The Scribblings of a Codex-Curious PhD Student

Tag: Postgraduate

Congress Convert…

Part 1: #IMC2016

On the first Sunday of July I made the pilgrimage that all medievalists must at some time make, journeying North to Leeds and to the International Medieval Congress (otherwise known as the IMC). The congress, this year a gathering of an astonishing 2,205 medievalists from 49 countries, was the first big conference I have attended since beginning the PhD. It was both exciting and exhausting.

I presented a paper as part of a strand of three panels titled ‘Guiding the Mind of the Beholder’, with all nine speakers focussing on the materiality of texts as determinant of their meaning and use. My session, #S309, was the last of the strand, taking place on the Monday afternoon slot in a very warm room, which I was very happy/nervous to see full of people. It is by far the most fun I have had giving a paper. I received lots of insightful and helpful questions, and was able to situate my paper against the other 8 speakers of the strand, resulting in interesting conversations and intersecting ideas. Not only this, but I got to meet people working in my specific field from all over Europe, with members of the panels coming from Germany, Austria, Italy, and France, as well as the UK. To be immersed in a room with people speaking different languages across one another, united by their interest in codicology, was something rather special and was the perfect antidote to my post-Brexit blues.

I was grateful for the scheduling of my paper on the first day of the congress as this gave me very little time to worry over my paper (written in classic me-style; last minute in the early AMs) and meant I could enjoy the rest of the week completely relaxed, able to soak up all the congress had to offer (which is an awful lot).

I have posted a version of my paper here for all those interested in reading it.

IMC Highlights

The sheer scale of it all. Seamless in its organisation, with so many people on hand to help, there are so many fascinating sessions that you can’t possibly attend them all. This is, however, all part of the fun. One of my favourite panels, #S525: ‘Women Who Hunt: Ecocriticism, Gender Theory, Posthumanism’, I attended out of pure interest, rather than relevancy – IMC gives you the time and space to explore peripheral topics, which are often the most enjoyable, and it is one of the best things about having a conference span four days.

The political engagement. Far from being stuck in the medieval past there was a distinct buzz in the air of medievalists discussing the latest political shit-storm that is Brexit. I overheard and engaged in numerous conversations that showed the strength of feeling of the academic community against the recent political disasters of the UK and the determination to overcome the negative consequences it will no doubt cause to the europeanness of things like the IMC. The #femfog discussion that took place further showed the power of the community voice, with #femfog trending by Wednesday lunchtime. This, along with the sessions I attended at both IMC and the New Chaucer Society Congress organised by the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship (SMFS), has encouraged me to more closely align my Feminism with my identity as a researcher, the papers given in these sessions demonstrating that the two can be brilliantly brought together to the benefit of scholarship.

The atmosphere. I suspect I am not alone in disliking ‘networking’ – the term as much as the action. It is often forced, awkward, and the very prospect of having to do it makes me uncomfortable. Yet, at IMC it felt much more natural; the atmosphere was unlike that of any other academic event I have so far attended, with the overwhelming majority being open to talking to complete strangers. The wine receptions certainly help with this, as does, of course, the infamous IMC ‘disco’. But more, I think it is the open spaces, the sunshine, and the people who were all there for the same reason, that is, to enjoy research.

On my first day, before my fellow UKC PhD and partner-in-wine SK arrived, I wandered the campus alone feeling slightly overwhelmed, observing the many people embracing and animatedly chatting with friends and colleagues they had not seen since the previous years’ congress. By the end of the Thursday, as I sat on my train, slightly hungover and struggling to stay awake, I could completely understand why people make the trip year after year. I was a congress convert. And I imagined that next year, when I returned, there would be several people who I would greet with equal enthusiasm, having not seen them since the last IMC…perhaps there will be a slightly overwhelmed PhD student observing us who I can smile at, walk over to and strike up a conversation with.

Festival Season…

In the first of a serious of posts on what have been an exciting and formative few weeks for me as a PhD researcher I will begin, perhaps sensibly, at the beginning, which is with the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Summer Festival.

Not so well known and with much less mud than Glastonbury, the MEMS Summer Festival was great fun to be a part of and, believe it or not, was witness to much of the same community spirit…

MEMS Summer Festival was an entirely student-led event held at the University of Kent 17th-18th June. This was the second year of the event, organised to celebrate all research in medieval and early modern studies. I spent the last six months organising it, along with my four remarkable co-conspirators,  and gained so much experience along the way; experience of applying for funding, holding meetings, handling a budget, and perhaps most importantly, handling people. Although it’s clear I was never meant to go into event management, I learnt a lot about my own flaws – such as having control issues, or difficulties with prioritising, and I learnt to let go just a little bit, to handle my own expectations. I also gained confidence in talking to and taking charge of people when needed, learning that you can do these things without being ‘bossy’ – a term all women hate and something I certainly never want to come across as, but have nevertheless been described as at various stages in my life.

As we got closer to the event the Festival demanded more and more time away from my PhD, but the work was worth it to see an idea materialise. The central idea behind the Festival was inclusivity; to create a space for those of any level of experience to present and discuss research as equals. We are very lucky at my home institution to be surrounded by supportive colleagues, we have a very tangible community of research, which I believe partly explains the high number of students which, having completed the Medieval and Early Modern Studies MA at Kent, continue onto the PhD programme. It is our intellectual home and we wanted to continue to develop this, expand it outwards, welcoming all who share our interests to join, to discuss, and to build a lasting network.

There were several things that were crucial to making this happen. Firstly, it had to be free. As much as we recognise and appreciate the importance of large conferences with big-name academics presenting their ground-breaking research, this often comes with large registration fees, unobtainable to many who are then excluded from the conference experience, unable to attend that which is not specific enough, or significant enough, to their field to warrant that £40 train ticket – let alone the registration. We wanted people to be able to come just because it was interesting, to give them an opportunity to meet other interested people. We made the decision therefore to forego both the cost and the implied superiority of the keynote, whose hour-long paper when compared to the twenty minute paper or perhaps poster of a postgrad is, quite literally, worth more. We wanted to treat the research being undertaken by MA students, PhDs, Early Career Researchers, and Senior Academics as all being of equal importance to the field. To enable this we sought outside funding, perhaps the most trying part of the organisation, but so worth it. We are incredibly grateful therefore to the Consortium of the Humanities and the Arts and to the University of Kent’s Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies for jointly funding the event, and to Eastern ARC for contributing a bursary fund. They made it possible to build this inclusive space and enabled a community to come together.

This community saw a converging of archives, with an exhibit from Special Collections and Rochester Cathedral Library, practical skills, with workshops on methodology and digital practice, discussions in the form of object-orientated roundtables, intellectual knowledge present in the many papers offered, and performances of both music and drama. This was all to a mixed audience of undergraduates, postgraduates, senior academics and members of the public.

The most obvious levelling of age, experience, and knowledge was revealed in the final session of the first day, our ‘Would I Lie to You?’ quiz, where a team of MA students were pitched against the indomitable senior staff in a game of whose facts are the most false. It was as members of the audience booed, cheered, and interrogated the presented absurd facts that I felt our aim of establishing a comfortable environment had truly been met. It also provided me with my one tweet of fame, being retweeted with enthusiasm by the official WILTY twitter account.

The first day was finished off with a wonderful tableau: Invicta Voices, a London chamber choir performing pre-1650 choral pieces to us from Canterbury Cathedral’s 12th century water tower, as all the delegates stood in the Cathedral’s garden, drinking wine at a reception hosted by the always welcoming Canon Librarian of the Cathedral, Chris Irvine.

The Festival was further shaped through an intentional move away from the traditional format of conferences (a trend gaining currency in many of the major conferences) as we believed that workshops, informal discussions, and performances can be as much of a site of intellectual exchange as the traditional twenty-minute paper. Each day began with parallel paper sessions, which ranged from topics as diverse as Gothic Art, Medical History, Late-Antique Literature, Gender, and Law. After just two paper sessions per day, the Festival’s afternoons then continued with methodological and practical workshops, my personal highlights being the Painted Elizabethan Cloth workshop with the captivating and talented artist Melissa White and the ‘Taste of Medieval Life’ workshop, with the “hopless and hopeless” ale brewed by beer-enthusiast Dr Phil Slavin, who described his own brew as “two pigs in a wash”. This was paired with PhD student Stuart Morrison’s medieval breads, which were hard, dense, and certainly in need of the ale to wash them down. (It must be said that Stuart’s baking skills are superb, and I therefore blame the recipe, not the baker). This tasting workshop, as informative as it was fun, demonstrated the kindness that underpinned the success of the festival; friends and colleagues volunteering time and effort to put together sessions based on their personal interests. This kindness could be seen throughout the Festival and is something that will stay with me, the generosity of new and old friends, which began with the staff who supported our endeavour and was epitomised by the MA student who stayed for 2 hours un-stapling and re-stapling misprinted programmes on the Festival’s eve with nothing more than a promise of a thank-you pint.

After two years running this event I am sad not to be able to take part in the organisation for 2017 (though I think both my thesis and supervisor will thank me for it), but I feel confident that this research culture will continue to develop and hopeful that it will remain as defined by the kindness, generosity of spirit, and unflagging fascination with all aspects of the premodern world that I have been lucky enough to experience.

Most of all I wish luck to the postgraduate students who will be taking over the event and know they will have a great time redefining the Festival for themselves – I can’t wait to attend.

Take a look at the MEMS Summer Festival tweets, storified in the slideshow below:

A Month of Madness…

I have just spent three whole days at home actually sleeping in my own bed, following a month of hotels, friends’ spare rooms, sleeping in tents and even occasionally on trains. This month has been a nonstop whirlwind of firsts and a wealth of experience that I am still attempting to digest.

I decided when my second year began that I would seek as many opportunities as possible, I would get involved, I would say yes. I didn’t have the forsight to see that most of these things I was saying yes to would happen all at once.

In the last month I have seen the website for the new postgraduate journal Brief Encounters go live in my role as editor and web officer, I have organised one conference, spoken at two, and attended four. I somehow also managed to squeeze a nice relaxing trudge through the Glastonbury mud in there at some point.  (See me mid-June drinking wine out of a bag and singing in the rain to ELO…)

This say yes plan was principally to allow me to become a recluse in my drawing-ever-closer final PhD year, to allow me to build the CV and alleviate the anxieties of never gettting a job, as an academic or as anything else. But for all its busyness, this  month has been one of my best yet.

As a direct result of this busy period I haven’t had much time for writing, but several of the posts that follow will reflect on my experiences of the past month and on what they have meant for me as a PhD student just over the midway point (431 days remaining to be painfully precise).

Some may appear almost gushing in the praise of events and the people behind them, but over the last few weeks I have been genuinely overwhelmed by the researchers with whom I have been rubbing shoulders, and so offer no apologies, only admiration and an intensified ambition to become one of those elusive academics.

Links below:

cropped-royal19ci-f204v-dancingFestival Season…

The MEMS Summer Festival was great fun to be a part of and was witness to much of the same community spirit…


Congress Convert…

Part 1: #IMC2016

On the first Sunday of July I made the pilgrimage that all medievalists must at some time make…

Making Connections…

Part 2: #NCS16

Nexus is the defining word of my experience of NCS 2016. The congress was the coming together of…

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