Reassessing the ‘Real’

This piece is a response to A.S.G. Edwards’ ‘Back to the Real’, from 7 June 2013. Find it here [accessed 25 July 2013]. — Apologies for taking such a long time to post. I started writing this response a few days after the piece was posted on the TLS website, but life took over and, as usual, the blog was the first thing to be neglected. Another thing to add to my growing list of ‘THINGS I NEED TO DO BETTER’.

Medievalists (in any incarnation, be it musicological or otherwise) have produced a broad array of reactions to digitization, and have been writing (in both digital and print media) about these reactions for the 30-odd years that this form of technology has been developing methods of use and gaining popularity within the field. Given the availability of digital resources to be evaluated (existing on both ends of the Spectrum of Helpfulness) and the access to scholarship that is both supportive and constructively critical of digital surrogates, the general response that a surrogate is simply not the same as the original seems, well, obvious. Sometimes it is good to have a reminder of this, especially in a time where technology is growing at an exponential rate, but I do not believe it is as cut-and-dry as the question Edwards puts forward: Is digitization ‘a good thing for those of us who study or edit the book in its various material forms?’ (¶5).

Yes, there are pros and cons, but perhaps it would be more constructive to ask how we can adapt digitization to fit both the needs of researchers and students. While Edwards concedes that accessibility is a positive aspect of digitization, he puts much greater emphasis on the misleading qualities of the digital surrogate. The concept of a user’s understanding of the book as an object is important, and the effect of perception on scholarship is a subject that continues to fascinate me as I work on my own Ph.D. research in the field of medieval musicology. The idea of cognitive dissonance when attempting to relate a digital image on a screen to an object whose existence, history and contents are being studied can be a difficult road to navigate (in ¶6, Edwards discusses the negative side effects of being unable to physically interact with a source). Modern scholars and teachers will certainly have experience with the so-called ‘Google effect’, a theory where students supposedly develop lower rates of recollection as a result of having a secondary brain at their fingertips – will a digital image of a manuscript cause students to miss specific details, or misremember things simply because they know they have the image to refer to? This worry is certainly tied into Edwards’ warning, and similar past warnings from other scholars, but as Douglas Rushkoff points out in his book Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commandments for a Digital Age, this process of ‘offloading our remembered information began with the invention of text, and met with similar critique even back then’ (39). Perhaps a more productive reaction to this potential problem is to support the need for restructured research methods rather than for general demonization of technological innovation. Most digital images of manuscripts include a ruler in the image frame to indicate actual size of objects digitized – perhaps including some sort of comparison shot (such as a human standing near the source, or the source next to an object such as a pencil) would be a more helpful indicator for students still learning the basics of research with sources.

I found the implication that general interest in digital surrogates (as in non-scholarly) is not something that research libraries should strive for, or even take pride in, to be slightly troubling. Using the British Library’s digitization of the Codex Sinaiticus as an example, Edwards asserts that the 10,000 estimated hits per month are possibly a sign that the BL is ‘investing heavily not in scholarship, but in a new branch of the entertainment industry’, and goes on to wonder if it is worth asking ‘whether making the surrogate digitally accessible for the benefit of a small number of scholars justifies the million pounds it cost’ (¶7).

I believe I understand the economic impetus behind Edwards’ statement here (a later discussion in ¶12 asks if a grant-funded digitization project at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge can rightfully justify subscription-based access to the resulting digitized MSS), but the BL’s site also has lots of open-access information on the Codex, its history, creation and contents. Open access is not something we can offer only to scholars. The British Library is free to visit seven days a week, and offers many free exhibitions. Couldn’t digital collections be considered an extension of this open-access engagement with the public? Also, in a time when crowdsourcing and digitization are beginning to go hand in hand, are we willing to trust the general public for help in transcription, but unwilling to allow them to view objects that have long been deemed worthy of scholarly interest?

The argument that I take most issue with, however, is that of digitization leading to a lack  of skilled research students. Because my Ph.D. research is directly tackling the use of digital images in developing teaching tools, I believe that if this is a problem then digital images could easily be part of a solution. Edwards writes that, ‘Graduate students ought to be given properly supervised access to primary materials at an early stage. Few universities offer such training, and there has been an alarming and sustained failure to offer it by central research bodies’ (¶9). I agree wholeheartedly with this statement, but I’m also aware that many universities lack access as well as the funds to offer subject-specific training. Depending on the design of the resource, digital images could be a cost-effective (there are many sites offering free access, usually only requiring free registration) way to teach students how to work with sources. As long as the physical elements are discussed clearly, a combination of printed facsimiles and digital images could be a supplementary teaching resource – digital images for close work on contents and mise en page, for example, and printed facsimiles for a physical reminder of size. I of course say supplementary because images cannot replace working with sources – this is merely a way to integrate digitization into teaching practice as well as offer a cost-effective method of preparing students for eventual work with sources, where the learning process would continue to be developed. By integrating digital images into teaching methodology, universities could potentially ensure a greater return on the investment of a digitization project. Use in a classroom would guarantee regular use, possibly giving greater motivation to a funding body to provide economic backing. Edwards suggests, ‘One could argue that, in terms of investment, bibliographical training (including palaeography) for graduate students should take priority over digitization’ – in this case, the two could be combined.

Having worked for a digitization project while working on my Masters degree at Oxford, I can say that the amount of bibliographical training I received was far greater than what I would have gained independently. I believe that, because the project I was working on contained a huge number of images from many international sources, I was forced to very quickly familiarize myself with the bibliographic elements of what I was working with in order to effectively do my job.

This isn’t a discussion with a clear-cut ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. As is the case with most elements of education, different learning and research strategies will be more or less effective based on the individual student or scholar. Yet we are fortunate to live in a time where the technological possibility exists for experimentation (and dare I say — revolution) in educational structure, policy, and process. Our daily interactions through technology and digital media are quickly creating a world where the concept of ‘real’ is shifting. Yes, some of our conversations may be through the digital medium, but does that make the content and the thought behind our words any less valuable? We are fortunate to have the opportunity to explore new resources. The only way to discover any sort of effectiveness in practice is to experiment, and to keep an open mind.

Posted in digitization, medieval, musicology, research | Leave a comment

Update: Song Reader at the Barbican

I’m so angry. Beck is bringing a live performance of Song Reader to the Barbican on 4 July. If you’ve got £20-35 quid for a ticket (approximately the same price as the book itself, £22) you can see Beck perform his collection of songs with guest appearances from the likes of Beth Orton, Franz Ferdinand, Jarvis Cocker, and Charlotte Gainsbourg. I love many of these artists. So why am I angry? I can’t go.

The move makes perfect sense – Beck is a pop musician, and this certainly follows the traditional format of album release + tour (albeit in a decidedly non-traditional way). But the combination of famous guest stars and the accompanying art show (featuring, as far as I can tell from the Barbican description, the art from the published book – ? – ) and presentation of ‘some of the very best amateur interpretations of the songs’ as a form of museum ‘installation’ gives the event a truly crowd-sourced vibe. As has much of the project’s history.

Beck has been featuring both amateur and professional performances of the Song Reader corpus on the album’s official web site since the release date – quite effectively using content produced by other people to gain traffic as well as free publicity for his compositions. The compositions are his own by right, and the decision to post work on YouTube does belong to the amateur artists engaging in the Song Reader experiment, but in the wake of Kickstarter controversies being faced by musicians Amanda Palmer and Josh Dibb of Animal Collective as well as filmmaker Zach Braff, it’s hard not to wonder why artists who have already gained fame in their own right are looking to the masses for artistic contribution. When I first heard about Song Reader I thought the crowd-sourced element was interesting – but does his decision to perform the songs himself negate any amateur versions that already exist? Does an artist’s own rendering of their composition become the default ‘original’ version of the song, even if it has already been recorded by another musician?

In the case of Song Reader, Beck’s fans exchanged money for the published book, accompanied by the rights to record and post songs on social media outlets like YouTube, with the idea that maybe – just maybe – their version will wind up on Beck’s web site, thus bringing attention to little-known artists. It’s the same concept as Palmer’s crowd-sourcing of musicians when on tour: A famous musician got instrumentalists to accompany her performances free of charge, and the performers got…an evening of pretending to be famous? It’s certainly reasonable for Beck to sell his song book, but where does the line exist in terms of copyright and artistic ownership? He isn’t selling the YouTube versions, but he is essentially receiving free advertising.

