As part of my first year as a PhD research student at Aberystwyth University I have to undertake a series of general research training modules. Last week’s provided an introduction to critical thinking. It was an interesting session, but having returned to the academic world after a significant gap it did leave me wondering about my own way of thinking. Just how do I think about my research?
This question makes a nice change to my worrying about what I do not remember from my undergraduate studies. A worry I really out to let go of given Aristotle’s view that memory decays as we get older. Personally I’m putting my lack of recall down to lack of practise. I haven’t had to recall specific historical events, views or arguments for quite some time and getting those brain cells to behave themselves is not an easy task.
My view on this being due to a lack of practise seems to be backed up by so far by my current experiences of learning Welsh simply because the more Welsh I do the more Latin, French and German I can recall. Interestingly when I recall my Latin I actually see an image in my mind of the tables and lists I wrote out as an undergraduate. Much in the way Aristotle suggests we store memories.
Anyway back to my thinking process.
Dealing with medieval history I follow the following general steps:
- Through reading/chatting/watching TV programs an idea will appeal to me and raise questions that I want to answer.
- I will then read around the topic to assess if I have something new to say.
- When dealing with the past I try to be as impartial as I can and assess the work of others within their the context of their own times and belief system.
In short I will have an idea, test it, assess the results and adjust as necessary.
However the putting of myself in another’s shoes is vitally important. It does not mean that I agree with everything I read or learn but it does mean that I can at some level understand their point of view. This is essential in researching the medieval period. You have to try to place yourself within the medieval world-view, let go of your preconceptions in order to evaluate the evidence.
It is impossible to take yourself completely out of the equation because even in being ‘impartial’ your own life experiences and beliefs which still shape how you deal with the evidence and the arguments surrounding it, but you have to try. It will be evident in your writing to what extent you have succeeded.
I have had comments expressing the belief that what I want to do is impossible because the medieval world is so different to our own. But to be honest I feel that argument could, to a certain extent, be applied to any time, any country and any individual. The hardest thing we can do is to really empathise and see point of view different to our own.
So I will continue to read, analyse and apply what I learn. I hope that I will be proved right but I am equally willing to accept that I may be proved wrong.