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:
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!)