Archive for May, 2013

Wonderful blog post, full of photos, about historic Innerpeffray Library in Perthshire.

The Occasional Bookwitch

Innerpeffray Library

You know when people share their favouritest place with you, and you’re afraid you’ll hate it and that it will cause problems between you and all that? Helen Grant has been going on and on about Innerpeffray Library – almost in the middle of nowhere in Perthshire – for so long, that I thought she might, just possibly, be deluded.

Innerpeffray Library - graveyard

Innerpeffray Library

Dear reader, she’s actually right. Innerpeffray is the place to go (especially if it doesn’t rain) for the library experience with a difference. (Pardon me if I sound like an advertisement.) It’s a beautiful old building, next to an old chapel – with graveyard – in the loveliest of settings; green fields with sheep in, a grassy ‘drive’ covered in tiny daisies, lovely plants along the path there, future nettle soup on the side, and a warm welcome when you arrive.

Innerpeffray Library

The librarian is called Lara, and I have rarely…

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I do a lot of my research planning and writing on my iPad. For example I’ll always have a to-do list on the go there, of things I want to work on, of all sorts, ranging across academic history, through genealogy, miscellaneous writing, and computer game design.

To do list on iPad

And whenever I start a new research project I will brainstorm it, again in iThoughtsHD on my iPad.

But I was struck today by some of the advantages of an old fashioned pen and paper approach, even in a digital age.

I carry a red notepad with me all the time. It’s like a Moleskine, but a fraction of the price, lovely texture, and nice to write in.

Notepad with pen

It’s compact, and easily fits in my bag that I take out with me. So it’s always there, which is more than can be said for my iPad 2, which is too big for me to carry around all the time, though it’s great for working on at home. So when today I had a few minutes in the supermarket cafe, with a cappuccino beside me, I took out my notepad and had a look.

The first thing I spotted was a set of notes I’d made on a similar occasion, but hadn’t transferred to my iPad, and had totally forgotten about! These are notes of genealogy things I want to work on soon, such as transcribing a court case for my Cavers one-name study, and digitising the many paper receipts I have from around the wedding time of my great-grandparents at Melrose in 1905. I must get on with these!

Genealogy notes in notepad

After that initial shock, the next step was to use the notepad to develop new material. I’m writing a series of articles at the moment that are a sort of crossover between historical pieces and roleplaying game ideas, and once I’ve finished my current one about Montrose I’ll want to move on to the next couple of places. One of the upcoming articles will be about Inchtuthil in Perthshire, a Roman fort. So I took the chance this afternoon to brainstorm some ideas for this. I will move this planning at some point to my iPad though, into iThoughtsHD, and then write up the piece in WriteRoom.

Inchtuthil notes in notepad

I really like working with a pen and paper notepad like this, but I must make more of an effort to transfer the notes to my iPad, to work on them in future, and not completely forget them. Of course this brings to mind the integrated Evernote/Moleskine notepads. But I don’t think I want one of those, even though I use Evernote a lot. I think I just need to be a bit more organised about opening up my notepad when I get home and have my iPad to hand, and transferring the ideas from one to the other.

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Call for Papers

And here’s the call for papers for three planned colloquia for the new libraries research project.

Community Libraries

Deadline for CFP: 1 September 2013

We are delighted to announce the launch of a new AHRC-funded international research network on Community Libraries, which aims to establish a dynamic, interdisciplinary research forum to investigate the role of libraries in shaping communities in the long eighteenth century. Developed by Dr Mark Towsey (University of Liverpool) together with partners at Loyola University Chicago, the Newberry Library, and Dr Williams’s Library (London), the Network will explain the emergence of libraries in the ‘public sphere’ between 1650 and 1850. We will assess the contribution made by libraries to the circulation and reception of print of all kinds, and to the forging of collective identities amongst local, national, and international communities of readers. In addition, the network aims to explore the emergence of libraries in comparative perspective, asking how far models of library provision and administration were disseminated, discussed, imitated, and challenged as they travelled between different social…

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Exciting new project on library history research I plan to participate in.

Community Libraries

We are delighted to announce the launch of a new AHRC-funded research network on Community Libraries, which aims to establish a dynamic, multi- and interdisciplinary research forum to investigate the cultural history of libraries at the dawn of the modern age.

In the two centuries before the passage of the Public Libraries Act in the UK in 1850, libraries proliferated across the UK, Europe and North America on a bewildering variety of organizational models. Libraries emerged to serve particular communities, reflecting the specialist demands of military garrisons, emigrant vessels, prisons, schools, churches, mechanics institutes, factories, mills, and informal networks of medical men and lawyers. Libraries were part of the newly emerging leisure industry, with books available for hire from smallscale operators in inns, taverns, banks, railway stations, and coffee houses, and from the sprawling city circulating libraries associated with the rise of the novel. Subscription libraries, library societies, book clubs, and other proprietary institutions provided a forum for conversation, debate and sociability, and…

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I was having lunch yesterday with a friend, and something we were chatting about got me thinking about the pros and cons of different social networks for academics.

