Dr Huw Bennett is a Reader in International Relations at Cardiff's School of Law and Politics.
What are you currently working on?
I'm writing a book on British military strategy in Northern Ireland, from 1966 until 1975. The common perception is that there was no military strategy in Northern Ireland, at least until the peace process in the 1990s. I argue that the government first attempted to use the army as a support to a political reform package, and then shifted to a bid to destroy the Irish Republican Army. The offensive only lasted a few months, but had disastrous consequences, and proved difficult to un-do. There is a lot of interesting new archive material on civil-military relations, intelligence gathering, perceptions of republican compared to loyalist threats, and many other issues.
What got you into your field of study in the first place?
Conversations with Granny. She was a teenager in Southampton when the Blitz came, and she later moved into the world of work with the flying boats based nearby. Those talks led to documentaries, to books, to museum visits. When I was 16 we went together on a tour to the First World War battlefields in Flanders. As we stood in Tyne Cot cemetery the guide said, "imagine the headstones are living people standing there, looking back at us." That hit me, hard. Twenty-five years later my curiosity about how society responds to war is still a driving force.
How are you finding working from home?
Volatile. Maybe studying military strategy has given me an undue taste for planning. More likely my personality simply relies on predictability. So having two children under five at home with both parents in full-time employment has been stressful. Universities are complex organisations with multiple layers of authority. The weekly injunctions to relax and be mindful can feel rather vapid when various Directors or Heads of something are demanding immediate action. There is a fine line between carrying on as normal - which is essential to staying motivated and positive - and recognising that many people have found the lockdown incredibly punishing to their mental health.
What advice would you like to give PhD students and early career researchers that you wish someone had said to you?
Allow yourself to fail. Universities are under growing pressure to show "excellence" at everything all the time. The most profound learning, in my experience, comes from trying to do something, getting it very wrong, and then trying to understand why it went wrong. On this basis my next book project will be completed exactly on time (not three years late, like the current one). Failing is easier to accept and process with support from friends. Fellow researchers will help if you ask them. Academia is fundamentally collaborative, and no amount of marketisation can change that.
What is the most effective teaching method you have delivered or seen delivered?
This year more than ever before, one-to-one personal tuition: getting to know a student, understanding their study habits, interests, and motivation. Listening to them describe what they have been thinking about and asking them to clarify their arguments. Making suggestions for further reading or people to contact who might assist them.
What is your favourite museum and why?
For a long time the Imperial War Museum held a special place in my heart. You guessed it - Granny took me there first. To be frank, the Museum's recent attitude to the reading room, and the main galleries' re-design have really put me off. There is a certain disdain for research, accompanied by a contempt for the average visitor who is not to be confused with too many complicated items. As a result of the Northern Ireland project my favourites now are regimental museums, especially when the curator opens a cupboard containing records absent from the catalogue. Although I wasn't allowed to see the papers, the best episode remains the time when an assistant curator told me the intelligence summaries had been hidden in anticipation of my arrival, only for his boss to swoop into the room, hissing "Shut up, Barry!"