Classically Inclined

August 17, 2017

On conference papers and workload limits

Disclaimer: I am aware that there are far more important things going on in the world at the moment. I haven’t got the words to write about them, so these are the words I have.

At the start of the week, I posted on Twitter about academic work limits, in particular about how many conference papers people limit themselves to a year. I thought I’d write up the collected thoughts here, as it’s a useful thing to have in mind. As background, I was asking because for the last year, I’ve been following my own version of the guidance given in December by Helen Lovatt on managing academic workloads (which came out of our first WCC UK mid-career event). This is part of that transition from being on a temporary to a permanent contract, but also from being early career to being mid-career – one thing I’ve come to appreciate over the last year is that I simply can’t keep going at the pace I did when was a fresh-faced PhD, as it’s just not sustainable when I now know I’m looking at the long haul.

My personal version of the limits for the 2017-18 academic year looks like this:

– one book review or one book manuscript
– two articles to referee
– one external examiner role (for PhD or MPhil/MRes thesis)
– no more than three current PhD students
– two active national bodies
– one school talk per term
– one invited seminar

There’s flexibility here, of course – I currently have no PhD students, which makes being Administrator of the WCC UK doable, plus if I don’t feel an article I’m asked to referee is any good, I can just say no. Helen’s point was that in saying no to things, and knowing you’ve said yes to your ‘quota’, you ensure you have the space and time to do the stuff you actually want to do rather than these kind of activities which can become rather all-encompassing. Given that we’ve not started the 2017 academic year yet and my school talks and invited seminar are already booked up, you can see why I’m trying to plan ahead.

Helen’s original post says that she tends not to volunteer to do conferences. I can see the logic in this – I was a bit surprised, when looking at my promotion criteria, to discover that just giving a conference paper doesn’t count! (Invitations to give keynotes and seminars count. Presumably even if you turn them down.) But looking at my CV, I’ve still done quite a lot of conferences over the last year, and I thought it might be a good idea to have at least a notional limit in play for me to work with. Hence my call to Twitter.

In terms of numbers, people had a wide range of responses. Some people had no limit or policy at all. Others had one or two; Kate Cook aims for no more than two totally new papers a year, plus one or two papers based on pre-existing material, which I would have been able to sustain earlier in my career but would be out of the question now.

However, the biggest theme that came through was the issue of context and, as Syma Khalid said, judging each invitation (or opportunity) on its merits. Which raises quite an important question – how do you decide what those merits are?

In discussion with Carol Atack and Jo VanEvery, a couple of points for working out how to priorities a conference came up:

  • How long is the talk?
  • Does it relate to existing work? Does it fit with your current project or with a potential next project?
  • Will this introduce you to interesting new people or subject areas?
  • What could I feasibly write up or develop?
  • Have I got some work I want an opinion on?
  • Do I want to gain some exposure for my research?
  • Do I want to get new ideas?
  • What are my pre-existing commitments and what would this do to my workload?

Other important practical issues that were raised were whether or not you would be funded (Minx Marple, Caroline Magennis), how much travelling would be involved (Clare Maas), and whether the obligation would be compatible with childcare obligations (Helen Finch). Another factor I’m also now factoring in is whether the conference will require an overnight stay. When infans was very tiny, I did one conference in Dublin and one in Poland; there were both multi-day affairs, but I only stayed one night. I’m now of the view that while I am in principle willing to do an overnight stay, I won’t travel outside the UK to do it; I also turned down a chance to get involved with the next Celtic Classics conference because the logistics of getting to St. Andrews are such that for me to go and just have one overnight would mean I’d be doing nothing but travelling for two days, which doesn’t sound like great fun to me.

Of course, within this, you want to keep flexibility – if a really exciting CFP or invitation comes along, for instance, you don’t want to have booked yourself to total capacity and not be able to take it up. It’s a fine line between setting things in stone and being so responsive to opportunity that you never have the bandwidth to follow any one opportunity through.

