Lest I paint to grim a picture of the doctoral student’s life and efforts, I should clarify that while there are days when researching with medieval manuscripts feels like a very slow attempt to squeeze meaning from a stone, there are at least, in compensation, the days when you actually find something, even the something, that makes the previous weeks of fruitless research almost worthwhile.
I have to confess, prior to about a month and a half ago, I hadn’t ever read much Aristotle. Not only that, but while I would confidently nod my head in agreement when someone else mentioned ‘the significant impact of the translation of Aristotle’s works in the thirteenth century’, I only had a somewhat vague idea of what this impact actually was (unaided by the fact that many medieval historians writing on the topic seem to assume you already know and therefore spare themselves the effort of going into any detail).
This gap in my knowledge became readily apparent when I attempted to summarize medieval virtue ethics in an essay for my supervisor and more-or-less concluded with the formal essay equivalent of ‘…. and then Aristotle happened, and … things?’
Needless to say, I was sent away to acquaint myself with the Philosopher, more particularly with his Nicomachean Ethics.
One of the inevitable frustrations of working with primary sources is that they don’t always say what you would like them to say. Worse, they don’t take what seem like golden opportunities to say what you’re pretty sure they were thinking, but never seem to actually articulate. It’s almost like they weren’t writing with you, a graduate student roughly 800 years in the future, explicitly in mind!
It’s nearly the end of Trinity Term now, as evidenced by the wonderfully long evenings and occasional almost-summer’s day. My obsession with punting remains, but my luck seems to have deserted me and my last few forays on the river have been accompanied by decidedly less-than-magical weather. Still, I hold out hope for sunny days to come!
The main excitement of Trinity for us First Year DPhils is the Transfer of Status, the first proper milestone of our degrees. Essentially the purpose is to verify that, given six months or so of research, those research proposals which we threw together for our DPhil applications way back at the start of our master’s programme have now blossomed into something relatively coherent and feasible—and to someone other than us and our supervisors. The ‘transfer of status’ refers to our official transition, upon successful completion of the process, from Probationary Research Students (PRS) to fully-fledged DPhil Students.
I have spent a concerning number of hours over the past month or two puzzling over pages that look like this:
Anyone who has spent five minutes in Oxford knows about the Bodleian Library, but the university actually brims over with dozens of libraries, each with its own charms (admittedly, some more than others). The following are the libraries I tend to use most in the course of my various research tangents. (The unfortunate lack of decent interior pictures of my own is due to library regulations against wandering around like a tourist snapping shots of the ceiling.)
After a down-to-the-wire wait to fulfill my academic conditions, my tenure as a doctoral student in Oxford officially began in October. (Though officially, I’m actually a ‘probationary research student’ until I go through the Transfer of Status process towards the end of the year to become a fully-fledged doctoral candidate.)
Given how little course time was involved in the master’s last year, at least after the first few weeks, I assumed the doctoral programme would feel very much the same. However, I underestimated the difference between having a least one weekly seminar with required reading and embarking on a programme that essentially consists of, ‘Welcome, DPhils. There’s the library. Have fun!’ The amount of self-discipline required to drag oneself to said library is exponentially increased when the deadlines are nebulous and generally very far away.
Fortunately, I do meet with my supervisor every three or four weeks, which is helping to keep me on some kind of track. Since my research topic overlaps a number of different historical fields (England, France, political history, intellectual history, law, theology, historiography, etc.), I’ve primarily spent the last term wading into various academic conversations, seeing what’s out there and trying to fill in the blank spots in my background knowledge. Every month or so I try to summarize the main points of interest into a rough essay of a few thousand words for my supervisor, and then I move on to something else. I’m sure (I hope!) all this rooting around will be very useful later, but it can also feel a bit directionless at times.
Of course, there are also research seminars and lectures to attend, as well as language classes. (A beautiful Oxford moment was sitting with a little Latin reading group in the All Souls common room, sipping tea and translating Gerald of Wales … ) As I’ve discovered from my forays into untranslated twelfth- and thirteenth-century chronicles, my Latin is still pretty weak at the moment, but I have a feeling it’s going to be rather good by the time I’m through!
Outside of the research, it is lovely to be in Oxford for a second year. The pressure of doing everything and seeing everything has eased off, and instead I can look forward to repeating those things I most enjoyed last year. I’ve moved colleges, to St Cross, one of the graduates-only colleges (which, though a creation of the 1960s, has thoughtfully ensconced itself in Victorian neo-Gothic walls, complete with a tiny little Oxford quad). Though I’ll admit to a slight hankering after the medieval colleges, there is a benefit to the graduate colleges, particularly as they are rather better at remembering that students do still exist outside the undergraduate terms.
Oxmas has now passed (complete with the Bodleian’s Christmas tree and as many candle-lit carol services as one could possibly wish), as has Christmas. The libraries are closed from December 24 to January 2, the perfect time for entirely guilt-free relaxation (entirely different from the I-really-should-be-reading kind!)
For a slightly more ordered ease of access, below you can find links to all my journal posts from the past year over the course of the MSt degree.
Michaelmas (September – December 2015)
Christmas Vacation (December 2015 – January 2016)
Hilary (January to March 2016)
Easter Vacation (March – April 2016)
Trinity (April – June 2016)
Long Vacation (June – September 2016)
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
Having dropped off 13,000 words of something in my supervisor’s pidge in lieu of a rough draft (more-or-less a prose version of my notes which I hope to shape into an actual argument at some later point in time), I packed my bag and headed off to St Pancras to take the Eurostar south for a much needed break in sunnier climes.
Technically, of course, Trinity Term is all finished up now, but it’s a rather anticlimactic finish for those of us with months of work left to go. My first draft is due to my supervisor in a couple weeks, but I’m still grappling with the general shape and scope. Still, at least there will be plenty of time for amendments and revisions.
The weather has not been a help. After too short a glimpse of just how lovely English summer could be, the sun has retreated behind thick clouds for weeks, with almost daily rain showers. This is properly stay-home-beneath-the-covers sort of weather, not the get-up, go-to-the-library and do-brilliant-historical-research sort.
I am forced to emerge from the covers, however, because I’ve started a short office assignment through the university’s Temporary Staffing Agency, a sort of internal temp agency with which one can register and then receive offers of various short-term and/or part-time assignments. It’s a great, flexible way of taking on some reasonably well-paid work without making a big commitment. At the moment, I’m working in the mornings at one of the university schools and then spending my afternoons in the library – all I can say so far is that I have a whole new appreciation for the weekend!
And so, unbelievably, the end is upon us! Or at least, the last week of the last term of the year. Seminars and lectures are ended, undergraduates departing, and only those of us with research to complete over the summer are getting ready to bunker down in the (mercifully now much emptier) libraries.
A few events of note: