Phil Davies - Keelite of the Month February 2016

1971 American Studies & Sociology

Professor Phil Davies How did you get to where you are now?

I am currently Professor of American Studies and Director of the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library and President of the European Association for American Studies. I began to refine the interests that have guided the rest of my working life while at Keele.  I entered the university with the intention of studying Maths and Geography (my main A level subjects), but during the absolutely glorious Foundation Year programme I discovered that Sociology was very much like the human and social geography that I really liked, that maths was still good fun when applied to social science and politics, that the then new field of computing gave unexpected opportunities to explore all of these, and that American Studies provided a context in which one could bring all of that and more to bear on thematic questions.  I opted for American Studies and Sociology with Computing Science and Politics as subsidiaries.  It was a remarkably exciting way to discover multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches to scholarship.  Since then I have studied, taught and published on both sides of the Atlantic.  I continue to feel the excitement of that discovery.

Photo left: Professor Phil Davies now (photo: Alexander McIntyre)

Phil (right)at Gray's Store What has been your biggest achievement so far?

Daughter Carolyn and son Andrew, who were made much more by themselves and my late wife and fellow Keele student Rosamund Patton (Russian & Psychology, 1970) than by me – so, no achievement of mine at all, but they (and their families) do so make me smile.

Photo right: with my daughter and a Swarthmore friend - Gray's Store, Rhode Island

And your biggest mistake?

Still making them, but hopefully I have become better at learning from them.

What are your ambitions now?

To take the Eccles Centre through its 25th anniversary; bring the European Association for American Studies to the UK for what could be the largest American Studies conference ever held in Europe; and to find things to do thereafter.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to work in a similar field?

My route has been academic.  The academic world has altered a good deal in the generation that has been my experience, but it still allows a level of personal autonomy and the space in which to pursue innovative ideas independently that would be unusual in many other forms of employment.

My journey from undergraduate to postgraduate to temporary lecturer to permanent university post, through promotions and occasional forays into educational management and administration is pretty orthodox.  Luck and good timing means that what would in any case have been a mainly very pleasant career route has also brought me the bonus of what seems to me the most rewarding position in my field in the UK. 

The gateways and qualification hurdles en route to an academically based career are pretty obvious, but not necessarily routinised.  Education at all levels provides a large number of openings, but competition can still be fierce.  Research-based opportunities that draw on academic expertise can present themselves in think tanks, pressure groups, independent research bodies, entrepreneurial and business concerns, charities, government and public institutions, party politics, consultancy and elsewhere.  An individual’s route may weave these together in very unorthodox ways.

Phil Davies in 1965 What made you choose Keele University?

In 1966 I think only five universities offered the opportunity to take Joint Honours in Maths and Geography – that just about defined how to complete the application!

Photo left: Phil before keele - around 1965.

What kind of student were you?

Much more boring than I wanted to believe at the time, or to admit since.  I think I recognised the bounty of being given a protected environment and all these extra years before I had to be a grown up.  I loved Foundation Year; enjoyed almost all my courses, (and performed at least to the requisite standard on them); was temporarily addicted to ten-pin bowling in Hanley; took student union politics more po-facedly seriously than I should have (at the same time as owing a debt of gratitude to those student activists who were more committed, and more astute, than I).

I spent a lot of time in the Union building; spent a lot of time (but probably not enough) listening to live music of many kinds; became a zealot for international education after winning Keele’s exchange year to Swarthmore College in the USA where I did get to a lot of live music (Doors, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Ten Years After, Sun Ra & the Interstellar Arkestra, Archie Shepp, Frank Zappa, BB King, Janis Joplin, Santana, Joe Cocker…).

In those days it was difficult to transfer academic credit, so the Swarthmore exchange gave me an extra undergraduate year to learn about my subjects as well as a first opportunity to explore the USA.  I hitchhiked thousands of miles, and took Greyhound buses for thousands more.  People were kind and generous and taught me a great deal, though less than if I had been paying proper attention.  There was other stuff too, but it was the 1960s. I’ve forgotten a lot of it.

Phil's Graduation Towards the end of this extended undergraduate life an ambition (fired considerably by the example of fine and dedicated teachers both at Keele and Swarthmore) grew to make a career in education, and prompted me to focus on qualifying to stay in this business.  Post-graduate opportunities extended student life and took me to the Universities of Essex, Maryland and Manchester. Back in Stoke on Trent my forthright and hardworking grandma was becoming exasperated that after 9 years and 5 universities I was still not appropriately employed when a post at Lanchester Polytechnic (now Coventry University) convinced her that after all, maybe I could hold down a proper job. 

Photo right: Graduation day 1971 - "with my much-missed father...."

How has Keele influenced your life?

Since the Swarthmore College exchange was a product of my time at Keele I see that also as part of my own Keele experience.  Those undergraduate years introduced me to and gave me the initial enthusiasm for the area of study that has been the bedrock of what continues to be a most enjoyable working life.

I remain in touch with a good number of friends from Keele and Swarthmore.  My children’s godparents come from that group.  I continue to meet, and re-meet, Keele and Swarthmore people, making new friends through this network all the time.  I work in collaboration with colleagues at Keele.  I met my late wife at Keele.

Phil with Keith Vaz and Jesse Jackson What is your favourite memory of Keele

Perhaps I should say: Rosamund Sarah Patton.  But there is a problem with that.  We bumped into each other at the University of Essex in autumn 1971.  Ros graduated from Keele a year earlier than I, and had been working in London, but now she was in the Essex Sociology Department, I was in Politics.  We instantly knew each other’s names, we went for coffee.  We had friends in common and vague memories of parties at Keele that may have been the same ones.  We had clearly come across each other in our first term at Keele in 1966, but we never could actually remember a meeting.  Still, Ros has to be my favourite memory from Keele.

Photo left: With Keith Vaz and Jesse Jackson - it's a tough job, but someone has to do it (photo: Alexander McIntyre )

Photo right:  With colleagues from Belgium and Ireland at a conference in Turkey - a moment of levity in a week of intense effort... maybe!

Phil at a Conference What is your impression of Keele now?

I enjoy hearing of Keele’s academic successes.  I am pleased that current students appear to find it as enriching, friendly and supportive as I remember from my time there.  One of my pleasures was the campus itself at over 600 acres still a place where one could find a good library, fine teachers, good company, great parties, an uplifting landscape and space just to be quiet.

The campus remains a lovely location, and it has been gratifying to support new friends in the contemporary university community who work to maintain and improve this place.  To celebrate the time that Ros and I spent at Keele my children and I have supported a number of campus projects – in particular the planting of trees at the newly designed centre of campus*, and other trees in the view of Keele Hall, and mostly, new planting to achieve University’s designation as location of the National Collection of Flowering Cherries.  Perhaps you’ll join us walking through campus next spring.

* These trees surround the Forest of Light and Union Square - comprising American maples and Russian maples, reflecting Phil's and Ros's studies at keele; and also to produce red and gold leaves each autumn to match Keele's heraldic colours. (Ed.)