Top Tips for Approaching Palaeography (guest post from Daniel Sawyer)

I am delighted to be hosting this guest post on Approaching Palaeography from my colleague Daniel Sawyer, the Fitzjames Research Fellow in Medieval English Literature at Merton College, Oxford.

Daniel SawyerDaniel has taught palaeography and codicology on Oxford’s MSt in English 650-1550, and as part of the English Faculty’s ‘Material Text’ paper for undergraduates. His book, Reading English Verse in Manuscript, c1350-c1500, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2020, and will offer the first book-length history of reading for later Middle English poetry. You can find Daniel on twitter here and on his website here. Many thanks indeed to Daniel for this incredibly helpful post!

Top Tips for Approaching Palaeography, from Daniel Sawyer

It’s the time of year when new graduate students will be starting palaeography classes. This prompts tweets asking for recommended resources, but it also creates a broader, less articulated need for advice on how to think about palaeographical training. I wrote some tweets on this topic and, since they seemed to get a positive response, with Laura’s kind encouragement, I’ve assembled this fuller blog post from them.

I’m not primarily writing to suggest resources for the study of handwritten objects from any particular place or time, though I’ll append some suggestions I received on Twitter below. Rather, this post is about surviving and flourishing as a palaeographer, and it should—judging from responses online—be of some use to students working on quite a range of things.

1. Grit

Palaeography can seem extremely hard, even impossible, at first. Don’t be put off! If you’re studying as part of an organised programme, on a master’s or a doctoral course, remind yourself that previous cohorts have successfully started with incomprehension and then left as old hands at reading old hands.

It might also help to remind yourself that if palaeography seems hard, that’s because you’re learning to read a second time. Script is a remarkably complex, cognitively demanding technology, not something we’re born comprehending, and the chances are that you found learning to read pretty tough the first time round too. I suspect I did, though I can’t remember!

Learning the literacy of another time and place can be a frustrating task, especially if you’re a new graduate student and you’re setting out on new, more clearly intellectual, adventures in other parts of your study. But palaeographical work has its own intellectual implications, and though they’re sometimes quieter and slower they can also be incredibly far-reaching. In the meantime, transcription offers satisfactions and puzzle-solving opportunities which can be a welcome relief in a context of demanding academic writing.

Everyone can read something, and can learn to read more; almost no one can read everything. Moreover, some handwriting just is hard: small, rapid, idiosyncratic, faded—even senior scholars disagree over how to read some things, or throw their hands in the air in bafflement. I still occasionally experience handwriting shock: an initial minute or two when I look at an unfamiliar hand, perhaps in a script I’ve not seen recently, and am briefly convinced that I’ve forgotten how to read. This is normal, and in time you’ll get used to pushing through it.

It’s also important to remember that many questions in palaeography lack agreed answers. Which questions those are will vary somewhat depending on what your specialisation is but, to use an example from my own area, the dating of hands by palaeographical evidence alone in my field can only ever be approximate, and there’re plenty of manuscripts in which we have little else to use. Some matters can be determined one way or another, and those you will grasp in time; others feel intractable because, well, they are.

2. Study

As with most other skills, learning palaeography is a series of small, concrete, achievable tasks. Don’t focus on the big, intangible question of how you might train yourself to read everything written in your period of interest. Focus instead on the small, tangible problems—how do I distinguish these two forms? should I make flashcards for these chronologically diagnostic features?—and progress through solving those.

Practising a little and often, ideally every working day, goes a long way. If you’re on a course of some kind, your peers can be a great help: try practising with each other. Sharing the points that you each find hard might be reassuring, too!

Language study can really boost you. Knowledge of whatever past language(s) you’re working on can lead you make inspired guesses, and palaeography and language knowledge are often mutually reinforcing. But always check, re-check and re-re-check such guesses: fluent readers miss quirks!

In any transcription task, you’ll find that your eye ‘tunes in’ to the handwriting as you work. It’s therefore helpful, indeed vital, that once you’ve finished a first pass through the transcription you review all the earlier parts. Of course, any transcription for publication or assessed work needs to be checked carefully anyway, but even in practice transcriptions this re-examination is crucial.

Most of all, I recommend plunging straight in to looking at whatever you’re interested in, outside of any formal palaeographical classes you’re getting. That means not just working with handbooks and guides (though you should draw on those), but also working with any print or digital facsimiles you can find which reproduce material relevant to your other research interests. If you have the extraordinary luck to be studying for a time at an institution with substantial collections, don’t waste that time! Call up documents and/or manuscripts as soon as you can safely handle them, and work out what you can from them.

You might find that returning to some of the same things later in the course, and seeing how much more you can get from them, is a bit of a confidence-boost—or even the root of an important research finding which you go on to publish!

3. Purpose

I noted above that almost no one can read everything. Very few scholars are universal palaeographers, and most of us are best at the scripts and books closest in time, space and kind to whatever it is we work on most. There is a virtue in excellence for its own sake, and if you’re doing a course which includes an exam in transcription and dating, you’ll obviously want to be in good form for that. Nevertheless, as with languages, sometimes it’s about having as much as you need to get what you want done, and done well.

This observation leads me to my closing theme: if you’re a new graduate student you don’t need to know this yet, but you can begin thinking about what you want palaeography for.

It might be that, in truth, you’ll spend much of the rest of your research career working from modern print. That’s perfectly honourable and valuable! Every day, I use and benefit from scholarship on other topics written by people who rarely or never touch manuscripts. (And I dare to hope that my own work will in turn be useful to such scholars.) If your research life heads in this direction, your training will still be of use—it will let you know, for instance, when you should smell a rat in editions. You’ll be an informed reader.

It might be that you need to be able to comprehend, to transcribe, and to keep an eye out for obvious mis-datings—palaeography as literacy. Again, work of this sort can be really valuable, and it’s quite legitimate to feel that you want palaeography as a tool to help you pursue your central research passion by extracting information from an archive or transcribing a poem in order to edit it.

It might be that you’ll need a full, rounded grasp of the materiality of books and/or documents, because you’ll find yourself cataloguing, or drawing on an array of physical evidence to advance arguments critical, historical, linguistic, &c &c (insert your field here). In the long term, you’re probably going to need a very well-rounded grasp of codicology and palaeography, and you’re going to explore some of the intellectual implications of these fields that I mentioned above.

And it might be that your research will be truly interventionist palaeography, palaeography with an eye to palaeography: you will rewrite our understanding of how a script is dated, of how scribes worked, of how we might identify / distinguish hands &c. This can be a profoundly demanding path, but it can also be profoundly rewarding—and if you pursue it you might, one day, wind up being one of the few people who seem to the rest of us to be able to read everything…

As I said, no need to know what you’re going to do yet. Indeed, if you’re a new graduate student I encourage you not to close down any options too quickly. I think it does help, however, to remember that these options exist, and that we look at old handwriting for various reasons (all of them good ones!).


This post is about attitudes, not resources, since which resources can help you will vary wildly depending on what you work on. From the responses to my tweets, I suspect the advice above might help anyone learning to read pretty much anything, from a wide range of places and times.

Because of the nature of my academic networks, the specific resources suggested to me have tended to focus on premodern or early-modern Great Britain, and I don’t want to give the impression that the experience of ‘handwriting shock’, or the value of plunging in with whatever you care about, for example, are things limited to writing from one part of the world.

But I did get some suggested resources, which I list here in case they happen to be of use.

Elaine Treharne’s compendium of some online courses and resources – suggested by Elaine Treharne

Heather Wolfe’s notes on learning early modern secretary – suggested by Owen Williams

The German Script Course at the Moravian Archives, for German writing c.1600 to present – suggested by Liat Spiro

Scottish, a resource for Scottish writing c.1500 to c.1800 – suggested by Kevin Hall

Finally, my own advice on some things you might want to pack on trips to archives or special collections, whatever you’re going to look at!


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Top Tips for Starting a PhD

Thanks to everyone on twitter who contributed their top tips for starting a PhD in the humanities. I hope that the advice below will be helpful; please do tweet me or leave a comment below if you have additional thoughts or suggestions. As ever, this post is by no means exhaustive!