I’m an independent academic historian, unable to work in academia due to a progressive neurological disease, though I have an honorary research fellowship. So I’m essentially non-affiliated, and don’t have, for example, a departmental contact address.

Because of this I’ve made a conscious effort to set up an online presence for myself. I have a web page. You can tell I’m a former computer scientist: like most academic computer scientists it’s remarkably simple HTML coding, and looks quite retro. But it’s functional, and describes my credentials, and interests, and gives links to other things.

But I’ve also reached out to various social networks. Linkedin is nice for keeping a contact method with people I’ve known in the past and more recently. And I quite like getting the update emails, on people’s new jobs and so on. But I don’t find it very useful for keeping up to date with people’s research, and, for example, publications. I’ve found that most Linkedin members don’t update their profiles that often. It’s more a handy keep-a-contact method for me.

Academia.edu has often been lauded as the most appropriate social network for academics. But I find it the least useful. Again the problem is that most people don’t update their profiles that often. Also it tends to only favour completed research, where it’s been written up, and, for example, published as a paper. Research in progress is less likely to be mentioned. I do like the weekly emails I get telling me about new papers in my areas of interest. But even these are just a drop in the ocean, since most members on the site don’t update their profiles that much. And I don’t find following other academics has been terribly useful. I also don’t like the site’s tendency to over email. I’ve fiddled with my settings, so I no longer get an email every time someone looks at my profile etc. Oh and can I just note how irritating it is that I don’t seem to be able to set up a secondary affiliation for my honorary research fellowship. As soon as I do that it clobbers my primary independent academic status. And vice versa. Aarrgghh!

The most useful social network I find for following academics is Twitter. This only works for academics who tweet regularly, but I follow a lot of historians, and archivists, and many of them tweet about their research in progress, interesting conferences, and new publications. On the downside following these tweets takes time, regularly. I follow nearly 1000 people on Twitter (not just academics), and given how knocked out I am I can’t see all their tweets. But I put a bit of time in each day to follow them, using Flipboard on my iPad to browse hours of recent tweets in a nice way. And I find the time put in is well rewarded with the info I get back. I also tweet myself. I describe myself on Twitter as an “Academic historian, genealogist, former computer scientist, and Doctor Who fan”, which pretty much sums up the subject pattern of my tweets. But I find tweeting rewarding, and often make good contacts, and have good discussions on Twitter, with fellow academics and researchers.

I’m also on Google+, again as a sort of storefront for my academic identity. My Google+ profile is handy for linking to all my other online presences. But it’s a bit of a ghost site, and although I use it, and post to it, I don’t make many contacts with academics there.

The major social network I haven’t mentioned so far is Facebook. I don’t find that useful for being in touch with academics. It’s more for keeping in contact with friends and family. And of course it’s a closed network, not open to general readers unless they are Facebook members. Even then I have my settings set so only my Facebook friends can see my posts. It has a role, but not for academia for me.

For independent scholars like me I would strongly recommend cultivating an online presence. But, as I’ve argued, Twitter is likely to be the most useful academic social networking tool you can find, and the one that gives most rewards for the time you put into it. Even following a few key active academics in your field is likely to reap rewards.

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I read a blog post today about self-funded PhDs, which was really interesting. It was written by someone who is working part-time to support their PhD, which I think, if I’ve read it correctly, is studied full-time. That takes a lot of guts. Much more common, certainly in the humanities, is self-funding for part-time PhD students.

I was a PhD student twice. Initially I was a full-time science PhD student when I fell ill in 1994, with what would turn out later – once eventually diagnosed – to be a very aggressive progressive neurological disease. I had to drop out, and although I considered self-funding it was not financially an option. There were other reasons that would have stopped me completing that PhD anyway.

Seven years later I started a self-funded humanities PhD, having picked up, in the meantime, a bachelors and masters degrees in history, both studied part-time. I expected to self-fund throughout. My husband was working, so I did not need to support myself financially. And I was studying the second PhD part-time, which made a big difference to the fees due, and the workload.

Much to my surprise I won funding from the second year onwards from AHRC who were willing – unlike my previous funding council EPSRC – to support part-time study. This was a particular surprise because I’d had to declare my past research council funding, but that was not counted against me. And, most significantly of all, when I applied, only 1 in 5 applicants to AHRC for PhD funding were successful. I was very very lucky.

There’s a perception among some in the sciences that self-funded PhD students are failures. It’s certainly true that – at least for full-timers – PhD funding is much easier to get in the sciences. There’s much more science money out there, people with lower quality earlier degrees can get funding for their PhDs. In humanities there is virtually no funding available for PhD students. Even what there is is only available for the very very best, and out of those only the very luckiest. This has led to a different economic situation among humanities PhD students, where it’s particularly common for people to self-fund part-time study alongside a full-time job. Or, more typically, a slightly less than full-time job, so they have the time available to put in the study required. Indeed in some humanities departments there are more part-time self-funded students like this than full-time funded ones.

What I’m less sure about is what the prospects for employment in academia are for people who self-funded throughout their PhDs. I could easily see some academics not being so impressed that the student, unsurprisingly, could not get some of the very limited funding. On the other side though I suspect that many academics would consider the bigger picture, and would assess for example the student’s publication record and teaching experience. For the latter part-timers can be at a disadvantage, with some departments more likely to offer teaching opportunities to full-time funded students, not least because they can be more visible on-campus. But if a part-time student is determined, and makes the right enquiries, they can get the good opportunities too.

Of course even funding can vary in how full it is. When I won my funding from AHRC part-time award holders just had their fees paid, and no allowance for living expenses. We also didn’t receive the same support for attending conferences and other things as full-timers. Over the following years the situation improved. I know, for example, that my original PhD supervisor, who later moved from Dundee to Oxford, was pushing for part-time PhD-ers to get the same support as full-timers from AHRC. And we eventually got it, including a living expenses allowance, which is only fair, given how often even part-time students have to reduce their working hours, and thus earning potential, to fit in a PhD.

What I’m sure about is that if I hadn’t won funding I would have carried on with my humanities PhD, part-time, self-funding, and I’m confident that I would have finished, and would have been doing exactly what I’m doing now, as an independent academic researcher, publishing my research in academic journals and doing new fun research. And I have the utmost respect for others doing their PhDs by self-funding, whether they are full-time students, or part-time ones. It can be difficult, but also rewarding.

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I’ve just been reading an article in The Observer about university lectures, where two academics debate their pros and cons. And a few weeks ago I read a blog post by classicist Mary Beard on the same subject.

I was a full-time undergraduate science student at St Andrews University between 1990 and 1994. We had very variable lectures. Some were massive, hundreds of students in the lecture theatre, particularly in earlier years before students specialised for honours. Others were smaller, often a few dozen students, or even in the case of one of my honours courses just me and the lecturer!

The biggest problem I had with the traditional large-room university lectures is that they varied hugely by quality of lecturer. With an experienced lecturer they could be a lively stimulating experience, inspiring the student and communicating ideas effectively. Although the student could still end up at times fleeing from the room, running to the nearest academic bookshop to buy a textbook so they could further understand the subject! I remember doing that after the very first cosmology lecture in my first year astronomy course with Dr Carson. But with poor lecturers, especially beginning ones, it could be very different.

In my second year computer science course a new lecturer, not long after finishing his PhD, was assigned to teach the C programming course. In many ways this was the most fundamental course that we studied that year, the one we would need to understand best of all to be able to prosper in the subsequent honours years. And the lecturing was appalling. The new lecturer mumbled all the way through, and did not project himself to the class, who were only sitting a foot or two in front of him. We couldn’t understand what he was teaching, and we were not learning how to do C programming. As always loads of us had to rely on textbooks, me buying Kernighan and Ritchie to teach myself. But we should not have had to do this. In many ways I’d have been better if I hadn’t sat through those lectures – and I never missed a lecture in any course – and just taught myself.

Indeed the experience was so bad that it led to a student rebellion in the 1991/2 Second Year computer science class. A few students, me included, acted as spokespersons for the whole class, and sat through a debate (which was quite intimidating) in the John Honey building with all the computer science staff, putting our concerns. I think they took on board what we were saying, but by then it was too late for that year of students, and masses who should have carried on to honours computer science switched to other subjects instead. As a result there were only 3 honours students in my class: 2 single honours, 1 joint honours with another subject. That was the lowest number of computer science honours students at St Andrews for a very long time.

Another bad experience with lectures is where the lecturer – and this happened in one of my senior honours computer science courses – forbade us from taking notes, saying we would get the lecture slides at the end. He was really insistent about this. And of course he didn’t give us the slides, until we went round and demanded them, explaining he had promised them, and had told us not to take notes. He’d completely forgot about it. Well again what was the point of sitting through those lectures? Did we really engage properly with what he was saying?

After leaving St Andrews I started studying history part-time with the Open University. I couldn’t even attend many tutorials held locally at Dundee, so was managing on my own at home. And although the teaching there had to be primarily through pre written course books, I found it to be of generally a much higher standard than the variable lectures in my science degree.

Now small seminars, they’re a totally different matter. I’ve sat through excellent examples of those, including in teaching context, in my postgraduate history Masters at Dundee University. There you can have good quality interaction between teacher and students. But the numbers must be small. Even with a relatively poor lecturer the students can help to stimulate the discussion.

But I guess I’m not a fan of traditional one to many lectures!

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