Research Days

The autumn semester has begun in Stirling and while I continue to work on the book project, it’s now being juggled alongside teaching, admin, organising a research seminar, coordinating my division’s presence at university open days, printing, and all of the other duties that go to make up a semester’s workload.  Stirling, to do it justice, encourages us to keep our research and writing on track during the semester by setting aside one day a week as a “research day” in which we stay away from the office and try to achieve something other than writing lectures or marking papers.  That’s easier said than done and in the process I’ve found myself thinking more about the nature of the time we spend on individual research and writing.

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Stock photos are inherently funny and odd, but I particularly like the grim melodrama of this one, found while idly searching on the keyword “research” at pexels.com.

There’s no doubt that I work more efficiently when my time is limited.  Even though I think I became more diligent and organised about managing myself between the doctorate and post-doc, the wide open landscapes of the latter still meant that I didn’t need to feel too guilty about checking my e-mail or going out for a coffee or any of the other procrastinations that can fill up one’s time.  Now that research rubs shoulders with so many other responsibilities, though, the temptation to have that sort of leisurely progression through a working day is much less.  I was reminded of this on Friday – my first “research day” of the new term – when I realised I’d been working almost without break all day on a single project; I was so caught up in the pleasure of actually having the time to think that I’d hardly noticed the hours go by.

But there’s also a problem with assuming we can turn this sort of work on and off like a light-switch.  One of the biggest difficulties I find in keeping up with research during the semester is not so much keeping the time protected (though that’s a challenge in itself) as it is picking up the threads where I left off the previous week.  There’s a flow you can get into when you’re working day after day on a single project and it’s that flow and the consequent feeling of having all the ideas and sources and quotes you need ready and waiting at your fingertips that I miss on coming back to a piece of work that’s sat cold on my desk since the previous week.

Still, some research is better than no research, especially when a major submission deadline is looming just over the horizon (I’ve promised to get my final manuscript to OUP by the spring of next year).  So I’ll take what I can get and keep plugging away at chapter nine in the hopes of having it and maybe also the introduction finished by Christmas.  It remains to be seen if my eleven or so remaining research days this semester are enough time and mental space to make that happen . . . .

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

The Joys of Data Entry

A few months ago I mentioned that one of the chapters of my new book would be about the public reception of the early Enlightenment texts I’m writing on.  Now, the spreadsheet of subscribers to Scottish books (c.1700-1740) continues to grow apace and, indeed, that’s what I’m trying to finish so I can move forward to actually interpreting the data and writing something about it.

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The raw material.

Spreadsheets, databases, and statistical analyses are not really my cup of tea.  I find them cool and often helpful, but left to my own devices I’d much rather dig deep into a single text.  For this chapter, though, that’s not an option.  It’s all very well to write about “sexy things I’ve found in the archives”, but I also want to make a convincing argument that these particular sexy things were in the mainstream of Scottish intellectual culture.  That means producing some statistics.

And so I’ve been experiencing the joys of data entry for the last week or two: plugging the raw data of eighteenth-century subscription lists into an ever-growing spreadsheet and separating out that data so that I can easily search on a person’s name, occupation, place of residence, and which book or books they subscribed for.  It’s not the most intellectually stimulating occupation, but the more I do it the more I realise that producing the dataset is actually an important part of its interpretation.  As I tap away at my keyboard, in between sips of coffee, I begin to see patterns: a certain group of individuals has subscribed to all three of these books, a particular locality is predominant amongst the subscribers to another, this kinship group has gone heavily into subscription culture while another nearby remains aloof.

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In progress, but making progress.

In the best sort of way, the process has both generated questions and made me think about what I’m trying to do in a different way.  I’ve come to realise that while (thankfully!) my initial premise as to the widespread engagement with subscription culture across Scotland was true, the particularities of it are very different from what I’ve expected.  I also now want to understand things which I wasn’t even aware of before: how was knowledge of a subscription passed around a specific community?  Why are some relatively rural localities heavily over-represented while others are entirely absent?  How did Scots abroad come to know of and then engage with a subscription drive?  Why are comparatively few scholars (in fact, authors of other books published by subscription) represented on surviving subscription lists?

So perhaps data entry and statistical analysis isn’t so bad after all.  Who knows, I might even put a graph or two into the final chapter . . . .

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

The Protean Chapter

There was one chapter of my doctoral thesis I just couldn’t crack. I must have rewritten it four or five times, hating it every time, and the incarnation which finally made its way into my first book had more or less nothing in common with the initial draft other than subject. My basic problem was that I couldn’t figure out how to talk about a difficult text – Aubrey’s Remaines of Gentilisme – but I think most writers have had the experience of the “difficult chapter”, the one that keeps changing and shifting underneath your hands in spite of your best efforts to bring it to some kind of final form.