Related image

Firstly and importantly: know that just as every person is different, every PhD is different! Just because your PhD doesn’t ‘look’ like someone else’s or you are not working in the same way or (seemingly) making the same amount of progress, it does not mean that you are ‘doing it wrong’! Try to avoid comparing yourself with others (for that way imposter syndrome lies! And on that subject, see this post).

As Daniel Sawyer tweeted, a PhD is a hoop to jump through. It’s not your magnum opus, as @InsularWorld and @abibleach put it, it just needs to pass the exam. Of course at many stages of a PhD it can feel like that ‘just’ is an impossible hurdle but try to be realistic in recognising what you need to do. Daniel also suggested looking through recent theses in your field in your department. I did this in my final year when I was looking for advice on writing the introduction to my thesis and it was really helpful. How had other people gone about it? As Daniel said, looking at completed theses shows that the task is possible and doable (but don’t freak yourself out, you have three years or more to get to that stage if you look at theses now!) It can also be useful, as @jordanmariecook commented, to look at other theses to see how they might be structured. The thesis can feel like an amorphous mass at the beginning, so looking at a range of completed examples can be very useful. (It will also reinforce that it isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ exercise as different structures will work for different projects).

It is absolutely normal to be uncertain at the start of a PhD– and indeed to be uncertain at other points too! If you knew exactly what you were doing, you’d have the PhD already! It’s a learning curve and you learn and progress by doing it, step by step. You don’t have to write the entire thesis today, you just need to keep moving forward by reading and thinking. As @theresasmets commented, it’s a marathon, not a sprint!

Cultivate a positive attitude. @Karl_Kinsella noted that it’s important to keep in mind what you enjoy most about the subject as there will always be days when it feels like a struggle and you may question why you’re doing a PhD! And don’t forget that not every single part of the work will be enjoyable, some of it just needs to be completed (-as in any job or task! But ‘find the fun’ as Mary Poppins would put it!!) It’s also important to be open minded about feedback and criticism. None of us get it right first time but by listening to the supportive feedback of our supervisor and peers, we can learn more and improve our work.

Try to set up a good routine for your working day and for the thesis itself. Experiment with working in different libraries, coffee shops, or at home. When I was a graduate, I didn’t mind working in my bedroom in college but it can be good to have a physical separation between your work space and your relaxation space, and I often used to find that my half hour walk to the library provided useful thinking time as well as good exercise.

It’s also a good idea to get to know what works best for you in terms of when you work. I work best in the mornings, so getting up and organised is important for me. When I was working on my thesis, I liked to socialise or watch tv in the evenings with friends but for some people (night owls!), taking time off in the afternoon is best before settling down to write in the evening. I also tend to write well between 5-7pm so more recently I have been working at home so that I’m not commuting during that time. For some of us, commuting is not optional so if you can work on the train, for example, get organised for that- have a folder of articles that you can dip into during this time (or use the time to read for pleasure! I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction and fiction recently and it’s sparked off all sorts of ideas that I wasn’t expecting and, as my dear friend the novelist Diane Setterfield says, the best way to improve your writing is to read more!)

Related imageYou should maximise the time when you are most productive for writing or for tasks that you know will require a high degree of concentration. Inputting data, writing a bibliography, doing a database search etc- more mundane tasks that just need to ‘done’ can be accomplished when you feel like you need a bit of a rest. We can’t work at full capacity or be our most brilliant all of the time! I tend to have a post-lunch slump so that’s a good time for me to do those sorts of tasks. Jacob Fredrickson tweeted that it is worth taking time to figure out how you work and then planning around this.

Routines are also important on the macro scale. When I started my PhD, I had a really useful meeting with my supervisor where we decided how I would manage my time during the term and vacation. Our routine was that I would see her at the beginning of term to talk about my general ideas and what I was planning to work on next, and I would then go back in the middle of term having done some research and written up something informal like a chapter plan or an outline of ideas. We’d then discuss that work and I would write up the chapter, handing it in at the end of the following vacation, before meeting up for feedback and planning at the beginning of the next term. That set up worked for me, and for my supervisor, and importantly, for my project. I was working on a theme and I decided to discuss that theme in five texts and each text would form the basis of a chapter. Not everyone’s thesis is going to work in that way so it might be that you need to spend more time collating your primary material before you can divide it into chapters. But what I would say is that you should start writing as soon as possible anyway. Get used to articulating your ideas and engaging with the secondary reading that you’ve done, even if that writing doesn’t make it into the final thesis. Most of us do have to write something at the end of our first year to ‘transfer’ from probationary research to full researcher anyway. Writing early and often was also important for me (and still is!) because I often find that I don’t entirely know what my argument will be until I start putting it into precise words. Regular writing can also help you to avoid writer’s block and make it less scary to sit down and write. For some people, however, the bulk of the writing does happen towards the end of the project, as Laura Tisdall points out in her comment on this post below. So again, make sure that your practice works for you. And as Jacob Fredrickson tweeted, there will be days when you can’t write and that is absolutely normal. (And days when the writing feels like- in my favourite metaphors- wading through treacle / pulling teeth / getting blood out of a stone* delete as appropriate! Some days it just ain’t happening, so try again tomorrow!)

Related imageOn the subject of supervisors, I was so lucky that my supervisor was not only brilliant but also a brilliant fit for me- for my work and for my way of working. Do your research before you apply for a PhD programme and if you can, meet your potential supervisor or have a discussion with them by email or skype. If a supervisory relationship isn’t working out, then do talk to someone in your department about the possibility of switching. A couple of tweeps talked to me about making the switch and that they were glad that they had made that decision.

@TrevBroughton made the great suggestion that when you have a supervision, you should never leave without setting the next deadline, that way you avoid ‘drifting’. I also used to find it really useful not only to make notes during my supervisions but to go back through those notes reflectively after the meetings so that I could make myself a checklist of things to do and also get a sense of my progress. I would also often make a list of questions that I might want to ask during a supervision, so that I could bring those with me to the meeting.

When you’re working on your project, realise that it’s okay to change your mind! When I was writing my thesis, I had one chapter left to do and it was going to be on Julian of Norwich. Just as I was about to start it I thought, this doesn’t fit as well with the rest of my project as I had originally thought. It would have been fine to write on Julian (but just fine, y’know?), but I suddenly felt that there might be something better out there. So I told my supervisor I wanted to find something different to write on, I didn’t know what yet, but I wanted to take a couple of weeks to search for it!! My supervisor trusted my judgement and off I went to read through as many volumes of the Early English Text Society as I could- and lo and behold, I found some material that would work much better for my argument (and in the end, that material became the lynchpin of my monograph!) I’m glad I had the confidence in myself to do this even though it was scary at first! But by year three of the PhD, I felt that if I had a hunch, it was worth following it.

Sometimes it’s good to follow your nose! It can be easy to feel like you have to be super-focused in your reading all of the time but if something intrigues you, allow yourself to pursue it for an hour or so, you never know where it might lead! The chances are that when you are teaching you will need to broaden your knowledge anyway and as T.S. Wingard tweeted, it’s important not to skimp on reading survey books at the beginning of your project, so that you know how your research fits into the broader field. It’s a great idea to read recent handbooks on your topic to get a sense of where the field is now, for example.

Related image
Be aware of the fact that there are different kinds of work at play when we do a thesis. There’s the leg work (which might be reading academic articles, visiting archives) and there’s the thinking work (and of course the two are deeply connected). Sometimes it can feel like you’re more ‘productive’ when you’re doing the leg work as it can be more easily quantified (‘I read six articles today’) but the thinking work is just as important (and can often happen, as Agatha Christie remarked, when you’re doing the dishes!) When I needed to do some thinking about my thesis, I used to go to a coffee shop with a notebook and just freewrite about my topic, noting down big ideas or questions that I had and how I might go about answering them. (I talk more about managing anxieties about our work in this post).

