Isidore of Seville says:

The noun (nomen) is so called as if it were ‘denoter’ (notamen), because by its designation it makes things known (noscere, ppl. notus) to us. Indeed, unless you know its name (nomen), the knowledge of a thing perishes.[1]

So if naming is the creation of knowledge, what is anonymity? Is it simply not knowing? or is it un-knowing; the destruction of an idea?


[1] Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, ed. by Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and Oliver Berghof (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), (p.42) I.vii.1.

This is exciting! I’ve secured some seed funding from the Arts Faculty (another big thanks to them for allowing me an extra 24 hours to finalise my application under extreme circumstances) for a new project that builds on the skills I’ve acquired through the hard slog of doctoral study and broadens them out into new and tantalising directions. Dear readers, you heard it first here that Medieval Meanings of Anonymity will be on my radar over the next few years. Before I embark on this project, I thought it would be worth cataloguing how it came into existence. As an early career scholar, I’ve been bugging a few people with the question ‘how did you come up with your next big project?’. Having discovered one method for myself, it seems only fair to share it.  Read the rest of this entry »

I don’t regard myself as a particularly computer-geeky person, but in history circles I often turn out to be the one person who knows how to work the projector, and that, apparently, makes me an IT guru. I’m often astounded by the things I seem to know about computers that some people don’t, and how many people ask me for advice about this kind of thing. But then, if nobody tells you about things, it is certainly harder to know about them. If you’re reading this, perhaps you are one of the people who already knows this stuff. If not, then I hope it is of use to you! Below, I’ve compiled a non-exhaustive list of apps that I’ve found useful. Go to.

Keeping up to date

Email notifications

Literature expands quickly. Not everything that’s published will go on to become a classic of the field, but there is still value in being on top of what has come out recently. In a hangover from my science days I use Thompson Reuters’ ISI Web of Science to manage email alerts of new journal publications in fields of interest to me. This is a subscription service, but most tertiary institutions have a subscription. With an email alert, rather than having to login and repeat the same old search on a regular basis, you save your common search terms, and then set up an automatic alert so that a list of any new results of those searches will be sent to your inbox on a weekly or monthly basis. The humanities collections of the Web of Science are still developing, but it already covers most of the journals published by major publishers, and is growing all the time. The other really great thing about this database is it lets you track not only the citations within a particular article, but also anything which has cited it in turn, allowing you to follow the research footprints both forward and back. [Edit. Note, the email alert service requires you to set up a personal login in addition to your institutional access login method.]

Keeping track

Endnote

(Or your preferred bibliography software) I swear by this little gem. I learned to love it when I was a working lab scientist, and I couldn’t believe how few people new about or used it when I jumped the fence to humanities. Endnote (and similar programs such as Zotero) lets you:

  • store your bibliography in an easy, standardized and searchable format
  • insert references into written work with a simple click
  • format references in word processed documents instantly
  • keep your notes on a particular item with its bibliographical details
  • attach soft copies of articles, chapters, etc.
  • create thematic folders

The hot tip of all hot tips is to start using Endnote (or similar) early in a project. Don’t wait until you have hundreds (or thousands) of items floating about needed to be entered!

Most literature searching databases, from ISI to JSTOR, and even your local library catalogue include an ‘export to Endnote’ feature which means you can even send reference details direct to your bibliography without having to type them all in by hand. This is super handy and saves you heaps of time, although I do still recommend going through after a big import session to make sure things capitalization or hyphenation style in imported records match any entry protocols you have been using. For example, I always use n-dash between ranges of numbers (e.g. 1264–65), but sometimes an import will introduce entries that have hyphens instead, I just quickly fix that before moving on. Then I always know my bibliography will be consistent in any piece of writing.

