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I have a guest post today on the Depressed Academics site, which is a place for academics, if they want to, to discuss mental health issues affecting them like depression and anxiety. I have the latter, and wrote about it at some length there. Partly to destigmatise the issue, partly because sharing my story may help others going through similar issues.

Next Tuesday, 31st March 2015, it will be five years exactly since I passed my PhD viva. It’s quite a big anniversary, worth celebrating, and I thought I’d look back on how things have gone since then.

It was my second go at a PhD, this time studying history, part-time. In the 1990s I was a full-time science PhD student, but had to leave that after a progressive neurological illness started at age 22, and my funding council wouldn’t support a switch to part-time study. I’ve blogged before about how much of a challenge it was to try for a PhD again after walking away from the first one. There were advantages though: the first go gave me skills and experiences which helped make me a more efficient PhD student the second time around. But I still never really thought I’d complete it, if I thought about it at all. But I crossed fingers and did my best!

My viva was arranged for the end of March, just five weeks or so after my thesis had been submitted. Unfortunately I developed shingles in the run-up to the viva: an agonising recurrence of the chickenpox virus, a consequence of the high-dose chemotherapy and steroid drugs suppressing my immune system so much. It certainly made preparing for the viva a challenge. But maybe it helped me not get too anxious about things.

On the Wednesday of my viva Scotland was blanketed with heavy snow. Luckily both my examiners got to Dundee: the external coming from Edinburgh, the internal digging out his car in south Fife! I didn’t sleep at all the night before, but I got about four hours sleep that morning, before my husband took me in to the university, and helped me get to the venue – I had to use my manual wheelchair that day, and a suitably accessible venue had been arranged. The examiners had also agreed to restrict my viva to an hour because of my disease which means that I get very brain tired very quickly if things go much over that.

I was told that I’d passed with minor corrections as soon as the viva started, which removed the tension a lot. I remember the next hour as a relaxed friendly chat about my research. Both examiners had lots of questions, and even the third academic present, a Dundee lecturer who was acting as chair or convener of the viva, had questions too, which was nice. It was really enjoyable to be able to chat to people who had engaged with my research so closely. I also took the chance to ask their advice about good publishing strategies. After an hour the chair wheeled me out of the room, to rejoin my waiting husband, and we went off to celebrate.

I’m unable to work in academia because of my severely disabling progressing neurological disease, so have ploughed a different path as an academic. It may be worth reflecting here briefly on what it means if going for a PhD, whether or not pursuing a conventional academic path. Firstly and most straightforwardly passing a PhD is validation of your PhD research and thesis, and the many years spent working on it. It is also a mark of your acceptance into the academic community as a fully fledged academic, capable of formulating and completing large research projects. Extremely important, I think, is the huge confidence boost passing a PhD can give you. There’s very much a feeling of “I can do that!” And for me personally it also saw the achievement of a long-term goal, and helping to put to bed the hurt of having to leave a science PhD after my illness struck at just 22.

I asked for an honorary research fellowship from my department shortly after finishing the PhD, after realising that because of university libraries increasingly switching to staff/student-only electronic subscriptions to academic journals rather than print, which aren’t available to other library members including graduate members like me, I would struggle to access the journals I needed to keep up with current research and thinking. This would be a problem as I aimed to publish my own research in academic journals. Fortunately the fellowship was granted, and has been renewed each year since. This helps me enormously, but Dundee University’s history division also gets some credit whenever I have another academic publication with my affiliation noted. I also take an active part in Dundee’s history research seminars, when I’m strong enough to come in.

