With the AHRC/BBC New Generation Thinkers (NGT) being announced this weekend at the Hay Festival, we catch up with author and academic Alexandra Harris, one of the first researchers to be successful under the NGT scheme.
Here Alexandra looks back to her AHRC-funded Doctoral studies at Oxford and reflects on the impact that AHRC has had on her career.
“The time spent on my doctorate at Oxford was the most intense and rewarding time of my life,” says Alexandra. “That, I owe to the AHRC. When you’re funded full time you can do the kind of immersive work that’s impossible if you’re trying to do several things at once. You become obsessed by your subject and that leads to a different sort of thinking.”
Those three years of voracious reading, wide-ranging thought and impassioned discussion with like-minded colleagues didn’t just result in a PhD thesis, but also eventually led to an award-winning book. ‘Romantic Moderns, English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper’ was published in 2010 and won that year’s Guardian First Book Award.
The book has its foundations in Dr Harris’s twin passions of literature and art – after her undergraduate degree in English at Oxford, she worked for a year in the British art department at Christie’s, before specialising in modern European art for her MA at the Courtauld Institute. The book is essentially an examination of the English renaissance of the 1930s and 1940s, with its blend of modernism and history. “It’s about modernism being in love with various forms of inheritance and tradition,” she explains. It ranges across the rich network of writers, painters, gardeners, architects, critics, and composers who were part of that great imaginative project.
“What I love doing is making connections between people I find fascinating,” she enthuses. “My first and continued passion is Virginia Woolf so everything I do emanates from that. But John Piper was an architectural historian, a stained glass designer, a painter, engraver, and book designer, and I love that sense of the holistic approach to life and art.”
It was after she began teaching at the University of Liverpool in 2007 that she set about transforming her thesis into the book. Her overriding concern was that the prose should be clear and evocative, and the structure inviting. “My first drafts are complicated and academic, full of agonised syntax, but I always see that as the starting point. The great job of work is then to get to a point of lucid expression.”
In 2011, she renewed her links with the AHRC when she became part of the New Generation Thinkers scheme, which gives early career academics the opportunity to communicate their research to a wider audience through BBC broadcasting.
“The scheme made all the difference for me. It mattered that an official body such as the AHRC was recognising radio as a legitimate medium for academics. I loved talking with the other 'Thinkers' in the group, and it was a passport to all the radio work I've done since then. I think I've done some of my best writing and hardest thinking for radio.”
She sometimes fears that academics are encouraged to narrow their focus more than is really helpful, although that is certainly not true in her case – her latest book, ‘Weatherland: Writers and Artists under English Skies’ is an exploration of imaginative responses to the weather in England across centuries. The book was published in 2015 to critical acclaim. “I think there’s potential for forms of work that really allow individuals to develop a wider range of skills and feel confident in reading across boundaries and across periods.”
The AHRC’s support of doctoral studies and schemes for Early Career Researchers such as New Generation Thinkers are something to be celebrated, she says. “We’re lucky to have a major funding body for arts and humanities. It’s imperative that the arts and humanities don’t get swallowed up by other disciplines. Humanities work is about recognising different kinds of thought. It requires the constant stretching of language to differentiate between shades of tone, meaning, and vision. If we lose the distinctiveness of arts and humanities research, we will be turning our backs on the study of human imagination.”
In its next decade, she hopes the AHRC will maintain and strengthen its commitment to grants that fund small-scale projects arising from personal passions. “There might, at this very moment, be someone out there who is the most sensitive interpreter of Constable’s work in two hundred years. You have to let that person write about Constable. These personal affinities and sensibilities don’t come to order and we really must respond to the distinctive, individual qualities of the next generation of thinkers.”