Submission Day! (Long Vac)

At long last, Friday was dissertation submission day, and as I threw open the curtains I was delighted to find that Oxford had graciously decked herself out for the occasion in her best blue skies and sunshine. My own dissertation copies had been bound at the print shop on Holywell Street the afternoon before and had been sitting in their envelope addressed to the

Chairman of the Board of Examiners
of the Master of Studies in Medieval History
c/o Examination Schools
High Street
Oxford,

on my desk all evening, forcing me to resist the temptation to flip through them one more time to discover each typo that had inevitably made it past a dozen rounds of proofreading.

Unlike the last time we submitted at the Exam Schools, an August submission day is a relatively anticlimactic affair. Unsure of when others planned to submit, I just walked into the nearly empty Schools on the way into town, filled out my submission slip, and handed it to the lone woman behind the desk. As I walked out, my little yellow receipt was the only evidence that I had, in fact, just completed an Oxford master’s degree.

I found the rest of my classmates camped out in the upper sitting room of the Turl Street Kitchen, addressing envelopes and waiting to collect their various oeuvres from the binders.

‘You look very relaxed!’ was my welcome.

I waived my yellow slip triumphantly, bringing down a kindly stream of curses upon my head.

After a stop at the binders, we then processed back to the Schools, assuring each other along the way that it was fine, that we were fine, that it was all going to be all right. A picture on the steps with dissertations in hand, and then two minutes later we were all out again, suddenly feeling strangely bereft.

A celebration was called for, however, and we decided on true Oxford tradition: a picnic of the finest drinks and comestibles that Tesco had on offer, partaken in the dappled shade of Christ Church Meadow. A few of us tried to ban all talk of anything occurring before the 1950s, but that didn’t prevent a long discussion on popes, bawdy comments about monks, and a  discursive on ancient college feuds.

Our attempts at punting then being stymied by the previous night’s rain, which had irremediably waterlogged our prospective crafts, we settled into lawn chairs in the garden of Balliol’s Holywell Manor, mixing slumber with desultory conversation on such things as colleges and croquet, letting the stress of the past eleven months slowly drift away with the breeze.

History & Physics

According to modern physics, nothing is as solid as it seems. Things that seem so turn out to be tiny points of energy, in precarious equilibrium, giving our rough senses only an impression of solidity … This truth in physics holds also in the fields of politics, law, and economics. There are plenty of things that seems solid enough, like ancient empires or modern armies or (in the economic field) money. But on careful inspection these, too, turn out to be points of energy, in temporary equilibrium, in the beliefs and feelings of individuals. When these change, the seeming solid dissolves into its constituent points, which then reassemble in new forms—with an equally deceptive appearance of corporeality.

– Alexander Murray, ‘Excommunication & Conscience in the Middle Ages’

A Supervision, Part II (Long Vac)

I’d dropped off my dissertation draft for my supervisor on Wednesday morning. Around 10:30 on Thursday night, he sent me an email asking to meet the following day. What he actually wrote was probably something very nice and polite along the lines of ‘Might you be free tomorrow at noon?’ What my paranoid state of mind registered was something along the lines of a summons to the principal’s office.

I was in his office at the specified time, waiting on tenterhooks as he settled into his chair, pulled out my draft, and glanced over it.

‘It needs some fine tuning.’

I nodded nervously.

‘But really, it’s all there.’

My sigh of relief was audible. Once you’ve reached the point that you can’t even bear to the look at the words anymore, let alone try to figure out whether they create a comprehensible argument, any outside confirmation of value is a welcome benediction.

‘Let’s see,’ he says, running his eyes down a list of probably illegible notes on my cover page that I will spend hours trying to decipher later. ‘The main thing you need to avoid is parataxis.’

My mind blanks on a definition. Wasn’t parataxis covered in a Latin lecture at some point?

(Apparently, he means that I need to build my points into a connected argument, instead of presenting them as a series of points beginning with ‘Another evidence for …’, which by the end of the process had been all the transition my exhausted brain could come up with.)

My attempts at creativity in the first sentence are dismissed as ‘trite’, but I get a ‘good’ for my last sentence, which I interpret as high praise. The rest of the supervision is given over to a discussion over various minor structural changes, the highlighting of important points, and strategic footnotes in defense of the examiners’ vagaries.

If I were leaving Oxford, the end of this supervision would have been the point for gratitude and a mutual exchange of good wishes. As it is, he just tells me good luck and to email him in a couple weeks when I am ready (gulp!) to start discussing my DPhil research.

From frying pan to fire?

 

 

 

 

The Final Stretch (Long Vac)

A summer that once looked invitingly long and leisurely has since sped mercilessly by, week after fleeting week. In less than nine days’ time, we are due at the Examination Schools, dissertations in hand.

My own dissertation is finished, in the sense that I have 15,000 words that run in more-or-less coherent a fashion from the first page to the last. What I no longer have, after a long series of 8- to 10-hour days in the libraries, madly typing and deleting and typing some more, is any true sense of whether those words manage to say anything in a reasonably intelligent fashion.

There are over 100 steps, not to mention a very long corridor, between the Lower Gladstone Link and the Upper Reading Room in the Bodleian (I did try to count the steps exactly, but I got mired in a group of tourists outside Duke Humphrey’s and lost track), and I have climbed them many, many times over the past two weeks in the seemingly never-ending quest for citation information, bumping in similarly harried classmates in various reading rooms along the way.


But the worst of it is now over and I badly need a break to recover some perspective, so once I dropped my draft off for my supervisor, I decided to enjoy the day in true Oxford style. As a sop to productivity, I started by fetching an essay I had been meaning to read by Alexander Murray (quickly becoming one of my new favourite historians) and took it up into one of Oxford’s most quintessential places—the little gallery of the Duke Humphrey’s Library—to read it in the glow of a little reading lamp, perched high above the room’s medieval splendour.

Then, as it was beautiful summer day—the sort that Oxford can do so very well, if only she puts her mind to it—it was obviously time for a picnic. I recruited a friend, poked around the Covered Market in search of comestibles (like bacon and brie quiche!), and set off for the Oxford Botanic Gardens, a charming place of riotous colour into which University members are admitted free of charge. We strolled around the grounds and greenhouses, watching the punts go by on the Cherwell, then laid out our blanket in the shade of a leafy tree and ate and drank and chatted the afternoon away.

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Gallica Digital Library

Gallica is the digital library of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF) and is one of the best freely accessible digital archives online, crammed full of brilliant historical sources. It’s fairly easy to navigate, and you can register to save documents and books to your digital workspace.

I’ve personally been using it a lot lately to access all the 19th-century editions of my medieval primary sources from the comfort of my bed, instead of having to trot all the way out to the Bodleian Upper Reading Room!