Dore Abbey, one of only two former Cistercian Abbeys still used as a parish church in England (the other is Holme Cultram, or Abbey Town in Cumberland, according to Pevsner’s book on Herefordshire), was the first on the list of churches that I visited on 17th July 2017. The Abbey suffered the usual dissolution on March 1, 1537, being bought primarily by John Scudamore. It was his great-great-grandson, John Viscount Scudamore who restored the church in 1632-33. What remains today is what was the presbytery, crossing and transepts (the nave has largely gone), although ruins around the church allow the visitor, with the help of the guidebook and map, to work out what would have been where. Scudamore was a friend of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the church was rebuilt in ‘Laudian’ style. As such, it was one of the first to go onto my list of churches to visit in Herefordshire. My visit was primarily focused on the seventeenth century elements (as that is where my PhD is focused) but archaeological digs took place around the church either side of the turn of the 20th century and the items dug up then have been placed inside the church and are available to view by visitors. I also took photographs of some of the other, non-seventeenth-century elements. The remainder of this blog is focused on a few of the photographs that I took that day, with some explanatory text beneath each one.
One of the most important skills that a student has to learn, ANY student, at any level, is that of time management, and a PhD student is not particularly unique in that. Where we differ from undergraduate or even masters students, however, is in the time we have available to us with little in the way of specific externally imposed goals. Most of us will have two, absolute goals that have to be met: the Thesis and the Viva, and most, if not all, will have to meet targets imposed by their university: reviews, supervisions, reports and so on.
That means there are large blocks of time where there is little external pressure to achieve things. New students are warned, going into a PhD, that we have to be responsible for driving our PhD forward, managing it ourselves, and not relying on our supervisors to do it for us. That sort of discipline can be difficult to learn.
What can also be difficult is in balancing and driving forward the different parts of the PhD, particularly the parts that ‘feel’ less urgent (e.g. the bits that don’t have an externally imposed deadline). It’s always easy to let secondary reading slide, for example. And while there are a number of different tools and methodologies for managing different projects which can be useful to the PhD student, different projects and balancing them also very much impact on our time management… or at least, have the potential to cause problems there.
Eighteen months ago, I stumbled across something called Bullet Journalling. I’m not alone in this: any number of students around the world have discovered it and are using it to aid and manage their studies. One of the key strengths of this system lies in the fact that it can be tailored to suit you, the user. Another, is in its simplicity. All you need is a notebook, and a pen. Actually, scratch that. All you really need is something to write on, and something to write with. you write the date at the top of your page. then you list what you’re going to do that day, your tasks, like this. You can use a series of ‘bullets’ – that’s the various squiggles on the left of the right page – as signifiers, or a key to the different items, and there’s no limit on space. If you want to list 3 pages worth of bullets, you can (although I would question whether you’d get them all done!). I’m sure some of you are thinking “sounds like a to-do list to me” … and yes, to a certain extent, it may be that, although it’s more than that: you can record other things too, appointments/events, and you can make notes. So that killer quote you overheard in the library cafe: pull out your journal and jot it down on the next available line. You see a fab chart that just happens to explain the balance between primary sources and secondary sources in a dissertation and when you should be using each in which bits of it (that actually happened to me!) … you can devote the next page to copying it down. The kind of stuff you’d record on post-it notes and lose – no longer. Now, stick ’em in your bullet journal.
It gets more complex than that, however. Obviously, you’re going to want to remember this killer quote when you’re writing your thesis…. so you need an index. and you need page numbers. And, since you write this journal as you go (remember, each day has as much space as you need?) how do you handle appointments in the future?
The inventor of bullet journalling has a great starting point here, but as I said, one of the key strengths of this system is that you can adapt this to make it work for you. If you hate the idea of using a dot to signify a task, fine. I have boxes, myself (colouring them in to say they’re done makes me *ridiculously* happy and it is embarrassing how much of a motivator that is for getting things done. My one solace is that I’m not alone in this). If you find that their suggested way of recording appointments in the future just doesn’t work for you, great. Use a different way. [Myself, I record appointments in google calendar – it means this stuff is managed on my smartphone and goes everywhere with me (even if my journal stays at home), and my partner can see it too.] If you like systems with different coloured pens and diagrams and you like drawing and doodling… oh man. Bullet journalling is TOTALLY for you!
Even better … there’s a huge, and I do mean HUGE community out there on the internet of other people using bullet journals to manage their lives in a myriad of different ways. If you’re new to it, I would recommend holding off on going that route – and for heaven’s sake, please do NOT google image search bullet journal or Pinterest it – going that route is well and truly a major and very deep rabbit hole and this is meant to be about improving your efficiency and time management not distracting you from your PhD…! There are a lot of very highly decorated, artistic journals out there and for some that can be intimidating and off-putting. However, if (despite what I said), you looked anyway … I think its important to reitirate that bullet journalling is not about having a highly decorated, very colourful journal, necessarily: at its core, it’s a pen, and a notebook. Nothing more, nothing less.
That caveat aside, the community is useful because that ability to tailor your journal means that you can steal ideas from everywhere. There are a LOT of other PhD students – hell, even some academics – using Bullet Jouralling to manage their time and their work, and some of them generously share how they do this, so that people like you and I can learn from them, and sometimes their ideas are really useful ones. Things like, for example, the Research Pipeline that Dr Ellie Mackin developed. Ellie has a number of really useful and interesting videos on YouTube about how she uses the bullet journal to manage her work. There are facebook groups galore: I’m not going to mention specific names because 1) most of these are closed groups anyway and 2) because of that rabbit hole thing I mentioned earlier. [But if you are very keen for a recommendation for a bullet journalling students group, please contact me and I will try to help.]
But I can hear you ask: … if bullet journalling is such a rabbit hole, why should I start?
Well, here’s what it’s done for me. Since I discovered it, I’ve graduated from my MA, pulled together a PhD application and won funding for it, written and delivered 6 conference papers, written and delivered 5 public history talks and won a general essay prize. I’ve started my PhD, which is going well. My productivity has gone from strength to strength, but more importantly, I feel confident that I’m able to remember things when I said I will do them. I’m managing my goals and my projects. Things in my life are getting done, and I’m happier than I have been in years, mostly because I also use my journal for self-reflection. My physical health is better than it has been in a long time. I’m not alone in noting all this. Many people have noted that keeping some form of paper and pen-based record improves their lives, that the act of putting pen to paper aids in so many ways. Bullet Journalling specifically has many benefits; creativity; better mental health; productivity; for us students, there are so many articles out there.
The more astute amongst you may note that although I’ve extolled the virtues (many) of the bullet journal, I’ve not said a great deal about how I use it. That’s quite deliberate. My journal is highly personal, and also very unique to me. And I suppose I also don’t want anyone reading this to take away the message that my way is the right way. It is – for ME, but not necessarily for anyone else. There are no shortcuts to this: You have to read the inventor’s website (bulletjournal.com). Go on! grab a pen. grab a notebook. get going! Try the system, make changes. You won’t get it right immediately – there’s a process, over several months, of trying things, seeing what works, scrapping what doesn’t. You may conclude, at the end of the day, that this system is not for you, and that’s perfectly fine – it won’t suit everyone. But I’m willing to bet that there are many people who will like it, and who will find it something completely lifechanging. And if you do try it, even if you conclude that it’s not for you I’m also willing to bet that you’ll come out of it with a better understanding of how you work, what you need and what you don’t need. All of which is good stuff to have.
So… go for it. What have you got to lose?
Those who don’t know me in real life may be forgiven for thinking that this blog, like so many others on the internet, has been abandoned. Not the case – although I note I haven’t blogged since March! – more that I’ve just been tremendously busy. I have been thinking about the blog though, about how I want to take it forward from here, given that I am now moving into the primary source research phase of my PhD.
