Thursday, December 31, 2009

Summer of research progress report

Exhibit A: The learned Miss Jones, one of the two kittens we adopted for Christmas. Her brother is a cat-man of more plebeian tastes and prefers to spend his time rolling around under the sports section of the newspaper.

Exhibit B (located beneath Exhibit A): A sampling of the books I’ve read so far in my summer of research. I’ve only skimmed to the good bits in the chronicles at this point, but I’ll be going back for close reading later (and probably more than once).

The weather has been conducive to long uninterrupted spells of reading in the garden, so I’ve also managed to plough through quite a bit of other material, amongst which:

  • Michael Bennett’s Richard II and the Revolution of 1399 (which is still irritating me with its referencing, or lack thereof, but this post by Gesta on writing book reviews makes me realise I was probably unfair in blaming Bennett instead of his publisher.)
  • Nigel Saul’s Richard II and his EHR article “Richard II and the vocabulary of kingship”. I was surprised to find Saul’s 1997 book is the first scholarly bio of Richard II since Anthony Steel’s 1962 outing.
  • Lynn Staley’s Languages of Power in the Age of Richard II. I found this a richly detailed interdisciplinary study of the social and political contexts of works by Chaucer, Gower, the Gawain poet and other 14thC texts. It also offers some valuable insights that I haven't come across elsewhere (yet) into Charles V of France's influence on Richard II's court and the connections between literary patronage and ideas about kingship.
  • Jeffrey J. Cohen and Bonnie Wheeler’s Becoming Male in the Middle Ages
  • Paul Strohm’s Hochon’s Arrow: The Social Imagination of Fourteenth-Century Texts
  • Carolyn Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval
  • Karma Lochrie et al., Constructing Medieval Sexuality. I read Mark Jordan’s chapter, “Homosexuality, luxuria and textual abuse”, on the bus. That got me some odd looks.
  • Assorted articles on feminist and queer theory

In addition, I’ve re-read Christopher Fletcher’s useful article “Manhood and politics in the reign of Richard II”. I wasn’t able to track down a copy of Fletcher’s 2008 book on the same subject through my library system, so I ended up ordering it from Amazon. It’s hardcover and a bit pricey (though way cheaper than the list price in pounds), but with the NZ dollar being so strong against the US dollar at the moment and it being Christmas and all, I was able to talk myself into it. From what I can gather from the reviews, Fletcher achieves an innovative gender-based reading of the sources on Richard II’s kingship, but he also gets called out for skating over some major issues. One reviewer also calls Fletcher’s assessments of other scholars’ work “uncharitably critical”. Sounds like it should be a lively read if nothing else.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve also developed a much more refined picture in my mind of the approach I want to take to this research project and of the specific questions I’m going to be working to answer. Thanks to some unexpected connections the background reading has been sparking, my ideas have changed a fair amount since their initial incarnation. I expect they’ll morph quite a bit more in the coming months but at least now I feel like I have a clear direction and some markers to follow. (This is just as well, because it won’t be long before I need to front up to the Postgraduate Research Committee with the formal research proposal.)

I’ve been relieved to find that, as I suspected, I’m going to be covering some solid new ground and my advisor is pretty excited about it. I went through these weird phases of anxiety at first, swinging between ‘wow, I can’t believe no one has thought about this topic in this way before,’ and ‘crap, maybe no one has done this before for a good reason’. Now that my project has been approved in principle by both my advisor and the postgrad research co-ordinator (thus validating it is indeed worth pursuing), I’ve settled into a sort of steady state where I crack open each new book or article alternately hoping to find something along my lines that will be useful, and fearing that I’ll find my great original idea isn’t so original after all.

Here’s a question for all you scholarly and creative types, though. I’m really excited about this project and want to prattle on about it to anyone who will listen. But at the same time, I’m instinctively wary about putting too much detail about it on the public interwebs, given those cases we all hear about of academic plagiarism and people having their ideas nicked before they can take credit for them. In fact, I haven’t mentioned a couple of the books/articles I’ve read, as I feel like the titles alone could give away a bit too much about the way I’m thinking (this is, of course, assuming anyone but me even gives a damn). Is this just paranoia? Am I being overly cautious? Do you talk about your original ideas and research in any specificity online before you present or publish in a more formal context? If so, have you ever had an ‘oh crap’ moment, where you suspect someone else has pinched your work?


Steve Muhlberger said...

I think you are a little paranoid when you won't mention titles. Holding back on discussing your research direction, that's quite reasonable.

Digger said...

First off, KITTEN! So cute.

As far wariness online, I think caution is best. I've only posted stuff that is tangential to my actual research, to prevent exactly what you suggest. I think asking yourself, very seriously, how horrible it would be for someone to nick a particular post or pic. Because they will. And yes, I've had to go after people who published my stuff as their own. Then again, it could be pretty fun to have a student hand you a copy of your work with their name on it...

Anonymous said...

I like Howard Aiken's advice: “Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats.” But I have to admit that I don't always take it. I blog about works in progress, and my Zotero library is open to the public, but sometimes I keep the big ideas secret. I'm usually confident that no-one will be able to work out what I'll be arguing just from the sources I've been looking at. After all, different people find different meanings.

But then sometimes an idea for a new project develops out of a blog post which wasn't originally intended to lead to anything else. When that happens it's much more difficult to keep it secret. And other times I want to discuss a new idea on my blog because it helps me to work out what to do with it.

RPS77 said...

I fell short of becoming a real scholar, so I can't give you meaningful advice about the possibility of plagiarism of ideas. I will note, though, that this - The weather has been conducive to long uninterrupted spells of reading in the garden, ... - makes me almost insanely jealous in the current below zero* temperatures.

Very cute (and scholarly) kitten.

*Below zero in Celsius - here in the land of Fahrenheit temperatures we would say it's in the twenties, though a few days ago it actually did get to around 0 Fahrenheit (-17.8 Celsius).

Bavardess said...

Thanks guys. I figured I was taking the paranoia thing a bit far by not mentioning some of the stuff I'm reading, and you're right in that every person who reads a particular source is going to take different things from it.

Gavin - I can definitely see how new projects can develop out of blog posts. I'm finding that writing here and reading/commenting elsewhere is quite a good way to develop and refine ideas (partly because it forces me to take bundles of amorphous thoughts and express them clearly and logically).

Digger - yes, I figure anything I post here is going to be open to a bit of cut-and-paste, if anyone actually wanted it. But I guess if you are going to be so bold as to publish other people's work as your own, there are other ways of getting it, too (as proven by a recent scandal involving a major NZ author who has just been caught plagiarizing for at least the second time).

RPS77 - It has been a looong time since I've experienced anything that cold! Even skiing here, the temp rarely dips too far below 0* celsius during the day on the mountain. I have become a weather wuss for sure.

magistra said...

(I tried and failed to post this last night, before your last comments)

I think you’re being a bit paranoid about the possibility of your work getting stolen. It’s worth thinking a bit about who commits ‘academic plagiarism’ and why. The vast majority is by ignorant and or lazy undergraduate students, and they are not going to publish your work in academic journals and steal your glory. Moreover, they are not normally going to have the writing skills to plagarise effectively anything but a fully-worked up text: they are precisely the students who can’t develop an outline argument into a coherent essay.

Apart from something that’s already been published in a ‘final’ form (i.e. with full formal text and references), the only other kind of work that’s easy to plagarise is ‘high concept’ material, where the argument (or plot for a work of fiction), can be summarized in a few words. But most historical research isn’t like that: the novelty of your argument (e.g. that Richard II was a much better king than normally appreciated) is less significant than the way that you demonstrate it, which is why you can have historians going back and forth over the same topic (like the significance of the Norman Conquest) and still saying something new. If you have a single ‘new’ source you have found that is key to your argument that Richard II did not die in 1400, in contrast, then you might want to keep quiet about that, but that’s less common.

I have published stuff on my blog that I’ve subsequently used as the basis for a conference paper at the International Medieval Congress, and I will probably expand my blog posts on Carolingian patriarchy into a paper or article at some point. And some of my arguments in blog posts are being incorporated into the book I’m currently working on. It seems to me that to try and ‘hide my ideas’ from prying eyes is unrealistic: after all, as soon as you give a conference or seminar paper nowadays, someone in the audience may write it up on the internet. (And if someone does plagarise you, dated blog posts can prove your priority now). It’s also against the spirit of sharing between colleagues that historians should aspire to: look at the acknowledgements in any book and they’ll show how much discussions of research in some detail are needed to improve its quality.

In your specific situation of putting together a research proposal there may be temporary good reasons for not discussing your topic: it would be difficult to have two very similar proposals appear at the same time. But once you have the research approved and started, I would encourage you to blog about it, so the rest of us who read medieval blogs can comment, make suggestions, draw spurious parallels with our own research and generally provide conversational support and interest on an intercontinental scale.

Bavardess said...

Thanks for your feedback and support, Magistra. You are, as usual, a voice of wisdom. As I'm relatively new to the blogging world, it's reassuring to know I can use this environment as I'd hoped - to share and discuss ideas, get input and be challenged by much more experienced scholars etc. - without being unduly worried about the risks. It's especially important to me because the community of historians (let alone of medievalists) in NZ is so very small. I see blogging as valuable for my research and my development as a scholar, because it lets me interact with a much wider group of specialists on an informal and regular basis.

RPS77 said...

RPS77 - It has been a looong time since I've experienced anything that cold! Even skiing here, the temp rarely dips too far below 0* celsius during the day on the mountain. I have become a weather wuss for sure.

You're not missing much, IMHO. I've become kind of a weather wuss myself - I've never done well in heat, but cold bothers me more now than it used to.

From what I've heard, it actually sounds like much of New Zealand has the kind of climate I would like, though the northernmost part would probably be too hot for my taste.

This old world is a new world said...

I'm with Magistra: this comment makes a lot of sense to me. I'm generally an optimist in such matters; and have certainly found that blogging about my work has produced some fantastically helpful responses and feedback.

That said, I blog under my own name (and have been in the field a lot longer), and that may make a little difference, in that the temptation to plagiarise a signed blog post might be somewhat reduced. And yes, there are evil lazy people in the world: it's true. I'd certainly think that as soon as you can, you should start delivering this work in public, so you can claim it that way, too.

Adorable kitteh! and what a lovely workspace, too.

Anonymous said...

I think Stephanie has the key of it: don't sit on it, make sure people know it's yours and speak on it, and so forth. That way even if someone else does see your idea, read all your sources (this is why I've always felt safe putting my stuff on the web--who is going to read 3,000 Spanish charters to get an 'easy' step ahead?) and submit something based on it, with a bit of luck the reviewers will send it back to them saying, "interesting but are you aware of the work of Bavardess (in progress) on the same subject?"

In short I think academic thievery is really very unlikely (although students' copy-and-paste more likely if you work on something that is taught to students) but happily the best proof against it is also best practice for successful scholarship, viz. get it on out there, on blog and also off!

Bavardess said...

Stephanie and Tenth - good advice. My blog isn't truly anonymous anyway - family/friends/work colleagues all know about it and it's probably pretty easy to make the connection with a little bit of googling - so I might bit the bullet and go fully 'open' in the near future. I'll also be looking for more traditional outlets to talk about my research once it is a little further developed.

Anonymous said...

I don't think you're being paranoid. It has happened to people, after all. And best to reduce the chances!

LOVELY kitty!

Good Enough Woman said...

Cute kitten on nice pile of books! And I'm envious of all of the time for garden reading.

And I can relate to some of your current research experiences. My approach to my topic hasn't really been done, but I feared that no one had done it because it was stupid. My supervisor, however, has been encouraging, so I'm feeling better and pushing onward.

And I totally relate to your paranoia. I feel it, too, and I don't put specifics about my topic or argument out there in the public view. Perhaps after I do a few presentations on my ideas and get my name attached to them, I'll feel differently. But as a brand new baby scholar, I'm playing it close to the chest. For me, I imagine it's as much about insecurity as anything else.

Bavardess said...

GEW - I can relate to that feeling of insecurity. I think that is as much a part of my reluctance to share my ideas as is paranoia about getting them 'stolen'. Every once in a while, I hear that nagging little voice in the back of my mind that asks 'so what? What is *this* going to contribute to the field?" But I guess that self-questioning and testing is necessary to producing good work, as long as it doesn't get out of hand and become crippling.

Ink - the kittens are indeed very cute but also hugely distracting. It's very difficult to ignore the little stripey paws trying to play with my pen or dance across the keyboard, and stick to taking notes!