My top tip for new University students

Freshers’ Week is all wrapped up and lectures and seminars start this week. I had some really lovely encounters with students last week: so many excited to be starting their new courses, keen for Induction Week to be over and done with and for the course to be underway (students after my own heart!), some perhaps a bit nervous, bewildered by their new surroundings and exactly how to work out the new department. I was particularly struck by postgraduate students who confessed how strange it was to be starting again – to make friends, find their way around a new campus, work out a new library system; they had forgotten how they did those things the first time around. Freshers’ Week is such a mix of experiences, but now it’s finished and the academic business of University begins.

There are some great guides on how to navigate the first few weeks of term. But, because I am a super-nerd, I’m going to talk about something a bit different, which is directly influenced by a question from a student last week, who wanted to know what I thought the best way to organise lecture and seminar notes is. This is something which has much improved my working habits over my years as a University student at all levels, and which has made writing and researching much, much easier now.

Taking notes on a laptop.

In almost every case, I think it is better to create your materials in digital, rather than paper, form – and I believe this for both taught and research courses. This means taking lecture and seminar notes on your laptop, plus taking notes from your reading on a laptop. Doing this has many advantages. If you, like me, type faster than you write, then taking notes on a laptop means that you will catch more of what is being said. Yes, the notes you take during a lecture or seminar will be messy and probably full of typos, but it is quicker to tidy them up after class than it is to type up your notes from scratch. Notes taken on a laptop are searchable (very handy when you just can’t remember where you read that really important quotation!) and a laptop (even a heavy one) weighs less than two or three A4 files full of paper. And think of the environmental benefits – all that paper saved by keeping notes digitally rather than on paper!

My own software of preference for this is Microsoft OneNote – it’s designed for work exactly like this, and is much more flexible than Word. Once you have opened up OneNote, all your class notes or reading notes are just a click away, without having to navigate to a new document or wait for a document to open. It’s really easy to organise your notes by class, but also to set up links between documents if you have topics which tie together. Plus, it autosaves as you go. (This is not a sponsored post, by the way – I just really like this programme, and very few people seem to find it without being told about it!)

Something that will hugely improve any experience of taking notes on a laptop is learning to touch-type. When I started university, I was a two-finger typist. I thought I was fast enough, but I knew that I could be better, and was also aware that I would be doing a *lot* of typing. I used this BBC Kids course – it’s incredibly cheesy, but so, so worth it!

There are some caveats to all this. When redrafting written work, there is a lot to be said for doing some of it longhand, on paper – something I will talk about in another post. And remember that, for most students, exams are taken on paper by hand – so don’t forget how to write! In fact, spending a bit of time each day writing by hand to improve handwriting wouldn’t be a bad idea at all – you don’t want to be called in to type up or read out your exam if the marker can’t read it! If your lecturer has provided you with a handout, then that is a really good backbone to your notes, and you might be better off annotating that handout rather than reinventing the wheel by creating your own notes ex nihilo. And if you just really like taking notes by hand, then do that! Personal preference is very important – but do try out different ways of working; sometimes other people’s methods might be really good.

I’m very aware that not all students have a laptop; they can be a very expensive piece of kit. Investigate to see if your University has a rental scheme; this can be cheaper than buying one. It’s also worth checking out refurbished laptops, which are a lot cheaper than buying new, and will be perfectly serviceable for Uni needs – the laptop I finished my PhD on (and which I am writing this on) is third-hand, and has been brilliant!

Another caveat is that your lecturer or seminar tutor might not love presenting to a room of down-cast eyes tapping away. It’s also very noisy to be in a lecture theatre of keyboards! And, for goodness sake, make sure you have the volume muted, and are fully charged before coming into the class. Don’t disrupt things by having to get up and find a socket half-way through, or by suddenly emitting music or sounds!

And finally, if you commit to digital note-taking, back up, back up, back up! Do I need to say it again? BACK UP, BACK UP, BACK UP!!!

What *should* I read?

At the risk of seeming unworthy to bear the descriptor of medievalist, I’m going to make a confession.

I’ve never read a medieval text for fun.

There, I said it. I’ve read plenty of medieval texts, and even quite enjoyed some of them, but I have never picked up a medieval text to read for pleasure or even for general interest, rather than because there I’m working from a list telling me what I should read and therefore because I need something from that text.

The tyranny of the reading list has been a long-standing feature of my life, having spent most of the last ten years (barring one) in full-time university study. As an undergraduate, the term reading list was a bit of a misnomer; it was more of a ‘quickly-get-the-gist list’. In recent years, I’ve had the opportunity to read much more deeply and widely (returning to things I’d first approached as an undergraduate and which re-surfaced as I was writing my thesis was an enlightening process – I’d missed so much first time around!) but what I have read has still been pretty much been directed by what I needed, rather than what I wanted, to read.

