A Brief Update

Hello World,

Normally I am much more active with this blog thing in the summer since I do not have any official academic matters to keep my mind busy, but I’ve neglected it this summer on account of being busy with academic matters. Graduate study means doing research all summer, amongst other things. So, what do I actually most of the time in the summer?

Well, I sleep 6-8 hours a night, depending on how vigorously Door Slamming Roommate is maintaining his epithet, so that adds up quite a bit overall. I am, unfortunately, still quite mortal and required to eat, although I have no doubt I could accomplish great things if, a: ) hunger didn’t drive me from the library, or, b: ) library staff didn’t drive me from the library when it closes. Considering that books never get re-shelved and noise restrictions are never enforced, it’s not like this library even needs staff to run.  Or perhaps the employees like to have wild parties when the place closes, which explains why they don’t want us around all the time.

Anyway, I’ve digressed. My time is primarily spent on several tasks: thesis work, Ph.D. stuff, language work, miscellaneous academic stuff, and filling out forms. Thesis work theoretically makes up the bulk of what I do here, and why I need to be in the library most days. Progress is good, and I hope to have a substantial chunk of writing done to leave my supervisor with when I go home in August for a bit. I’ve gotten little bits and pieces here and there written, but I have much, much more in handwritten notes in my notebook. Putting pen to paper (or, more literally, fingers to keyboard) for the actual writing process is a bit painful. I constantly feel that there is some other article or book (inevitably, in German) lurking out there that will require substantial re-writing after I find it. I’ve spent the entire week meaning to get the first part of the first chapter written up, and yet only little bits have appeared because I keep searching for more stuff. So far, I’m not finding more stuff, so maybe I should stop worrying, write, and revise later if necessary.

By sheer time consumed, the second main task (although in some weeks, the first) is figuring out Ph.D. matters. This includes finding all the necessary application dates, legal and visa things, and perhaps most crushingly, funding. The main places I’ll be applying are Oxford, Cambridge, and St. Andrews. Ghent is a possibility, as there’s a Ph.D. position being offered that I’m considering. I am not yet sure on the American schools. Princeton has a brutal admission rate in their history department (5%), although I’ve heard very positive things from a member of the faculty there, who, if I went, would be my supervisor. St. Louis and Ohio State are possibilities as well, as both have recognized Byzantinists. Harvard has a rather impressive faculty list, but I’m a bit suspicious since at least one of their staff members is dead, and has been for a number of years. It’s possible that those MIT wizards can contact the dead, but I’m more inclined to believe that no one in the history department knows how to update a website.

nuclear fission

There are two problems with the American schools. The first is the GRE. Now, I’ve done some sample questions, and I’m confident that I can score quite highly on the verbal section. The quantitative will take more work, but it doesn’t look to be unreasonable at all. Princeton wants rather high scores on both (low-mid 160s) but I figure I can pull that off if I put the effort in. The question is whether I want to put the effort in, since Oxford is the heart of my field in the Anglophone world and that is where I want to end up. Some recent research on my part has discovered encouraging figures for D.Phil funding there while finding that Princeton’s Ph.D. funding is not as good as it once was. The other Ph.D. issue is finding a topic. Typically the schools want a developed proposal. I can certainly come up with one, but first I need to find something I want to work on and something that will be saleable. The biggest difficulty is that I want to work on middle Byzantium (roughly 7-9th c., here) but since I do not get to do that here I do not have a deep academic background in the period.

Language work would be the third most time-consuming, although probably not as much as it should be. I’m working on three languages this summer. The only one in which I receive academic credit for is Syriac, a form or Aramaic related to Hebrew and Arabic which had a literary flourishing in late antiquity. It’s frequently redundant and imprecise, but at least the grammar is generally rather simple. The vocabulary is difficult, though. On my own I’ve been working on French. One might think that residing in Québec would be a perfect opportunity for this, but my book is called “French for Reading” and that’s about all I can do. I’m really liking the book, even if it’s straight out of the 1960s and designed for American science students. Alongside French grammar, it teaches me about important things like how Jamaica has a future so long as they create a society like the brilliant, heroic white people have, and how cats do well in weightlessness, although hints suggest that deceleration on the return to earth have been the end for le chat. I’m eagerly waiting for something on the Yellow Peril or Joseph McCarthy. I’ve also been leading a Greek reading group for some of the other graduate students. We’ve been reading the goriest, most violent sections of Theophanes’ Chronicle and amuse ourselves with how we ought to write a screenplay and sell it to HBO so they can broadcast A Game of Byzantium.

The miscellaneous activies and filling out forms are the side projects. The university requires an endless supply of filled-out forms, constantly sent to the hive mind down at the graduate faculty for consumption. I suspect that whatever sort of creatures inhabit Hagen Hall live off these forms. Maybe we should try feeding them an undergraduate or two just to see if that makes them less hungry for forms. My miscellaneous activities have been book reviews as of late. I’ve reviewed Michael Decker’s The Byzantine Art of War and Brian Todd Carey’s The Road to Manzikert: Byzantine and Islamic Warfare. I’m very pleased to report that both are being published in real, professional, print journals! Look for the former in Byzantion in 2014. The latter’s status is still officially “pending” (although I am not worried) for The Mediaeval Journal out of St. Andrews. I probably will not do any more this year, simply because I want to make major headway in the thesis and because it’s a time-consuming task. Open an issue of say, Speculum and you’ll find a plethora of brief, rather useless reviews. I aim for more than that, and as a result I sifted through the references in the two books and had to do a fair bit of research myself. I am pleased with both the reviews, although the authors of those two books might not be.

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3 Responses to A Brief Update

  1. abtwixt says:

    Having studied in both American (Bachelors) and UK (Masters) universities, I would very slightly recommend staying in the UK. The displacement into another country would really help you put the world in perspective and aid a unique insight of your writing, but international schooling is EXPENSIVE, unless you are lucky enough to land one of the very few full international scholarships in existence. Of course, I don’t know how the rules change for a PhD. Anyway, best of luck, and I have confidence that you will do well wherever you end up!

  2. Jonathan Harper says:

    Your McCarthy reference is a decade and a half out of date. Tsk tsk…

  3. scott hieger says:

    Waiting to hear your next update…I’m back at school after a 20 year gap to work as a high school teacher. Unfortunately, here in Dallas, Byzantine scholars are rare and it is fun to live vicariously through your travails through academia. Keep us posted!

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