In which life is not like a piano playing competition

This blog post is brought to you from a cold day in Devon, at the turning of the year. I hope it’s warmer wherever you are. I am flipping chilly. Perhaps the chilliness of my fingers is causing a certain chilliness of the soul, thus prompting me to get mad about stuff. Anyway, I present to you: my final rant of 2014. Happy New Year!

This post was prompted by an article in the Guardian shortly before Christmas, in which various representatives of professional bodies bemoaned a terbil falling-off in the number of sons and daughters of this ruined empire learning to play Mozart sonatas on the pianoforte. In particular, the chair of the British Federation of Narked Piano Teachers is apparently most put out that there are not enough children in the lanes and shires of this great land squaring up to a baby grand on the regs and being all like ‘C’mon, Wolfgang Amadeus, let’s be having you’. Those who are engaging in the Great British Arpeggio-off are all too often, she complained, doing so on electric keyboards, which will not do at all. Most significantly, she informed the Grauniad, parents are leaving it far too late to sit their darlings down at the pianner with a book of ‘My First Godawfully Difficult Arrangements of Nursery Rhymes’ and threats of naptime sanctions. Many children don’t start learning, she said, until they are seven or eight: far too late to compete with children from the Far East, where they play piano good and know how to do other stuff good too.

[pause so you and I can just headbutt furniture for a bit]

I wish, I really wish, discussions about education didn’t devolve so frequently into hair-rending over how we can’t compete with China! We can’t compete with China! We can’t compete with these generalising and racist ideas we have about Chinese kids where they’re never seen as individuals but as a terrible superhumanly-skilled threat to – what, exactly? To us ‘being the best’ at something that’s never really quite defined? Is this about the death of empire again? Is this about missing ‘being the best’ at subjugating and enslaving people at various corners of the globe? Because it sure as hell isn’t about playing the piano.

Going ‘we have to compete with China!’, slapping ourselves and them into an implied league table of Good Pianner Playing, is scaremongering; and it’s also missing the point entirely. Appealing to xenophobic competitiveness in this way is basically a way of manufacturing a motive: why learn piano? to beat the Chinese! to be the best, considered via the terms of value of international renown! There’s no acknowledgement that there might be value to this endeavour outside of this closed circle – playing piano is something you do in order to be a virtuoso, not for anything else.

I had a big rant about this with my dad’s partner, who’s an English educator who also plays the piano very well, having started when she was about eight upon managing to acquire a relative’s old piano. She plays the piano because she loves to play the piano. It is a thing that she does that makes her happy (and makes people around her happy, too). There are complicated things that go into and come out of any playing of the piano, and a hell of a lot of them have nothing whatsoever to do with virtuosity and its values. Is it necessary, always, to make things about being the best, about being a virtuoso?

This kind of guff is not confined to the ol’ Joanna. It can sometimes seem that, whatever sparks your interest, you really should have started it ages ago, you know. Here’s a partial list of topics I’ve encountered people saying this sort of thing about:

  • Various musical instruments.
  • Foreign/dead languages.
  • Dance.
  • Football.
  • Skiing.
  • Horse riding.
  • Cycling.
  • Coding.

I’m not saying that the people who tried to teach me these things said this – by and large they didn’t in the slightest – or that my lack of skill in them is not, at base, due to my own abilities and interests and laziness. But ‘get ’em when they’re young’ is so engrained into the discourse surrounding these sorts of things that it can be very offputting; it can feel that you’re already starting on the back foot. Should have started earlier. I’ll never speak French like a native now. That chance is long gone, like my youth.

Did we learn nothing from Beverley Knight? Shoulda woulda coulda are the last words of a fool!

If we treat education – in anything, from geometry to gardening – as something that only has a very narrow range of valid outputs, we have a problem. Some people take up gardening, and love it, and are competitive about it, and compete in the Chelsea Flower Show, and that’s brilliant. Some people take up gardening, and love it, and tend wonderful gardens that bring them joy. Some people start community gardens. Some people breed new kinds of roses. Some people become botanists. Some people write books about gardening, or contribute to helpful gardening communities online, and some people go to National Trust gardens and look at the borders and dream. All of these things are valid and wonderful and infinitely changeable and combinable, and damn anyone who goes ‘You really should have taken a proper horticulture course after your GCSEs, you know. It’s too late to do anything about that now’.

