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I’ve taken part in Academic Writing Month for the past two years. Some academics use this as a period of very concentrated intensive writing, writing for many hours each day they can manage it. That isn’t an option for me with my neurological disease, which wipes me out for most of the time, and means any writing has to be fitted in occasionally, in short concentrated bursts. So instead I use it to prioritise finishing off some outstanding projects, getting them done and dusted, and out of the house. It’s also a good ritual to go through to build up good writing practices, fitting in writing in limited time around other things.

Academic Writing Month starts on 1st November. For a good description see here.

Because it’s coming up soon I’m going to declare my AcWriMo goals in this blog. I will then blog about my progress during November, including a reflective blog at the end of the month looking back on how things went.

My three goals for AcWriMo 2014 are:

  • Get a journal paper in progress – a cross of book history and urban history – ready for a colleague to read, and thus that bit nearer final submission. At the moment it still has a few too many sections still to fill in, including some relevant historiography.
  • Produce a revised version of an accepted prizewinning journal paper, based on the editor’s suggestions. This will get it nearer to being published. I will have it ready to email to the editor by November 30th.
  • Produce first rough draft of a journal paper based on my SHARP Antwerp conference talk about Doctor Who and its fanzines. This will involve converting my spoken talk (largely improvised on the day, with slides supporting) into written text, and seeing how long that is in terms of words, and which areas might need further development post November.

Yesterday was the third day of the Worldcon, but my second day there, and indeed my last day. Because of my MS-like illness I need to pace myself very carefully, resting before and after big days. So once the programme of events was confirmed I decided to attend on Thursday and Saturday only. My husband however is attending on all days.

First impressions on our return to the convention were that there were more staff and volunteers visible, something I’d voiced concerns about in my last blog post. Security staff were checking that everyone coming in to the events was a paid-up Worldcon member. And there were more volunteers and helpers, including an access lady who was standing by the lift on Level 3, and gave us our proper access ribbons (to be visible for extra help mobility-wise, for me, and husband as my plus 1) to replace the temporary versions we got on Thursday. We also noticed more cosplayers i.e. fans in costume e.g. Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Lara Croft, Link from Zelda, and many others. And there were more people generally.

That last point caused some problems. In particular a number of rooms were overcrowded in terms of people wanting to get in, but were turned away. In addition I think some panels had been placed in too small venues, including the Doctor Who panel I attended, which was filling up rapidly half an hour before start time, and in the end was standing room only, despite rules introduced that said people without seats shouldn’t stay – at least more fans got to experience the talk, but it should have been in a larger room. Other people on Twitter commented about this in other panels.

My first panel of the day was at 10am, a retrospective looking at 1938 in scifi and fantasy, picking up on 1938 being the Retro Hugos year at this Worldcon. The panelists, including Jo Walton and John Clute, really knew their stuff, and gave a fascinating insight into the time. I particularly liked their analysis of differences between what scifi fandom then and now would perceive to have been the best works of 1938, based partly on what we are familiar with, including earlier and later years, but also based on how a 2014 audience defines scifi compared with a 1938 one. For example the panelists thought it unlikely that massively selling pulp magazine “Weird Tales” would have been perceived as scifi, and likewise both “The Sword in the Stone” – which won this year’s Retro Hugo award for best novel in 1938 – and “Out of the Silent Planet” were at the time viewed as respectively a children’s book and a literary work. As someone who voted in the Retro Hugo awards this year I found Jo Walton’s observations on the difficulties voters faced echoed many of my feelings. I only felt confident enough to vote in the Best Novel and Best Dramatic Presentation Short Form categories, and even then I had not read or listened to all of the works, but was confident enough in my assessment that my choices “The Sword in the Stone” and Orson Welles’s radio version of “The War of the Worlds” were outstanding, and I should vote for them anyway. Both won the Retro Hugo, which the panel agreed with, albeit with the caveat that the book would not have been even shortlisted. But I felt quite unable to vote in the short story or other categories, and this is largely because I’m not familiar with the pulp magazines of the time, and the Retro Voting Packet did not include the material. As a book historian I found some of the statistics for the pulps astonishing: circulation figures of hundreds of thousands in North America, which meant that they were the main way many people encountered sci fi, far more so than in published books. A fascinating panel anyway, and remarkably well attended – a packed room – for 10am on a Saturday morning, as one panelist observed.

After that we explored the dealers’ hall again. I was particularly keen to get back to the PS Publishing stall, a UK publisher I’ve bought a lot from in the past. This time I wanted to look through their reprints of 1950s horror comics, which I’d considered buying previously, but being able to flick through them and choose just the ones I wanted was much better. I found out later I got a real bargain: both paperback books for £8 each at the Worldcon stall, versus £14.99 each if bought normally. After that we looked at some more of the displays, and especially those about the history of Worldcons and scifi fandom in the UK. I photographed a bit of a poster about the history of Leeds fandom – Leeds apparently held the world’s first scifi convention in 1937! – and emailed it to my Yorkshire-born Dad, whose Dad was born in Leeds.

Horror comic reprints bought

Then we had early lunch at the Cornish pasty shop further along the boulevard on Level 1. My husband’s paternal ancestry is Cornish, and indeed our surname is Cornish, so it hadn’t taken him long to find that stall the day before and try it out! Tasty lunch, and convenient and quick. And best of all, as we were sitting munching, my husband spotted my former university classmate and friend walking by, and called him over. It was wonderful to see him again. We don’t live too far apart in Scotland, and keep meaning to arrange to meet, but with my fluctuating health it’s difficult. But we were students together, graduating in computer science 20 years ago, and the only two single honours students in our year which had a tiny class size. So we were able to catch up, and had a lovely chat. I also met his academic mother (St Andrews has a system pairing new undergraduates with more senior students – their “academic parents”) which was nice.

After this we headed towards my second panel of the day, the Doctor Who Restoration Team. As I said earlier I think this was put into far too small a venue. Fortunately though we got there early, and I was able to nab a good wheelchair space. I twittered about how packed the room was, which gave another friend warning to leave his panel early and come round promptly to be sure of a seat! And I was able to meet someone I’ve only corresponded with online before. The panel was good, though let down a bit by the panelists being out of sight for most of the audience, too low down. Also it was a little too talky, at least at the start, but improved as it went on, and the various panelists got into the nitty gritty of how they do the restoration. This wasn’t just about restoring the visual images, but also how they restore problems with the audio tracks, as guru Mark Ayres explained. We also learned how old material is still being thrown away even now, which was thoroughly depressing. The panel included a number of clips from “Out of the Unknown” which the team has been working on recently. There was also a fascinating question and answer session at the end, including one lady – Scottish no less! – who had worked at the BBC in the 1970s, and had probably created some of the video recordings which the team were now trying to restore. All in all very enjoyable, and very glad that I got to this event in particular.

After this my husband and I explored the fan village for the first time. We saw the TARDIS model on display, though the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones had been removed by now. I also picked up some material for the proposed bid for a Worldcon in Dublin in 2019. I’d love to go to that, as someone with a Dublin-born great granny. We even got a Dublin 2019 badge ribbon to add to our growing collection. And then because we were both so thirsty we plumped for cider. Really strong cider! My husband is from Somerset, and he was rather bowled over by it. After that there was time to browse some of the free leaflets, before we headed back to our hotel.

As I said it was the last day of the con for me, but I’m delighted I came. I enjoyed all the panels I went to, had great fun in the dealers’ room and displays, and had a great chance to meet friends old and new. Generally I’ve been impressed by the organisation, which has, by and large, run very smoothly. I like the venue used, and as a wheelchair user while here found it easy to get around. I also found all the fans I enountered friendly, smart and cheerful, and a very good advert for scifi and fantasy fandom in general. And yes, if it comes back to this rough part of the world in 2019, I will be back!

I’m currently attending the Worldcon sci fi convention, which this year is being held at London, at the ExCeL convention centre on the Docklands. I last went to a Worldcon in 2005, for a day flying visit when it was held in Glasgow. I vowed then that if it came back to the UK again I would attend properly, including travelling if need be to stay in a nearby hotel. And I am.

Because of a progressive MS-like illness I have to use a wheelchair for some of the time, especially on longer more intensive days. And this meant that I could apply to the con organisers for suitable accessible hotel accommodation, which for mobility challenged people was largely in the Aloft London ExCeL hotel, right by the convention centre. So that’s where my husband and I are staying. We have a wheelchair accessible room, and being so close to the con has had an unexpected benefit. I’ve been able to return from the con to lie down in the day several times: great when I’m starting to feel really wobbly, and would be impossible if our hotel was further away.

The con runs over five days, from Thursday through to Monday, 14th to 18th August 2014. The queues for registration on the morning of Thursday were massive, causing some problems. But because of my wheelchair we were told to skip the queues, go straight to the access team, and were registered with their help very quickly. This left us time to explore before our first panel, and we explored the various eateries in the convention centre. On the downside the dealers’ room would not open on the first day until 1pm – quite late given that people were queuing for registration from 9am. So this caused us to rejig our plans a little, and switch to a different first panel, to allow us time after to explore all the goodies on sale, as well as the artworks and other displays in the same room.

There are over a dozen panels on simultaneously at any given time, with many hundreds of scheduled events over the five days. This makes it quite a challenge to pick what to attend: often you find there are multiple things you want to go to at the same time. But it’s nice to be spoilt with choice, and there is some freedom for people to nip in and out of panels as needed. But being prepared helps, and my husband and I both spent some time before the convention, studying the programme carefully and marking up those panels that might be of interest to us. Even then there were some difficult decisions to make!

Our first Thursday panel was at noon, an astronomy one, with Professor Tim Horbury talking about the ESA Solar Orbiter mission, which he is actively involved with. My husband’s day job is space technology research, and I studied astronomy for two years at university, so have an active interest in it too. And this was an excellent talk, well judged time and content-wise, with excellent visuals. I found it particularly interesting to get an insight into what it is like to be a principal investigator on a research project like this, which also gave us an idea of what it must be like for my husband’s boss day to day! There was also a lively question and answer section at the end. I asked firstly a double question about how long it would take the orbiter to reach the Sun once launched, and how quickly it would start sending results and how fast they would come back. And then when the answer brought up the issue of results going online I had to ask in what data format – former computer scientist coming out in me there! Anyway that was answered well, as were the other questions.

One nice thing about the con is that speakers are given warning about when to stop, and are encouraged to wrap up about 15 minutes before the end of the panel, allowing time for this panel’s audience to leave the room, and for the next panel’s audience to come in promptly. On the downside it seemed – and this may be a misimpression on my part – that there was a shortage of con volunteers around at times. For example there was a blind con goer in our second panel, using just his white stick, who really could have done with a volunteer accompanying him, or at least being in the room and noticing when he needed help. My husband gave him some assistance, but was unable to spot any con helpers outside to take over after.

After our first panel we explored the dealers’ stalls, which by now had opened. Much to see, but I was able to resist most temptations. Though I did give in and buy – as expected! – a second beeblebear for our household: a two-headed, three-pawed teddy bear with eyepatch sold by the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy appreciation society, ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha. Normally these are only for sale to members of the society – and I am a member – but today anyone could buy them. And I got a free badge for him (“Don’t Panic!”) and had a good chat with the ZZ9 stallholders.

New beeblebear

We also took the chance to look at many of the displays and artworks on show. The artworks were generally very impressive, though I thought some artists missed a chance by not having a business card or leaflet with their name people could take away with them. Many of the artworks are being sold over the next few days, and there are some gorgeous pieces available. Likewise there are many displays of items of interest, including a large number of astronomy-related ones, which appealed to us both. And my husband took part in an ongoing experiment where people breathe out to see if they are a methane emitter or not, which provided some amusement!

After this we nipped back briefly to the hotel for me to have a lie down – braving the biblical downpour and thunder and lightning outside. Then we were back for the 4.30pm Tolkien Society talk. This is another literary society I’m a member of, and they are sponsoring a number of events at the Worldcon. This one saw David Brawn of HarperCollins, the man responsible for looking after Tolkien publishing for 20 years, reflect on the last 20 years, and how things have evolved, including their links with the Peter Jackson movies.

This was a fascinating talk for me, as an academic book historian. The audience was gifted to an eye-opening insight into the publishing world, including some of the difficult decisions they have to make, and the delicate balancing act of respecting the wishes of the Tolkien Estate. I took masses of notes during the talk, noting some of the statistics cited, as well as anecdotes. And it was particularly impressive that the speaker spoke in a very informal ad lib way, working from a minimal set of notes. On the downside he spoke for a little too long, which reduced the time for questions. But what he said was so very interesting, that I don’t think anyone in the audience minded. I asked the first of the three or so questions answered, curious to know more about the Tolkien Estate’s attitude to ebooks, saying for example that I would love to read Christopher Tolkien’s “The History of Middle Earth” series of books in an ebook form. I was rather expecting to hear that the family is not very keen on ebooks, but was delighted to learn that they have adopted them eagerly, though not as early adopters, preferring to allow the technology to settle down, and viewing them primarily as a way of supporting the reading experience. And there are problems with publishing “History” in this format, partly because of how best to handle the extensive linked notes, but more critically because of many strange characters used, which in the past ereaders did not support well. But innovations since mean that it should just be a matter of time before “History” is available in this format, alongside all the other Tolkien books, though probably after the publisher has finished dealing with all the publications linked to the current Hobbit trilogy of films.

That was our final panel of the day, and afterwards we met friends for cocktails in our hotel bar, and a good chat, which was lovely. Then dinner, and a fairly early night, after a very long, but rewarding day. I will be resting tomorrow, but my husband will be attending the con while I sleep. I will be back there with him on Saturday, for more eagerly-anticipated panels.

I’ve just discovered that the UK-wide National Register of Archives is to be shut down imminently. Instead researchers are directed towards The National Archives’ new Discovery catalogue, to search across the board.

I’ve rather mixed views about this, generally not very happy. The National Register of Archives (NRA) may not be that well known among historical researchers, but it provided a way of accessing records held in other locations, in particular in private hands. So family estate papers, business records and so on that hadn’t made their way into any of the UK main archives.

When I was doing my postgraduate Masters degree I used the NRA to find the records of the Earls of Haddington, which I needed to check for my research into 17th century court records – a court that was controlled back then by that family. Similarly during my PhD I used the NRA to uncover potentially useful records for my research into Scottish reading habits about 200 years ago.

In some ways the NRA is an artefact of a long time ago, a rather archaic system, reflecting a pre-World Wide Web time, when searches were always conducted offline, in paper catalogues. So on the one hand integrating it into Discovery is progress and makes sense. But I’m concerned that the new search system may not make it so easy to search just these scattered records, and a search could be swamped for example by results from the UK national archive in London. Also as a Scot I’m wondering how well the new catalogue will reflect Scottish-held records, both in main archives like the National Records of Scotland and elsewhere.

Note also that the NRA webpage at the moment is a little broken, inviting users to use the new Discovery catalogue instead, but using a link that is broken and produces a 404 “Not Found” HTTP error. Hopefully that will be fixed.

I spent today at the opening day of the 6th Annual St Andrews Book Conference. I’m a bit alarmed as a book historian that I’ve missed the prior events. I will try not to miss future ones! Though having said that, the focus of these conferences seems to be on the Medieval, Renaissance and Early Modern periods, which is quite different from the 18th and early 19th centuries my research focuses on. The theme of this year’s conference was how book historians can tackle the difficult problem of researching books that are now lost, but can in at least some cases be detected through other evidence, like inventories, printers’ lists, etc.

