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I was fascinated by this series of posts on Twitter by Bradley Irish…  It’s true, I think.  I was reminded of some interviews done by the Marine Lives project last year which looked at the way historians carry out research using electronic databases.  I wrote a short blog post at the time, which made much the same point that Bradley did – we rarely talk about the ways in which we carry out the research that leads to our outputs, be they books, articles, websites, even blog posts…  Okay, we might (and probably do) mention our methodology in the output itself, but not in the level of detail that Bradley and I both meant.  There are students out there who might find this sort of openness helpful.  Heavens, I might find it helpful.  The way that I work as an academic morphed out of the way I worked as an undergraduate 20 odd years ago.  There was nothing planned, and certainly nothing taught, about it. I can only remember one single conversation about how to sit down and do the research I do, and it consisted of something like this:

‘Prof. X keeps all their research notes in a single, huge file – it makes it really easy to search for a key term or a person…’

And that was it.  Thinking about it, it wasn’t really a conversation at all.

As I embark on finding something new to work on over the next few months (plenty of ideas, by the way, just nothing concrete yet), I’m going to write a few posts about what I’m doing along the way, subtitled ‘the way I work’.  If anyone felt moved to join me, or to respond, that would be great.  I’m absolutely sure that I’ve got plenty to learn.

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This afternoon I had my mock viva, which was an interesting experience. It was reassuring, in that I survived and there was only one question that I felt I completely flunked. That said, there were several others that brought home to me the need to be certain of my own position, which of course is only possible if you’re completely in command of your material and of what others have said about it.

So I’ve come home armed with two bag-loads of books and a lot on my mind – which is not to say that it’s all bad. The first job when I got in was to have a brew (this thesis was definitely fuelled by tea and chocolate, in a way that perhaps Huw and Tony Williams would have appreciated), the second to have a chat with my Fiend to take my mind off things and the third, to write my ‘to do’ list. You can see it above. I have another Fiend (yes, I manage to have more than one Fiend despite the fact that I spend a lot of time in the company of dead people and their preoccupation with death) who is the Queen of Lists. She would approve, I’m sure. That was once the wall on which my huge list of 16th century ballads used to hang. Now it holds all the things I need to do in the next ten days. I think I’ve got my work cut out. I have to admit that they aren’t all viva-related – there’s a section on research proposals, on articles and on the lecture I’m preparing for A level students on Henry VIII’s break with Rome, as well as for the Bolton Historical Association work that I need to get on with and for family matters. Happily, the conference proposal for Reading is nearly ready and the one for Voices and Books has gone (thanks, Una!).  But I’ve certainly got plenty to keep me occupied. Which is good.

DSCF3139  This week has been half term, so I’ve spent quite a bit of time playing with my children.  We’ve been on a couple of walks, one round Tarn Hows in the Lake District and one from Wrea Green on the Fylde, close to where I grew up.  But this has also been the week of my winter panel meeting and a seminar at the John Rylands Library in Manchester.

The panel meeting went well.  My supervisors commented on how much my writing has improved; it is now clear and precise, which is good to hear.  We discussed the commonwealth chapter I submitted, talked about the choice of technical language for describing my musical examples and then conversation turned to the submission process.  We discussed possible examiners and I told them that I plan to submit in September.   The meeting was over in 40 minutes.

That afternoon I took part in the Print and Materiality Seminar Series at the John Rylands Library, talking about ‘William Elerton and the Ghost of the Lady Marques’.  The topic was chosen to fit in with the seminar series’ focus on the supernatural, but it was a particularly nice subject because it allowed me to sing one of my ballads.  The other paper of the afternoon was given by my Manchester PhD candidate colleague, Sarah Fox.  Her fascinating paper was entitled ‘”Let the superstitious wife, Neer the child’s heart lay a knife”: Superstition and the domestic object in eighteenth-century England’, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to her.

