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On Sofas And Stacks: a student’s view of SAS

Margaret May is currently finishing the first year of her two-year part time Master of Research in Modern Languages degree at the IMLR. Here she offers some views on her studies:


Ensconced in a well-upholstered leather armchair in the studious quiet of the Periodicals Room at Senate House Library, I pause from my engrossing novel to consider how fortunate I am to be studying for my Master of Research in Modern Languages at the IMLR. For a few hours it has felt like being transported to a bygone age, far from the goal-oriented demands of modern academic life. In fact, several of my fellow-students are snoozing on the equally comfortable sofas; despite the incessant clicking of laptop keyboards, this room is still a haven for the world-weary, or just sleep-deprived, in the heart of Bloomsbury.

The higher up one climbs in the four publicly available floors of the library, the quieter and more like a retreat it becomes – apart from the wind that, whatever the season, appears to buffet all sides of this iconic Art Deco building. Naturally, the latest digital search technology is available if you need to find something in a hurry, but you can still browse the stacks making serendipitous connections or just following a whim – or sometimes feeling overwhelmed by the weight of scholarship accumulated here.

But there are other reasons to be grateful for the opportunity to study here. There’s an amazing variety of research interests in the nine institutes of the School of Advanced Study (SAS) – the majority also based at Senate House – and a corresponding number of events to attend if you have the time and inclination. Because there’s no undergraduate teaching here, SAS genuinely feels like a scholarly hub, where people can take time to reflect. The staff are friendly, informal and supportive, and because in each institute there are relatively few students, you feel special. And if at times you may feel a bit isolated in your particular area of study, you soon discover it’s a place where researchers from all over the world come to develop and share their ideas. An enormous amount of purposeful networking and interaction clearly goes on all along these unassuming 1930s corridors, and it’s a privilege to be able to attend seminars, conferences and student-led graduate forums where work in progress is presented to an enthusiastic and responsive audience of early-career and more established colleagues – sometimes a truly inspiring and exciting experience, and always thought-provoking.

Most of my fellow-students probably had a fairly clear idea of their topic when they embarked on their degree. This wasn’t the case for me, but over the first year of my (part-time) MRes the luxury of being able to read widely under guidance from my supervisor has meant that my thinking has evolved in unexpected ways. I haven’t yet quite firmed up the title for my dissertation but in working towards defining a manageable, less ambitious topic than I originally envisaged, I’ve discovered the pleasures of popular literature from the early twentieth century, learning along the way about the invention of the vast pneumatic postal network in Berlin and the development of the city’s tram network. Exploring the massive growth of consumer culture as portrayed, for instance, in the works of Georg Hermann, I realised with a jolt of surprise that the expansion of the railways meant cheap, scentless, mass-produced roses from the Riviera, the equivalent of today’s supermarket or service-station offerings, were readily available in north European cities more than 120 years ago – and were no doubt purchased for the same reasons as today.

But for all that I have had ample time to pursue such interesting byways, the MRes is a very focused degree. The main intention is to prepare you for the rigours of doctoral study. Time management, networking, the pitfalls of interviewing techniques, optimising the use of libraries and archives, confidence-building in presentation and critical approaches to theory – all are part of the programme of research skills workshops, usually held on Saturdays to ensure that students from other colleges and universities can also attend, incidentally providing valuable alternative perspectives. It has taken time to understand the relevance of some of these training sessions, but keeping an open mind and indeed welcoming an expansion of horizons has been one of the challenges. We even undertook a brief fieldwork session: a ‘memory hunt’ for mnemonic markers and traces in Tavistock Square. Other workshops introduced me to practical resources such as the various bibliographic software packages – in fact this year there were about eighty different training opportunities on offer from SAS or the individual institutes. One skill in particular I am sure I’ll need when I start to focus in depth on my dissertation next term: practising regular freewriting as a way of overcoming writer’s block. Or of course blogging might be another way to deal with it!


Margaret May, IMLR MRes student 2016/18