Liam Temple made the great suggestion of having a ‘book of ideas’ to carry round with you- get into the habit of writing down ideas as they occur to you, however big or small! This can be a great record of the thinking you’ve done in a week. It can also be helpful to have a research diary that you fill in on a weekly (or daily) basis- where am I at, at the end of this week? I often find that when I do that, I realise I’ve accomplished more than I thought I had or I might realise that there was something that was interrupting my work that work (-life happens! but also it could be that I was struggling with an idea and I now realise I need to spend more time working on it and I can adjust my schedule accordingly the following week). Being reflective on a regular basis in this way is very helpful for tracking the progress of your project. @thelawyercatrin tweeted that it can be very useful to keep a ‘research log’ which can also include reviews of articles too.

Learning to read is just as important as learning to write when you’re doing research! There are lots of different kinds of reading that you might need to do- in-depth critical reading of monographs that are fundamental to your field, for example (and I’ve written about that kind of reading here) but also scanning through articles or chapters in edited volumes to see if they will be relevant for your research. Not everything is going to be equally useful or need equal time for reading! But if you look at something that turns out not to be useful at the moment, still make a brief note of it anyway and what it focused on- you never know when you might need to go back to something! There was some discussion on twitter this week about reading materials that you can’t understand and how that might generate imposter syndrome (‘I must be stupid if I can’t understand this!’) It might be that you’re not ready to read that article yet but it also might be that that approach or kind of content is not relevant for you. Don’t beat yourself up, move on. If you think it’s a crucial piece of research, ask for advice from your supervisor or peers. I work with theory in my research but there’s definitely a kind of theory that is not for me, so I don’t spend a lot of time with it.

Something that I often find people tweeting about is reading an article or coming across another student who appears to be their PhDouble or doppelganger! You know, that feeling when you read the title of an article and your heart sinks and you think, oh god, someone else has written my thesis! Now naturally, there are articles on similar topics and themes- lots of people have written on Chaucer or Shakespeare for many years!- but this doesn’t mean that you haven’t got something to contribute. My undergraduate students often worry about ‘originality’ but I always say to them that their originality is firstly located in themselves, in how they think and how they write. Even if someone else has written about, say, authority in Chaucer before, they won’t have written about it in your way. If you do come across something that fits into your area, think of it as a challenge- how does my work differ from this article, how does my argument extend or problematise the conclusions of this article? I had this experience when I was trying to turn a chapter on my thesis into an article because in the meantime, an article had been published that drew a similar conclusion from my primary materials. So I thought, can I make a different argument instead? And in the end, that’s what I did and the research was much more interesting as a result. The field had moved on so I had to move with it!

Keep good bibliographic records and take good notes! By the time you’re a grad student you should be in the habit of this already but as well as keeping notes of things that aren’t useful now but could be later, one of the most helpful changes I made in my note-taking was to have a specific way of differentiating my ideas from the ideas in the book or article I was reading. You might think this is obvious but when you come back to your notes six months or a year down the line, you don’t want to have to read an article again and you don’t want to accidentally confuse your ideas with the ideas in the article. I (mainly) still take notes by hand so when I want to make a comment on something or ask a question or identify something as related to my work, I move onto the next line of my pad and do a wiggly arrow. This is my signal to myself that this is ‘me’ thinking. If you’re using a laptop you could do a marginal comment or switch the colour to red, etc. There’s lots of ways of doing this.

Get organised!! Organise your paperwork and your computer. I have a system for keeping PDFs of articles- I save them in a folder by name and topic (so, ‘Smith on Kempe, emotions’) as that is how I often remember an article (‘it’s the one by x on that general topic’). I also double-save sometimes so that if an article is really important, I also put it in the folder I am using for my current chapter / article. The same kind of thing goes for saving documents- we all know the meme about the document entitled ‘final, final, FINAL, with additional, FINAL revisions.doc’!! What I find helps is to save documents with the date, so ‘Kempe essay 28.9.19’ so that I can always identify the most recent one. (Laura Sangha recommended a tool called Zotero to help organise research materials; I haven’t used it myself but I will be investigating!) And hopefully it goes without saying here to make sure you have systems in place for saving your work- not just on the laptop but also on a USB stick / external hard drive / cloud- to save yourself from lots of stress if you have a computer problem. (I often email documents to myself as well, as an extra safeguard. And when I was finishing my monograph I sent it to my husband and parents as well!)

Find your people! Among your peers, among more senior grad students and postdocs, and be supportive of each other. To build a better academia we need more kindness and less competition, so cultivate those networks and connections that build you up. And of course they can be networks on twitter as well as in ‘real life’. (And in fact getting to know people on twitter has often helped to reduce my anxiety about attending conferences because I already ‘know’ a lot of other people who will be attending). Laura Sangha recommended getting involved in the life of your department: attend research seminars and events; organise reading groups or social events with your peers; get together to compare notes on how the PhD is going. Don’t isolate yourself!

Image result for ask for helpAsk for help! And don’t be afraid to do so. This is so crucial. We all need help and support, of different kinds at different stages and in different areas of our lives, so seek it out and make the most of it. If you have a disability or a mental health issue, find out what support is available from your department and university and use it. Lucy Allan has written a great post about having dyslexia as a graduate student. As @vjc_torianist tweeted, allow for flexibility, your personal life can have an impact on your work and things can not go to plan due to illness or other kinds of upset. If you can, talk to your supervisor honestly about where you are at.

There will be other kinds of help and learning opportunities available to you too, as Eleanor Baker tweeted. For example, sessions in the library on how to gain practical research skills; careers seminars in your department might focus on how to teach, how to prepare for your viva; and of course informal opportunities to talk to graduate students who are a few years ahead of you. (Ditto making the most of twitter as a hivemind of brilliant support and information!) It can be easy to feel that you are meant to know what you’re doing when you start a PhD- or even when you have the doctorate!- but we’re all learning and we all need guidance. So much of academic work is realising that there’s more we need to know and the more we do, the more questions we need to ask. See this as a positive!

@alkenney recommended sitting in on classes in order to pick up skills and this is a great idea. When I arrived in Oxford I sat in on an MA class on palaeography as this wasn’t covered in my own MA course. I’ve also been to undergraduate lectures by faculty whom I admire to pick up tips for lecturing and I was lucky enough to participate in a teaching and learning mentoring scheme where I shadowed an established tutor when I was learning to teach.

It’s important to do other things to build your CV during your PhD, particularly given the state of the job market (which couldn’t be more different than when I got my PhD 12 years ago). That might include teaching, giving a conference paper (see my posts on writing abstracts and giving papers), organising a conference (advice here), and even trying to publish an article. My advice on all of this would be that moderation is the key and be strategic about what you do. For example, you only need to teach a course once for you to have experience for your CV (although I recognise that you may need to do more teaching for financial support for your studies if you do not have access to funding). Going to conferences is important- to get your research out there, to meet people in your field and network- but it’s easy to get addicted to giving papers and then find you have no time left for the thesis!! I always reckon it takes me a minimum of a month of full time work to go to a conference- a week to write the abstract, two weeks to write the paper, a week to go to the conference and recover from it- but often longer! Have I got that time? And if I have, is it a priority to spend it on this conference? Daniel Sawyer recommended having a conversation with your supervisor fairly early on in the PhD if you are thinking about pursuing an academic career so that you can get their advice on how to juggle these additional activities. Your supervisor will have a sense, for example, of which conferences might be useful for you to attend- the yearly Medieval Congress in Leeds in my field, or the biannual New Chaucer Society- but there will also be smaller, graduate conferences in your department which will be a good place to test out your ideas first. And many of these things have a cost implication (and sadly most conferences still require registration/accommodation fees up front, even if there are graduate bursaries available).

Related to this is that if you are considering pursuing an academic career and plan to produce a monograph based on your PhD, it might be worth keeping that in mind when you are making decisions about how to structure the thesis. PhD theses are not monographs of course, there are different requirements for each task, and often it is only when we have completed the PhD and had some distance from it that we can begin to reimagine it as a monograph. When I did my PhD, I didn’t think about the idea of the monograph at all and in hindsight I wouldn’t change the way I did my thesis (despite The Journey I then went on to turn it onto a monograph!) but I think I would have had a conversation with my PhD examiners in the viva, for example, about what they would recommend. When you’re reading academic monographs (and more on this in my post here), it’s worth attending to structure and style as well as content. If you read a fantastic monograph in your field, what was it that worked so well in your opinion?

Image result for big bad i said noI would also pause here to say, learn to say NO! You need to prioritise getting the thesis done (and believe me when I say that in the post-PhD world, you will never have that extended thinking time again!!). Learn to assess how useful certain opportunities will be to you and try not to allow yourself to be exploited. You can’t do everything, think about what will work for you, in your circumstances It has taken me an awful long time to learn to say no. The entire world won’t collapse if you say you can’t do something. Talk over the pros and cons of an opportunity with your supervisor, peers, friends. (Anyone else remember the ‘Big Bad I said No’ from the cartoon Stoppit and Tidyup?! Just me?!)

It is so important to take breaks and have other interests. You must not and cannot work all of the time! Having hobbies, doing exercise, socialising (with family and also with people not on your course), are all crucial for our mental health. (This topic should probably be a blogpost in its own right!)

Finally, try not to compare yourself to others! (And this is the hardest thing and something I still struggle with!!) You must do your thesis your way. Find what works for you and have the confidence to follow your own path. Be kind to yourself, be kind to your peers, and know that you’ve got this!

Image result for you've got this

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Women at Univ 1249-2019


This year we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the admission of women students to University College, Oxford. You can find out about the latest news on our website, including a fantastic series of profiles of Univ women (from undergraduate and graduate students to staff and alumni), and on our social media (twitter and instagram).

A key part of our celebrations has been the creation of our exhibition ‘Women at Univ 1249-2019’, curated by our archivist Robin Darwall-Smith, librarian Elizabeth Adams, and myself. The exhibition celebrates the academic achievements of women students and academics post-1979 but also uncovers the hidden histories of women who have given their physical, financial, intellectual, and social labour to support the college from the Middle Ages to the present day.

If you would like to find out more, I have written an article for our college magazine The Martlet which is available online here: The Martlet, autumn 2019 (with thanks to Robin Darwall-Smith, Catherine Holmes, and Sara Dewsbery).

My Martlet piece

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Practical Tips for dealing with Imposter Syndrome and Negative Thoughts

Source: Buzzfeed

Sitting down to write a blogpost on imposter syndrome isn’t as straightforward as I thought it was going to be. In fact, I feel like I’m an imposter. Sure, I’ve experienced imposter syndrome, I’ve read up on it on the internet, I’ve chatted about it on twitter, but I don’t know enough about it to write about it, do I? I should have read some journal articles or done some proper research, what I know is only the tip of a very large and scary looking iceberg. Who am I to be giving advice anyway? Maybe I’ll give the wrong advice, maybe the advice won’t be helpful, maybe (definitely!) there are people out there who would be able to write something much better than I can…

Just stop for a moment. This is what it feels like isn’t it, when the imposter syndrome and the negative thoughts and the self-doubt and the feelings of inadequacy start to spiral out of control. I can feel myself becoming slightly anxious, my heart is beating faster, my hands feel a bit shaky as they hover over the keyboard… but in my experience, one of the best things you can do when these feelings start to take over, is to talk about it! And that’s one of the things that I try to do on this blog, in my other top tips and advice posts, and when I’m on twitter. Talking about all the different aspects of academic life, from being a grad student to an early career researcher, and even transitioning into what is probably early-to-mid career in my case (though writing that makes me feel like an imposter!), helps to demystify things that seem arcane and difficult, and hopefully helps to create an open, positive, and kind space for all of us to learn from each other, support each other, and above all create more, much-needed, #academickindness

The aim of this post isn’t really to define imposter syndrome (I’m not qualified to do that!) and I would really recommend Dr Vik Turbine’s podcast on the subject available from her website here (which also discusses the ways in which imposter syndrome is a cultural/structural issue too, not just a personal one). What I want to do is to offer some practical tips- of my own and crowdsourced from twitter- for addressing the kinds of negative thoughts that can affect our confidence and our ability to work, both directly related to imposter syndrome and more broadly defined, whatever stage of an academic career we might be at. And I’m deliberately using plural pronouns here because, as the cartoon at the top humorously points out, we’ve all been there and we all have struggles that might not be immediately visible on a witty twitter feed or beautifully curated Instagram feed! I should also note that I am speaking from a position of considerable privilege (as a white, cis, heterosexual woman, employed by an Oxford college, with a doctorate and a monograph) and I am sure that the less privileged members of our community will be subject to many more additional anxieties than I am. I also want to add that while many of the academic anxieties here are common (and more needs to be done to ensure that, for example, unnecessarily harsh peer reviews don’t contribute to the already considerable difficulties of managing academic life), if you are struggling, please do seek professional help.

So the idea for this post was to offer some practical tips for dealing with the kinds of negative thoughts that make us feel anxious as academics. The list is by no means exhaustive so please tweet me or comment below if you have other suggestions! So here goes.

Talk to people! I tend to find that my anxieties are worse if I keep them to myself. Talking to a friend or partner who is outside of academia can be very helpful to get some perspective but it can also be useful to talk to our peers or mentors. Find the people who lift you up and support you– and this will differ for everyone. When I was a graduate student, I didn’t worry very much about how my peers were doing with their research but when I started my job, I found myself constantly comparing myself to others at a similar stage and worrying about how much they had done (and I had not done). Talking to my peers about imposter syndrome is the last thing I would have wanted to do at that stage! But luckily I had mentors (early career academics just a few years ahead of me, my former DPhil supervisor) who could lend a listening ear and that was incredibly valuable for me. (And my DMs are open on twitter in you’d like to get in touch for a chat!)

It isn’t one size fits all for this sort of advice, I find. Take social media, for example. For me, being on twitter is energising and stimulating… most of the time. But sometimes I need some quiet and I need to stop comparing myself to other people, so I will log off for a little while. Find the online (and real life!) spaces that lift you up and if you need to take a break to focus and quieten your mind, just do it!

A good piece of advice that a mentor gave me recently was to write down your anxieties. This gets them out of your head and often they are easier to deal with and to ‘answer’ on paper. Some people find it helpful to sit down and do a five minute ‘brain dump’ before they start work in a morning- just write down all the things you’re worried about, and then fold up the piece of paper and put it away to think about later. You’ve acknowledged the worries but you are not going to let them derail your work now.

When you are doubting yourself and putting yourself down, think about what you would say if a friend asked you for advice about the same worries. It’s often very easy to believe all the negative thoughts that pop into your head and to think that they are right, but if a friend told you their worries, you wouldn’t tell them that they should believe all of those awful things and not bother, would you?! We all need to be kinder to ourselves I think.

One of the things that the practice of mindfulness encourages is recognising that we might have a negative thought or feeling but that we don’t have to accept it as true. It’s just a thought or feeling that’s popped into our heads, it’s up to us how or if we act on it. I have written about this briefly in my Welfare post for my undergrad students in which I talk about Ruby Wax’s analogy of the imaginary frog in her book Sane New World.

Image result for ruby wax sane new world‘The problem with thinking is when we confuse the thoughts about things with the things themselves. We can think about an imaginary frog in our minds and know it’s not the same as a real frog. But whenever our minds bring up something that physically doesn’t exist, such as our self-esteem, it’s hard to see the distinction. Thoughts about our self-esteem are no more real than an imaginary frog. If we switch to the ‘being’ mode we can see this much more clearly. We can stand back and witness our thoughts and feelings as experiences that come and go in our mind just like sounds, tastes, and sights. So when a thought comes up, ‘I feel like a failure’, we don’t have to take it as a reality and fall into the inevitable rumination (it’s just an imaginary frog).’ (p.174)

Taking a moment to stop and breathe, and assess the thought, can stop our anxiety running away with itself.

Something I try to be attuned to when I’m having negative thoughts is why that might be at that particular moment. Often it might be because I’m tired- physically or mentally- or because I’m working on something quite difficult or I know I have a potentially nerve-wracking experience coming up. If I’m working on something new and I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, the imposter syndrome can feel very strong but one useful piece of advice I read online was to turn that into a positive. Yes, I feel nervous because this is a new area of research for me but that’s a good thing because I know have a lot to learn. And it really is true that the more you learn, the more you realise there is to learn! We are trained as graduate students and researchers to ask questions and to keep asking questions even when we find answers, so it’s a good thing to be aware of our lack of knowledge in a particular area (but don’t let it stop you from doing the work to begin building your expertise!) Similarly, if I’m worried about the quality of my writing, I remember that for me, my best work happens in the editing stage, so the most important thing is to get something down on paper, I can make it sound better later!

