research

Deep in the Shelves: a graduate student’s musings on archive research

Recently I had the opportunity to embark on my first extensive research trip, which I dedicated specifically to looking at primary source archives related to my PhD research into Shakespearean ballads. There were many fantastic experiences, but also a few hard lessons to learn along the way. Below are three core lessons I have learned:

1. Read all the secondary sources

Archive research is no easy thing - when entering into a field of historical study, primary sources can seem extremely daunting to sift through, especially because they are often grouped with other archives which have little or no relevance to you. This is why it is important to scour all of the secondary material on the sources you plan to consult. Though I did read a lot of secondary writing before starting my trip, I found that I had not read nearly enough. As a result I found myself reading more secondary material on my first day at each library - save the stress and read this at home! It is much better to allow more time with the archive if you can read commentary on the sources earlier.

2.take in the bigger picture

Often with archival study you need to trawl through a manuscript book until you turn the page and find the source you are interested in. The temptation is to flick to this page as soon as possible. However, I found it very useful to study the whole book in detail: in my case I was looking at music manuscripts, usually handwritten and compiled by a single owner. These music books are like the scrapbooks I compile of music I want to play, but made by early modern people. This makes the whole book entirely useful - I found great examples of notes about performance and ornamentation that I would have missed if I had skipped straight to the specific song I was focusing on.

Take time with your sources, they have a lot to offer!

3. When studying texts in a foreign language, the librarian is your best friend

During my trip I had extensive time set aside at two libraries where I was reading in a foreign language. This was at the Paris Bibliotèque Nationale and the Irish Traditional Music Archive. In both of these cases I would have really struggled without the help of the librarians on site. I think with PhD research it is easy to feel embarrassed that you don’t know how to follow through on the research you are conducting. Never fear! Librarians are so lovely and they work at the library specifically to help you. On my first day at the Bibliotèque I spent the first day mainly with librarians, who kindly helped me sift through the various sources listed in the manuscript catalogue on my topic and work out what would be most useful for me to look at. At the Irish Traditional Music Archive the librarians helped me understand Gaelic pronunciation when references came up in both primary and secondary sources. They even pointed me to the best pubs for live Traditional Music that evening!

Librarians are one of the greatest human resources for you in early career research, don’t take them for granted!

The gorgeous Bibliotèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris.

The gorgeous Bibliotèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris.

A Shakespearean Festival Experience

Context: My Ongoing Robin Hood Obsession

I have become obsessed with the link between Shakespeare’s comedies and the tradition of Robin Hood storytelling, song and festival in early modern England. This began as a tangential exploration, sparked by the proliferation of Robin Hood tunes that a musicologist named Ross Duffin has identified as being connected to the songs in some of Shakespeare’s plays [1]. Since I began looking into this, I have been surprised to discover that several of Shakespeare’s plays are intimately connected to the rituals, celebrations and performative activities that together formed the major rural festivals in England in the sixteenth century.

The idea of Shakespeare’s theatre being connected to festival culture is by no means new; this topic is explored in detail in Cesar Lombardi Barber’s book, Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy [2]. Within this book, Barber identifies a number of different festivals that feature in the performance style of Shakespeare’s comedic work: the May Games and of course, Twelfth Night. Funnily enough, the character of Robin Hood turns up at all of these festivals in early modern England, either as a lord of the summer time bounty in the case of the May games, or to bless the future harvest in the case of Twelfth Night. This kind of Robin Hood is a little different to the version of the character we have come to know in our own popular culture. The Robin Hood of the May Games was celebratory, presiding over festivities on Whitsunday, which included archery, dancing, communal singing and amateur plays performed by local rural communities all over England and Scotland [3]. On Twelfth Night, Robin Hood became the Lord of Misrule, who presided over eating and drinking at the end of the winter holiday season. The point of all this in connection to Shakespeare is that it helps us to think of his work as much more communal than we often give it credit for in the 21st century.

Wassailing at Maplehurst: A Twenty-first Century Festival Experience

It's the way of a PhD sometimes, to take an obsession as far as it will go. For me this culminated in an actual festival experience a little south of London in Sussex, UK on Twelfth Night (6th of January) in early 2018. I found myself in a tiny village called Maplehurst, where the local pub, The White Horse, hosts a Wassailing festival every year.

 

What is Wassailing, you might ask? For centuries in England, rural communities have held Wassailing festivals to bless their local orchards on Twelfth Night for the coming spring harvest. This still happens in villages and towns around the country, and it is a great way to experience something of the England that Shakespeare knew. Here is how the night played out in Maplehurst:

1. Morris Dancing

After the whole village had finished a hearty meal in the White Horse Pub, the local Morris Dancing group, The Broadwood Men, signalled that the festive part of the night was beginning with music and dancing in rows out the front of the pub, performed by groups of all-male and all-female dancers. 

