Category Archives: Academia

Could Anyone Not On the Bus Please Raise Their Hand: A Guide To Conference Fieldtrips


It’s that time of year when academics can grab a break from their endless PowerPoint slides, passive-aggressive question sessions and lunch breaks with suspicious fish-based sandwiches, and instead be permitted into the real world to point at things in a somewhat organised manner. Like a school trip, bus loads of academics are driven from the lecture hall to archaeological sites, great buildings and art galleries, with a burning determination to show everyone around them that they absolutely ooze theory, methodology and object-based knowledge from every gland! Things can get pretty heated as they tear into poor display, conservation and interpretation; so here’s a few situations I have identified that you can be ready for!

P2000537Everyone will look at an interesting piece of medieval sculpture for a bit, then someone will realise it is a Victorian replica and the group will die a little inside

Well… it’s a very good pastiche


Seizing the opportunity, one eminent delegate will speak inside a building to the extent that they basically recite the entire manuscript for the book about it that they have never got round to writing

He’s been going for at least 35 minutes now, isn’t the wine reception supposed to be at six??


P2060052Instead of looking at a building, people will gather round a small model of it made by secondary-school children in the 1950s  and criticise its numerous inaccuracies

Of course, the layout of the monastic complex is conjectural to say the least; and that tracery of the infirmary is ludicrous for the documented date


KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAIf a number of scholars are invited to climb part of a stair-turret, they will ignore instructions where to exit it and proceed to ascend to the very top as if they might glimpse the court of heaven with God enthroned with His angels in splendour, when actually all they will find is a roof-space filled with asbestos

Now this just doesn’t seem safe, maybe I ought to go back down and not mention this


P2020195One conference delegate will criticise the liturgical arrangement of a church building but absolutely no one else will care

Look at the state of those riddel-posts
They look like drainpipes


P1560077There will be a significant digression about the appropriateness of light fittings

All 1960s, of course


P1240071Two insane people will look at something utterly insignificant as if it is the most exciting thing in all of creation

Is that..?

I think it is…!



13625143_10100333691940530_1400530738_nEven though every group is supposed to see the same things in a rota, people will hide the coloured sticker on their name badge and go with whatever group they feel like because they really don’t believe this is possible

Balls to that Anglo-Saxon tun, I’m going to the lady chapel roofspace first


P1770506Someone will be told by a guard not to get too close to an object when pointing at it and have their authoritative ego scarred for the rest of the visit

I wasn’t even that close… and it’s glazed anyway so I don’t know what their problem was frankly



P1630331An amateur guardian of a building will deliver an extended Ladybird book version of its history to an assembled congregation of eminent scholars who know more about it than anyone else on the planet, but everyone will be too polite to tell them to stop

And we have three windows at the east end, which symbolise the 3 at the beginning of our village dialling code

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAIt will rain and people will make interminable jokes about the “English summer”

Even if the conference is abroad



13816950014_3797aa884f_b[1]You will be stuck between two people discussing the differences between Purbeck marble and other types of fossiliferous limestone which is interesting for the first ten minutes but then you realise decorum means you have no escape

In the en-delit shafting in the triforium? That’s blue lilas, surely




With more wonky arches



All that is solid melts into wifi: note-taking in the digital age


BA and MA notes

As I’m doing a little bit of teaching on art-historical methodological texts next term, I’ve been digging right back into my BA notes. Partly this is to remind myself why I hate Said’s Orientalism so much, but also to think about how you think and note-take as a student. What’s evident mainly how much the way note-taking has changed in the giant leaps we’ve made in technology in the past ten years, perhaps fundamentally changing the way we engage with texts. Is this a good thing? Well, it’s a thing, for sure. A thing that might be even more boring than moulding profiles, but I’m still going to put both on my blog.


An example of BA3 note-taking

The notes for my BA at the University of Manchester and my MA at The Courtauld Institute fill three whole lever-arch binders (the majority of which are for my third-year BA, not including the dissertation). Ten years ago, if you brought a laptop to a lecture, you’d stick out like you’d brought your own sandwiches to a lunch meeting at a mediocre café. Everyone would look down on you for it, even if deep down they thought it was a rather good idea. But nevertheless, I was never the one to make this faux-pas, resulting in reams of A4 paper with fountain-pen notes. I developed a system of organising notes – for both set texts and lectures – into sections, using bullet points or indenting as the argument deepened, and returning to the margin when a new idea was introduced.


Some PhD note taking

I attempted to continue my developed system of tiered note-taking (the “classic” type, I have thus dubbed it) into my PhD. The problem is that, whereas in taught, structured classes with assigned reading, it’s easy to organise all this thought on to paper, it’s much harder in the flowing, free-form nature of your own thesis. Despite my determination to hold on to my fountain pen, it was never going to work. I found myself sometimes turning through page after page of my folder trying to find the reference for something I’d written down when writing part of a chapter. My little red ring-bind folder was abandoned before it even approached the size of my BA notes, for the referencing system Zotero, which can hold all your bibliography and notes thereon in the Cloud. As long as you hadn’t imagined making it, no note is ever far from your grasp.


Lecture notes

Writing however, continued to be useful to help understand things rather than simply to record: most of all lectures. My golden age of the “classic type” of note-taking survived into the extensive notes I take during academic talks, not necessarily to remember what they said, but to have some sort of exercise in front of me to understand the facets of their argument. For much of the three years of my PhD, these were done in notebooks. Increasingly, my scrawl became ever-more spidery, and if anyone was to research my archive if I suddenly die in a bizarre gardening accident (the latter far more likely than the former) they’ll need to train themselves in palaeography at a level usually reserved for Babylonian cuneiform. Marginal doodles of Gothic tracery reached their apex during the middle of year three, suggesting I may have being having some sort of episode by then.


Microsoft OneNote (not as many spelling errors visible as there usually are)

For the past year, I’ve been note-taking in lecture rooms with Microsoft OneNote on my ASUS Transformer laptop-cum-tablet, as now it’s socially acceptable to have a “device” with you. Of course, the tab key is the ideal way of maintaining the “classic type”, preserving a system that was developed on the page in the screen. The great thing about this is now I don’t have to keep these notes anywhere, I can make them and forget about them, and never have to destroy them – even if most of them I will never read again. Possibly the only downside of all my notes being perfectly legible is if at a conference anyone gives a paper so bad I stop taking notes and type something rude about it, if they sit next to me later on they might read it.

Of course, rather undermining the whole analogue-to-digital conceit of this post, my essays have always been done digitally. I cannot imagine writing long-form prose without being able to pre-emptively launch into a draft without an introduction, move bits about, revise and rewrite chunks, slot bits in, and all the other things that personal computer word processing has made widely possible for at least 20 years now. Probably someone reading this will give me the full-on Four-Yorkshiremen treatment of how they had to do their PhD before the big bang, when we didn’t have all this “time”, “space” and “matter” that you kids today take for granted and that’s totally fine but I’m sharing my own inconsequential personal story about taking notes and I’m nearly finished now so just hold off a little bit longer and then you can tell me that I don’t even know that I’ve been born.


My PhD reading and notes organised into consecutive folders

The weird thing is, I don’t actually remember writing much of my dissertation. Just editing and refining these essays I wrote for my supervisors in the manner of assessed work. Despite the fact emerging pretty early on that trying to structure your PhD in the manner of a taught module was a stupid idea, I stuck with it till the bitter end (although the name of the final folder may reveal my recognition of this). Some of these were directly turned into chapters, others swallowed up into the larger picture.

Making the leap from systematic, linear note-taking to cultivating truly original research is not straightforward, and I’m sure everyone has had their own way of making the shaky transition from student to not-student. But the tools easily available to us now with Cloud-based note taking systems I think truly do help us organise thought and information in a more holistic and adaptable manner. It doesn’t make things any easier than before, but it does mean we can do more. However, on occasion, I still like to pick apart a particularly complicated text with my good old fountain pen.


What struck me: a guide to conference questions

Some say the real heroes in our world are those like the police officers who keep us safe, the soldiers who fight for our freedom, or the doctors who keep us in good health. Yes, those guys are great and all, but don’t forget the unsung hero of the academic. As well as having to spend their days wondering how on earth shelfmarks work and curse the fact that you can’t put footnotes to your footnotes; they tirelessly attend conferences where they all gather together to namedrop French philosophers and linguists, their only reward being coffee breaks with often poor-quality biscuits. Of course, the most heated section of any conference are the question and answer sessions, when a paper is open for skewering by an audience of esteemed professors and over-enthusiastic master’s students. To make things easier for these noble paper-giving heroes, here’s a handy guide to what a question’s prefix may indicate as to what’s coming next.

(Because this isn’t the TLS I’ve put some pictures in)


whatstruckmeOne thing that struck me was…

There was one really interesting thing I saw in your slides and I’d rather we talked about that rather than what you actually said


haveyoureadHave you read…

You haven’t read…


grotesques+f.185r[1]This isn’t really a question, more of an observation…

I’m not giving a paper today but I really think I ought to be


grotesques+f.154r[1]Could you speak a bit more about…

You seem to be getting dangerously close to something I’m working on and I have to see if I need be worried


grotesques+f.203v[1]You should take a look at…

I actually know what you’re talking about and I’m going to make sure everyone here sees my mastery of the bibliography


grotesques+f.50r[1]I was thinking during your presentation, about…

I’m going to ramble about nothing in particular for at least eight minutes

grotesques+f.50r+4[1]I just wondered what you thought about – and the other speakers could also answer this – …

I’ve actually remembered what this conference is supposed to be about and I’ll be damned if I don’t make you people actually address it before the wine reception

LP-Monster-6-2[1]I’ll think you’ll find that…


Okay so basically no one can ever ask a question now without looking like a grotesque from the Luttrell Psalter. Sorry about that, everyone.