I’m looking forward to getting properly stuck in to my final chapter on ballads and the news over the next few weeks.  I’ve started doing the secondary reading for it already and I’ve even made some little notes on halved index cards for paragraph topics.  I decided that on this occasion I really needed to plan the chapter before I wrote it, which is not how I usually work.  The chapter will look at the role of sixteenth century ballads in spreading news, a role that has been contested recently.  I need to look into the differences between ‘news’, ‘newspapers’ and ‘journalism’.  I’m going to investigate the role of newspapers in later periods to see how the ballad compares, as well as looking at the evidence provided by State Papers.  I’m very much looking forward to it, after the trouble I had with the commonwealth chapter.  It’s not going to be easy, but I think it should be much more fun!

I’ve been rather unpredictable in my blog posts lately, mainly because I used to write them on Friday evenings as a review of what I’d done during the ‘normal working week’ (Show me a scholar who works a normal working week?  No? No, me neither…), but since the summer the whole family has been going to choir practice on a Friday evening.  That has thrown out my blogging routine completely and it has yet to settle in to a new one.  My child-free time (the school day) is so precious for work that I’m loathe to use it to write the blog.

Anyway, the other reason that I haven’t given many reports on what I’ve been doing lately is because I haven’t been doing all that much work.  It doesn’t seem all that interesting to report that I’ve read a few books.  I finally finished Steve Hindle’s The State and Social Change in Early Modern England.  I started on it before I had my nasty infection, which finally forced me to take a day or two off to recover, then I finished off and submitted the article I’d been writing.  When I went back to work I started reading Ethan Shagan on Popular Politics and the English Reformation.  My supervisor asked me what I thought about the Hindle monograph, I confidently gave a reply, he asked if I’d finished reading it, I said ‘yes’ and then as the conversation progressed I began to doubt myself…  When I hung up the phone, I went and picked the book up and, sure enough, I was only half way through.   So that put the wind up me.  I genuinely thought I’d finished it.  I had finished it by the end of the next day!

I catalogued 50 more ballads.

I organised another research trip to the British Library for January.

I had yet another telephone conversation about the abandoned common weal chapter, another ‘wobble’.   It was a conversation with my husband that gave me the starting point that sent me running to my study to grab a notebook and start scribbling ideas.  He unwittingly found me the angle I’ve been missing for the last 2 months and I filled a couple of pages with scribblings about how to turn the disparate ideas into something resembling a chapter.  I then had only a few days before the children finished school for Christmas in which to get started.  I decided to write a plan for the chapter and develop it from there.  So at the moment I have a file on my computer called ‘Developed Chapter Plan’ which lists in order all the points I want to make.  It includes a chunk of writing I’d already done on some manuscript miscellanies and several useful primary and secondary quotations that I’d already come across.  My intention is for the chapter to grow from the plan.

So then the break for Christmas.  Father Christmas brought me a large stack of books.  Alexandra Walsham on Church Papists, Hiram Morgan on Tyrone’s Rebellion, Landlords and Tenants in Britain, a book on the Aztecs and one on Mindfulness.  Plenty of reading material there for the new year.

You may have noticed that I didn’t post a blog last week.  This was mainly down to the tremendous amount of stress I was under – several problems, nothing to do with my PhD and way beyond the scope of this blog, came together to make last week the week from hell.  What few attempts I made to do some work mainly consisted of staring at the screen, writing a couple of sentences, staring at the screen some more and then deleting the couple of sentences.  One step forward, one step back.  On Wednesday evening I went to the Willows Folk Club in Kirkham, where I had a lovely chat with an old friend, Sue Bousfield.  Sue has worked with the EFDSS on their Full English project, so it was nice to talk about my work with someone who is familiar both with the material and the style of English folk songs.  Hard to know whether it was the music (and herewith I attach Steve Tilston singing the traditional song ‘Courting is a Pleasure’, simply because I can’t find a video of him singing ‘Martin Said to his Man’, which is known to late Elizabethan or early Jacobean – I forget which) or the conversation with Sue about the extent of source material from the mid-Tudor period, but on the Thursday, for the first time in weeks, I managed to write 1000 words.  And what’s more, I didn’t feel the need to delete them.  Writer’s block demolished?  It seems so.  Still, I have an enormously long list of things to do and although I am slowly ticking things off it, it gets longer and longer all the time.  The latest addition is to explore the Full English Digital Archive.