A group of all-female morris dancers perform a traditional dance, accompanied by a local band of fiddlers and recorder players.

A group of all-female morris dancers perform a traditional dance, accompanied by a local band of fiddlers and recorder players.

2. Into the Orchard and Drinking the Cider

After some time the dancing came to an end and the Broadwood Men led us down the main street of the village and into the orchard, where we enjoyed some raw local cider, fresh out of the barrel!

Two of the Broadwood Men enjoying the local cider, fresh from the barrell.

Two of the Broadwood Men enjoying the local cider, fresh from the barrell.

3. Reveal of the Bonfire

A spectacular moment of the night's festivities came next when we were led to a bonfire in the middle of the orchard. The way it was revealed to the crowd was a great moment of pure theatricality: a giant fire spitting and crackling in the strong winter wind. We all crowded around and shared the warmth.

Crowding around the bonfire.

Crowding around the bonfire.

4. Practice ritual on the first apple tree

After some minutes of stillness around the fire, the leader of the Broadwood men announced that we would now head off to bless the first apple tree. And so we gathered around the bare branches a relatively small apple tree at the start of an orchard row. The Broadwood leader took the initiative to walk right up to the tree and bash it with sticks. He told us that this was to scare away any spirits that might hinder the apples from growing in the spring. After he was satisfied, he proceeded to drench the tree with his cider bottle and invited people to come and place toast in the lower boughs of the tree. Then we sang a wassailing song. The leader assured us this tree was a 'practice run' and the main event was coming. Anticipation was high!

One of the Broadwood men rekindles his torch ready to head over to the apple trees.

One of the Broadwood men rekindles his torch ready to head over to the apple trees.

5. The Main Event: Enter the Green Man

The crowd was moved along to another tree in the centre of a row. It was much bigger than the first one and was introduced as a special tree for the night's festivities. But this time, something special, a man came up to the tree in a mask and was announced to be the Green Man, who performed the whole ritual again: banging the tree with a stick, pouring cider on the roots and inviting children to place toast in the boughs.

Enter the Green Man, the leader of the Wassailing ritual.

Enter the Green Man, the leader of the Wassailing ritual.

The Green Man is a name that was given to a Robin Hood figure in English festival in Shakespeare's England, and here he was in 21st century Maplehurst! As his ritual came to an end, the Green Man led us in a final round of the Wassailing song.

Lyrics by torchlight: singing the Wassailing song.

Lyrics by torchlight: singing the Wassailing song.

With that the festivities came to a close and we were invited to return to bonfire or head to the cider shed for another drink.

What a night! I will definitely be keeping a lookout for other traditional festivals going on around England when I am next here in the summer. If you would like to look up the Morris group who ran the Wassailing festival in Maplehurst, they are on Facebook: The Broadwood Men.

Everyone from the village around the bonfire in the orchard.

Everyone from the village around the bonfire in the orchard.

 

 

[1] See Ross Duffin, Shakespeare’s Songbook (New York: Norton, 2004).

[2] Cesar Lombardi Barber, Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy (Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1963).

[3] You can read about this in Stephen Knight, “Robin Hood: The Earliest Contexts
Separating Play-games and Ballads” in Lois Potter, Joshua Calhoun (eds.) Images of Robin Hood: Medieval to Modern (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2008), pp. 21-40.

 

A Graduate Student's Conference Survival Guide

If you have been a graduate student for any longer than a semester you probably know the drill when you hear the word 'conference'. Your supervisor has undoubtedly stressed to you the importance of sharing your work outside your immediate peers at your university. However, if you are inclined toward academia, conferencing may or may not be something you look forward to. Hours and days of listening attentively in the age of the smart phone and push emails is struggle enough to begin with. Then there is that terrifying moment where you present your own paper, and the following aftermath of (hopefully encouraging) questions from the audience. Don't forget the 'networking' that comes at coffee break (keyword being coffee). With all this being said, I think we can agree that conferences are, across the board, beneficial. And so working out how to optimise your time at a conference will put you in good stead for your early academic career.

I recently got back from a conference overseas - my ninth conference since starting out as a graduate student in honours research, then masters and now PhD. Since I began doing conferences in 2012, I have had some great experiences, and average times, so I thought I would share my conference survival guide, as it currently stands.

1. Presentation101: practice makes perfect

We all know that the accepted format of a conference presentation is to read your essay out loud to a room full of people. However, if you actually read a paper word-for-word without stopping once or making eye contact with people, you will lose half of your audience. This is why it is integral that you practice reading your paper out loud, at least four times. Highlight points where you may be able to stop and explain something on your presentation slides. Learn sections really well where you would like to connect more fully with your audience. This might sound obvious, but don't be surprised if your last-minute undergraduate self enters your head telling you to that it will be fine. It won't be. I can say this from experience as the last conference I presented at, I only practiced twice and consequently I missed half of my paper, from not being practiced enough to return to the correct point in my writing after some off-the-cuff moments.

Another element of practice you might not have thought about is your voice. Let's face it, academics are not often the most extroverted personalities and the act of presenting can feel especially daunting. At a conference you don't want to be that person who is freaking out because you have found out you are presenting to a small lecture hall without a microphone. Mind you, even with a microphone, the technique for presenting your voice is a niche skill that you need to learn as an academic if you want to thrive in the conference environment. My tip would be to get a few voice lessons from an acting or voice coach to guide you in projecting your voice well and becoming an engaging presenter.

Do whatever it takes to give you motivation to prepare adequately. For me, this involves sitting in a nice spot with my laptop and a good coffee.

Do whatever it takes to give you motivation to prepare adequately. For me, this involves sitting in a nice spot with my laptop and a good coffee.

2. 20 minutes = 2000 words

Related to my first point, don't be that person who goes ten minutes overtime with your conference paper, or you will be sure to lose at least half of your audience and minimise your question time. To avoid this, think of 2000 words as the magic word limit for the standard twenty minute conference presentation time. Especially if you like to explain your examples with short diversions from your written paper, this 2000 rule is essential.

If you don't want to divert at all from your written paper,  you might find that knowing you only have 2000 words will force you to speak slower, so that you don't run under time. This is a good thing as it is such an easy temptation to read quickly through your paper if you are feeling nervous. Speaking slowly is an essential part of good presentation and also good practice for lecturing - I almost always find that I have to fight the urge to read quickly, and the 2000 words rule has often saved me from this.

3. Networking: do your research

If you want to get the most out of your conference experience, prepare to network. Avoid being one of those people that ends up in a cliquey group of fellow graduate students for an entire conference. These events are, at the end of the day, primarily for networking so you really should prepare to engage in this way.

To help manage the stress of meeting so many new people, you can do some quick research on who else is presenting at the conference. First, look up the keynote speakers (you don't want to be that kid who doesn't recognise a keynote and ask them a bunch of useless questions on the first day and be embarrassed when you finally notice their name on the program!). Second, look up other the panels you are interested in and find out more about the people presenting on them. Finally (and especially) look up the people on your panel, if you don't know them already. These are probably people you will enjoy meeting and talking to throughout the conference.

4. Prioritise the conference dinner at all costs

If we can agree that the primary benefit of a conference is the networking and connections you make, then the conference dinner is a big part of thatand you should definitely be there. The conference dinner is often expensive, and I have met a lot of graduate students who unfortunately did not make it to the dinner for this reason and so missed one of the best opportunities at the conference.  The financial sacrifice of the conference dinner is understandably a burden for some graduate students. Just think, you usually apply to a conference at least six months in advance: if you budget $100 for a conference dinner and slowly put that money aside from the moment you apply, you will find it easier to manage. I can't stress enough how many great opportunities come out of these dinners. Conversations over this three course meal can lead to fellowships, teaching jobs, publishing opportunities and more. Make sure you can be there!

I recently had a conference dinner at Hobbiton in New Zealand. Yes, HOBBITON. I am an avid Tolkien fan so this was the best thing that ever happened to me. I think it will be hard to top this one, but do everything you can to be at conference dinners!

I recently had a conference dinner at Hobbiton in New Zealand. Yes, HOBBITON. I am an avid Tolkien fan so this was the best thing that ever happened to me. I think it will be hard to top this one, but do everything you can to be at conference dinners!

5. Prepare for the bounty

If you find yourself financially wounded by the exorbitant cost of the conference, do not despair. Part of this cost is to provide you with an endless bounty of food and coffee throughout the conference. If you plan it right, you can have enough food to last you day and night, and enough coffee to keep yourself awake through every single panel, even on the last day. Bring your keep cups and klean kanteen flasks to make sure you have enough coffee for that last paper in the next panel. And don't forget about the endless opportunities for small talk about the food, one of your best networking strategies as you prepare to sidle up to that academic you have been watching, starry-eyed for the first two days of the conference. Grab a plate and join them in the queue, you will become besties before you know it!

That's it for my musings, let me know in the comments if you have any other top conference tips!