Digitising the Exeter Book

Digitising the Exeter Book

Between start-of-year meetings with supervisors, the arrival of the freshers, and the rush to finalize conference paper proposals, it’s been a busy first few weeks back in Exeter. In the midst of all of this, though, I’ve also had one amazing opportunity that really deserves a blog post all to itself. I’ve mentioned before on this blog how wonderful my supervisory team are, in terms of both their interest in my research and their eagerness to involve postgraduate students in the broader life of the Department here at Exeter. In this case, it was my second supervisor who offered me the opportunity, and it was one that I simply couldn’t turn down: ‘Edward, would you like to come along and watch the digitisation of the Exeter Book?’

Perhaps a little explanation is in order here. The Exeter Book is remarkable, even by the standards of medieval manuscripts: it’s one of only four codices containing Anglo-Saxon poetry to have survived to the present day, and as such is of great interest to scholars of both the history of the English language and to Old English culture more generally. It’s held by the Cathedral Library and Archives here in Exeter, but until now has not been digitised, with only the 1930s facsimile edition being available to scholars. A full digitisation of a manuscript can never replace an in-situ visit to the original, of course, but it is nevertheless an invaluable resource, making features such as page layout, scribal decisions and illuminations visible to scholars from around the world. Institutions such as the British Library have led the way in the task of digitising their collections, often through named projects such as the Polonsky England and France Project for pre-1200 material, while a quick glance at a database such as the Digital Medieval Manuscripts App demonstrates that smaller libraries around the world are following suit. Even more excitingly, a huge amount of fascinating work is being done that draws on the availability of high-resolution digital images: DigiPal and the Roman de la Rose Digital Library, to name but a few such projects, are doing work that simply wouldn’t have been possible twenty years ago.

But where does the Exeter Book fit into all this? As it happens, one of my supervisors has a long-standing research project based around bringing medieval manuscripts out of dusty archives and Special Collections reading rooms and into the public sphere. As one of the most iconic manuscripts in the world, the Exeter Book plays a key role in Emma Cayley’s Exeter Manuscripts Project, which has been running since 2012 and which has been attracting an immense amount of media interest. This week, it was finally time for a moment that Emma herself had been waiting for since 2012: the first full digitisation of the Exeter Book, opening it up for exploration both from specialists and from the broader public.[1] Being the lovely supervisor that she is, she invited me along to watch.

I’ve been using digitsed manuscripts in some form or another for a few years now, but until yesterday I’d never been able to observe a digitisation actually being carried out. Thankfully, the staff at the Cathedral Archives and the University’s own Digital Humanities team were extremely welcoming, and even allowed us to take a few photos to provide some insight into how the process works. This image offers a snapshot of the entire process: the manuscript is placed in a cradle and held in place with delicate tools before an image is captured of it, checked against the existing facsimile, and given a folio number.


It might seem surprising, in a world where the technology and the hardware to scan documents is ubiquitous, that the method employed in digitisation should be so low-tech. On a fundamental level, after all, the team are just taking a photo of the manuscript with a camera, then turning a page and repeating the process again. You can just see the camera in this photo, in fact: it’s mounted on top of the frame, above the beam lights. In reality, of course, this ‘back-to-basics’ approach has some serious conservation science behind it: harsh light such as that used in photocopiers could do lasting damage to the delicate pigments in the ink, as well as reflecting off any illuminations and thus ruining the image output.


There’s another benefit, though, to using a (very high-resolution!) camera to undertake the digitisation: it allows for a great deal more control over the lighting conditions than a scanner could ever provide. The team were actually doing three ‘passes’ of the manuscript, each taken at a different exposure level; viewers of the images online will therefore be able to choose a setting for each page, potentially revealing information (such as erasures) that might only be visible in low or high light. The device nearest to me in the picture above is an extension of this idea a similar purpose: it’s called a ‘raking light‘, and is particularly useful for revealing subtle features such as dry-point decoration and ruling. The team found a good example of this early on in the process, when the raking light revealed a representation of what we believe to be the head of an angel. Whether or not this dry-point was intended to be colored in at a later moment, the fact that it was undertaken in the first place offers a valuable insight into the mindsets of both the Exeter Book’s scribes and its later users.


As you can probably tell, watching the magic of digitisation happen was nothing short of inspiring; this was an amazing experience, and it would be unthinkable to end this blog post without thanking a few people. Emma Cayley (on Twitter here) deserves a huge amount of credit for all the work that she’s put into this project, as do her colleagues, Elaine Treharne at Stanford and Johanna Green in Glasgow. The Digital Humanities team at the University of Exeter, headed by Gary Stringer, were kind enough to allow us to barge in and take photos, all while managing to retain their trademark composure and skill in the work that they do; and, of course, the Cathedral’s own Library and Archives staff made the whole project possible by acting as custodians of this wonderful fragment of le patrimoine. I hope this blog post has whetted your appetite for the digitisation to appear, which will happen in due course; I’ll be sure to keep readers of this blog up to date with any future developments.

For now, though, I must venture back into the world of Anglo-Norman didacticism; thankfully, I’m in good company, surrounded by scholars and enthusiasts described so accurately by one poem in the Exeter Book as ‘boceras / weorþað wisfæste‘. ‘Scholars / becoming fast in wisdom’, indeed.

[1] Edit: I have since been informed that there was in fact a previous digitisation of the Exeter Book, in the form of Bernard J. Muir’s DVD-ROM produced in 2006. ‘Fast in wisdom’, indeed! Since then, of course, the technology to publish and to share the digitisations has evolved considerably, and the high-resolution images taken over the past week will represent a significant development in our ability to study the Exeter Book as a complete manuscript. 


Reflections from the Ruddigorchestra

Reflections from the Ruddigorchestra

My audition for Ruddigore got off to a rather inauspicious start. Having left my own trumpet in Reading, and borrowed one from the instrument store, I swiftly discovered that the valve-oil that came with the rather battered trumpet I was using had something of a predilection for spending more time on my face and hands than on the actual instrument. Somehow, though, this – along with a rather awkward moment when the valves hadn’t realigned properly into the trumpet – was overlooked by our lovely Musical Director (MD), Alex, and so here we all are, just before opening night, preparing to help bring to life the production, by Exeter University Gilbert and Sullivan Society, of one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s best-loved pieces. With that in mind, I thought I’d try to offer a glimpse of how the show’s been coming together from the perspective of the musicians.

In the Northcott Theatre, where we’ll be performing, the orchestra sit in the charmingly-named ‘pit’ – basically a recess below the stage – with the MD, who conducts the orchestra, being the only person who can see both us and the cast members as they tread the proverbial boards. Our job, then, is very much a supporting one: as a general rule, we set the conditions for the cast to perform at their best. We’re often the ‘bed’ for a lot of the musical numbers, something that this recording, from Cambridge G&S Society’s production of Ruddigore, demonstrates very well. The orchestra isn’t given any significant counter-melodies, and has the primary job of bringing alive the actor’s voice by echoing his key melodic phrases.

There are, of course, a couple of occasions where the orchestra gets more of a prominent role, the most exciting of which is perhaps the Overture. As in many of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas, the Overture to Ruddigore consists of a ‘potpourri’ of melodies from throughout the piece, which gives us a real opportunity to manage the audience’s expectations throughout the show. It opens with a spectacular sequence, reminiscent of the theme from the Danse macarbre, that seems almost to scream ‘shut up and listen!’ at the audience. A little later on in the Overture, the trumpets foreshadow a piece that isn’t actually heard until Act 2 – the Ancestors’ When the Night Wind Howls – before the traditional rousing finale gives the violins a virtuosic opportunity to pick up the ‘Matter trio’. By the time the Overture finishes, and the cast first enters, the stage should be set (literally) for a memorable performance.