But before that, I wanted to do a bit of a catch up, fill in the gaps of what has happened in the last three months or so: Continue reading
As an academic historian-in-training, I’m used to dealing with the written word, whether that’s reading other historian’s work or primary sources from the past. Last week, however, featured the spoken word rather than the written. My first audio-visual piece went out to the world. A vlog (video log), a filmed debate done as part of the History on the Box blog series produced by postgraduate students at the University of Leicester, it’s been – so far – well received and it’s something I’m pretty proud of. Myself and my fellow student, Katie Bridger, were debating the merits of the ‘ambitous and groundbreaking’ method of presenting history promoted in ‘Lucy Worsley’s Six Wives’ series which aired before Christmas 2016. The new method referred to is the way in which Worsley, one moment dressed in modern, 21st century clothing, presents as the historian we know, when someone will cross the screen, and suddenly, she’s dressed in sixteenth-century dress, a maidservant in the background, observing the events of the wives of Henry VIII. Sort of time travel, if you like. Is Worsley successful in this? Well, that’s what Katie and I were arguing about – and if you want to know the outcome, you’ll have to watch the video.
It has, however, stirred up thoughts in my mind about public history as a whole, about the role that we, as academics, have to play in terms of passing on our knowledge; of increasing awareness of history as a whole and specific historical knowledge; and also some of the key skills that we, as historians, learn. Not every historian is going to want to do this kind of public engagement, but I think its something that is particular to the kind of historians both Katie and I are – we’re both students at the Centre for English Local History at the University. I think a lot of the people from the Centre are willing to spend time in talking to people, that they seem – and I’m aware that I’m generalising here – to find it rewarding in doing this kind of public engagement. Talking to people who want to know more about the history of their own area. Those who are curious about the past often want to know about their own area, to understand, for example, why local villages are named in certain ways. I think, to a certain extent, that’s human nature; a certain sense of curiosity about why things are, as they are. There are many many talks occurring up and down the country in village halls, guildhalls, churches, on the streets: people – not just academics, but people with knowledge, who are willing to spare a little time to share what they’ve learned to those who want to know. Now that I stop to think about it, and consider the people that I’ve met through the Centre, not just those who taught me on the English Local History MA course but ex and current students at the Centre, that sort of passion for imparting knowledge, for teaching, even in small bursts, is shared by most, if not all of us. An interview with Worsley, for example, echoes the same point, when she explains why she doesn’t work in academia: ‘I am interested in talking to people at large rather than experts. I want to express my enthusiasm for history with as many as possible.’ Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this passion is unique to people from the Centre, or even to historians as a whole; you only have to think of, say, Brian Cox, who has a similar passion for teaching physics to see what I mean.
But what does this passion mean to the national engagement of history, as a whole? While the urge to teach – in a variety of ways – is certainly prevalent across historical academia, we have to recognise that not every person is interested in sitting down and watching a more traditional history television documentary. This invariably features visits to the places being discussed, perhaps featuring the primary sources being discussed, sometimes actors who portray the people and scenes that we know of from history, sometimes talking, sometimes not. But what the debate has really clarified, in my mind, is that I think those who make history documentaries for television, perhaps feel that the now-traditional format described above (which, believe it or not, was once groundbreaking in itself) has had its day, and that its not engaging with new audiences any more. After all, there is a reason that certain subjects like the Tudors have – as I said in the video – been done to death. Ultimately people like to hear about the foibles of the great, the wealthy, the scandalous. They like to hear that they are human, just like them. These are stories, not quite real, and serve the same purpose as the stories that were once told round fires at night in the village pub, or, even further back, in the middle of the settlement or camp that they were living in at the time. Human psychology means stories will always be told; if a certain king behaves in a certain way, then it means Joe Bloggs feels a little better when he’s perhaps behaved badly in a similar way (although not quite so badly, of course. Kings get away with more than ordinary mortals do!) But the current prevalence of historical television programming is causing a problem; more channels, even a channel devoted to history, means we are rapidly reaching saturation point, and although there is – as Katie pointed out in the debate – so much out there that could be filmed and talked about, for many people, they just don’t want to know about anything that isn’t a bit familiar, glamorous, or heroic. The history of the ordinary person, for example, Mary the baker’s daughter from the next village over, in television terms, just ain’t sexy.
But if these documentary makers can hit on the next new big method in history documentaries, then this saturation point goes back to being unsaturated. They have to start over, with telling all the current stories in this new way. There’s also the possibility of gaining new audience share, of pulling in those people who might not watch a traditional documentary. Win-win! I think these concerns are at the root at not only Worsley’s ‘Six Wives’ but also ‘1066: a year to conquer England’, which is on television at the moment. That series has everything: it has Dan Snow as the presenter, visiting the different places that feature in the history, it has actors playing the roles of the different people involved; it has historians (Janina Ramirez, Tom Holland and Dan Jones) around a table, arguing for the different historical figures that they are representing. The premise of that series is that 1066 was the year that changed everything; and periodically the screen fills with a countdown to the Battle of Hastings across the 3 hours that the series takes up. Whether that series is successful in being the next new big type of history documentary or not (I would argue not – I think it is too cluttered and hectic) I think we’re going to see more of these experimental types of history programmes on the television.
What does this have to do, however, with those of us who speak to substantially smaller audiences, on topics such as local history? I think we often take our lead from these programmes. Those who come to our talks often like to listen to/watch history on national media as well, and that will shape their expectations of us. Those of us who are serious about our crafts – that is, public history engagement – will be wanting to deliver, to keep people listening. If we become old fashioned, then our message becomes less attractive. I think too, that our message, in a way, is more important now. The world seems to be changing; right-wing opinions are coming to the fore and fake news is a real and present worry for not only public figures but for those of us who listen and watch current events. The skills that we as historians have are critical in defeating things like fake news. I don’t mean so much the ability read Latin or medieval writing, but the skill of analytical questioning, of not simply accepting at face value, a document that is presented to us. Of thinking; if we have a letter, why someone has written it; who they were writing to; for what purpose; where, when; why has it survived? Basic questions that historians are used to working with that need to be applied to modern documents too.
I don’t think its any accident either that the last year has also seen at least two television series devoted to the topic of historiography (that is, how the history that we tell of a specific subject has changed over time).¹ It’s critical that people understand that the way that events and topics are described can be changed according to who is talking/writing – and that truism is as true now as it is for the past. One of the few ways to break the spell of fake news is to understand how it has happened before, to past events, whether the ‘fake’ has been crafted deliberately or not – and for that, historiography is critical. In that sense, I think historians have a very real and vital role to play, whether that’s on national television or radio programming, or talking to a small group of people in a village hall for an hour, explaining how you’ve question the documents on the topic you’re talking about.
Public engagement is becoming more and more important as part of a historian’s role, I think. The days of being able to rest within the ivory towers of academia, if they ever did exist, are well and truly over. I think this is at least partially why PhD funding programmes like Midland3Cities are so keen to make sure that those they support (those who will be the next generation of academics, in other words) are able to do this. And I think, that no matter the direction that television documentaries do go in, that academic historians of all kinds and levels continue develop their public engagement role.
¹ Timewatch and ‘British History’s biggest fibs’ with Lucy Worsley
I’m convinced that there is the necessity for a new verb to be developed. Of course, that’s not difficult – the English Language is constantly developing and growing and new words are being developed and being accepted all the time (the OED brings out a quarterly list that usually makes the papers, for example). And indeed, such new words have recently been the focus of discussion between one of my teachers and me. I keep creating new words like ‘churchwardenate’ (a noun, when discussing the churchwarden’s position as a whole, in the generic, in the way that you might use ‘teacher’ or ‘soldier’). While he admitted that the word ‘sounded’ right, it wasn’t in the OED and therefore I shouldn’t use it. “Stick to the OED”, I was advised. “You can subvert the language after you’ve got your certificate!”. And I’ve grudgingly come to admit that he’s quite right too.
But in this case, I really think that a new verb is required. Not for me to use in my thesis either. It’s to do with the practice of writing articles. Most people know now that for an academic, writing is critical. “Publish, or Perish!” is frequently heard, and according to the Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, was first used back in 1927. Indeed, it is even more critical in British academia with the advent and pervasive demands of the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Publishing is therefore constantly on the would-be academic’s mind. If they do a good piece of work, how best to publish it? How many articles CAN they realistically get out of it (the practice of salami-slicing being much maligned)?
