Classically Inclined

December 1, 2016

On sabbatical goals and #acwrimo

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:56 am
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I decided this year that I was going to have a go at Academic Writing Month, better known as #acwrimo over on Twitter. Taking its inspiration from National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, it’s basically a way to get an academic writing practice established – whether that’s daily writing, having a project finished by the end of the month, you name it, you can have a go at it. I had a go at this back in 2012, with mixed results – I found it a good way to push myself forward on revisions for the Seneca book, although I didn’t get as much done I as I wanted (plus ça change). AcWriMo isn’t good for everything – its emphasis on counting words, for instance, isn’t always the most helpful thing to do to help move your academic work along. But right now, given the fact I’m trying to get as much of the monster book drafted as possible, I thought that going the AcWriMo route would be sensible to move the sheer generative phase forward.

And so I set myself a very simple goal – to write at least 500 words a day, with Sundays off. And it worked really quite well… until the 22nd of November, when I completely fell off the bandwagon through a combination of full family sickness, travelling to a research seminar and giving a paper, and needing to finish the work of rigorously checking the proofs of the Seneca book by the deadline. So there’s been quite a lot of academic work in the last week or so of AcWriMo, but it’s not really been translating into words. Which is fine, not least because the proofs have been returned, the seminar was successfully given, and generally all the other bits and pieces I needed to do are more or less done – thus again reinforcing the point that word count isn’t always the most important thing.

But on the issue of word count, I don’t think I did too badly – overall, I managed a bit over 14,000 words in those three weeks. This was made quite a bit easier by the fact I’m counting my seminar script and handout translations in those words, and the former certainly pre-existed and just needed to be shaped into a script form. But the other words mean I’ve now got all of chapter two for the monsters book in first draft, and chapter three is under way.

When I applied for this sabbatical, I said that my goals for the term were to complete the majority of the Monster book manuscript, and to complete an article based on the research seminar. A short, sharp encounter with reality meant that I soon revised the first goal to having the first half of the Monster book in first draft, which feels like it should still be doable – not least as I’m due to give a paper at an AHRC conference in a few weeks based on chapter four, which should get that started. I’m not sure about whether the article manuscript will get much further, but at least I know what I want to say and that there is a kernel of an idea there. So it’s all progress – and sometimes, putting the words down onto the paper is what you need to do.

September 8, 2016

Sabbatical planning 1 – Shut Up and @britishlibrary

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 9:18 pm
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I’ve been thinking about planning my sabbatical term, and have realised there is a big risk of not seeing a sufficiently high concentration of humans over the next few months, which I know is bad for me. (I suspect it will be even worse than it has been in the past given that a lot of the time when I do see humans, I’m seeing them in the capacity of infans’ mother rather than as an academic.) So I thought I’d see if anybody would be interested in a semi-regular meet-up at the British Library – a version of Shut Up And Write, but a bit more flexible.

It turns out that Clare Vernon is in the market for something like this, so we’re going to meet up on Wednesday 14th September for the first of these sessions. The plan is to meet at 9.30am for a pre-desk cup of tea in the downstairs café; meet up again for lunch; and then perhaps meet up for an afternoon tea and a debrief. We’ll also put dates into the diary for the rest of the term – I’m hoping we’ll go fortnightly, although prior commitments may mean we’re not always on a Wednesday and we might not always be fortnightly.

So if you’re on sabbatical or working on research solo and would like an informal way of keeping in touch with other humans, feel free to come along. One of the reasons for setting dates is so that people who can’t make every session can plan to come along for a day – and if you can just make it for a morning or an afternoon, then you’re welcome too. The point is to create a bit of structure for community and hopefully facilitate some research work – I suspect Clare and I will set it up to suit us, but if you can hack it to suit you, then that’s all to the good. If you’d like to know the dates we come up with, please get in touch and I’ll keep you updated.

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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May 23, 2016

New worlds, new projects, new monsters

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 12:26 pm
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I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while but finding the opportunity and the words has been difficult. I’m coming through a bit of a perfect storm of conclusions – the end of being on a temporary contract, the end of working on the Seneca book manuscript, the end of teaching, the end (nearly) of exam term, the end of when I was supposed to be working at Royal Holloway. The thing about endings is that they bring beginnings with them – but these aren’t the sort of beginnings I’ve been used to. I’ve been thinking about this quite hard, because at first I assumed that my inability to think beyond the next short-term task was down to the small person – as I’ve said before, during maternity leave and the first few months back at work, I wasn’t up to anything more strenous than editing work. But there’s more to it than that.

In intellectual terms, the submission of the Seneca book (even if we still have to get through the foothills of indexing and copyediting) is a remarkably huge deal. At this point I have been working on it for eight years, in one form or another, from the original idea I suggested for my PhD and which got laughed out of court, to the germ of an idea about Seneca which I still vividly remember coming up with when walking down a summer road in Brooklyn, through the process of writing and defending the PhD, then the elongated and lengthy reiterations of editing, editing and editing some more to make the thing into a book… it’s been a long intellectual journey which has revolved around that material. To wave it off has been more of a jolt than I was expecting.

Moving onto a permanent contract marks a new phase too. I’ve spent every single year of my life up to this point thinking in terms of stages. Work to the GCSEs, to the A-levels, to the BA, to the PhD, to this short term contract, that one, and that one… there’s always been a fixed end-point around which I have structured my time and goals, particularly over the last five years. Suddenly, that’s gone. I am finding it quite difficult to adjust. (I know this is ‘my golden slippers pinch terribly’ territory, but bear with me.)

One of the immediate effects of my contract change is that I am eligible for a research sabbatical term next academic year – for those of you unfamiliar with this, the idea is that you take some time off teaching and administrative duties and focus solely on your research. In practice, all sorts of things tend to encroach on that time – but, thankfully, because nobody was planning for me to be at Royal Holloway next year, there is very little that has the potential to encroach, this year at least. So I can take the excellent advice that has been given to me by various people and think about consolidation.

What that means in practice is that I’ll be spending the summer and autumn working properly on to the next book project, which feels unbelievably daunting because the manuscript is due next year. I have to keep reminding myself that there are lots of different reasons that this book is different to the first, in terms of content and audience, and indeed the fact that I have got a lot better at writing than I was back at the start of the PhD. I’ve also been thinking about the ideas I want to explore in the new book for a while – ever since I wrote the Harryhausen piece – so I’m not starting entirely from scratch.

Yes, folks, this is finally the debut of the Monster Book. I had been planning to do this after the second Seneca book, but at the last Classical Association meeting I attended the opportunity came up to explore doing it at this stage, and I figured it would be a nice change of pace to do something reception-y that has been bouncing around in my head for a while. The book all stems from my vague dissatisfaction that there doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory way of explaining the appearance of classical monsters in popular culture. The book is meant to look at the ways that the ancient monster is reimagined in popular culture, and locates it in contemporary space. I may have to come up with a System, which is a bit unnerving, but I’m sure I’ll think of something. I’ve already made a start with the conference paper I’ve just given in Poland at the excellent Chasing Mythical Beasts conference – the paper for that is going to turn into a free-standing article but it’s all grist to the mill. I’m also giving a paper at the Celtic Classics Conference which I’m hoping will be one of the earlier chapters doing some of the theoretical heavy lifting.

There are so many issues to think through here. There’s the whole glorious world of monster theory to get stuck into, not to mention the fact that monsters have got all trendy in scholarship about ancient texts and I should probably get the hang of that. There’s a wealth of popular culture to get to grips with (which means a lot of bad things to read and watch, and hopefully some gems to discover in the middle of it all). But most of all, I have to get into the mindset of doing new, fresh research again, and start generating new words and ideas. At the moment, that feels like the hardest thing of all.

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.

July 6, 2015

June is busting out all over…

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 6:28 pm
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…and it’s taken me until July to blog about it. Such is the life of a new mum. I type this with infans in his sling, finally having the nap he has resisted all day, while I reflect upon the changes and developments that have happened in my life over the last twelve weeks.

Arguably the most significant of these is the arrival of the new small person, who is growing and thriving at a slightly alarming but very encouraging rate. We’ve all got the hang of the basics now, so it’s a matter of doing the day-to-day living, which is demanding but rather less intense than the first six weeks or so. That the final output of my maternity leave, when it finishes in September, should be a happy, cheerful and generally content baby looks like a goal that is on track.

However, I will happily own up to the fact that the itch to get back on with research work has already returned, reinforcing my personal conviction that a year’s worth of maternity leave would have had me climbing the walls. I’ve already been surprisingly productive – I finished off the science fiction piece, have done more work for the Family Archive project, and have sorted out the edits to an article about writing for the Companion to the World of Roman Women that started off as a series of blog posts on here.

Most importantly, however, last week I signed and posted back my contract with Cambridge University Press for a book provisionally entitled The Ethics of the Family in Seneca.

As you will probably have guessed, this is going to be the book version of my PhD thesis, and I’ve spent the time since submission in 2011 working on getting the manuscript into a good enough shape for publication. In fact, I’m still working on revising the manuscript, as those of you who follow me on Twitter will know, but now there’s an end date for the manuscript to be finished, and everything feels more… real.

When I graduated, I said that my life goals for the next few years were a baby, a book and abode. It looks like the most elusive of those three is finally getting closer. I may write more about the process of getting here at some stage, but right now, I’m going to go and help infans (who has woken up since I started writing this post) practice rolling onto his side.

March 10, 2015

Classics and sci fi – some initial thoughts

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 2:59 pm
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As some of you will have picked up on Twitter, one of my current research and writing jobs is for a short-ish piece on the current state of the field of classical reception studies and science fiction for Strange Horizons (the lovely people who, as you’ll remember, published my short article on crossing borders in classically influenced fiction). This isn’t entirely new ground for me, as that piece shows, and I’m thinking quite a lot about sci fi and fantasy in general as part of the monsters project. But being asked to do a review piece is a first for me, and also involves trying to get a sense of the state of a field that I have hitherto been on the edges of rather than deeply involved in.

I’m very lucky to know some of the people who are at the forefront of moving various conversations around sci fi and classics forward, and who are being very generous with their time, knowledge and expertise as I try and put this together. However, one of the problems with coming to this as I am is that – well, let me make a confession. I don’t think I’m really a fan.

I don’t mean I’m not a fan of science fiction, broadly defined – it’s a fun genre, and while I do lean more towards fantasy (allowing that the border between the two genres is extremely fluid), sci fi does some interesting and cool things. I’ve been trying to read some more of the sci fi landmarks since attending the Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space conference, at least in part because I felt I was missing out on a whole chunk of the discourse by not knowing the major texts to which papers and participants were referring. (So I’ve since read the Asimov Foundation trilogy, for example, and got a brief review of Slow River into the Times Higher Ed.) But the problem is that I’m coming to this as an adult who wants to be informed about the field, not as someone with the kind of all-encompassing hunger and passion I remember from my younger years who falls in love with a series or a writer and commits whole-heartedly to their work. I’m talking, and I say this with affection, of the sort of devotion you get in Trekkies. Or indeed in devotees of Buffy and Angel. (Some of these issues are similar to those we encounter when using the personal voice in academic work.) The closest I come, if I’m honest, is probably my irrational fondness for Hope Mirrlees, and while Lud-in-the-Mist is a starter for one, it’s not exactly an in-depth familiarity with the broad sci fi canon.