So, in the end, I’ve plumped for a limit of two conferences this year. That feels about right in terms of pre-existing activity, but also in terms of what I’m willing to do – I’d much rather save an overnight trip for giving a departmental seminar somewhere, for instance, than go to a tangentially relevant conference abroad and spending most of my time in airports. Of course, these limits aren’t forever; I’ll come back to them in the future and revise them as my family and institutional obligations shift over time, as of course they will. However, I’m very grateful to Twitter for the conversation and the ideas it sparked, not least having a properly articulated sense of how to gauge an opportunity rather than going by instinct.

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August 10, 2016

Changing times, changing working practices

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:12 pm
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Of all the possible blog posts I could write at the moment, I’m starting with the low-hanging fruit of some reflections on what I’ve learned over the past few months about the reality of being on sabbatical and being a parent. This is partly because Academic Twitter has been talking about working practices a bit more than usual, focusing around Raul Pacheco-Vega’s posts about low-hanging fruit and how to pick it, and another burst of interest in my post about academic otters. But as I mentioned in my last research-focused post, I am moving into a new book-sized project at the same time as having a sabbatical, and I need new strategies for how to organise my time and workflow now I’ve moved to an ideas-generating phase rather than a refining phase. (Jo Van Every has a post that articulates this better in thinking about summer writing plans in general.)

My initial plan was brilliant, simply brilliant, I tell you. I mapped out precisely which chapter and side project I was going to work on for every single week until the end of the calendar year, so that I’d have a full draft of the book by the end of my leave, and would have done All The Things. Marvellous.

Except that by the end of the first fortnight of the new Grand Plan, it wasn’t marvellous at all and I was already very, very behind what I’d hoped to get done. There were a couple of reasons for this, the most obvious of which was that I had assumed I would be able to work on the Monster book and Mazes Intricate, a related but separate chapter manuscript, at the same time. The chapter is due in November, so squeaked priority – and while some of the reading I’d done for it also fed into my thinking about the Monster book, when I got into the writing I wanted to get Mazes Intricate finished rather than spinning off onto other things. So, big lesson one of Being A Researcher With A Small Child – don’t try and do multiple projects at once. Focus on finishing one thing at a time. This is very different to when I was doing my PhD, when I’d have (at least) one other article on the go alongside my current chapter, as something to go to as an intellectual break and refresher. Now my intellectual break is helping infans explore how pouring lentils from one container into another via the medium of a yoghurt pot works. Same intellectual function, different learning outcome, to repurpose some jargon.

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April 27, 2016

On being a productive academic mother

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 12:40 pm
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I was having a conversation over e-mail with an academic of my acquaintance who has just had a child, and was wondering if I could offer her any suggestions about how I’ve managed to keep getting things done since infans was born. In all honesty, a big part of it has been the fact that I’ve not been required to do anything terribly creative – the book revisions and manuscript preparation, while chunky, haven’t really required me to put together much new material or think up fresh ideas, and there’s only so much imagination and intellectual capital you need to change the formatting of a bibliography. I am the first person to complain grumpily on Twitter about the slog of editing a passage for the dozenth time, but actually, that’s probably the level of mental demand I’ve been operating at. I’ve only started to think properly about the conference papers I’m giving this summer in the last month or so, and the effort required to put together something new has actually been quite daunting.

However, I did have a couple of other thoughts and suggestions about getting stuff done, if you choose to, and thought I’d put them here in case anyone else find them useful. The first is to accept that for the first few months, you probably won’t get anything done, especially if you’re breastfeeding on demand as I was – and that’s totally alright and as it should be. Giving oneself permission for this is really, really hard (or at least I found it so after the first few weeks), but actually, stop.

If you do have things that absolutely must get done, then naps are the way forward. If you’re lucky enough to have a baby giving you enough sleep during the night to function during the day without naps yourself, and have a baby who will go to sleep somewhere that is not on you, and for more than five minutes at a time. Sometimes babies do not seem to realise mummy needs time to reply to that research collaborator. And that is OK too. But thinking about how to use any nap time you do get strategically is key – what do you most need to do to give yourself piece of mind? It may be having a cup of tea and checking the proofs you’ve been asked to return before the end of the week; it may be washing up and tidying the kitchen so the thought of the post-lunch mess doesn’t keep you consistently on edge; it may be having a nap yourself, or a shower, or watching an episode of some mindless television. All of these things are also OK.

The only way I did get anything done during those naps was lists. Lots and lots of lists. I prioritised things that had immediate deadlines or I had already committed to (like final revisions and copyedits for articles which were more or less done), and things related to the book manuscript. I did agree to take on a short piece for a web-based outreach project, which I thought would be a good way of getting me back into the groove of generating ‘new’ words, but in retrospect I wish I’d said no to that as I did to a book review invitation – it didn’t drain away time, but it was a bit of a distraction. What worked particularly well for me was accepting that tasks which came under the heading of ‘collegiality’ – things I should do not to hold up collected volumes/editors, meeting deadlines and so on – needed to be done; the book was the massive priority, even if it was advancing a paragraph of edits at a time; and everything else could wait. Really.

So the big ‘formal’ advice I have is to push back firmly on anything related to teaching or administration, and to only let research in if there are imminent deadlines or if it is the most important project you have in hand. I was also a big fan of checking my e-mail even if only to delete or file it, as I did with about 95% of the e-mail I got during the course of my leave – the thought of coming back to an untouched inbox after even a few weeks gives me the shivers.

Some of this is, of course, down to who you are as an individual and where you are in your career, and I really don’t want to suggest that I did the ‘right’ thing. I felt particularly under pressure about the book because of being, at the time, on a three year contract and being very aware that I needed to have the book in press for job hunting. I also inevitably start feeling a bit jumpy after a few weeks if I don’t have something academic to get on with – one of the reasons that a year’s maternity leave completely off from academia would have been a really, really bad idea for me. Please don’t look at this post and assume these have to be your choices – they don’t. I recommend Rachel Moss’s thoughts about some of the choices she made in the early months, and I’ll also mention that I went back to work after just under six months of maternity leave (again, entirely my choice but under the implicit pressure of a short-term contract). I am pretty sure that if I ever do this again, I will make a different set of choices.

Since going back to work in September, I’ve also found that I think about far fewer projects than I did pre-infans. In those heady days (ahem), I could have two or three projects in various stages on the go at once, and could balance hopping between them – for instance, I often found I needed the other projects to give me something to do when the book was getting too much or had reached a pause point, and there would often be some outreach or cross-over work in there too. Now, with teaching and everything else, I think realistically I can only manage one project at a time. I was recently given the advice that with children, one should prioritise quality over quantity – and I now see why that was an excellent suggestion, if only because I cannot imagine trying to do more than one thing at once in the more strictly delineated working time I now have. This will change as infans gets older, of course, but right now that’s the reality.

Now I find myself in the slightly strange vacuum between finishing a big project and starting a big project, and not knowing quite what to do with myself… but that’s another subject for another post.

April 4, 2016

How to write a thesis conclusion

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:27 am
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One of the most popular posts on this blog is about how to write a thesis introduction. Several years later, this post serves as its companion, and explores how to write a thesis conclusion. The thoughts here cover the genre of PhD thesis and book conclusions, but the general points apply to undergraduate and MA dissertations too (as indeed do the points in my original post). Conclusions have a habit of looking suspiciously easy, particularly if you follow the structural rubric that says you tell your reader what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. Up to a point, Lord Copper. The problem with this approach in any kind of writing is that it very easily generates a laundry list summarising your chapters but not really offering anything new. I think the warning sign for a conclusion is that it feels like you’re reading the final paragraph of each of your chapters in a single document. There’s a place for that sort of writing, in a thesis synopsis or an abstract, but it’s not really a conclusion.

So what does a conclusion do? Once more taking the philological turn, it should conclude. It should tie up the loose ends, bring everything together neatly – and, yes, articulate the argument one final time, just to make sure that your reader has got the point. It should leave the reader in no doubt about why what they have read is of deep intellectual significance, the contribution it has made, how it has changed how they think about your subject.

I’ve found that the most sensible way to consider what you might want to say in a conclusion is to look at your argument thematically. What ideas have emerged again and again, perhaps in different shapes? What are the big points of contact between your various chapters that then build to mean something really significant? What concepts run through your work that you didn’t highlight in your introduction because the reader wasn’t ready for them until they had read the whole thing? Thinking thematically can help you provide a synthesis rather than a summary of the thesis. I know that sounds jargony, but it’s actually a helpful distinction – you’re pulling together the threads of your argument and revealing the jumper that you have been knitting from them, rather than just pointing to various balls of wool and expecting the reader to produce the jumper themselves.