Right now I’m dealing with another difficult chapter. When I drew up the plan for this book I knew I wanted to say something about a genre I’d loosely and anachronistically defined as “local history”, the sort of antiquarian or geographical text which focuses on a specific area – be that burgh, parish, county, whatever – and I thought I had a good idea of what that would look like. As I researched the chapter, though, the texts and concepts I wanted to address within that remit kept changing and now as I’ve been outlining it preparatory to doing a generative draft, they’ve been changing again.

Title page from Theatrum Scotiae by John Slezer 1693.

Slezer’s Theatrum Scotiae, one of the key texts I’ll be discussing in this chapter.

Some of that change naturally came from honing my research questions. Some sources which had originally seemed relevant came to be less so, while others proved to be far more central than I’d expected. There have been other matters to consider in the process as well. Any discussion of Scottish geography or chorography would be incomplete without Robert Sibbald, but I’ve been trying not to let Sibbald and his thousand and one projects dominate this chapter; in a book that’s meant to survey an entire intellectual movement I think it’s important to discuss a variety of scholars and their texts. But spending more time (and words) on texts I had been thinking less about at the beginning of the project has opened up new avenues of research and other ways of thinking about the material. I’ve now added a new writer altogether – a previously unknown female érudit whose writings include not only a geographical text, but also contributions to Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire – which has not only affected this chapter but has led to discoveries altering some of my arguments in a subsequent chapter. At what point do you stop researching and revising and start writing?

For me, I think I’ve finally reached that tipping point. Yes, I could spend a day or two in the NLS and come up with yet another iteration of the chapter outline, but I think I know what I need to say and it’s that which matters more than exactly how I say it and with what suite of primary sources. The protean chapter isn’t finished yet, but it’s getting there.

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

On Generative Writing

Almost a month ago, I talked about planning my summer writing goals and, especially, the book chapter I wanted to write first: a look at the reception of French archival and textual theories in early Enlightenment Scotland. I finished a first draft of that chapter earlier today and thought that now might be a good time – in line with my longer-term intention of documenting the writing process – to say something about how I got from point A to point B.

As with most research and writing innovations, it was The Historian who introduced me to generative writing. The idea is very simple: do your very best to throw away any desire to edit, footnote, tidy, or reflect on your writing as you go and just hammer out the words at breakneck speed. In reality, of course, it’s a little more complicated and there’s quite a lot of literature on the internet about different variations of the method (you can see some of these here, here, and here). Most academic contexts for generative writing seem to be along the lines of a one or two hour group writing session, but when The Historian participated in a “Thesis Boot Camp” for doctoral students at St Andrews in which their goal was to write 20,000 words over three days I decided I’d give it a go as well. To my immense surprise, I finished the long weekend with two draft chapters in hand and ever since I’ve used the technique as a means of getting myself through the initial draft.

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Egregious picture: It was lack of funds rather than lack of generative writing which stopped Anderson from producing his Diplomata on time (courtesy National Library of Scotland).

That doesn’t just mean starting with a blank page and ending with 10,000 words, though. For this chapter, as for others, I started with a general idea of the topic in hand (in this case, a chapter about the reception of French diplomatic scholarship in Scotland). Then I asked myself some basic questions about the chapter, borrowed ultimately from the writing pedagogy of Dr. Peta Freestone: What are the main points it needs to cover? What resources and/or evidence will I need to draw on to demonstrate these points and convince my reader? And how does this chapter relate to my overall argument? To those basic questions I also added the additional query of “who does this chapter introduce?” One of the pleasures and challenges of writing this book has been in helping my (notional) readers to get to know a host of obscure Scottish thinkers of the early eighteenth century and I’ve been doing my best to make that happen in an orderly and non-confusing fashion. Once I’d answered those questions to my satisfaction, I started working on an outline of the chapter. This went through about three iterations, each more detailed than the last, until earlier this week I had in hand a 1,500 word or so paragraph-by-paragraph outline of what I wanted to say. It was only then that I began to write.

Like quite a lot of other people who take this approach, I try to structure my writing time using the Pomodoro technique. Its effectively a way of making sure you work hard while still pacing yourself, a bit like setting a sustainable rating in a long-distance rowing race. The idea is that you work – focusing your entire mind on the matter at hand – for twenty-five minutes, take a break for five minutes, work for another twenty-five minutes, another five minute break, and so on until you’ve done a full “set” of four pomodoros (pomodori?), four twenty-five minute rounds. When I’ve prepared properly, I can pretty consistently write about 650 words in the course of one pomodoro, so going into a piece of work it’s relatively easy to figure out how much time I need to set aside. In this case, though, I actually over-budgeted on time, anticipating the chapter would take twelve pomodoros when it only came out to nine.