I’m reminded of turning up at university as an undergrad and thinking ‘Yeah! I’ll do some extracurricular activities!’ and finding – it felt, at least – like everything was about achievement: you played sports to get Blues, you directed plays to get a start in the theatre world, you wrote for the student papers because you were damn well going to be an award-winning journalist. The outcomes weren’t, of course, as singular as that, and I don’t want to be disrespectful to the people for whom that was the case – they are hugely talented and driven and awesome, and well done to them. But it felt – to my unseasoned, imposter-syndromey eyes at least – like there was little room for trying things out, for doing them for fun and curiosity.

And that brings me (cough. ahem) to 2014, and the profession I’m currently engaged in. I love academia. I quite possibly love it more right now than I ever have done: I’m working with ace, inspiring people, on things that are 100% up my intellectual street (I keep pausing in my proofreading to go ‘ahhhhh this is so cool! Listen to this!’ to my long-suffering officemates. That’s how much I like it). But dang me if there isn’t a lot of shoulda woulda coulda in academia, and dang me if that hasn’t been a trouble for me this year. 2014 has had, er, its challenges (please imagine me dancing through the Land of Euphemism in shoes made of Decorous Lies, there). What didn’t help – what never helps – is the feeling of belatedness that professions that rely on self-direction tend to foster. I’ve felt, at times, like I slipped, and like all the shoulda woulda couldas, all the stuff I should have done last week or last month or while I was in the womb, stampeded over me like the herd of wildebeest over Mufasa in The Lion King. Sorry for reminding you of that traumatic moment at such a festive time of the year.

For example: I bought a book about ‘surviving your viva’ shortly before, er, my PhD viva. The argument of the book was basically that one should start preparing for the viva before one even starts one’s PhD (I am not even kidding here). One of the first points informed me that if I was reading this a week before my viva date, that was too late.

I mean, when the hell else would you start reading a book about vivas? It’s not exactly a fun read. ‘Ooh, when you’ve finished Game of Thrones, you must start reading That Dumb Viva Book! It’s so thrilling, I couldn’t put it down!’

The author of said viva book is pretty savvy, though. They know their market. Academia is a goddamn guilt industry. Ask any academic of your acquaintance how work is going, and count the number of things they say that have to do and that they feel bad about not having done yet. This isn’t just the province of PhD students and early career researchers, reading THE articles about whether or not we’ve done enough publishing/teaching/black magic to succeed in today’s competitive job market: it’s the lecturers and the professors and the professors emeritus, juggling teaching and supervision and admin and writing books and editing collections and organising conferences and sitting on the university development committee and lord knows what else. ‘I should have done this review. I should have typed up these minutes. I should have read this thesis I’m examining already, oh god I don’t want to rush it’.

Having a lot to do is, um, common to pretty much every job. And so is stressing over it. But it does frustrate me how at times the discourse around academia, and especially early academia, is so fixated on belatedness, and so fixed on a particular end result. The perfect academic always eludes us, no matter how much we chase it: I’m not sure I can ever be all the things that the THE tells me I need to be. And, frankly, you can exhaust yourself trying to do this – not just publishing lots or whatever (this is a pretty good thing, tbh) but self-censoring, never talking about problems, because you’re afraid of being seen as less than the perfect academic automaton. The pressure to do that is great; it’s a cultural pressure rather than one coming from specific people and places, but it’s there.

I quite desperately want to believe that this isn’t the only way to do academia. Firstly, that there’s other avenues for people with scholarly experience outside the academy – they are most certainly there, and I know wonderful people who are engaged in them, and it frustrates me how little lip-service is paid to them while people are doing PhDs and MAs. Secondly, and more personally to me right now, I desperately want to believe that I can be an imperfect scholar, my imperfect self, and can make jokes and talk about my problems, and learn enough French to use it in my work and in my life even though I came to it late. And pick myself up even when I trip.

That’s my new years’ resolution, I think. More Beverley Knight, less stressing over whether I should have done things earlier, or more quickly, or entirely differently, in the past.

(I have nothing much more to add to this, and can’t think of any pictures to draw, so here is some meme-ing that was inspired by my current work and illustrates my highly professional attitude to everything)

John Doge

John Doge

Actual thesis advice: Make a BDP (Big Damn Plan)

A post with actual advice about actual PhD writing! I think this may be the first time I have offered proper advice. Don’t get used to it. Below (um, quite a lot below. There is… preamble) is pretty much the best tip I have…

Well, as previously noted, my whole ‘getting back into blogging after handing in the thesis’ resolution went the way of all things aka it quietly decayed before its time like trees broken by a storm or something I’m sorry I’ve been teaching about Milton today sometimes this happens. 