Maybe it’s good I won’t be able to attend – the inclusion of famous musicians in this ‘official’ performance setting doesn’t seem quite right in support of an album that has attempted to rejuvenate the concepts of home performance and listener as performer. But I’m sure I’ll be able to see parts of it anyway – most likely from a YouTube* link on Beck’s website.


*okay, maybe Vimeo

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Modern Nostalgia: Beck’s ‘Song Reader’ and Interactive Music in the Digital Age

On 11 December 2012, Beck released his twelfth studio album, Song Reader. But! – it isn’t really a studio album at all. Song Reader is a collection of (gasp!) sheet music containing 20 songs and over 100 pages of artwork, designed by a team of artists in collaboration with McSweeney’s. Beck designed this project around the popular music of the early twentieth century, and the resulting combination of highly-stylized music, notation, and art are meant to invoke the nostalgic feeling of sitting around the piano, making music together at home.

To justify inclusion of the artwork and many of the stylistic choices, Beck has admitted that the book was intentionally designed to be able ‘to stand alone as an object, aside from the music’ (‘the music’ being a cringe-inducing reference for any musicologist, to be sure), and that the book is inspired by the ‘physicality’ of a traditional album.

The inspiration of a bygone era goes further than the visual and physical design. While writing the songs, Beck realized that ‘playable’ songs were a necessity, and was curious about the type of songs that ‘allow others to inhabit them and to make them their own’ (quotation is from previously linked New Yorker article). At that point, he decided that the songs he would normally write for himself to record weren’t ‘appropriate’ for the project, and this realization that intent can change output shaped the direction of the published songs. For a musician with a famously eclectic style that has ranged from the slacker-rock of 1993’s ‘Loser‘ to the horn infusion of 1999’s ‘Sexx Laws‘ and the introspective, pared-down quiet of 2002’s ‘Golden Age‘, the concept of writing a song that everyone can play is understandably daunting. Anyone who has ever written music will understand that composing for one’s self is an entirely different beast than composing something for someone else to play.

Even using this directed compositional style, there are still moments in Song Reader that are inherently ‘Beck’ : choice harmonic passages and lyrical turns of phrase, (though nothing one would need to look up in the Becktionary), but in terms of simplicity for the sake of accessibility (not necessarily a negative quality), he has certainly succeeded. The songs are, for lack of a better word, playable.

Any time a modern artist dips into a practice that has long existed in the dominion of classical music (the word ‘classical’ in the sense of broad genre), it’s not surprising that some feathers get ruffled in the resulting discussion. In this case, the centre of the discussion was an article by Forbes contributor Will Burns, whose byline explicitly states, ‘I write about the importance of creativity in modern branding’ (branding being the key word here). The controversy mostly revolved around Burns’ reference to Song Reader as ‘a genius innovation’. I won’t get into the discussion, but feel free to read the comments and Burns’ follow-up article. Needless to say, it’s interesting to see notation functioning as a divisive line between classical and pop genres.

Genius or not, Song Reader certainly stirs the waters of popular music in regard to marketing and artistic direction, joining the likes of Björk’s Biophilia as a sort of ‘concept album’ for the modern world. Biophilia was (and still is!) available for release as a collection of apps for iPad and iPhone. The approaches are different – Björk’s being decidedly grounded in the technology of the future, while Beck seems to be attempting to create modern nostalgia – but these albums do have one major thing in common: as an accompaniment to the releases, there has been some sort of museum-esque installation where humans can physically go and interact with this music. In the case of Song Reader, it is an exhibition at the Sonos Studio in Los Angeles, where people can go and use available instruments to play the songs and share them with others, as well as hearing other people’s interpretations of the same songs. Björk’s installation was part of her tour to promote Biophilia. Rather than play one or two large gigs in many cities, the Biophilia tour was comprised of residencies where she performed intimate concerts and ran workshops for children about music and science.

