To be, or not to be, academically dislocated: or to converse upon the path less travelled?

The following article is authored by Kent Law School PhD student Steve Crawford

One of the most common questions currently circulating around me as a first PhD student is of conversation(s): Who am I, within the context of my research, in conversation with?

This is proving a somewhat problematic issue for me deal with, at present, and quite possibly in common with other early stage postgraduate research (PGR) students; my concerns are more self-centred than I would like to admit. Right now my overarching fears revolve around: justifying my work, making sure that my project is viewed as more than simply a vanity piece undertaken for personal satisfaction; that I will be perceived as achieving something of academic merit; and most importantly of all that I’m not simply undertaking work that has already been done, successfully or not.

So where do these underlying motives leave me when considering the issue of my conversational partners? Well at present I seem to have spent a not inconsiderable amount of time pointing out gaps. It seems to me that within the field of my research; the constitutional settlement of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and specifically the 1688 English Bill of Rights; that legal scholarship has been, at best patchy, and at worst downright ignored over the last couple of decades since the three hundredth anniversary of the Bill of Rights itself.

This may seem a bold claim for a first year PGR to make, but as yet in all of my research so far conducted, from a legal perspective I have failed to turn up a single piece of literature that disproves this claim; from the perspectives of my own extra-legal disciplinary influences. Now this might seem to be an excellent basis from which to undertake my research project; it would appear that the ‘originality’ of my work is looking pretty secure, and indeed this is largely how I have been viewing proceedings to date. The issue is that because of this, I am, more and more often, having to draw on non-legal scholarship as the foundation of my research, the edited highlights of my conceptual travels so far include trips into the realms of history, economics, sociology, psychology and politics, to name but a few disciplines.

Because of the diverse nature of the research disciplines from which I’m drawing, the problem of the coherent conversation is becoming more pronounced. Legal scholarship is not facing in my direction; and as yet, while the other disciplinary, and interdisciplinary conversations I have drawn literature from have much to say about many diverse issues, including the Glorious Revolution, nobody really seems to be ‘talking’ about the Bill of Rights. So far I feel quietly confident about successfully completing my project, and providing sufficiently new material to satisfy the requirement for an original, or at the very least substantive contribution, to the existing body of knowledge. What is concerning me most now is asking: If a PhD researcher, who wishes to continue in an academic career, completes a thesis, that nobody reads, nobody even hears rumours about, and nobody ever sees anything of; does the PhD actually exist? Or at the very least does the candidate have any kind of hope in even securing job interviews, let alone actual paid employment?

Now I can really see how the problem of the relationship between gaps and conversations really comes home to roost! It’s all well and good having a nice series of intersecting spaces to fill with my research project. But what is the point if in the long run all I’m doing is shouting into a void that nobody else has even noticed, let alone considered attempting to fill? After all, I am undertaking a PhD in law; discussants in conversations revolving around issues of economics, history, sociology and religious studies etc. are unlikely to welcome me with open arms and willingly change the direction of their ongoing conversations to suit my, currently, inconsequential needs; and so far lawyers, the population I consider myself to be an increasingly tenuous member of, are largely ignoring my subject area.

So what options are open to me for solving this impeding vacuum of academic non-existence? Well I suppose I can invest in a proverbial bigger drum, and hope to force people to pay attention to me by making too much ‘noise’ to be ignored. I could keep jumping up and down and waving my arms around and hope that eventually somebody takes pity on me and includes me in their on-going conversation out of a sense of charity. I can always stick my head in the sand and keep on forging forward into my own personal academic wilderness. I could attempt to find a way to insert myself, insubstantially, into contemporary debates that do currently interest legal scholars. Or alternatively I can take the inherently terrifying step of attempting to recruit my own selection of discussants to form my own conversational society. This is of course provided that I’m able to overcome my own existential crisis, and don’t simply fall into the irrelevance or non-existence of the academic conversational abyss I currently find myself teetering on the brink of; one which I’m beginning to think might even be of my own creation!

But these are issues to be dealt with on another day. In the meantime I’m off to invest in some metaphorical safety harnesses, and to lodge a selection of hypothetical ice axes and other climbing paraphernalia into the dusty tomes of the too long overlooked edges of my own personal academic debate. The one thing I’m not considering is quitting. Harsh experience has taught me that life outside the weird and wonderful boundaries of the academic realm is not a place I find particularly comfortable, and, perhaps I should give stronger consideration to this phenomenon, there aren’t many people out there who want to listen to what I’ve got to say either!

As I hope has become apparent through the course of this piece, my intention has been to take a tongue in cheek look at the problem of coherent academic conversations that can face researchers (especially less experienced ones) attempting to conduct research that ‘transcends’ multiple disciplinary boundaries. I also hope that readers will join me in attributing any liberties taken from a literature review perspective to ‘artistic license’.