Publishing academic journal papers has been an important activity for me since my viva. Soon after the viva I met with my PhD supervisor Charles McKean. He was keen for me to aim at very ambitious journals, which was scary, and hasn’t been completely successful, though I think it was worth trying for. But I’ve had a fair number of journal papers accepted post viva, some of which have gone into print since, others are shortly to go into print. I’m also developing four more papers at the moment, and am increasingly moving into new research, some following on from my PhD topic directly, others more marginally connected. As a historian it’s normal to be sole author of your academic papers. This is very different from science, where papers typically have multiple authors, often a very long list of names. So I have all the responsibility of doing my own research, and the writing, submitting to editors, dealing with peer review (ouch!) and any rejection or revise and resubmit offer, and proofreading prior to final publication. One of my post viva publications, in Scottish Historical Review, had to be proofread in Ninewells hospital during a high dose chemotherapy infusion. The editor had hoped to get the proofs to me days sooner, but as it turned out it was a case of my dealing with them on the day in hospital, single handed, literally, with the other hand hooked up to the toxic chemotherapy infusion, or not be able to do the proofs in time, given how sick and tired I would be post chemo. Not a great memory! But I did it, and I’m particularly proud of that paper, that comes from my PhD research. I really enjoy the academic publishing process, and it seems to be something that I’m good at.

I’ve also been giving conference papers since passing my PhD. On the downside I usually have to pay the costs of attending and travelling myself. And since I usually need to use my wheelchair there, and need help, my husband has to come too. But we usually pick events that give us a chance to visit somewhere we want to go to for a little break. I have to rest a lot after travelling, and can usually only attend part of any multi day conferences, but my husband has a good time exploring the relevant cities while I sleep, with camera in hand. Attending conferences isn’t easy for me, but it keeps me part of the academic community, and I enjoy the challenge of giving papers. I’ve attended four conferences in the last five years, and spoke at three of those. I was invited to give a talk at a conference for archivists, fortunately held here in Dundee. I was speaking as a disabled user of archives, sharing my experiences with them re access, getting support from archivists etc. Then I presented a paper about my taught MPhil dissertation research into Melrose regality court. This was presented at the Economic & Social History Society of Scotland annual conference in Inverness. Inverness is lovely and Leakey’s Bookshop is a must see! I attended, but didn’t speak at, the SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing) 2012 conference in Dublin. It was fantastic to see the city because my great granny was born there. And then in 2014 I went to the annual SHARP conference again, this time in Antwerp – which I have long wanted to go to (oh but the cobbles!) – and gave a paper on TV series Doctor Who and its fanzines. Talk about moving out of my comfort zone as an 18th / early 19th century book/reading historian! But it was fun, and just the sort of thing my PhD gave me the confidence to tackle, and the talk attracted a huge audience – nearly 70 (most panels there were getting 20 or so people), with some having to stand or sit on the floor – who seemed to enjoy it. I will also be giving another talk in a couple of months at a book history conference in St Andrews.

I don’t know how long I can keep doing these journal papers and conference talks. My disease is progressive, even though it’s playing a bit more nicely at the moment, after the summer 2012 high dose chemotherapy infusions in hospital. I have significant dementia-like problems with memory and concentration. I also have to sleep for vast amounts of time, up to 18 hours every day in worst patches. Ironically given that my PhD researched historic reading habits I have enormous difficulty reading now due to the brain damage – thank goodness for my Kindle! And I have to do academic work in scattered short bursts, often a few minutes and no more than an hour at a time. But I do plan to keep going for as long as I can. I may not be employed in a paid academic post, but as I’ve said I’m ploughing my own path, and enjoying it.

Meanwhile next Tuesday is a time for celebrating again. I think I’ll get me a half bottle of Moët et Chandon champagne – my favourite – and some cake. Yum!

A couple of months ago I reviewed the newly released iOS version of the Mediaeval St Andrews App. Although I praised the content, I ran into an awful lot of problems with the implementation. I encountered lots of bugs, and was particularly concerned about the central design decision that meant the app needed to be always connected to the Internet, so it could download multimedia data, restricting the app’s use out and about – for example on foot in St Andrews – on a WiFi only device like an iPod touch (which I have) and a WiFi only iPad (like my Dad has).

A new version of the app was released a few days ago. I am pleased to say that almost all the issues I raised have been now fixed, including the always online issue. The iOS app design has been completely changed from an 8MB core download with constant Internet downloads of resources to a 312MB one-off installation, which installs all the multimedia resources (pictures, video, sound files) at first installation, which means that the app can now work offline and online. This increases the initial installation time and space required, but makes the app more flexible in when and how it can be used. It also has the benefit of making the app now seem much more snappy and responsive in general use. With the original version there was a noticeable lag opening up sites and multimedia resources, caused by the app constantly needing to download more data. But now that this data is all localised on the device at installation it not only means the app can work offline, but also makes it faster and more pleasant to use.

Other issues solved include location services – the app can work without those turned on, but now produces an elegant error message, and can then be used with map or tour, rather than be unusable. Likewise the erratic video playing bugs, and the strange white-out bug I reported have all been fixed.

Because I ran into so many user interface issues when I first tried the app my last review focused more on these. Now I can focus more on discussing the content, which I have always thought is superb.

The app revolves around three main interfaces: map, site list, and tour. The last of these just has a children’s tour at the moment (which, yes, works offline too now), but more tours are expected to be added in future.

The map includes marked sites of interest. Though I notice it has missed at least one major St Andrews museum: the St Andrews Preservation Trust Museum at the east end of North Street. Importantly the map now works nicely with location services turned off, and in offline mode. You can zoom in to select sites of interest, based on their location, and then tap to learn more about them.

Mediaeval St Andrews App map

But the core part of the app, for me anyway, is the sites section, providing access to the history of 22 locations in the town. As an example of the depth of information recorded, consider the tolbooth, the former town hall. The main entry for this in the app includes a snippet from the Geddy map as illustration, and then gives a potted history of the tolbooth.

Mediaeval St Andrews App tolbooth entry

This is then supplemented by a range of pictures, audio, video, and additional information.

Mediaeval St Andrews App tolbooth video

I still find the pictures main user interface unintuitive, not designed like the rest of the app. I’ve been told this is for implementation reasons, because of the plug-in software used to give this functionality. But I still think it’s a shame. A more familiar interface is available from the main site entry page, if you tap on the Geddy map, and then that pops up bigger, and you can swipe left and right through the site’s images, as below.

Mediaeval St Andrews App tolbooth picture

I particularly like the additional information available for a lot of the sites, giving historical snippets and curios, as this screen-shot from the tolbooth entry shows.

Mediaeval St Andrews App tolbooth additional information

There is an enormous amount of depth of information in the sites section of the app, that is probably best absorbed slowly over time. It would be useful reference material on foot, for example when in the town exploring the sites, but it is also good for home learning and research.

Having said that, if you go to the sites listing, select a site and read about it, it is rather unintuitive to be taken back afterwards to the map interface rather than the sites listing you just used – maybe something the designers might like to look at. Likewise the level of detail varies by site. But usually there is ample to be going on with, and is a good reflection of current knowledge about the town. As someone who has researched a tolbooth elsewhere in Scotland (Melrose) I wish we had as much information about it and a virtual reconstruction like St Andrews!

I am really pleased with this new version of the iOS app. Most of the implementation issues that I discussed before have been ironed out, and it is now generally a pleasure to use. And the change in design, though needing a big install at the start, means it can be used on more devices and in more ways, and is also quicker and more responsive in general use, without the same lag seen originally.

There are still some issues where the app is somewhat unintuitive in use. So I would rate it 7/10 at the moment for user interface and implementation. But that is an enormous improvement on things as they were. And together with my 9/10 rating for content means I give it overall a very strong rating of 8/10.

First a disclaimer. I’ve something of a vested interest in this app, as a graduate of computer science at St Andrews, before I switched to history and picked up three more degrees. I really like the idea of St Andrews computer scientists and historians working together to provide this resource. And I like that it’s free.

My husband – also a computer science graduate from St Andrews – and I attended the app launch in November 2014, where we got to try out the app on Android tablets provided on the day. We’ve been keen to try it out properly ever since, so as soon as it was available for iOS I downloaded it to my iPad to try.

Unfortunately I have run into a lot of usability issues, which I’m going to detail below. But I want to stress that I think the content of the app is superb, the underlying historical resources which it aims to provide access to. For 22 sites in the town each one has a summary description, with a relevant portion of the Geddy map of the town from circa 1580, and typically additional resources like photos (modern, historical and virtual reconstruction), videos and audio files.

Viewing core details of site

I particularly like where modern and virtual overlap in the app, as in the screen shot below, from the entry for the church formerly above St Andrews harbour.

Reconstruction overlaid on modern photo

The app also has a modern digital map of the town, with its historic sites indicated, providing alternative access to sites of interest. And a section for guided tours, just one tour at the moment, but expect more to be added in future

But the implementation of the app and its user interface proved to be a stumbling block for me, and it’s only fair that I detail the issues, not least to help the app creators improve things. I was testing it on my iPad. However my husband and I also noticed many problems in our brief try out on an Android tablet at the app launch. Particularly how slow the app is to use, probably due to it constantly needing to download information to show the user, an inconsistent user interface design, and troublesome bugs cropping up. However what I’m writing below focuses on my experience with my iPad, an iPad Air 128GB 3G + WiFi model running iOS 8.1.2. I was using the Mediaeval St Andrews App version 1 for iOS.

The first major issue, and it’s a design issue, is that the app requires a permanent online connection. If it’s started with no network connection the screen goes blank and gets stuck in that state. Started with a network though, and all is well. As a long-time user of iOS apps I’m used to offline working, and apps installing everything they need. In practice it’s likely that the amount of data in this case is very substantial, so having an 8MB core app, as it is for iOS, and downloading everything else is appealing. But it won’t always work well. For example I could take the app on my iPod touch to St Andrews, but couldn’t use it as a reference tool without Internet – the iPod touch relies on WiFi, and is not a smartphone. Likewise my Dad has a WiFi only iPad mini, which he wants to use the app on. He can from home, but not elsewhere, including on visits to St Andrews. The constant need for downloading data also makes the app, as we noticed on Android on launch day, often seem sluggish to use, as the user waits for more data to download. And even with a smartphone I wonder how good constant downloading is in terms of data use, especially for larger resources like videos.

On the subject of videos, many of the sites in the app have these linked to them. But the videos would not play reliably for me on my iPad. At the first attempt, and even after rebooting my iPad, they would not play at all. They’d start to download, with a download spinning animation, but the videos wouldn’t play at all. Well apart from any linked sound, as in the Katie Stevenson narrated St Andrews Castle video. The sound started as soon as the spinning animation started, indicating downloading. But no pictures would appear. Fortunately a later attempt did get the videos to work, in a window in the centre of the screen, but I don’t know what was different this time, certainly nothing I was aware of having changed.

An irritating issue when viewing linked photos for sites is that the user interface changes when you view a photo. Normally there’s a back button you tap to go back to the previous screen. To get the same effect when viewing an image, and to close it to return to the previous screen, there’s no back button, but instead you have to look for and tap a small x cross at the bottom left of the screen to close things. I found this very unintuitive and have not got the hang of it.

I ran into other issues. For example the in-app map won’t appear at all if location services are turned off. I don’t normally give iPad apps location services access, and since I don’t have a smartphone I’m unlikely to be carrying this app around as I walk. But turning location services on, even for me located at a distance in Dundee, and suddenly the map worked. I also repeatedly ran into a nasty bug – which I cannot replicate reliably unfortunately to help get it fixed – where I’d be looking at a site’s core listing, complete with Geddy map portion, and suddenly the right half of the screen would go white, and then as I tried to navigate to other sections text would overlay my screen in a very unreadable manner. I also sometimes found the categorisation of linked photos confusing, particularly photos incorporating both virtual reconstructions and modern views, which weren’t categorised as virtual images. But that may be a personal thing for me.

This all sounds very negative, but I can’t stress enough that the underlying content is superb. I’d like to see these user interface issues ironed out, at least the easier ones. Change the photo back interface to use the standard everywhere else back button rather than that confusing cross, fix the app so it at least acts elegantly if started without network connection, and check the videos to see if there might be a bug in there re playing them. It’s probably also a good idea to get the map working with location services turned off. Likewise I’d recommend considering the feasibility of providing an offline version of the app, but don’t know how much data that would take up. Perhaps it might be possible to store the core content for example, such as the core site entry pages, which might speed things up in many places, not least loading up each site initially. But if the app must be used in always online mode, then that should be made clear in the App Store description for people to read before downloading and trying to use it.

At the moment I can’t rate the app higher than 4/10 for implementation and 9/10 for content, giving 6.5/10 if averaged. But I feel that it has much potential, if only some implementation issues could be ironed out in the next version.

As the month nearly comes to a close I’m winding up my AcWriMo activities. And as always around this time I thought I’d look back on how things went.

At the start of the month I had three goals outlined, all involving academic journal papers in various stages of development.

Two of these goals were fully or better accomplished. One was revising an accepted paper, which I turned around in the first week and emailed to the relevant editor. Another was starting to convert a conference paper from spoken talk with PowerPoint slides to a written version suitable for an academic journal paper. I set out only intending to start this process, the first draft of converting the spoken text to words, with much further development and enhancement required later. But as things turned out I went far beyond this, developing many sections of the paper more fully, and having it much closer to possible submission to a suitable academic journal.

The remaining goal was to finish developing an already mostly written academic paper, ready to send to a colleague to read through and give suggestions before I develop it further prior to submitting to a journal editor. This was the only goal not fully completed, although I managed to overcome a major impasse, working out a new strategy for approaching one of the main case studies in the paper, which I then largely wrote up. There are many sections still to be finished off and polished, and it’s not ready for that read through yet. But it is well advanced, and I should be able to get it ready to email off by Christmas, with hopefully the aim of submitting it to an academic journal paper sometime early in 2015.

All this was achieved against the backlog of struggling for much of the month with my neurological illness, more so than usual. There were several weeks when I could barely manage an hour of writing total. And then there were better weeks when I might manage 2-3 hours total if lucky, again done in 1 hour bursts.

The main strategy I found for keeping going when well enough was to think in terms of which goals I would target in specific weeks. So I had in mind key activities for the first week, and the second week, and so on. This broke down what might still have been quite a daunting task – three quite ambitious goals for the whole month for someone so very ill with so limited time – into more manageable chunks. And if I put in the time, even in isolated one hour chunks here and there, I could make slow but steady progress. Breaking it down into week by week goals also helped to keep the momentum going, and that I had to get on with things, lest time slip by and be lost. But I did have to rest when too ill.

Academic writing month can be a wonderful focused time, but for me the best thing about it is the good habits it can help to develop, which can be applied throughout the year. So the importance of making achievable goals and to-do lists, breaking down larger tasks into manageable chunks, and keeping going, even in small bursts, to make progress in spite of time and other limitations.

So I’m very glad I took part again. I look forward to taking part in 2015!

 

Well it’s a few days later than I’d intended to post it, but it’s still roughly the middle of the month, so I thought it would still be a good time for a post looking at progress so far.

On the downside for the last two weeks I’ve been struggling a lot with my neurological disease. However I’m coming out of that bad patch now. And despite that I’ve still managed to make progress with my writing goals.

Goal 2 – to revise and submit an accepted prizewinning journal paper – was finished by 7th November. Lots and lots of changes made to the paper, and the revised version emailed off to the editor.

Goal 3 – converting my SHARP Antwerp conference paper into the first rough draft of an academic journal paper – is well under way, and I hope to have it completed by next week. This is very much only the first step in the process, and I will need to develop it further in future. But it will be a great start.

Goal 1 – get a journal paper in progress ready for a colleague to read and give feedback – is under way too, though more in the early stages. The paper itself is already well developed, but I still have a few sections to flesh out. In particular one, a case study of the Perth book trade circa 1825, needs me to learn a lot more about Perth then to do it justice. So to that end I’ve been reading a number of old books about the town, including several written back then and fortunately available in digitised PDF form from the Internet Archive, to better acquaint myself with how the town functioned then, and its layout of streets, and shops. I should be able to move on to writing up the case study more next week, with a fair amount of confidence of completing this goal by the end of the month.

So all very encouraging I think. As I’ve said before I can’t do AcWriMo in a hugely intensive way. Rather I have to write in short bursts, often no more than an hour at a time, a few times a week if I am lucky. But I stick at it, and give myself achievable goals, and that way get things done. So I’m very encouraged.

I was interviewed recently by Geneabloggers for their “May I Introduce To You …” series. The interview focuses in particular on my background as a genealogist, and my genealogical blogging, but also covers academic issues too.

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