Post Grad Reading: A plea for mindful practice

In 2016, after conferring with loved ones, I abandoned a Masters in English Literature and apologised to tutors of my would-be PhD. I’d spent a week staring down an essay – comparisons of Heathcliff to Irish political agitators – to no avail. I could write. Mercy had spared me that indignity. But I couldn’t read, no more than when I was a toddler.

Allow me a second to elaborate. I could have read aloud any sentence, and you’d have given me a gold star for doing it. Yet, whatever semiotic faculties allowed me to harmonise words with ideas were gone. Reading English took me as long as reading Italian, which was never my forte.

So, I saw a doctor. She asked what name she should write on the antidepressant prescription. I suggested she progress our cosy little consultation past the sixty second mark. The doctor obliged, all but checking he watch with a sigh. We chatted further, and I left with sleep medication and an unsurprising diagnosis: low mood. It’s a euphemistic evasion I suspect invented by medical insurers. Ensuing psychiatry suggested as such.

I still have depression, and, over time, I realised that I’ve always dabbled with the noonday demon. The difference was that I was newly equipped. To name something is a powerful act, even if it doesn’t seem so immediately. To name something – cancer, MS, schizophrenia – is to make something not ourselves, a vital act in every sense of word. These diseases attack us with the very parts of our psyche that mediate our experience of them. They cannibalise our epistemology, if we’re being pretentious. To name them is to disarm them to a small but necessary degree.

But why expound this on a postgraduate blog? Well, the odds of being the only human whose mental health roughs up the reading process are pretty slim. There has been a morbid failure to address this throughout the comity of academia, which is bizarre. Surely, no one should be more aware than the humanities of the experience of reading and the mental landscapes on which it occurs. Surely, poets and philosophers should warn students that nothing can ravage these landscapes more than melancholia and disease, no less the importance of tending them with mindfulness and self-love.

Let’s examine an obvious case: the sensation of depression. At its most dull, it can be mere lethargy or inertia. At its worst, the ‘I’ that acts on the world falls so far behind the ‘me’ that experiences it that you feel at a great distance from reality itself. Under these conditions, how can you hope to read Dickens or Joyce when these processes – memory, empathy, reference, ironic thought, the appreciation of beauty – all require fluent communion between these selves? Between you the object and you the subject? How is it possible to even think?

The best scenario here is that you don’t want to read. The worst case, as in my own, is that you can’t. With patience, however, you can recover. You will recall that I began this essay with a thanksgiving that I never stopped writing altogether. The very notebook in which I drafted this piece is littered with whiny lists and existential aphorisms. I suppose we’re all cliches in the end.

Writing has a reputation for being less passive than reading, even though the latter is most rewarding when done proactively. This short-formed thought of mine may have been enough to save me. To cull the anxiety that would stop me scribbling. The problem was that reading became so passive that I was intellectually inert, so there was, at the time, no hope of me restoring my mental landscapes. Happily, realising the importance of this dichotomy between active and passive offers a potential solution..

Mindfulness. With a capital M. Another word thrown around with dizzying imprecision. Many assume it means concentrating more or learning to empty the mind with meditation, and these are things mindfulness can achieve. Yet it would be more thorough to say that mindfulness is the practice of living deliberately, practically and mentally. I won’t go into its methods and so forth too much, as it’s best that people seek out their own resources, but I will show how it applies to reading.

The next time you read, have a pencil to hand. Summarise or annotate with your own reflections. Make yourself part of the process. In short, exercise the part of you that does things. The ‘I’. The subject. This, rather than the you that experiences things. The ‘me’. The object. That part only needs to self-love to stay in shape, which is easy work so long as you have a healthy ‘I’ to administer it.

It doesn’t matter how long it takes. Even if you have to spend twenty hours trying to understand three pages, as I once did, you will have practiced mindful reading. You will have exercised the mental muscles you flexed so impressively as a book-devouring child. Meditation and colouring in, for example, can help with this, as can taking notes while you watch films.

