Monday, 15 October 2012

Seminars and the Clueless

I'm just back from a seminar entitled "Why write romantic fiction in medieval Byzantium?" which seems a fair enough question. It was presented by Medieval Studies but I went along anyway- it sounded interesting.

The problem was that I don't really know anything about twelfth century Byzantium in the first place, let alone its inhabitants' taste in fiction. I especially don't know anything about Greek.

Now, I was fortunate and able to study Latin at school. It remains the single most useful subject I studied before university. I also did Latin in my first year of uni. I scraped a pass and decided that I had achieved all I was going to in that sphere so bid it a fond farewell. Anyway, at school my long-suffering Latin teacher tried to teach me classical Greek in sixth year. He was a patient man, of whom I was fond, but I just couldn't pick it up despite having one-on-one tuition. I never really assimilated the alphabet properly so reading anything involved a slow, painful process of first a clumsy attempt to mentally transliterate and then an even clumsier attempt to translate. We gave up after a few months, and he took early retirement at the end of the school year, his patience all but expired.

Perhaps when I am old I'll give it another go, but probably not (unless I can find a classicist I want to punish).

Anyway, what I hadn't thought of beforehand today was that Byzantine literature would be in Greek (I don't know what language I thought it would be in other than Greek, mind you). The speak also (reasonably) expected some prior knowledge- this was a postgrad seminar after all. I, however, was not in any sense up to speed. Although I could follow the argument, the finer points were lost on me and my attention was drifting somewhat. For me, it fairly quickly turned into a very learned woman saying Greek words, some of which were names, some of which were... not. It didn't make much difference to the Hellenically-backward in her audience.

I wrote down the name of her book, but I'm never going to read it.

Could say anything...

Monday, 8 October 2012

Peaks and troughs

This week is a little strange. All of my reading of late has been focused on the seminar I had this afternoon (although I still don't feel like I read enough for it). The rest of the week is very quiet, even by the standards of my course with its low contact hours. I have an hour's worth of Italian on Wednesday and a seminar about library resources on Thursday. That's it.

My intention is to use the time to get cracking on one of my essays. In theory, it's a fairly straight forward review essay but, that said, I've never had to write one before. A head start is probably, therefore, a good thing. It's only 3000 words so I could do a first draft fairly quickly. It would be nice, for a moment, to feel I was ahead of the curve rather than struggling to keep up.

I'm also instigating a programme of rewarding myself for reading a boring essay with an interesting one. In practice, this means that for everything I read about historiographical issues, I get to read something else about Renaissance prostitutes or something. I am currently sending articles about Lucrezia Borgia's finances to the printer for reward reading.

This system should prove actively helpful next semester. I'm not doing my directed reading module until January which means that unlike most of my MLitt colleagues, my second semester is going to be much heavier work-wise than the first. If I can get ahead on the reading for that (which is broadly the stuff I am specifically interested in anyway), next term might not feel so overwhelming. That's the idea, anyway.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

How To Read

Reading as a postgrad is a unique experience. Gone (already) are the days of gathering information from a book and adding it to a body of mental knowledge. My purpose in reading is altogether different.

What's on my desk (though not what I am reading).

My focus at the moment (and probably for the greater part of this semester at least) is historiography rather than history. I am not currently reading about the historical subjects I am really interested in, I'm reading about the historiography of the early modern period. I've never been especially excited by historiography, as much as I understand its importance. At this point, though, I've got a bit interested in periodization. The challenge here though is to remember why I'm reading these texts in order to get out of them what I need.

Firstly, there is a feeling of having stepped into the middle of a conversation. This shouldn't be a surprise as that's essentially what I've done. I am hoping that there comes a point, a critical mass of reading, when all of it fits together and suddenly the bigger picture becomes apparent. The sooner this happens the better, to be frank. I mean, it would be welcome any minute now really.

Related to the first point, reading anything leads to adding more things to the "I Should Read" list, which, I suspect, is endless. Each author makes reference to the works that have informed their argument and invariable some of them look like they'd be useful for developing my argument (she says optimistic that she has an argument). This leads to further library catalogue checking. So far, I've found most of what I need (though oddly there doesn't seem to be an accessible copy of Joan Kelly's seminal essay Did Women Have A Renaissance? though I have a copy anyway). I've already gone off-list for the first seminar. Maybe this is a good thing? I don't know.

Then there's the academic in-jokes. I noticed this the other day. Some academics throw in a little humour and often it works (Margaret King's Do Women Need The Renaissance? which I was reading this morning springs to mind) but there are the other jokes. Earlier this week I was reading an article and thought "That's an in-joke! He's made some clever reference I'm not smart enough to get!" So on the one hand, I feel thick for not getting it but on the other, I'm slightly pleased that I got enough to notice it in the first place.

Thursday, 27 September 2012


So, with my tooth just about back to normal and an increasing feeling of health, I am back in the swing of things.

The first meeting of Themes and Approaches in Early Modern History was on Monday. We're a small group and everyone's interests seem to be quite different so I think it'll be an interesting year. Definitely a challenging one. The reading for this class alone is huge. Thankfully it's fortnightly.

Today I went to the first of the School of History postgrad skills training seminars. It was on writing essays for the MLitt. It was interesting and definitely useful, but also very daunting. What is expected of us now is so much more than at undergrad level. Although this is hardly a surprise, it's a lot to take on board and a significant upping of the game. We were told, rather kindly, not to be surprised if our first essay mark is crap.

I've spent the rest of the day reading, although still less than I want or need to get through in a day. In preparation for the next Approaches class, I looked at a couple of articles the periodization of the Early Modern. In short, both were arguing that calling it "the Early Modern period" is at best unhelpful. I've spent the day with the gnawing doubt that maybe my period doesn't actually exist.

Good start to the year.

  • Jeroen Duindam, “Early Modern Europe: Beyond the Strictures of Modernization and National Historiography,” European History Quarterly 40 (2010)
  • Randolph Starn, ‘Review Article: The Early Modern Muddle,’ Journal of Early Modern History 6 (2002)

Monday, 24 September 2012


So, after recovering from a mild bout of Freshers' Flu, I started getting toothache. It got worse and worse, as toothache is wont to do, until I went to the dentist on Friday morning. I have an infection in my tooth. The antibiotics are kicking in now and I can once again function as something roughly approximating a human being, but the last 4 days have been deeply unpleasant. Today isn't going to go down as one of the best days of my life either but now I at least feel like I've turned a corner with it.

As a result, I've been back in Edinburgh for a few days. I missed palaeography on Friday which I hated doing but had no alternative. I'm back in St Andrews now but will be going back to Edinburgh tonight. I have the first meeting of the core course shortly which I absolutely did not want to miss and fortunately I am well enough to make it.

I've done virtually no reading over the last few days. My attention span could hardly keep up with A Clash Of Kings, never mind real history. I am hoping that my sanity is sufficiently restored today to do some work.

Not the start to the year I wanted, but better from here, I hope.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The Long Tuesday

I never really got started today. I managed to find the bigger out-of-town supermarket so the fridge is now stocked and I had actual, proper food in something approximating a lunch and a dinner.

Managed an hour of reading but I am finding historiography no more interesting now than I found it when doing my first degree. My plan for this evening and probably the rest of this week is to move on to reading history again. I'll probably start with Margaret L. King's The Renaissance in Europe. I can go back to historiography when I have to. An hour a day is just not going to cut it so I need to move to something more to study in order to improve that.

Tomorrow is relatively busy. I have the initial meeting of my Italian reading class. I am not sure if this is going to provide quite as much Italian language as I'd hoped but on the plus side, it's not being assessed so the pressure is off. After that, lunch with a classmate and then the History dept. is hosting a meet and greet for postgrad students. I'm looking forward to this- our informal, Facebook-arranged history postgrad pub trip last week was good.

I'm still struggling a bit with being tired. I think it's a hangover from being ill last week. I'm more or less getting a proper night's sleep now though. Hopefully that will help.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Marxism Monday

No classes today (or tomorrow for that matter) so I've done a little reading on some background historiographical issues, starting with Marxism. I have procrastinated rather a lot today so haven't done half as much reading as I'd planned to, but I suppose the night is young and what better way could there be to spend an evening than coming to terms with Karl Marx's theories of history? I was supposed to go to korfball training tonight but it transpires that I did not, in fact, bring any joggers with me so I am waiting for them to be posted.

I intend do a post on the copious amounts of stationery required to properly plan and organise postgrad study.

I got a purple highlighter and took some photos today (the two are not connected) so the day was not a total waste.

St Andrews shore