Monday, 31 December 2012

Goodbye 2012 and all that

This is something of a displacement activity - I've set myself a target of adding 3,000 words to the PhD by the end of the kids' Christmas Holidays - and have so far managed to read one and a half relevant books instead.

Actually, such displacement has been indicative of 2012 as far as my PhD has gone - this has been the year it got hard.

In terms of displacement activities, most have been excellent - I've taught for most of the year at Brunel, City Lit and latterly at Reading University - all of which has been good for the academic CV. But research has been tough with most of my focus being on earning enough income to keep my head above water. That income comes not from academia but from corporate communications related work. I've had to spend much more time on that this year just to keep up a reasonably similar earning stream.

I managed an excellent research trip to Boston and Abilene in April - but this time it all came out of my pocket - I didn't land a single £ of grant funding this year, despite half a dozen solid applications (certainly no worse than the ones that unlocked £2,000 of funding in 2010). While the documents I unearthed and assessed made the trip absolutely worthwhile, I feel like I've been playing catch-up ever since.

In terms of positives on the year, I now have a structure for the PhD and have significant progress on two chapters - I probably have 10,000+ usable words, with a target of doubling that by April, and adding a further 20,000 by August. Beyond the thesis, I made a great contact in Dave Nichols, a truly nice man and a pleasure to work alongside in Abilene back in the Spring. Dave was immensely generous with his time and encouraged me greatly in my writing - to the extent that he recommended me for the Ike Reconsidered conference that Hunter College is hosting in New York in March. I've had a paper accepted, and now find myself due to present alongside the great and the good in the Eisenhower scholarship field. Am I up to it? Time will tell and I suspect a couple of hours alongside one of my heroes, Fred Greenstein, as well as Eisenhower's most recent biographer Jim Newton and Yanek Mieczkowski who's about to publish a book right bang smack in the middle of my research field and, of course, Dave himself. I suspect that over a couple of days I'll be made very aware whether or not my thesis holds water.

At the moment, as well as the challenge of pulling a paper together (and it will be based strongly on an updated and expanded version of last year's 240,000 mile cul de sac piece), there's the simple challenge of getting to the US to present. Hunter College are covering my costs while on US soil (and many thanks to them for that), but flights and a few days associated research before the conference will leave me with a bill close to £1,000 on top of this year's fees and all the usual costs - the application writing starts here!

My year's negative is the new bureaucracy imposed by my School within the University which I've finding hinders my progress rather than aiding it. My tactic at the moment is ignoring it as much as possible. However, being disgruntled by a process that is beginning to feel like a sausage machine focused on Brunel's REF rather than the individual needs of each research student.

Anyway, I can't afford to dwell on that - not when there's 3,000 PhD words to be corralled from notes and documents; a presentation to be built and scripted and at least two grant applications to be written.

2013 will be a big has to be.

Friday, 7 December 2012

End of term quiz - answers

As promised, here are the answers to my end of term quiz.

1. What was Harry Truman’s middle name?

he didn't have one - but added 'S' to his signature as he felt it added gravity to his name.

2 What role did George W Bush hold prior to his election as President?

Governor of Texas

3. What happened on October 4 1957?
  • Launch of Sputnik
4. In what year did the French withdraw from Indo China?


5. The Tet Offensive occurred on the Vietnamese equivalent of:

c) New Year

6. Peter Davis’ 1974 Oscar Winning Film is called:
b) Hearts and Minds                      

7. Who was the last man on the moon?

a) Gene Cernan                                  

8. Who was Jimmy Carter’s Foreign policy nemesis

b) Ayatollah Khomenei  

9. The tall guy's LBJ

10. What did Truman describe his entry into the Korean War as?

A Police Action

11. Who shot JFK?

Lee Harvey Oswald

12. In Presidential terms, who’s the odd one out?
a) Gerald Ford  - never elected to Executive Office

13. Complete this sentence: “I shall go to......”


14. Name three military interventions carried out by the Clinton administration.

Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia - there are others.

15. The CIA was mandated to overthrow the Government of Guatemala by President...
c) Eisenhower


1  16. This is George Kennan (though he looks like Morrissey)

17. Who was George W Bush’s Secretary of Defence?
c) Donald Rumpsfeld

18. What position did Bess, Mamie and Rosalynn all hold?

First Lady

19. What was SDI more commonly know as?

Strategic Defence Initiative - or Star Wars

20. Which was the only foreign state invaded under Reagan’s presidency?


21. Who was President when man first walked on the moon?


22. 1968 was famous for the summer of:
b) love  

23. These two fine fellows are Douglas MacArthur and John Foster Dulles

24. What is the key principle of the Nixon Doctrine?


25. Who is the most famous peanut farmer in US history?

Jimmy Carter



Friday, 30 November 2012

The end of term quiz

My teaching this term is slightly odd - one batch at the beginning of term, another running fairly normally through the term and my 3rd year Reading Uni students completing their first eight-week hit from me yesterday.

Both seminar sets finished with a term quiz. The best score was 15...not quite as high as I'd hoped.

Here are the questions - have a crack at them, I'll post the answers next week.

1. What was Harry Truman’s middle name?

2 What role did George W Bush hold prior to his election as President?
  • Senator for California
  • Congressman for Houston
  • Governor of Texas
3. What happened on October 4 1957?
  • Launch of Sputnik
  • Launch of Yuri Gagarin
  • First man on moon
4.  In what year did the French withdraw from Indo China?

a)      1945                    b) 1955               c) 1954
5. The Tet Offensive occurred on the Vietnamese equivalent of:
    a)      Christmas                         b) Easter             c) New Year

6. Peter Davis’ 1974 Oscar Winning Film is called:

a)      Platoon                                b) Hearts and Minds                      c) The Deer Hunter

7. Who was the last man on the moon?

a) Gene Cernan                                  b) Charlie Duke                              c) Buzz Aldrin

8. Who was Jimmy Carter’s Foreign policy nemesis

a)      Ayatollah Khamenei       b) Ayatollah Khomenei  c) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

9. Who’s the tall guy?

10. What did Truman describe his entry into the Korean War as?

11. Who shot JFK?

12. In Presidential terms, who’s the odd one out?

a)      Gerald Ford       b) Harry Truman    c) Lyndon Johnson

13. Complete this sentence: “I shall go to......”

14. Name three military interventions carried out by the Clinton administration.

15. The CIA was mandated to overthrow the Government of Guatemala by President...

a)      Nixon    b) Kennedy        c) Eisenhower

16. Who’s this?
17. Who was George W Bush’s Secretary of Defence?

a)      Colin Powell            b) Condoleezza Rice                           c) Donald Rumpsfeld

18. What position did Bess, Mamie and Rosalynn all hold?

19. What was SDI more commonly know as?

20. Which was the only foreign state invaded under Reagan’s presidency?

21. Who was President when man first walked on the moon?

22. 1968 was famous for the summer of:

a)  peace    b) love  c) hate  d) understanding

23. Who are these two?
24. What is the key principle of the Nixon Doctrine?

25. Who is the most famous peanut farmer in US history?

You can, of course, always leave your answers as a comment.
an  b) Charlie Duke  c) Buzz Aldrin

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Soaring sentiment - but rhetoric or reality?

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's address at Rice University in Texas when he said: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard."

It was a striking statement in a superbly crafted speech  which probably owed as much to JFK's Special Counsel Ted Sorensen as it did to the President. But one should never do down Kennedy's power as an orator. He had the charm, grace and gift for telling a good story that the likes of Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon could only dream of. And, at the height of Camelot's power, he had the nation in the palm of his hand.

But did JFK really have a deep passion for space? Was he quite as fully committed to the moon landing as his Rice oratory suggests? Was going to the moon even the right path to take?

Of course, it has been an area of huge debate and one I cover to some extent in my '240,000 mile cul de sac' paper.

Perhaps we remember Kennedy's speech because the moon landing happened. Perhaps the moon landing happened only because Johnson needed to deliver a legacy for Kennedy. Perhaps, if that fateful visit to Dallas in November 1963 hadn't happened, the US path to outer space would have taken a different course as tax bills, civil rights, Vietnam and the wider Cold War filled the Presidential agenda in the expected second term. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

Speculation aside, this was one of the most powerful political speeches from the age of frontierism.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The 'great leap' is a slow crawl

If you've looked at this blog before, you'll notice a couple of changes - notably the title and indeed the web address. It's pretty clear to me that my research is tied into the 1950s not the '60s and therefore to call this occasional musing 'race to the moon' is rather disingenuous. This blog charts my part-time, mid-career PhD research project reassessing one aspect of Eisenhower's presidency that has so far been largely overlooked: his contribution to US space policy as rockets and satellites first broke out of the earth's atmosphere.

