… daily PhD?

… maybe not. Not so sure that particular style is working for me – as evidenced by the lack of daily posts. There is only so much one can say about reading articles after all (I may as well post my notes), and I suspect at this point that won’t change until the second year of PhD studies.

Quite how this is going to shift, I don’t know. But it is a young blog, and blogs often take a while to find their feet, to settle down into their style. I’m not too concerned about that. Maybe a weekly post would work better. Let’s try it, for now:

Monday morning was primarily spent away from my studies, catching up with a few necessities like food shopping and so on. I still have to eat! I spent the afternoon working through a few ideas for increasing the social media use and engagement of a project that I’m going to be working on, in preparation for a meeting on friday. I started to read through an article, but had to leave to collect my partner from the station before I could finish it, unfortunately. In that respect, its a forced ending to my day – 6.15pm or so, is when I more or less have to down tools. I can’t decide whether that’s a blessing or not – I suspect it both is, and isn’t.

Tuesday… Tuesday was amazingly productive actually. Every single thing on my to-do list was crossed off, plus some additionals, making for a very positive end of the day. I finished reading, and making notes on, the article from Monday. I use the Cornell notes method at the moment, which helps a lot in terms of not only getting it straight in my head what the article is about (active, rather than passive reading), but also helps me to relate the material to my own research topic. Then I made some rough notes, starting to draw together the plan for the lit review, starting to think about how to frame and position various historians and theories with relation to my research topic.

I got quite a few emails done as well, in a veritable blizzard of productivity. Some of these I had been putting off for too long, but they got back to me fairly quickly, and they turned out to be relatively painless. I did a little housework (such as the ever-eternal washing up!) and prepared for a trip to the Record Office in Wigston, on Wednesday.

Wednesday… the planned trip to the record office. I’m doing a little voluntary work as part of the Charnwood Roots Project, where I’m researching the history of stage coaches and small carriers in parishes in the Charnwood Forest area (to the North West of Leicester). I’m well overdue in doing work on this, but I’ve been looking forward to it for a while, so … time to knuckle down. I managed to make serious inroads on the trade directories, which I think will be the main source for this project, starting from 1794 and I managed to get to 1849. It seems that although the stage coaches died fairly quickly after the introduction of the railways, the small carriers, going between the parishes and the towns, survived much longer – serving the equivalent of the rural bus network today. It will be interesting to trace the services for each parish, see how much continuity there was. I’ve already seen that with coach builders, there was a continuing trade from one particular street in Leicester, for example, although the actual business changed hands at least once. I suspect, that for parishes where the same person/family did this role for decades, they would have been seen as of key importance to the parish, like the parish clergyman or school teacher – if they weren’t disreputable in other ways. I have found evidence in local newspapers, later on (latter part of the 19th Century) that the carriers sometimes had a relationship with alcohol that was, well, lets describe it as less than healthy! Anyway, I’ve scanned/photographed the relevant pages with my phone and camscanner (more about that in another post), so what needs to be done now is a) extracting the relevant information out of the trade directories into parish format, and b) organising the photographs so that they’re ready for turning over to the wider Charnwood Roots project, ready for someone else to incorporate as part of the parish histories. So that will be a day or two’s worth work – probably starting next week.

One thing that I should really note is how good it felt to get into the record office and back into primary sources. I reflected on this in a comment on this post, by someone else who is doing a DailyPhD style blog, although in the sciences rather than the humanities like me. Stewart commented on how he got ‘far too excited’ because he was doing real science (for a change, rather than other stuff) and it immediately struck home for me, because I felt the same way in the record office. Nothing quite like the smell of a record office in the morning… (!) but in all seriousness, I think most people who work as serious historians will recognise what I mean: the excitement that comes when handling old documents, primary sources, of figuring out how to make them relate to your theory, of the implications of them… For me, however, there’s the ‘ding’ moment when you find a document or something that completes the puzzle, makes your theory work, makes you understand something that you were trying to work out… how it contributes to the ding isn’t so important, but the ‘ding’ moment is this moment of incredible clarity where the world, just a little bit, a tiny little bit, suddenly makes sense, or more sense than it did before, and I just feel on cloud nine when I get that. I don’t know whether other historians feel the same way – its not something that I think most people would feel comfortable discussing!

Anyway, back to the week’s review. Thursday, I uploaded the photographs and PDFs (of the trade directories) from my phone to my laptop, so they’re in a better format for working with next week. This was easier said than done as previously I had done this on a one-by-one basis – not suitable when you’re dealing with several hundred photos! So I had to research, investigate and download a suitable app for downloading large amounts of material, and finally found one, then had to sort them out – what with one thing and another that took most of the afternoon. I also did some final preparation for Friday’s meeting, then rounded off the day with a little reading of an edited book.

The meeting on Friday went well – that was discussing a new job that I will be doing, very part time, working as a social media officer for the Leicestershire Victoria County History project. This is something I’m looking forward to getting involved with – even did a little work on it on Friday afternoon and was very happy to see results immediately, so that’s good news. I’m also hoping to put in for another part time job doing research – it all looks good on the CV and its something I enjoy doing, so why not?

Next week: More work on the social media project, applying for that other research role, more work on Charnwood Roots, starting to pull together that Lit Review, more reading, and more research work in the record office – can’t wait for that day, at least! My mother is dropping by for a cup of tea tomorrow, on the way past, so it will be good to see her too 🙂

the importance of evaluating citations

Back, after having had a bit of a break away from it all, and I have to say I do feel better for it.

I also had a meeting with the university librarians, who were very helpful in gaining an understanding of the importance of citations – or references. One way of measuring the impact of a book or article is to look at the number of times its been referenced or cited by someone else, because this indicates that its being talked about/written about. It IS a bit of a blunt instrument at times: it is difficult to measure, for example, edited books (where one chapter can be heavily read and the others, virtually ignored – but this won’t show up in the citation counts. The only way to tell that this is happening is where you handle the book and it falls open at one grubby looking, heavily annotated, scribbled on chapter… and all the other pages are pristine). Another thing to consider is the simple fact that a book that has been around for longer may have more citations than a book that was published last year. A simple way around that is to do the number of citations divided by the age of the book/article (in years) to give a rough idea of how many citations it gained per year – the higher the number, the more influential it is.

It’s important to be able to track the influence of a text or an idea because that way you have some idea of its contribution to the historiography, and this is critical when it comes to the lit review. So as well as trying to trace patterns in the literature, you also have to identify the most important texts, to identify how ideas have been introduced and developed. And this is why the first year of the PhD is often thought of as being given over to the lit review – because it isn’t JUST about reading, its about evaluation, of all different sorts of evaluation, as well as just understanding what each individual author has to say. Its about developing an expertise in the field so that when a new author comes in, with a new idea, you are able to grasp it and understand how what they’re saying relates to everything else in the field, and where those ideas have come from.

So, yes. I am particularly pleased to be able to develop this, to learn about using different databases to trace the influence of different texts, and being able to manipulate the data to show me new patterns in the literature. It’s all important!

Finally, I had some fantastic news last night: my first article has been accepted and will be published in an academic journal in January 2016. The article has also won a prize, which has really made my year, and is going to be responsible for telling my imposter syndrome to SIT, and STAY for quite some time 🙂

finding patterns in the literature

A key part of the PhD proposal – ANY PhD proposal, for that matter – is the literature review. This is where the proposer explains what has been done already, and how what they propose to do fits in with that. It’s a way of showing that they’re not repeating what has already been done (which is pretty pointless) and goes some way towards answering the ‘so what?’ question, which every PhD proposal (and thesis) has to answer. In a nutshell – Why should we care? Why is this important to the wider world, not to just a bunch of wierd academics who like examining these things in minute detail!

In the case of the PhD proposal, the lit review isn’t large – the section that deals with it suggests that it should contain around 200 words, which is – for a humanities student – miniscule. The corresponding section on the eventual PhD thesis would be around 5,000 words or so. Big difference between the two! The amount of reading that I need to do for a lit review directly corresponds to the word count – there’s no point in reading 20,000 books and articles for 200 words. At the same time, it is critically important that I am able to demonstrate an awareness of the key texts, terminology, concepts and debates in my chosen field, and that requires a certain amount of reading. A balance, therefore, is required, and finding that balance, determining it, is the difficult point.

Part of it has to begin with defining the field, thinking carefully about the boundaries of it and exactly what I am going to be studying. This is much easier said than done. I can say that I want to study relationships between the clergy and his parishioners in Herefordshire in the early modern period, which is good, as it defines the boundaries in terms of geographical place and in terms of time (1500-1700 or so, although this will need to be majorly tightened up on). Right now the woolly bit is that term, ‘relationships’. Defining relationships is tricky – and moreover, will be largely determined by how much source material there is available on the subject.

More than that though, at the moment, my mind is engaged in trying to establish patterns between the different secondary texts that I am reading at present. One way of doing this is very well described by The Thesis Whisperer, in ‘five ways to tame the literature review‘. The time aspect of this is really covered by the traditional-revisionist-postrevisionist perspective – I just need to figure out what those different positions would be saying about clergy-parshioner relationships, and more to the point, who is saying them. There’s also different types of issues that can crop up between a clergyman and his parishioners – the economic types (usually over tithes, enclosure, that sort of thing), social (for example, later on, clergy begin to take the role of magistrates and that brings a whole host of issues into play), religious (from the godly disliking priests, through to issues over vestments, communion tables, wives, – the potential issues in this area are never-ending) and moral (money, behaviour, etc.). There’s different ways of seeing the relationships – hierarchical, either top down or bottom up, there’s conflict vs co-operation, there’s management strategies – and that’s before you even get into examining power and the different ways that this can work in a parish, hugely dependent on the type of parish you have, the type of roles that are present, the type of people.  I’ve started to write out a spider diagram but it’ll be a while before it gets finished, but at least things are getting down onto paper.

I’m also trying to think in terms of identifying simple words to attach to each article or chapter from a book. Short, direct words, like you find in some cloud depictions, to try to see patterns. I may be overcomplicating that one for this stage of the lit review but it is still helping me to try to get some of the stuff in my head (and my head is starting to pound) down onto paper, where I can play around with ideas, concepts, and patterns. It may be a while before any sort of coherency begins to appear from the chaos, and at the moment I am very much working with preconceived patterns, that have been described in texts that I have been reading in the last five years. Whether I will be able to pick out my own patterns, remains to be seen.