On Saturday I went Hebden Bridge for the afternoon , to the Trade Roots Festival.  I spent Sunday afternoon working on my ballad epitaph article, then on Monday I went into Manchester to read a book by Steve Hindle and have lunch with a friend.  By Monday evening, I felt much better.  My plan this week was to get the first draft of the full length version of my ballad article complete by yesterday afternoon, and thankfully, I managed.  That meant that today I was able to turn my attention to the seminar paper that I will be giving in a couple of weeks, on the Thomas Cromwell ballad flyting.  By just after lunch I was happy with the skeleton I’d constructed.  I will practise it over the next couple of weeks, but I have no intention of fleshing it out any more than it already is.

This is the first time since I started back at work that I’ve really felt like I’m back at work.  I’ve begun work on my fifth chapter, ballads and the common weal.  But it’s been a funny sort of week.  I spent Monday with my head stuck in my source material, trying to find the links, sorting them into groups and writing a time line.  On Tuesday I went into the library in Manchester to read a book about John Payne Collier.  He’s turned out to be something of a pain in the neck, if I’m honest.  Not only did he have a habit of leaving out the provenance of the ballads he published in the mid-nineteenth century, he also had an irritating compulsion to forge things.  Even the transcriptions that aren’t of his own invention are, apparently, full of errors.  So at the moment, I am faced with a choice:  ignore everything he ever went near, or go back to the  original sources themselves if I can find them or get at them.  Not a particularly easy decision to make.  What’s more, the man was all over Victorian literary scholarship and those who were caught unawares innocently passed on his errors, so I have to be very careful indeed.

On Wednesday afternoon I went in to the university to pick up an inter-library loan.  I stayed for the history department’s public event, a conversation between Prof. Michael Wood and Tristram Hunt, MP.  It  was very interesting, but I’m not really sure it could be billed as Prof. Wood’s inaugural lecture, as it wasn’t my idea of a lecture.  Very enjoyable, though, and I’m very, very glad I went.

Yesterday and today I have spent working on my chapter.  I’ve got about 1200 words down on paper, although some of that is just notes of ideas, but I’m still quite pleased.  At least I have got a few ideas to work on this week, which I hadn’t last weekend.  I’m in a familiar, if rather uncomfortable, position where I have got several things rattling round in brain that I’d like to work on, but it’s Friday afternoon and now I’m on childcare duty so everything else has to wait until Monday.

I’ve also offered to present a paper at the North West Early Modern Seminar Series at Lancaster University in November, so I have to fit writing that into the next few weeks as well.

 

I went back to work on Wednesday, when my children went back to school.  Most of my work this week has been on transcriptions of manscripts from the British Library but I’ve also read some secondary material. I’ve carried on working today, because despite my intentions to spend three whole days immersed in my primary material, it didn’t quite happen – I ended up doing a favour for a friend over two lunchtimes instead.  Anyway, palaeography is a challenge which, for the most part, I quite enjoy.  I have to admit that I don’t do enough of it to be fluent at it, but once I get going I find a lot of it reasonably straightforward, if a little slow.  That is, until I reach the point where I can’t make out a word, at which point I feel like throwing the computer through the window.

On Thursday, my work was pleasantly interrupted by a trip to Preston FM to talk about the Historical Association.  I was very nervous that morning, but when it came to the broadcast I surprised myself by quite enjoying it.   I must say thank you to the station for inviting me and to presenter Hughie Parr for creating such a relaxed atmosphere that we talked for twenty minutes!