Endnote also now includes a web-based storage option so you can take your bibliography with you wherever you go.

http://endnote.com/

For Zotero. A similar, free app: https://www.zotero.org/

Toggl

This little app is wonderful for keeping track of time. You tell it when you begin and end working on a particular task; it adds up the time that you spend — per day, week, month, etc. — on a given task or task category and can show it to you in table or graph form. This is a useful thing for those who are working casually on a range of jobs, such as tutoring or as a research assistant, because it helps you account for every moment spent and make sure you are billing for the time you actually spend working. It’s also very useful for keeping an honest track of time spent on your own research project or thesis, and this can be especially important if it turns out you’re actually spending most of your day on facebook without noticing and need to give yourself a kick in the proverbial. Statistics show you will tend to underestimate the time spent on paid work, but overestimate the time spent on thesis/own research. Toggl does it for you so that you’re not relying on the fallible instruments we call our minds.

https://www.toggl.com/

Focusing on Writing

Write or Die

Most people write more and better and more regularly with either a carrot or a stick. This is the stick. Write or die is an app for when you’ve done some reading and thinking need to write up your ideas in a rough and ready draft. It gives you a clean screen to type into and locks out other programs until you meet your set target, which might be in words or minutes spent writing. The app prompts you to keep working by alerting you if you have slowed down or stopped, according to the severity of the ‘stick’ you set yourself, for example, by turning the screen progressively more red, setting off a klaxon alarm, or even, on the most severe setting, erasing your work before your eyes. It’s amazing how motivated one can become to keep writing under this kind of pressure! Version 2, now online, has ‘consequences’ mode as well as ‘reward’ mode, if you’re more of a carrot person. There is a free online version, but the paid one might be worth the $20 cost if you are a serial procrastinator when it comes to getting words on the page.

http://writeordie.com/

Freedom

Probably the best $10 you will ever spend. This app isn’t free but it does set you free from the temptation of ‘just quickly checking email’… or doing other pointless, time wasting tasks (or just watching videos of kittens) online when you should be writing. We all do this. And many people can’t stop doing it simply through will power. (*guilty*) Probably because thinking about research and writing about it are both actually really bloody hard to do: the brain naturally veers to one side and takes the path of least resistance unless you force it back to the stony path of intellectual work. Freedom helps by blocking your network access for a time set by you, anywhere between 15 minutes and 8 hours. There’s no countdown clock or any other distracting widgets telling you how much longer you have to ‘endure’ – just no internet access on your device for the time you have set yourself: browsers will open but not connect. The only way to turn it off and get your internet back is to reboot, which is actually quite a hassle if you have 15 windows open and lots of files to save and close…

http://macfreedom.com/

Backing up

Sync Toy:

This is a great little free Microsoft app, especially handy if you use a portable hard drive (like I do) for travelling or commuting with your files from desk to desk, or — as in the case of a thesis — you want to make sure you always have a backup of the most recent version of your documents. Sync Toy can be set to synchronise (make sure the same files are represented in two places), or backup (save copies of everything in one location to a second location. Run it regularly (daily or at least weekly), especially during thesis writing!

http://www.microsoft.com/en-au/download/details.aspx?id=15155

Of course, these days there are a lot of cloud-based options that let you store and work on files in a virtual drive that can be accessed anywhere there is internet and sync to desktop versions automatically. I do use these for research notes and collaborative writing tasks, see below.

Wrangling your information

Evernote

I’m still getting into this, but it’s pretty awesome. Evernote is a cloud-based notebook that lets you keep everything in one place: bookmarks, website content, screencaps, word documents, pdfs, and jottings. The Evernote web clipper app lets you capture online content and save it direct to your Evernote notebook, while in the notebook itself you can enter, tag, categorize and search your notes. Like all cloud-based apps, the desktop and online versions sync on a regular basis, or on command, meaning you can be sure of having a back up of your ideas, and you can access them anywhere. In my experience it’s cumbersome to use it to store lots of images, and I haven’t found a way to integrate it well with Endnote, but it can do most other things you might need in terms of helping you store research ideas, and retrieve them effectively. You can get a premium version which lets you search within linked word documents as well as within the ‘cover’ notes; but there is a free version which has basically all of the capabilities a student would need, and plenty of storage capacity. For example, I used it recently to make sure I couldn’t lose my PowerPoint or script for a major conference presentation: even if I misplaced my USB stick or my luggage got lost in transit, I could still download the files.

Evernote doesn’t replace the functionality of word processor programs like Word or Pages. For example, its no good at inserting footnotes and formatting, but it is perfectly adequate for taking research notes, meaning you can do this effectively on any online device. This potentially saves you weight in your bag whether it’s international travel, or just a trip downstairs to the library. Its tag function and the capacity to make multiple notebooks within your account mean you can use it as a research ‘filing cabinet’ where your own generated material is stored together with whatever relevant things you’ve found online.

https://www.evernote.com

Dropbox

Dropbox is another cloud-based app. I use it especially for collaborating on Word documents. To do this, both (or all) parties sign up for a free Dropbox account (again there is a premium version, but you might find the free one is sufficient to your needs as a student); then everyone downloads the Dropbox desktop app. This creates a folder on your desktop which is synced to the cloud. You can edit documents in the folder in real time and everyone’s copy will automatically update.

I’ve found Dropbox more useful for this kind of editing than Google Drive because the latter doesn’t let you edit Word documents from within the cloud. Instead, you have to download them and than re-upload the new version. In a collaborative situation, this could lead to a lot of confusion and potential stuff-ups about which version is current and communally approved. On the other hand, Google Drive is great for things like making and sharing forms or group schedules, and for communally editing documents if they were created in Drive as a Google document in the first place.

https://www.dropbox.com/

Online security

Lastpass

This is an amazing app. It’s a password manager: you create one long, complex, mega-password to get into lastpass, and it remembers all your other passwords for everything from your email to your internet banking. It can also generate passwords for you at random, according to parameters like the number of characters, whether to include numbers or special characters, and whether the password should be pronounceable. Since you don’t have to remember them, you can have really long, weird passwords, and different passwords for all your online activities, both of which greatly increase your online security. The only slight problem is it apparently doesn’t work on iPhones…

https://lastpass.com/

Despite the fact that this sounds like a publicity blurb, I’m not involved in any way in this – absolutely no kickbacks have changed hands. (Can a kick change hands? Mixed metaphor? Anyway, I digress.)

The main point is, the interwebs have been lighting up with this new resource, which I am linking here for the benefit of those not on (or in contact with those on) any sermon studies newsfeeds which is where the sh**has really been going down. I’m talking about ‘Enigma’ – a tool which helps you to identify uncertain words in medieval Latin palaeography. The truly wondrous thing about it is that it permits wild card searching for unknown / uncertain letter forms, including the first letter/s, making it more functional than a conventional palaeography dictionary for those tricky cases.

Enjoy!

Launch Engima in a new window

In the olden days, when I was a scout leader, we used this thing called the ‘buddy system’ to make sure all our little charges got back to base after a ‘wide game’ running around the local creek in the dark. It’s kind of self-explanatory: everyone had a buddy, and buddies had responsibility to make sure each other made it back safely. Hold that thought.

There’s been a bit of chatter of late both on the interwebs and in the actual physical corridors about receiving academic feedback. What do you do with it? How do you cope emotionally? How do you view it intellectually? If you haven’t already done so, I recommend going over to The Thesis Whisperer and looking at what one kind supervisor told their student. But this isn’t just about students. It’s not as if academics take a magic ‘grown up pill’ as soon as they get their PhD and suddenly intuitively know how to manage this ‘feedback’ with a sanguine air. If nobody trains you in dealing with this as a student, you’re basically going to be left to figure out a strategy for yourself as a post doctoral scholar. Maybe that will work, or maybe not so much. You might be one of the lucky ones who has a great mentoring structure around you in your career, but equally, you might be (or at least feel) essentially on your own.

I’m chipping in with my two cents here because I’ve noticed some real differences in the course of my career change from the laboratory sciences over to the humanities, and there are some things that we (the humanities) can really take from the science model in this regard. I’ve shared this with various individuals, but it’s obviously ‘a thing’ so maybe sharing here will be worth it. Read the rest of this entry »

These seem to come around faster and faster – or maybe I’m just getting older… But it’s time for the sixth annual Revealing Records conference at King’s College London. This is a great forum in which to hear new graduate work based on original records. I recommend it if you’re in London later this month.

Here’s the blurb, courtesy of Kenneth Duggan’s academia page, where you can find a full program for the day:

Revealing Records VI

Now in its sixth year, the Revealing Records postgraduate research conference series brings together postgraduate researchers working with a wide range of sources from across the medieval world to share challenges and approaches through the presentation of their research. Featuring keynote papers from Dr Alice Rio (King’s College London) and Professor Paul Brand (All Souls College, Oxford) and a closing address delivered by Daniel Hadas (King’s College London)

Location: The Weston Room in the Maughan Library, King’s College London

When: 9.00-6.00, Friday 23rd May, 2014

Contact: revealingrecords@gmail.com

To register, please email the conference organisers at the above address. Registration is free.

