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!

A Supervision (Long Vac)

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.

Continue reading A Supervision (Long Vac)

Un Séjour en France (Long Vac)

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.

Continue reading Un Séjour en France (Long Vac)

Dissertation Doldrums (9th/10th Week, Trinity)

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!

Latin Resources

Word Tools: Thanks to the wonders of the internet, there are now various Latin word tools that will tell you not only what any Latin word means, but also that it happens to be a genitive singular future passive participle, or whatever the ‘case’ may be.

Whitaker’s Words – My personal favourite, partly because it does take into account some medieval spelling and vocabulary changes)

Perseus Latin Word Study Tool

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The End’s Beginning (8th Week, Trinity Term)

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:

Continue reading The End’s Beginning (8th Week, Trinity Term)

A Mini-Holiday (7th Week, Trinity)

This week was a bit of  a holiday, as my little sister stopped in to visit me on her way to other foreign climes. In between a few of my language classes, we strolled around Oxford taking in the sights and doing Oxfordy things: wandering around colleges, popping into Blackwell’s, punting on the Cherwell,  picnicking on the Port Meadow, eating dinner at the Eagle & Child pub–plus a whole afternoon spent rooting around the myriad and marvellous anthropological wonders crammed inside the Pitt Rivers Museum.

We also took the coach to spend a couple days in the beautiful Georgian town of Bath (whence the charmingly cheerful umbrellas in the photo) and spent a memorable afternoon getting absolutely soaked by rain in London and meekly sloshing our way around the British Museum.

All too soon, though, she was off on a jet-plane, and I was headed back to my neglected books . . .

Plenty of Trees, No Forest (6th Week, TT)

I began Trinity Term with a confident grasp of my dissertation topic. I made my way through the chronicles and vies in a systematic fashion, added faithfully to my annotated bibliography, and conceived the whole project as just a matter of putting the hours in and getting it done.

Then it all started going a bit wobbly. . .

Continue reading Plenty of Trees, No Forest (6th Week, TT)

More Fun on the River (5th Week, Trinity)

Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

Despite a slightly rocky start, I have now unequivocally  lost my heart to punting. With Oxford beginning to show off the best of early summertime weather, any excuse will do to get me out on the river. I have now grasped the mechanics of steering and can navigate in a slightly wobbly, but more-or-less straight line down the river and can even achieve a decent speed, the wind being in the right quarter. I also know enough to give the poor lad at the boat house a look of horror when he suggests I start out punting from the Cambridge end.

This weekend, not being able to find a partner in crime, I decided to take my study materials punting instead, mooring up under a tree on a quiet spot up the Cherwell to pore over my articles on the  intricacies of thirteenth-century theories of law and kingship (thereby no doubt providing a suitably studious Oxford scene for passing tourists). The bottom of a punt being surprisingly capacious, steady, and comfortable, and distractions being minimal, it actually proved the perfect study spot for a sunny afternoon.

In other news, we MSt students have all just finished giving our dissertation presentations to each other (mine was long on description, rather shorter on actual analysis interpretation at this point in the term!), so the only coursework that remains to us are the last few weeks of language classes. Serious dissertation research looms in the future!

A Glimmer of Understanding (4th Week, Trinity)

This week, a wonderful thing happened. I attended a graduate lecture on the development of medieval Latin, and I understood it. All of it. I knew all about the historical figures featured – in almost every case, I had read at least some of their cited texts. I was familiar with the proponents of the historical theses being discussed. I had even read every book on the ‘Further Reading’ list on the handout. It was a brilliant moment, the more so as it’s one that hasn’t happened to me all very often here in Oxford.

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Messing about in Boats (3rd Week, TT)

Punting is not as easy as it looks. As in rowing, you soon learn how to get along and handle the craft, but it takes long practice before you can do this with dignity and without getting the water all up your sleeve.

— Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (1889)
Oxford’s own Dorothy Sayers claims in Gaudy Night that it is more fun to punt than to be punted. I am loathe to contradict Lord Peter’s estimable creatrix, but fresh from my first experience on the river, I fear my preference lies decidedly on the side of being the punted. Who wouldn’t want to lounge semi-horizontally in the sunshine an inch or two above the water line, nibbling on strawberries and feeding the ducks, while someone else huff and puffs with the heavy pole behind you, fighting the mud and current to propel your craft in a rather zig-zagged line down the river?

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Now is the Month of Maying (2nd Week, Trinity Term)

Weather in Oxford can often be disappointing. This year’s May Morning, however, was everything it was supposed to be, with crisp spring air, the golden sunlight of early morning warming the old stone towers, and a backdrop of bright blue skies embroidered with delicate wisps of cirrus clouds. At six o’clock, the men and boys of the Magdalen College choir sang in the morning from the top of Magdalen Tower to a crowd of thousands gathered below, followed by the joyful cacophony of the tower bells. Groups of morris dancers added their own bell-jangling, while various music groups vied for audiences in Radcliffe Square.

My own contribution was joining my choir in singing out madrigals from the very iconic Bridge of Sighs to the crowd below. It doesn’t get much more Oxford-y than that!

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Bridge of Sighs, Hertford College

 

The Penultimate Stretch (1st Week, Trinity Term)

Trinity may be the loveliest of the Oxford terms. The days are growing steadily longer, the steady April showers are giving way (in theory) to colourful May flowers, and colleges have started sending out emails about delightful things like croquet, punting, and garden parties.

Before these beauties could be embraced, however, the results of our ‘vacation’ labours had first to be submitted for the no-doubt eager perusal of our examiners.

Continue reading The Penultimate Stretch (1st Week, Trinity Term)

Recovering from Easter Vacation

In our programme, Easter Vacation is just the bit that comes before the due date for our two major essays. My six weeks of “vacation” therefore went something like this:

Weeks 1 & 2: Reading and research at a somewhat leisurely pace, attempting to define exactly what my essay ought to be about.

Easter Weekend: Took a few days off. A gorgeous sunny Good Friday spent with a friend roaming through fields and villages in the Cotswalds.

Week 3: Sick, in bed, miserable, for days. Recovered just enough to be struck down with paralyzing, gut-wrenching and very counter-productive stress, convinced my essays would never be finished in time.

Week 4: Pulled myself together, set myself a goal of 1,000 words/day, and hit the books. Forced to attempt simultaneous writing and research, with mixed results. Began to list the Radcliffe Camera as my home address.

Week 5: Reached the tipping point where the difficulty was no longer writing enough words, but rather cramming in everything under the word limit. Compressed everything into a semblance of an order and dropped off a draft in my supervisor’s pidge for comments. Intended to take a one-day holiday to recover; exhausted brain held out for three.

Week 6 (0th week): Re-attacked my other forgotten essay from Michaelmas Term which had received very thorough comments from the seminar convener during Hilary and now lay in deconstructed pieces which, like Humpty Dumpty, couldn’t be put back together again. Wrestled with the thing for days, mostly attempting every permutation of sentence and paragraph order in an attempt at a coherent argument flow. Resisted the urge to create a bonfire.

Received back my supervisor’s suggestions (unfortunately, sans any affirmative head-patting) on my second paper and attempted to incorporate with a maxed-out word limit, adding and shaving as I went along.

Sat back on Saturday night with two somewhat-shaky but definitely written essays and took a big sigh of relief.

I am very glad the vacation is over . . .

 

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