It has been a week of departures from my usual life as a PhD student. On the day the University Challenge final aired, my in-box pinged with good-luck messages from friends, family and anonymous strangers, as well as a small flurry of press articles. In the evening, I joined Thomas Langley, Oscar Powell and Julian Sutcliffe – my fellow students at Peterhouse, Cambridge – in the college theatre to watch ourselves on the programme. The atmosphere was beautifully surreal: 200 students stamping their feet, applauding, groaning and shouting answers at the screen. Afterwards, once everyone knew that we had won, there was an evening of shambolic celebrations with friends at the Peterhouse bar, aided by the bottles of champagne that the Rev Richard Coles (who is apparently a fan) had sent us. What a gentleman!
I wake up feeling appallingly the worse for wear and find that a photograph of last night’s revelry has somehow made it into the Daily Mail. My team-mates Oscar and Julian are pictured alongside me in a mock-raid of the college bar’s cellars, under the bathos-tinged headline “University Challenge champions celebrate with armfuls of alcohol”. The Evening Standard, meanwhile, has consulted a wildly optimistic PR expert, who predicts that I could earn millions through image rights and might never have to work again. Shamelessly, I google myself and find that, overnight, 32 newspaper articles have been written about my eyebrows. (“Take a brow!” says one.) My mother texts me: “Well, you’re certainly having your 15 minutes of fame, aren’t you?”
Over at the college, Julian fields an early-morning call from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire from his bed, before dashing off to an unfortunately scheduled exam, while I reply regretfully to requests from Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live on the grounds that I am in no fit state to extemporise live on air. Someone from the Today programme asks me if I can speak early tomorrow morning. At midnight, they email to apologise – it’s been decided that we are old news.
Scrolling through my Twitter feed, reading messages about University Challenge, I find it interesting how often people reach for politics. Tom Langley is “a young Jeremy Corbyn”, while poor Oscar is “Michael Gove, Jr”. Collectively the team is “the future Tory cabinet” – in 20 years, we will be“cutting everybody’s benefits” and “abolishing your tax credits”. Ouch! Our team mascot, a broken toy crown, purchased long ago for a fiver, has been elevated in the Twittersphere into an emblem of Oxbridge privilege and elitism.
Happily, such messages are the exception. But it surprises me, this automatic equation of Oxbridge with the political right. Cambridge is a university like any other, with a politically diverse student body and a strong base of left-wing activism. As if to puncture this thought, the Labour Party delivers a leaflet about the EU referendum to my college pigeonhole that has been jointly addressed to me and a graduate friend (perhaps in an effort to save paper). Possibly we are Peterhouse’s only two paid-up members of the party, after all…
In the morning, the team is interviewed for the Sunday Times. My picture is taken by a photographer, Francesco, who – to my slight surprise – chats with me at length on topics ranging from Roland Barthes’s theory of the image to the impossibility of the authentic self and Vermeer’s mastery of painting light.
In the interview, I am asked once again for my thoughts on being the only woman to make it to this year’s final and why University Challenge remains such a male-dominated programme. It feels strange to be asked for my opinion in the role of spokesperson for womankind, though it would be churlish not to be flattered. Answering feels presumptuous but I also want to take any opportunity I might have to encourage more women to take part in the show. What I really want to say is simply: be confident in your intelligence, don’t be afraid of trying, you can do this.
Later in the day, I am flattered when a well-wisher approaches me outside the college to congratulate me on the win and tells me that I have inspired her 12-year-old daughter. I consider buying one of those T-shirts beloved by Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, with the slogan “This is what a feminist looks like”.
By the end of the week, I have returned to teaching, setting essays on the Industrial Revolution and getting back to thesis research in the library. It has been a bizarre (though welcomely distracting) few days.
Doing a PhD can feel like a long exercise in emotional resilience. It is a privilege to spend three years researching a topic that I love, but at times it is hard to feel optimistic. With higher numbers than ever of PhD students seeking a career in academia, coupled with an increasing trend towards casualisation of the labour force (zero-hours contracts are common for early-career academics) as well as a government that seems sceptical of the value of higher education in the humanities, few postgraduates feel that they have a certain future.
Occasionally the stress of my workload can feel overwhelming – when I’m trying to finish my thesis, prepare for undergraduate teaching, organise conferences, publish articles, make funding applications, apply for jobs and keep on top of my inbox all at once. At other times, when I’ve had a good day of writing, or I’ve been inspired by a new source in a corner of an archive, I am reminded of why I fell in love with history and how lucky I am to be allowed to do what I do. Those millions in image rights would certainly take the pressure off, though…
Hannah Woods is a student at Peterhouse, Cambridge, and was the captain of its 2016 “University Challenge” team
This article appears in the 27 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism