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I recently read this book, published by the University of Chicago Press, in their Writing, Editing and Publishing series. It’s a compact paperback, 166 pages long.

The book is divided into 28 main chapters, split across the following core sections:

  • Writing in Academe
  • Using Tools that Work
  • Challenging Writing Myths
  • Maintaining Momentum
  • Building Writing Support

Of these I found the sections on tools, challenging writing myths and maintaining momentum most effective. The book’s author is nicely to the point, doesn’t mess about, but gives straightforward, honest advice. There’s much that many academics could benefit from, including making time for writing in a busy academic life, dealing with imposter syndrome, and coping with perfectionism. I also found the book had great advice for handling multiple projects at once, and the generally less often discussed challenge of keeping writing fun, in a context in which it might often seem to become a chore.

On the downside I did personally have big issues with the depiction of humanities scholars, presented as people with only one writing task to focus on, and a relatively easier task as a result than scientists. As an academic scientist turned historian this didn’t fit with my experience. Humanities scholars often juggle multiple writing projects at once too. And, perhaps even more crucially, are often single authors, so must handle all the tasks of academic writing, not shared among a group i.e. all of research, planning, writing, revising, editing, submitting, dealing with peer review, and hopefully proofreading and final publication processes. The challenge can be immense. I don’t think the author of the book grasped that at all. Perhaps she was looking back to more halcyon days.

I also found that it was a shame the book avoided commonly used writing terms like procrastination, which can often be such a problem for many doctoral students. The book does have some good writing tips for postgraduates, but is aimed squarely at later stage academics, who have more challenges fitting writing in alongside their other academic workload. Though the book could be of more benefit to part-time postgraduates than full-timers, who must fit vital writing time in around other commitments, including in some cases full-time jobs. I just think that with a few relatively small tweaks and refocusing the book could have been adjusted to help more postgraduate students as well.

So yes I do have critiques. But generally I came away from it feeling very positive. I don’t think that any academic would use every tip and idea in there. But there are lots of good ones presented. And many ideas challenge oft-held unproductive mindsets. It’s also an easy read, well written, that you can dip in and out of. So yes, thumbs up.

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I recently read the new book by Murray Pittock about Edinburgh in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and thought I’d jot down some notes. I was keen to read it, having studied urban history in my postgraduate taught Masters degree. But I also worked as the research assistant on the Scottish small towns project started by Bob Harris at Dundee, and later involving Charles McKean. Both of whom were successively my history PhD supervisors.

The book considers what made Edinburgh at this time such an ideal breeding ground for Enlightenment ideas. To do this the book examines the nature of Edinburgh society, the myriad of networks and connections within the city, and the wider influences at play, such as European links. A series of chapters focus on specific topics and themes in detail, such as trades and professions, the arts, and the literary aspect of life in the city as seen in bookshops and libraries. Generally these sections of the book worked well, and especially those where the complex intermingling of different parts of society was clearly demonstrated. The huge number of pieces of evidence cited could be overwhelming, but is generally well handled, and used effectively. A rare weaker subsection for me was that on divisions within the Church, which seemed to be more narrative than argumentative, and not adequately tied in to wider Edinburgh society and the core arguments that the book was making. But this was a rare exception in what was, generally, a well-written series of chapters and case studies, which amply demonstrated the complex networks within Edinburgh society well.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter examining demographic and socio-cultural aspects of Edinburgh life at this time. This relied to a large extent on incomplete data, especially for the seventeenth century. Fortunately a number of key sources were well utilised, and this chapter laid essential groundwork for all those that followed. Likewise I was constantly struck by how many connections the book highlighted between Edinburgh and the Netherlands, including in trade, education and the arts. I hadn’t realised that these links were so strong at this time, and the book demonstrated this very effectively.

Happily I also greatly enjoyed the chapter about print and reading culture, with its astute presentation of the state of newspapers, bookshops and libraries in Edinburgh. This was a mix of detailed examples – for example Allan Ramsay – and more numerous pieces of evidence, such as an insightful discussion of Edinburgh bookselling as a whole. I also appreciated, given that this fell within my PhD speciality, that this chapter of the book was reassuringly well grounded on prior research and academic writings.

I do have some other critiques though. Firstly for a book incorporating modern Smart City theory so prominently, including in its title and the publisher’s marketing and advertising, I would have preferred a more straightforward explanation of what Smart City theory is, and, indeed, what constitutes a Smart City. There is some coverage of this in the opening chapter, but not to the point enough for me; a pity in a chapter otherwise very good at introducing key concepts to the reader, such as theories of and approaches to the Enlightenment and relevant wider Scottish history. I wonder if the Smart City emphasis was added later in the publication process, but given the title of the book it would have been good to see it addressed more directly at the start.

The other major omission for me is the lack of any concluding chapter. In the print culture chapter the very last paragraph does act as an overall conclusion of a sort. But it’s extremely short, and it would have been nice to allow more space for reflection and a summary of the factors that made Edinburgh at this time such a hotspot for fermenting Enlightenment ideas. A section briefly addresses this in the opening chapter, but it was a shame not to see the threads of the arguments drawn together at the end of the book. Also some of these ideas have been theorised before, for example I well remember my supervisor Charles McKean covering many similar arguments in our urban history seminars nearly twenty years ago. But it could have been usefully summarised here, along with a clear statement of the book’s new contributions to the academic debate.

Those are downsides, but in other respects I would recommend this book highly to readers, and think that it makes an extremely valuable contribution to Scottish history in this period, and urban and Enlightenment history more generally. I would also like to praise how readable it is, very much a page turner. I found it frequently highly compelling, and dripping with interesting snippets. Also I would like to praise the decision to initially publish the book as a low-cost paperback alongside a more costly hardback version. This is still relatively unusual for an academic history book, and makes the book affordable for a wider audience, as it deserves to be.

I’ve blogged here before about my reading problems, from the neurological illness (cerebral vasculitis, very MS-like) I’ve lived with since 1994. From quite early on in my illness I was struggling more and more with print. Even large print books were a struggle. Luckily ebooks helped, when they appeared, but I still struggled with academic books, including throughout my history PhD. Which, ironically, was on historic reading habits.

Well I’m pleased to report that there are signs that my reading of print books may be recovering a little bit, or at least improving. In the last few months I’ve managed to read two non-fiction books (one academic, the other pretty in-depth), in print form. Very slowly, no more than a chapter at a time, and often less than that. And often quite extended periods before I can read any more. But even this is something I couldn’t possibly have tackled in many previous years.

There’s still no way I could tackle reading a long novel or similar in print, including in large print format. But if I can manage to catch up on some of my backlog of academic non-fiction books, albeit slowly, that would be brilliant. It would also help me move some of my planned academic history research projects forward.

My cerebral vasculitis is in a much more stable state at the moment, and the improved reading would fit along with that. But it couldn’t be assumed to happen, especially after so long. It may be that my brain is rewiring a little bit. There are probably limits to how much better it would get, given everything. Anyway it’s all very encouraging.

Recently thanks to the Meeple Like Us boardgames blog I learned about the idea of a Depth Year, to cut consumerism, focus on what you already have etc. To read more about the concept, see their post. There’s also a related Facebook group.

I really like the Depth Year idea. My goals are modest. I’m not going to cut out new purchases totally. But I’d like to catch up more on things I already have.

Because of a MS-like illness I rely on ebooks mostly to read now. I can adjust the font size and spacing hugely. My Kindle is a bit of a lifesaver, but I usually buy bargain 99p books I want, that I’ve previously put on my wishlist at full price. I’ll still do that, but will focus on reading things I already have.

Alongside that I have a number of academic books and research projects that I want to get on with. All severely hampered by extreme reading problems and time/energy issues from the illness. My goals there are more extreme: no new purchases next year, and focus on working through my existing ones.

One big weakness of mine is Big Finish Doctor Who audios. I’m prone to buying new ones when I haven’t listened to all my old ones! I’d like to say no new purchases in 2019, but 2019 is a special anniversary year for Big Finish, and they’re bringing out some stunners that I’m very keen to get. And that will shoot up in price after. So I will be buying. But before then I want to prioritise listening to my backlog, and selling on eBay in CD form anything that I won’t want to keep.

That last point also relates to clearing out my study. It’s a calving as I’d be told about my bedroom as a child 😉 So, again, read or listen, then choose to discard (sell on eBay or give away) or for a few things keep. Aim being to clear out stuff.

Where I probably won’t cut back is on my monthly subscription comics. I really enjoy getting these in the post, from Forbidden Planet. But since I usually sell them straight on afterwards, and often for quite a profit, I think that’s ok.

So yes, a mix of modest goals, bearing in mind my situation. Aim to try to catch up on my backlog, reduce new intake, and have a good time.

I wanted to blog a bit about what my life has been like since 1994, and the struggles I cope with that people can’t see. There’s still very much a perception among the public and medical staff that you can judge someone’s health by looking at them, or in a short interview. This is the core basis of many things, including benefit assessments, medical consultations etc. But for fluctuating largely invisible illnesses it’s hugely flawed.

I fell ill with what would turn out to be cerebral vasculitis in 1994, aged just 22. This is a literally 1 in a million diagnosis (no I’m not making that incidence up!) and it can be very difficult to diagnose. I was misdiagnosed with ME at first, and only diagnosed properly in 1997 after brain scans and then many more tests. My form was initially similar to ME but then changed to be closer to multiple sclerosis, in a somewhat relapsing-remitting form, but also rather progressive. I’m not going to recount the whole medical history, which is summarised online. But it’s a struggle to stay alive, and it’s amazing I’m still here 21 years after that delayed eventual correct diagnosis. Chemotherapy, steroids and immunosuppression drugs (many lifelong) keep me alive, and slow down further brain damage.

What I wanted to focus on in this post is the invisible and fluctuating nature of my illness. Since not long after 1994 I’ve used a stick permanently, and more recently two. And since the late 1990s I’ve had my own manual wheelchair for occasional use. Yes those are visible signs of disability, and people do, thankfully, usually notice them, and take them into account. But other than this I can look very well. Chunky from steroids, but otherwise looking well. If I had a pound for every time someone said “You look well!” I’d be rich. Each time I want to cry – it’s not how I am. But what can you say. I get particularly exasperated when a medic says it.

What someone looking at me can’t see are the hidden symptoms. They can’t see how I struggle to control my bladder, and have to wear incontinence pads permanently, since I was in my early 20s. They can’t see inside my brain, to understand how as a conversation goes on I get more and more brain tired, have more trouble hearing, speaking without slurring, and just thinking full stop. All things that worsen as I’m more tired, that you won’t see, until it gets extremely noticeable, and by then it’s probably far too late for me, and I should have gone back to bed to rest long before then.

You’ll see me for just a short time when I get out, but won’t see how much I’ve had to rest – sleep solidly! – the day before any appointment or meet up, so I’m well enough to manage that outing. And equally how I will be knocked out and sleeping solidly both after I get home and the day after, because of what the effort to get out takes out of me. I make this effort because I want to have fun, and do things, but it always takes a lot out of me. Yes I may be smiling and happy when you see me for a short time, but I’m exhausted before and after, and it’s not easy.

Also I may use a wheelchair one day, and other days not. Or get out of my wheelchair part way through and walk with sticks after. That doesn’t mean that the wheelchair wasn’t needed, and that I’m fine. It just means that it’s done its job helping me to do what I need to do. And yes, I will still crash badly afterwards.

Nor do you see how much I need to sleep. As my disease has gone on over the years I’ve found that I need to sleep more and more. The amount increases during a relapse or flare, and can go as high as 18 hours total a day, every day, day after day, for weeks or even months. As the inflammation in my brain reduces the amount of sleep needed per day usually drops too, but it’s never anywhere remotely near normal. Often it’s as though I’ve been given a horse tranquilliser, and I’m very sedated and confused. I can’t fight it – if I do I risk at best making myself vomit uncontrollably as my body fights back, or at worst more serious brain damage happening, if I push myself too far. I’ve learned the hard way that I need to go along with my body, and that this increased sleeping is my brain’s way of protecting itself, especially during increased periods of disease activity. But it’s still difficult. And other people usually haven’t the remotest clue. They’ll think I have the normal amounts of time that others have per day to do things, whereas in reality I’m snatching odd hours here and there, as I can, sometimes weeks or even months apart. My first history PhD supervisor used to say he marvelled at how productive I would be in such a short time, which I found a really insightful and understanding comment.

One of the most infamous medical interviews I had was with a neurologist, who because I’d completed a PhD was convinced I couldn’t have significant brain problems. But I did that PhD in the most difficult circumstances. Part-time yes, but way more part-time than that sounds. For much of the time, including writing my thesis, I was working on the PhD in one hour chunks, spread throughout the week, for no more than five hours total a week. After each hour, for example writing more of my thesis, I would be so brain tired that it would take me up to a couple of days to recover before I could have another hour’s go. All because of my brain disease. But nope, I looked fine clearly, and this neurologist had no understanding. Luckily I didn’t rely on him for treatment,

I’m tired now, so will wrap this up. But I hope it’s given an insight into what living with an invisible and fluctuating disease can be like. If you have a friend or family member with something like this, please think twice before saying “You are looking well!” It may not be the most supportive way you can help them. And don’t prejudge strangers you encounter, including with Blue Badges.

Earlier this year I researched the history of this building, the first time I’d done that type of historical research. And I thought it might be useful to reflect on my experiences of doing it.

