Not abandoned, no…

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

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New verb required: apply here

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”.

Hmmmmm.

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!

The First Supervision

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the infamous cookies


You might think, since I’ve been quiet in blog land for the last two days, that I’ve been enjoying time off. Not a bit of it (although I will be taking next weekend off). I’ve spent the last two days nose to the computer keyboard, plugging solidly away. Part of the reason for that was the decision to hold my very first supervision meeting today, with all three of my supervisors (And while who they are is a matter of public record, I do believe in respecting their privacy, so I won’t mention them much, or by name). I have three, by the way, because when I was considering the team and my proposed project, I felt strongly that I needed an additional voice to help guide the archaeological elements that are included in the project, as well as the other two who are more focused on the documentary side of things.

This morning I was nervous, I freely admit. Daft, perhaps, but I was. Supervision meetings were new to me, and it’s not like anyone can really tell you what they’re like as they’re highly individual to the person being supervised, as well as to the supervisors themselves. I am lucky in that I know one of my supervisors fairly well – he supervised my MA dissertation. But that doesn’t negate feelings of nerves. I always want to do well, and the first meeting is important. First impressions and all that.

We went for lunch beforehand, with another PhD student. It was good to see more of the University of Nottingham’s lovely campus. Very different to Leicester – much bigger grounds – and the views are quite amazing. This is one part of the AHRC Midlands3Cities partnership that I really do like, the opportunity to visit other universities, to see different campuses and set ups. That broadening of experience is something that can only stand me in good stead, I think, in future, and prevents a certain insular perspective. It’s good to break out of the same places, the same routines and experience new things, both on a personal and a professional level.

The supervision itself went well, I think. I took cookies! I think they were appreciated (I’m taking something else next time. Don’t know what yet. We’re meeting before lunch, so I have to think imaginatively, perhaps). It seemed to set the tone for what I thought was a nice, relaxed meeting, with some laughter and some seriousness. I had some good news about my dissertation results (unofficial, so not saying anything here till it is official!) and I’ve been set an assignment to do for the next supervision, a 3,000 word essay on the historiography of Herefordshire. It’s one of the ‘positioning’ essays that they want me to write between now and Easter, there’ll be three or four of them, and it should be fun. I’m itching to get my teeth into it – and I may start researching that tomorrow. I’ve also got an abstract to write, for a CfP (call for papers – basically an application to speak at a conference), so that’s exciting too!

Tomorrow: I’m on Leicester campus all day – in the library in the morning, digging into that essay, and in the afternoon I’ll be attending the graduate school induction. Should be fun. Fingers crossed I make good progress with the research!

The flip side of a dissertation

*blinks* …. oh hello…. there you are!
Sorry I’ve been gone a while. Been buried, had the big dissertation to do. I just got done with it. Yes, just. An hour ago, to be exact. It’s all printed out, sitting on my desk next to me, and I can’t help but keep stealing glances at it. I wrote THIS? all this? 20,000 words, printed out, 65 pages, takes on a life that it just doesn’t have when its just a word file and there’s only one page on the screen at once. Page 65 of 65 in the corner doesn’t have the same emotional resonance as a stack of nice freshly printed paper with  your words on it. And it’s a big stack. A whole cm high.

Its not actually that much. The PhD thesis will be four times this amount. I find that really hard to imagine at this point. I keep looking at the pile and trying to imagine having written 80,000 words. And certainly anyone who’s ever written a book will be going 20k? and be trying very hard not to smile behind their hands. Not in a condescending way, but they’ll smile nonetheless. And I have no doubt that in three years, maybe slightly more, I’ll be stealing glances at a much higher stack and wondering what that look like, all bound in hardcopy. And so on with each new piece of work. The size isn’t the point. The journey is the point.

Other than the sheer wonder at actually having written this thing (please pause, while I admire my stack again) … I’m not actually sure how i feel about this. A bit sad, perhaps. Very tired, definitely. Not in the sense of OMG-I-could-sleep-for-a-week, but in the sense of just being mentally worn out. And I suppose, a bit scared. Its beginning to hit me, just what a monumental undertaking I’ve signed up to do. I’m trying very hard not to think about that. Its a bit like running a marathon I guess (not that I’ve ever done one of those!). if you think about all those miles in one go and just how far it is, you never get off the couch in the first place, never mind putting on your shoes. But if you think in terms of baby steps, in terms of just putting on the shoes and showing up, they seem more doable. Show up, run 10 steps. then another ten, and another. and before you know it, you’re wrapping those shiny blankets round you and cursing the blisters. So it is with this. Write this paragraph, then the next, just one more today, then another day. and so on.