When your confidence is low, it is really help to have some practical material to build you up, and this can come in lots of different forms that I’m going to classify as: experience, evidence, and positive reinforcement.

Experience: we’ve all done things that we are proud of and that show us that we can do it. Make a little list of some of those things as they can give you confidence for the new thing you’re about to attempt or the difficult thing you’re currently doing. They can be things like ‘I got my Masters degree’ or ‘I had my first publication accepted’ but they can also be things like ‘I finally understood that difficult concept that I struggled with’ or ‘I got up in front of that huge audience and gave that conference paper.’ In academia we are often pushed outside our comfort zones- it’s partly how we learn!- and we can use those experiences to give us confidence for the next time we have something that takes courage to attempt. Think about the ‘you’ of two or three years ago, what have you done (in any aspect of your life, not just academia) that took guts and you were really proud of and can hold on to as a talisman of your abilities and courage?

Evidence: we all have objective evidence for things that we have done, whether it’s write that essay, give that paper, complete that degree. But sometimes it can feel like we haven’t achieved anything this week / this month / this year. This is rarely ever true! But it helps to keep records and to write down what we have done, starting with the small things, and also (because this is starting to sound far too informed by the idea of productivity, which is rife in academia and I find it problematic for a variety of reasons!), write down the other things that we have experienced and enjoyed in our days. I often find that when I write down what I’ve ‘done’ on a day when I feel like I haven’t made any kind of progress, I often find that there’s more there than I think or that my progress has been ‘intellectual’ rather than ‘quantifiable’. I may not have read a stack of journal articles but I did have that one key idea while I was hanging out the washing that is going to advance my chapter/article enormously!

People often recommend keeping a Gratitude Journal or a Happiness Journal. Writing down three things that we are grateful for or that made us feel positive during a day. This can be a very good way of cultivating a positive rather than negative mindset and recognising that we are not defined by our academic identities. For example: the other morning when I went into the library it was overcast and dull outside, but when I came out at lunchtime, it was blazing sunshine and the Oxford architecture was looking gorgeous and that made me smile. Last week I had a really lovely and unexpected parcel in the post from a dear friend, and I went to meet another lovely friend who has just got a puppy (Side note: animals are the Way Forward for combating negative thinking!!). Remembering happy experiences always makes me feel good too. For example this weekend, I celebrated with my students who had graduated and that was a very positive experience for me!

Positive reinforcement: there are two aspects to this for me. One is keeping a record of positive feedback that I’ve received, from students, colleagues, (even peer reviewers!) and turning to that when I am feeling dispirited or my self-esteem is low. When I received the first reader’s report on my monograph (which if you’ve read my blogpost on the monograph, you’ll remember was quite A Journey!), the reader said: ‘Varnam writes with confidence and authority.’ For someone who had struggled with confidence, especially when it came to the monograph, this was a joyous comment to receive! Lots of academics on twitter talk about having a ‘happiness’ folder on the computer or a notebook where they write down these sorts of comments so that they are readily available if you need a boost.

Image result for be a warrior not a worrier

For me, another element of positive reinforcement is motivational or inspiring quotations. I know some people groan at this but that’s fine, it’s not for everyone!! I have some postcards on my wall that say ‘she believed she could so she did’, ‘hang in there’, and one of my favourites, which I got from Paperchase, which says ‘be a warrior not a worrier’!

I have come across people on twitter who have notes stuck to their computer that say ‘it doesn’t have to be perfect; good enough is good enough.’ When I was finishing my monograph, someone told me to ‘hold my nerve’ and I’d get it finished, and I often find that a very helpful mantra. I would really recommend following the brilliant poet Maggie Smith on twitter who tweets fantastically helpful comments, in my view. For example,

‘Everything is not wrong, even though it may feel that way. While you’re grappling with the parts of your life that are out of alignment, causing you pain, don’t lose sight of the parts that bring you joy. Look and you’ll find them. Keep moving.’

Smith always ends her tweets with ‘keep moving’ and I think that’s so helpful. Even if you only take one step forward today, keep moving! If the anxiety is stopping me from doing my work, I’ll often use the pomodoro technique (which I discuss at the end of this post). I’ll choose something small to do, set a timer for 25 minutes, and that will make me feel like I am moving forward, especially when I’m working on a large project that seems overwhelming.

There’s also a lot to be said for having a ‘funny’ folder or a list of videos, file of images, that never fail to make you smile and give you a lift (cute animals work wonders here!!). I’m a big fan of the UK tv show Strictly Come Dancing and I can’t watch Susan Calman and Kevin Clifton dance to Bring Me Sunshine without feeling happy. (And if you’ve never seen former politician Ed Balls dance to Gangnam Style, you haven’t lived!) I also have a playlist of my favourite comedy sketches (including Victoria Wood’s songs, which always tickle me!).

There are lots of things that we can and should do to practice ‘self-care’ and for me, lots of those involve doing non-academic things to remind myself my identity is not just tied to my academic abilities. I took up running about five years ago and even did a 10k run! (and I’m extremely Not Sporty!) I haven’t been very good about keeping up my running this summer but I’m trying again and even going out for ten minutes makes me feel more positive (both because of the benefit of the exercise but also the fact that I actually got outside and did it!). I also read plenty of fiction (and constantly reread Harry Potter as my comfort read!), I crochet, I spend a fortune on bird feed and am slightly obsessed with birdwatching in my little backgarden, I watch a lot of telly, and I like to ring my friends and chat on the phone. All of these things help to keep me balanced and you will know what works for you. Schedule time in your week to do the things that make you feel good and don’t feel guilty about them! We cannot and should not work all the time and often having a rest and a break recharges the batteries so that we can go back to our work refreshed the next day.

I hope that some of the tips here will be of help, please do let me know if you have others! Be kind to yourself, folks, and to others, and please do tweet me if I can be of any help!

Image result for be kind to yourself

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

New article on ‘Don’t Look Now’

To celebrate the re-release and digital restoration of Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story Don’t Look Now, I have written an in-depth essay for the Daphne du Maurier website, available at this link

The article discusses the actors, location, and Roeg’s filming techniques; analyses Roeg’s interpretation of the short story and the changes he made; and explores Daphne du Maurier’s own response to the film.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

How to do your first peer review

Last week on twitter I was asked for advice about how to go about doing your first peer review. I have some experience of being a peer reviewer but not a huge amount so I asked the twitter hive mind and, as ever, lots of fantastic suggestions came pouring in! Below is a selection of that advice but please tweet me or comment below if you have other ideas to add. Thank you very much to everyone who replied and also to Kathryn Maude who tweeted the same question on the same day! It’s an important issue in academia and one that we need to talk about more openly and in more detail, so thank you to everyone who raised the issue and contributed their ideas. (And sorry that I haven’t been able to quote everyone below, this is in part because the new twitter on my desktop is being impossible and some of the comments seem to have disappeared!!)

Image result for peer review

I think we can all agree that being a ‘good peer reviewer’ means avoiding being the awful stereotype of ‘reviewer 2’ that we all dread (and I’ve written about the emotional impact of negative and unconstructive criticism in another blogpost- click here– which includes practical tips for how approach revising a submission.) Even when criticism is constructive, it can be difficult to confront those revisions as it can bring up all kinds of ‘imposter syndrome’ anxieties, no matter how many successful ‘revise and resubmits’ we may have achieved!

So when we are the peer reviewer, and we know the impact that feedback has, how can we make sure that we produce rigorous, accurate, and scholarly feedback while at the same time being kind, helpful, and showing the author that we have engaged with their work in detail and with serious consideration?

