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!

PhD: three months+ down the line

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.

What they don’t tell you about MA dissertations…

MA dissertations are different to BA dissertations. … well, that one might win the ‘obvious statement’ of the century, but I’m quite serious now. Apart from the different demands, the higher level of work, the greater word count, it also takes up more of your time. It doesn’t suck one down quite as much as I imagine a PhD thesis might (I’ll tell you if that’s the case in three years!) but there are side effects to the months of effort that you put in, the final weeks of frantic writing. And these are the ones that you might not find on an official blurb about your Master’s dissertation… strictly tongue in cheek, of course!

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Self-preservation and blogging

Anyone who reads academic blogs frequently enough will know that there can be issues with academic blogging. From employers not wanting to employ people with any kind of online presence linked to their names (a tad unrealistic these days I think), through to individuals posting things that their employers take as ‘bringing the institution into disrepute’, it might seem as though academic blogging is something best avoided. And yet, it can still be a powerful tool – not just for the writer in practising writing and disseminating information, but also in terms of generating conversations and making connections with people also studying in their fields. This is the internet as its best, as an enabler, what people envisioned and hoped for when they developed this strange new world. It is perhaps no wonder that many PhD students are encouraged to blog. Continue reading

Early Modern Charitableness – a lesson for today?

The last couple of weeks have been extremely busy – I’ve had two paid jobs to work on, one is very temporary (lasting only a week, but almost full time work during that week), and the other is also temporary but only 5 hours work per week over the course of about 5 weeks. Between the first two jobs I’ve spent almost an entire week on campus, and my studies have had to fit inbetween those jobs. And if I’m honest, they’ve fitted in quite well. The week-long job required me to do some survey work, which was around 15-20 minutes out of every hour. I managed to find a computer most days at uni which I could use, and the remaining 40-45 minutes out of every hour I succeeded at working – transcribing or making notes, the kind of thing where the constant stop-start doesn’t matter too much.

One of the documents I’ve been working on is called ‘An Alarme for Sinners‘. This was a long document written by a chap called Robert Foulkes during January 1679, and published after his execution on 31st January 1679. Foulkes had been found guilty of the ‘horrid murther’ (murder) of his just-born child on 15th January 1679(1), and had been sentenced to be hung. What was unusual about Foulkes is that he was a married vicar, and the child had been born to one of his parishioners, not his wife. Indeed, the relationship with his mistress (Ann Atkinson) had been subject to a lengthy court case in Herefordshire (the parish they lived in was subject to the Hereford Diocese), and Foulkes and Atkinson had celebrated their way when they thought the case was defeated, leading to pregnancy and, eventually, the scaffold. Atkinson pointed the finger squarely at Foulkes when they were arrested and she was found not guilty of the baby’s murder. Before his execution, Foulkes receved a number of visitors from the leading authorities in the Church of England; because the scandal had occurred during the Popish Plot/Titus Oates affair when the Church was still feeling under seige, the divines who visited had asked Foulkes to write a document extonerating the wider Church from all blame. An Alarme for Sinners is the result.

The copy I had saved onto my computer was made up of a series of PDFs; each double page spread being saved as one file. This, together with the problematic print and preponderance of fs instead of s made me decide to retype it – not difficult for me, as I learned to touch type years ago. In the event it took me slightly over a day and a half to type the entire thing, inbetween surveys. This is for my MA dissertation, and my research is focusing more on the relationship that Foulkes had with his parishioners as a whole, and what the case can reveal about clergy-lay relations rather than the scandalous behaviour of Foulkes and Atkinson. Still, having gone through the process of typing the document, a number of thoughts have come to mind. At least one of these is the difference by which we regard a document like this now, compared to 1679, and what the document reveals about general society and crimes in that period.

In An Alarme for Sinners Foulkes had – or so he said – a number of objectives. His primary objective was to ensure that the church was not blamed for his crimes. His pamphlet decried his actions and attempted to warn other people from following on his path. He gave thanks that his sins were discovered so that he had a chance to realise his errors before he died (and was inevitably sent to hell), and he addressed those people who he thought had done wrong (on a general level), to try to advise them on where to go right from that point on.

One thing that was very clear in Foulkes’s document was that sexual relations with prepubescent children was regarded as a horror; something very very wrong, especially when said child had been handed into one’s care. In his pamphlet, Foulkes went to some length to deny a group of accusations which said: that Akinson’s father had made Foulkes her guardian; that he had that he had used his position as her minister to persuade her that polygamy was lawful (a persuasion that today might be referred to as grooming); and finally, that he had ‘attempt and endeavour to vitiate’ Atkinson when she was nine. The accusations clearly upset Foulkes a great deal – it ‘imbittered my Cup both at my Trial and at my Sentence’. He also said that while he accepted that he was guilty of many other things, he took comfort in being innocent of both of these accusations, even though he had sins that had ‘exceeded’ them – i.e. the murder of his child. What is clear is that Foulkes’ horror of the charges, and his anxiousness to deny them, despite already being found guilty to hang for murder speak volumes about how those crimes were regarded by his contemporaries and society at large.

[While it is impossible to be sure at this remove, it has to be said that recent work by historians does support Foulkes’s claim of innocence of these charges. Foulkes was not made the incumbent of his parish until Atkinson was around ten years old, although Klein felt he first met her when she was around seven. He was certainly never made her guardian, (although he was, of course, her minister), and the two historians who have written about the case regard the affair has having begun around 1669 – when Atkinson was around 19 or 20.]

Interestingly, the document seemed to suggest that it was because Foulkes was placed in a position of trust, that the accusations were so serious. In other words; it would not have been deemed so serious if Foulkes had attacked a stranger. Did they regard the breach of trust as the more serious crime, or was the breach of trust deemed more as what we would now call ‘an aggravating factor’ in the sexual assault? Interesting questions. I have to admit that I have done no research into this topic at all; but it certainly shows, for those non historians that bewail a ‘plague of modern paedophilia‘, that social awareness of the crime existed at least as far back as 1679.

Moving now to the issue of charitableness, as promised in the title – when I first read the entire document, I reflected on how it would be regarded if an equivalent document was produced today by a man condemned to life imprisonment for the same crime – infantcide. Foulkes is clearly trying to restore his honour and the honour of the Church in this document and admits as much. Today, a document like this would be regarded with a great deal of cynicism. (Just imagine the tabloid newspaper headlines!) In 1679 there was some cynicism – Foulkes even anticipated this, as he preceded one section with: ‘For satisfaction to those who were at my Tryal, and may have their belief warpt to uncharitableness…’ and then addressed  various accusations (including the ones discussed above). At the same time, Foulkes clearly believed that publishing this pamphlet would let his voice be heard. He admitted to horrible crimes, crimes that he abhorred, and even a crime that he was not charged for, a crime that he said no one else considered or felt was a crime at the time. As he pointed out, he murdered his child without baptising her first. In doing so, he ‘murther its Soul’. In 1679, as it had been for centuries, it was strongly felt by many – including Foulkes – that unbaptised children could not enter heaven (which is why midwives had long been permitted to baptise children where it was clear that a child would not live long enough to permit baptism by a clergyman, although this permission was starting to disappear by the seventeenth century (2)). By murdering his child before baptism, Foulkes ensured his child could never enter heaven. He had failed the child on two levels, as both a father, and as a minister. His sheer anguish and pain at having failed his child on both levels leaps from the page; the reader almost has to accept that he felt as he did, his misery is utterly convincing.

He did not have to write this. He was originally asked to assist the wider Church by making it clear that she played no role in his crimes – no more, no less. Foulkes made the choice to try to reach out to people, to show them where he had gone wrong, to confess where he had gone wrong (and where he had not gone wrong). In this, he succeeded in his aim of restoring his honour; he was prayed for throughout the City of London on the night before his death – a day that also marked the anniversary of the death of Charles I. (3) Public pamphlets, which widely published not only the Alarme for Sinners, but details of the crime, his sentence, and pre-execution actions, also suggest that Foulkes succeeded in restoring his honour. The final line of one reads: ‘Thus ended this unfortunate Gentleman, who by the temptations of Satan was thus brought like Holy David into the horrid sin a Adultery, but as his sin resembled his, so did his Reptentence, and we hope they are now both singing Hallelujahs in the glorious Region of Eternal joy’ – i.e. we (the publishers) hope that this chap has gone to heaven. The message here is: if he, who committed such a dreadful crime, can repent and reach Salvation … maybe we, who are guilty of much lesser crimes, can too.

And therein lies the main difference between 1679 and today, I think. Today, we – as a society, I mean – regard a document like this, and cynically ask what the author got out of it, and question it no further; any thought of repentance is dismissed with ‘well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?’. In the Early Modern society, perhaps, people were more charitable, more willing to accept that there could be multiple motivations for it, but that they are not all ultimately self-seeking and self-serving, and that perhaps repentence could be real. Perhaps, in the western society that we have today, more charitableness towards people’s motivations would not be a bad thing.

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planning research: the early thought processes and decisions

In any research project larger than, say, 8-10,000 words, from an academic article, or an undergrad dissertation, right through to a PhD thesis or monograph, have a number of required elements which need to be considered at the beginning of the research project.

I’m actually starting the research for my 20,000 word MA dissertation now. I’m in a funny position because I’ve known for some months (since early last summer) what the subject would be, and I’ve been collecting source material for it for a while – it’s researching something that has already been covered by another historian, but I’m going to be tackling the same material, with totally different questions, so it makes for an easy beginning to the project, because all I need to do is to follow the other person’s references to the source material (to begin with, at least). But only now am I actually considering the planning of it, which is quite the wrong way to do things. I was struck by this yesterday, as I drove to pick up my partner at the end of the day from the station (good thinking time that, driving), and it occurred to me that knowing the subject, and having that list of references and source material making it easy, meant that I’d not really stopped to think about really key elements that do have to be considered in any research project, and at a fairly early stage.

