I’m a SurVIVA, Part One

Recommended listening: Destiny Child’s ‘Survivor’

This blog post’s beginnings were in a series of emails I sent to friends preparing for their viva in the time of Covid-19, with everything from submissions to vivas being moved online. My submission date for my viva was 20 April 2020, which I thought would be plenty of time to proofread, double-check references, and finesse the arguments within each of my chapters. By early March, I started to worry that the rising rates of Covid-19 infections in the UK would mean that the university, archives, and libraries might shut before my submission date. The few weeks in March before everything did indeed shut was a ‘controlled frenzy’ of activity, making sure I had everything I needed to finish my thesis from home. In the end, I didn’t fully pull it off. There are still images of seal casts in one of my chapters where I hoped to have images of the original impressions, but the archives cancelled my image requests and done is better than perfect.

Hearing the whoosh of my email submission as it went through.

I’m aware that there are a plethora of blog posts on preparing for the viva and what to expect, but with the announcement of Lockdown 2.0, the virtual viva may be here to stay for the foreseeable future. This post and it’s sequel intend to give some helpful advice on what to expect in an online viva and offer some helpful tips on how to prepare for it. And let’s be honest, I couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to make a terrible pun in the title and reference Destiny’s Child.

Preparing for the Virtual Viva

I started thinking about my thesis again two weeks before the date of my viva. The break from my thesis and doctoral work was intentional. After the ‘controlled frenzy’ of the run up to submission at the start of lockdown, I was completely burned out. In addition, I had developed what I thought was stress-induced acid reflux and I was more sick than well by 20 April (it turns out I had gallstones and was very ill, but that’s for another blog post). Because I associated being ill with coping with the stress of submitting during a global pandemic, I decided to take a break from my academic work and recover. I’m glad I took a break. The viva is only the next step in the process, it’s not an end point of the PhD, and allowing myself time to regroup after submission meant that I was happier returning to my work to prep for the viva.

Two weeks out, I broke up my thesis into manageable chunks to closely read through each day. This worked out to a chapter a day. I broke it up in this way because it allowed me to go through each chapter more carefully without getting the panic of imposter syndrome by reading through it all at once. It also allowed me to identify places in the thesis where I might have elaborated on an argument more and to actually write in the margins or on a piece of notebook paper what I would say. This helped me build up my confidence around contentious points. I also made a colour-coded key for my thesis so that I could identify for myself different themes that ran through the thesis as well as the overall argument.

My heavily annotated copy of my thesis, along with post-it note key.
Thesis with argumentative additions.

7 days before my viva, I met with my supervisors. I chose to meet with them 7 days out specifically so I could bring questions that I had from my week of reviewing and preparing. They flagged 3 questions that were likely to be asked in the viva. These questions are broadly applicable:

  1.  Where does your work feature in current historiography? In your own words, what is the state of your field in 2020?
  2. This question specifically related to my methodology for seals, but broadly be prepared to talk through your methodologies and why you did your research the way you did.
  3. What is your thesis’s contribution to knowledge?

I actually answered these questions on notebook paper. I wrote them out at my kitchen table, without looking at my thesis. It was much an exercise to prove to myself I knew my material as much as it was a preparatory exercise for the viva. One of the most useful things I read online about vivas is that they are open-note exams. You are expected to bring your thesis and notes with you, so I made sure I had answers to these questions written down in case I panicked in the viva I had something tangible to look at to help me refocus and ground myself back into the examination.

I re-read my introduction and conclusion the day before my viva and spent the rest of the day doing things that made me feel good. For me this is herbal tea, meditation, my yoga practice, and reading. Full disclosure, I still had a panic attack the night before and barely slept. While I don’t recommend having a panic attack, I will say it’s okay to be nervous. It’s natural to feel anxious about the viva, but it’s also important to remember that your examiners want you to succeed too.

Here ends part one, dear Reader. The next blog post will cover the virtual viva experience and how we celebrated even with Covid restrictions.

Women and Power, Part One

NB: The research presented here is the intellectual copyright of Dr Rachel Meredith Davis.

Power has long been a theme in the study of women’s and gender histories of the Middle Ages, owing to its development out of the second wave of feminism in the 1970s. It has been returned to cyclically in the 1980s, the 1990s, the early 2000s, and is a current thread of research, which partly owes to the political climate of the early twenty-first century and the rise of far-right groups in the US and the UK. Investigations into women’s power have resonance in the age of the #MeToo movement and the Trump administration, particularly with his Supreme Court nominees, which have raised alarm over whether Roe v. Wade could be overturned. The current cultural and political climate has reignited debates about women’s consent, women’s autonomy over their bodies, and women’s place in politics both in the present day and the historical past.

In her 2017 (revised edition 2018) publication of two lectures given in 2014 and 2017 respectively, Mary Beard queried the continued cultural mentalities that make it difficult to uncover or recognize women’s power, be it in the context of contemporary geo-politics in the ancient world. She asked

How have we learned to look at those women who exercised power, or who try to? What are the cultural underpinnings of misogyny in politics or the workplace, and its forms (what kind of misogyny, aimed at what or whom, using what words or images and with what effects?) How and why do the conventional definitions of ‘power’ (or for that matter of ‘knowledge’, ‘expertise’ and ‘authority’) that we carry round in our heads exclude women? (p. 52).

Our cultural vocabulary and mentality excludes women from notions of power. As Beard went on to argue ‘we have no template for what a powerful woman looks like, except that she looks rather like a man’ (p. 54). Indeed, one of the difficulties we have in assessing powerful women in the Middle Ages comes down to issues of terminology. Viriliter, has long been a particularly difficult term to parse. With its meaning ranging from ‘manly’ to ‘courageous’ the question continues to be asked, are these women transgressing their gender when described as such, or is simply an issue of classification? We might also trace the difficulties in categorizing powerful women in current scholarship. Indeed, we refer to it as ‘female lordship’ rather than ‘ladyship’ to convey an equivalency between the power exercised by medieval men and women. While arguments have been made that terminology of elite power and designations, such as domina and dominus carried the same legitimacy in the medieval mind, the fact of the matter is, much of the study of women and power has attempted to show that women exercised power like men, because men are assumed powerful, but for women we have to prove it. Beard’s analysis posited a longue durée of women and power. As one reviewer, Rebecca Mead, suggested, Beard proved ‘#MeToo has been #ThemToo for millenia’.

Medieval #girlboss and ‘manly’ woman Black Agnes defending her castle (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

There are, certainly, worrying continuities between the past and present for women in politics. ‘Lock her up’ became a chant of supporters of Donald Trump during the 2016 American Presidential Campaign, who deemed Hilary Clinton a ‘traitor’ worthy of imprisonment. In September 2018, it was announced that the State Board of Education in Texas had voted to remove several historical figures from its curriculum in order to ‘streamline’ its material for public school education. Among these individuals was Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller. The patriarchal erasure of powerful women is persistent. Also worrying is the patriarchal political apparatus insisting that we should accept the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg because she too is a woman. Personally, I cannot read an article about ACB without thinking of Judith Bennett’s 2006 arguments about ‘colluders of patriarchy’ in History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. We are allowed to be discerning in who we choose as our #feministicons or #girlbosses  and we certainly don’t have to accept what Trump and the GOP present to us as female empowerment.

There have been some positives (if that’s the right word) too. The phenomenon of the ‘glass cliff’, a theory that suggests women only assume leadership positions in business or politics at times of crisis, has also undermined women’s power until recently. The Covid-19 crisis has showcased the capabilities of women in leadership positions, with the responses to the pandemic led by Jacinda Ardern and other women showing a better handling of the crisis than the hyper-masculine governments of Westminister or the White House. The notion of the ‘glass cliff’ arose as a way of justifying not putting women in positions of power by setting them up to fail, so to speak, by inheriting a company or country when it was already in distress. However, the global pandemic has shown what most women already know to be true: not only are we good in a crisis, a woman’s approach to handling difficult circumstances can be better than that of the toxically masculine alternatives. I can’t help but hope that the change that we are yearning for as a global community in 2020 brings about more women in positions of power to shape a different future for us.

The intention of this blog post, and the next few to follow, is to provide you, dear Reader, with a sample of what you might come to expect with this blog. I intend to do a multi-part series on women and power, drawing on the work I did during my PhD on the topic to explore themes on consent, vulnerability, and resilience. This discussion is merely a primer for the current debates that shaped and influenced my work on late medieval Scotland as well as my contribution to the field of women’s and gender history.

All references to Mary Beard come from Women and Power: A Manifesto (London, 2017).

Reading list

Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford, 2017).

Judith Bennett, History Matters: History and the Challenge of Feminism (Philadelphia, PA, 2006).

Rebecca Mead, ‘The Millennia of #MeToo in Mary Beard’s “Women & Power”’ The New Yorker, 26 December 2017 [http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-millennia-of-metoo-in-mary-beards-women-and-power].

David A. Graham, ‘“Lock Her Up”: How Hilary Hatred is Unifying Republicans’ The Atlantic 20 July 2016 [http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/07/lock-her-up-hillary-clinton/492173].

Doug Stanglin, ‘Texas board votes to drop Hillary Clinton, Helen Keller from history curriculum’ USA Today, 15 Sept 2018, [https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/2018/09/15/texas-board-drops-hillary-clinton-mandated-history-curriculum/1316956002/].

Charlotte Brook, ‘When Women Take Charge’ Harper’s Bazaar, September 2020.

Not all who wander are lost

‘That savage forest dense and difficult’

This blog has taken some time coming to fruition. I started thinking about it as I came to the end of my PhD during the Covid-19 crisis watching as academic job after academic job, heritage job after heritage job was postponed or disappeared from various job posting sites in a response to economic changes. I felt like Dante’s voyager-narrator:

     When I had journeyed half our life’s way,

     I found myself within a shadowed forest,

     for I had lost the path that does not stray (Inferno, Canto I, ll.1-3).

The career that I had envisioned for myself post-viva had disappeared from view and I felt dizzy from being knocked off course. The ground had shifted underneath and the way that had seemed clear was now not visible.

Glencoe Lochan Trail, Glencoe, Scotland

This feeling is not unique to me, nor is it entirely new. The academic job market for post-PhD and early career researchers has become increasingly competitive and challenging for those in the arts and humanities. However, the emergence of Covid-19 and the subsequent crisis has created an entirely new and arguably bleaker field for those of us emerging from the PhD searching for work. I feel similarly to an errant knight, having completed his training, set free into the world, yearning to prove my mettle and gain my fame as best I can.

Errant here, I hope, will show its full range of meaning each week as I find my way as an early career researcher. My penchant for etymology started in my undergraduate with a Latin tutor that enjoyed testing (torturing) us with the tertiary and quaternary (and so on) definitions of verbs. Errant is derived from the Latin errare, which translates primarily as ‘to wander’, much like our knight above. Other definitions include ‘to go astray’, ‘to make a mistake; err’, and ‘to vacillate’. Each of these definitions relate to my PhD and my academic journey thus far and I will take each of them in turn.

To go astray

My PhD doctoral project was never linear in its progression, despite my best efforts to impose a linearity to it. However, the more my research progressed, the more I realized that my efforts as a researcher had to meander because the pursuit of over-looked and under-valued histories are often not waymarked in the archives or easily seen at first glance. The development of my academic work occurred as I wandered and some of my best ideas came when I leaned into the complexity and inter-connectedness of my source material. Academic wandering is increasingly hard to do with the pressures of academic progression, the push to finish in three or four years, and the notion that if you don’t publish you certainly will perish.

To make a mistake; to err

When I first started studying Latin, this was the definition that came most readily to mind. Even now when I see the word errare my mind jumps to the English ‘error’ as its spelling resembles the Latin so closely. To make a mistake is something that I feared at the start of my postgraduate work. The thought of getting historical interpretation wrong even two years ago could induce an instant panic attack and and a cold sweat. This mostly tied into the imposter syndrome I dealt with throughout my PhD. Every year before my progression meeting, I would worry that one of my supervisors had found me out and that the meeting would be my exposure for fraud. This, I now know, was all in my head, but the fear of ‘getting it wrong’ certainly marred the development and confidence of my PhD thesis in its early drafts.

And I did get it wrong sometimes too. Not every early interpretation of my findings was the best fit. Getting it wrong is an important part of the process. It allows you to embrace the complexity, or what I like to call the messiness, of medieval primary source material. I used to associate making a mistake with failure. But it’s not. Making a mistake is just an opportunity to return to the source material and re-think, to fall back and re-group.

To vacillate

I love to vacillate in my work. This perhaps ties into my fear of making a mistake. I would feel much more comfortable wavering between different opinions or interpretations rather than settling on one that is rejected by my peers. I don’t think all vacillation is bad. There are times when there is too little surviving evidence to offer decisive conclusions. Here, a tentative offering of suggested interpretations seems better to me. This seems especially necessary in histories offering alternative chronologies, i.e. women’s and gender history and others, where the evidence is patchier and the conclusions don’t necessarily fit within ‘master narratives’.

Allt na Calliche trail, Invergarry Scotland

‘The road goes ever on and on’

I am aware that beginning a blog with the opening lines from Dante’s Inferno might convey despair or a general hopelessness on my part. However, it was not my intention. Dante’s Divine Comedy, like other medieval works is a journey. The emphasis is on the evolution of the voyager-narrator. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were stories told to pass the time on the way to Canterbury, not what happened once they got there. As I evolve from PhD student to early career researcher in these uncertain and unprecedented times, it would behoove me to continue to reflect on the fact that the journey is far more important than the destination.

A very excited Rach post-viva, August 2020

I ought to draw this rambling prologue to a close and offer you, dear reader, a programme for what is to come. I intend for this to be an academic(ish) blog. What I mean is that it will be a reflective and meditative space for me to explore ideas that relate to my research and a space for me to continue with my writing now that I’m not being kept to the deadlines of the PhD writing up process. It is an academic cum personal blog. My past historical practice and current work has been subjective and reflexive and I intend to continue my practice in this way. Expect to see posts reflecting on grief, loss, mental health, as well as politically charged issues like the #metoo Movement. As it is personal, references to the Lord of the Rings and other literature, like Dante and Milton, will abound as they hold a special place in my heart and are often what I turn to for comfort. I will close here with Milton:

Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;

The world was all before them, where to choose

Their place of rest, and Providence their guide;

They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow,

Through Eden took their solitary way (Book XII, ll. 645-50).

And so I emerge, newly doctored from the PhD programme, wandering slowly toward the career meant for me.

Onward.

 All references to Dante are taken from Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Allen Mandelbaum (trans). (London, 1995).

Reference to Milton comes from John Milton, Paradise Lost (London, 2003).