Postgraduate Spotlight: Dawn Jackson Williams
February 14, 2014 Leave a comment
Dawn Jackson Williams grew up in a small hamlet near a small village near a small town in the middle of rural Suffolk, which perhaps explains why the small town of St Andrews feels like a veritable metropolis to her. From an early age she was interested in history, particularly in moments of drama and tragedy, ghoulishly absorbing every book about the Titanic disaster and the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine on Mount Everest in 1924 that she could get her teenaged hands on, foreshadowing her current twin interests in the history of landscape and the history of emotion. She undertook her undergraduate degree in History at Oxford and completed the MPhil in Early Modern History at Cambridge, before coming to St Andrews to undertake her PhD under the supervision of Dr Bernhard Struck. She likes to joke that not only has she managed to collect the three most ancient universities in the British Isles, she has also done so in order of foundation. This was a complete accident, but she is very happy that it has resulted in her ending up at St Andrews.
Dawn’s PhD research is focussed upon European reactions to mountains and mountain-climbing before 1750. When she first became interested in the topic she was struck by the tension between the current commonly-held belief that people in early modern Europe found mountains distasteful, and the number of sources from before 1750 – or even before 1650 – that attested to significant levels of mountain activity and, indeed, appreciation. However, the embedded perception of early modern ‘mountain gloom’ has meant that relatively little research has been done to recover the ways in which people actually thought about or interacted with mountains in the early modern era. Dawn is therefore interested in asking a number of questions in order to reconstruct a picture of the relationship between people and mountains before 1750, including: what did people know about mountains, what did they do in mountains, and did they perceive them as having any utilitarian and/or aesthetic value? She finds the topic fascinating because it requires her to interrogate and step outside of unspoken and often unconsciously-held ‘modern’ ways of thinking. For example, her MPhil research on a related topic suggested that although the early moderns often perceived ‘usefulness’ as a quality which imparted aesthetic value to an object, the modern perception that utility and beauty are distinct or even mutually exclusive had led many historians to disregard any positive comments about the utility of mountains as irrelevant to the question of whether or not they were visually appreciated.
Dawn’s other research has included an edition of the letters of Elizabeth Elstob (1683-1756), an early Anglo-Saxon scholar, and a study of the cultural preconceptions of Tibet as expressed in the sources relating to the early Everest expeditions (1921-1924), both of which she ultimately hopes to publish. She feels strongly that academic research should be disseminated beyond the real and metaphorical walls of the academy, a conviction which she recently used to excuse the immensely enjoyable process of writing a chapter on Chinese history for a forthcoming edited volume entitled A Game of Thrones and History. She will also shortly be giving a lecture on her research to the Alpine Club in London.
Beyond her research, Dawn is both the co-convener of the Early Modern and Modern History Postgraduate Forum, and the Communications Intern for the School of History, which means that most people in the School probably know her best as the person who gently nags them either for copy for the blog or paper proposals for the forum. Running the EMMH Forum – which is intended to provide postgraduates with a space for supportive academic discussion, as well as opportunities for socialising – has proved to be a particularly satisfying experience.
Outside of her academic and administrative duties, Dawn pursues a somewhat eccentric variety of hobbies. She is a member of the St Andrews Renaissance Singers, plays for the ‘Snidgets’ (the university Quidditch team), and attempts to write fiction, recently participating in the month-long challenge of NaNoWriMo. For slightly less active relaxation she watches sci-fi, and detective shows with her husband. As the topic of her thesis might suggest, she is also a keen hiker and – when time and funds allow – occasional mountaineer.
Dawn blogs about PhD life at The Historian’s Desk.