Blog Makeover

Hello!

It’s been about two months since I last posted, and with good reason! I submitted my PhD dissertation on June 10th so I was really busy up until then. I’m delighted that I managed to submit it in time. Now I can concentrate on writing conference proposals and article submissions – one of my manuscripts has recently been accepted for publication so I’m looking forward to sharing that with you all here.

I’ve given my blog a makeover. I originally set it up in 2015 to document my Fulbright experience in North Carolina and, now that that’s over, I’ve decided to use it to share my academic exploits in general. All of the posts relating to my Fulbright experience are still available so I hope they are of some use to those of you who are thinking of applying.

Now that I’ve submitted my dissertation, I am, as you would expect, on the job hunt. I’ve submitted a couple of applications but I’m not too worried if I don’t find anything immediately. I graduated from MIC as a primary school teacher at the height of the economic crash in 2011 and although it was really difficult to find a full-time, permanent job (many of my friends moved to the UK or the UAE), I always had work. Things always work out in the end!

That being said, I’m really looking forward to working again. Teaching and researching is my passion. While I enjoy having the time to focus upon my own research, I’m looking forward to getting back into the classroom.

 

 

 

 

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Thinking About Doing a PhD?

Well, you’re at the right place! Before I embarked on my PhD journey I did a lot of research on PhD programs and possibilities because, let’s face it, it’s not a decision that should be taken lightly. So, here are my thoughts on doing a PhD…

1. You’ve got to LOVE what you’re studying. This is really important. You are going to spend several years studying this one particular topic. If you don’t love it, it will drive you demented. When I first started thinking about pursuing postgraduate studies I had to think about whether I wanted to begin a Masters in Education or in History. A Masters in Education seemed like the logical choice because I had just received my Bachelor’s in Education, but I just couldn’t think of an interesting topic to study. I’d often browse through the theses in MIC’s library looking for inspiration but interesting historical topics kept popping into my head. And I was getting waaaay more excited about those ideas than any of the potential Education topics I had in mind. Ultimately, I chose to study History and I’ve never regretted it. I absolutely love what I do. I really enjoy getting up every morning, sitting at my desk with a coffee and writing, researching or reading.

2. You’ve got to be disciplined. I’m doing a research PhD which means that there are no classes or exams. It also means that there is no structure. Not that I mind. In fact, I prefer it that way. But that’s because I’m an organised person. Teaching a class of thirty will do that to you! If you undertake a research PhD then you have got to be disciplined with your time. It’s so easy to waste the first, or even the second, year of your studies if you’re not disciplined with you’re time. Even though I don’t have any classes I have established a routine so that I am as productive as possible. If a research PhD isn’t for you then there are some structured options available. As far as I know, most, if not all, of the PhD programs in the US are structured.

3. You’ve got to be prepared to defer gratification…for a long time! Doing a PhD can last for anything between three and ten years. I’m guessing that the average time is between four and six years. This means that you are going to be a student for quite a long time. Depending on the funding you get, it probably means that you are going to be a poor student for quite a long time. This didn’t bother me too much as I’ve only got myself to look after. But if you have a mortgage or a family to support then you need to seriously consider it. That being said, I wouldn’t let a lack of money totally turn you off doing a PhD. If you really want it then you can make it work. And it will be worth it in the end. Well, that’s what I keep telling myself!

4. After you’ve done your PhD you’ve got to be prepared to work hard. Or, should I say, continue working hard. You may have reached the top of the student ladder but you’re at the bottom of the academic ladder and it’s going to take time to work your way up. I’m not speaking from experience here because I’m not at that stage yet but I’d love to hear about how recent PhD graduates have survived the job market.

Fall is Finally Here…

…and it’s beautiful in Chapel Hill! The air is crisp and cool, the sky is blue and the sun is shining, the fallen leaves crunch under your feet and the squirrels (which are practically everywhere) are searching for acorns. Autumn is definitely one of my favourite times of year and I could not be in a better place to enjoy it.

When I initially started blogging I intended on posting once a week but that hasn’t gone exactly as planned… I’ve just been really, really busy.

So what have I been up to? Well, unsurprisingly, most of my day is spent…researching! So far that’s been going really well. And I’m getting lots of my thesis written too (more on that soon). I’m really trying to make the most of having access to such a wide range of sources so I’ve divided my day into two and three hour chunks – some are devoted to research and others are spent writing. So far this system has worked really well for me and I’m being really productive.