I handed in my thesis a few months ago and since then have been in the odd no-man’s-land between submission and examination. It’s a bit like the time between Christmas and New Year, except that you don’t get to spend it watching Elf and working your way through a selection box. (Well, I did spend some of it watching Elf and working my way through a selection box. My father wraps up Cadbury selection boxes ‘from Santa’ for my sister and me every Christmas, despite that fact that at time of writing we are, respectively, 26 and 29 years old, because he is an adorable human being. When I was a child I was unnecessarily Charlie Bucketesque about it and kept my store of chocolate going till Easter, but now I am a ravening hellbeast who ate it all in a few days, and then bought another Wispa because I had forgotten how nice Wispas are).

Maybe it’s best to reflect on the PhD experienced straight after submission, when it’s all still fresh. Um, Kirsty, you appear to be… just blinking a lot. And saying ‘Ohgodohgodohgod I bet it’s full of mistakes ohgod’. Right. Maybe give it a couple of days… Oh. You’re in a pub. You’re in all the pubs. That’s the sort of dedication a PhD demands, I guess. Perhaps in a few weeks, then, when it’s all sunk in and you’ve had time to – hang on, where has the time gone? That’s months, just – you’ve been teaching? That’s not much of an excuse – well, fine, OK. So it’s been months, Kirsty, and by now you must have some clear opinions on how to do a PhD.


Not a sausage.

Not a chipolata. Or not much of one, anyway.

I'm not sure those sausages are a foodstuff so much as the physical expression of transport ennui

My thesis is a big blue book, a copy of which sits on a shelf downstairs. How I feel towards that big blue book is sort of indicative of how I feel about the whole damn ridiculous-and-occasionally-awesome circus of making it: it’s simultaneously unworkably giant (it is a very big blue book. Suitable for pressing flowers or dropping on the heads of invading armies) and weirdly small (I spent four years on this! It should be more impressive somehow, surely).

This is all by way of being ridiculously lengthy preamble to a fairly practical thing. One day in the indeterminate future I might write a halfway-serious post about the stupid stress of finishing a thesis, or indeed the precipitous emotional tumble that I – and I think quite a few people, though by no means everyone – found was waiting for me afterwards, like a treacherous kink in a slushy halfpipe (I have been watching the Winter Olympics. I have a deep and abiding weakness for any sporting championship that involves lots of different events I know basically nothing about. I have never been skiing, did one unsuccessful snowboarding lesson on a dry ski slope as a teenager, and the closest I’ve ever been to the sparkly gorgeousness of figure skating is probably going to the ice rink next to the Toys R Us in Plymouth while wearing jeans I’d customised with multicoloured sequins, at some point in the late 90’s, when people did that kind of thing to jeans. Anyway, how about that halfpipe?).

That poor innocent denim, what did it ever do to anyone

That says ‘shoes’, not ‘shots’. I was sadly never in the habit of concealing shots of alcohol in the hems of my voluminous jeans.

Frankly, though, that’s not a thing I’m up for right now, because hells no. But I did have a realisation the other day, while talking to a student about the pitfalls of keeping track of an argument: I made a plot of my thesis towards the end of it and it was basically the best thing I did.

The context was this: I got a new supervisor (long story, but for entirely-good-no-drama-brilliant-for-my-thesis reasons), and he asked me to explain the argument of my thesis. My explanation was… not good. I made about as much sense as some of the judge’s decisions in the women’s halfpipe final I mean seriously I know it wasn’t an entirely clean run but the tricks were amazing I SHOULD REITERATE I ACTUALLY HAVE NO KNOWLEDGE OF SNOWBOARDING WHATSOEVER

Well, what we had here was a failure to communicate. I’m traditionally better at communicating when I write stuff down, so I decided to make a big plan of the whole thing. I entitled it ‘Thesis chapter breakdown’, which coincidentally is also an emotional phenomenon that turned up a few times towards the end of my writeup – a phenomenon that, I found, my Big Damn Plan was really helpful for avoiding. Or limiting, at least. The day or so I spent carefully breaking down the arguments of my chapters was pretty much the most useful time I spent during the whole four years, and then once I had the plan it I felt less like I was floundering around in a big mess of words and more like I was making a formed thing. I mean, obviously I beat myself up because I spent a day not writing in actual chapters, but I am an idiot.

In fact, I wish I had made one of these much earlier on and adapted it as my project changed. Most of of the PhD advice I’ve ever given has started with ‘Hah, don’t do this thing I did…’ but I wholeheartedly endorse the making of a Big Damn Thesis Plan.

EDITED TO ADD: discussing this on Twitter has reminded me of something I should really acknowledge at this point – that this big picture stuff is really difficult. Both practically – theses are long – and psychologically. By the point I came to make my Big Damn Plan my thesis felt like a big smog of words I couldn’t see my way out of. I sat in the Rare Books Room at the BL and forced myself to write the plan whilst basically flipping out, like I had intellectual vertigo – this is why it took a whole day – and then felt so much better once it was written down. There’s the tough bit of my advice, I guess: breaking down your argument, especially when dealing with stuff you’ve already written, can be really difficult but is absolutely worth it. I can’t overstate how useful this was to me, both in terms of actually practically working out what to write, rework, and cut, and in terms of making me feel more in control of my material.

This is what the plan looks like (adapted, obviously. I have removed my own thesis plan from it, but inserted the plan for one chapter of my mooted next project, a rumination on how I have spent much time watching winter sports recently). Click on it to enlarge, because this WordPress theme makes pictures a bit small:

I can rationalise my love of the Summer Olympics because I used to do athletics but winter sports are like another universe to me so I am going to blame this on free-floating procrastination

Two other projected chapters are ‘”Look at those mountains!”: Why watching cross-country skiing makes me want to do it myself, and why that would probably be a bad idea’, and ‘”So it’s like normal luge, but they lie on top of each other?”: Doubles luge and why it looks kinda weird’

I’ve also attached it to this post as a .doc file (it’s an A3 file, incidentally):

Thesis chapter breakdown example

Download it! Use it! Adapt it! Add more chapters if you are doing more (I wrote very long chapters). Don’t write the chapter planned in this example because it does not advance scholarship in any way I can think of!

Hopefully it’s fairly self-explanatory, except maybe for the bold/not-bold text in the final column – the bold is the basic scope, and the not-bold the actual pithy bit of the argument I want people to remember.

So essentially that was my big thesis-writing discovery – and I wish I’d started planning/keeping track of writing like this sooner (while writing undergraduate essays, frankly). I hope it helps some people – and I’d love to hear any tips about this sort of thing! Obviously this is a pretty arts and humanities focused model, so any advice as to how I might make this more useful for people in other fields would be much appreciated, too.

Writing your thesis the Sam Vimes way

So I keep belatedly trying to write a blogpost about finishing my thesis, because I sort of feel I should. And, um, there’s one getting there. Not sure it’ll contain much advice about how to do one of the damn things, to be honest – erm, don’t do quite a lot of the things I did? – but meanwhile, I have been rereading the Watch books, and I reckon you could do a lot worse in a lot of areas of human endeavour than follow the example of Mister Vimes.

(Discworld spoilers ahead, which is why it is under a cut from the AtB homepage. I mean, you should prolly go read these books if you haven’t already. Thank me later.)

(this may be the geekiest thing I’ve done since attending the Doctor Who Prom)

(which was ace)

Continue reading

Have you ever thrown your draft introduction in the air and gone ‘aargh’?

I am currently doing that thing where I stare at my half-written thesis introduction and flip out a bit at the fact that I have to make an introduction exist.

So I drew this to make myself feel more positive about the whole thing.

You can have frontispieces to theses, right?

I love the smell of footnotes in the morning.


This autumn’s big release: me, from servitude to my thesis. I AM GOING TO RUN FREE LIKE ELSA THE FREAKING LION CUB.

The toxic thesis

Hey! You know how I said I was enjoying my PhD?

Well, now I have to finish really flipping soon, my thesis looks like I’ve taken a hedge strimmer to it, and literally all I feel competent to do is drink whisky and watch Horrible Histories until my eyes fall out the back of my head.

Making the academic world a more cheerful place, since never

In the middle of last term I went to north London, as I used to do twice a week for work. It was a sunny day. I bought an espresso from the man at the kiosk outside Highgate station, who is a contender for the nicest man in London, and carried the little pot up the steep path to the Muswell Hill Road and into the woods on the other side. I sat on a bench and drank it, cooling, leaning forward with my elbows on my knees. The traffic on the road behind me hummed in my ears and in front of me the trees were, as usual, startlingly beautiful.

Sometimes I meet friendly dogs there and everything is nicer

This is of course a picture of Muswell Hill in winter, but LOOK AT IT. LOOK AT THE PRETTY TREES.

I’m dwelling on it because I did dwell on it. I have been spending too long staring into computer screens lately, and although one can find much beauty in computers I would not put my thesis among the beautiful pixels of the world. I would currently put my thesis, quite merrily, into a shredder, or entomb it in concrete or set it afloat in a flaming rowing boat like a dead Viking. That’s an exaggeration, obviously. What I’d really like to do is to finish it so it isn’t my problem any more. I sat on a bench in Highgate Woods in the approximate position of someone waiting in a doctor’s waiting room, or a police station, and wondered to myself in a whining childish fashion why staring at nature, stinkingly homesick for a bit of the world with fewer buildings in it, is something I do for the occasional five minutes, whereas the yawning maw of the thesis sits there, on my screen and in my brain, stubborn and unshiftable. I felt stupid, and privileged and selfish, for wondering it, and I feel stupid and privileged and selfish for writing it down.

So, yes. I’m feeling mildly rubbish about work, and I’m being all emo about it. I have painted my room black, and stencilled quotations from The Anatomy of Melancholy in a fetching border. I imagine that this is just how it goes if you’re not one of those smart folk who do their PhDs sensibly and quickly. You get to fourth year, you have serious chats with your supervisors, you get into comfort eating in a big way, and you embrace being fucking miserable every now and then until the damn thing’s finished. It’s not a big deal, it has a time span, and worse things happen at sea.

It’s a first world problem, right enough, and I’ve said ‘I know, I’m very fortunate to have this opportunity’ so many times I’m considering getting a forehead tattoo. On some levels it’s helpful to remember that, because perspective is important. I’m not saving the world. I’m probably making it slightly worse, through my consumption of paper and electricity.

On another level, though, this consciousness, and the self-censorship I find myself doing, in my thoughts and in what I say to people – thinking, I can’t think that, I can’t say that, I can’t be ungrateful – becomes another stick to beat myself with. Lord knows, I believe in self-censorship. I find myself wanting to explain, though: I’m grateful, and I’m fortunate, and I had one thing I had to do, and when I stare at my chapter at three in the morning I worry that I’m screwing that one thing up. I took money from the government! I took funding someone else could have had! I’m everything that’s wrong with academia!


This is literally the opposite of what the government actually does to higher education.

I shouldn’t let my work make me feel like this because, really, what is it? A hundred thousand words. The flipside of that’s the thing that kicks you, though. A hundred thousand words is all I have to do, so why can’t I do it, and why is it making me feel like this? The fact that no-one will even actually read it is just the icing on the paradoxical turd cake, frankly. And yes, I just wrote ‘paradoxical turd cake’, and I am actually fine with that.

What we have here, I think, is a toxic thesis.

Academia’s a good petri-dish for toxicity because the model, once you’ve finished master’s study, is in large part self-rewarding. By which I mean, you write some stuff, and if you’re pleased enough with yourself you maybe have a coffee break. Supervisors focus on the things you need to change and improve, because that’s their job, and they ain’t there to hand out gold stars for effort. Also you’re an adult and a scholar, and at least five years too old to reasonably expect to get rewarded for good work with a smiley face sticker and ten points for Gryffindor.

The thing is, though – surely that is only sustainable if you’re a certain type of person? By which I mean, confident in your own abilities, able to judge your own work, secure both that your project is worth it and that you’re the person for the job. Basically, the James Bond of academia. If I’ve just described you, hi there, I’m hideously envious. I’m down the other end of the bar getting ratted on martinis made any way the bartender likes.

I’m exaggerating. No-one like that exists. But it is so easy to lose confidence in what you do and what you know. At the very start of my PhD I remember someone saying ‘By the end of your thesis, you’ll be the expert on your topic!’. It’s an old saw, I think, and I’ve heard it many times since. I would like to find the person who first said it and explain in precise anatomical detail exactly where they can shove that statement. I feel like I know nothing. Like I’ve taken out significant parts of my brain and just replaced them with polystyrene.

The problem is that academic research involves an awful lot of trying to get to grips with loads of people’s lives’ work and primary texts and data and whathaveyou in short spaces of time, and what this tends to make you realise is the depth and breadth of what you don’t know. Most of the time I feel like I’m floundering, and like I don’t know anything about this stuff I have the audacity to be writing a thesis on. The very thought of the viva is enough to make me email the French Foreign Legion to ask if they accept shortsighted people.

There's a postgrad waiting in the sky, she's got to write her thesis but it only makes her cry

A toxic thesis is like a toxic workplace. Being in a toxic workplace erodes your confidence both within that space and outside it. You lose confidence in your work, your ability to express yourself, your relationships. A toxic thesis destroys your confidence in intellectual endeavour, and – for me at least – in creativity, too. I was always fairly confident in my writing ability; at times I trusted a bit too much in its capacity to carry me through areas I knew sod-all about. Now I feel like I’m lining up my words like alphabet blocks. I can’t even spell any more, thanks to too much early modern transcription. I hadn’t valued my good spelling since about 1996 but it still stings a bit to realise I’ve actually lost a skill.

Meanwhile, the aforesaid floundering can contribute to a general sense of floundering in other things too. Or, indeed, to actual floundering. Keeping up with the stuff you need to keep up with seems to fall by the wayside when a thesis turns toxic. Emails, texts, tidying one’s room like a reasonable human being… The ordinary game of Responsibility Whack-A-Mole that most adults are engaged in playing, where every time you hit down a chore or an achievement three others pop up, is a pain at the best of times but thesis toxicity does not help. I have absolutely no idea how people do this and real real life stuff, like raising a family, or buying a house, or having another job… you guys are bona fide bloody heroes. I can’t even iron my clothes.

Feeling like you’re underachieving in one area of your life is a pretty neat way to get you thinking about how you’re underachieving in the other ones too. Before you know it you’ve replaced self-esteem with ‘My hair looks shit and this is a major life failing. I’m 28! I was supposed to have good hair all figured out by now’. And it’s all very well at the start of a PhD when people are all ‘Er, you’re not in a relationship? Would you like me to set you up with someone?’ or ‘Doesn’t it bother you that you’ll always be poor?’ (actually said to me on a date, incidentally. There was not a second date) and you reply with ‘Look, I’m living the life of the mind, OK?’, but it all looks very different from the other end when all the real-life stuff has, if anything, gone backwards, there are no flipping jobs, and your thesis is beginning to resemble Daisy’s performance art in Spaced. A toxic thesis, in other words, makes arguing that it was all worth it much, much harder. At worst, it feels like ‘I wasted four years, I royally pissed off a number of people I like by being a bit rubbish, and all I want to do with this damn thesis is make a piñata out of it so I can hit it with sticks’ (an idea I saw on Twitter, and I can’t remember who said it, and I’m sorry not to cite properly because it’s brilliant).

There's either a massive amount of sweets in there, or a bunch of Greek soldiers.

It’s probably a good thing they took away the free printing at university

Alright. I’m putting a stop to the self-pity (well, writing about the self-pity, at least). So what in the hell can one do about this?

Short answer: I don’t know. I would not be writing this blog post if I knew.

Long answer: I used to run competitively. I was not fabulous at it, but I wasn’t embarrassing either. I was the kid who made up the team, for the most part: third leg in the 4x100m, bottom of the cross-country roster. Occasionally I would pull a better-than-normal performance out of the hat. Usually this would result in me coming fourth in a race. The gentleman’s third, I feel.

Anyway, there’s a point in every race when everything feels like absolute shite. I guess it’s what marathon runners call ‘the wall’, perhaps – but believe me it shows its horrible face at all distances. Everything feels like shite, and you think you can’t possibly finish the race, and all the light is sucked out of the universe, et cetera. At which point you have two choices.

  1. You can stop.
  2. You can speed up.



Don'tcha wish your girlfriend was hot like Lee

When monographs attack

Quick note: I spent ages trying to think of an appropriate title, and I couldn’t, so I defaulted to a tried-and-tested formula. Apparently I’m not allowed to use said formula for the title of my thesis, which I feel is unfair.

I’m an idiot, perhaps this is why I can’t read books

Let us imagine a book. The book deals with some very interesting texts and makes some fascinating points about them. The author displays impressive depth of knowledge and their research is very thorough. This book is, I’ll be honest, a real book, and I’m getting the nice stuff out of the way so I can devote the rest of this blog post to why I hated it.

I do feel bad about this. I’m not going to name the author, publisher, topic, etc. And like I say, there were some damn good things in it. But what frustrated me, what led me to scrawl angry pencil all-caps notes on my notepad (being temporarily computerless in the library due to an unfortunate but comical tripping-over-while-carrying-my-laptop incident) was the fact that said good stuff was buried under a mountain of bloody obfuscation.

The writing was not good. Lord knows, this is not a crime, and I’m not prepared to start throwing stones in the direction of another person’s academic style without good reason. What annoyed me about it was not its occasional clunkiness – man, at times my writing is so clunky it reads like travelling on the Hammersmith and City line on a Saturday – but the ways in which it seemed purposefully difficult. The style was very self-consciously ‘academic’. Rhetorical terms and philosophical concepts were not always explained. Sentences were long and loopy. Most notably, the writer quoted extensively in multiple languages. As well as long quotations, there were a flurry of short embedded ones in the body of the text. No translations were offered. 

I’m used to early modern authors doing this, but this was published a few years ago. Mate, this ain’t the Republic of Letters, and you’re not Erasmus. I am glad you are comfortable and confident operating in multiple languages. I am impressed, and I wish I was as good as you clearly are. Such evident skill must be a boon to you as a scholar. But if the point of your book is to communicate your ideas, rather than simply to demonstrate your abilities, I don’t think your ‘no translations’ policy helps.

I know, I am a terrible colonialist eejit and showing my privilege, etc. But look, the book was in English. If it was in French or Urdu this objection would still apply. It seems like basic good practice to me: if you quote something in a language other than the one your work is in, offer a translation of that text into the language your book is in. If your book is in Swedish, translate it into Swedish. If your book is in English, translate it into English. Include the original as well, so people who have the skills to read it can do so (and, y’know, judge you). By writing in English you send out a message that this book can be read by people who can read English. If you have objections to Anglophone cultural hegemony (which would be perfectly reasonable), write in a language of your choice. This particular book was about English texts, so it made sense for it to be in English.

It would be great if all of us who embark on studies of early modern texts could fluently and confidently read, and communicate in, the varied array of languages that our subjects do. I think it’s absolutely key to think of early modern texts in terms of international, multilingual contexts, where texts and ideas and people are all moving and changing and being translated… And I am well aware that native English-speakers, especially those from Britain, are proverbially rubbish at operating in other languages. Not all of us, that is – hello fellow native English-speakers, many of you are brilliant at other languages – but there’s a stereotype that we’re bad at this, and that stereotype’s not entirely untrue. Full disclosure: I find languages difficult, and I get hideously embarrassed by my own failings in them. I mean, when you meet people from other countries, and they speak English, and then they apologise for not knowing a word or something… gawd. I want to drop to my knees and cry ‘Please forgive me, I can’t even order a beer in your language without making an almighty tit of myself.’


Such failings are often blamed on our frankly risible approach to language teaching in this country, of which my school career could be seen as an undistinguished example. I didn’t study French at secondary school because my school took the practical approach of dividing the year in two when we arrived and teaching half of the kids French, half German. Hence why I can yammer ungrammatically in German to reasonable effect but get nervous when I have to order a sandwich in French. Really nervous. Especially in Paris, where they look at me with deep-seated loathing and then fill my baguette with tuna regardless of what I thought I ordered. This is not a euphemism.

I certainly didn’t study Latin or Greek. I don’t want to get particularly class-war about this but just to note that if you learn something as a child that makes you more likely to be confident approaching it as an adult. I’m not going ‘oh woe is me my school didn’t offer classical languages’ because 1. I know it’s heresy but I reckon learning how to decline Latin verbs is probably of limited use to most people, and 2. Given how we reacted to quadratic equations I have a really vivid idea of how well my classmates and I would have taken to ‘Quintus est in horto’. But just to say that, when I studied Latin during my Master’s, those who had studied it at school were leaps and bounds ahead of those of us who hadn’t.

This isn’t unfair – they had worked hard and deserved the skills they had. The onus was on us to improve, as it should be. I don’t want to blame my rubbishness at languages on my perfectly good secondary school, because I believe I have more responsibility for my education than that. As an adult I’ve worked to get better, especially at things I need for work. In practice, this means that I’m far better at reading other languages than speaking them (fairly standard, I think) and I use a dictionary and grammar a lot when I read. I’m not arguing – at least, I hope I’m not arguing – that I don’t think people should write in a particular way because it’s inconvenient to me and people should dance to my monolingual, Anglophone tune.

My point is that it is quite likely that someone picking up a work of history may well not have had the same education that its writer had. Just as my excellent Latin teachers made their teaching accessible to us Latin dunces as well as challenging the star pupils, the writer may need to include supportive apparatus to open up their work to those who have a different knowledge base to themselves.

Is that possible? Of course it’s not always possible. When you’re deeply into a topic it’s easy to forget that others may not know and may not even care what the Schmalkaldic League was and thus that just dropping in unglossed references to it is not a particularly nice thing to do to, e.g., your flatmate who has agreed to read your chapter. You need to balance explaining what needs to be explained without patronising or irritating your readers. But you’ve gotta think about the readers, right?

The problem is that when you publish something, you’re addressing unknown numbers of readers with unknown sets of skills. It is not out of the realms of possibility that someone who cannot read a particular language might pick up this book. Especially as it purports to be on English texts. And it is not out of the realm of possibility that that person might not care enough about what the writer might be saying to work out their own translations. And I would argue that that’s not some terrible failing on the part of the reader. They probably have other stuff to do. They may not have all the skills and prior knowledge that the writer has, but they probably have some the writer doesn’t. The writer should have just added the translations they are clearly capable of doing.

Quality image editing there

Quality image editing there

I’ve chosen the translation issue because I think it’s the most visible symptom of a general sense I got from this book – that it was aimed at people with a particular range of skills and prior knowledge, and not at anyone else, and that it didn’t need to be like this because argh why. Very basic changes – including translations, explaining terminology – could have made it far more accessible. The ideas contained within it are powerful ones, and the texts discussed deserve to be better known than they currently are. This book was not the best means of communicating either, in my view. More than that: whether the writer meant to or not, they very clearly included some readers in their intended readership, and excluded others. Opening a book and finding that one cannot even read the main body of the text, let alone the longer quotations, without knowledge you don’t have or at least several dictionaries sends a clear message: that this book and this topic is not for you. I’m not saying that academic work should be ‘dumbed down’ to appeal to some cackhanded notion of a lowest common denominator, but that writing clearly and accessibly should be part of what we, as academics, do. I read the book. But I’m a stubborn 4th-year PhD student fairly sure of what I know, with some knowledge of the languages quoted and a long history of reading overcomplex prose. I would not have reacted the same way if I’d opened that book during my MA.

Gonna put this on the first page of my thesis.

Gonna put this on the first page of my thesis.

I griped about all this to a friend of mine who said, rather reasonably, that it was the publisher’s responsibility to make sure edits were made. I don’t, in honesty, think the publisher was particularly proactive. There were a LOT of typos. There were some funny formatting issues. In short, it didn’t appear that much editing had been done.

I know that publishing monographs is the thing you’re expected to do in order to have an academic career. But the idealist in me persists in believing that, as well as getting on that ol’ professional ladder and contributing to the REF and all that malarkey, you do this because you want to communicate ideas. Isn’t that what we do? Isn’t writing a communicative exercise? Do we value the demonstration of cleverness, or do we value what that cleverness lets us communicate? And when we communicate, do we just want to be talking to ourselves  and to people with similar skills and educational backgrounds to ourselves – or to people who know different things and bring different prior knowledge and understanding to their reading? In other words, are we gatekeeping our own little ivory towers, patrolling the boundaries of our own academic discourse and engagement, or are we opening the gates wide and whacking down the drawbridge and going ‘Hey! Come on in! We’ve slain that dragon you were worried about and we’re going to have a feast! You’re all invited’? It is possible I have run far too far with that metaphor.

My point is, though, that we have a choice, both in our own writing and how we approach others. I’ve fallen into the trap before of being intimidated by ‘difficult’ writing and the display of skills I’m less than confident in, when in actual fact many of the most accomplished people I know are fantastic at communicating complex ideas clearly and accessibly. It is not that hard to communicate things without being scary or patronising. It isn’t necessary, if you know something or can do something, to implicitly punish your readers for not knowing it or not being as good at it as you. Just help ’em out. Open things up. Your reader might be so fascinated by what you have to say, and/or by the texts you’re quoting, that they might go away and have a go at them themselves (I’ve done this more times than I can count). But you need to get them interested in the first place, not scare them off.

At the heart of this is the main issue you face as soon as you step beyond the boundaries of the familiar, whether into another discipline, or another vernacular, or simply into more detailed exploration of issues you haven’t investigated before. Basically, there are many things to know and a lot of skills to gain, and you will probably not be able to gain them all. My PhD bibliography is crammed with books that represent years of people’s lives – skilled, brilliant people. The notion that I could possible ‘master’ all the topics they work on is insane – Casaubon-from-Middlemarch-insane – and monumentally arrogant. The work of other scholars has opened up history and literature for me and made it possible for me to work on my little corner, and for me to be able to relate my little corner to bigger things. I’m madly grateful for the books in my bibliography (not to mention the people who have taught me, because that’s a whole other hugely long post) because everything I do, I’m able to do because people with levels of skill and knowledge that I don’t have have used those skills and communicated that knowledge in ways I can access.

Mainly because he is eminently attractive. I mean, c'mon.

Mainly because he is eminently attractive. I mean, c’mon.

In order for scholarly progress to be made we need to bring our various skills to the table and share them and use them, but in a way that aids our peers rather than scares them off. Scholarly progress – especially now that we’re all interdisciplinary – requires co-operation, and it also requires awareness that very few people can hold in their heads all the skills and knowledge they need to do such work to the level that they need them. You do better interdisciplinary and international work if you don’t try to do it all yourself but share your knowledge and expertise with others and encourage them to share in return. Academia does not consist of people with identical sets of skills – and academic writing should reflect that.