And that’s where my would-be verb would come in. I was thinking about this yesterday: I was notified that a revised version of my MA dissertation, which I had submitted for a prize, had won said prize. YAY! BUT, so my immediate next bit of thinking went, ‘if it’s good enough to win a prize, surely it’s good enough to publish’? (In the great Job Hunt as an early career researcher, having publishing credits really, really helps.) Hence the need for the verb. A word that describes the practice of turning an essay or dissertation or parts of a thesis into an article. Articlearise? Articlearite? Neither of those will do. Suggesions? Maybe you feel that no ‘new’ verb would be needed at all. But I just keep wanting to say… “I’ve got to [verb] this”.
Regardless of the verb, however, what is undeniable, is that this does need to be published. And, as I learned to my cost soon after I graduated with my BA, a dissertation does not an article make. I have also learned, too, of the different ways that one can relate and explain what is otherwise the same story (I am adding an eighth to that list, soon, as I will be giving a talk on the same subject to another local history society in April). My MA Dissertation, entitled “‘Be kindly affectioned to one another’: love and parish politics in Stanton Lacy, Shropshire”is about the Robert Foulkes case, using the documents from that case to examine how different kinds of love impacts on politics in a parish over a very short time period. At 20,000 words, it’s far too big to simply be translated entirely into article form, and will need to be cut somehow (although whether I can [verb] the rest remains to be seen). The dissertation examines four different kinds of love, so it may be possible to split them – two for one article, two for another. Although that’s a bit obvious. Maybe too obvious. Mmmmm. This bears thinking about.
The other thing to consider with the whole process of [verb] (see just how useful my new verb would be?) is that of identifying which journal to submit for. Any Arts and Humanities academic (and possibly a STEM one too, although I’m not so sure about that as I’m not a STEM scholar, obviously) will tell you that a major part of getting an article accepted is to ensure that you write an article FOR that journal. It seems obvious, right? There’d be no point in sending an article about matchsticks to a fashion magazine (unless it was about a dress made of matchsticks, I suppose). But no – it’s a common mistake to make (I made it myself), to write an article and then look around to see who will take it. It should be the other way around. So, I have to consider who I want to submit it to – and that isn’t a straight-forward question either. I have a good working relationship with the editor of one journal and I think they’d be very happy to take it, BUT, would that necessarily be the right thing for my career? There’s several local history journals that I could also approach, but again, the question is: are either of them the right journal for my career? As an academic, its my job, so to speak, to get my article published in the ‘best’ journal that I possibly can – as it would be for any academic. For a STEM academic, the top journal might be Nature. For my kind of historian, Past and Present or the Journal of Social History might be the ones to consider (this Times Higher Education article has a list of top 20 journals in history). However, am I realistically likely to get my article into something like that? Those kinds of questions abound, and are realistically best discussed with one’s supervisors (as I will be doing, when the time comes).
So, no real conclusions here (other than that my new verb is most definitely required, and I really would welcome suggestions. Maybe there is an existing verb out there that would work?). Not yet, anyway. I do need to ruminate over this – bounce the ideas from that dissertation around in my head. I’ll be doing that in any case, as I’ve a talk and possibly 2 papers to deliver on the subject, so that will all help in terms of exploring the ‘how’ of telling the story. And somewhere, probably when I’m driving (I do all my best thinking when I’m driving, these days), I shall have a eureka moment. And then it’s just about putting the hard work in. What was it Thomas Edison said? Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration? Sounds about right – and I think it certainly applies to writing as well.
But as for the article… watch this space. Although it may be a while coming. [Verb] doesn’t happen fast. The publishing process is even slower (I think last time around it was 8 months, and that was relatively quick). Eventually though, hopefully, there’ll be another document out there with my name on, which will be very nice to see. And if you have a suggestion for [verb], please do leave it in the comments or something… it really is driving me up the wall!
I think one of the things that no one ever really mentions in a PhD is how long it takes to settle down and find your feet. Surprisingly so as well. It’s kind of expected at BA level – especially if you don’t really know your way around your new university or place. It takes time to know where to go for XYZ, even if you know the shop you want any given item, you still have to find it, find your way around. Even more so with classes, and so on. Then there’s the slow understanding of what it is that is expected of you at Uni, how to write essays, how to deliver the original contribution that they’re looking for. Over the course of three years you grow – even as a mature student who knows a bit more about life and themselves (i.e. not experiencing so much the kind of self-discovery process that 18-21 year olds go through at that time) still grows. I remember learning about Gramsci and hegemony and seeing the world and history in a different way, for example. You read, and the process of reading, of absorbing, changes you – for the better. It’s not just about what you’re reading and learning and writing, but HOW you do it – there are certain changes that I think (and I hope) are held in common by all university students, regardless of actual subjects studied, such as the ability and awareness of the importance of questioning what you read. So, yes… these changes are expected at an undergraduate level.
At Master’s level, especially if, like me, you stayed with your undergrad institution, there feels like less of this kind of development. You know your way round (both uni and city). You know the people. You know what it is that you’re doing. It’s shorter, of course. The pass mark may be higher, and more expected of you. The Master’s degree gave me more confidence in what I’m doing and more knowledge, of course, but I don’t feel that it fundamentally changed me in the same way that the BA did. Instead, it felt like it gave my BA an extra polish, if that makes sense. And while I don’t want to dismiss my Master’s degree, or the work that I put into it … having gone from BA to MA to PhD and graduating from my MA during my PhD it feels somewhat like the MA is more of a ‘blip’ in the journey towards the PhD. The BA graduation felt far more monumental, coming as it did in the summer, a month after the course ended, and before I really knew that I would be undertaking the MA. It felt more like drawing a line underneath it all. The MA graduation, as special as it was (more about that in a moment), didn’t feel the same in that sense and I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking or feeling that way.
The PhD, however, feels more like the BA in terms of the potential to change me in a more fundamental way. Maybe it’s because it’s longer – three years, like the BA, as opposed to the 1 or 2 of the MA. It’s more than that though. There is constant questioning. Questioning my ideas, my thinking. My writing is being picked apart (and if you are someone considering a PhD and you hate having your writing dissected: I’d urge you to reconsider the PhD plans or learn to love the criticism). My supervisors are questioning the use of certain words, highlighting the way I write. It’s turning me into a better writer so its not an unwelcome process, I don’t begrudge it (in fact, I’ve asked them to continue it because I KNOW it will make me a better writer). I’m reading – and no matter how much I read, it feels like it’s never enough; the “to-read” pile is constantly getting higher and higher. This is good, not bad (although I cheerfully admit I’d feel happier if the “to-read” pile would go down, instead of up). It’s the process of doing exactly what the PhD should do, what it says on the tin: to turn me into an expert in my field. There’s a very strange change going on – I’m growing in confidence, but at the same time I’m not. Growing in confidence in my abilities, in my skills – for example, learning how to deliver presentations, talks and papers. But the constant questioning of my ideas is having the opposite effect, making me stop and think before I deliver an opinion. ‘Am I really SURE about this?’ This uncertainty is making me hesitate before delivering any opinion, anywhere, except the really subjective ones, like ‘I love chocolate’. Oddly, I feel okay with that, mostly. I do have the occasional attacks of imposter syndrome (which is extremely common in academia) but I suspect the reason I feel okay with it is because I know that it’s a) temporary and b) for good reasons. There’s a huge difference between this process and the kind of way that some people behave when they try to make themselves feel better by undermining someone else, and I know that this process will make me a better academic in the long run. This is, most certainly, A Good Thing, rather than the kind of negativity that makes one want to curl up and hide.
We’re frequently exhorted, as PhD students, to write. ‘WRITE!’, the cry goes up. No matter what, just to practice the process of putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. I’d echo that but I think what is just as important is the process of self-reflection, an awareness of the changes experienced over the three to four years of the PhD. I think one of the many elements that make for a successful PhD student is constant analysis, constant thinking and asking why. To give an example: on Friday, I graduated with my MA degree. It was a lovely ceremony, a lovely day – bright and cold – but throughout I was analysing, thinking and comparing the experience with that of 2.5 years earlier, in July 2014, when I graduated with my BA degree. The MA ceremony felt – to me – altogether more comfortable, more relaxed, but more serious as well. I had the same sign language interpreter for both ceremonies and I discussed this with her at the time. She agreed with me, that it felt both more serious and more relaxed, so it wasn’t purely a reflection of my own emotions on the day, but more to do with the general atmosphere within the graduation hall.
I should say, for those who do not know much about academic graduations in the UK: Graduation ceremonies are different with each university. At the University of Leicester, the ceremonies are held at De Montfort Hall, which is a lovely concert hall dating from 2013. It doesn’t seat many people so graduation ceremonies are smaller than some universities, and as a result, shorter. My BA ceremony in 2014 was just 2 hours long; the MA was just over 1.5 – I know some universities have graduation ceremonies that go on much, much longer. There are also more of them – the university will hold two in a day – in January, graduation lasts for 2 days (mostly for postgraduate students) and in July, for a week or so (mostly for undergraduates). There are some cross-overs, however – we had some undergrads last week, and in 2014, I remember seeing people who are now friends graduate with their MAs and PhDs. I think it is the fact that last week’s ceremony was primarily made up of postgraduates, who had already experienced a graduation (if not specifically the Leicester one) and who were therefore a tad more relaxed about it – but also more serious at the same time. For undergraduates, graduation can be the end of one stage and the beginning of another – often leading to a career, to the beginning of one’s life, a sense of coming of age. There was less a sense of that with a post-grad graduation, I think (although I may change my mind about that when I graduate with my PhD!). I know I enjoyed Friday’s ceremony more, not because the university was doing anything particularly different, but because I was different, more relaxed. I’d learned from the 2014 experience what to do, what not to do. Wear a blouse so it’s possible to attach the hood to the buttons more easily. Wear comfortable boots, rather than heels so you’re not praying ‘don’t trip, don’t trip’, as you walk across the stage to shake the chancellor’s hand. Pick up the cape, hood and cap early, get the photographs done and out of the way early. Don’t wear a ponytail, as it’ll interfere with the cap. That kind of thing. Still, I’m glad I attended graduation – it underlines the Master’s. Done, dusted. Put the certificate on the wall. Order the photographs. Turn my attention back to where it should be… the PhD.
In just over a week (1st February) I have to hand in the mid-year review, which is something I have to do as a Midlands3cities-funded student. It involves writing an extended research proposal for my project, a 5,000 word sample piece of written work, and then I have to defend my progress thus far, a sort of mini-viva (the Viva Voce is the oral defence of the thesis, which I have to pass to gain my PhD, and is done after The Thesis is submitted). This is a good thing; practice in defending work done is good for the ultimate viva that I’ll have to do, but I am nervous about the whole thing. There are three possible outcomes: either I pass (and can continue my studies); I am sort of on probation (i.e., I have to redo the entire thing in June); or I fail, lose my funding and probably get kicked out of university as well. We (M3C-funded students) have been assured that outright failure is very rare, and my supervisor has also tried to reassure me. I’m still nervous though, and I doubt I’m the only one. I’ve already written both the pieces of work that M3C require; I have two 3,000 word pieces of work which I need to amalgamate into one 5,000 piece, which is very doable, although I have had feedback on both which I need to incorporate into this new work, so there is some additional work to do there. I have also written the extended research proposal which was handed in to be marked as part of a doctoral research training module that the University of Leicester offers to all new PhD students. As an M3C student I did not have to complete (or even pass) the assignment attached to the module, which was a similar extended research proposal, but the recommendation was; do it anyway, as the practice and feedback will come in useful for the mid-year review. So I followed the advice. I’m not particularly happy with my work on that, and having discussed it with my supervisor last week, I know where to take it and how to amend it. Hopefully the changes will improve it to a point where I feel happier with it. The mid year review will, in many ways, mark the conclusion of the first four months of my PhD and is the first big hurdle to pass, and I’m sure that that point will bring further self-reflection about the changes that the previous four months have wrought (which I may or may not share here).
So, three months down the line. Still trying to find my feet. Still trying to find a routine. I do feel that I overdid some things in the months before Christmas; I have dialled those things back substantially to allow me to focus more on what I should be doing. I’ve made decisions about the way that I will be working, and some of the short term aims that I need to achieve, which I will focus on once the mid-year review is complete. It is a different way of working to the BA and MA, and it takes time to develop that. The uncertainty of the first few months is, in some ways, a good thing. It’s a process that has to be gone through because it isn’t like when you move to a new city, and you’re struggling to find your way around; that is fairly easily rectified. This is more complex, and you learn from the process – its not something you can learn about from reading, but only from doing. I just wish more books/blogs that discuss PhDs mentioned this. That it’s okay to be uncertain, to wobble, to struggle with finding one’s feet. I do think though that I’ll come out of this unsure period as a much stronger student, more sure and able to forge ahead and make progress very quickly.