First up – its not enough to say, for example, that you plan to research XYZ. Anyone can say that, can say, oh, for example, that they plan to research the impact of the Queen on British Society in the twentieth century. However, attempting to research a project with only a topic like that will struggle to succeed – at least, at academic levels – partly because it’s a huge topic that would be difficult to do well in a smaller project (e.g. dissertation) and partly because it’s unlikely to undertake the critical analysis that is required at these levels. A good way to do that is to have Research Questions (caps intentional!). These serve to both limit the project so that more indepth analysis of the subject is possible, and to prod critical thought. One way to think of research questions is to think about the wider themes that the material or subject includes. So, to take the Queen again, these could be women, fashion, monarchy, society, economics, politics, political structures (there are more), then slowly narrow the themes down till at a point where its sufficiently narrow that a question can be constructed. So, going with our previous example, Research questions for this might be: Did the Queen have an ongoing impact on what society thought was socially acceptable during the period (politics, political hierarchy)? How much influence did her style of clothing have on British fashion (fashion, economics)? It is possible to see the expression of her own opinion in her Christmas broadcasts (politics)? These kinds of questions lend themselves well to further restriction and definition, such as – what’s ‘socially acceptable’? what period of British fashion are we discussing? Should we include, for analysis, the audio-visual material that is presented as part of the Christmas broadcast as well?

In addition, further elements need to be decided on. A line of argument is absolutely critical – whether a simple one, which you might have in a smaller essay – through to a much more complex piece of work, a line of argument is what keeps you focused on maintaining a tight thread all the way through. In the former example it might be that the Queen had a massive impact on British Society – but it could also be that the Queen only had a massive impact after a certain date, or before a certain date, or that she had no impact at all. Whatever your line of argument, every point, every paragraph has to contribute to that argument, even if you temporarily take another perspective to show why an alternative argument just won’t wash.

In larger projects, an extension of the line of argument is how you’re going to break it down – what chapters are you going to have, how many, how big will they be, what are their individual lines of argument, how do those individual lines contribute to the larger whole? Some academics correlate a key research question to each chapter, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. In the Queen example, the book could take a chronological approach, discussing her contribution to social mores, fashion and the christmas broadcasts in first the 1950s, then the 1960s, then… you get the idea. It could also do a chapter on each – the social mores, then fashion, then the christmas broadcasts.

Needless to say, I’m not researching the Queen’s impact on British society in the twentieth Century! I’m actually examining the case of a vicar who, in the post-Restoration period, had an affair with a parishioner. His other parishioners found out, and took him to court to try to get him removed from the parish as their clergyman. There are a number of different ways in which this material can be approached, exploring different themes. In writing and thinking about this blog post, I’ve had the themes playing in my mind, and I’ve been slowly writing ideas down in a seperate file. I still don’t have all the answers, but I do have a better idea of how I’m going to take this material forward. Suddenly, my 20,000 word MA dissertation doesn’t seem quite so daunting after all!

[I think it’s important to say – I don’t claim to have all the answers when it comes to doing research. I’m still learning myself! I just enjoy the process of learning by writing: by explaining here, to some imaginary, nebulous blog reader, I’m also explaining to myself. If, however, you are interested in reading something by someone who does know what they’re doing when it comes to research, then these two books may be a good starting point:

I hope they’re of use!]

 

Writing – writing the same topic seven different ways

I’m not doing very much primary source research at the moment. Instead, I’m caught up in a round of presentations of various kinds, and the work that I’m doing on my PhD proposal (along with some background research on assignments I have due). I’m okay with this, mostly because I know that soon I’ll get back to the happy state of working with primary sources (I’m due to dive into the archives in a couple of weeks, in fact). But I want to seize this moment to discuss writing.

Since March 2014, the last 18 months, I have written up the same piece of research in seven different ways. I wrote it originally as my undergraduate dissertation, with an abstract, of course. Six months later, I rewrote it as a journal article. That was rejected, and after some painful review, I began to understand where I’d gone wrong, and I rewrote it, six months later, and submitted it to another journal. To my delight, this was accepted, and after revisions, will be published next January. In October, I presented a short talk on my research to the general public. In November, yesterday, in fact, I delivered a conference paper based on it, to my peers and superiors. In a few weeks, I shall be delivering an extended version of that to a local history society, at their AGM. A few days after that, I shall deliver a second, slightly edited round of the general public talk. I have been asked to do at least two more public talks to larger audiences as well, over the next year and a bit.

While I am very happy that my research, and presenting style is such a hit, I’m not writing this in a congratulatory sense (well, maybe a little bit. Can you blame me?). Rather, what I want to explore is the ways in which these pieces of writing are so different from each other, despite all being on the same subject, and how I have deliberately adjusted each bit of writing to match the audience expectations, knowledge, and also the demands of the piece.

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