My university has just returned to its second semester of teaching. Preparation for teaching, which takes place on a kind of macro level over the Christmas period – finishing course guides, setting reading, finalising assessment – now turns to the micro level – writing lectures, slides and handouts, planning seminars – week in, week out, for different courses and different classes. Alongside this there is the drumbeat of administration, which is sometimes louder and faster, sometimes slower and quieter, but which is a constant of our working life. And amidst these two things (plus a few others) I had the goal today of spending some time on research. It is intimidating. I thought as a warm-up I would write about why.
One of my current research interests is the history of the laws of war, or international humanitarian law (IHL). I am not a lawyer, so I am not talking about the evolution of the law, or previous experience as precedent, or other things that I imagine make the past relevant to legal practice. I am interested in the politics of how the laws were written, what meaning this process held for different people engaged with or affected by it, and what other ideas and practices the law was (and hence still is) enmeshed with. Specifically, I am thinking about the writing of Additional Protocols I and II, finalised in 1977 following several years of discussions. These discussions were at times very fiery, fuelled by contestation of colonial rule and the campaign for national liberation. I want to explore what people who weren’t necessarily jurists, but who were humanitarians, made of these arguments about reforming the law, and whether it mattered to how they conceived of their work in the field.
Moving into the historiography of law has meant taking on two new sets of literature: the historians of law as well as the lawyers. They all write fascinating, challenging stuff. The history of law is a lively field that asks big questions, in my period often related to the law’s relationship with decolonisation (see some social media reflections here and a recent, important article here). Despite this work, the coming into being of the Additional Protocols remains an example of what historian Mark Mazower called the ‘ghetto within a ghetto’ of ‘the history of how law has been deployed in international politics’. It is hiding in plain sight, sitting across histories of human rights, humanitarianism, activism, empire and decolonisation.
This field connects with some of the themes that I worked on in my PhD, which was published in the form of this book a couple of years ago. My research was also funded, generously, by the British Academy through their postdoctoral fellowship scheme. This let me do a lot of archival research in expensive places such as Geneva, Bern, New York, and DC. I am also fortunate in that most of my teaching either directly or circuitously enriches my own learning; much of the reading I do to prepare classes can be related to my research in one way or another.
But working on new topics and new materials is slow going. The familiar contours of doctoral research have given way to a new landscape, exciting yet also daunting. Impostor syndrome casts a long shadow, exacerbated by entering the world of scholars who have already devoted years to such questions. Where I used to be able to turn to my research in a spare hour here or there, do a day’s work after a month of other tasks, building new expertise seems to need fuller and more regular nourishment. This is a real challenge amongst the myriad and taxing demands of a new post. ‘Difficult second album’ is the phrase that comes to mind.
So what to do? Minimum amounts of research time pretty much each week, no matter the state of those other demands, seems to be the only way. (That is far, far easier said than done.) Accepting that confidence may drop as horizons shift, but also trying to remember that learning – and a restored confidence – will come with time. Looking at the small steps forward instead of the blank spaces that still lie beyond them. Thinking back on some of these ideas. And seeking – and taking – advice from those who have walked this terrain before.
 These terms are not, to specialist ears, interchangeable. Here’s one piece that helps to understand why: https://academic.oup.com/ejil/article-abstract/26/1/109/497489
 Mark Mazower, ‘The Strange Triumph of Human Rights, 1933-1950’, The Historical Journal 47, 2 (2004), 380.