At 11am on the dot, I climb the creaking staircase to my supervisor’s office and knock on his door. After a moment’s silence, there are sounds of movement from within, and the door opens a crack as he pops out his head.
‘Ah, I’m not finished yet. Five pages left. It’s not raining, is it? Fine, come back in fifteen minutes.’
The door is already closing, but I feel the need to call after him, ‘Really, you don’t need to read it all that carefully.’ In fact, I think I’d rather you didn’t . . . ‘It really was just a very rough draft!’
His head pops out again. ‘I have a clear line. Fifteen minutes!’
A quarter-hour later, then, I climb the stairs again and am admitted into the half-jungle, half-library he uses as an office, picking my way over the papers strewn across the floor to plop down on the low couch by the window opposite his armchair.
After a few minutes of the usual chit-chat—his end-of-year exam busyness, my trip to France, the essay feedback I’d received—we turn to my draft.
‘It needs a lot of tightening up. You know that.’ I nod.
‘The line you need to take is that it’s all about the Dominican friars.’ Ah.
He begins to lay out a suggested outline, and even as I scrawl it down I can see that it could pull my mess of ideas into a tidy, coherent structure. ‘Didn’t I email you some of this?’ he asks.
‘Your email said “Try Humbert de Romans”. Period.’
Over the past year, this abbreviated style has become familiar to me. He says, ‘Try Sallust’ or ‘Use Southern’s argument’ or ‘You need a footnote on parrhesia‘, as if I have a clue what he’s referring to. To be fair, it’s not a bad pedagogic technique—reluctant to admit I haven’t the foggiest, I scribble down whatever names he throws out, phonetically if necessary, search-engine my way to a correct spelling (‘Did you mean . . . ?’ Why, yes, Google, I believe I did), and then work my way through the relevant oeuvres until I hit upon something relevant or useful. In other words, the needle-finding is up to me, but at least he points me towards the right haystacks.
‘Oh, and you need to think about Henry III.’ I look up in faint alarm, conscious of my ever-tightening word count. ‘Not now, later.’ (Later being DPhil research, which will only happen if I manage to finish my current dissertation first!)
The rest of the supervision is mostly about strategic footnotes. If I have learned one thing over the course of my year at Oxford, it is that academic writing in history is all about the footnotes. Never mind the actual ‘this is where I got this from’ citations. There’s the obligatory footnote, the nuanced footnote, the ‘obviously I know this field exists but don’t have time to cover it’ footnote, the ‘I don’t really need this source but the examiners will expect it’ footnote, etc. And especially with a slightly off-center field like intellectual history, it apparently pays to have one’s bases covered strategically. So I dutifully jot down all the footnote references I apparently require as my supervisor rattles them off (all Oxford professors are walking bibliographies – it comes with the territory).
At the end of an hour, my paper is covered in notes and I am feeling slightly more confident in the whole endeavour.
‘Right,’ he says, flipping through my paper one final time and handing me his copy covered in illegible green scribbles, ‘now you just have to go away and write it.’
If only that were as easy at it sounds!