‘Studious without being stuffy’: Cath Feely reflects on studying at Manchester.

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Name: Cath Feely

Degree Programme: Politics and Modern History (I also later did a Masters in Cultural History and a PhD in History; also taught in the department on and off in various capacities from 2006 to 2013).

Year Completed: 2002

Current Occupation: Lecturer in History at the University of Derby

  1. Why did you choose to study history, and what brought you to the University of Manchester?

Initially, I chose neither History nor Manchester! I was going to do Politics and I was going to do it anywhere but my home town. However, my Sixth-Form Politics teacher told me that he thought I would get bored just doing Politics and that I should combine it with History. I had always been very interested in history, though, and was especially obsessed with nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian history. I started a Politics and History course elsewhere but for various reasons it didn’t work out and I transferred to Manchester. Actually, I was very lucky. I emailed the then PMH Secretary (yes, this was another era!) with my A level results and the next day she phoned every Feely in the Manchester phonebook (not many, but still) until she got hold of me to say that someone had dropped out and I could start right away. So thank you, Margaret Bradshaw! PMH was obviously a very well-known and respected degree programme but essentially I stumbled into it.

  1. What did you enjoy most about studying for your history degree? What skills and knowledge do you think your history degree has equipped you with in your professional life?

Oh, where do I start? Obviously, I’m a History lecturer, so I enjoyed a lot of it and use my degree every day. I must say that, although I turned out to be much better at History than Politics courses, I am very glad that I did PMH. In Politics, I particularly enjoyed courses on elections and voting behaviour (still an election nerd) and in gender and politics. I also did free choice modules in the first and second years in Philosophy and Theology, which had a massive intellectual impact on me. I think that this multi-disciplinarity, along with the training in critical analysis in terms of interrogating historiographical debates and analysing primary sources that I gained from History, has had a real effect on both my writing and teaching. I want to single out two History modules in particular. First is ‘The Political Order in Modern Britain’, which was an earlier version of what is now (in a roundabout way) the Level 2 course ‘Winds of Change: Politics, Society, and Culture in Britain, 1899-1990’. I don’t think I appreciated just how much hearing lectures from such different and brilliant historians as Iorwerth Prothero, Frank O’Gorman, Patrick Joyce and Julie Gottlieb was going to help me to conceptualise changing theoretical/historiographical approaches to British political history in the late twentieth century. It also left me with an unhealthy obsession with the 1832 Reform Act, which my current students will attest to. Secondly, Revolution in Russian Society with Peter Gatrell and Nick Baron. This was such a fantastic third year module and was taught in an innovative workshop style, with lots of group work on original sources. I really honed my primary source skills on that module and I think the gobbet analyses I wrote were more original than anything I write now! From that, I take another obsession with the peasant village commune (mir) and lots of themes that crop up all of the time in my work and teaching, despite not having pursued Russian history further.

  1. What did you find most surprising/challenging about studying for a history degree here? If you could go back in time and tell your pre-degree self about it, what advice would you give?

It was all challenging, but in an entirely positive way. The degree took my precocious curiosity about practically everything and honed it into critical sensitivity. The only advice I’d give to my pre-degree self is to enjoy it. Try to worry less and have more confidence in my ideas. Although that’s advice I still don’t always follow now.

  1. Beyond your studies, what did you most enjoy about studying in our history department or about being at the University of Manchester more broadly?

Meeting my friend Debbie, who also did PMH and lived at home and commuted from Burnley, in the Concourse Café (now demolished) every Thursday at 10am to put the world to rights. Other students who were as obsessed with History as I was: indeed, Dr Charlotte Wildman Tarozzi (current Lecturer in Modern British History) was also in my seminar group for Political Order in Modern Britain! The general atmosphere of the place: studious without being stuffy.

  1. Why do you think it’s important to study history? What can it tell us that is relevant to some of the social/political/cultural problems we face today, whether locally, in the U.K., or world-wide?

I’m not of the school that thinks that studying history can, or should, provide ready-made answers to current problems. But I do think that it is crucial in formulating the questions we should be asking about those problems. I also think that studying history – being trained in the unnatural act of historical thinking, as history educationalist Sam Wineburg puts its – makes you more critical about the world we live in, which is inherently political. I think Professor Tout, the ‘big daddy’ of Manchester History, so to speak, put it best in 1920: ‘It is unwise for the historian to claim that a gross and direct utility arises from the study of his subject. The use of history is something broader, more indefinite, more impalpable. It widens the mind, and stimulates the imagination’.

  1. Finally, what do you remember most about studying in the history department here (funny stories welcome, as long as they won’t get anyone into trouble!)?

My association with the department was long enough that there are too many memories and too many funny stories, most of which would only get me into trouble. But most of all, my memory is of good people who saw potential and nurtured it. At undergraduate level, people like Peter Gatrell and Matthew McCormack (who was a PhD student and tutor who asked me if I had considered postgraduate study in essay feedback. I hadn’t. I subsequently did. I’m forever grateful). Later on, too many people, but obviously my PhD supervisors Bertrand Taithe and Stephen Rigby who really made me a historian in so many ways. I’ll stop before this becomes an Oscar speech, but the abiding memory is of some good people who had faith in me.

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