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Philip Leverhulme Prize 2019 Gala Dinner

Earlier this year a Gala Dinner was held at the Drapers' Hall in the City of London in honour of the 2019 Philip Leverhulme Prize Winners. Guests – including the prize winners, their families and colleagues, together with judges, senior academics, vice-chancellors and many other prominent figures from the worlds of higher education and research – were joined by the Trustees to enjoy an award ceremony and a celebratory address delivered by the Director of the Trust, on behalf of Professor Dame Hermione Lee …

As scholars and academics and researchers we are living in difficult and threatened times. Universities are under attack in some quarters for their very reasons for existing, the lives of academics are increasingly pressurised, and the value of specific subjects is being fundamentally questioned. It’s an extremely challenging time in which to find a space for thinking. This isn’t only the case in my field, the Humanities, in which the Leverhulme Trust has invested so significantly over the years. For all academic disciplines, it has become increasingly hard to justify long-term exploratory research which doesn’t link to immediate utility or commercial benefits. That is not to say that utility is a bad thing. But there needs to be space and opportunity, in all areas of research, for bold adventures and experiments

It’s not easy to pursue hares or go on wild goose chases, to follow abstruse or far-fetched notions, to venture down untrodden paths, in the hopes that they might come to something, especially not while doing seminars, lectures, tutorials, mentoring and welfare for students, REF work, administration, admissions, marking, reports, preparation, meetings, and a great many other things not conducive to contemplation, but which are essential to – and sometimes, the rewards of – an academic life. So the time for mental exploration which this prize allows is crucial.

In my field, there’s an increasingly urgent argument about how we defend what we do. The defence ought not to sound, as it sometimes does, indignant or embattled or sentimental. And it should not resort to special pleading. We should not position ourselves on higher or more rarefied ground than our colleagues in other disciplines, whose achievements the Leverhulme Awards equally celebrate and reward. Of course it is perfectly sound to argue for the Humanities purely on grounds of utility,1 in terms of transferable skills and employability. But we should also be able to say, without embarrassment, that the value of the Humanities is to make sense of the past, and, thereby, to help in understanding the changing, fragmenting world we live in. A 2013 report on the current state of the Humanities and Social Sciences, by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, asked this telling question: “How do we understand and manage change if we have no notion of the past?”2 In her excellent 2013 book, The Value of the Humanities, my Oxford colleague Helen Small says that part of what Humanities do is “respecting the products of past human endeavours in culture, even when superseded”.3

So one cogent defence of the Humanities is that it preserves, analyses, and tries to understand the past, for the sake of the future. Another is that, like the sciences, it takes risks, and should be encouraged to do so. 

While I was President of Wolfson College Oxford from 2008–2017, I lost count of the times that graduate students in the sciences would tell me they were spending weeks, months, even years, on experiments with uncertain outcomes. Some of those experiments didn’t ultimately pay off, but that didn’t mean they were a waste of time: they developed technical skills, forms of scrutiny, and research experience.

In the Humanities, as in the Sciences and Social Sciences, we need not to be apologetic or defensive about wild experiments and untrodden paths. We need to be able to take risks, and these awards provide the chance of doing so. 

I’ve worked on Virginia Woolf, whose biography I wrote in the 1990s, and who is a great example of a writer who was always experimenting. All her life – with anxiety and apprehension as well as courage – she was trying to do things no-one had tried before: new uses of language, bold and original ways of treating fictional forms. She sets us a historical example in the intrinsic value of imaginative, creative work, an example which I think we can apply to current research. There would be a narrowing of horizons if there were no provision within academic activity for such things as speculations, playfulness, long shots, original adventures in style and thought, the imagining of new forms and the taking of intellectual risks. Woolf has a passage in a wartime lecture about the benefits of trespassing, which is very close to my heart. She is advocating boldness, courage, and the crossing of borders. She’s comparing walking with writing and reading. She says, if you’re walking, whenever you see a board up with “Trespassers will be prosecuted”, trespass at once. It’s the same with reading and writing, she says. “Let us trespass at once. Literature is no-one’s private ground; literature is common ground... Let us trespass freely and fearlessly and find our own way for ourselves”.4

The chance to roam and trespass and find your own way is provided by these awards. I’m lucky enough to know some of the previous winners, in the Humanities field, all of whom have written some important and significant books before, during, and since their being awarded the prize. I solicited their views on the effect the prize has had on them. I was moved and awed by the intensity of their responses. These are some of the things they said:

The Philip Leverhulme Prize has been the most flexible and therefore the most pleasurable and ultimately productive award I’ve had. What was great was the lack of red tape and the receptiveness to unusual ways of working. I was able to claim to go away for writing retreats, which, with small children, was what enabled me to publish two books during the period of the prize. They were also very flexible about maternity leaves and about extending the prize until I was able to travel again. I will always be grateful for this support at a really crucial phase of my life as an academic and writer. 

The benefit of the prize was that it felt like a retrospective award, rather than a large uneasy-making advance awarded on the basis of a book proposal. Before I began my Leverhulme leave, the future had seemed a hard taskmaster in academic work. Graduate school was all about the PhD I hadn’t done, and my first academic job was all about whether the book I hadn’t written yet from the PhD would or wouldn’t change its field ... Also, my two-year grant ended up being spent, very flexibly, over four years and included two maternity leaves. 

The Philip Leverhulme Prize made a big difference to my research/career/life. Its beauty is that it’s a “prize” for what one has already done rather than tied to a research project, and I found that really liberating. It allowed me to do archival work in a non-instrumental, rather magpie-like way, and, equally importantly, it allowed me the thinking and reading time to know what questions to ask of the material I found.

It has been a real pleasure to be able to spend so much concentrated time on my writing, but most importantly, I have been able to find time to think through important conceptual issues both about my current work, and about the direction my work may take in the future. I have been able to read more widely, and at times with no obvious immediate purpose (although with many intangible benefits). Moreover, I am very conscious of the extent to which an extended period of reflection on my own work has revivified my understanding of my teaching, both in terms of content and in terms of pedagogy.

The Philip Leverhulme Prize changed my life. It rescued my work and thinking completely, brought respite, allowed me write a 200,000-word book draft, and to think about how I want to work and what I want to work on during the next stage of my career ... It made everything better, more interesting and easier.

This is a profoundly life-changing award because it buys what is beyond price: the freedom to think, explore, and experiment. The whole scheme declares a form of trust in individuals, and in the adventure of thinking, that is now vanishingly rare in the academic funding landscape. Its very existence sends out a vital and heartening signal: for those who aspire to pursue eclectic journeys of reading and to write big, imaginative books that will endure, it’s truly a beacon.

I hope it will be the same for all of this year’s winners of the prize, and I give them my admiring congratulations.

Hermione Lee

1. Philip Kreager, Shearer West, et al, Humanities Graduates and The British Economy: The Hidden Impact, University of Oxford, 2013.
2. “The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences”, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2013.
3. Helen Small, The Value of the Humanities, Oxford University Press, 2013, p.57.
4. Virginia Woolf, “The Leaning Tower”, Virginia Woolf: A Woman’s Essays, Penguin, 1992, p. 178.

Further details of each of the 2019 Philip Leverhulme Prize Winners can be found in the Gala Dinner Programme. 


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