The Visual Legacy of James Watt
Fortunately for all the Humanities students out there who are uncertain about the career opportunities available post-graduation, the University of Birmingham’s ‘Undergraduate Research Scholarship Scheme’ offers a five-week window into the world of professional academia which demystifies a lot of the uncertainties about academic careers by going beyond the lectures, seminars and essay deadlines that we are already used to. Although I have written this short article primarily to share the benefits of the scholarship scheme with you, based on a few reflections on my own scholarship period, I must admit that I seriously underestimated how much academic growth, and perhaps more importantly, personal growth, would come in the course of just five weeks.
Malcolm Dick, my scholarship supervisor, introduced me to the James Watt project by encouraging me to follow my own interests rather than researching something that I wasn't particularly drawn to. As a result of the flexibility offered by Malcolm, I decided spend my summer researching the visual legacy of James Watt over the past two centuries through an investigation of paintings, memorabilia, advertisements and other collectables dating from around 1800 to the present day. Although I must admit, I initially found it very difficult to overcome the feeling of being a second year History student who was merely masquerading as a half-useful researcher; however, Malcolm was inclined to frequently remind me that he viewed me as an academic colleague above all else.
The main outcome of my research project was the creation of a foundational archive of visual material relating to the different visual representations of James Watt: The Man, The Myth, The Collectible Commodity, and most interestingly to me, The Product Promoter. The most ludicrous example of promotion I found was a series of adverts from the 1940s featuring representations of James Watt, an 18th century inventor who created the first commercially viable steam engine, to endorse 20th century business products ranging from premium whiskeys to stainless steel kettles even after being dead for over 100 years!
Although much of my scholarship consisted of researching visual material in libraries and archives, the highlight of my scholarship was participating in the James Watt symposium held at the University of Birmingham in June 2016 - an event primarily intended to chart the current state of research on all things related to Watt. After two full days of lectures in Muirhead Tower, which were supported with generous amounts of tea, coffee and biscuits, the James Watt symposium concluded with a fully catered reception at the Birmingham Assay Office, an institution established in 1773 to test and hallmark fine metals such as gold and silver. My outsider status, coupled with the fact that I am a twenty year old undergraduate, were what I initially deemed to be my greatest weaknesses which would hold me back from contributing in any significant way to the event; however, these two characteristics actually turned out to be my greatest strengths. I found myself giving a short spontaneous talk to thirty or so scholars and Watt enthusiasts during a final discussion on the future direction of the project at the Assay office. This was followed by a collection of handshakes and business cards from attendees who were encouraging me to keep in contact and assist on future developments in the James Watt project.
As my research comes to a close at the end of August 2016, I can honestly say that participating in the Undergraduate Research Scholarship Scheme has given me an enjoyable and realistic experience of post-graduate careers in academia. Moreover, by completing the five week summer scholarship, I have also gained a lot of clarity about the direction I want to take after completing my undergraduate degree.
To summarise, taking on an Undergraduate Research Scholarship is probably going to feel very uncomfortable to being with. It's going to make you feel like you know almost nothing, almost all of the time. However, when you do actually finish your research, and most importantly, when you stop and make the time to reflect upon what you've been doing for the past five weeks, it's really amazing to see just how much you've learnt in such a short period of time. I wholeheartedly recommend the scheme to any first and second years who want to make the most of their time at Birmingham and learn more about the type of postgraduate opportunities available that are directly related to their degree.