Reading because you have to is a specific experience. Rather than taking the text as a whole and letting it wash over you, you tend to zoom in on the ‘relevant’ bits and skim the rest. Yes, that digression on a poor harvest or the appearance of a comet might be very interesting, but if it’s not what you are looking for, time pressures often dictate that you quickly move on. We all know that doesn’t really do justice to the text (medieval authors didn’t stick in those digressions by accident, it’s all part of the author’s deliberate composition), but, you know, deadlines! Taking notes while reading and other forms of active reading also changes the experience of just reading. It encourages you to look for the essential points, the easy-to-summarise bitesize chunks which can flatten out complexity. And, more personally, the result having been directed by what’s on my reading list means that the scope of my medieval reading is a little narrow. Crusader chronicles are rather well-represented, anything else… less so.

Right now, I’m in-between research projects (well, I’m scoping something out, but it’s still pretty early) which leaves me enough mental energy to think about expanding my medieval reading. I’m off to Durham next month with a couple of very good friends; we’ll be visiting the cathedral, which is the resting place of St Bede, and I thought this was good impetus to pick a text. Something far from my research, which I can read passively, and just absorb. I’ve encountered St. Bede before, in my favourite first-year undergraduate module (Anglo-Saxon Culture), but only fleetingly – and that was in 2007, so it’s been a while! In addition, something I’ve only rarely experienced in my research is the direct tangibility of the medieval past, since I’ve never been to most of the places my crusader chronicles describe. But on a trip to Northumberland with the Leeds University Union Medieval Society in 2015, the incomparable Alaric Hall brought the site of Yeavering (an empty field, to the untrained eye) alive by reading Bede’s account of Paulinus’s mission to the Bernicians to the assembled group as we stood in the blustery enclosure – Bede says that Paulinus spent 36 days baptising people in the river adjacent to the site (read more about this trip here). So visiting Bede’s homeland so soon after reading his work will be a great opportunity to experience text and landscape at the same time. I’m sure my (non-medievalist) travelling companions will be thrilled to listen to me reading bits of the Ecclesiastical History out on the journey up. What else are long car journeys for?

So, is this going to be the start of a new sub-library in my Zotero folders? Will I feel the need to go back to the Latin? Will I be able to resist taking notes? Or will I manage to just… read it? And why does it feel like (if I don’t do the aforementioned things) I’m somehow not reading it properly?

I intend to keep expanding my medieval reading, so do let me have suggestions for what you think I might enjoy next! I might not put them on a reading list though.

Happy New Year!

No, I’m not lost in time and space.* It’s September 1, and the university campus is alive with preparations for the new academic year, which officially starts at the end of this month. I absolutely love this time of year. There is an almost palpable sense of promise in the air: new students are arriving for the first time; new researchers are eager to get cracking on their projects; returning students are gearing up to begin again with every good intention and resolution; teaching staff are embarking on new and revised modules. The weather is changing to match: the mornings have a nip to them, the leaves are just becoming tinged with gold, and the whole atmosphere is one of transitions and new starts. It’s exhilarating.

For the first time in 10 years, I’m beginning the academic year in a new department. Having completed my PhD this spring and graduated this summer, I’ve chosen a career in university administration, which is giving me a fresh perspective on this new academic year. While no academic’s summer is ever as empty as they would like (even though they always start with such promise – the end of teaching! No research seminars! No meetings! I’ll write 30,000 words! I’ll transcribe that manuscript! I’ll do ALL MY FILING! Then, suddenly, it’s week 1 again…), this summer I’ve become more aware than ever of how the wheels of the university just do not stop turning over June, July and August.  So much happens: August resits, graduations, admissions, timetabling… on top of that, I’ve got a new set of degree courses and modules to become familiar with, new working relationships to develop, and so much to learn!

Starting a blog has been on my mind for a while and right now seems to be the perfect time of year to do so. I’m embarking on my new career as a stealth medievalist and administrator, I’m finding my place in a new department, and I’m getting stuck into some new academic projects (which, if you stick around, you’ll hear about in the pages of this blog!) So, I’ll bring this first post to a close, but hope to see you here again soon.


*Although, when someone (who doesn’t work in academia/education) told me a couple of weeks ago that she had 20+ days of holiday still to take this year, I said ‘how on earth will you manage that by the end of September?’ She had to gently explain to me that she meant the end of the calendar year.