I'm slowly getting my thoughts together around Eisenhower's contribution to US outer space policy - and it strikes me more and more that had the US followed the Eisenhower (Killian/Kistiakwsky/Glennan et al) plan, there'd be more than a six wheel rover scooting round on Mars right now.

Indeed, my current work is looking at the impact of a dead dog - not quite the dead cat bounce, but Laika's flight on Sputnik 2 had a distinct impact on the western world's psyche - and it's not one that has been sufficiently explored in the past. Whether I'll hit my target of a 10,000 word chapter section by the end of September is moot - though it would also go a long way towards my next goal of another academic journal article so is well worth the push. Unfortunately, having to earn a living and the distraction of three children off on summer holidays is rather eating into my research time. After a couple of weeks away, I've yet to get back into a disciplined routine, but need to do so quickly.

One tiny step is to refocus this blog. If nothing else, it gets me thinking and writing about my subject again.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Fees conundrum

It seems to me that research students are the Cinderellas of the university system. In these days of increasingly transactional relationships between institutions and their students, the 'value' offered for my £ thousands paid out in each year is far easier to measure if you're a) full-time b) on campus and c) part of a taught degree course.

In my field, new full time undergrads and taught postgrads know they'll get, say 120 lectures a year; maybe 60 seminars and can take advantage of a fixed amount of staff office hours. They'll know they have to complete perhaps 10 assignments between October and May and then sit four or five exams. They'll also have access to the library and, more important today, to online library resources that universities pay thousands for each year.

Without doubt, the more the student puts in, the more they get out of their experience - and it's relatively easy to conduct a cost/benefit analysis.

But what about research students - and should universities be thinking about a different model for charging research student fees?

I'm exceedingly relieved that I started my PhD before the student fees hike. I'm self-funded and my fees come out of income while I work alongside my study.

What I get for those fees is access to a research office with a PC and a phone (UK calls only); library membership; invitations to attend/participate in departmental reseach seminars; an annual researcher presentation event and, most importantly, access to two supervisors who help guide my study. I also get a research allowance of £180 per year - though am very limited in what I can use this for.

As a mature student, living 30+ miles from campus, registered as part-time and working full time: I use the office rarely - I'm really only ever there on about 24 days when I'm teaching in the academic year - and I'm not actually doing much PhD stuff those days! Library membership is vital and valuable - though 95% of my use is online. Research seminars tend to happen on a weekday afternoon so it's rare I can attend and the research presentation event covers a wide scope from economics through political science to history so is interesting, but frustrating too. I don't pay a full fee, but nor do I pay half of what full timers shell out.

The key 'value' comes from the student/supervisor relationship - yet no matter how heavily or lightly I lean on my mentors, the price remains the same. However frequently or infrequently I use the campus facilities, the price remains the same - and however much or little I choose to engage with the department, the price I pay remains the same.

In these economically turbulent times, would it not make sense for institutions to be more flexible in their charging structures - not just for existing researchers, but to help attract those who will undoubtedly be put off from even applying in the future by stratospheric fees and the ever-increasing feel that institutions are being asked to do more with less?

If I was looking to attract student now, I'd have a menu of charges related to needs:
  • A core fee would buy you access to the library and, say four supervisory meeting per year;
  • An enhanced fee could secure office space.
  • Departmental student events would be based on, and built around, student demand and charged on a per-event basis. They would also happen at a time convenient for students, not just departmental staff.
  • Additional supervisorys could be purchased - £X per hour - book three get one free etc.
  • A premium fee would offer presentation and critique opportunities, and perhaps support to attend external events and be part of a wider network.
These are just top of the head thoughts, but it's time institutions became more commercial and more savvy in responding to student needs rather than continually being driven by a 'one size fits all' process. Some of us only need/want or can afford the 'institution-lite' approach to a PhD, while others will want full immersion and a helping hand all along the way. Assuming we set a base level of support that is sufficient to get someone through this research apprenticeship, do universities have to apply the same cost structure to everyone?