And that’s more or less that. I now have about 9,800 words, making a complete first draft of this chapter. It’s a mess, to be sure – full of place holders, notes saying “[CHECK THIS]”, tags indicating that I need to come back and flesh out a particular point in more detail, almost no footnotes, etc. – but it’s also something to work with, and I find that’s the most important thing. I’ll let it sit for a couple of weeks before I begin revising it and if I manage to keep to schedule by then I’ll have started work on the next chapter. Ever closer to a complete draft . . . .

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

Back to the Book

When I signed my book contract in February, I wrote that I hoped to blog on the experience of completing The First Scottish Enlightenment. Predictably, term-time intervened and I’ve had little enough progress to report over the last few months. Now that marking is (mostly) over, though, and I have only one or two pressing deadlines to keep me occupied, I thought I would return to the subject and say a little about what I’ve been doing and what I’m planning to do.

For the last year or so I’ve found myself mapping my research and writing schedule ever more meticulously. I’d set longterm goals for myself before, but the sobering sight of the Historian from The Historian’s Desk preparing a colour-coded thirty-six week thesis completion plan and then completing it on the dot encouraged me to be more precise and detailed than I had been previously. Now I draw up a week-by-week plan at the beginning of each semester and at the start of the summer holiday, laying out what I know or can anticipate about my teaching and administrative responsibilities and trying to fit research around those in a reasonably sensible way. I can think of many friends who would find this an appalling way to live life, but for me it helps maintain equilibrium, lets me know what I ought to be doing and when, and gives a larger view of projects and how they’ll be completed.

A couple of weeks ago, then, I did this for the coming summer. While the new book is far from being the only project I need to be getting on with over the next few months, it’s certainly the main one and much of my planning consisted of deciding (a) how much I could reasonably expect to write, (b) which chapters I wanted to write, and (c) what I needed to do to make that happen. In terms of how much, I wavered between three and four chapters as an ideal goal, eventually settling on four. That’s a lot to get done in four months, I know, and it may not happen, so in settling on the which I decided to focus on chapters for which I’d already finished (or almost finished) the research and for which I had substantial notes, outlines, or even portions already to hand.

The chapter I want to write first looks at the new forms of textual scholarship developed by the Congregation of Saint Maur in France, their peak in the works of Jean Mabillon (1632-1707), and their reception in Scotland from the 1690s through the 1750s. I’m planning to organise it around a series of key texts and events which were, I think, definitive in conditioning how Maurist scholarship was received by Scots: the stage-managed “verification” of a medieval charter before the Jacobite court in 1694, James Anderson’s lifelong attempt to create a Scottish guide to diplomatic along the lines of Mabillon’s De re diplomatica, Patrick Abercromby and Robert Keith’s histories of late medieval and reformation Scotland, the long-running debate over the legitimacy of Robert III (which was, of course, not really about the legitimacy of a fourteenth-century king at all, but about forms of government and their implications), and, finally, the creation of a series of forgeries of medieval documents by Marianus Brockie.

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A bust of one of the key figures of the next chapter, Jean Mabillon, in one of its key locations, the Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris (courtesy French Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0).

It’s a chunky beast, to be sure, but it’s one that’s central to my larger argument and which I’ve already put quite a lot of thought into. I’m aiming to have a draft complete by the end of May. Fingers crossed . . . .

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

What David Drummond Read

One chapter of my new book is devoted to the reception of the historical-antiquarian works I study. As part of that I’ve been putting together a sprawling spreadsheet of the 4,000 or so persons known to have subscribed for scholarly texts published in Edinburgh between 1708 (when publication by subscription seems to have first been used by a Scottish printer) and 1740. This sort of data entry is not a glamorous exercise, by any means, but the reward of being able to see who cared about what book and when is well worth it.

Many heavy subscribers are unsurprising. David Freebairn the bookseller appears regularly, as do wealthy collectors like the Earls of Dundonald and Forfar or learned ones like Duncan Forbes of Culloden and James Erskine of Grange. Sometimes, though, you come across less familiar faces and it’s the reconstruction of their habits and contexts I’ve found most rewarding.

One name which appears on seven different subscription lists between 1708 and 1728, the heart of my period of study, is “Mr. David Drummond, Advocate”.

Subscription List

“Mr. David Drummond, Advocate”, situated within a bevy of Drummonds who subscribed to the second volume of George Mackenzie’s Lives and Characters of the Most Eminent Writers of the Scots Nation in 1711.

