going in I was not entirely sure what the course would be like or how it would relate to me, but that was part of the point: at this stage in an education in history it often feels as if the only obvious career options available are to stay in academia (which I would love to do, but which in the current job market is by no means a given), or re-train as a teacher. Both are fine options, but it's good to have multiple strings to one's bow, and so I went in with an open mind and a self-confessed ignorance of the world of business and enterprise.
The opening session broke the ice between the two-dozen or so researchers in the room with an interactive introduction to networking. We were advised to state our first name at least twice ("I'm Bob, Bob Smith"), maintain eye contact, and shake hands "webbing to webbing". If we wanted to sidle into a conversation already taking place between two others we were instructed to walk directly towards the person who we most wanted to talk to, catch their eye, but then smoothly shake the hand of the person they were talking to before introducing ourselves to them. Ten minutes or so of trying this out in the room resulted in everyone getting to know one another, and a few knowing grins as people attempted the "cutting in" manoeuvre at a drinks reception later in the day.
After lunch Sandy Thomson of the Cultural Enterprise Office (which provides support and advice to creative businesses throughout Scotland) gave us a crash course in, well, setting up a cultural enterprise. In addition to some very pertinent advice about maintaining a healthy life-work balance when trying to earn money from doing something you love, we were guided through the hairy topics of self-employed tax returns and the differences between a company limited by guarantee and a company limited by shares. As these are not things you would usually come across in the course of a PhD in History I found them especially valuable! Sandy made it clear that there was a lot of help available to people wanting to start their own business, whatever the size or type.
A dinner and drinks reception at a nearby art studio saw the cohort introduced to guests from a variety of organisations, although I was most interested in the work of the recently-formed Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities. One of the ideas behind the Creative Enlightenment course was that we could get a lot out of not just the speakers but our fellow participants to, and I love the idea of an organisation that brings together researchers from across different universities.
The next morning saw the highlight of the Glasgow programme for me: a visit to the Glasgow Women's Library in the east end of the city. The GWL (which, we were told, was neither limited to Glasgow, nor only for women, and was really much more than just a library!) had recently relocated and we were given a guided tour of its new home and talks on its various projects by some of the inspiring and passionate women who run it. In addition to hosting an incredible collection of texts, manuscripts and memorabilia covering everything from early suffrage through to second-wave feminism, the GWL is also a centre for learning and creative projects for both the local community and beyond. I was most moved by accounts of two of their main projects - one, an adult literacy course, and another, a 'bibliotheraphy' course, which used texts from the collections to bring women together and to increase their confidence.
What impressed me the most was that in addition to being an incredible community space and resource, the GWL was also clearly a thriving and growing business, with a steadily growing cohort of permanent employee as well as a host of volunteers. At the end of the talks we were asked to split into three groups to add our own ideas, such as they were, to key areas that the GWL wanted to improve upon - the expansion of their bibliotheraphy project, their prospective cafe, and their shop. There was something wonderful about the task of trying to dream up things that would raise money for the GWL whilst simultaneously remaining loyal to its spirit. What really struck me was that within a few minutes of entering I thought to myself "I would love to work in a place like this". There must be an enormous amount of satisfaction in earning one's living whilst also helping others in incredibly tangible ways.
After an energetic walk back to the University of Strathclyde and a quick lunch, we heard from a final speaker, Elizabeth Reeder, on "balancing a portfolio career". Reeder, now a faculty member at the University of Glasgow, talked about her experiences of simultaneously becoming a published writer whilst also working as a tutor on creative writing courses in a variety of different capacities. I think this was an interesting talk to include - not least because I suspect that 'portfolio careers', blending self-employment with formal contracts, will increasingly become one way for young researchers to respond to the early-career 'squeeze' in academia - but I wasn't entirely sure if it was as relevant as it could be. Reeder's experience took place in a very different era in academia, in which it was possible, as she did, to walk into a professor's office as an external individual and to volunteer to produce a new graduate course for a university. I think the levels of bureaucracy in universities now would make that sort of spontaneity much more difficult. However, I could see an inkling of ways to create a similar sort of portfolio career as she described through taking up some of the self-employment and enterprise tips provided by Sandy Thomson the previous day.
Our final task was to come up with an idea for a creative enterprise and to walk around the room "pitching" it to one another, in the hopes of converting fellow attendees to our cause and, ultimately, our working teams for the second half of the course, taking place in Edinburgh on the 16th and 17th September. One of my fellow attendees uttered the words "historical web-comic" and I was sold. So, next week, I will be working with a group of fantastic people on thinking about how to set up, fund, and advertise a set of resources for history teaching and learning using webcomics, videos, and other media. Think Horrible Histories pitched at a slightly older audience and blended with the comic-strip style of cartoonists such as the excellent Kate Beaton.
So, what has all this got to do with a PhD in history? For me I took away two key things. Firstly, the realisation that a lot of the 'ingredients' that it takes to do a PhD -well self-motivation, the ability to work independently for an extended period of time, perhaps a bit of bull-headed determination, a passion for the thing you are working on - are equally applicable to the world of self-employment and creative enterprise. Secondly, an added understanding of creative activities outside of academia, and how links might be built between academics within institutions and creative businesses outside of it. I've written previously about the challenge of having a wider impact, and the current thinking in academia that it is necessary for a researcher's output to be 'translated' by, perhaps, another individual or organisation in order for it then to have impact outside of the academy. Creative enterprises, I suspect, could create an important 'bridge' between academic researchers, and the wider public they might sometimes struggle to reach.