I did have some advantages going in. My postgraduate taught Masters degree was partly in urban history, taught by architectural historian Professor Charles McKean. So I picked up some tips. As well I had my academic historical research experience, and 35+ years as an amateur genealogist. So I was well used to researching people in the past, and the main sources that can help. But this was still a new challenge.

I was prompted to do it when I spotted that 2018 was the 200 year anniversary of the building where my husband works, now the HQ for the space technology company STAR-Dundee. They are a Dundee University spinoff company, and the building used to be university owned. Earlier its history was much less clear, though it was believed to have been a merchant’s house originally, and built for a man called James Gray.

So not too much to go on, when I wackily emailed STAR-Dundee boss Stuart in early April and offered to trace the history of the building and is inhabitants over two centuries. I wasn’t optimistic about what I’d find.

One of the first things I did was to check the architectural records held by Historic Environment Scotland. The Canmore database listing for the building mentions it was called Grange House. Well, I found that was wrong, probably from someone – quite possibly even my PhD supervisor Charles! – misreading the original architect plans, that, miraculously, the HES search room holds, as part of a volume of plans by the building’s architect David Neave. That sort of survival just doesn’t usually happen for buildings of this age. I was able to order digital copies of the original plans, and get permission from HES to reproduce them in my finished report. The plans show how the building, which went by the name Graybank for much of its history, was laid out in 1818 as a house, including the use of each room. The 1818 plans also included front and rear elevations of the house, which gave a lovely insight into what the building originally looked like – remarkably similar to now.

Alongside that I was able to quickly check records from core sources. Most were readily available online. For example the National Library of Scotland has a marvellous digitised collection of local directories, showing the occupants over time. Likewise ScotlandsPeople.gov.uk has all the 19th century census returns, digitised valuation rolls, wills and inventories, and much else besides. As a disabled academic, being able to access so much material online, conveniently and easily, was a real benefit, and speeded up the building research process enormously. For example from ScotlandsPeople.gov.uk I was able to download digital copies of the detailed lengthy wills and after-death inventories of many of the house’s owners, allowing me to transcribe them conveniently at home, and add much useful information to the finished report. This included the original owner, James Gray, whose inventory recorded the many ships he was a part owner of. We now have a confirmed vision of him watching for some of his ships from the vantage point of his new riverside house!

Perhaps most surprisingly – although maybe I shouldn’t have been too surprised – was the wealth of material found in old newspapers, searched by keyword search on the British Newspaper Archive website. These provided much rich detail about the house and its occupants. There were a number of sale or rental advertisements, describing it at different points. But there were also lots of marvellous obituaries for the various members of the family, and also mentions of family celebrations. One particular delight concerned a resident’s time before he moved into 166 Nethergate, revealing that he’d given a talk at Dundee University on the history of the solar system. A marvellous find given that the building is now the home of a space company!

We also managed to trace the family grave of the original owner in Dundee’s Howff cemetery, and my husband photographed it, to go into the report. A nearby Flowerdew family gravestone can’t be read any more, but we were able to find a record of its original inscription. Overall we were able to manage to find lots about the families who lived in the building for its first 130 years – Gray, Flowerdew, Lowson, Buist, Moodie plus some others in between – even in some cases tracing family photos and home movies from the 1930s.

The university connection was valuable from a research point of view. As a university property, a wealth of paperwork was preserved relating to the house from the late 1940s through to its sale to STAR-Dundee in 2011. This included more architectural plans, but also original surveyor reports, correspondence relating to the sale and use of the building, and even a duplicate old key lurking in the paper files! All of this information filled out the picture immensely.

In the end, in just about 10 weeks, I was able to compile a detailed report about the building and history, 48 pages long, in A4 format. We arranged for this to be printed and bound, and copies were given to STAR-Dundee, and posters about the building’s history put up for employees to look at. Copies of the printed report were deposited with Historic Environment Scotland’s archive in Edinburgh, and Dundee University Archives, so people can still access the research in 50, 100 or more years time.

Would I research a building’s history again? Yes, probably, though almost certainly with more modest expectations of what I might be able to uncover for another case. I think this first one rather spoilt me in terms of being so rich in source material, and, yes, those original plans. Enormous fun anyway.

Photo of 166 Nethergate

Photo of 166 Nethergate

Living with anxiety

For #WorldMentalHealthDay here’s a link to my old blog post about living with anxiety and still being productive as an academic:

http://blog.depressedacademics.org/2015/04/hidden-mental-health-issues-my-battle.html