Drummond’s subscription history begins with volumes 1 and 2 of Mackenzie’s Lives and Characters (1708, 1711), continues with the two volumes of the Catholic historian Patrick Abercromby’s Martial Atchievements of the Scots Nation (1711, 1715), returns to the third and final volume of Mackenzie’s work (1722), and finishes off with James Freebairn’s translation of The Life of Mary Stewart, Queen of Scotland and France (1725) and a new edition of Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie’s History of Scotland (1728). Altogether, solid evidence of a man fascinated by the history of his country.

But who was Drummond? What sort of person was reading these books? The son of a minister, Drummond was a Jacobite and was imprisoned in the Edinburgh Tolbooth for “some time” beginning in December 1689. It may even have been during this imprisonment that he prepared a scribal copy of his cousin Viscount Strathallan’s genealogy of the Drummonds, early evidence of his historical interests. Although described as an advocate in the subscription lists, he had ceased to practice after refusing to take the Oaths of Loyalty to the Williamite regime, instead serving as treasurer to the Bank of Scotland and assisting in the management of the estates of his exiled kinsman, the arch-Jacobite Earl of Perth.

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The rather dashing uniform of the Royal Company of Archers, of which Drummond was a member (Wikipedia, Public Domain).

Drummond was also a friend of the Episcopal, Jacobite poet Archibald Pitcairne, who addressed several poems to him, as well being acquainted with Allan Ramsay and the other poets and gentlemen associated with the Royal Company of Archers, of which Drummond served as president in the fateful year of 1715. He died in February 1740, still treasurer of the Bank of Scotland, and left behind a son who he had sent to my own alma mater of Balliol College, Oxford, as a Snell Exhibitioner in 1717 (strongly suggesting the family were Episcopalians).

de Medina, John Baptist, 1659-1710; Archibald Pitcairne (1652-1713), FRCSEd (1701)

Drummond’s friend, the bibulous poet Archibald Pitcairne (1652-1713) as painted by John Baptist de Medina (Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh).

On the one hand, a two-paragraph biography such as this one may seem like pretty thin soup on which to sup. But on the other, even these fragments can tell us a great detail. They reveal a man who was at the heart of early Enlightenment Scottish culture, with links to poets, historians, and politicians whose contributions defined Scotland in this period. In many ways, Drummond represents the revisionary image of early eighteenth-century Scotland which my new book will be arguing for: Episcopal, Jacobite, well-educated, with links to the north of Scotland, and deeply fascinated by his country’s past.  The pleasure and the reward of working through the subscription lists I mentioned above lies in the snapshots they offer of people like Drummond: a forgotten reading public who devoured the publications I study.

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

The First Scottish Enlightenment: Contract Signed!

It’s a real pleasure to write that as of last week I’ve signed a contract with Oxford University Press for The First Scottish Enlightenment: Rebels, Priests, and History, with a manuscript due-date of spring 2018.  Going into the second book project I felt as if I understood the process much better than when I was working on The Antiquary, but that hasn’t stopped the thrill of signing the contract from being just as intense!

I’ve written about The First Scottish Enlightenment elsewhere, but to recap: I’ll be arguing for a Scottish Early Enlightenment which principally consisted of historical and antiquarian scholarship and which was centered on the Episcopalian and Catholic communities of the north-east.  It is – I hope – a slightly controversial thesis, but also one that desperately needs to be made if we’re to understand early modern Scottish culture on its own terms.  I’ll be looking at a variety of printed and archival sources – notebooks, letters, pamphlets, scholarly folios, not to mention a certain number of paintings, coins, charters, genealogical trees, and similar art historical delights – and will be focusing (if you can call it that) on thirty-seven academics, printers, priests, soldiers, opera singers, landed gentlemen, poets, bureaucrats, and physicians active between about 1680 and 1750.  Most have never been the subject of academic study before now, but a few names are at least familiar in specialist circles: James Fraser (1634-1709), Alexander Gordon (c.1692-1754), Thomas Innes (1662-1744), Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh (1636/38-1691), and Thomas Ruddiman (1674-1757), to name a few.

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A detail from the flourishing family tree of the Earls of Wigtown, one of the visual sources I’ll be discussing in the new book.

Now all I have to do is actually finish writing the book, somewhere in between teaching, admin, doctoral supervision, and life outside of academia.  When I was writing The Antiquary I found it tremendously encouraging to read the blogs of other scholars working on their books, not having moments of inspiration high in the ivory tower, but plugging away methodically and thoughtfully in between the other obligations of an academic career.  Over the next year and a bit I’m hoping to provide some encouragement (or at least amusement) in turn by writing a running commentary on the book and how it’s progressing.  For a start I can say that I haven’t worked on it at all since Christmas – too many other deadlines have been pressing – but that will hopefully change fairly soon.

Stay tuned . . . .

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams