My Week at We the Humanities

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that last week, I took the helm at @WetheHumanities. This is a rotation Twitter account for people who are interested in some aspect of the humanities. You can see what sort of people take over here, and it mostly seems to be students and academics from a variety of humanities disciplines. I was asked to step in at the last minute, and so while I had thought about what I wanted to talk about, I only had a few days to prepare for my week. I decided to have a different theme each day, and to ask questions about it, as well as posting some of my own answers.

The first day was about switching fields- I started off doing languages, and slowly edged my way towards History. So, I did Italian and French for my undergraduate degree, and then an MA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and now my PhD, while in the Italian department, has a predominantly historical focus. I had lots of responses, and was surprised at the amount of people moving from science to the arts. One thing that most people who had done this said was that they had really benefitted from the change. That’s not to say that staying in the same field is a bad thing, just that you have a different appreciation of the new field having come from somewhere else. For me, I’m really glad that I have my language skills as a historian- it made it easier for me to learn Latin during my MA and to cope with reading all the languages my sources are in. Someone also said that they don’t think of it as moving from one thing to another, rather that it’s an evolution, as your research is essentially bringing together all the skills and ideas you have. I think that’s the best way to think about it.

The next day focused on writing, both from a teaching and a learning perspective. I’ve taught writing skills in two different environments- a History department and UCL’s Writing Lab. The history course was for first year undergraduates writing their first university essay, so it was about exploring what writing now meant outside the confines of A Level. There was a focus on reading and research as well as the physical writing of the essay. At the writing lab, students come to me for advice about writing, and we also do workshops on particular aspects, so mine are on Demystifying Citations and Introductions and Conclusions. People responded with some great resources for writing- including the Royal Literary Fund Fellows at lots of universities. Other ideas were to read your work aloud, write something every day, the Mumford Method, the Fishscale, Inspiration and reading and editing other people’s work. Ultimately, there’s no right way to write, it’s all about trying lots of different things out and finding what works for you.

Madre di Mia Assisi x6 Colour

Madre della Misericordia, Santa Chiara, Assisi

The Wednesday was all about outreach, and getting research to people outside the academic community. The main response was blogging, so it seems that lots of us are writing blogs about what we do. I talked a bit about my widening participation work in local schools, and played a game, posting a picture and asking ‘what’s going on?’ This is something I do with the students, to get them to think outside the box and start questioning things. I got the best response to this image. People started replying with images from their own research that it reminded them of, from an Ancient Greek pot to an image of Ireland. Other activities people did were MOOCs and podcasting- using the internet to connect with lots of people, whether it’s written or spoken, is an important tool for outreach work.

For my fourth day, I wanted to focus on medical humanities. The thread through all of my research topics has been the plague. So, I asked what people knew about it. I was actually quite surprised that most of the responses were about ancient plague rather than medieval or early modern examples. I also talked about the divide between the sciences and the humanities, and had a bit of a debate with one person. They were cross because someone who worked on medieval alchemy hadn’t been able to answer their ‘basic’ science questions. I tried to explain that it wasn’t the job of people who work in the history of science to know *everything* about their subject from their period to the most recent theory. I do wonder though what their response to a question at the end of a scientific paper about the sociology of modern science or something along those lines would have been. From my point of view, I know plenty about the science of plague, and in fact got quite bogged down with it during the first year of my PhD. What I decided was that ultimately, it doesn’t matter to me what disease it was, as I’m interested in the human reaction. While most scientific studies point to medieval plague being a bacterium called Yersinia Pestis, its quite controversial. Also, I’m just not sure that each outbreak of the disease was the same thing, and so I’ve decided just to stick with the religious response to the disease. So, I could answer some ‘basic’ questions about the science, but couldn’t, for example, tell you what to prescribe someone to cure them of plague today. I think the most important takeaway from this for me was that it’s important to appreciate the wider context of your research, and any modern implications this might have, but that it’s impossible for a single person to know absolutely everything about everything that’s connected to their research.

On the Friday, I talked about ‘doctoral skills.’ UCL makes all PhD students complete a skills log, collecting at least 60 points throughout their PhD in order to graduate. I’m not really sure where I stand on this. I stopped logging my points halfway through my third year, when I reached 127 points. You get points for all sorts of things, attending training courses but also for things you can log yourself like going to conferences, speaking at conferences and seminars, and writing and editing articles. So, it is useful to have everything down as a long list for writing my CV. Some of the courses I went to weren’t particularly useful though, and in the end most of my points were for things I did myself rather than these courses. One thing that came up in the discussion was the importance of a community, and I suppose that’s one point of this- to get doctoral students together to try to overcome some of the isolation we all inevitably feel. Another great thing to come out of the discussion was advice for people organizing conferences, which I collected on a Storify. Lots of this was about what we can do to make conferences and events more accessible, so do click on the link to see all the great suggestions.

image-for-twitterDuring the weekend, I started talking about Historical Fiction. I have a love/hate relationship with it as a genre- it’s great to escape in, but inaccuracies make me squirm. I added lots of new titles to my reading list, as there were lots of great suggestions. I also talked about writing fiction as I’ve started writing my own. It is based on my doctoral research- there were so many things I couldn’t explain in my sources, so I fictionalized  them as a way to deal with it. To get around the inaccuracy problem, I’ve added a fantasy element, so that it’s explicitly not meant to be reality. We also talked about film and TV, and as the tweet above suggests, these forms of fiction can be the spark that get people interested in doing further research on their own.

My final discussion topic was what makes people happy about their research. For me, it’s going to the archives and churches where my documents and wall paintings are to see things in person. Other people talked about getting paid to read all day, actually getting to touch the objects you’ve read about and finding things serendipitously in the archives.  While it can seem like a slog sometimes, especially in the final stages of editing, there is something that all researchers fundamentally love about what they do.

I really enjoyed my time curating We the Humanities. Thanks so much to the admin team behind the account for letting me take over for my week, and to everyone who answered my questions and chatted with me. Do follow @wethehumanities for a really varied mix of curators and topics each week.

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About Alex

History Early Career Scholar blogging in a personal capacity about research and writing.
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