Other than that, my days are spent meeting friends or colleagues for coffee or lunch (Chapel Hill has some really great restaurants) and attending seminars or classes. Although I’m doing independent research, I’ve slotted into some classes that are related to my field and both the classes and the professors have been really helpful. 

Two evenings a week I train with UNC Boxing Club. The classes are ridiculously hard…I’m not even joking! But like a friend back home used to always say, ‘you never regret a workout’. These classes are two hours long and are divided into cardio, which is hell, strength, which can be hell and technique, which I love. The trainers are really enthusiastic which I also love. They’re really upbeat and their positive attitude helps you to push yourself way harder than someone shouting abuse at you! I’ve met so many people through the classes. Like I said in my previous post, it’s really easy to make friends here.

My weekends are for downtime. Every Friday a group of us from the History Department head out for drinks in a local bar. These evenings are really fun. They’re a great way to unwind and catch up with everyone. They also provide a great opportunity to discuss your work and to share new ideas and perspectives – a fundamental aim of Fulbright!

Recently I attended a football game which was fun except for the rain! It literally poured the whole time. As you may or may not know, UNC is a huge basketball college – Michael Jordan went here! So when the season starts a few of us are going to get together to head to a game. The tickets are supposed to be hard enough to get but my friends seem confident we can get them.

This weekend a group of us are going to the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh which I’m really excited about so I will fill you all in on that later.

Bye for now…

Go Heels! (They won)

Go Heels! (They won)

How I Research

For all you budding researchers, I thought I’d share with you how I conduct research. It’s very important to establish a good system at the beginning of your studies, and it helps to be organised. I wasn’t a particularly well-organised person until I first began teaching and your life is ten times more stressful if you’re not organised so I adapted pretty quickly.

Anyway, this system can be used for primary and secondary source research. It can also be adapted to suit your particular needs. I like writing. Like, with a pen and paper. But I know that a lot of people prefer writing directly onto a computer so that’s fine too.

Here is my step-by-step guide to researching:

First, I read the material and take notes.

Whenever I come across an important piece of information I write it down exactly as it appears in the source. It’s okay to paraphrase but I prefer to have the exact quote – I can paraphrase later if I want. Make sure to take note of the page number if it is a book or if it’s a diary, letter or some other archival document write down the date of the document, who wrote and/or received it and other important information. This will save you loads of hassle when it comes to writing your chapter or paper later.

All of this note taking is done with pen and paper in my notebook and I keep all the notes for a particular source or document together. The name and location of my source is clearly written at the top of the first page. For example, ‘Nathan Hill Papers, Duke University’ or ‘Ronald E. Butchart, Schooling the Freed People’. Sometimes, to save myself the hassle later, I include the other information that will be needed in my footnotes or bibliography, such as date and place of publication.

Second, I record the important notes into a word document.

This is the most important step but it does not have to be done immediately after the first step. Sometimes I wait a day or two to give my head a break! I’m still working during those couple of days, I’m just doing something different.

I have five running word documents for each of my thesis chapters saved onto my computer. For example, I have a word document entitled ‘Northern White Teachers’ and another entitled ‘Black Teachers’. As I read through my hand-written notes for a particular source, I record the relevant notes into one of the five word documents.

Let’s say I’ve read the diaries of a black teacher. Most of the notes I have taken from these diaries will be used in the chapter about black teachers. Some notes, however, could be useful in another chapter, perhaps if it supports a point I plan on making somewhere else or if it contextualises an issue I raised somewhere else.

As you record your notes into your word document you categorise them. This is the most useful part of the process. So if I’m recording my notes from the diaries of a black teacher and I have a quote which suggests black teachers’ motives, I will put that particular quote under a section entitled ‘Motivation’. This process happens naturally. You don’t need to have created subsections prior to beginning your running document. Then, at a later stage, when I’m in the process of recording my notes from another source, and I come across another quote that suggests the motivation of black teachers, I will put that quote in the same section. Just be sure to clearly mark your source at the end of each quote, otherwise you’ll be very confused when it comes to writing your chapter!

Does that make sense? I hope so! I was kinda hard to explain…

Third, I write my chapter!

This system works very well for me because as I continue adding new sources and new quotes to the word document, my word count increases bit by bit. These quotes are the foundation of my chapter. They are the evidence I need to back up a particular point I’m making. The rest is just filling in the blanks. So by the time I start to write my chapter, a huge chunk of the work is actually already done.


So that’s how I conduct research. Everyone has a different method. I could probably save myself some time by recording my notes directly into my word documents but I find that I get too distracted that way. It’s whatever works best for you! Feel free to share how you conduct research.

