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Posts Tagged ‘academic writing’

When I did my history PhD at Dundee University (“Reading habits in Scotland circa 1750-1820”) I was plugging a big gap in the research. All PhD research should make a contribution, but it’s rare for a subject to be quite so little studied before as this one. Scottish reading habits and book history more generally had been little researched since Paul Kaufman in the 1960s. Some PhDs had been completed, but usually by librarians, without their own graduate students to inspire. And so, although Scotland has a mass of useful sources (library borrowing records, evidence of book ownership etc.), its reading and book history was largely little researched when I started my PhD in 2003.

Of course the downside of having a big gap is that there’s always a chance someone else will come along and fill it. During my PhD there was a panic moment, when I learned of another PhD student, Mark Towsey at neighbouring St Andrews, looking at many of the same sources, with a very similar PhD topic. We met up, and established our respective approaches. We still had overlaps, but not enough to jeopardise getting our PhDs. And we both completed successfully.

That was some years ago, but more recently reading history has become more popular among Scottish researchers, almost fashionable to an extent. And in the last few years I’ve watched with interest new PhD students starting to work on Scottish reading habits, for example Maxine Branagh-Miscampbell looking at childhood reading in 18th century Scotland, and Jill Dye studying Innerpeffray Library and its borrowers. It’s a slightly strange feeling seeing the field come alive like this, but in a rather wonderful way. And it’s always exciting to see new researchers approach things differently, in terms of their theoretical framework and methodologies, and in terms of the core research questions that they explore.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing the results of these and other upcoming Scottish PhD projects in the next few years. It’s exciting to see these developments, if still rather strange at the same time!

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I’ve been spending much time in the last week in the 17th century, transcribing a lengthy poem about a corrupt court judge at Melrose in the 1680s. Doing that reminded me of the talk I gave in September 2013, at the conference of the Economic and Social History Society of Scotland, held in Inverness. I thought it would be nice if I put the PowerPoint slides from that online, so have done that – link here. It was a 20-minute talk, as is usual for academic conferences, so I was limited in how much I could say. But I covered a lot in the time allowed.

My talk was titled “Glimpses into a time of turmoil: examining the regality court records of Melrose, Roxburghshire, 1657-1706”, and was based on the dissertation for my taught MPhil degree at Dundee. I studied the voluminous local court records for Melrose regality, and had a fantastic time. I have ancestral connections in Melrose, going back to this period, and lived there myself for part of my childhood. And as a disabled student it was a perfect project: the records are largely transcribed already, so I could work on them at home, as able to.

In the process of the research I built up a gigantic database of court cases, pursuers and defenders. The index of people’s names recorded is online already, as part of my Melrose one-place study. There were probably only about 2500 people living within the court’s jurisdiction at this time, making the vast numbers of people recorded as using the court quite astonishing.

The slides don’t record everything I said in the Inverness talk though. For example there’s a detailed slide of the many debts murder accused John Halliwall weaver in Gattonside left in 1673 after escaping prison before his trial. I explained more about Halliwall’s story verbally on the day, not on the slides. He escaped on horseback, after a court officer let him out of jail to help him sell ale!

I’ve also spoken about the 17th century court records to the local historical society in Melrose, many years ago, in a well attended talk in the town.

There are so many other stories I want to share about the Melrose community from these records. For example a g… uncle of mine was judge of the court from 1657 to 1665. Well he was, until he was charged with “striking and hurteing of Robert Mott, servitor to John Bowar, portioner of Eildoune”. His own court fined him £10, and he lost his job. But that, and more, is for another day!

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I have a number of academic writing projects on the go. I keep a track of things I’m working on in a mind map version of a to-do list on my iPad. But I also thought it might be helpful for me to make a note here. Partly to help me see the different things I’m juggling, but also as a statement of intent. I find the annual Academic Writing Month very motivational and productive, where I state my goals, and assess publicly how I’m getting on with them, both during the month and at the end of it. So maybe a similar process will kick in here. I hope!

At the moment I have four main writing projects on the go:

  • Write book chapter (invited by editor) for a new book history collected volume. This invitation came at short notice, and suddenly, and I need to finish it in the next month or so. This is proving to be a lot of fun, both in working to fit within the book’s theme and approach, and using elements of my PhD research and thesis that I haven’t published on before. I’m confident I can complete this in time.
  • Continue converting my SHARP Antwerp conference talk about Doctor Who and its fanzines into an academic journal paper version. Again this is time critical. For the journal I’m aiming at submitting it to there is a deadline for submission for consideration for publication next year. And I will have to clear image permissions with the relevant fanzine editors, so that I can have illustrations in my paper. But it’s well advanced.
  • Finish article about early directories as a source for book and urban history crossover piece. This is well advanced, and I hope to have it ready soon to email to my former PhD supervisor for a read through. But it isn’t time critical, and can be pushed to one side while I juggle other things.
  • Write a book chapter version of my upcoming St Andrews book conference talk. Again there’s a time limit on this, but it’s far enough ahead (deadline September) that I can worry about it after finishing the other chapter first. And probably also after the Doctor Who fanzines paper too.

In addition I have a journal paper that I need to rework before submitting to a journal. And two other journal papers are currently in the review process, with the relevant editors.

Looking at it listed like that it feels like quite a lot on! But I am comforted that some things are not time critical (the book/urban history piece and the reworking journal paper in particular). And those others that are time critical are somewhat staggered time-wise, so don’t overlap too much.

I’m also not writing intensively. I’m very seriously ill long-term, and have to snatch good moments here and there. But in an odd hour now and again I can pick a project to work on, and make progress with it.

But I may be quite pleased once it’s October. And after all that writing over the summer and early autumn it’s quite likely I’ll skip Academic Writing Month 2015!

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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!

 

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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.

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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.

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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 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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