September 17, 2012

Final Reflective Blog

What were your key objectives for completing the URSS and have they been met?

My key objectives in completing the URSS were threefold.

Firstly I wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to conduct extensive original research independent of my studies. I felt this could break down the notion of undergraduates as passive recipients of accepted wisdom. Having completed the project I would confirm that it has enabled me to turn from “student” to “researcher”, and while I would not contend that my work is as valuable as that of other historians who have worked on these themes, I feel I was at least fully able to engage at this high level.

Secondly, in terms of content, I wanted to discover how impressment related to enslavement of Africans, and how British society was able to reconcile itself to these two brutal institutions. I also hoped to gain an insight into whether pamphleteers’ appeals to liberty and comparisons with slavery reflected or even helped form a sense of affinity between impressed men and black sailors. I believe I was able to address the first two issues competently, but I was unable to establish any convincing evidence one way or another about affinity between pressed men and blacks. In my preparatory reading of secondary historical works, it became clear that Bolster had come closest to answering this question in his work Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. I decided I was unlikely to be able to add much original analysis to this seminal study, and therefore moved on to address the other themes in more detail.

My final objective was related to outcomes; I aimed to write an article of analysis distilled from the projected in Reinvention: The Journal of Undergraduate Research, and also produce a podcast for the Early Modern Forum. Thus far I have completed the article (it is currently awaiting peer review) and I am working on the podcast. I judge the article to be competent, and it fills in a current gap in the historiography of the press gang, namely that of how contemporaries tried to negotiate the implications of impressment within the framework of the supposed liberties every Englishman enjoyed.

What skills have you gained by completing the URSS project that you will utilise in your studies or other aspects of your working life?

I have gained much confidence finding and using relevant first hand sources from a huge mass of documents, which I had previously considered the domain of established and expert professors. I am also now much better able to read and make sense of scripts from the eighteenth century. I have also significantly enhanced my ability to skim-read, which I had previously found to be a weakness of mine, as I frequently found entire documents engrossing and was often side-tracked. Writing an article about original research has been an eye-opener, certainly far-removed from undergraduate essays I have written up until now, and will doubtless prove invaluable experience for writing my dissertation.

Finally the production of my project’s outcomes (the article, the podcast, the poster) has certainly honed my editing skills. At one point I had over 60,000 words of notes, and condensing and analysing these has made me realise the value of a well thought out plan and structure.

What will you do differently as a result of your URSS experience?

Having conducted research myself, it has become abundantly clear how fallible this process is, and I will therefore no longer treat all academics’ works as gospel truth. An insight into the sheer scale of historical experience revealed in the sources has lead to a deal of healthy scepticism about broad-brush conclusions about the past.

Have there been any unexpected outcomes of taking part in the URSS?

Despite a few setbacks, I had honestly expected original research to be in many ways more difficult than it proved to be. In fact, it revealed the possibilities for undergraduates to conduct almost boundless further research.

What would you consider as your highlights of the URSS process?

The week in the National Archives at Kew was an undoubted highlight of the project. Handling documents which were in some cases more than three hundred years old was very exciting. Many of the sources I accessed had not been read since being initially filled sometime in the twenties. Reading the journals, memos, articles, speeches, court cases and diaries of eighteenth century people brought home that although the issue of impressment seems very foreign to us, the terms of the debate and the people behind it are startlingly similar to much current political discussion.

The satisfaction at seeing and reading my finished article was also enormous, and I hope to have the pleasure of reading it (alongside many other excellent articles) in a coming edition of Reinvention.

Did you encounter any challenges, issues or difficulties whilst partaking in the URSS? How did you overcome them?

One of the major problems I had was that I assumed allof the sources I would need would be stored at the National Archives, as they were all listed on the National Archives catalogue. However, some of the most germane sources were located at the Caird Library in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. This was unfortunately closed from the beginning of July to the middle of September as a result of the Olympics and Paralympics. If I were to do it again, I would have tried to have accessed or ordered the documents from this library before starting my project. As it was, I was forced to slightly shift the focus of my research away from slavery and towards language used in the contemporary domestic debate around impressment. Thus it may be said that I side-stepped rather than overcame this issue.

My other significant problem was with the word limit of the article. As the proud owner of an article around 15,000 words in length, it was to my dismay that I learned that the maximum length of a reinvention article is 5,000 words. Obviously with better planning and forethought this could have been avoided; as it was the editing process was difficult and somewhat painful. I have to thank my supervisor Mark Knights for identifying the real strengths of my argument, and suggesting where I could cut it down. It is thanks to him that the article is sharper, shorter and more interesting.

How do you feel about the URSS now that you have completed your project?

I feel that the URSS has offered me a brilliant opportunity and insight into the world of post-graduate academics researching original work. Without its support I would not have been able to sample this before graduating, and it has certainly helped define my research interests and possible career path.

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