Archive for June, 2014

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.

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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!

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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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I’ve been a PhD student twice. Initially I was a full-time computer science PhD student. I had to leave that, after falling ill with what would turn out to be an aggressive progressive neurological disease. Years later, after retraining as a historian (picking up both bachelors and masters degrees), I had a second go, part-time this time. I’ve just been reflecting on lessons I learned from the first time, in a post on a postgraduate forum where I’m a member. And I thought it might be worth reposting them here.

The second time around I didn’t do the standard spend a whole year (or equivalent if studying part-time) doing your literature survey, which I think is a complete waste of time, though I appreciate it can be a way of easing new students into the process gradually. When I fell ill during my first PhD, during that first full-time year, having followed the traditional timetable meant that I made very little progress before it was too late. I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. Second time around I did my literature survey and introductory chapter in 3 months, even though part-time, and then got on with the research phase of my PhD.

A big advantage of being a PhD student the second time was that I knew the PhD degree processes much better. Even though I’d had to leave my science PhD before I got too far into things myself I still knew the general processes involved, I’d watched fellow students in my department go through them and had learned from their experiences. This meant that in go #2 I was a much more efficient PhD student than the first time, and very much took control of my PhD. That proved to be particularly important when my original history PhD supervisor moved 500 miles away to Oxford, and initially supervised me long-distance, but then I switched to a new supervisor, and had to negotiate how best to deal with him.

On the downside, writing did not go smoothly time #2. In my case I’d switched to a radically different subject area, albeit picking up those other two degrees first. But I struggled to find my writing voice in my history PhD, and at one point had to restart the writing completely. With hindsight it’s just as well I saved time earlier in the process, because I needed it later! But I did complete within the six years allowed me as a part-time student, even though for much of that time I was managing on no more than 5 hours total a week as my illness worsened. I didn’t need to ask for extensions, and passed my viva easily.

I don’t think I would have completed the second PhD so smoothly if it hadn’t been for the hard lessons I learned the first time.

To read more about my experiences as a disabled PhD student see here.

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