For me, depression was and still is the objectification of myself. The decline into sheer passivity. I wasn’t an ‘I’ anymore. I was just a ‘me’. I believe this self-objectification could explain why sufferers sometimes feel like passengers or even imposters in their own heads. It happened to me, because my facility to doing rather than experiencing life became flabby and toneless.

I can now read again. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but, by summarising every page I ever read, I’ve recovered my connection to the flow of language and its nuances of meaning. I still have depression, but I know all its moves, and, after years, I’ve more or less made it my bitch. I’m even beginning another Masters this year.

So, here is some advice from lessons hard-learned: no matter how healthy or in despair you are, practice being deliberate, accept your own pace, seek all the help you need, and be as lovely to yourself as you can. Nurture the mental landscapes across which your selves commune. Oh, and turn off that fucking phone. There’s nothing worse for the soul than Twitter.

– Phillip Sutcliffe-Mott (@tobeormotttobe)



Liverpool John Moore’s University 13th-14th July 2017 Keynotes: Deborah Cohen, Jane Hamlett and Helen Rogers.

Last week we attended Rethinking the Institution in the Long Nineteenth Century at Liverpool John Moores University. The conference was organised by Kate Taylor, a PhD Scholarship student at LJMU researching English female inebriates in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Kate did a fantastic job of organising a stimulating programme with some noteworthy keynotes.

Jane Hamlett’s opening keynote discussed the intersection between institutional worlds and the domestic and the role of agency. Hamlett questioned by the study of institutions is ‘fashionable’ and how domesticity is used in shared spaces. Hamlett’s work has already been a huge influence in the field, leading on from her book  At Home in the InstitutionMaterial Life in Asylums, Lodging Houses and Schools in Victorian and Edwardian England. It was a pleasure to hear Jane speak and further understand how she has inspired research on domesticity in institutional spaces in the long nineteenth century. 

Image result for jane hamlett at home in the institution

Helen Rogers opened day two with her keynote speech on the use of lyrical history to make it “possible to do more than examine prisoners as subjects of power”. Helen has written extensively on her presentation topic at her blog: Rogers aims to reconstruct institutions from the inside in her upcoming book Conviction: Stories from a Nineteenth-century Prison. It was wonderful to see a renowned academic encourage blogging and public engagement within academia and her investigative style into the history of institutional inmates is truly innovative.

Throughout the two days a series of inspiring PGRs and ECRs presented some fantastic research. They covered institutions from all perspectives, from all levels and across the full breadth of the country. Some common issues that arose such as; the agency of inmates, domesticity in the institution, how class affected institutionalization, educational needs and ideas of discipline, to name only a few. The full range of research varied widely but each individual presenter inspired the room with their passion for their research.

Ending the conference on a high note was Deborah Cohen’s reading group discussing a section from her iconic and influential text, Chapter Three: ‘Children who disappeared’ from Family Secrets: The Things We Tried to Hide. This discussion tied together some of the key issues raised throughout the presentations regarding researching institutional spaces in the long nineteenth century.

Image result for Family Secrets: The Things We Tried to Hide

On a final note, a huge congratulations is in order to Kate Taylor for successfully organising such a productive and inspiring conference. It was a wonderful room full of active scholars with supportive ideas for each others research. It was a pleasure to attend and we hope to see you all again at future events.

Conference Delegates:

Dr Jane Hamlett from Royal Holloway University of London (Keynote): @JaneHamlett

Dr Helen Rogers from Liverpool John Moores University (Keynote): @helenrogers19c

Prof Deborah Cohen from Northwestern University (Keynote): @DeborahACohen

Dr Leonard Smith from University of Birmingham

Susan Woodall (PhD candidate) from Royal Holloway University of London: @susan_woodall

Dr Laura Mair, Hope trust PostDoc research fellow at the University of Edinburgh: @LauraMMair

Natalie Mullen, AHRC funded PhD candidate at the University of Lancaster: @nmullenhist

Cara Dobbing (Phd Candidate) from University of Leciester: @caradobbing

Kate Taylor (PhD scholarship candidate) from Liverpool John Moores University: @katetaylorfc

Dr Emily Cuming (Lecturer in English) Liverpool John Moores University

Dr Rob Ellis from University of Huddersfield: @RE_histories

Jamie Nightingale (PhD Candidate) Royal Holloway University of London: @nightingale_jam

Dr Stef Eastoe from University of Roehampton: @StefEastoe

Dr Steve Taylor from University of Leicester: @Steve_J_Taylor

Catherine Sloan (PhD Candidate) from University of Oxford: @cgsloan/ @histchild

Gillian Almond (PhD Candidate) from Queen’s University Belfast: @historicasylums

Rachel Hewitt from the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare Glasgow Caledonian University:  @florencethePC

Dr Lucie Matthews-Jones from Liverpool John Moores University: @luciejones83



The Victorian literature of the mad sexy body : The Context of a Phd Thesis.

This article was written by Zoe Chadwick for the Liverpool Hope University ‘What’s your context’ research competition and won runner up at their Post-Graduate conference on 6/9/17. She discusses the Victorian approach to sexuality, mental illness and extreme bodies using three Victorian fictional texts. “It was the Victorian tendency to record, label and list anything […]

Top tips for MA Victorian Studies dissertation students!

Following on from what was discussed during Saturday’s launch of the MA Victorian Studies dissertations we thought it would be useful to compose our top tips on how to approach a masters dissertation – because we promise, it’s not as scary as it initially seems!

Read! Read more and then once you’ve done that, read some more!
It’s okay at this early stage to not be set on a topic or idea for your dissertation. If you are then that’s great, use the broad topic to kick-start your reading, once you begin researching more around the subject your own ideas and arguments will naturally form. If anything within your reading peaks your interest use that as a possible idea to narrow down your topic.
If you have no idea at this stage what topic you want to pursue then reading at this early stage is crucial. Just follow-up any interests you have, whether that be gender issues, political reforms, changing nature of culture, religion, local studies, class issues etc. wherever your interests lie use that as a starting point.
REMEMBER: always try to get hold of the ‘key’ historiographical texts. Even if they were written 40-50 years ago there is a reason historians keep going back to them. For example, any work on class cannot avoid using the classic work of E. P. Thompson. Key point to remember however is to always compare and contrast it to the most current historiography. That way it’ll provide you with a core understanding of your topic, new arguments and discussions that are happening now and naturally should help you position your argument within the historiography.
Make plenty of notes!
As your reading develops, always make sure you are making notes. These don’t always have to be detailed, but just a page number and very brief outline of what is covered is enough to remind you where to find the information again if needed – because chances are it will be!
Discuss your ideas!
As simple as this may sound, talking through your ideas with someone is one of the best ways to clarify your thoughts! Whether this is with your supervisor or with another student, talking about it, discussing and bouncing ideas off one another can be hugely beneficial, especially if you are torn between following up several avenues of research. If you can defend your reasons for a possible dissertation and why, then you are onto a winner!
Make a brief plan!
If you can plan an outline of your dissertation at an early stage it will be hugely beneficial in helping you structure and map out your research. Chances are you won’t stick to the plan by the time it comes to you writing your dissertation, but having a basic structure and outline to follow will make organising notes, reading and archival sources much easier!
Don’t be afraid to go off track!
As your research begins to progress, particularly when you start archival research you may feel a bit lost and that you aren’t staying on track. This is completely normal! Following a rigid structure of research may work for some but it definitely doesn’t for all! You can meticulously plan every single stage of your research but chances are you will never stick to that. Archival research can change everything. You may visit an archive with a list of specific sources you want to look at but until you get there to view them, you could come across many interesting and unexpected sources! It’s hard to know exactly what you will find until you get to the archives, but don’t be afraid to break away from your initial plan if you find something unexpected but exciting as it could potentially provide a much richer dissertation.
Proof read, edit and redraft as much as you can!
Constructing your first draft is the hardest part. Once you have done so, as well as asking supervisors to read it, feel free to send it to your fellow students on the master’s course or even students from the post-graduate department in general. It may feel daunting to allow someone to read your work but it can be the most valuable thing! But remember, at such an early stage do not panic about writing, you have plenty of time to construct your first draft!

