‘Bridging the Tiber’: a new doctoral training programme at the BSR

Currently serving three universities and due to expand to encompass a further four, the Northern Bridge doctoral training consortium embarked this year on a new initiative. Sixteen doctoral students, drawn from across the arts and humanities, spent a week at the BSR including valuable time at Keats Shelley House.  The aim was for the students to engage with a series of case studies in advanced research, and to be enriched by that most powerful of things, time in the BSR’s interdisciplinary environment to chew over ideas with one another and the BSR’s award-holders in residence.


Northern Bridge doctoral students at the BSR (Photo by Antonio Palmieri)

The event had its genesis in a meeting with the BSR’s then director, Christopher Smith, the outgoing director of the Northern Bridge consortium, Michael Rossington, Newcastle University’s PVC for Humanities and Social Sciences, Julie Sanders, and myself, but its development and successful delivery owed a huge amount to a much larger team.  BSR Director Stephen Milner offered a warm welcome to the group and delivered an outstanding session on the bioarchaeology of the book, an exemplar of the kind of interdisciplinary thinking we sought to showcase in the programme. Assistant Director Tom True offered invaluable guidance on the development of the week and led a delightful tour through some of Rome’s finest less well-known churches, and Christine Martin anticipated and mastered every logistical hurdle with consummate efficiency.


Tom True leads a tour (photo by Annie Tindley)

While the absence of Michael Rossington on his well-deserved retirement from Direction of the Northern Bridge was keenly felt, the whole endeavour was magnificently taken forward by his successor Annie Tindley, whose research in Britain’s relationship to Roman imperial history offered an ideal case study for our attendees.  Developing on one of Michael’s key insights, the value of the Keats Shelley House connection and that institution’s own fine research history, was Jon Quayle, a great addition to the team. Jon was able to draw on his own experience both as researcher in residence at the Keats Shelley House and as an early career scholar whose PhD was funded by the AHRC to help raise students’ awareness of its holdings, and was joined by the Curator, Giuseppe Albano in a fascinating presentation.

Our wonderful cohort contained students from many fields not normally represented at the BSR, but from the moment they arrived on Monday morning, they soon found themselves at home. Robert Coates-Stephens led a perfectly pitched tour of the Roman Forum on the first afternoon. This was followed the next day (Tuesday) by a trip led beneath the Lateran Basilica in which I sought to explore not just the subterranean world of Rome, but also the potential of Digital Humanities.  A stimulating session on Italian Cinema in the long sixties by Jacopo Benci kept colleagues talking and thinking about film studies throughout the week. Richard Terry from Northumbria University, soon to join the Northern Bridge consortium, kindly made the trip out to Rome to join us for a well-received plenary on ‘Literature and life assurance’, an absolutely fascinating topic.


Visiting the artists’ studios (photo by Annie Tindley)

Given the strength of the BSR and the richness of research in creative practice, we were keen to expose attendees to work in this area.  Accordingly, Marco Palmieri kindly arranged for a special tour of the BSR studios on Wednesday morning, with resident artists outlining how they were setting about their projects.  The session was a resounding success.  It was followed that afternoon with another highlight, a case study led by Helen Berry which drew upon her work on the life and times of the celebrated eighteenth-century opera singer Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci.  The rich discussion that followed, on the nature of academic publication and on the media’s engagement with research, was just the sort of debate we had hoped the week would yield.

Helen’s session was followed by ‘team time’, an opportunity for our students to spend time in their teams planning their group projects. Using the fine library resources of the BSR, their own skills and imagination, the students are to deliver projects on a theme of their choice on the topic of the UK and Italy to their peers at the Northern Bridge Summer Conference in June.

Thursday and Friday were delightfully occupied by the excellent case study sessions of Tom True, Stephen Milner, Jon Quayle and Annie Tindley, described above, before a closing address from Stephen. Stephen’s comments underscored the depth of the BSR’s commitment to engaging across the research community and reminded all present of just how much the BSR does and can continue to do to support cutting edge work across the arts, humanities and social sciences.

While there are always lessons to be learnt, the unanimous conclusion of all who participated was that this was one of the most exciting, energising and fruitful experiences of their research careers.  Planning is already underway for next year’s event. I feel enormously privileged to have been a part of it all.


Professor Ian Haynes (Newcastle University)