Spaces for Reading

I recently had a chapter published in Spaces for Reading in Later Medieval England, edited by Mary Flannery and Carrie Griffin (New York, 2016). My bit’s about the various fixed physical markers for navigation that we find in medieval manuscripts—tabs, string, leather balls and so on—and I think it’s rather good—although I would say that, of course.

These little objects might seem less interesting than written marginalia, and aren’t as mobile as book ribbons or as mechanically sophisticated as book wheels (see this blog post for a good quick overview of all these types). But book ribbons and book wheels could move, and almost certainly all have moved since our period, and so we can’t now use them as evidence for readers’ attention to specific parts of books. Fixed markers, however, do let us track readers’ attention, or at least to track the parts of books which they expected to want to access rapidly. Continue reading

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Finishing the DPhil

Three years, two months and four days after starting, I submitted my thesis on 16 December 2015! This is not the end, of course. My viva is scheduled early next month, and I will probably make minor or major corrections. And even when the thesis is finished for good and deposited in the Bodleian it will only be a cross-section of my research from a particular moment. But submitting still felt very good!

As in my previous post about writing, I’m going to note down here a few more bits of advice, very much in the spirit of recording things I wish I’d known, and not all expecting to say anything particularly new. Continue reading

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There is a lot of advice about academic writing on the internet, usually full of imperative verbs, and I don’t feel I’m really qualified to add to it. But when I started out as a postgraduate I would have liked to have read something which addressed how we feel about writing (or at least, how I and most of the people I’ve asked feel about writing) and owned up to how unpleasant it sometimes is. So this post is a list for my younger self of things I’ve learned.

Pain is not a useful assessment

I enjoy writing but it is also almost always painful, even when it is going well. One of the key discoveries I made during my master’s was that this pain is not a reliable judgement of the work’s quality. When I am writing everything I write seems terrible. On returning to it later I often discover that it is indeed terrible, but sometimes it’s acceptable, and sometimes it is even good. In these cases there was never any difference in the amount of pain. I became much happier when I realised that when writing I can simply ignore how I feel, because I’m always going to feel the same. And if I write frequently I can at least get used to it.

Compromise is useful

When writing I oscillate between idealism (it has to be good) and pragmatism (it has to be finished). Both of these states are useful—necessary, even: it’s the idealism that makes me proof read carefully and propels me through the boring bits which justify the exciting paragraphs, while without pragmatism I’d never be able to say that what I have is good enough even if it isn’t the perfect piece I imagined when I started. Pragmatism’s also a useful mode of thought for limiting research plans. One of the most useful things anyone told me before I started doctoral work—and I think it was Mary Flannery who said it to me—was that on one level a PhD is simply an exercise like any other. It’s a big and intellectually stimulating thing, of course, and it’s a thing which is worth doing well, but it is also a thing you do to the expected standard and then submit.

I’ve learned that everything becomes much more efficient when I make an effort to notice these two impulses consciously and either harness or reject them as appropriate.

Despair is really bad

As some of the pastoralia I study are keen to emphasise! It’s fine and often perfectly logical to feel bad but I can be productive while feeling bad. Despair means stopping, which is much worse. Nowadays if I notice that I am starting to despair I try to talk about how my work is going to someone else as soon as I can.

Working can be thinking

‘Against Thinking’ by Peter Stallybrass (PMLA 122 (2007), 1580–87; accessible copies can be found by Googling) is one of the most useful bits of advice about thinking I’ve read, even if its core is a memo aimed at undergraduates. And despite its emphasis on databases and other such brushed-metal things, it chimes with even the most basic essay-writing approaches I used as an undergraduate, such as ‘do some close reading and see where it takes you, then think about the essay’. Stallybrass’s piece is perhaps deliberately provocative, but I would put the useful takeaway like this: for me, particularly at the beginning of any writing process, most of the thinking happens as part of the grindy, seemingly ‘less academic’ working.

Books about writing

Other than that, well, there are books out there about academic writing. From the few I’ve read I gather the research mostly points in one direction: for most of us effective writing is frequent and habitual writing. Have a schedule, stick to it, that sort of thing. I haven’t found anything much more developed than this, though it’s true that I haven’t been looking very hard. Is my writing frequent and habitual? Not nearly as much as I would like. But it heads that way in my more productive spells! And at least now I have a model of behaviour to aim for.

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The Happy Return

Before I witter about what I’ve been up to, some links.

Jenni Nuttall has been writing a series of helpful guides to different aspects of Middle English poetics on her blog. I can see these being primarily useful for an undergraduate audience, but I’ll admit I found reading them helpful myself—they’ve reminded me of some questions about the mechanics of form. What do we notice about the form of a poem, and why do we notice those things and not others? What did people notice in poems five hundred years ago, and how can we tell? These are questions which hang around the periphery of a chapter I’m returning to right now.

Also, the Bodleian’s new Weston Library is open and Sjoerd Levelt has a write-up. I visited on Monday and second his praise (and his hope that Duke Humphrey’s Library can remain as a reading room of some sort!). Continue reading

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Weblog 17 May 2014

First of all, a long-overdue link: Colleen Curran wrote up these notes on using the Vatican Library. I was linking to them in a post I half-drafted a month ago, but the post died in draft! So I’ve linked them now. This also seems like a good moment to mention that Colleen is one of the organisers of this exciting (and free!) conference in London on 3 June. Continue reading

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Visiting the British Library: Practical Notes

Reading this useful post on registering at the British Library reminded me that I’d been meaning to write up some practical remarks on visiting the place: things I wish I’d known myself when I started making trips there. I’m sure there are plenty of things I could still do more efficiently on day trips to the BL, but I hope that none of the following thoughts are wrong and that some of them might be useful to someone. Continue reading

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