A final note to all – if you are ever stressed, confused, lost or just want a chat feel free to contact myself (Sophie – or Zoe ( We are always around to have a chat over coffee, talk through ideas and proof read anything!


Sophie & Zoe

Victorian Studies Dissertation: Places to start your research.

After a fab and very informative day at Woodbrooke study centre on Saturday, we thought that it might be useful to have a quick go-to place to find links to all of the databases and local archives that were discussed. This post is a handy list of the websites or database links to get you started!

Database links:

The Times Digital Archive (You’ll need a University of Birmingham login to access this site):

The Internet Library of Early Journals (Mainly 18th and 19th C journals):

JISC Historical Texts (Best if you use search words such as ’19th century women’s vote’ or ’19th Century print culture’ etc.):

British Periodicals (This is the ProQuest link that Newman has access to):

Nineteenth Century Periodicals (Best if you have specific search words for this one):

Nineteenth Century Serials (This only encompasses six journals and papers):

Parlimentary Papers (Follow this link and use your Newman Login details): (Great for really wide searches to get an idea of what is avaliable for your topic):

Local Archive Collections:  

The Catholic Archdiocesan of Birmingham Archives (Make an appt to visit) 

Oscott College, teaching to serve the Catholic Church (This is the link to their online library catalouge, to view in person make an appt):

Black Country National Archive Records (Link to the contact details to make an appt):

The Bromsgrove History Society (Useful online resource for Bromsgrove area census details, tax records and transcript of Wills):

Feckenham Forest History Society (worth contacting for location specific research, they may have resources that are uncatalogued and are happy to help):

Cadbury’s Research Library Special Collections (Link to the online catalog. You have to sign up for a card when you first visit but this archive accepts walk-ins):

Worcestershire Archives and Archaeology Service (This is the link to their archive catalog):

University of Worcestershire research collections (access by appt only):

George Marshall Medical Museum (Great for medical, lunacy or gender topics. Avaliable by appt only):

The Birmingham Midland Institute (You all know the drill here):

Dudley Archives (accepts walk-ins but check the opening times):

Library of Birmingham Archives and Heritage (Undoubtedly the biggest resource, but make an appt to avoid disappointment, they are VERY busy):

PGCert Catholic Social Teaching


This exciting new course is aimed at those in communities, movements and networks actively engaged in promoting social justice and the common good, and at those not necessarily engaged in Catholic Social Teaching (CST), who would like to gain a Postgraduate Certificate in Theology through deepening their understanding of the Church’s radical tradition of social teaching.

During the part-time programme you will study the principles of CST in its historical, political and ethical contexts, and explore the theologies of God, human personhood and the wider community of creation, that underpin CST. You will have the opportunity to undertake theological reflection on Catholic social thought in relation to your own professional and life experience. The programme will therefore help to support and sustain your own engagement and activism as well as giving you a formal academic qualification.

What does the course cover?

The taught modules will give you the opportunity to study the foundations of CST in the Scriptures and in the Church’s developing teaching on justice and the common good through history. The course covers the relationship of CST to important political philosophies, including liberalism, conservatism and socialism. This will include exploring theologies of work and economic life, and engaging with the ethical application of theologies of justice and the common good in relation to government, the environment, family and human rights.

Throughout the programme, you will be encouraged to reflect on how you can draw on the inspiration of CST and contemporary Catholic social thinking in your community and your own vocational commitments.

For more info visit: