Lessons from grad school: primary sources!!

I think a lot about this post by Mary Beard, about how important it is to go back to primary sources, and a good thing as my first piece of proper graduate work turned up a solid first-hand example!

I was writing a paper looking at 15th-century versions of Judith, the biblical-apocryphal heroine who saved Israel by duping the enemy general Holofernes and cutting off his head. In France, Judith became connected with Joan of Arc, in the theme of sword-wielding female national liberators, and I wanted to look at whether that carried over to versions of Judith’s story in England.

A 2010 book on “Judith studies”, The Sword of Judith, pointed me to The Story of Judith in German and English Literature, a 1927 book-length bibliography of Judith adaptations. (In the olden days you had to do that sort of thing by hand…) That bibliography lists a lost play called Holophernes that was supposedly performed in 1556 for Princess Elizabeth (the future Elizabeth I) when she was under house arrest during her sister Mary I’s reign. The source quoted is a c. 1560s manuscript that describes Elizabeth’s guardian, the minor Catholic nobleman Sir Thomas Pope, paying for the play to be performed for her. Read more...

GRAD SCHOOL – week four

Being a university student at 31 is extremely different from being a university student at 21, and by “different” I mean “much, much better”. For one thing, I occasionally have money. For another, I have friends who aren’t uni friends (the people on my course are great, which is lucky as there are only four of us, but having a Life outside School is very helpful in terms of perspective/mental health/not getting sucked into UNI IS EVERYTHING, THERE IS NO LIFE BUT UNI). I do not have to live in student accommodation, I can generally manage getting around London/libraries/awkward conversations/deadlines, and am still excited about gleefully waving my student discount card at anyone in proximity of a cash register.

The most unusual and bizarrely charming part so far has been how all the university student workers talk down to me. On registration day, I had a few seconds of trouble swiping into the library with my student ID card. A weedy child with a lanyard came over to explain to me, in kindly supercilious tones, how to hold it against the light. It was baffling, until I realised he was just used to dealing with 17-year-olds who have probably never lived on their own before and don’t generally understand how things work. It made me realise how much I generally take it for granted that people I meet will treat me like an adult who e.g. knows which side up to hold a coffee cup.

The coursework is a lot of fun, although I have an unfair feeling that I’m playing catch-up. In my non-university life, sometimes when I tell people what I’m was studying (early modern English/European literature), they will say things like “Ah, yes, like Montaigne, right? I read him at A-levels – Des Cannibales, right? It’s so interesting where…” Now I don’t know enough about the British education and class system to tell whether this is usual, or I just happen to be surrounded by a bunch of poshos (probably that one?), but it is a bit unsettling to have more than one person spontaneously go “ah yes, I fondly remember doing what you’re doing, when I was a literal child”. (Of course it’s not the same approach and it’s very different reading, say, Othello in high school and Othello in a grad program, but I still have a little niggle of insecurity that I am only now getting up to speed with where most of the country has been since they were teenagers. Better late than never!, I cheerfully tell myself, while the guy at the coffee counter screws my lid on extra tight and hands it to me with a look of concerned trepidation.) That said, I do appreciate that grad school is to personal insecurity like a damp warm room is to mold, and if the worst I’ve come down with so far is “argh, humans exist who have read books that I have not yet read”, that is probably Fine. Read more...