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)

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Things that distract me when thinking about Shakespeare’s Roman plays, a partial list

1. Bro Julius Caesar from Horrible Histories:

2. Asterix, because obviously I spent most of my childhood reading Asterix cartoons http://www.asterix.com/the-a-to-z-of-asterix/characters/julius-caesar.html

3. This. Oh lawks, the memories:

4. Coriolanus jokes.  I’ll Corio-YOUR… sorry sorry sorry


They play the triumph bit in undergrad Shakespeare lectures and it is DISTRACTING

6. Anything Eddie Izzard has ever said about Romans/Latin:

A can of dog food for small yapper-type dogs (aka the reason I cannot think of Caesar without saying ‘I am played by JAMES MASON’ in my head)

On the audio recording of Definite Article I had on my ipod he described the Cesar dog as a ‘small dog with bushy face’. Once I was listening to it on a train and just when it got to that line I felt something brush my leg. I looked down and a small dog with a bushy face looked up at me. It had slipped its lead and gone for a walk down the train under the seats. Obviously the first thought I had was EDDIE IZZARD IS MAGIC. (Eddie Izzard IS magic. Of course).

7. Cartoons, as usual:

JC 'Danger knows full well / That Caesar is more dangerous than he.' HIGHWAY TO THE CAESAR ZONE

JC (well, his cultural presence in late C16th England) was described as ‘the ultimate Roman’ in one of our undergrad Shakespeare lectures. Related: I can’t draw arms.

Crap you can just imagine their OKCupid profiles can't you

‘Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look. / And I bet he doesn’t even lift.’

'I dunno, I'm just here to wear out these shoes'

Oh yes, jokes about Pompey’s ‘triumphs’ could be no.8 on this list

Finally: one of my students alerted me to this today. I had forgotten it, as it’s shamefully long since I saw Mean Girls. It is, of course, glorious.

Richard III comics

So obviously I meant my first blog post after submitting my thesis to be a) posted sooner than nearly two months after handing the damn thing in, and b) a lucid, pithy response to that whole thesis thing. This post is not that. There are plans afoot, though I am not sure of their pithiness or lucidity, but I haven’t managed to do any illustrations for them yet, and in defiance of all reasonable post-thesis expectations I appear to be in something of a work crisis right now.

So in lieu of such a thing, please accept several bad phone photos of dumb cartoons about Richard III. The Shakespeare version, not the actual version, in case any medievalists get mad (never make a medievalist angry. You won’t like them when they’re angry).

Sorry the first picture is well blurry. My phone doesn’t seem to like blue biro. My kingdom for a new scanner (just as soon as I have spent all the money I don’t have on attempting to fix my crappy computer) et cetera.

Nobody went to Richard's party and now look what happened

Don’t blame it on the sunshine, don’t blame it on the moonlight, don’t blame it on the good times, blame it on the guy with a G in his name

The disappearance of those princes has left you in a TOWERING rage amiright

This could be any of the women in the play, to be honest. Take yer pick.

richard haterz

I flipping love Richard III. I love how Richard keeps turning to the audience and going ‘Heh! Aren’t I awful!’ You ARE bad, Richard. You’re the WORST. Let’s have an evil disco.

See also the Richard III episode of We Are History, aka one of the greatest historical documentaries ever made.

Also, for balance: a lovely song.

* * * *

And, in memoriam… (sobs uncontrollably) (notes that he is wearing an overcoat in that picture, and THAT is why you can’t see his brooch with the flowers in it, in order to forestall criticism from her father)

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

Infer-nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen…

My friend Linda is reading Dan Brown’s Inferno and she told me the story so far. So I drew it.

There may be some SPOILERS below, I don’t know.

I’ve got no beef with Brown, incidentally. I’ve actually read two of his books, and seen one of the films. I know, shock horror, turn in your History Card Kirsty, etc. They weren’t the greatest cultural experiences I’ve ever had, but as far as cultural phenomena go I’d take them over Twilight. (I have a basic rule that I have to read books before I mock them. I have broken this recently, though, because I am not reading flipping Fifty Shades of GreyFifty Shades of Bore Off if I Want Some Hilarious Erotica I’ll Read Thomas Nashe, thanks very much).

Anyway, if you’ve ever thought for some reason that The Divine Comedy needed more lasers, you might like this book, I think.

Damn socialist European healthcare systemAlso somewhat foolish: his demand that people make him a map showing all the churches in Rome, double-quick! In the film he was standing next to a tourist kiosk selling Dorling Kindersley guidebooks, which are exactly the kind of things that might contain maps showing all the churches in Rome. Robert Langdon is not good at symbology, leaps of logic, or personal grooming, but bless his cotton socks anyway.The rest of the novel is just Langdon fighting Phil Daniels in Brighton

Talking teaching on Twitter (and talking nicely to students)

Yeah, there was this one student and she was just insufferable.

She once got confused between the words ‘malicious’ and ‘magnanimous’ and described Lady Macbeth’s decision to persuade her husband to kill Duncan as magnanimous. In an exam essay. One time she fell asleep at 2 in the afternoon and turned up half an hour late to class. Another time she finished a tutorial essay with the words ‘But that’s a whole different issue, and it’s 3am, and I’m going to bed’. She had some sort of panic when writing her third year undergraduate coursework and had to have meeting after meeting about her damn feelings. In her MA year she went to hear a visiting academic speak about Adorno, and until the paper started blithely believed that Adorno was probably a Gothic novel. She finds it very, very hard to write effective conclusions. She’s always whining about technology issues.

Yes, dear reader, that student is me.

So the Times Higher Education twitter account asked people to tweet them stories about Bad Students and to be honest I missed all that palaver. I read about it in a fantastic post by Dr Caroline Magennis which you should go and read, because it is wise. Said post made me think about how I discuss teaching online, and what’s acceptable and what isn’t. I love teaching, y’see, and I want to do it responsibly. I’ve had the luck to teach excellent, charming, enthusiastic people. I’ve become used to pouring out my woes on social media (sorry. Y’all must be well fed up of that), but it’s so important to remember that teaching doesn’t fall under the category of ‘things it’s OK to moan about on Twitter or Facebook or whatever’.  I can moan about the weather or my own idiocy or my fraught relationship with my thesis, but students are people towards whom I have a responsibility, even when I’m frustrated with them (and I’ve probably done more frustrating things myself. See above). Dr Magennis’s piece is an excellent, timely reminder of this.

I think there is some space to tweet/blog/whatever about teaching – if you have a particularly great seminar and just want to shout from the rooftops ‘Oh my students are BRILLIANT, they made so many good points today!’ or if one of them makes a rather excellent joke, or if the entire seminar group decides to beatbox the ‘Willow’ song from Othello at you (yup, that happened in one of my classes. It’s a cherished memory). I don’t think there’s too much wrong with sharing such things. And I think that generalised moaning about one’s marking load is pretty excusable (also it’s, like, 90% of academic twitter), although references to specific things people have written is definitely not cricket. Essentially, what the THE requested is really pretty unpleasant: it ain’t OK to take out teaching frustrations on social media. Go for a walk, eat a cake, moan in a non-public fashion to your flatmate over a cup of tea, plan the next lesson.

Dr Magennis particularly calls out those who mine their students’ mistakes for cheap lols:

… for me, jokes should never ever be directed at our students. Ever. They should never have their exam or essay errors made fun of in public and, particularly, nothing said in a classroom should ever be tweeted for smug amusement.

This is really flipping important. Don’t mock your students for getting things wrong. If you want to mock someone for getting things wrong, mock me for the Adorno thing. I keep thinking I should probably not tell people about that, but I keep telling people because I think it’s quite funny. The Mysteries of Adorno is one of my favourite speculative mashups. Along with the TV series my friends and I invented the other day, Inherent Miami Vice.

To state the blindingly obvious – as a teacher, quite often you will know things your students don’t. Meanwhile, quite often they will know things you don’t, and you will learn from them, for education is not a one-way process. I often find students know things you don’t expect them to (like lots of Smiths lyrics, off by heart) and not things I think they will (like all the Spaced references I make to the accompaniment of tumbleweed). So when they need and/or want to know things, just tell them, and correct mistakes if necessary, and don’t make a big thing about it. There is nothing wrong with not knowing a thing.

The NUS responded to the THE thing rather beautifully, with the hashtag #mybestlecturer. I really don’t know what I’d tweet for that – there have been so many academics that fit that category for me. It’d be like picking a favourite book, or a favourite Horrible Histories sketch, or some such impossible task. But it does make me want to tell a story that’s too long for a tweet.

Early in my MA, sometime before I was cruelly disabused of my ideas concerning a certain German philosopher, I took a class taught by a brilliant (and generally all-round lovely) visiting professor. We had a meeting to discuss a coursework topic, and I told him I wanted to write on an incident from the 1550s but was worried that I didn’t know enough about Mary’s reign.

The professor, without an ounce of patronisation, started with ‘Well – Mary was a Catholic…’

And because I knew the stuff with which he started, we quickly moved on to less basic matters and he recommended books and whatnot. But I remember being just so grateful for the kind, non-patronising way he spoke to me. Like, if I – a student in my mid-20s, on an early modern MA, worried about what academics might think of me – hadn’t known that Mary was Catholic, that wouldn’t have mattered. Because it didn’t matter what I did know, it mattered what I would go on to know, and how I would use that knowledge. Really, all of the people I would put in my overflowing category of ‘My Best Lecturer’ have this skill. My supervisors are masters of it, and lord, that makes a PhD so much more of a pleasant thing to do. This is one of the most important lessons I’ve taken from all the good teaching I’ve been a recipient of. The importance of conveying information in a way that is nice, and comprehensible, and doesn’t skip the basics. And which, crucially, doesn’t make the student feel small or like they’re being ridiculed.

I didn’t actually write a particularly good essay for the visiting professor’s class. It was the first essay I wrote for the MA and I kind of messed it up a bit. I guess I’m my own worst student, but I try to learn from my mistakes.