The conference was held in St John’s House on South Street, an old building which is not very wheelchair friendly. And I had to use my wheelchair while there, to be able to last for the whole day. Luckily the organisers Flavia Bruni and Andrew Pettegree were very accommodating, and kindly moved the main talks to a room I could access, with disabled toilet too. My husband accompanied me as my helper, and was admitted free, and fed/watered. He is an academic at another university, and was easily able to access the Eduroam wireless network for academic visitors on his iPad, though conference visitors were also given guest Internet accounts.

The conference started with opening words from organiser Andrew Pettegree. Although he researches a very different book history period from me I found much of general application in what he said. For example the books produced in a country are not the only ones read there, which echoes my later 18th century research into Scottish reading habits. Likewise surviving editions are no surrogate for production, which may seem to have obvious application in the Early Modern period, but was also relevant to me researching circa 1800, and now starting to wonder how good a guide existing imprints are to printing and publishing concentrations!

The opening session was two longer talks. These were quite thought-provoking, and I suspect there may be further heated discussion tomorrow, between those who advocate a more statistical approach, and those who consider using statistics and similar techniques in this context poses enormous problems. As a former scientist, albeit one who later picked up three more (history) degrees, I am open to statistical techniques, with care. I am sorry that I will be missing tomorrow’s talks on modelling book survival by Jonathan Green, Frank McIntyre, and Goran Proot. I must seek out their writings on the subject. As a downside the opening speakers often assumed that the audience had more knowledge of certain 15th and 16th century book history aspects than I certainly did. A little explanation might have helped, for book historians in the audience, like me, researching other periods. Not everyone there was an Early Modern specialist, or familiar with the same research tools or terminology.

Lunch followed. I was stuck in the talk room, because of my wheelchair, but my husband fetched food and drink for me, and others also kindly offered to help. I was also able to have a good long chat with a colleague and friend, and with others too. So although I was away from the main lunch venue I did not feel too left out. I also bought a Brill academic book from the reduced offers, having sent my husband upstairs to check out the titles on offer, photograph the display stands on his iPad, then bring down titles of interest for me to look at, before filling out the order form with the Brill rep.

The two main afternoon sessions contained three talks each. In the first there was a good mix of scholars from Sweden, St Andrews and Italy. I particularly liked Alexandra Hill’s talk about her research into the English Stationers’ Company Register. As I said to her in the question section after, her findings of which books were more likely to be preserved and survived versus those more likely to be lost echoed my own research into book buying, collecting and reading habits two centuries later. I also greatly appreciated that her talk was extremely well judged in timing terms, and made excellent use of PowerPoint. Some more experienced speakers today could have learned lessons from her, particularly on how to time a talk for a conference – practice, practice, practice!

The second afternoon session looked at dispersal of collections. Again a nice mix of talks, feeding well into each other. I was struck for example by Anna Giulia Cavagna speaking of a 16th century library taking five (yes five!) years to be transported from Vienna to Italy. I quizzed her about this afterwards, and it was very enlightening to learn more details about how valuable books were transported, slowly, with negotiation, and much care. It also tied in nicely to some of the afternoon’s earlier speakers.

I had to miss the evening’s closing session which was in an inaccessible venue for me, although the relevant curator had offered to give me a private tour, which I had to decline due to illness. But this was not a problem. I very much enjoyed what I was able to attend, and was very glad to be there. Thanks also to the session chairs for allowing me to ask a question three times. I’m fairly clueless when it comes to the 15th and 16th century and book history, but was inspired enough by what the speakers had said to engage with their research, and quiz them further. Thank you to all for being so accommodating.

The conference continues tomorrow and on Saturday morning. Sadly I will have to miss these due to my MS-like illness: I always had to choose one main day, with a slight hope (but not happening now) of attending on the final morning too. But I am very pleased with what I was able to attend, and found it quite inspiring. For example I’m currently working on several new journal papers, and one of these, albeit that it is looking at book history in the 18th and early 19th centuries, picks up nicely on some of the themes from today. So that is extremely useful, and it was a very worthwhile day.

So often as an academic historian I’m asked to explain my research interests. It’s rather broad. I typically say I’m a social, cultural, urban and reading historian, with particular interests in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. But of these my main focus is the late 18th and early 19th century – part of the so-called long 18th century – and I was musing on how I got to that.

My first academic history study at university was a 16th century course with the Open University. Then this was followed by a 19th and 20th century course on family and community history, also with the Open University. And then two classical studies courses completed my Open University BA(Hons), on Homeric poetry and archaeology, and the early Roman empire. But although I was interested in all of these periods, none of these completely grabbed me.

I suppose the 18th century beckoned with my subsequent postgraduate taught Masters course in Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850. This course was led by Professor Charles McKean, and focused in particular on the 18th century, and the cultural changes that happened, and changes in towns, particularly throughout Scotland and Britain, but also overseas, for example in Europe and North America. And I found it fascinating, particularly from an intellectual viewpoint. It was a period of such change, but also such influence on later times. And it was a period rich in historical evidence to allow it to be studied. Of course I retained my interest in other periods. In particular my Masters dissertation looked at late 17th century court records for the Melrose area, although this was partly because of this being something I could work on easily from home, using largely transcribed records. I was very much not a specialist in that time period.

Then my 18th century interest, and early 19th too, grew further for a year as I worked as a research assistant on a pilot study looking at the cultural development of small Scottish towns. The pilot study looked at the towns in Angus, former Forfarshire, and it was my job to work through a mass of records for the various burghs. This was followed years later by a larger study of small towns Scotland-wide, which has led to a book which is about to be published. But my MS-like illness had progressed too much for me to work on the main project. My year on the pilot study was glorious though. I learned how towns grew and changed in 18th century Scotland and Britain, and how the cultural and social facilities were transformed. Again fascinating, intellectually.

And then my history PhD built on this, again focusing on circa 1750-1820, but this time looking at reading habits. And again there were intellectual challenge reasons. It was a period of huge change in the print trade and growth of reading venues, one of the biggest reading revolutions Scotland, and indeed Britain, has seen. Studying reading habits was more of a needle in a haystack hunt than studying urban history, with far fewer sources to work with, and more need for efficient use of those you could find. But in a way that made it even more fun.

So I suppose I am a specialist now in the 18th century, though I still have much to learn about it. And I still retain my interests in the other periods. For example I am preparing an academic journal paper based upon my Melrose 17th century court research, and still tinker with the 19th century. And, taking things even further forward, my SHARP 2014 book history conference talk looks at the TV series Doctor Who and its fanzines in the late 20th and 21st centuries – quite a challenge for me given my past record. But fun!

Another day, another post looking back on my PhD days. I’ve been getting a little exasperated in the last few days, reading comments by full-time PhD students who are bemoaning their funding running out at the end of the third year, for both financial reasons and lack of time to complete. But this is the situation that many part-timers are in all the way through their degrees, especially humanities students, where funding is much scarcer than for science students.

Unlike full-time students part-time PhD students don’t have the luxury of being able to work full-time at a PhD, and instead have to squeeze it in at weekends and evenings as they can, around any job and for example family commitments. It’s difficult, it requires a lot of guts and determination. Some fall by the wayside, but many do complete. And I don’t think full-timers really appreciate just what part-timers go through.

I’ve been both a full-time and part-time PhD student. Part-time was much much harder. It required guts, sticking power, and sheer determination to complete. But the sense of self-reward at the end was huge.

I just wish some full-timers would stop moaning about their funding running out, and think about other options. Get a job if you can, and switch to part-time study for the rest – it can be done!

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