No private business would operate in the way our universities do today. The current fee/value model, and indeed wider funding model seems less sustainable year by year.

Is it time for institutions to dare to do something different?

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Time for a great leap forward

So I've been at this PhD thing for two years and nine months now - very part-time, and generally fitted in between work commitments, the demands of a full family life and, more recently, my own first forays into academic teaching. Even now, I'm updating this while waiting for someone to fulfil a request for information on a corporate intranet site I'm writing/editing copy for. Up until very recently I was motoring on at my own pace on the PhD, reading everything in sight, covering dusty second hand books in sticky book marks and highlighting searing insights across dozens of learned journal papers.

I would have been quite happy being locked in a dusty room for a few years while I pulled everything together into a satisfyingly heavy thesis with just the occasional surfacing to sit at the feet of my supervisor and make the necessary course corrections to ensure what emerged actually had some scholarly merit.

But my university doesn't work like that any more. There comes a point where all Brunel researchers have to be 'confirmed' in their study - what follows may be beatification or even canonisation for all I know, but what matters now is that I have a hurdle to get over before I can set my sights on writing up my core chapters and defending my view of the world - or at least Eisenhower's decision making around the policy issues of outer space.

This new step was rather dropped on us in May and probably caused more angst than it should - not least for those in the cohort whose draft theses were more or less complete and who had their sights set more on an external viva than an internal approval of their work. I'm not quite there yet, but I've set a target of having my thesis complete by the end of 2013. I just want to get on and spend my days writing up my two research trips and pinpointing the gaps that will probably lead to a third trip to the US next year before I can finalise my not-so-grand opus.

But now I find that I have to go through confirmation and quite soon - September 17 is D Day for a suite of documents ranging from my abstract, methodology and outline to a substantial piece of work that I'll have to defend internally. No doubt it will be good practice for the real thing, but coming on top of a Research Presentation event and Annual Review, it feels like a bureaucratic chore.

It also feels like a devaluing of the student/supervisor model that seems to work pretty well. I have two supervisors, meet with one regularly and get good arm's length feedback from the second. The last two years has been a little like peeling skin from an onion: I started with one idea which has been refined, nuanced and focused so that what I'm now working on bears some resemblance to the original research idea, but has a more workable scope, and goes deeper rather than wider into the subject.

I'm uncomfortable with the confirmation process. It appears to be, to some degree, arse covering for the university - a process where they can reassure themselves that research students are going to complete. But shouldn't that control, that accountability and that sense of whether a research project is worthy of a PhD come from research supervisors? This new process seems to imply a lack of trust that supervisors can judge the students they're supervising with sufficient objectivity. For me, 40-something, self-funded and with a passion for my subject, I will complete. However, I feel I'll do so in spite of the system, not because of it.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Fault line on the nexus of my 'day job' and my academic life

For the past 27 years, after leaving university first time round, I've worked in journalism and latterly, organisational communication. For the past five years I've been back in academia; collecting an MA and working towards a PhD. For the past two I've been teaching in a university history department - part-time and on a short contract basis. This year in particular, my module has proved popular. The feedback has been good and students have become very engaged in the subject.

I've been able to bring all my experience of corporate communications to bear on designing and delivering my lectures and seminars. There's a huge parallel with the kind of training I've done for years in industry and the facilitation work I've done with corporate and industry leaders over the last decade.

It helps too that I'm the father to teenagers not far short in age of the young adults I've been teaching. I'm beginning to understand their on-line linked up world where the old style of lecturing from my first university experience simply wouldn't cut it any more.

So, my lectures are bracketed with music chosen to have some relevance to the topic. I use You Tube and other video sources extensively to bring to life the people and events we're covering. Much of the seminar work is based around primary sources - and generally I prefer the students to find and introduce at least some of those sources.

It's a first year group, and as well as getting a good grounding in the subject, I want them to get enjoyment from our Thursday afternoons together and come out feeling they want to learn more - to scrape beneath the surface view. I don't claim that my sessions cover all the bases; I don't claim that they give more than a partial view - and at times I'll deliberately go out on an extreme to drive home a point. But I want the students to leave the lecture room sufficiently engaged with the subject to go and find out more: to read deeply and get the full story - if only to disprove the line I've taken.