Beck’s exhibition can be interpreted as a method of directed nostalgia in the vein of the Song Reader project itself – by situating modern music in the context of a ‘museum’ atmosphere, the songs themselves become part of a nostalgia display, like artifacts, constantly being created and re-created. At home, users upload videos to YouTube in the hopes of being featured on the Song Reader homepage (a welcome screen message tells readers ‘Only you can bring Beck Hansen’s Song Reader to life’). Once uploaded, these videos develop a nostalgia of their own, with the potential for repetition and reflection, by both the uploading self and by outsiders. The reflective and social elements of Song Reader are part of how this new nostalgia can be effective for a music release – the social element not only relates to sitting at home, playing music with friends or family, but to the modern community on the internet.

In a time where the act of releasing music is becoming more and more disembodied due to digital media, interactive musical releases (I’m not sure it’s appropriate to really call them ‘albums’ anymore) are at least in part a reactionary statement to the lack of physicality present in much of popular music. Through the interactive medium an artist has the option to control not only the content (what could generally be considered ‘the music’) but the method of reception. Certainly there can be a decidedly financial, anti-piracy function, as Burns pointed out in Forbes, but the concept of artistic control is intriguing. Is interactive music the only real way of making certain a listener’s focus is on the content? Or is the interactive element merely the artist including the listener’s distraction along with the content, and potentially raising the value of the visual or physical above the auditory?

Any question of result or impact can’t yet be answered so soon after the release of each of these projects, so the idea of the ‘staying power’ is difficult to consider. Whether physical, visual, or aural, any method that encourages engagement with music on a multi-sensory level will provide a differentiation of experience – the question is how this differentiation might shape the future of musical creation.

I played through some of the music in Song Reader; I tried out all of the Biophilia apps. And speaking as someone who has, for quite some time, regularly engaged with the music of both of these artists, I can easily say that neither of these new works will be replacing the albums currently holding the top spot for each in my regard (Sea Change and Vespertine, in case you were curious). Perhaps the key is in the desire for repetitive engagement – what is it about an album that makes someone want to listen multiple times? Or perform its songs, for that matter? Anyone who has learned an instrument is familiar with those songs that beg to be played over and over. In an article in The Atlantic, Esther Yi suggests that Song Reader ‘monopolizes your attention’ without ‘head-splitting bass and glossy production’. While I agree that this is true in the first or second sit-down, it may not necessarily be as monopolizing in repeated playings. For me, what it came down to was the excitement wearing off. Many reviewers have cited this type of lukewarm revisitation as a result of music that simply isn’t that good. I won’t judge the music of either project as separate from its vessel, because I think that’s beside the point for each of these experiments. The most interesting thing about both projects is the idea of considering music as inextricable from the way we reach it.

Certain albums work their way into personal nostalgia by reminding us of a specific time in life, the time when it was new to usSong Reader attempts to fabricate a new nostalgia, but can’t quite muster the same joyous, summer-soaked recollection that I get when I hear ‘Loser’. I don’t think it’s Beck’s fault – musical reception has a lot to do with time. There are pieces of music in all genres that on first hearing don’t excited us but become a major part of our listening or playing rotation weeks, months, or even years later. The next mainstream interactive project is coming up soon: Lady Gaga is releasing her next album as an iPad app. It will be interesting to see what one million Little Monsters with iPads have to say about interactive music. As for me, I’m going to hold out for the next major nostalgia exercise – I’m hoping for an illuminated Beyoncé manuscript.

As always, feel free to post questions and comments – bonus points if you include video of yourself performing something from Song Reader.

EDIT: Almost forgot to give a quick thanks to the members of the Royal Holloway INFORM reading group, who allowed me to choose this topic for our discussion on 14 March, and provided stimulating and thoughtful conversation.

Posted in Beck, Björk, interactive music, notation, popular music | Leave a comment

Management, Mind-Mapping, and the Mental Meltdown

Sixteen weeks between posts. Not quite the amount of time I’m aiming for (eight would be reasonable, four miraculous), but it will have to do for now.