I was interested in the fact that many of the suggestions in response to my tweet were a matter of style as well as content. When I’m marking students’ essays, I’ll often use the ‘feedback sandwich’ method– start with the positives, then the critique (with specific instructions for improvement), and then a reaffirmation of the progress that has been made that week. Psychologically, I think we all respond positively to this kind of approach! So the advice below focuses on content and style, and proceeds from the basic assumption that kindness should be at the heart of what we do. We all know how emotionally entangled we are with our own work so we should do others the courtesy of feedback which respects their efforts and offers genuine suggestions for improvement, so that the work can be the best that it can be. No one really wants to publish work before its time- I am now so glad that my first attempt at my monograph was rejected! (see this post for more on that topic)- but rejection is never easy to cope with. So, do unto others as you would have them do unto you!! Ask yourself, how would I feel if I received this review? (And if you’re unsure you’ve got the tone right, you could try sending it to a colleague to see what they make of it)

Related to this- and it’s always a temptation!- don’t write a review which is really a ‘if I’d written this article, I’d have done it this way’ comment! You haven’t, it’s the author’s article, so judge it on their terms and offer feedback that that helps them to improve it for themselves! So don’t be reviewer 3!!

Image result for reviewer 2 cartoon

General thoughts

As @DrFrancisYoung summarised, ‘always be kind, always be constructive- but also be honest.’ Not everything is publishable, of course, and not necessarily in its first form (I had an article out last year that went through many different incarnations before it was accepted but it was better for it in the end!). But there is no need to be unnecessarily cruel to be kind, in my view.

@SarahBlick3 commented that ‘peer review is meant to help fellow scholars and the field as a whole’, so it can helpful to think about your review as part of your ‘service’ to your colleagues and to your field, just as you have been helped by the peer reviewers who have put in time to review your work.

Matthew Weait (@ProfWetpaint) commented that ‘I find it helpful to imagine the author is a friend whose career you want to support. That way you orient your comments in the most constructive way’, even if you do end up concluding that the paper should be rejected because it’s not quite there yet. @lizgloyn also comment that she peer reviews ‘as if I were reading an article for a friend who has asked for pre-submission feedback.’ @schuklenk commented, ‘write the review in such a way that you would have appreciated receiving it, even if highly critical, had you been the author’ and I absolutely agree with this.

Praise the author, critique the work! (‘The author has done an excellent job at… The argument is less effective when…’ etc). This was an excellent tip I picked up from @EllieMackin on twitter a while ago and in terms of the style of the feedback, I think it really helps to minimise how personal it can feel when your work is criticised.

Bear in mind that if you read something that needs a lot of work, it could be someone’s first submission! @lizgloyn commented that she has reviewed materials that do look like a seminar paper with a few tweaks and so ‘clear and encouraging feedback for someone getting their first peer review is SO important.’ There is so much that can feel like a closed shop in academia (which is partly why I write my blogposts to demystify some of these processes!) and not everyone has access to the same support or knowledge, so don’t be cruel!!

When I did my first peer review, I was surprised by how ‘easy’ I found it to list my critiques upon first reading and I had to make a conscious effort to make a list of the positives- there were lots and I was recommending to publish, and I think of myself as a kind and supportive reader! But I think we can be trained to look for problem areas and they often jump out first, so I’m very conscious of this whenever I’m writing feedback for peer review or indeed for students’ essays.

There was some discussion in the light of my tweet about when to decline a peer review invitation. It is important to feel that you can support the work, even if you are critiquing it. If you fundamentally disagree with it, that is not going to make for a constructive peer review! Equally, if you are far too close to the work, you may not be able to be objective. I recently declined a peer review after discussion with the editor because I had published an essay on precisely the same topic and didn’t feel that that would be fair to the author as I felt far too close to the topic (and I knew that I wasn’t the only person with expertise in the broad area so I wasn’t ultimately doing the author a disservice by refusing to review it). Use your common sense and fair judgement on this issue! (And thanks to Diane Watt for raising this point).

There is also an issue here about being professional and responsible about the time it will take you to do the review. @andrewdbuck said that if you can’t realistically fit it into your schedule, say no. I would add that if you do agree and then things happen- as they did to me when I reviewed a larger project the other year- I made sure that I kept the editors informed and gave them a realistic date by which to expect my review (so that they could then pass that on to the author). No one wants to be kept hanging around- especially when there is so much pressure to publish these days!- so do try to get reviews done in a timely fashion. I had to wait nine months for reports on an essay once and it was agony, and I’m sure there are people who have waited longer…

Specific and practical suggestions

When it comes to writing your review, what should it contain and how should you organise it?

Related image

@lizgloyn tweeted that her feedback is often about ‘structure; methodology; contribution to the field/debate/conversation; independent contribution’ and that the key contribution that we as peer reviewers are making is ‘advice on how to make [the paper] better, not tear it down.’ In one peer review that I did, I had a helpful ‘checklist’ from the editor with questions to answer, so obviously if you are asked for specific feedback, follow that, but otherwise make your own checklist like this.

As with my ‘feedback sandwich’, @SarahRoseCrook suggested ‘always start with the positives’ and she also suggested a great practical tip which is to number suggested additions / amendments as it makes it easier for authors to comment on their changes (or to refute suggestions) when submitting the amended version. I will definitely be doing this in the future!

@DrKylieMurray also agreed, ‘start with the positives, no matter how difficult to find!’ What are the good things in the paper, what contribution does it make? Before then identifying particular problem areas and the ‘potential’ that could be developed further. I find this comment about potential especially helpful and resonant- I received a peer review that identified that I was trying to run two arguments simultaneously, one of which had already been accepted in the field overall but the second of which was far more interesting and original. Once I recognised that, I could prioritise the second argument and the paper made more sense to me!! Thanks to the reviewer who spotted this!

Be specific!! If you are going to suggest improvements to the paper, be precise about how the author might achieve those improvements. Is there a particular area of the argument that needs sharpening up or needs more evidence? Can you suggest specific secondary reading that the paper should engage with? (Don’t just say, ‘lots of scholars have discussed x’, who exactly?! If the author hasn’t mentioned them, they probably don’t know about their work) Is there an additional piece of primary material that should be analysed? Is there a counter argument that the author might want to raise and argue against?

Be detailed in your feedback. @Yoav_inn_riki commented that a detailed review shows that you are involved in the process and have thought carefully about your feedback. It shows that you care and, as @KingsManorGhost commented, shows that you are on the author’s ‘side’, as well as showing the author precisely where their arguments might need to be clarified.

This relates to @lizgloyn’s suggestion that you begin the review with ‘a summary of what the article is trying to do’ and the ‘extent to which it achieves its goal.’ @LauraMorreale also commented that by starting with a summary of the argument, you communicate to the author what the reader understood it to be about (which is very helpful to the author, ‘because sometimes we lose the thread or main points when we edit and re-edit’- that has definitely happened to me!) It might also be that the author sets up an ambitious goal which is only partially fulfilled in the scope of the paper.

@lizgloyn suggested reading through the article and making lots of notes first, then collating the feedback into a few ‘Big Points’ before listing the minutiae. @rachel_delman similarly described a really useful peer review that she had received in which the reviewer gave feedback on wider conceptual points and then smaller, more detailed comments. The reviewer also posed questions which showed engagement with the work and softened the tone.

@andrewdbuck also made an important comment about not ‘over reading’ a paper. He commented, ‘I usually do a first pass and make notes on the hard copy; then write those up and read again to fine-tune notes; and then read one last time just to be sure.’ This strikes me as excellent advice for how to approach the practical ‘how to’ side of peer review.

I also had some very useful replies from editors on twitter. One comment was that the peer reviewer should state a clear recommendation and justify it. If you are recommending publication, state what contribution the paper makes to the field. If you are recommending revise and resubmit, state the areas that need to be improved in order for the paper to fully succeed. If you are recommending rejection, state clear and detailed reasons why. @AnneOAlbert commented that editors can receive reviews that recommend publication but then focus on the critique and so can leave the editor reading between the lines. @CanaryCaroline also commented that of course it is better to received constructive critique at the peer review stage rather than, say, when a monograph has been published and a book reviewer takes it task for issues which could have been addressed earlier. Peer review should identified these issues and offer potential solutions so that the author can iron them out at this stage.

Importantly, if you are rejecting a paper, as @lizgloyn notes, ‘be encouraging- you know it’s disappointing but here’s stuff to build on’

* * * * * *

Thank to everyone who has contributed to this discussion. I hope it helps those who are new to peer reviewing. It has certainly helped me to remind myself of the important principles to follow and given me lots of practical suggestions to implement when I’m doing my next peer review.

Do check out my page of Resources for Grads and ECRs for similar posts and let me know if you have any other ideas for useful topics that I could write about. And finally…

Image result for be kind

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

New article on forthcoming Netflix adaptation of Du Maurier’s Rebecca

Thank you to period drama website Willow and Thatch for inviting me to write an article about the forthcoming Netflix adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Click on the link below to read about the five crucial elements that the new adaptation will need to think about to make a memorable film and to find out more about how previous versions- for television and the silver screen- have approached Du Maurier’s most famous novel.

‘5 Ways the New Rebecca from Netflix can be Killer’, Willow and Thatch, July 20 2019

Image result for du maurier rebecca

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

How To: Critical Reading (and Note-Taking)

I was recently asked for advice by a graduate student on twitter on how to read monographs effectively and critically when you are starting out on a PhD. Thanks to Image result for keep calm and read carefullyeveryone who responded to my twitter thread with suggestions. This is a great question because I think that we often don’t spend enough time thinking about ‘how to read’ and, moreover, how to read ‘different’ kinds of work for different purposes. I spend a lot of time teaching ‘close reading’ of primary texts to my students and I teach a study skills class on how to read articles, but reading a monograph is a rather different skill.

So here are some of my thoughts on critical reading and note-taking. Please feel free to comment here or to tweet me @lauravarnam if you have additional suggestions or know of any other online resources which offer useful advice. I’m sure there’s plenty more that could be said on this topic!

First off, think about why you are reading this particular monograph. Some of the advice below is aimed at helping you to digest an entire monograph so that you can write about it critically (perhaps in a ‘literature review’ part of a thesis) and to think about how your work might respond to it. But of course we don’t need to read every single monograph in the same way! If we read in such detail all of the time, we’d never get through everything! So you need to get a sense of which books are fundamental for your topic and field, and which you are dipping into or reading a section of at this stage.

Related imageThe contents page and index are useful ways of navigating a monograph of course, but my key advice to start with- and this may then help to evaluate what kind of reading practice you will need to employ- is to read the introduction (and the blurb, if there is one). The blurb (which if it isn’t on the back of the physical copy will probably be on the website of the publisher) is where the author summarises the key arguments, topic, and scope of the book in a very short form, so that should give you a good idea of what to expect.

A good introduction should give you the following information about the book: the scope and contents (topic, primary sources, etc and also what is not in the scope of the project); methodology and approach (does the book use theory, what kinds of data analysis might be employed, is it based on close reading, etc); where it fits in the field (what hot topics is the book responding to, is it part of a particular ‘turn’ in a field, who are the key critics that it is in conversation with etc) and what’s at stake (why does it matter? Why has the author written this book and why should I read it?); and usually a helpful chapter breakdown for the rest of the book.

I like to think of a monograph introduction as a road map for the book. Once you’ve read the introduction, you should have a good sense of how important and relevant it will be for your work. You might want to read the introduction straight through without taking notes so that you are getting a good overview first, before getting into the nitty gritty… perhaps just noting a keyword here and there and a page number or two, if there are things which immediately jump out to you as crucial, so that you can easily go back to them.

Image result for note book graphic

On note-taking in general, there are lots of possibilities available to you and it can be easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of notes you are taking and indeed in the methods of note-taking that you could choose from. Just choose what works best for you but here are some ideas:

  • Sometimes we can end up taking too many notes and getting bogged down! This is time consuming and it can feel like all you’ve done is copy out the entire book!! So have a think about the kinds of notes you want to make and again, this partly depends on why you are reading the book and what you are looking for.
  • Doing a general read through of an introduction or chapter first (or even just flicking through the pages) before taking copious notes, can be helpful because then you will get a sense of how important it will be to copy out lots of quotations etc. It could be that a chapter starts off seeming particular crucial but then diverges at a later stage.
  • I would suggest taking notes that include a variety of information and serve different purposes:
    • key quotes taken down verbatim (remember to use quotation marks and include the page number(s)!)
    • notes on argument and methodology (what is being argued, how, with what sort of evidence to back it up)
    • notes on primary texts/materials and references to secondary sources in footnotes that you might want to follow up (I keep a separate notebook where I write down bibliographic details of things I need to follow up on)
    • keywords that are crucial to the book and its arguments (and definitions of terms that might be new to you)
    • your evaluation of the arguments and points being made
    • stylistic points

I just want to pause to say a couple of things here. One is that we don’t just read monographs for the content but also for the form and style. The best way to learn about how to put a monograph together, is to see how someone else does it!

When I find an author that I like, I will often take notes on how they set up an argument, how they structure the book as a whole or individual chapters, and how they write! The best way to learn to write well, in my view, is to read! So (without plagiarising, of course!), I might note down a keyword that seems especially useful or how the turn of an argument is managed or how transitions between chapters or sections are handled. (I always find those parts the most difficult in a longer piece of work- how to get from one part of the road map to another!- and if you see someone doing it successfully, ask the question, how did they do it and why does it work so well?) Thanks to Elizabeth Elliott who also made this point on twitter, noting that copying out a passage can help you to understand its mechanics (and can also help to get the creative juices flowing if you’re having writer’s block, as a writer tweep noted recently!)

So a relevant thing to think about here is, how do I organise my note-taking and what form might it take?

Image result for laptop and notebook

I take notes by hand for the most part (I’m a pen and paper girl at heart!) but if I have a lot of passages that need copying out in full, then I will often use the computer. There are various pro’s and con’s of both methods and they are personal to you! No one way is better or worse (and thanks to Jo Edge for reminding me on twitter of the importance of these discussions not being ableist!). It is entirely up to you and your needs.

Katherine Lewis tweeted that electronic notes work for her because they are searchable and can be re-organised easily (they can be arranged thematically, interwoven with notes from other articles or essays, and so on). For me, I like handwritten notes because I have a visual and spatial way of learning (unsurprisingly, since I work on space and place!). I do like a mind map or spider diagram! One technique I’ve used with my undergrad students is to divide up a page into sections that correspond to different kinds of notes: keywords in the top margin, quotes in the left hand column, questions or notes to self in the right hand column… This can be a useful visual cue for the kinds of reading methods that you might want to employ.

Related imageOne thing I would recommend quite early on in graduate work is developing your own shorthand way of indicating your own ideas and responses to a text. If I make a note and then want to include my own comments in response, I tend to use the next line and I do a particular wiggly arrow which is my way of saying this next bit is me! I find that very useful when going back to notes I’ve made months ago, because it can be easy to forget what you thought in response to an article or you can accidentally confuse your ideas and the ideas of the author (and that could land you in hot water!)

And as always, back up your notes if you are using a laptop! (If you write in notebooks, keep them safe but you can also photograph or photocopy key pages for safe-keeping… I say this because of a salutary tale on twitter of a poor student who had his bag stolen which had all his notes in it! Doesn’t bear thinking about!)

Other ways of engaging critically with monographs can involve printing out or photocopying the intro and highlighting / adding marginal comments. You can then keep that alongside you as you read through the rest of the book and refer back to the chapter summaries as you progress through the book.

Another possibility- although personally I’m rather torn and a little cautious about this- is reading book reviews of a monograph. Ideally, a good book review (in my opinion) will set out the contents and scope of the book and assess its contribution to the field fairly. Sadly not all book reviews are entirely objective and reading a bad review could unfairly influence your reading of the book. That said, if there are multiple reviews that you can consult and they concur on key issues, that can be a helpful guide when forming your own opinion (although of course you don’t have to agree with the reviewers! So I would recommend using reviews as a guide only).

I think that’s all folks! If you have additional suggestions, please comment below or tweet me. And do check out my Resources for Grad Students and ECRs  page which includes advice on a range of things, including how to write conference abstracts, how to give a good conference paper, how to deal with peer review feedback, and the process of writing my monograph.

Happy reading everyone!

Image result for hermione reading



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Newly discovered Du Maurier poems

If you have been following the news over the last few days, you will probably have heard about the discovery of the unknown poems by Daphne du Maurier hidden behind a photo frame in the archive materials belonging to the late Maureen Baker-Munton, to be sold at auction on Saturday 27th April.

If you’d like to find out more about the poems and their literary context, I have just published an article about them on The Conversation: ‘Newly discovered Du Maurier poems shed light on a talented writer honing her craft.’ I am very grateful to Daphne du Maurier’s son, Kits Browning, for talking to me about this discovery and for du Maurier expert Ann Willmore, of Bookends of Fowey, for sharing her thoughts about the poems’ context. I argue that the poems shed important light on Daphne’s apprenticeship as a writer and her creative practice throughout her career. Her versatility- as novelist, poet, playwright, biographer, and writer of short stories- is a major theme in the book that I am currently writing on Du Maurier and I am so excited about this new discovery!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Teaching Race and Middle English Literature

In the final week of term I taught a class on Race, Middle English Literature, and Medieval Studies. The class was for my second year students studying the ‘Literature in English 1350-1550’ course here in Oxford. I shared my class plan and materials on Twitter and I thought it would be worth posting it here in case it is of use to anyone else who is planning to teach this topic for the first time.

If you have taught a similar class, I’d very much appreciate hearing about other materials that you have used and activities you may have done that worked well! I should also note that this was quite a lengthy class (3 hours) with a small number of students (7) so some changes might be needed to adapt this to a different teaching context. Throughout this post I have tried to reflect on the choices that I made and what I might do differently next term. I’d also like to thank everyone who gave me advice on how to put the class together, in particular Johannes Wolf, and I’d like to thank Dorothy Kim for kindly sharing materials with me after the class.

I tried to make use of as many online resources as possible and they are linked here.

  • Primary Texts

The King of Tars (TEAMS edition)

The Book of John Mandeville (TEAMS edition)

Given time constraints, I asked the students to read The King of Tars in full but to read the TEAMS introduction to Mandeville and to dip into the text, as guided by the discussions of various passages in the introduction.

I also asked the students to choose a passage from a Middle English text to close read and to share that with the group. This could be something that they had come across in their reading during the week or they could revisit a text that we were already familiar with from earlier in the term (one of the students went back to the Middle English Romance Richard Coeur de Lion, which they had written about in an essay). I also chose a passage that had interested me in the reading, the moment in the prologue to Mandeville where the narrator says that he has passed through lands ‘wher that dwelleth many diverse folk of maneris and diverse lawes and shappes’ (line 66). I used this at the end of the class to tie together our discussions of diversity and the range of factors involved in the definition of ‘race’ (the body, laws and languages, customs and cultural factor).

  • Secondary Texts

The secondary reading was a key part of the class discussion and I began by asking the students to read three essays in Marion Turner’s 2013 Handbook of Middle English Studies: Jeffrey Jerome Cohen on ‘Race’, John Ganim on ‘Postcolonialism’, and Geraldine Heng on ‘The Global Middle Ages’. I used these essays as a springboard for an opening discussion on the definition of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ both in the modern day and in the Middle Ages. We also discussed John Ganim’s opening question in his essay, ‘is it possible to speak of the postcolonial condition in the Middle Ages?’, and Geraldine Heng’s discussions of the ways in which one might access early globalities (through ‘close (micro) reading or slow (micro) historicist sleuthing’ and ‘distant reading’ across documents and languages).

Since the class, Dorothy Kim has very kindly shared with me her forthcoming article on ‘race’ for the new Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages (ed. Ruth Mazo Karras, 2019). I would definitely make use of this resource in subsequent years.

I wanted the students to think about why race matters in the Middle Ages and what terms a Middle English text might employ to think about race (Cohen’s discussion of ‘kende’ was especially useful here). But I also wanted them to think about why race matters now: in the 21st century, in the discipline of Medieval Studies, and in the context of the university curriculum. So I sent the students links to the following blogposts from In the Middle:

Dorothy Kim, ‘The Unbearable Whiteness of Medieval Studies’, November 2016

Dorothy Kim, ‘Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy’, August 2017

The Medievalists of Color, ‘On Race and Medieval Studies’, August 2017

In this context, I also talked to the students about my decision to teach this class for the first time this year as part of my Middle English course and the various discussions that I participated in on the ‘Diversity Workshop’ that Robin Whelan organised in the History Faculty at Oxford last year. One of the issues we talked about was integrating diversity-related topics into our teaching (rather than doing a ‘separate’ class on a topic, as though it was ‘unrelated’ to the rest of the course) and I would say that my teaching of gender and sexuality is fairly well integrated throughout my first and second year teaching. I do teach a class on language and gender, race, sexuality, and age as part of my first year Linguistics course but I felt that in Middle English, I needed to directly address the topic of race in a specific class this year. This was in part because for the last two years, when my students have been given free choice for their tutorial essays, I have had a student choose to work on the postcolonial Middle Ages, so there is clearly appetite for the topic from the students. I also felt that given the complexities of the topic of race, I wanted to devote an entire class to it but next year one thing that I think I would do is to flag up the topic earlier when my students write their vacation essay over the summer on Middle English Romance. (Here I would use Geraldine Heng’s work in particular: Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy and recommend texts such as The Sultan of Babylon as well as The King of Tars. Thanks to Lucy Allen for recommending The Sultan and I look forward to her forthcoming book chapter on the topic!) I think I will still do a separate class on race next year because there is so much to discuss and work through but I will be clearer about integrating readings and approaches earlier in the course.

  • Secondary Texts for Presentations

I always ask my students to do presentations for classes and for this class I split them into two groups and assigned each group a selection of articles from the following special issues of journals:

1. Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, vol 31:1 (2001), ‘Race and Ethnicity in the Middle Ages’, ed. Thomas Hahn.

In particular, the following essays: Thomas Hahn, ‘The Difference the Middle Ages Makes: Color and Race before the Modern World’; Robert Bartlett, ‘Medieval and Modern Concepts of Race and Ethnicity’; Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, ‘On Saracen Enjoyment: Some Fantasies of Race in Late Medieval France and England’; Linda Lomperis, ‘Medieval Travel Writing and the Question of Race’; and William Chester Jordan, ‘Why “Race”?’

2. postmedieval, vol 6:1 (2015), ‘Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages’, ed. Cord Whitaker.

In particular, the following essays: Asa Simon Mittman, ‘Are the ‘monstrous races’ races?’; Jamie Friedman, ‘Making Whiteness Matter: The King of Tars‘; Michelle Warren, ‘”The Last Syllable of Modernity’: Chaucer in the Caribbean’; Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Karl Steel, ‘Race, travel, time, heritage’ (book review); response essay by Sara Ahmed, ‘Race as sedimented history’.

I asked the students to summarise the articles and introduce the key points in the class, including crucial quotations from the articles themselves and the primary texts that they used. This worked well (in part because my students are quite used to doing this kind of summary task so I didn’t need to give specific guidance on how to go about this; advice on what to look for and how to write a succinct summary might be helpful if your group as never done this kind of presentation task before).

  • Individual Task

Finally, I asked the students to consult the fantastic crowdsourced bibliography, ‘Race and Medieval Studies: A Partial Bibliography’, currently hosted here at postmedieval: bibliography link. I asked each student to choose one article, blogpost, or online resource that interested them and to be able to tell the class about it. I tend to find that this kind of task helps the students to have ownership over the topic, to explore areas that I may not have specifically covered in the tasks set, and also to broaden the pool of material in the room for discussion.

Unsurprisingly, we probably had too much material to cover, even in three hours! But it gave the students plenty to think about and I hope that when they have free choice tutorials next term, some of them might revisit this material and choose to write an essay on race in the Middle Ages.

Thanks to my students for working hard for the class and for an excellent discussion. Thanks to everyone who responded on twitter to my requests for advice for the class and thanks for reading! Please do reply here or tweet me if you have any suggestions for improvements or additions to the material.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment