PhD and the end of year 2

It’s just about the end of the second year of my PhD and looking back over the past two years I feel that I have accomplished a tremendous amount of work, but at the same time not nearly enough. A common enough feeling amongst PhD students at this point in their research.

The transcription and translation of manuscripts, and the drawing out of themes is a lengthy and drawn out process. There are no shortcuts when working with unpublished manuscripts.

Transcriptions of the document are needed. In the first instance these are often made from microfilmed copies of the original. I have also worked with the original manuscript and the difference in readability is amazing. The original in this case is much clearer and when looking at how the manuscript was used being able to see the colours of the ink and the amount of pen pressure are essential.

Of course not all transcripts result in lovely published critical editions.  Much of the manuscript that I have transcribed will be incorporated into the text of my thesis, but a large amount of the work will be relegated to an appendix.

So the third year begins in October and I will be spending the next year reading and writing like a demon and wondering where all the time has gone. But I’m still enjoying the research and seem to be on target.

Wish me luck.

PhD update

The PhD is progressing quite quickly now and the work to date has covered:

  • transcribing one Middle English Manuscript
  • translating one Anglo-Norman poem for three separate audiences
  • transcribing the annotations of two C16th century readers
  • transcribing the annotations of several readers of C17-19th (these are much smaller in number)
  • completing a comparison of Brie’s collated copy with my manuscript
  • completing a draft chapter on translation
  • identifying the themes for each chapter

So all in all a substantial amount of work and I am now ready to move on and write-up the medieval section of my thesis.

This is a sample of the handwriting I have been working with.

C16th handwriting
C16th handwriting

The handwriting is generally quite good to read, but the sample here is one of the more difficult sections to transcribe. I’m just waiting for my supervisor to check that I have this bit right.

Context does help with the interpretation, and compared to deciphering my own handwriting this manuscript is a joy to work with.

I’m intending to post regularly on my progress now that I have the transcriptions completed and the analysis begins in earnest. If you are interesting in hearing more do let me know.

Digital Humanities at Aberystwyth University

Last week I attended the Digital Humanities Regional Networking Event hosted by Aberystwyth University on Friday 12th September & Saturday 13th September 2014. The event took place in the council chamber of the National Library of Wales – an excellent venue, and there were speakers from Aberystwyth, Chester, Southampton, Bangor, Roehampton, Oxford and London providing a wide interpretation of what constitutes the Digital Humanities.

I found the speakers and the subsequent discussion to be informative and engaging. These are my thoughts on the event.

The focus of the discussions that took place over the two days was on how to define a successful Digital Humanities project. This naturally involved looking at some of the pitfalls associated with such projects and how to avoid them, if possible, given the constraints within which the Digital Humanities operate.

From a user’s point of view the first constraint on assessing the success of any given project is its longevity. For example projects involving the reproduction of manuscripts or images have to deal with copyright restrictions and the negotiation of licences. The terms of such licences may only allow for material to be displayed for a fixed period of time. This sets an expiry date on the availability of these images unless provision has been made for the re-negotiation of such licences.

The disappearance of images and broken links give the Digital Humanities an ephemeral feel that encourages me to rely wherever possible on the printed word. I dislike the need to reference digital material that may have vanished before my supervisor has had a chance to see it.

But this can only be overcome with a consistent approach to the development of the Digital Humanities that allows for both resources and staff to future proof the data not only against changes in technology but also allows for the maintenance of licences, links and web space beyond the initial term of the research project.

The second constraint is that of usability. Many of the digital humanities projects are produced as part of a researcher’s own interests only to be published later once the material collected has fulfilled its primary function within the terms of the individual research project.

In this case a requirements analysis would ideally be undertaken before a digital project was published to the wider community of potential users. In some cases the data would have to be reexamined and perhaps even reformulated to suit the perceived audience. All of which takes additional time and resources.

With closer collaboration with IT and IS specialists it is possible that the data could be prepared at the outset with this wider audience in mind. This additional focus would also involve assessing what to release, how it should be accessed and the determining the caveats that should accompany the dataset. Incorporating feedback from the wider community, and sharing the knowledge and experience acquired among colleagues is an essential element in this process. It may even lead to new and unexpected research topics.

The third constraint is that of accessibility. It can be difficult to find some of the resources that have already been produced as most are not widely publicised outside the academy.

Again involving the wider community including libraries, galleries and museums not only advertises the project but it could also demonstrate the value of the Digital Humanities to the general public in new and innovative ways.

Overall this networking event was, for me at least, a huge success. Coffee, biscuits and lunch were also included.

Medieval Storytelling: Engaging the Next Generation

I have just returned home to Aberystwyth University from a very enjoyable and informative workshop organised by Oxford University.

The workshop was entitled ‘Medieval Storytelling: Engaging the Next Generation’ and is the first step in what will hopefully develop into a long-running programme of events both for myself and for Oxford and its future collaborators.

It was an AHRC-funded skills development programme aiming to train research postgraduates in the art of storytelling. We were divided into two groups. One group was led by professional storyteller Daniel Morden while the second group was led by Jenny Moon, a storyteller and proponent of the effectiveness of storytelling in Higher Education.

Packed into two days were workshops on performance and adaptation skills with a view to performing medieval stories to schoolchildren as a way of enhancing and supporting the teaching and learning processes within schools and to foster an interest in medieval narratives from an early age.

These two days of workshops are not the end of the project and now each participant must to go back to their home universities and  make contact with primary schools and/or more publicly accessible venues within their locality in order to perform the stories that they will adapt using the skills learnt at Oxford.

The organising of our own events for schools or the wider public will raise their own difficulties and in overcoming these I hope that by the end of the project I will have developed my general communication and organisational skills to a high level so that I can share my their research wider a wider audience outside of the academic community.

So while the workshops at Oxford were both informative and entertaining it is now that the hard work begins and I should announce that I am now available as a storyteller for schools and events.

Thinking about my research

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.


Decontructing Dracula 1

As part of the Radio Drama Writing course I have to de-construct a radio play, and as a horror fan I decided to listen to Dracula. As the play isn’t currently running on the radio I had to get it on CD.

The afternoon was gloomy. The house was silent except for the odd creaks any old building makes. Rain was lashing against the windows, and the cats were curled up beside me on the sofa as the play started. All very atmospheric, and I must admit I thoroughly enjoyed the production

That was yesterday. Today the hard work begins as I now have to listen to the play over and over again while splitting it into it’s component parts; looking at things like:

  • scene setting
  • atmosphere
  • introducing character
  • pace
  • dialogue
  • sound effects
  • music
  • etc.

I hate this part as there is a genuine risk of ruining the play’s storytelling completely, but there is a 2500 essay due on this, and it might just help my own radio script, so I’d better just get on with it.

Wish me luck.