Other than the …wow… I wrote this?… feeling, how do I think it is? I’m proud of it. I think its a good piece of work. I think it’s better than my undergrad dissertation, if I’m honest. The markers might disagree, but that’s out of my hands. Might see if I can work some of it up in to article(s). One eye on the ol’CV/REF and all that. Definitely worth doing.

A number of newly minted doctors have written about the post-viva come-down, of having obsessed over, achieved and worked so hard towards the goal and suddenly, theres nothing there, and the psychological need to prepare for that gaping absence. I think there’s a bit of that going on. On the one hand, I’m looking forward to having my life back. I’ve missed blogging, I’ve definitely missed having flexibility to do things mid-day like go for a walk. Rationally, I know that working at the intensity I have been doing for the last few weeks is going to lead to burnout very rapidly, but at the same time, there’s a purity in that dedication. Tomorrow, though, I have to pick up the reins of life. I have articles to review, a talk to write (for next week), and then I get close to a two week break before my PhD begins. I’m not sure how much of a break I’ll take though. I’ll take it easy, sure, but I’m excited about the PhD, and honestly, eager to crack on with it.

So, I guess, time to say goodbye to the MA, and say hello to the PhD.

Excuse me… I have a stack I need to admire once more. 🙂


 

Passion & ikigai

The word ‘passion’ is overused in many ways. Does anyone remember a few years back, in Masterchef? The contestants would be asked why they want to go through the competition. Not just in interview as they were cooking, but as a key stage (usually at around the same time as the skills test). Almost invariably the phrase ‘I have a real passion for cooking’ would be trotted out. Admission tutors see it too – enough that prospective undergrads are warned not to use the word in their personal statements.  Almost invariably, people are told not to use the word; to show it instead. And yet, a conversation that I’ve been having online in the last 24 hours with a variety of people has shown me that to study at PhD level, perhaps even Master’s degree level, it really is essential to have a passion for the subject at hand.

I’m still working on my MA dissertation which I wrote about a few days ago, transcribing depositions – witness statements, in other words – and one particular one described the night that Foulkes completely lost it. I don’t mean the event in London, where he murdered his newborn child (1679), but earlier, around the end of July 1676. Foulkes had had gone for a drink in what may have been the nearest alehouse. There, the vicar of the neighbouring parish had talked with him, reporting the rumours he had heard about Foulkes and Ann, his lover, and trying, gently, to warn Foulkes of what was being said about him. Foulkes initially seemed to have taken the warning ‘very kindly and quietly’, but later became angry, and returned home somewhat drunk. He sent for two neighbours and their wives and after drinking more, a fight ensued. The neighbours promptly left, and Foulkes turned on his wife. This whole evening was described in the first (secondary) source that I found on Foulkes, Peter Klein’s book The Temptation and Downfall of the Vicar of Stanton Lacy (if anyone has it, and would like to read the relevant section, then see pages 47-50). The particular deposition that I was working on was the statement by William Hopton. While – as I said before, he most certainly had an axe to grind against Foulkes – transcribing the document proved to be difficult.

This was not because the handwriting was bad or it was full of latin or abbreviations – I don’t mean that kind of difficulty. It was emotionally difficult. When I came to the section where Hopton described that the neighbours had left, and ‘the said Robt Foulkes did fall out with his wife againe & beat her soe violently that she did cry out 3 times’, and when the neighbours – who were still outside, along with others who had gathered, drawn by the noise – tried to calm Foulkes, his wife, Isabella, was seen to be lying on a bed, bleeding (it did not say from where), complaining about Foulkes and asking the neighbours to stay with her till morning, ‘to save her life for that she was in danger to be murthered by her husband’. Crying out three times may not seem so much to modern eyes – or ears – but to contextualise this; early modern husbands were allowed, encouraged, even, to discipline their wives (to a certain extent, at least). Just as with those people in modern day abuse situations, a great deal of shame would probably have accompanied these disciplinary occasions, shame that the husband thought it necessary that the wife be punished. The average early modern woman being punished by her husband, even legitimately (the rod no wider than a thumb is a rule oft bandied), would probably have tried to keep any involuntary sounds to a minimum, to keep the neighbours from knowing that she was being disciplined. That Isabella was unable – or unwilling, in fear of her life – to do this indicated to me either how violent Foulkes was being towards her; or how afraid she was. Either way, it was disturbing.

When I had typed the transcription, I sat back in my chair and found tears creeping down my cheek at the plight of Isabella. Now… I’d be the first to admit that I can be a right old soppy sod. I regularly cry at movies, anything to do with the queen or royal family (a republican I am not) or weddings or mushy stuff. Its a family trait – I blame my maternal grandfather, he did the same thing. But really? Crying over something that had happened not quite 340 years earlier, where the participants were long since dead and buried and not so much as dust in the ground? But it really did disturb me. I finished transcribing the page, then went for a turn around the garden and a cup of coffee, and then turned to my colleagues and discussed my disquiet with them. And I was surprised to find that I was by no means alone in finding primary sources emotionally disturbing, to the point of needing a break from the material.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. One colleague, working on records that detailed historical instances of racial abuse said that they saw the cup of tea, the break afterwards, as an integral, necessary part of transcription work (and I think they’re right about that; something I will have to mentally account for when calculating transcription time in future). Others described sitting in archives and openly crying over what they were reading, the strong emotions, primarily pain, recorded by people in the past. I don’t think this is something that is readily discussed amongst historians, except perhaps those who routinely work with material that would – by almost anyone – be described as ’emotionally distressing’. It certainly isn’t something that we’re taught how to handle at either BA or MA level: we’re left to find our own methods of dealing with this kind of emotional upheaval.

But something else someone said to me also resonated. They said I cry, because I’m passionate about my research, about history, and also observed that if people don’t have that passion, they don’t get far as historians. And I realised they’re right. In all the people I’ve met, whether already qualified and practising academics in one university or another, or those of us who are still studying to get there (MA and PhD students), the one thing we’ve all shared, regardless of actual subject, is that passion. It’s not enough to find history interesting. That’s like me enjoying cooking enough that I enjoy – when I’m not tired and stressed – creating a meal for family or friends, or a cake for our local history group at Uni. That doesn’t make me a chef, even a trainee one. I think too often people confuse an interest with a passion. It’s perfectly okay to have an interest, to want to practise something, even to want to practice it a lot. I have to eat every day, after all! But its still only an interest, and having a passion, I can see the difference. People envy me sometimes, they say, because I seem to have such a clear idea of where I want to go, what I want to do, but I think sometimes there is too much emphasis laid on the quest to identify one’s passion, right now, right this minute, instead of waiting for it to come to you, quietly and in the fullness of time.

The Japanese have it right, I think. There, the quest for ‘ikigai’ is a deep, extensive search of self, the quest to identify what you love; what you’re good at; what the world needs; and what you can be paid for. Where what you love and what you’re good at overlap, is your passion. Where what you love, and what the world needs overlap, is your mission. Where what the world needs overlaps with what you can be paid for, is your vocation. Where what you’re good at overlaps with what you can be paid for, is your profession. Where all four overlap, is your ikigai. It is your reason for being, your reason for getting up in the morning. The French might refer to it as one’s raison d’être.

I count myself fortunate to have found my ikigai, and if it means occasionally sitting at my desk, weeping as I cry for the fate of a woman who was violently beaten by her philandering husband 340 years ago, then so be it. I don’t think its a cost that I would ever pass up, and I doubt many other historians would disagree.

Nose to the grindstone

My supervisor fired the gun on the MA dissertation last week; he wants a draft chapter by 5th July (and its been suggested that we submit our worst chapter). Erk. Note to self: next time he asks me when I’m thinking of submitting… say the deadline, idiot, not the middle of August!

[although, seriously, I do want a break before the PhD kicks off; I’ve got a talk to give in early September which I have to write, and a wedding to attend (not mine) as well as a 2 day training course at the end of September – I think a break will be much needed and highly valued. And if I’m honest with myself, this deadline is what I need. I work better to deadlines.]

So I’ve dusted off my PDFs of primary sources that I collected ages ago and taken an evaluative look at them. These are consistory court records from Herefordshire (from Herefordshire Archive and Record Centre or HARC, to be specific), from the 1670s, where a number of Foulkes’s parishioners took him to court over his affair with Ann Atkinson – this was in the years before the calamitous events that occurred in London and which led to Foulkes’ execution. There are ten PDFs altogether; the largest has 120 or so pages, the smallest just one. Altogether, there are something like 800 pages, which is an awful lot to try to read in a short space of time (especially given that they are handwritten). However, I do have some advantages; some 100 or so pages are in Latin and are likely to be official court documents. These I will leave for now, because a) my latin is pretty awful (at the moment) and b) I’m not sure how much is to be gained by wading through them that I cannot get from the other documents, which are all in English. These are things like lawyer’s records, notes that were passed between various people in the court (quite a few from Foulkes himself) and many, many depositions. The writing is pretty awful – I’d post a sample, but copyright does apply and I’d need to get permission from HARC – so, I thought, time to brush off the palaeography how-to notes from a module I did last year with the MA.

Surprisingly, I found that I could read something like 75-80% of the clearest document  (start with the easier one, always – it takes time and practice to ‘get the eye in’). I’ve worked through a couple of lengthy depositions from that collection, which is twenty six pages of depositions by eight people. These are what we would today call ‘statements’, with a few latin phrases, dated and signed in some way by the person giving the deposition. The first, by a chap called Richard Hopton, was one of the members of the ‘combinators’ (as they called themselves) bringing the case against Foulkes. He refers to Foulkes as ‘very contentious and quarrellsom’, says that Foulkes ‘disturb[s] their peass and quiett’. He goes on to say that Foulkes ‘had a bastard’, which was ‘begotten by him on the body of Ann Atkinson’. The second, that I have worked through so far, was by William Hopton, younger brother of Richard. He starts out by referring, like his brother, to Foulkes as ‘a quarrellsom and contentious spirit’ who was ‘endeavouring to disturb the peace and quiet of this neighbourhood and parish by threatening and abusive words’. He said that Foulkes called him ‘a sonne of a whore’, and that Foulkes would often refer to Ann’s mother, Elizabeth, as a whore and an old baud. Lovely!

There’s no real conclusion to this; other than that to reflect that the Hopton brothers seem determined to paint Foulkes in the worst terms possible (perhaps understandable, given that they were part of the conspiracy against Foulkes). There’s a but, though. There are words that I am currently unable to read; and because of that, I don’t fully understand everything that has been said in the statement. Less than ideal, obviously and a situation that I have to correct, fairly urgently.

I’ve arranged a meeting with my supervisor early next week because I think many of the words I can’t read are either abbreviations (Early Modern clerks adored abbreviations – it saved paper and ink!) or latin phrases, and I think he’ll be able to help with that. Beyond that though, its a case of nose to the grindstone to try to get some of these documents read. Not necessarily transcribed, just read. At the moment I am, of course, making notes as I go along, but that’s different to transcription, which is a word for word, letter for letter copy of exactly what is on the page but in a print format (some of the conventions adhered to by transcribers can be seen here). Transcription will have to be done eventually, as I think I will return to this case again and again – the material from this case can be used in a number of different ways. But for now, with that deadline looming, its a case of getting as much read as I can, so that in a few weeks, I can crack my knuckles and bash out a draft chapter of my dissertation.

So for now, keep reading, trying to make sense of what I can, and make notes as to the bits that I can’t read. It keeps life interesting, anyway!

The Household Accounts of Joyce Jeffreys

One of the best things about the taught MA is that, like a BA, you get to work on a number of smaller projects in the run up to the mighty dissertation (a meaty 20,000 words rather than the 10,000 at BA level). This introduces a level of variety that I, for one, really enjoy. In the last two years I’ve worked on the medieval landscapes of Ludlow and its environs; the relationship between Thomas, Lord Coningsby and the town of Leominster; a project evaluating what a small country churchyard in the south of Shropshire can reveal about the community and culture of the parish it serves; and finally, a project asking what Joyce Jeffrey’s Household Accounts could reveal about her local identity. Each of these has resulted in a document numbering around 5,000 words and each one has been great fun to research and write – the bigger word count means there’s more room to play with and to explore complex themes. Continue reading