The Value of Studying History

The Old Well, UNC

So I’m here at the University of North Carolina, getting stuck into the archives and getting lots of work done. It’s been great. I will definitely write a post about all the different kinds of fun and interesting things that I’m doing but I came across an interesting quote the other day so I’m going to talk about that for now…


I’ve yet to meet a person who does not enjoy learning about some aspect of history. Although they may not necessarily want to study history, there’s usually some aspect of the the past which fascinates them. When I was teaching in a primary school, History was definitely one of my class’s favourite subjects and when I’d announce that we’d be doing History next, the whole class would erupt in a series of yesses. And that’s not an exaggeration! I was often surprised by their level of enthusiasm but it was great to be able to share my love of the subject with such an eager bunch of students. I wish third level students had the same level of enthusiasm!!!

Although learning about historical events is interesting, many people are unaware of how useful it can actually be. When I was conducting archival research at UNC, I came across an interesting quote that I believe best illustrates the value of history:

The past is the key of the present and the mirror of the future, therefore, let us adopt as a rule, to judge the future by the history of the past, and having key of past experience, let us open the door to present successes and future happiness.

These are the words of Robert G. Fitzgerald, a black American Civil War veteran, teacher of the former slaves and political activist, written on 26 July 1867. His diaries can be found in the Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina. You can find the link here.

This quote really struck me and it’s funny because Fitzgerald’s granddaughter actually used that same quote as the epigraph to her book Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family, something I just found out.

So basically, through the study of history we can learn from the past to plan for the present and prepare for the future. And that’s why historians matter!!!! 🙂

Academic Writing Tip #1

I am by no means a superb academic writer. But I hope that by sharing the mistakes I’ve made with with you here, others will avoid making them also.

My first academic writing tip is: Reference as you Write.

This may seem obvious but, unfortunately, I didn’t do it. In History, we use the footnote system of referencing. As I wrote I inserted footnotes when needed but only a very brief citation, such as the author’s name and page number. Sometimes I didn’t insert any citation!!! And that’s something I deeply regret now, namely because I spent two days inserting full references into a 17,000 word document and I’m still not finished. And it’s tedious work let me tell you. So if you’ve any sense you’ll learn from me and not make the same mistake. Thankfully I only did it in one chapter and as I write my current chapter I make sure to insert full references every time!

Two Questions

The two questions people always ask me in relation to my research are:

  1. Why did you choose to study African American education?

and

  1. Why did you choose to base your study in North Carolina?

Although Irish people have never really questioned why I chose to study black education, Americans, in general, are really surprised!  So for those of you who are interested, let me begin by attempting to answer the first question.

I’ve always had an interest in American History, particularly that of the American South, and race relations have intrigued me ever since my first reading of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I suspect that this was because the world Lee presented in her seminal novel was so alien to me. I grew up in the 1990s and during that time Ireland was a relatively homogenous country, dominated by native, white, Catholics (I’m one of them!). Although Ireland is much more diverse nowadays, as a child I never witnessed racism and I struggled to comprehend discrimination on the basis of skin colour. I found, and still find, such discrimination completely repulsive.

In 2011 I graduated from MIC with a Bachelor of Education with History. When I decided to pursue postgraduate study, I wanted to combine my interest in, and expertise of, both History and Education. Black education in the American South has always been a “hot” topic but when I began my studies it was of particular scholarly interest, namely because a recent study had challenged the accepted image of the freedmen’s teacher to reveal that northern white women, or “Yankee Schoolmarms”, were not the only teachers of the freed people. Essentially, this study paved the way for a fresh analysis and reinterpretation of freedmen’s education, particularly at state level.

This brings me onto my second question, why North Carolina?

The answer is simple. North Carolina is a unique southern state, socially, culturally and geographically. Historically, North Carolina was known as “racially humane” and unlike many other states which were dominated by plantation society and culture, North Carolina had a relatively large number of non-slaveholding yeomen farmers. Moreover, North Carolina was home to a large Quaker population, a group who were manifestly opposed to slavery and active in black education since the mid-18th century. Knowing this, I was eager to investigate how the complex interplay of slaveholder, Quaker and yeoman farmer worked to influence North Carolina’s post-emancipation system of black education.

So there you have it! I am a firm believer in engaging in research, or any kind of work really, for the love of it. This was the advice my father gave to me when I first began thinking about postgraduate study. Obviously I worried about the logistics of it all – how was I going to study North Carolina from a little town in Ireland!?!? And sometimes it was frustrating. But thankfully we live in the digital age so it all paid off.