As for the trumpets, our role in Ruddigore, as in many G&S works, is usually a supporting one. There are many numbers where the trumpets are absent entirely, as they tend to be a little too harsh to function effectively with anything other than melodies (although note, by way of any exception, He Yields!, where we have a rather technically-challenging pianissimo passage underneath atmospheric vocals from the male chorus). This presents something of a challenge when it comes to managing entries when we finally do play again: trumpets tend to sound slightly flat when cold, so it can be tough to (a) hit the right harmonic and (b) not over-compensate! There has actually been some proper academic work done on the difficulties inherent to trumpets in G&S: John Christopher Schuesselin’s doctoral thesis, ‘The Use of the Cornet in the Operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan’, puts it nicely in analysing an excerpt from Patience: that ‘the most difficult part of executing this excerpt successfully is sounding fresh after this long break.’ (p. 16)

All that aside, though, I wouldn’t change that for the world. The libretto for something like Ruddigore offers a glimpse into a world that’s at once ridiculous and sublime, but adding in the music – orchestral and vocal – is what makes it memorable. If you can come and see Ruddigore this week, I’d certainly recommend that you do, and do make sure to pay particular attention to the orchestration while you’re there. As for the cast … well, they’re brilliant, but bear in mind that they do sing choruses in public. That’s mad enough, I think.


Extra-curricular activities, or ‘doing things that aren’t the PhD’

Extra-curricular activities, or ‘doing things that aren’t the PhD’

During my first week as an undergraduate, we were all packed into a hall and spoken to by various people in various positions of authority. Most of what was discussed that day has long faded from my memory, whether through lack of necessity or as a consequence of my brain’s sieve-like tendencies, but one piece of advice has lodged itself persistently in my mind, sticking around doggedly even six years (!) after I first heard it. The advice came from the Senior Tutor, and it was on the topic of time management. ‘Treat your degree,’ she said, ‘like a full-time job.’

I’ve found this nugget of wisdom helpful over the years, albeit as more of a guide to the right mentality rather than as a strict barometer of how many hours a day I should be ‘working’. A key part of this mentality, though, is not trying to do too much, or focusing on work at the expense of everything else: indeed, another pearl doled out that day from the Senior Tutor was that ‘most people have one other significant extra-curricular activity, in addition to their degree.’ Nowadays, I take this to mean that, in addition to researching medieval French literature, I have one other Big Thing that I do with my time, plus several other smaller activities. And these things, as it turns out, matter.

To be clear, I’m not trying to say anything revolutionary here – the value of ‘extra-curricular’ activities has been discussed in a variety of contexts, from university applications, to supporting wellbeing at university, to (inevitably) improving job prospects for graduates. Hopefully, though, my particular experience will go some way towards dismantling the myth that postgraduate study must come at the expense of ‘hobbies’. A friend of mine, Daniel Sawyer, put this very well in a recent blog post:

I had a couple of weekly non-academic, social things which I kept going throughout the doctorate. Neither took much time but I refused to compromise on them. Looking back, I think these were really important. They helped me remember that I am a human being as well as a DPhil student and they helped me befriend people who weren’t writing doctorates. They also offered some structure for my weeks, which would otherwise have been troublingly shapeless when term-time teaching wasn’t happening.

Ladies and gentlemen: the very definition of ‘hitting the nail on the head’.

For me at the moment, my Big Thing is coxing. For the approximately 1% of you who haven’t heard me talk about this before, it basically consists of being the small person who steers the boat, tells the rowers what to do, and acts as an intermediary between the crew and the coach. Coxing is one of the most unusual roles in sport: as the only person in the boat who’s not doing any physical work, you’re also expected to be able to tap into the minds of those who are, getting them to push themselves further than they often think possible. Sitting still in the stern, or else lying down in the bow, the cox is an object of curiosity: simultaneously rower and coach, their job is akin to that of a jockey, steering a boat the length of a bus with a rudder the size of a credit card.

To the uninitiated, however, the biggest contrast between coxes and rowers is often physical. The cox is almost always the smallest person in the boat, since any weight above the mandated minimum of 55kg (if you’re coxing men) or 50kg (if you’re coxing women) is weight that your crew will have to carry down the course. As a consequence, it’s not unheard of for a cox to weigh half as much as some of his or her rowers, at least in heavyweight men’s boats. Like many coxes, I don’t naturally ‘sit’ on minimum weight, and am having to work to lose as much excess as I safely can (all without compromising academic performance). Thankfully, there’s a great deal of support available at the University of Exeter’s rowing club, and it certainly feels like my coxing has improved, both in terms of performance and in terms of there being slightly less of me to drag down a 2000m course.

The first term at Exeter University Boat Club has certainly been a successful one, with a really satisfying win at Wallingford Head (a 5km time-trial over the Thames near Oxford) and a productive few days spent at Dorney Lake, the Olympic rowing venue. More than that, though, it’s also been a wonderful opportunity to tap into a ready-made community of friends, and while I’m not exactly ever-present at the club’s socials, getting up at 6am every weekend is made a heck of a lot easier by the knowledge that people at the club will greet you with a smile.

So, what’s the ‘take-home message’ here? It’s certainly not ‘everyone should start coxing’, nor is it necessarily about encouraging PhD students to take up sport (although it’s certainly a good idea …). The important thing, to return to what the Senior Tutor said to us as new undergraduates, is to have these extra-curricular activities: as a way of providing perspective, and as a way to get out of the office every once in a while, they’re absolutely invaluable.

Photo: me and my lightweights at Wallingford Head 2016, from Exeter Rowing Videos.

Office space

Office space

Last year, while I was working in France, I had the privilege of having an office. This was the first time that I’d ever really had that kind of resource available to me, and I certainly didn’t hesitate to make full use of it. There’s something reassuring about having a space on campus that is resolutely yours; somewhere you can decorate and populate. This year, I’ve been lucky enough to have been given a desk in a shared PhD office, and so I thought I’d offer a quick guided tour. Presenting … the annotated guide to the Bat-Cave! (or, ‘A list of some of the things that Edward keeps in his office’)

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(1) A massive name-badge. I’m cheating a bit here: this one was actually a prop in Exeter’s University Challenge tryouts. Having made it through to the semi-finals of the internal competition, I walked into the room to find our names staring at us on pieces of card that eerily mimicked the pieces of acetate that you see on the show. As I swiftly said to the Students’ Guild member running the event, ‘whatever happens, I’m keeping that.’

(2) Notes on manuscripts. This has actually been superseded slightly by a shiny digital spreadsheet, but given that they’re in three colours I figured it would be a shame to waste them.

(3) The Adaptor, a.k.a. The Best Five Pounds I’ve Spent In A While. Each desk in the rather large shared office comes with its own computer, but a desire to avoid having to transfer files every day led me to buy this rather nifty little dongle. It effectively lets me use the monitor as a second screen for my laptop, which means I can use all the software I need, without having to install anything (albeit with the side-effect of leaving a perfectly serviceable PC gathering dust under the desk). Speaking of software, though …

(4) Scrivener. I’m not the first person to sing the praises of this piece of software – see, notably, a blog post a while ago (in French) from the brilliant author Clémentine Beauvais – but I’m equally certain that I won’t be the last. Scrivener is a wonderful piece of software, mainly because it separates the process of writing from the process of page layout. By default, there’s no page display in Scrivener – instead, there’s a plain white box, from which you can later export your work into a Word or Pages document. This does mean that you can no longer write ‘two pages per day’, of course, but on the other hand, you are able to have multiple documents on the go at the same time, viewing them either individually or as part of a larger whole. The software does take some getting used to at first, but I’d very much recommend downloading the 30-day trial and seeing what you think. (That’s an actual 30 days of use, by the way, not 30 days of the program sitting on your desktop until the next calendar month.)

(5) A mug for tea. Because, y’know, tea.

(6) Herby. This is Herby – he’s a fern, bought / adopted at the houseplant sale that was running at the Student’s Guild last week. I like him because, like me, he has a tendency to get distinctly excitable: when you shake him, his leaves wobble like I do when I go all ‘eeeeeee!’ about something I like.

(7) The planner. I’ve blogged before about my infatuation with paper planners, so it might not come as a surprise for you to hear that I’ve invested a lot of time this year into making my own planner Just Right. As it happens, I’ve changed my planner since I last mentioned it – but how, you might ask, is it different? Well, eager reader, time (and future blog posts) will tell …


(9) Printouts. I’m generally quite a techy person, but there are some things, like my planners, that I feel are just better done in analogue form. Plenty of research has been done on the effects of reading text on-screen – for a very approachable exploration of this from a social perspective, I’d recommend Naomi Baron’s Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World – but I personally don’t need all that much convincing.

(10) The coffee matrix. My colleague from last year at the ENS (hello, Rebecca!) can testify to the fact that, when presented with the opportunity to consume unhealthy amounts of coffee, I take the chance with gusto. With that in mind, my latest American colleague (see below!) and I have drawn up the ‘coffee matrix’, where we make a note of who has bought what for whom in those ‘I’m-getting-a-coffee-and-was-wondering-whether-you’d-like-one’ moments. And yes, she does currently owe me one coffee.

(11) Feedback. This is something that I’ve taken to doing in the last few weeks. As I mentioned briefly in an earlier post, Exeter has a system called MyPGR where postgraduate research students write up summaries of ‘contact events’ (supervisor meetings). I’ve taken to printing this report out and sticking it up on the wall near my desk, since it’s proven useful in giving me a sense of what my goals are for a given four-week period.


(12) An office buddy! Lucy, like me, is a first-year PhD student, and makes up one half of the Victorian sandwich in which I find myself in the office (my colleague to the right also being a Victorianist). Quite apart from being absolutely lovely, Lucy is also in possession of an amazing ability to tolerate my weirder habits, habits which would likely drive anyone else absolutely up the wall. I’m a habitual pen-chewer, but somehow Lucy has the patience of a saint about it, even when little bits of pen-lid find themselves strewn all over my desk (and sometimes on the floor).

(13) Printer / copier. Oh, printers – where would we be without you? I might be using the office one a little too heavily at the moment, to be honest, but then again, PGRs in the humanities do get free printing.

So, there you have it – a brief guided tour of my office! Thanks very much to Lucy for allowing me to borrow her camera, and to you for deciding – for some strange reason – to read just over 1,000 words on one postgraduate student’s study space. Next week, I’ll be talking about extra-curricular activities and the PhD, so do tune in for that. There may be music.

Real-life meetings and digital humanities

Real-life meetings and digital humanities

It’s been, as usual, a busy few weeks here in Exeter, as things start to settle down in PGR-land. I’m writing this just after my third supervisor’s meeting, which went rather well: having produced a 3,000-word ‘way in’ to my thesis, my focus is now on entering the longer ‘background-reading-and-ruminating’ stage. Of course, I’ll still be writing during this time – mostly little ‘reactions’ to some of the primary source material I’ll read on medieval educational practices – but I’m not expecting to produce another 3,000 words before the middle of November. Since arriving in Exeter, chapter outlines have changed, new secondary material has come into focus, and targets have mutated, but perhaps the biggest shift has been that I’ve begun looking at my work through a whole host of different lenses.

Within the broader world of ‘Anglo-Norman studies’, one of the areas that has made a particular impression in the past few weeks is the subject of ‘Digital Humanities’. For the uninitiated, the discipline centres around the application of digital technologies to the humanities, done in such a way as to open up possibilities for research that would be been impractical were it not for the enormous savings in time and effort that computing brings. To give a very simple example, the main character in Chrétien de Troyes’ Arthurian romance Le Chevalier de la charrette, ‘The Knight of the Cart’, goes by two different names during the narrative: his name, Lancelot, is only revealed halfway through the narrative, before which he is simply ‘the knight’ (le chevalier). Tracking the many occasions on which the knight is named (at least 172, all coming in the second half of the 6000-line text) would have taken days beforehand; nowadays, it can be done with some online text and the control-F key (try it here!).

This is, of course, a very simple example, and modern-day Digital Humanities is about a lot more than simply making tasks easier. Instead, it’s moved on to undertaking tasks that would have been downright impossible before the advent of the technology we have today. Take, for instance, the Medieval Francophone Literary Cultures Outside France project, which I had the good fortune to be involved in a few years ago. Abbreviated to the much catchier ‘MFLCOF’ (‘muffle-cough’), the rigorous (and, dare I say it, ‘traditional’) research conducted by scholars mapping the textual traditions of literary works has been rendered far more accessible through visualisations that bring the spread of these texts to life. Similarly, Exeter’s very own Virtual Magic Bowls Archive allows for side-by-side comparison of extremely fragile objects that would not have been able to be brought together in real life. I’ve recently had the opportunity to get involved in some more Digital Humanities work myself, as part of the wonderful Values of French team – but more on that in a later post …

Why am I mentioning this? Well, of all of the myriad workshops and training events that I’ve attended since arriving at Exeter, one of the most resonant for me has been the workshop on digital textuality that was held a couple of weeks ago. Exeter is currently putting a lot of money into the subject area, and the event was organised partly to raise awareness of the new Digital Humanities Lab, currently under construction about 200 metres away from where I’m typing this post. The 30 or so of us who had made it to Lecture Theatre 6.2 were treated to a range of presentations that showcased some of the projects currently being undertaken at the University, ranging from innovative uses of the Text Encoding Initiative in the digital editing of Thomas Hardy’s correspondence to the creation of a visitor exhibition at Powderham Castle based around the Courtenay cartulary.

Of particular interest for me, though, was the presentation by Dino Felluga, Professor in English at Purdue University (USA). The crux of his talk was the assertion that while traditional academic presses have certain advantages over more transitory web resources, this situation need not last forever. He addressed one particular criticism of Digital Humanities – that their focus on technical knowledge devalues critical expertise – and made a compelling argument in favour of bridging the gap between traditional and digital humanities scholarship. Even for someone like me, whose experience in the area is rather limited, and who works primarily in a completely different time period from Felluga, the talk, and the discussion that followed, left me inspired to look further into how digital tools can help advance – and certainly not replace! – the work that I’m doing.

So, just a brief update this time: I’m still here, and Anglo-Normantics certainly isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Next week, I’ll be bringing you an update that’s slightly more ‘day-to-day’ in nature, as I take you inside the mysterious world of the Queen’s Building PGR offices …

Responsible adult supervision

Responsible adult supervision

It’s been three weeks since the start of the PhD, and things are starting to come together. The disparate mental maps I have of different parts of town are starting to coalesce together into a coherent whole; I’ve found a pleasant spot in which to work (surely the subject of a future post!); and, perhaps most importantly of all, I’ve figured out how the inter-library loans system works. That said, after the first week of inductions and meetings, my second week as a postgraduate research student was something of a shock to the system: suddenly finding myself alone without any meetings in the next few days to give me concrete writing goals, I spent a couple of days in the library in something of a minor panic, unable to write more than a few words at a time without flicking over to Facebook or Twitter and frequently deleting more words than I actually put down on the page.

Three things shook me out of my slumber, beginning with the discovery of the wonders of PGR study desks. While I had already booked one of these, a combination of all the necessary books being in the library and uncertainty surrounding where ‘Research Commons’ actually was had seen me confined to the central (and to my sensitive brain, very loud) Forum Library. One fortuitous morning, though, I took the plunge and was rewarded with a desk that, while not strictly mine, did come with a locker and the right to boot anyone else off it if I needed to use it. The silence in the Reading Room was precisely what I needed, and over the next few days the first piece of writing started to take shape.

Closely linked to the discovery of Quiet Desks™ was the realisation that I needed to do something other than work and rowing. While I haven’t really spoken about rowing very much on this blog – I’m a cox, which for the uninitiated means that I’m the short one who tells rowers what to do – I will admit that, while fun, it can be a draining task, and hence not always suitable for relaxing. With that in mind, I signed up at the Fresher’s Fair to two of the most unashamedly geeky societies that Exeter had to offer: the chess society and the Doctor Who society (with their incredible slogan of ‘Exeterminate!’). Having gone to both of these during my third week, they’ve proved to be excellent ways to properly wind down, and at some point during the screening of The Tenth Planet (a First Doctor classic, and one that marked the first appearance of some very ropey-looking Cybermen) I started to realise that I was relaxing, and allowing myself to benefit from the opportunities that Exeter has to offer. The chess society has been slightly more of a challenge, as I’m currently being destroyed in every game I play, but I’m confident that I’ll get there in time.

Yesterday, meanwhile, was the day of my first joint supervision, which served as the final clattering bell in my research-awakening alarm clock. After producing 1,800 words that served as a general introduction to some of the key issues that I’ve spoken about elsewhere on this blog – what is ‘Anglo-Norman didactic literature’, and why should we care? – I went into the 2pm Friday meeting eager for feedback, and looking forward to discussing some further thoughts on the topic with my supervisors. Indeed, it did all seem to go rather well: I left the meeting with some really useful advice, and there was general agreement that my work seemed to be on the ‘right track’. The challenge now, we agreed, is to ‘beef it up’, engaging more with some of the questions that I only referenced briefly ahead of our next meeting in four weeks’ time. It felt bizarre to be the one who was setting the agenda for the meeting, especially when the two people in the room with me were far more knowledgeable than I was, but I left feeling reassured that the short- and medium-term targets that we had agreed on were achievable and measurable.

It’s been a busy week, but as I come towards the end of it I’m feeling, for the first time, like I might just be able to set some proper, concrete ‘goals’ for the next week come Sunday night. The next seven days will be, in many ways, more of the same, with MA courses I’m sitting in on jostling for space with revisions of the first piece of writing (and, potentially, putting together a proposal for an undergraduate reading group – watch this space!). In any case, I suspect I’ll spend quite a lot of time like this.

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Cover image: Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, MS G.g.1.1, fol. 390v (detail), one of the texts I’ve been looking at over the past week …

Inductions and introductions

Inductions and introductions

At long last, the start of term has arrived, and with it has come the inevitable volley of meetings, talks and Q&A sessions that characterizes the start of any new academic enterprise. Thursday was ‘induction day’, when our ever-so-slightly-nervous cohort of new PGR (postgraduate research) students from all disciplines filed into the Alumni Auditorium to meet the staff at the Doctoral College and to learn about how the University works with (and for) postgraduate students.

It was a pleasant surprise to see such a large amount of time being given over to wellbeing issues: the head of the University’s Wellbeing Services gave a well-received introduction to some of the issues that postgraduates frequently experience, as well as some reassurance on how to deal with them. There was a collective sigh of relief in the room as he acknowledged that it’s perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed at the start of postgraduate research, and that the lack of structure is not something that only scares a minority of students! The talks ranged in subject from MyPGR (Exeter’s graduate supervision records system) to using the library and taking part in the Researcher Development Programme, and were followed in the afternoon by College-specific inductions. For me, that meant a trip over to the Queen’s Building to meet my fellow Humanities students, before splitting off still further into a sub-sub-meeting with the modern linguists. There are five new PhD students this year – I’m the only one in French – and the two of us who attended the meeting had a wonderful time meeting our colleagues in other years, getting useful advice on everything from teaching to time management. I left the meeting with a distinct feeling of being part of the Department, particularly given the invitation extended to us to attend more general departmental meetings alongside subject-specific seminar series.

Friday began as a flashback to my year in Lyon, with coffee and pastries kindly laid on at Café Rouge by the French Society. This was swiftly followed by a slightly awkward cycle up to the main University campus, as I got used to the second-hand bike that I bought a couple of days ago, all the while trying desperately not to be late for perhaps my most important meeting so far. Before that, though, a message from (for?) our sponsors.


The Button of Doom.

Yes, it turns out that both of my supervisors read this blog. I won’t be naming them here, but rest assured that rarely have I had a better incentive to proofread thoroughly for spelling and grammar before hitting the big blue ‘publish’ button. I bring this up because the first of my meetings with my primary supervisor – standard practice in the arts and humanities is to have two supervisors – was also on Friday, and it left me feeling rather optimistic about what’s still to come. I left with my first ‘task’ of the PhD, and with a concrete target: three to four thousand words placing my research topic in a broader context. This is something that my primary supervisor had done at the start of his doctorate, and it’s definitely a task that I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into. When I was applying for a PhD, one phrase that really appealed to me was ‘original contribution to knowledge’, and at the moment I’m confident that this first task will help me to get my feet under the table, as well as pinpointing exactly what it is that will guide me through the three years of a PhD project.

Gulp. (From the University’s Regulations Governing the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy)

My work for the next couple of weeks, then, will consist largely of reading secondary material, making notes, and writing 250-word ‘reflections’ on each in turn (following here the advice I read somewhere – I wish I could remember where! – about writing from the outset). In the more immediate term, though, I’ve got plenty of things to be getting on with, from preparing for my next rowing outing (more on that in a future blog post!) to sorting out a study desk. Something tells me that the next few weeks will pass by very quickly indeed.

Cover image: University of Exeter on Flickr. Used (and cropped) under a Creative Commons CC BY 2.0 license.