Lincoln Cathedral (image: wikimedia commons)

Lincoln Cathedral (image: wikimedia commons)

I’m really looking forward to June-July. Not only am I hitting the conference boards (and the legendary dance floor) at the Leeds IMC, but also spending several weeks in Lincoln as International Visiting Fellow in Medieval History. I’ll be taking the first steps in an exciting new research project while there, looking in the county archives and university and cathedral collections for examples of anonymity in different genres of text – more on that in another post. I’ll also be giving a talk on new work at the Religious Men in the Middle Ages conference, a joint event of Lincoln and Huddersfield Universities under the auspices of the Bishop’s Eye network. Importantly, and excitingly, I’ll also be running a workshop for local postgraduates in medieval history, examining some of the methodological insights into blending cultural and political history with diplomatic that I built up over my doctoral work. It’s going to be great fun!

I’ve never been to Lincoln before, so I am really looking forward to this visit from a tourist perspective too. I can’t wait to visit the amazing cathedral.

I’ve been handing out a lot of this of late, so I thought I would centralize it here. Maybe you’re presenting at your first conference, or maybe it’s not your first time but it’s a really major meeting and you lack confidence. Either way, perhaps you should consider these points. Don’t be one of those people who give dire conference papers that everyone remembers for the wrong reasons.

1. It’s a conference paper, not a journal article

These two genres are very different, yet many people – especially in the humanities – treat them as if they are the same. In other words, to prepare a conference paper, many humanities students/academics sit down and write. They produce elegantly phrased sentences of complex construction. They delay the moments of ‘big reveal’, maybe by opening with an evocative quotation or posing a puzzling question that won’t be answered until the end. These strategies might work fine in a written version (although, actually, I advocate coming clean on what your argument right from the beginning even in print), but a conference audience can’t flip back and forth through the pages to double check they know who Llywelyn ap Gruffydd is, or what the quote you used said. Take pity on them! Plan your paper from the outset with the awareness that it is an aural object, designed to be spoken aloud and received by listening. This awareness will lead you to the following points…

2. People have to be able to follow your argument in real time

Signpost. Signpost. Signpost. State your argument (and even its parts) right from the beginning. When you (and the audience) arrive at a new part of the argument, say so. Explain why the audience should care before you launch into each new quote, or complex description of influences on an idea. If you expect them to indulge you in an extended aside, say that that is what you’re doing. Tell them when you return to the main point. Give people plenty of hooks and ‘stage directions’ so they can follow you as you speak in real time.

3. You only have time for one key argument

Don’t try to cram your entire thesis on a given topic into 20 minutes. Although it may all be relevant to the title you proposed (oh so long ago!), it will just push you over time, and clutter your audience’s mind. Plus, I think it’s simply bad manners when lots of other speakers (many of them dutiful higher degree students) will have worked hard to make sure they keep on time, and everybody’s time is valuable.

As you begin to prepare, sit down and deconstruct your larger argument to its skeletal outline. Reflect: who is my audience? How much background will they already have? What will I need to explain so that everyone can follow me? Once you’ve dealt with the context that is essential to allow an intelligent non-specialist to follow your ideas, you won’t have a lot of time for complex exposition. Stick to the key point, and save the flourishes for the written version. Maybe your argument has lots of parts… but probably you only have time to deal with some of them. So what will you prioritize? What is the main ‘take home message’ you want to convey. Like Nick Hopwood, I’d encourage you to get it out in the open from the opening words – and then stick to it.

4. The details are devils

In a written version of a paper, you will give extensive footnotes, and probably provide a number of examples or pieces of evidence for each point in your argument. These details do not all belong in a spoken version, however. See points two and three! Just as you must reduce your argument to its essential skeletal outlines, you must be ruthless about how much evidence is needed to illustrate it in this format. Some will be essential in order for people to see, recognize the validity of, and remember your central point. But the rest can wait for extended treatment in print.

5. Only use visual aids if they help

Some presentations naturally work better with a bit of visual assistance. For example, if you’re going to rely on the physical layout of a document to draw some conclusions, having an image of it will no doubt be useful. Or you might want a family tree so that the audience can keep track of the relationships between lots of individuals. This might work best on the old fashioned handout. Or it might be ideal for a Power point or similar projected technology. But never, ever, do this gratuitously. A pointless power point slide show just makes people wonder if that’s where you put your energy instead of into refining your ideas. And if you are going to use visual aids, work to integrate them into your presentation actively – rather than just distributing the handout / whacking up the slides without comment and forgetting about them. When it works, visual supplementation is great. When it doesn’t, it looks – and is – redundant, and detracts from your work.

Any other tips from your experience?

Turns out it’s really very hard to concentrate on finishing writing a grant application when some misguided idiot is lighting fires all along the nearest freeway on a day when it’s 39°C with high winds and there are sirens going by every ten minutes. Who knew?

[Edit 1: and now we have the water helicopters... Time to make sure I have a copy of all my important files backed up to the cloud, me thinks!]

Water Bomber at the Riddell’s Creek fire (Photo, jaytown1 via Instagram)

 

[Edit 2: What fun. The last five hours have been occupied 'enacting my fire plan'... packing up dogs, valuables and bottled water, hosing the exterior of the house, watching the wind changes and listening to ABC emergency broadcasts. Patches of frenetic activity interspersed with patches of sheer boredom, but no option of turning off the radio to focus, so no grant writing! I hope the Faculty is understanding tomorrow...]

http://www.macedonrangesweekly.com.au/story/1795937/gallery-gisborne-fire-out-of-control/

[Edit 3: For those who were asking/wondering, my Faculty is ACE! Very kindly gave me the extra day's grace I requested once I explained the circs. Kudos to them.]

I have a lot of postgraduate students among my friends, and among this august group one reaction has been fairly prominent since I handed in and subsequently passed my doctoral thesis. Students, who are still embedded in the higher degree process, often think that there’s something special about me and/or my work, and that some aspect of this exceptionalism is what has carried me over the line at both submission and passing stages, whereas for them everything will naturally be much more difficult. This is rot. As Research Degree Voodoo recently reminded us:

A doctoral thesis is about 80,000 words (or your discipline’s equivalent) of academic writing that describes a research project that should take about 3 years and can be carried out by someone just starting out as a researcher.

Nothing more. Nothing less. It’s (probably) not a nobel prize. It’s (probably) not the best work you’ll ever do.

If there is one thing about me in particular that helped me achieve completing this PhD, it is the fact that I have done it before. I already held a PhD in neuroscience, and although the content and the quotidian processes of producing it were utterly different, the intellectual and emotional processes were very closely related. If you just plod through your candidature, keeping fairly abreast of what is required and doing ‘stuff’ regularly, completing actually boils down to a fairly simple matter. It’s about knowing when enough is enough; about keeping in perspective the fact that this is ‘just a PhD’ and not your Life’s Work; keeping the panicked voice of your inner perfectionist at bay while being able to say: ‘yes, of course I could go on and do about 100 more experiments, or rush off to a new archive and translate a bunch more charters, or whatever, but what I’ve got here is a respectable, original contribution, albeit not particularly earth-shattering in its importance. It is enough.’

The other piece of wisdom that two rounds of doctoral study have taught me is that by the time you get to the end, nothing you’ve worked on feels new any more. It’s very easy to give way to a sense of despair and, throwing up your hands, cry out ‘it’s all a waste, because nothing I’ve done is actually new or interesting! Surely everybody already knows all of this by now, and I’ll fail for not having contributed anything to knowledge. Therefore, I must now… [return to point 1, above].’ Resist this impulse. Your work feels old to you because you’ve been thinking about it fairly constantly for three or more years; but nobody else has. That’s the point. That’s why your work is yours, and original.

None of these things is easy to realise or tell yourself when you’re within the process (even if you have done it before!), but they’re all true. So if you’re nearing the end of your candidature, next time you get in a panic don’t try and reinvent the wheel, or assume you need three extra chapters, or another six months. Just stop and ask yourself – is it enough? and is it mine? Or if you can’t figure it out for yourself, ask a trusted friend. The answers are probably yes and yes. You’re probably nearly finished.

Find me elsewhere

I teach and research at the Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies in the School of Philosophical, Historial and International Studies, Monash University (Australia). Views expressed here are my own and not representative of the CMRS, SOPHIS or Monash.

You can also find my academic profile on Academia.edu

Twitter: @KB_Neal

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