British Association for American Studies


My Career Story: Philip Davies, Director of the David and Mary Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library

U.S. Studies Online is excited to introduce our new segment “Career Stories”. This feature is an attempt to incorporate more professional development posts on U.S. Studies Online and address some of the wider anxieties in the postgraduate and early career cohorts regarding employment and employability. We hope to include interviews with professionals in a variety of research or American studies related positions.

With us this week is Professor Philip Davies, Director of the David and Mary Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library since 2002.

Current role

How would you describe your current role at a job interview?

I create and manage a programme of fellowships, activities, events, and acquisitions to enhance the work of the British Library in relation to North America. The British Library’s collection of materials relating to North America is the largest anywhere in the world outside the USA. In order to increase awareness of the Library’s North American holdings, and to facilitate the use of these collections, I introduced at the Centre Fellowships and Residencies ranging in value from a few hundred pounds to £20,000 p.a., and the Centre has made awards approaching a total of half a million pounds during my period as Director. In its latest completed financial year the Centre was involved in the creation of over 70 events, delivered to an aggregate audience of several thousand people. These events are designed with diverse audiences in mind: junior school students, A-level candidates, university students, teachers, researchers, the North American Studies profession and the interested public. About half of the events programme is delivered at the British Library, and about half at other locations. Many of these events are created in partnership with other organisations – helping us divide the load and the cost at the same time as reaching a larger audience. The Centre also supports the Library’s exhibitions programme – including recently the BL piazza exhibit from Burning Man, an exhibition featuring Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and Lines in the Ice, an exhibition taking as its starting point the exploration of the Canadian Arctic. The last of these attracted in excess of 100,000 visitors.

What professional organizations are you associated with and in what ways?

In Spring 2016 I will complete five years as President of the European Association for American Studies. In the past I was for six years Chair of the British Association for American Studies and for a similar period Chair of the American Politics Group of the UK. I was on the founding council of the International American Studies Association and was for a period Chair of the Committee of Academicians of the Academy of the Social Sciences. I have always enjoyed being involved broadly in the work of the profession.

What do you see are upcoming trends in the industry? What developments have you seen in your industry during your career?

The number of people working in the study of America has increased considerably during the course of my career – but most of these do not work within an environment that is defined as ‘American Studies’. It has always been true that Americanists might, for example, work in literature, history or politics departments. In some cases universities supported the amalgamation of these specialists into American Studies units, but for the most part that moment seems to have passed. While American Studies retains its teaching identity in some universities and colleges Americanists are again balkanised into other departments in many universities. I value the intellectual cross-referencing and symbiosis that American Studies encourages, but simultaneously one has to accept the value of a subject that is so strong as to produce specialist professional organisations in, for example, 19th Century US History, 20th Century US History, American Politics, the History of American Women, Trans-Atlantic Studies, Native American Studies and so on. This is a vibrant intellectual world, and in it the task of ‘American Studies’ may well be to provide a space for the multi- and inter-disciplinary cross-referencing that can bring these approaches together.

Is there anything you didn’t do during or after your education that would have helped you better prepare for a job in your industry? What’s the one skill I should learn to make myself more marketable in your industry?

I took a pretty orthodox route: degree, postgraduate degree, temporary teaching, full-time teaching, research and publication – experienced on both sides of the Atlantic. It was all pretty enjoyable most of the time, and if the opportunities sometimes took a while to come along, the actual pathway and the skill set was fairly straightforward. I come from a working class family with little previous experience of higher education, so come to think of it, straightforward was very useful to me! I didn’t feel hugely ambitious for advancement, but maintained an awareness for opportunities, engaged as far as I could with the broad community of colleagues in the UK and USA, and tried to take advice. I think that the opportunities available now to someone inclined to academic pursuits are more varied – and certainly the skills required by incoming academics are a more varied set than when I was building a career. I couldn’t even type when I started – that would have been useful! But engaging with the broad community of colleagues, and being open to advice would probably still be pretty useful skills.

What are you most looking forward to over the next 12 months?

It’s a big year coming up: the European Association for American Studies biennial conference in Romania (where the next President of that Association will be elected); and the 25th anniversary year of the Eccles Centre’s existence – we’re still planning!

What do you think is the most common misconception about your job role/industry?

My hardworking and forthright grandmother was never quite convinced that I had a ‘proper job’. But maybe that’s not wholly a misconception. Academic jobs – teaching and research-led – can involve a level of hard and committed work that may not always be easy to comprehend by those not in the business, but, even given the many changes that have happened during my working life, they still offer a privileged degree of individuality and self-direction that is a rare experience for most people in most workplaces.

Across your working life

What has been your most rewarding accomplishment so far?

Finding that my hobby and paid employment amount to the same thing!

Is this where you thought you would end up? Would you do anything differently if given the opportunity?

I consider myself to have the best position for me in my field in the country. I didn’t expect to be here. I didn’t hesitate to take the opportunity when it came.

Can you name the most exciting place your career has taken you? Who has been the most inspiring person you have met in your career?

It keeps getting more exciting, and I am in the fortunate position of continuing to meet inspiring people. But to shift the focus a little – my inspiration can be firmly traced back to those teachers at Keele University and Swarthmore College who introduced me to great subject matter and who seemed to think I might do something with it.

What were the formative moments that have contributed to where you are today?

The decision to go to Keele University, where I found the unexpected opportunity to pursue American Studies. Winning a scholarship to Swarthmore College, with the experience of a full year in the USA, and an extra year to catch up on the literature I had not encountered before university. Discovery of some skill in putting together projects and teams that has given my career productive strands of group publications and professional service.

Life after the PhD 

If applicable, how have the skills you gained during your PhD impacted your career path?

I have no PhD. I was lucky enough to find that my publishing and teaching gained me tenure. My impression is that skills training has improved in UK PhD programmes, but that the solid methodological and skills postgraduate courses that I undertook as part of my very intensively taught Maryland MA were better than anything similar available to UK students in those years. My interest in US Elections research was solidly supported by courses in statistical analysis, my interest in examining US film was supported by the opportunity to work with a professor on the creation of one of the first courses anywhere on politics and film.

What contributed to your decision to stay, leave or take a hiatus from academia?

I followed my interests at all times. I spent 5 years as an undergraduate, during which time I met admirable teachers whose example gave me a desire to teach and research in American Studies, as well as models of how to do it. Four years of graduate work added value and depth to those earlier experiences, and got me started towards the presentation and publication of my own work. More than 3 years of that period were spent living in the USA, beginning a trans-Atlantic experience which continues today. I think it was 4 years of one-year posts by which time publications were beginning to emerge and tenure came too. My teaching career was primarily spent at Manchester University, then at De Montfort University Leicester (where I remain Professor Emeritus), with a year at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and shorter periods as a visiting faculty member at other universities and colleges. The American Studies environment allowed my research interests validity even when they ranged over film studies, urban affairs, science fiction, religious studies, the US constitution, and anything to do with US domestic politics and political history, especially elections and campaigns. I had the opportunity to try my hand at management and administration. My interest in promoting trans-Atlantic staff and student exchanges at Manchester led to my being offered the opportunity to create De Montfort University’s first International Office. A few years later the Eccles Centre at the British Library offered the chance to indulge my broad interests in American Studies; draw on the extensive networks of colleagues and friends that my employment and my voluntary professional service had helped create; use the skills that my various previous employments had helped me acquire; and to create a location of new resources and opportunities in the field of study that I have so much enjoyed. It might not have been quite as smooth a ride as this hindsight suggests, but it all seems pretty logical from this end of the telescope.

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