Reading Fiction in Grad School

During my first year in my PhD program, my mother bought me the first five books in a mystery series as a birthday gift. I was both pleased and frustrated. Pleased because it was a series I wanted to read and annoyed because I knew the books would sit on a shelf, unread, as I worked through readings for class (my birthday falls in the beginning of the Spring semester). And, indeed, three and a half years later I’ve only read three of the books. For someone who loves to read, graduate programs can be a mixed blessing, especially if the Shoulds and Ought-Tos of the grad student mindset make you feel guilty for reading anything that’s not directly related to your degree.

two shelves of books, a ukulele on the top shelf.
My books, my father’s ukulele.

I have, however, just found a solution which works for me. A few weeks ago, a friend posted an article on Facebook reiterating that it’s a bad idea to have screen time just before you fall asleep. This article states that the National Sleep Foundation suggests reading actual paper books as a relaxing activity. Hardly a new thought, at least for me. The number of bedtimes which were extended just long enough to “finish this chapter!” in my childhood probably exceeds the number which went as scheduled. Yet like many people my bedtime book had been replaced by bedtime apps, checking social media one last time before setting the alarm app and trying to sleep.

After reading the article, I decided to experiment. For the last three weeks I’ve kept a book on the nightstand. I read one or two chapters each night or, in the case of the current volume, one short story. Admittedly, I broke my “one or two” rule when I got down to the final four chapters of a mystery novel because I just had to find out what happened. I can’t say for certain that I’ve been sleeping more soundly, but I am enjoying the downtime. I don’t feel guilty for reading, because just before bed was never a time I did academic work anyway. Nor do I feel guilty for devouring a book in a single afternoon in an attempt to enjoy some fiction without taking up too much time. Although the Chapter Before Bed might not work for everyone, I know that I have found a sweet spot which lets me enjoy fiction without stressing about my reading habits.

Brief thoughts on Twitter

Today at noon I will be one of the panelists at a brownbag lunch session titled “Blogs, Writing Groups, Digital Classrooms, and More: Managing Your Academic Career in the Online Era” at the triennial meeting of the Southern Association of Women Historians. While our objective is to have more conversation than commentary, my part of the initial remarks focuses on twitter (for history grad students). What follows are my basic thoughts, in bullet form, and then a list of articles and blog posts about tweeting which might be useful. Please feel free to add your thoughts or recommended reading in the comments.

three columns in tweetdeck showing tweets from June 2015
Just three of my thirteen tweetdeck columns



  • Pick a username that works for you – but know that it’s (probably) possible to change it later. Also, your display name is very easy to change. If I were joining twitter today, I probably wouldn’t be @magpie; on the other hand, the username I would pick is taken by someone who never tweets. While it’s possible to change your username, it can take people a while to catch on and you might miss some tweets.
  • Don’t be an Egg! As soon as you join, upload a profile picture and add some information in the profile text. People are more likely to follow you if they can get an idea of who you are and/or what you’re interested in.
  • You don’t have to tweet everything. It’s okay to only tweet every so often. Find your rhythm. You might prefer to tweet during conferences, or only engage in conversations.
  • Think before you link accounts. You can link twitter with Facebook, instagram, and other services, allowing them to tweet from your account when you update. This can be nice, but it can also spam your feed.
  • Be aware of your audience – and that it might be bigger than you think. This is addressed at length in some of the resources below, but unless your account is locked, anyone on the internet can see what you’re saying. Don’t let this silence you – I still tweet that my cats are annoying, my nephews are sweet, etc – but you may occasionally want to ask yourself “does this need to be said by me now?” (note: composing and then deleting a tweet can be very cathartic)
  • Twitter is conversational – but sometimes your conversation partner is a good listener. It is easy to think of Twitter in a similar vein to Facebook and be disappointed when your tweets are not all retweeted, favorited, and replied to. A lack of response does not mean that people are not reading your tweets. Sometimes it simply means that they do not have a response.

A practical note: I maintain 3 twitter accounts of my own and have access to three twitter accounts for work. I would be unable to do this without two things: lists and TweetDeck. Lists are a way of grouping people you want to follow, and TweetDeck allows you to see multiple columns, of lists, mentions, direct messages, or searches. On an average day, I have 15 columns in my desktop TweetDeck client. There are other services out there which have similar functions, the most popular (as far as I know) being HootSuite.


And: PhD Comics: “Why Academics Really Use Twitter”.


I like to say that I am a second-generation digital humanist. My father, George H. Brett II, became interested in computers in the late 1970s, helped the University of North Carolina system evaluate computers/operating systems, was the first sysadmin of the Humanities listserv, and worked for decades in what was then humanities computing.

It was my Dad who introduced me to email, mu*s, html, terminal, servers, the internet, the world wide web, twitter, and THATCamp, along with countless other things which aren’t necessarily relevant to computers or the humanities. We had a conversation before my first THATCamp to establish whether he could say “that’s my daughter” (he could), and even with that it apparently took people a while to realize that he was my Dad.

There is so much I want to say about his life and what he did, not just for me but for so many people. So much, in fact, that I cannot seem to say any of it.

My father died this afternoon, after a fight with a brain tumor and, eventually, pneumonia. His family was with him, and I am grateful to everyone at RRCHNM and the Department of History and Art History at George Mason for not only making it easy for me to drop everything and come up to be here, but for telling me to do it and never letting me doubt I was making the right choice.

I have created an Omeka installation to collect people’s stories and pictures of my father. Even as he was in his final days, I discovered things he did and lives he touched I’d never known about. The site may be buggy at the moment – I only just installed contribution – but if you have something to share, please do.

Implicitly Learned: Archival Research

A while back, as part of my minor field readings in History and New Media, I was tasked with creating an interactive story related to historical thinking, the process of archival research, or a historical topic you have researched. I produced a sort of “Choose Your Own Adventure” wherein the adventure is visiting an archives. Although I had originally intended it to be about what tools a historian might choose to use in the archives, I had a sort of aha moment when I had to pick where to start the story: a visit to an archives starts before you ever walk in the door.

For those of us who research regularly, this is a given. Yet I do not recall anyone explicitly teaching me how to go to an archives. My Masters program included visits to the major repositories in Edinburgh and in each of those locations the staff member explained whatever unique system the institution had, but I did archival research as an undergrad, spending hours in front of microfilm in the New York Public Library. Somewhere along the way, possibly by trial and error, I figured out that you have to check for opening hours, for policies on what you can and cannot bring with you, and all the other steps which by now seem routine.

Since that readings course, I have wondered whether there are degree programs, at any level, which explicitly teach their students about the complexities of archival research. I have, in fact, been meaning to write a version of this blog post for the last eighteen months. Then I received an email from the director of my doctoral program asking me and a few other PhD students and candidates to speak at the first doctoral colloquium of the Spring 2015 semester about doing research in archives, specifically archives far afield. One of my fellow speakers conducted research in South Africa, another received a fellowship to spend a few weeks in California, and I have my experience with the archives in Liverpool.

I don’t know what they’re going to say. To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure what I’m going to say. I have a number of stories about Liverpool, including the surprise invitation for a second day of research at a private library and the archives which closed its website when the building was under renovation. I may not have time to share the details, but I think I can distill what I’ve learned:

Do as much research as you can before hand. Know what you can and cannot bring with you. Try to find out what you want to look at first, whether a specific item from a digitally-available finding aid or a general hope of a kind of record from vague hints online. Whenever possible, make contact before you go. Be prepared for unexpected opportunities, build flexibility into your research schedule. If the archivists ask you to join them for tea, be open to accepting (they might have delicious tea biscuits).