I recently attended a workshop on ‘Research Management’ for the college’s graduate training requirements. These are workshops that help grad students develop skills to do the practical side of PhD (or Masters) work, and I have so far found them to be really useful. Especially when I learn that there are things I need to be worrying about that I didn’t even realize I needed to be worrying about! (See also: sinkholes forming under my bed)

The courses really are helpful, though – one was an hour spent learning different MS Word techniques* for producing a long piece of writing. I’m aware that this sounds pretty trivial, but I’d much rather take one hour out of my day and leave with solid knowledge (and a really useful packet of information!) than spend the next 3 years fighting with my computer wondering why my formatting looks so god-awful.

With any course that aims to help students get the most out of software, there are basic components to learn, mostly involving knowing what options are available within the software package. For example, until the course I had no idea I could create a Master Document and Subdocuments within a Word Document. This keeps the margins, formatting, and page numbers all uniform.  More importantly, though, I feel like I understand the software I’m using. I think many people use Word without really taking a look at the program, and when the outcome of the writing is something as important as a PhD thesis it’s a Good Thing to know what you’re dealing with.

But not all training courses are so straightforward. On Tuesday I attended a course about Managing Research**. As one would hope, it was well-organized and packed with information. I’d recommend it to any of my coursemates in a heartbeat. But not necessarily for the reasons one would assume.

While I left with a lot of new information about how to set and maintain goals, break down work into manageable tasks, and evaluate my current work, I also heard other PhD students speak about how they manage and achieve their own research goals. What came across most strongly was that many students don’t seem to know what works best for them. [It is important to note here that I can only speak from the point of view of a student of the Humanities, which seems to be a much more solitary research path, without much of the physical or social work environment (running experiments, working in a lab, etc.) of a program in the sciences.] These students have a solid idea of how they believe they are supposed to do research, and they become frustrated when, after a few months of a routine working out with productive results, suddenly it doesn’t seem to work anymore. Students begin to believe they’re not cut out for this, the doubt settles in, and work becomes a chore. Of course, this doesn’t happen to everyone, but most PhDs I’ve spoken to have at one point or another had a similar type of mental meltdown. The causes can be academic, personal, or a combination of sources, but over the course of the PhD there seems to be a pretty good chance it will happen. I should know, I’ve been there, and that’s why this course was so helpful. I heard about other possible ways of achieving productive daily research, and also about other students’ struggles with the inevitable research slump.

Instead of focusing on why this happens, I’m going to offer some advice on how to get out of it without losing valuable research time. There are multiple options on how to get out of a research slump, from changing daily routine, to personal health (diet and exercise! they can help your brain!), to variety. I can really only offer an opinion on what worked for me, and for me, this last option was the most helpful. I’m used to being busy, but specifically busy doing a number of different things. So the most effective way for me to work is to have seven or eight small tasks that I can work on over the course of a day. I try to vary my surroundings, too – the library isn’t always the most productive place for me to work (can be cold, guy across the work table is a pen-tapper, etc.). Usually I work at home in the morning with coffee and breakfast, then take a break for a run/shower/lunch, and in the afternoon I take my work to the library or a coffee shop. Of course the day varies when I have a seminar or a course, but this is a pretty typical ‘research day.’ I also try to weigh my daily work in terms of importance to my overall PhD – I work on the most important tasks during the times of day when I’m at my most productive.

I also like to try out different research tools. One that I learned about in this training course was software called XMind (you can download it for free!). It lets you organize a major research project (or any project, really) so that all the components are visually available. For me, that’s a big help – to be able to see all the things that I need to do.

I just started playing with this software, so here’s a VERY simple example (I have much, much more to add, even this early on in my work) to show one type of visual map that’s possible to use:


The thing that looks like a sticky note with ‘DH’ on it? That’s a label – you can put them on any topic or subtopic you like. In this case, it means ‘Digital Humanities.’

This kind of visual research tool is an effective way to trick yourself into realizing that the PhD thesis isn’t one huge project (even though the end result will be) – instead, it becomes tons of little projects you can prioritize (XMind lets you do that, too!). So when the meltdown (god forbid that term ever becomes plural) happens, instead of letting it take over, you can set it aside, analyse it, and find a solution that works for you. And then blog about it.

Hopefully it won’t be sixteen weeks until the next time I can get something written up. I’m hosting an INFORM session (RHUL’s informal grad reading/discussion group) on the 14th about Beck Hansen’s new album, Song Reader – I’ve been working on a post about this ‘album’ and its place within the culture of popular and interactive music, so hopefully I can integrate some of the discussion ideas into my next post. (Personal challenges – also a good tool for research motivation!)

*IS995 – Producing your Thesis: Techniques using Word 2010, Feb 2013, Royal Holloway

**Managing Your Research, Dr. Steve Hutchinson, Feb 2013, Royal Holloway

Posted in organisation, Ph.D., research | Leave a comment

Perks of Being a Wallflower? Not at a Conference.

As an undergraduate student, I read David Lodge’s Small World, about English professors attending an academic conference. I hadn’t read Changing Places (to which it is a sequel), but loved the book nonetheless. It made academia so frivolous – ! – and made such light of the Ivory Tower concept while still being an incredibly academic text in many ways. I laughed at the literary references and realised that I was, in essence, laughing at myself due to the very specific academic nature of the references to early and medieval literature.

The further I get in my progression through academia, the more often I stop and think, ‘Wow, I need to re-read that book’. More often than not, I have this thought on my way home from a conference. Lodge’s depiction is satirical and downright silly at times, but it does help to facilitate reflection on the concept that there is a human behind every academic (no matter how renowned and/or brilliant!), and conferences are a great way for students to meet and interact with those humans.

Last weekend I attended the Quadrivium VIII (#quadviii) Ph.D. training symposium at the Humanities Research Institute in the University of Sheffield. This year’s theme was ‘Getting Digital’, so of course I was very excited to attend. The really neat thing about the Quadrivium symposia is that they are geared towards Ph.D. students and have some sessions that provide helpful information about pursuing an academic (or #alt-ac, as one session noted!) career. Also, thanks to JISC they could offer travel and accommodation bursaries which, as any student knows, are the Golden Eggs of conference attendance.

Sessions ranged from ‘Careers Within and Beyond Academia’ (Mark Faulkner, Sheffield, and Andrew Prescott, King’s College London) to ‘Working with Manuscripts and Facsimiles’ (Estelle Stubbs, Sheffield) to ‘Rethinking Manuscript Editing in the Digital Age’ (Wendy Scase, Birmingham). Each presentation had its benefits and prompted some interesting discussion – for me, it was particularly interesting to hear presentations dealing directly with MS study from a non-musicological point of view, since the majority of participants were from an English lit background. So I hearkened back to my days at Iowa reading about the Green Knight, and considered how the tools and concepts being presented could be applicable to music MSS as well.

While I consider my experience a positive one overall (I’ll definitely be attending next year’s symposium!), I do have my usual sense of post-conference regret. And, as always, the regret pertains to the social aspect of the conference: I wish I had spoken with more people. Not to say I spent the whole time alone – I had some lovely conversations with Ph.D. students whose research was incredibly interesting, and also received quite a few questions from students who were curious about my research (it was a bit of a perk, being the only musicologist!) – but I certainly could have started sooner, rather than waiting until the end of the first day (of a 2-day symposium…) to warm up to my surroundings. I’m sure I am the target audience for the traditional conference Wine Reception – academics who take slightly longer to come out of their shells and speak to everyone else.

Which leads to the point of this blog post. Small World, hilarious as it is, rings true in that all of the attendees are human, they all have their own anxieties, and for the most part just want to hear about new ideas, network, and discuss research. As far as I can tell, most of these weekends don’t usually turn into Lodge-ian sex romps until after the conference dinner. I recommend the book to students for the fact that, if nothing else, it should serve to calm the nerves of first-time conference attendees, or even those who, like me, retain perpetual conference anxiety. Conferences are like summer camp – the sooner you get over your nerves the sooner you’ll be splashing around in the lake with your new friends. Except in this case it’s a lake of ideas or something. Hm, I really have to work on seeing my analogies through to the end.

Posted in conference, digitization, musicology, Ph.D., research | Leave a comment

The Balanced Monday

As I mentioned in my last post, something that is both difficult to achieve but still seems integral to the intellectual, physical, and mental health of the Ph.D. student is a balance between work and a multitude of other activities that don’t necessarily fit into the category of academic work, but don’t really feel like a negative form of procrastination, either. Like blogging (2nd post! Landmark!)

It’s easy to put off research if it becomes a chore. The easiest way for research to become chore-like is if it’s done marathon style. No one wants to read about the difference between oral and written transmission for 6 hours, no matter how interesting the articles are (with apologies to messrs Treitler and Boorman, whose work is currently occupying most of my reading list).

The concept of breaking up research throughout the day is most useful in the early stages. When I was finishing my Master’s degree, the 7-hour library marathon was common, since my method of writing and editing relies on continuity. I find it extremely difficult to start writing, then stop, then start again. I’m sure this topic will be featured in many a later blog post, since this is a challenge I will face while writing my Ph.D. thesis. Reading, on the other hand, needs a bit of time to soak in. It’s still possible to do thoughtful reflection on something you’ve read while engaging in another activity, like prepping the crust for the awesome quiche you’re going to make for dinner with the gorgeous artichoke you bought from Turnips in Borough Market over the weekend. Or even something routinely necessary, like laundry or going for a run.

It’s a nice feeling, the elusive Balanced Monday. It does, however, have the undesirable affect of bringing on Justifiable Laziness Tuesday, where the afflicted party manages to convince myself that it’s okay to sit on the couch and watch Law and Order: SVU all day, since I got so much work done yesterday.

Posted in musicology, Ph.D., research | Leave a comment

An Introduction : Commencing the Ph.D.


Like many before me, the decision to start blogging has been a process (to say the least). Much like commencing a workout routine, continuity is the most difficult part. I have started blogging several times, always resulting in a dead blog with about a dozen posts, mostly photographs, that for a time placated my parents, desperately trying to keep tabs on me while I was starting life in a new place. In 2009, two months studying abroad in Paris produced a travelogue detailing various jaunts around the city, my thoughts on cultural differences, and restaurant reviews. I stopped writing when my travels took me to Greece and I realised that sitting on a beach reading Middlesex all day does not make for an interesting blog (though I just finished Eugenides’ new book, The Marriage Plot, and plan to write a post soon about his inability to write female characters that aren’t awful). The point being, of course, that no one wants to read about my sunburn.

I finished my undergraduate degree at the University of Iowa without further attempt to blog, and ended up with a Bachelor of Music degree in Voice Performance (soprano, preferred repertoire pre-1700 and post-1900) a Bachelor of Arts degree in Early and Medieval literature (proof that at one point in my life I was able to translate Beowulf), and a minor in French (quel surprise!). My gap year was spent working a variety of jobs from substitute teacher to bar waitress and applying to graduate schools. I moved to England in the fall of 2011 to begin a Master of Studies course in Musicology at Wolfson College, Oxford University. While at Oxford I began a blog that I kept private, and accumulated a total of twelve posts.  The subjects ranged from knitting projects to my travels in Europe, digitising early manuscripts as part of a research assistantship with DIAMM, but eventually my blog apathy crept back in. I stopped blogging in April, and my course ended in July.

Inspired by the wildly interesting content and professional-seeming appearance of my friend Katie DeVries Hassman’s Ph.D. blog , I thought the Ph.D. may as well be a reason to attempt, yet again, this surprisingly difficult task. So why not gear this toward academia? Integrating research interests into a less formal setting seems like a good way to blend school and every day life – a helpful mixture for a Ph.D. with no coursework.

My academic focus is on medieval music notation and manuscript studies, with a specific focus on French monophony of the fourteenth century. Giving a slight twist to the normal medieval focus is the fact that my other major research interests involve digital humanities and the way that new technologies affect musicological research, including the teaching of medieval music to students. I would like for this blog to eventually be a place to self-publish academic research. If I can get past the blog-apathy wall, that is.

The start of a new course in academia is always daunting; the amount of busy work to accomplish before actually settling into research never seems to end. Yes, I am a new Ph.D. student currently in that limbo-esque place, but this is my second year in England, so I feel relatively qualified to talk about starting a postgrad course in a new country. My Ph.D. advice will be as yet untested, but I’ll post updates detailing the success of my methods. I’ve decided to make a short list of ways in which a student can facilitate this process while managing the new aspects of life that also come with starting a Ph.D. – new home, new city (and/or country), new neighbourhood . . . new spellings.*

1. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. All those emails you get when you first arrive at your new University – read them. Make note of the people who send them, and actually email them back if you don’t understand something. Yes, the administration is being inundated with emails during this time, but that’s as much a part of autumn as the leaves falling from the trees. If you’re not sure of something, ask. Don’t feel silly – it’s email. You don’t have to see the person’s face when they read your ridiculous question(s). I’m pretty sure I sent the funding office at RHUL about fourteen thousand emails between my acceptance and arrival. It’s okay.

2. Stay organised from the beginning. Make lists, and actually do the things on said lists, no matter how boring and/or unappealing they may be. The sooner all the bookkeeping stuff is out of the way, the sooner you can actually get started planning the important stuff – your research. If you have to do things like open a bank account or get a phone, make sure to prioritize these activities. The sooner they are taken care of, the sooner you can actually start living in your new city.

3. Even when you think you have nothing to do, there’s always something you can be doing. Case in point, blogging about PhD work. But really, start a list of books, articles, and book chapters that may be pertinent to your research, so you know what you have and haven’t read. Start a bibliography (especially if you aren’t using EndNote or another reference tool) with annotations so that you can easily access the information you gather early on in your research. In the words of Lisa Simpson, ‘I make a lot of lists’ (Episode: “HOMR” – Season 12 #9).

4. Explore. Get to know the area your school is in. Especially in longer programs like the Ph.D., the city is going to be your place of residence for several years. Take a day and walk around – especially if, like me, you have a slight commute to get to your campus. I have about a 30 minute journey total, between the train and walking, so typically when I go to campus I am going to want to stay a while. It’s nice to know the location of coffee shops and cafés, as well as pharmacies, grocery stores, banks, cash points, and any other thing that can save you some time later on when you may need something. This is especially pertinent for international students, especially if you are not a native speaker of the country’s language. Allowing yourself to live in the country where you’re studying is a great way to perfect your language skills — order coffee, do your shopping, listen to conversations in public, and make conversation whenever you can. When living in France, I once had a lovely, long conversation with an older woman who lived in my neighbourhood, after she saved me from an embarrassing moment involving a windy day and a short, billowy skirt.

5. Go to everything. This is not a joke. If you have the opportunity to go to lectures, do it. The first year of a Ph.D. is really the best time to do this, since your research topic is still somewhat malleable. Basically, if you’re going to receive new information that may help form your thesis, now is the time to do it. Plus, it’s a great way to make connections with other colleges or institutions and meet people in your field, or other fields that may be pertinent to your research topic.

6. Quit freaking out. You just started – now is not the time to worry about whether or not you’ll be able to get a job once you’ve defended and received your diploma. Now is the time to be excited about the work you are going to do. If you get depressed before you even start a major research degree, you can bet that things are not going to get better when you have actual degree stress to contend with. Save the meltdown for when your research gets scooped. 

7. Keep in touch with home. This is geared toward international students, or even students in the States who traveled cross-country to get an education. Make a point to talk to your family and friends at least once every few weeks. I know I always get a kick out of watching my parents try to position themselves within the camera range on Skype – 9 times out of ten I end up staring at either their torsos or the tops of their heads. Not only will these conversations keep your parents from worrying, but it actually does feel nice. I’ve found that, even if I’m nervous or concerned about something school-related, I want to present it to my parents in a positive light, and the act of describing the situation optimistically actually makes me feel much better.

Case in point – writing these organisational tips have made me realise that I have things to do, and I only have five minutes to do them before Downton Abbey starts.

Feel free to start taking bets on when and if I blog again.

*Caveat: due to my academic writing being in Britian, I am attempting to use British English spellings and punctuation in as much of my daily writing as possible in order to more easily work it into my general writing. That is, I’d like to be able to use it without having to do extra spell checks and battle with MS Word every time I have to change the language settings.

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