Thanks to an AHRC scheme that began in 2005, doctoral students and early career researchers have been able to study in some of the most prestigious research institutions around the world, laying the foundations for their future careers. Ten years ago Jenny Woodley was among the first of them.
‘Working in the humanities, you're used to the idea that the monetary value of your research might not be immediately apparent,’ says Jenny Woodley, who is a Lecturer in Modern History at Nottingham Trent University. ‘But walking up Capitol Hill in Washington every day, to work in the Library of Congress, gave me a huge sense of excitement. The grandeur of the buildings seemed to say something about the importance of scholarship, and that sense, of the value of research, has stayed with me.'
Jenny was one of the first researchers to benefit from the AHRC's International Placement Scheme (the scheme is also supported by the ESRC), which, since 2006, has provided funded research fellowships at world-leading international research institutions, for academics in the early stages of their careers. In the first year of her PhD, Jenny spent three months living in Washington, working at the Library of Congress’s Kluge Centre.
'For the first time, I really felt like a researcher. And if you're going to jump into the world of research, there's no better place to do it than the Library of Congress. You got your own desk, sitting amongst the distinguished scholars. And I remember being amazed that you could order books online, and someone would bring them to you. They'd appear on your desk – for a lowly PhD student, it was pretty incredible.’
Jenny was working in the archives of the civil rights organisation the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, looking especially at the NAACP's campaign in the Thirties and Forties, to improve the way that black people were depicted in Hollywood movies. The NAACP's Executive Secretary, Walter White, had lobbied studio executives and other prominent figures in the film industry, telling them that the ‘restriction of Negroes to roles with rolling eyes, chattering teeth, always scared of ghosts, or to portrayals of none-too-bright servants, perpetuates a stereotype which is doing the Negro infinite harm.’
White met with mixed success – the producer Darryl Zanuck, he reported to a friend, had ‘marched up and down puffing a cigar, and stopped to declaim: “I make one sixth of the pictures made in Hollywood, and I never thought of this until you presented the facts.”’ The film that Zanuck produced next, Crash Dive, featured a much more positive portrayal of a black submarine crew member.
But White also faced opposition, sometimes from surprising quarters. While Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick was sympathetic, for example, Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in the film (a role for which she would win an Academy Award, becoming the first African American performer to do so) reacted angrily to what she saw as White’s interference. McDaniel, who had made her career playing the maid roles that White was so critical of, wrote: ‘since Walter White has been meddling in the affairs of the motion picture industry, work for the Negro has decreased some seventy to seventy five percent.’
For Jenny Woodley, having the chance to study at the Library of Congress had a lasting impact. ‘I think it’s wonderful that the AHRC has been able to give researchers this kind of opportunity, at a formative stage in their careers. I wouldn’t have been able to do a PhD without my AHRC funding and so wouldn’t be an academic now. The IPS scheme not only allowed me to complete crucial research which allowed me to complete my doctorate - and later to publish that research as a monograph - but it also made me feel like a researcher for the first time, and convinced me that this is what I wanted to do with my career!’
Jenny now uses her position at Nottingham Trent to encourage her postgraduate students and potential postgraduates to apply for AHRC funding and the IPS scheme.
Jenny used her research in Washington to explore more widely the issue of the representation of minorities in various media – her PhD was published as Art for Equality: the NAACP’s Cultural Campaign for Civil Rights. And she remains an American specialist, teaching American history, and researching African American history in particular. ‘For a while I was the only Americanist in our department,’ she says. ‘But since Barack Obama became President, we’ve noticed a marked increase in interest among students at Nottingham Trent University, in American history, and the issue of race within it.’
And why should British public money be spent sending a researcher to an American library, to study American history? ‘America’s standing and place in the world means that what happens there affects us. And given America’s cultural dominance, the portrayal of certain groups in American media is important for discussions of race here. As long as Hollywood films remain so popular, it’s vital that we understand them.’
Article by Matt Shinn
The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, with more than 158 million items in 470 languages. Due to the vast breadth and depth of their collections, the library supports research in all areas, and is not limited to American Studies. For further information, please see the IPS page on the AHRC website.