After Friday’s rather angsty post about feeling unsettled and unsure about my work … I’m pleased to say that I now feel vastly better. I feel more in control, although little may have changed to the average onlooker! Over the weekend, I’ve:
- Assessed various different notetaking tools, including Evernote, Onenote, Readcube, and Mendeley. I’ve not truly been happy with any of them, or rather, I’ve not been happy with how my current laptop set up is able to handle them (i.e. not very well, very slow – and thats with just a few PDFs loaded). That may change when and if I get my new computer, but I have to make the decision now for the next three years. I also feel that with these tools there’s a certain level of redundancy – I’d be typing bibliographic information into RefWorks, into a word document, and into this – its one layer of typing too many.
- At the same time, I’ve also revised my understanding of what I think I should be achieving right now. This is partly prompted by an article of Pat Thomson’s over on Patter, the rather timely and well titled – ‘Can you do too much reading’. One very specific paragraph in there really spoke to me and made me realise that at this point, it’s not (or shouldn’t be) about taking copious notes on all the secondary literature, that’s pointless, slow and cumbersome. Rather, it’s about reading widely, jotting down the occasional note if it’s really important, but otherwise, its about recording your reactions to the material. Do I agree with them? Do I think they’ve proved their point? Are they talking rubbish, left something out? Have I spotted a gap? What’s the theme? How does this work with my project, my ideas? The specific paragraph from Thomson’s article begins: ‘Reading ought not to contaminate our thinking, but rather enhance it. Writing about what we are reading, as we are reading it, and writing about our reading in relation to our project, can go a long way to helping us sort out our own ideas, bouncing off the texts in our field.’ I feel it’s so critical I’ve copied it onto a post-it note that will eventually find a place on the wall above my desk which is where all the really critical stuff goes (and I’m very selective about what goes up there).
So, put those two together, and a suggestion from a friend on FB, means that instead I’m going all luddite and doing it with good old pen and paper. I’m going to be using a B5 notebook from Black and Red which is split into two columns, so that I can use the double-entry notetaking method (there’s a video here which is rather good on that method), and usefully, has the pages numbered, as well as a space for the date at the top. The time may come, later, for more indepth notetaking and for that I may resort to more technological methods, but we’ll see. I know one person who built an entire notetaking system for her PhD within MS Access, which I’m full of admiration for! But the handwritten books have another advantage: I can do them anywhere, as long as I have the book, a pen, and something to read, which helps with my current, rather on-the-go life.
I’ve also started something I’ve been putting off for a while, writing in my PhD journal. This is an A4 sized book, which feels massive and beautiful and clean (fellow stationery aficionados will understand this) and I’ve not wanted to write in it for fear of spoiling it, but I’ve hoiked myself up by the chinstraps this afternoon and bravely put pen to paper! This book is intended to manage the entire PhD: it has the nuts n bolts of information about the various deadlines I have to meet in the front, so I can check at a glance if I’m on course with something, as well as a research diary and a section of basic information about each and every parish in Herefordshire. I have a feeling this journal may well be worth its weight in gold by the time I finish the PhD, at least to me.
I’ve also sort of cleaned up my desk a little, although I suspect I may need to wait till the Christmas break to have a really good go at it. I did sort out some of the paperwork and coursework I’ve been sticking into a pile; sorted them into groups and filed them away in lever arch files so it all feels a bit better. That, coupled with sorting out my planning system a bit more means I feel much more in control of things ahead of the week to come. Lets hope I maintain it.
Next week I’ve more time to do the things I should be doing (reading and writing) and I hope I can make some serious inroads into the work that I should be doing. If I can do that, I think it will vastly improve my situation, and really contribute to building that foundation I was worrying about on Friday. It’s not much of a foundation yet. Maybe the foundation of the foundation. But it’s getting there, slowly!