In the UK system of little contact time and much space left for private study, it's all I can do. I'm not yet a great teacher and still have a huge amount to learn. But finally, I think I've found my metier. This student engagement in subjects I'm passionate about is what I do best.

My approach in attempting to connect the students to the subject matter through some side-on angles isn't revolutionary - indeed I'm aping the best of my experience through my Masters. Where I am perhaps hard wired slightly differently is in bringing my experience of the world beyond academia to bear from lecture one term one in making students think beyond their three or four years of academic study to the harsh working world that will be waiting for them in a couple of years' time.

I want them to immerse themselves in their subject: to begin to think as historians and to move beyond the narrative I can share with them to question why things turned out as they did. But equally, I want to help them develop good habits: to turn up on time; to participate in class; to be generous in sharing views; to accept and deal with constructive criticism; to organise their thoughts cogently and present them coherently, on time and within the expected standards. That may sound like a no-brainer, but it's not the case for a number of reasons.

On the student side, they've come through a school system designed to enable them to get the right grades in exams. That means spoon-fed learning, narrow-cast around fulfilling exam criteria. Having only 10 hours contact time with staff at university per week; being asked to research subjects without a feeding spoon; and simply being away from home for the first time is perhaps a bigger ask of students than ever before.

And on the staff side, frankly the system has become too lax and simply doesn't demand sufficient discipline from students. We don't make lectures and seminars compulsory and equally don't have enough support in place to help those sinking students learn to swim. The latter point comes in part from a lack of funding; the former is merely a hangover from more freewheeling liberal approaches that first permeated campuses a generation ago. Yes, we have to respect that our students are adults who choose to be on our course. But my view is that many don't arrive from school with sufficient structure in place to make the right decisions on their own. At first year level, I'd make contact time compulsory. It builds good practice that won't just carry through their study time, but will be invaluable in landing and keeping a job after graduation.

It's at this point that my 'day job' and academic life collides most. For over a year I've been working on Adecco's Unlocking Britain's Potential initiative. This is looking at why Britain's workforce isn't as effective as it could be - and one of the key findings is that young workers simply aren't ready for the world of work, whether they emerge from education at 16, 18 or in the early 20s. Of course, it's a huge generalisation, but the majority of the employers I spoke to during the research spoke about the issues they have both with managing young people's expectations (the 'entitled' generation was a recurring theme), and instilling the discipline and loyalty necessary for that young person to be a productive and contributing member of the organisation.

Industry blames the education system for not producing the 'finished work-ready goods', while the education sector bemoans the lack of industry support - from shaping curricula to offering the work placements through education that will open young people's eyes to the reality of work. They're both right, and I hope UBP will help cement some of the links that are clearly lacking.

For me though, one of the most disconcerting aspects of the past two years has been the disconnect in what academia is, and should be, about. For me, teaching the next generation and opening their minds so that they can make the bridge into a career is the vital aspect. I put everything of myself into that part of university life - yet it actually counts for nothing on my PhD.

While internal student satisfaction and, increasingly the National Student Survey play a part in grading the department and attracting students, our funding is based on the quality of published research - written by academics for academics and largely read by three old men and a dog. Teaching is secondary and lecturers are recruited into the department on the basis of the the funding their research will attract. There's a fundamental dichotomy here. True, some great researchers are also great teachers but it's by no means always the case. At the moment, great teaching doesn't attract funding and so there's little incentive for departments to recruit staff members who will make the student experience truly memorable. If it happens now, it's by luck not judgement.

The next generation is not attracted to study in our institutions by the scholarly articles we publish (ok, I've only published one...and a review) but will increasingly be attracted by the electronic word-of-mouth of social media - the views of current students - and by tracking where our graduates end up in their working lives. We are not an end in ourselves. For the next generation of students, employability will be far more a pressing reason to choose or reject a department than the research interests of the faculty.

So where am I heading with this? Well, I'm beginning to draw my conclusions. In brief, they are:

  •  Providing funding to departments only on the basis of research devalues the teaching experience and is unsustainable in a new era of growing student choice
  • Students want good teaching and more informed contact time - most don't give a toss about the department's reputation for scholarly research
  • The university experience has to add another layer: subject specialist excellence has to remain at the forefront, but especially in non-vocational subjects, there needs to be a far greater emphasis on supporting students across the transition from school to university and then from university into work
  • Industry/university partnerships are not a dirty concept - they will become ever-more essential and need to break out of the narrow confines of law firm - law department and 'big four' - business school and embrace all departments and all types of industrial and commercial organisation
  • Teaching experience and skill should be a measured and rewarded aspect of PhD study for any researcher contemplating an academic career 
  • We need to instill greater discipline in students at university level - not to do so is bad for everyone.
As liberal in thought and voting practice, my views surprise even me. Cripes, I'll be advocating 'Victorian Values' next....

Dear Diary - I'm back

So, I entirely failed to keep up my daily diary covering my later days in Abilene and the return to the UK....which all happened over a fortnight ago.

The main reason was, as has happened on previous research trips, the final couple of days assumed a new level of intensity. I had more specific information to find - and indeed found much of what I was looking for.

Suddenly seven hours in an archive wasn't enough, and my evenings were spent reading around my subject and trying to pull all my thoughts into order.

I headed home on a high - only to have my wings filled with flak at the Brunel Research Presentation event on my return.

My head was still filled with the connections from Bikini Atoll through the U2 and Corona to NASA - but I didn't articulate those linkages particularly well, and was rather forensically pulled apart by the great and good of my department.

I'm confident the hypothesis works and that I have the evidence to support it. The next few months will be a matter of unpicking all that evidence from the documents i collected and beginning to develop a coherent narrative.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Up against time

Three days down and one and a half to go and I'm feeling up against time in the research. I've been through 18 boxes - some excellent, others a lot less so in terms of providing what I need, and I've yet to touch the Killian papers here or tie down Ike's reaction to the Bikini Atoll H bomb tests, or cement the link between Killian and Bissell. Tomorrow will be a crucial day: I've identified most of what I want to go through, but will be looking for archival advice. So, really for the first time on this trip I'll be testing the system!

One real  positive of today was being taken to lunch by Dave Nichols - a fascinating man and one who has a rare insight into Ike's Presidency. It was a very enjoyable meal.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Piecing together the jigsaw

Another solid slog in the Research Room today - 90 degrees outside, but as ever the Eisenhower Presidential Library was COLD. It seems that the building has an in-built inverse reaction - as the heat rises outside, the chill sets in within the 1961 walls of the building.

Abilene is really green at the moment though - it was already the washed-out height of summer last time I came, so it's nice to see the trees just greening up and butterflies swarming on the flowers in the manicured Library gardens.

All those yellow flashes on top of the plants are butterflies -my picture doesn't do justice to the hundreds clustering around.

The first 90 minutes today revealed nothing of note but the next 90 proved fruitful. This afternoon, spent working laboriously through the Washington diary of George Kistiakowsky, who succeeded Jim Killian as Eisenhower's Scientific Adviser, demonstrated just how much policy was made on the fly, and the extreme lobbying power of certain individuals who ensured their case was made to the President, even when cost, logic and sentiment appeared to favour other options.

My companion in the research room was the very charming Dr Dave Nichols author of 'A Matter of Justice' and 'Eisenhower 1956'. Very self-effacing and obviously in love with his subject, I'm looking forward to learning more from him over the course of the week.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Back in the ol' routine

Things I've learned today:
  • Researching in a Presidential archive is better second time round - I really enjoyed my day's research today and got much more out of it than on my last visit to Abilene. This time round, rather than just grabbing anything related to 'space', I know what I'm after. I'm looking for links that draw the key 'helping hands' together in the Eisenhower/space policy story. And, after about five boxes of Bissell material, I've teased out quite a lot of stuff that will be useful in the thesis.
  • It's impossible to look at research materials for eight hours straight. This kind of research demands breaks - a walk to the local cafe (great for overhearing gossip) at lunchtime; a walk to the local store to buy a drink. Otherwise, I stop seeing seeing what's in front of me when I'm reading documents late in the day.
  • It's better to do fewer boxes thoroughly than try to cover everything in the library. Last time round I 'covered' 18 boxes one  day. Today I did five - and got far more out of them.
  • Don't talk religion or politics around this town. The people are wonderfully warm and welcoming  here - but I don't think there are too many sharing my liberal views.   

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Lost in transition

Today I woke up in Boston; had lunch in Chicago; recharged in Missouri and will go to bed in Kansas.

I'm back in Abilene with five days of searching into the nooks and crannies of the helping hands to the US' original hidden hand president.

Not much to say about a day of travel other than I got a train to Wonderland (look at the end of Boston's Blue Line); I drove down the country's first bit of Interstate on I70 - oh, and I got stopped by a State Trooper having got a bit over-excited and sped up approaching Abilene.

Luckily, he let me off - I'm probably the only European he has stopped all year.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Fenway Day

So, I didn't walk over Boston Common or complete the Freedom Trail, but I did tick off a major venue on my sporting bucket list - a day at the Boston Red Sox' Fenway Park. From a tour of the ground - where I understood about one reference in every eight (and recognised about one player name in every 17) to a game that covered all the highs and all the lows (and more) of being a Red Sox fan, it was quite an experience.

By American standards, the ground's old - it's the oldest ball park in the US and actually turned 100 yesterday. It's also quite small, seating 37,000ish and the biggest draw of the season is the visit of the Yankees. It seems to be the law that everyone drinks beer throughout the game, and they all have to stand up together to go and get refills just as a crucial play is happening.

As their fans constantly reminded everyone, the Yanks have won the World Series (USA -  insular nation?) 27 times to Boston's measly four. the Yanks also rather ruined Red Sox' celebration yesterday by beating the home side 6-2. Today, it looked as though Sox would have a pretty swift and comprehensive revenge racking up a 9-0  lead. New York pulled back one run and the Sox manager pulled their pitcher. Not the wisest move as New York replied with a further 14 unanswered runs.

Sometimes it's great to be neutral.

As the park emptied (long before the end) at least I got a great view of one of the world's most atmospheric stadia.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Hey, Hey JFK

It was off to the other end of Boston this morning - a walk, two trains and a bus later I was rocking up to the JFK Presidential Library - my first visit to the institution I thought would be at the heart of my thesis - but has, in fact, turned out to be rather peripheral.

Despite the picture, it was actually really busy in the Research Room - I'm used to the silence of me and a bunch of files with perhaps one other researcher wading through historical records. But today there were seven others in the room for most of the morning with a couple more arriving near lunchtime.

Given that my research has now narrowed very much into Eisenhower territory, there was only so much value I could get out of today's visit. I had expected to be at MIT for a second day - but weirdly, they don't open on a Friday. Still, it was good to work through the 1960 campaign files and build up a picture of JFK's criticisms of the Eisenhower administration - especially from 1958 when it was very clear that Kennedy intended to run for President. One of the most interesting documents was the rebuttals to the issues about Kennedy - from his health, to being soft on communism - that the Kennedy camp either saw or assumed they'd see from the Nixon side. As far as I could tell, much of the Kennedy counter-argument was closer to fantasy than fact. Ah, well......politics!

One good thing about having a researcher pass for the presidential libraries is the opportunity to look round the museum for free. The JFK museum has had a refurb recently for the Kennedy 50th anniversary of his election win. Given my interests, I got a buzz out of the Mercury space suit and the exchange of memos between JFK and LBJ that feature so strongly in the popular narrative of the US manned journey to the moon.

There are a couple of odd aspects to the museum - the film marking the Cuban Missile Crisis is somewhat skewed - and doesn't even particularly clarify Kennedy's contribution, while the Dallas assassination is just a TV loop  in a corridor. Still, it was a good day - and I'm glad I finally made it to Columbia Point. It's a pretty amazing place to build a museum.

I'm back in the South End again this evening - but the view from my bedroom window's not bad.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Boston Day 2 - largely spent in Cambridge

Last night I posed the question to myself - since there was no-one else around - is it possible to walk from South End to Cambridge? Now, we're not talking 'The Fens' here: this was simply wondering whether it was possible, practical and even advisable to walk through Boston and across the Charles River to my planned visit to the Special Collections Archive in MIT's Hayden Memorial Library.

I am very delighted to say that the answer's a very resounding 'yes'. a walk up Dartmouth, across Copley Square and along Newbury (replete with Ben Sherman, Lush, Jack Wills  and a number of other very recognisable brands from home) took me to Massachusetts Avenue and a stroll over the bridge in the sunshine. I arrived way too early at MIT, so strolled around the campus. There's money here: BIG money. Most of the buildings aren't very old by European Standards so there's a comparison with Brunel - but it quickly ends. There's no sense of make do and mend on this side of the Charles: everything's endowed; everything looks plentiful and there's a significant air of confidence. One echo of my Brunel experience is the clear sign that China's Rising. Every second or third student seems to be Chinese or of Chinese extraction. They're bright, conscientious, eager to pick up western methodology and, most of all, they can pay for the best education money can buy.

I was really surprised to find that this renowned institute of technology has a faculty of Arts, humanities and Social Sciences. it seems that back in the 50s, there was belated recognition that even the nation's leading scientific brains needed a balance of liberal arts to round them out. So I've just spent today rooting through the archive of the man who brought arts to MIT - Jim Killian - an enlightened college president and one-time adviser to President Eisenhower.

It was good to be back looking at primary sources. There's a real frisson when you pick up documents hand-written by Dick Nixon, 'DE' and even John Kennedy. Today didn't reveal anything massively startling, but did add a few jigsaw pieces and filled in some gaps on who knew who when - and who was talking about what to whom.


I repeated my walk back this afternoon, and suspect I had a stupid grin on my face all the way. People do walk in Boston - and they jog and they cycle and unlike virtually every other American city I've been to, this is foot-friendly. It has been a good day in a great city spent doing something I love - even if I was wide awake at 5.15am!

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Boston - Day 1

It has been an awfully long time since I've written anything on this blog - mainly because much of the academic year has been taken up with teaching US History 1850s-1980s - something I loved and which, I believe, went pretty well.

However, as someone with just the barest toe-hold on an academic career at the moment, it didn't seem right to be writing about the course or the students - not least because one or two might stumble across this. But lectures are now over, both class assignments are marked and returned and there's just the exam for us all to look forward to. Once that's out of the way I will have time to reflect properly on an immensely interesting teaching experience - made all the richer by the parallel corporate work I was doing on Adecco's Unlocking Britain's Potential initiative.

Anyway, enough of that. I'm back in the US for the first time since June 2010 with research days booked in at MIT tomorrow, the JFK Library and the Eisenhower Library all next week. So this is the first of what I plan to be a 'Dear Diary' of the second of my three planned research trips across the course of the PhD research.

It's 6.10pm here but I'm already flagging fast after a long day travelling. I left home about 16 hours ago for a pretty uneventful journey - other than standing next to Sir Jackie Stewart on the Terminal 5 Transit at Heathrow. He was off to Bahrain for this weekend's race. The BA 747 was pretty packed. I had an older gentleman sat beside me who spent the whole journey leaning on my control buttons - my reading  light kept going on and off like a 70s disco while on four occasions he managed to pause my film - the interesting but slightly slow (and a tad shallow??) J Edgar. meanwhile an even more vintage grandma managed to recline her chair so far that she was almost in my lap for the greater part of the journey. Still the journey from home to a brown stone (looks more like red brick to me) house in Boston's South End was all pretty easy.

It's nice to be in a part of town that seems to have a real sense of community. This is quite a mixed neighbourhood - some trendy shops and cafes mixed in with some social housing, some gentrified streets and a massive catholic cathedral - and all just a few blocks south of Copley Square. I had thought of walking about a mile west tonight to Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox, but I'm just too tired. their game starts at 7.10pm - after midnight on my UK-clock. It's just a non-starter really, especially as I have a full day at MIT over in Cambridge tomorrow. I've been given what seem to be quite complicated travel instructions for a journey that looks not much more than a mile. I'm seriously thinking of walking - but does anyone walk over here - and is it even possible to cross the river on foot? I guess I'll find out in the morning.

Anyway, tonight's reading is Wiesner's Report to the President Elect on the Ad-Hoc Committee on Space - not that I really need anything to send me to sleep right now!