The shape and the form that the conclusion will take will differ radically from work to work. When I was writing my PhD and using a rolling synopsis, I didn’t actually include a section for the conclusion – I assumed it would sort of write itself. It did, in the end, and came to just over five pages of general observation and tying up. I made sure that I restated the big take-away point I wanted the PhD to make; pulled together some elements of the individual chapters that otherwise did not get put side-by-side but needed to be; attempted some synthesis; and mentioned some directions for future work. That worked for the PhD.

However, it didn’t work when I came to revise the PhD for the Book. In the end, I actually retitled the Conclusion – it’s now an Epilogue, just over four pages long, but working in tandem to the main text rather than doing a wrap-up. You can get away with this sort of thing in a book, and this book needed to – there’s a big question about how the case I’ve made about Stoicism and the family fits into the bigger picture of Stoic doctrine as a whole, and which I don’t think can be answered until after the final chapter. Which is why the Epilogue answers it – so sometimes conclusions are places to deal with the big methodological or argumentative concerns which for whatever reason have had to be delayed until all the relevant material has been presented to the reader. Most of the Epilogue as it stands currently handles that big question, but it’s an answer that wouldn’t make any sort of sense without the book which will come before it.

But ultimately, the biggest thing that the conclusion should do is make it absolutely clear why the idea you’ve been exploring in your research needed and warranted as many words as it did, and why your reader will never think about the subject in the same way again. They’ve read your chapters, and have the evidence. It’s the conclusion’s job to make sure that there’s no mistake about the impact that evidence has on their understanding of the world, and to leave your point ringing in their ears as they finish the final page. The form that will work best does, I think, depend a lot more on the personality of the writer in conclusions than it does in introductions – so think of it also like ending a really long, really enjoyable phone call. Finish the conversation off, but in such a way that your (silent) interlocutor has plenty to think about. After all, scholarship is a conversation – hopefully somebody will pick up where you have left off and continue the dialogue.

October 5, 2012

Creating an index

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 8:56 am
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In some ways, this is an extremely dull post, and relevant to very few people. However, I recently had to create a list of index entries for a chapter that I am submitting to a collected volume. I have never had to put an index together before, so this was completely new and a bit scary for me! Given that this task involved quite a steep learning curve, I thought it was worth putting down the steps I went through to create an index, both for my future reference, for the reference of others, and to provide a forum for those more experienced at this sort of thing to tell me what I’ve missed!

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June 21, 2012

Writing a cover letter to a journal

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 3:41 pm
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Writing a cover letter to a journal is a bit of a dark art (like so many aspects of academia), but after time and advice from more senior academics, I’ve got a template which I usually use when sending things out. A request over on #phdchat about how to go about writing a cover letter made me realise that there is perhaps not enough advice on this sort of thing out there, so I thought I’d post my standard template as an extra resource. This is suitable for classics journals and, I would think, most humanities subjects, although I’d recommend tweaking as required or recommended by experts in your subject area and the requirements of the journal you’re writing to – checking the submission guidelines will tell you which buzzwords to include.

Dear Professor Editor,

I hope you will consider the attached manuscript, “[title]”, for publication in [journal title].

The manuscript is approximately [number] words, including [or excluding] notes and bibliography. Its [new and exciting approach to its subject] will be of interest to readers of the journal [for these reasons].

Following your submission guidelines, I have [done what the submission guidelines asked you to do – attached the manuscript in .pdf format/enclosed two hard copies/dispatched my carrier pigeon/etc.].  This original manuscript has not been previously published nor submitted to any other journal for consideration.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

ME

September 2, 2011

Survival tips for new academics (like me!)

Last week’s Guardian Livechat was on advice for new academics on how they might survive their new roles. (I’m afraid that there seems to be some overall issue with the WordPress code at the moment that won’t let me insert links, so the shortened link for the chat is http://bit.ly/q0bBA9.) As a new academic of sorts, I was taking pretty frantic notes. While I’ve had teaching experience in the States, including a full year’s worth in a faculty-level position, I’ve never had to deal with anything beyond the teaching side of things. Administrative meetings remain a closed book to me (until later this month, when their mysteries will be revealed), as do many of the other practicalities that being a grad student sheltered me from. I thought I’d put together my Top Tips from the livechat – do tell me if you disagree or think I’ve left out something important.

Get to know people. Surprisingly basic, but at the same time there’s a wide range of people to get to know – the subject-area librarian, other library staff, the support staff for your department, colleagues inside and outside the department, senior administrators and deans, research administrators, security guards, catering staff… anyone you see, really.

Use your resources. This includes making sure you’re getting most from your university’s benefits for employees; talking to the library to make sure you know all they can do for you and your students; asking colleagues if you can watch them lecture to get ideas and a sense of the “house style”; reading any minutes of meetings that come your way to get a sense of how things work without actually being involved; going to staff development workshops or training events for new tech;

Get a mentor. Whether official or unofficial, having someone to talk stuff over with and ask for advice is going to be vital.

Be keen. You’d think this would be a no-brainer. After all, you’ve spent mumble years finishing the PhD, you clearly want an academic career, and you’ve made it to the first step on the ladder – you’ll be overflowing with joy and bonhomie, right? Well, I’m doing my best, but I’m also moving my life from one city to another and not getting enough sleep, so I’m going to have to put a bit of effort into sounding as enthusiastic as I actually am about starting a new job, and this new job in particular. Not because the enthusiasm isn’t there, but because the energy to express it is hiding under the sofa.

Learn to say no. Ah, the eternal truth of the time eater. I personally believe this is a small anteater type creature that sits under my desk and snuffles up time when I’m not looking. Learning to politely say ‘no’ to things that I don’t have time to do on top of my teaching and research load is going to be one of my biggest challenges, because I’m an obliging sort of soul who likes taking advantage of opportunities. However, that’s got to be balanced with a firm dose of reality. All the opportunities in the world aren’t going to be any good if you’re too overloaded to take advantage of any of them properly.

…but know when to say yes. Some opportunities will be golden. Learning how to discern which ones I should pick up and which ones I can safely say no to is going to be another key skill to develop. (While I’m at it, I might try to sharpen my mindreading and fortune telling skills as well…)

Think about assessment. The Livechat had a particularly productive thread on how to approach assessment and feedback, which always seems to score low on the National Student Survey. I’ve picked up a number of helpful ideas, and am just going to have to make sure that I follow through with them!

Remember why you’re doing it. You need to build time in for doing the things that made you happy to be an academic in the first place. This means being strict about not letting teaching or admin expand to fill the time available, and leaving space to get on with research (or vice versa). There’s no point in having the job you love if you don’t actually love doing it. That balancing act is going to be tricky – but it’s all part of the learning curve.

If anyone’s got any more Top Tips for surviving the first year of being a full-time academic, please share them in the comments!

July 7, 2011

Thoughts on how to get the best out of a megaconference

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 5:16 am
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Over on Twitter, @qui_oui recently shared a link about why we should abolish the humanities megaconference, which started us tweeting about whether or not the writer had a point. Two things struck me about the article that I disagreed with. First, it plays down the role of face-to-face interaction between people, and the ‘off-programme’ benefits of being in the same space as folk who think Interesting Things. (That this kind of unscheduled brainstorming and mentoring can’t be replicated via virtual conferencing was one of the points brought up in the Guardian Livechat on sustainability in higher education.) Second, I wonder whether the humanities megaconference is an American phenomenon, because most of the problematic features the author describes do not appear to fit the conferences I’ve attended in the UK. Granted, it’s been a while since I’ve been to any, but I think the basic fact that UK classics conferences cater to a comparatively small number of people from a smaller geographic area makes them more like regional conferences like CAAS and less like the American Philological Association conference. (And, yes, the APA does display some of those megaconference features that the original article gets irate about, but so does every conference of that size. I also reserve the right to change my thinking on this after I update my UK conference experience!)

I started thinking a bit about why I don’t think megaconferences are actually such a bad thing – part of which is related to the geographical. A discipline needs to have the opportunity to gather together, and when you have a big landmass with lots of people on it, that’s going to mean more people in one place. That kind of, for want of a better phrase, clan identity matters.  Second, you can game the unwritten rules if you know what they are. So I thought I’d write some of them down in the hope that someone else might find them useful.

1. Don’t try to go to all the paper sessions. In a smaller conference, this would be Very Silly. At a megaconference, if you go to all the sessions, you will (as the author of the original article says), be running on fumes. I know some people who don’t go to any papers at all, which strikes me as a bit extreme. However, you can be canny about what papers you do choose to go to: topics directly related to your research interests, stuff that might help inform a course you’re teaching or might want to teach, that kind of thing. I’m also a big advocate of going to all of the panel which has the paper I want to hear in it, rather than just dipping in for the paper; if they’ve been grouped together, chances are you might hear something else exciting. I’m also a big advocate of stepping outside your comfort zone and being stretched by listening to something you know nothing about – but the megaconference isn’t really the place for doing that. You need to harbour your energies in a way that you don’t at a smaller conference, and going outside your comfort zone is not a particularly good use of them. (more…)

June 6, 2011

How to write a conference abstract

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:00 am
Tags: , , ,

In my hints and tips for attending conferences, I did not address the question of how to write a good conference abstract.  This post attemps to remedy that omission by discussing what goes into a good conference abstract, and how to go about writing one. This comes, as usual, specifically from my experience as a classicist, but hopefully some of the general points will transfer over to other humanities fields. Any other thoughts are very welcome!

First, pick your conference. Find a call for papers (or CFP) that looks interesting and relevant to your research. Classicists should keep an eye on the Liverpool classics e-mail list and Rogue Classicism. Other good sources are the Women’s Classical Caucus e-mail list (membership is very reasonable!), and the American Philological Association CFP page.

Study the CFP carefully to see if your work fits. Make sure that whatever you are planning to submit to the conference fits within the specifics of the CFP. For instance, in the graduate student conference I ran, our CFP clearly stated that we were looking for papers dealing with contemporary popular culture (broadly defined). When we got an abstract for a paper which looked at material from the 1850s, we found it easy to rule that particular abstract out, as interesting as it sounded – it didn’t fit the theme we had outlined in the CFP. This doesn’t mean you should never take a risk with something a bit outside the CFP, but be warned that it might work against you.

Study the CFP carefully for key information. In particular, find the word limit for your abstract. In Classics, this is normally 300 words, although you might see 250 or 400. Also check for any other requirements, like what to do if you will need to project a Powerpoint presentation; how long your talk should be; the deadline for submission; and how to submit your abstract. This may be by e-mailing the abstract to the conference organisers or a central e-mail address, or via an on-line system.

Focus your argument. The CFP should tell you how long your talk should be for this particular conference. Make sure that the paper you propose can fit into that length of time. If you only have fifteen minutes, don’t propose to talk about your entire thesis. Pick an appropriately-sized chunk of one chapter (or of an article) that will stand up as an argument on its own. Alternatively, try to hone your central point to fit within the time limit. Your abstract has to sound as if it is feasible for the allotted time, or else it doesn’t stand a chance. (more…)

June 1, 2011

How to write a thesis introduction

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:15 am
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One of the things I found hardest when writing my thesis was getting the introduction sorted. By the time I came to write it, I had an outline that I had sketched in my rolling synopsis many many moons earlier, and random ideas that I’d been keeping in a document imaginatively titled ‘things to put in an introductory chapter’ for the last couple of months. Suddenly I found myself faced with the task of making a plan that actually reflected what I wanted to put into an introduction, and writing the thing.

To get my brain in gear, I thought I’d have a think about what the purpose of an introduction is, and how it should work in the first place, and it is those thoughts that I want to share with you now. I should note that this records my own thought process within my field of Classics, so I’d be delighted to hear about any significant differences in your discipline that might change how you would approach this task.

Well, taking the philological turn, an introduction should introduce. It needs to explain what’s coming, and what the reader can expect. Similarly, it needs to explain why the work that’s been done has been worth doing, and what new contribution to knowledge this thesis/book is going to make. What does the reader get out of reading it?

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