So the biggest challenge for me in writing this particular piece has been overcoming good old imposter syndrome. There are other problems too, of course. I’m drafting so I’m not too worried about the tone I’m taking yet, just getting words on the page will do, but there are issues about the right sort of way to write for a venue like Strange Horizons. It’s obviously not an academic journal, but neither is it this ‘ere blog, where I can be as informal and chatty or technical and jargony as I feel like being. I’m wondering about structure and organisation, and the sorts of things that readers will take for granted and that I need to spell out (the usual concern when writing for a non-academic audience, compounded by said imposter syndrome which assumes that every reader will already know everything I have to say, which is clearly nonsense). But most of all, it’s having the courage to have a go – after all, if I wasn’t up to it, I wouldn’t have been asked.

Now that the writing is underway, it’s actually turning out to be quite fun, and I’ve read a lot of really interesting stuff along the way. So keep an eye out for the final piece, which should appear in April or May some time, and you can judge how successful it’s been for yourself!

March 2, 2015

On disliking conclusions

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 12:07 pm
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As most of you know, I am currently wrestling with revising a book manuscript. This involves a good deal of looking at conclusions, and as such is making me remember just how much I dislike the blessed things.

There’s a lot to be said for the elegant conclusion – it distils the wisdom of a chapter or article into one or two crystal clear sentences that provide the icing, as it were, on the argumentative cake. But the bad conclusion is far easier to write – one which just recaps what has been said throughout the piece without really taking it through that rhetorical transmutation that creates a satisfying conclusion. The irony, of course, is that while I may chastise students in my marking feedback for offering conclusions which rehash the points they have already made, my first (and second and third and fourth) drafts of scholarly work often contain conclusions which do exactly the same – even when I think I’ve managed the requisite compositional alchemy.

This is something I’m particularly aware of at the moment because I’m trying to rewrite the conclusion to the whole book – not just offering a neat summary for a chapter, but a neat tie-up for over 100,000 words’ worth of point. Despite my best efforts, I’m still offering a rehash of previous points in quite a procedural manner (albeit less so than the original PhD conclusion, of which frankly the less said, the better). Finding the right words to be the last words of the book is also phenomenally difficult. My current strategy is to move into the personal voice, but I would be the first to admit that this is a strategy born out of desperation rather than of conviction. It’s also not quite coming out right just yet – there’s something too colloquial and apologetic about it, which is another risk of conclusions. While you think you have stated your case firmly and authoritatively, it often turns out that you’ve actually underplayed your own original contribution to a debate or the most significant consequence of your own argument.

I don’t think I have any tips for writing conclusions, other than being prepared to write, rewrite and rewrite again, and getting as many pairs of eyes on a conclusion as possible to tell you if you are doing yourself justice. But I am rather surprised at the difficulty of writing the conclusion for a book, if only because I had rather assumed it would be like writing a mini-chapter or article rather than concentrated last-blessed-paragraph syndrome. But maybe I’m unusual in finding conclusions such a particular bugbear. If anyone has any great ideas for avoiding the pitfalls and putting together that glittering wit and glitz that is the hallmark of a fine conclusion, I’m all ears.

January 26, 2015

The Family Archive Project: Advisory Board meeting

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 1:18 pm
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Last week was an exciting one for the Family Archive Project, as we had our first advisory board meeting. It’s the first time the project team have all been in the same physical space since the original AHRC sandpit, and for me it was the first time meeting our advisory board members, who are more senior academics with experience of doing This Sort Of Thing plus a representative from the National Archives, one of our project partners. The meeting served as an opportunity to update the advisory board on the progress that has been made so far, get some advice from them about things we felt could benefit from their input, and also ask them whether they had any thoughts or suggestions for how we should be approaching the project. It was really energising to be sitting in a room of people who were keen about the project – I’ve been getting more and more enthused since I spent a day in the British Library t’other week and realised that there’s something genuinely interesting here that doesn’t seem to have been picked up on (for perfectly good reasons) on the classical side, and the advisory board meeting reinforced that mood.

Two major things came out of it for me. The first was that the unique strength of this project is the chronological scope that the research team bring to the issue, and the possibilities that this opens up for interrogating contemporary practice and building new frameworks for understanding how people approach family archives, both consciously and unconsciously. I think we’d all appreciated that this was something special about the project as we put it together, but hearing other people articulate it certainly brought it home to me. The second was the potential that this work has for making a difference not only to other academics but to people in society more broadly, and how important it is to make sure that we’re keeping track of the needs of the communities and groups we’re working with. At the moment, we’re only operating on a comparatively small scale, but it’s something that simply hadn’t occurred to me before.

A side issue, but no less important, that we spent a bit of time discussing was how we are actually going to write the two articles we hope will come out of this work, beginning with one based on our historical case studies. We found working on the grant proposal through shared documents on Google Drive worked rather well, and I’d assumed we’d try that approach again; one thing the advisory board suggested was that one person took responsibility for calling time on the collaborative drafting process and then gave the article a coherent authorial voice before asking for feedback from everyone on the neatened result. Collaborative writing is not something that my field of the humanities tends to play with very often, although some people find it very productive; certainly it’s not something I’ve ever done. Given that there are four of us on the project team, I think we all appreciated some advice from people who have had more experience producing collaborative writing about what works and what doesn’t!

The next big milestone, other than getting a research assistant appointed for the project and setting up our focus groups, is getting together the meat of the case study article and working out what shape that would best take. Obviously because of oncoming maternity leave, I want to get on with that sooner rather than later – so I can see plenty more reading and note-taking ahead of me in the next few months. I’m looking forward to it.

July 24, 2013

On editing and catharsis

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 2:55 pm
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Things have been a little quiet here on the blog, partly because I took some time off to go to the seaside, and partly because what I’m doing at the moment doesn’t necessarily translate terribly well into exciting blog posts. For, dear readers, in line with my summer goals, I am trying to work through edits to my book manuscript in order to get the chapters which are coming out of the PhD into shape.

Now, this does not mean that I have been quiet on the internet. Any of my very, very patient Twitter followers will be able to tell you that I have been whinging like mad about this process over there, because let’s face it, if you need to vent for more than 140 characters, you should probably rethink your venting forum and whether there’s a bigger problem there. That said, thinking about this process honestly made me realize there was probably a blog post in here.

I should point out here that I’m already doing something a bit unusual in trying to convert the PhD into a book to begin with – plenty of academics just don’t bother. Well, that’s not quite accurate. They decide that the PhD was a thing good in and of itself, but that it’s best suited to life as a series of articles than as a monograph. Or that this chapter and this chapter are worth keeping, but the rest of it can go and they’ll write the rest of the manuscript from scratch. Or that now they actually want their first book to be on this topic instead. All of these are totally reasonable and sane decisions to make, but I’m in the minority, because I want to keep the structure of my PhD and add an extra chapter.

I’m currently up to my elbows in trying to deal with chapter one. Ah, chapter one. This was the ‘let’s see if it works’ chapter, the cocky chapter, the ‘I’m completely sure that there will be no problems whatsoever with this’ chapter, but also the ‘what if I’m wrong’ chapter, the ‘I have no confidence in my own writing’ chapter, the ‘excessive deference’ chapter. I started reading and writing for it in summer 2008. That’s five years ago. Just sit with that for a moment. Five years. In between which, I have won my PhD, had my first peer review articles published and accepted, and generally just… grown up a hell of a lot academically. But I’m trying to get something I wrote when I had just passed my qualifying exams into shape. It’s come a long way – from those first early steps to the last-minute restructuring a few months before submission to the first-round edit it had before going through the department’s work in progress seminar, and now my attempts to edit according to that feedback. And, you know, it’s hard to keep all that development in perspective.

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