Our Marco Graduate Student Spotlight this week is Meghan Holmes-Worth, a Ph.D. Candidate and specialist in Premodern Europe who works with Dr. Jay Rubenstein. Meghan is the 2012 recipient of the Claude Robertson Award for Outstanding Student in European History, and the 2011-2012 recipient of the Jimmy and Dee Haslam Dissertation Fellowship. I recently had a chance to sit down and talk with her about her experiences as a Marco graduate student, and she offered some excellent advice regarding the process of dissertation writing.
Just so our readers can get to know you a little bit, can you tell us where you grew up? Are you a native to Tennessee?
Meghan: I’m originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico. I also completed my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees there.
What do you like most about living and studying here?
Meghan: I’ve lived in Knoxville for six years now. Moving here took some adjustment because it’s so different than New Mexico, but these days I have come to appreciate the culture in Knoxville and being so close to the mountains.
When did you first become interested in becoming an historian?
Meghan: As early as 12 years old I wanted to become a historian. I was particularly fond of the Chronicles of Prydain, a series of five children’s fantasy novels by Lloyd Alexander that draw from Welsh mythology. They really fascinated me. I also read several books on Welsh history and spent much of high school learning Welsh.
Can you tell us a little about your dissertation work?
Meghan: My work is concerned with defining kingship in the medieval kingdom of Jerusalem between 1099 and 1187. I’m looking at the evolution of how kingship was conceived as an institution in the work of chroniclers; in charters, laws and material culture; and as an intellectual movement.
Narratives and conceptions of kingship in medieval Jerusalem are particularly significant, as Jerusalem after the first crusade was the only real example of medieval Western Europeans forming a kingdom from the ground up. Ideas of kingship during this period were influenced by diverse groups such as the Byzantines and the Muslim caliphates as well as by biblical history
At what stage of your career as a graduate student did you decide on your dissertation topic and how did that come about?
Meghan: I was interested in notions of kingship and the intellectual, theological and narrative tradition of kingship in Europe as a master’s student. Near the end of my Ph.D. coursework, my interests shifted to a focus on the crusades. The crusaders were linked by their Western Christian identity rather than their national allegiances. Their common enemy was ideological in nature, as they didn’t really understand Islam or who they were fighting against. When they conquered Jerusalem, they were forced to establish a national and monarchical structure from the ground up.
How does interdisciplinary function to benefit your work in particular? What do you find most rewarding about working in an interdisciplinary environment?
Meghan: An interdisciplinary environment produces well-rounded graduate students, academics and scholars. The various speakers and reading groups that Marco brings in offer so many new ideas and approaches. Through Marco I have met a number of different people from a variety of methodological backgrounds. Also, communication across disciplines has given me the opportunity to clarify my ideas, as well as provided me with new sources. For example, literary scholars here at Marco have introduced me to literature about the crusades, and scholars of medieval art have introduced me to art and archaeology from the period in which I am working. Furthermore, I believe interdisciplinary dialogue keeps us from becoming over-specialized in our particular areas of study and allows us new opportunities to gain knowledge that expands our ideas and makes them more universal.
Do you find your experience as a woman in academia to be unique, and in what way?
Meghan: In the past, crusades studies have certainly been predominantly male – the majority of Medieval professors here are men. However, I have seen a recent growth of women working in Christian-Muslim relations, and the History department has also hired several new female professors in the last couple of years, so there is much stronger female presence in our department.
I haven’t personally faced many gender –related challenges until recently. My husband and I are expecting our first child in July, and the timing issue is now something that affects me. However, it works out well because I’m ABD and able to work from home and have more flexibility. Thus, there will probably be a slight gap in my work, but it is doable. I’m sure if I was at the stage where I was still doing coursework, it would be much more difficult.
What do you feel are the most pressing issues in academia right now? What needs to be addressed in regards to the profession?
Meghan: Well of course we are all a bit panicky about the job market. For every position it seems like you are going up against several hundred other applicants. With so many of the recent budget cuts in the Humanities, some job searches have been canceled and the jobs are then given to adjuncts and lecturers – many of whom struggle with terrible working conditions. I’ve also noticed that job listings are leaning towards criteria that often exclude people who have been on the job market longer than they would like because of these economic circumstances. For example, some listings require that potential candidates have received their Ph.D.s within the last three years. The bottom line is that there are too many of us and too few jobs, so it’s definitely a source of concern.
Have you considered jobs outside of academia?
Meghan: I think this is something we all consider at some point. I know a few people in History who have gone on to work for the state department or in government jobs, particularly those who have strong language skills. I know a couple people who have taken the Foreign Service exam, and then there’s the option of museum jobs or teaching in private high schools. I do think it shouldn’t such a taboo subject to talk about moving outside of the academy. It’s a necessary consideration that we should deal with as a community.
Have you ever been asked the question ‘When are you going to be finished?’ by people who aren’t your colleagues, such as friends or family members? I know this is something that ABD grad students fine particularly irksome. How do you respond?
Meghan: I completely understand. I had this plan when I started about how my research and writing were going to progress, but then it didn’t seem to work out that way. Often, you fall down these research ‘rabbit holes’ and have to work your way out. So I just say “I’m in the process of writing my dissertation and it’s a long process.” Most of the pressure I feel is self-imposed rather than external.
You have quite a bit of teaching experience. What do you particularly enjoy about teaching and what struggles have you encountered?
Meghan: When I began taking graduate classes, I really enjoyed the discussion sessions. In terms of my own courses, I always enjoy teaching topics that are outside of my ‘comfort zone,’ because it challenges me and I often find that it can provide me with different approaches to my own work. For example, I recently spoke with a class of undergraduates about the presidential inauguration, and it got me thinking how these rituals are so similar to coronations for kings.
My biggest challenge in pedagogy is teaching an undergraduate population that’s not sufficiently prepared to write. Sometimes I feel like I have to teach writing at the same time as I teach history. Students expect that they will merely be memorizing names and dates, and then they realize that it is more than that, that the study of history involves a lot of reading and writing. I also struggle with some preconceived notions that students have which cause them to look at past civilizations as backwards, primitive, or leading up to our more advanced modern times..
Have you done any traveling for research? Can you tell us a little about your travels? How did Marco help you to travel?
Meghan: I feel privileged in that Marco and the History department have given me several travel fellowships for research abroad. In 2011, for example, I spent five weeks in London and some time in Cambridge as well, doing archival research. This past year, I spent a month in Paris doing research at two of the libraries in Paris, at the Bibliothèque nationale and the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal. I’ve also done some international conferences and workshops in England and Spain that were interdisciplinary and crusades-oriented. I usually tried to combine these with research trips.
What stage of the dissertation process do you find most challenging?
Meghan: I can sometimes get easily distracted when following different avenues of research. At first I was frustrated that my research was not going as I had specifically defined in my prospectus – first this chapter, then this chapter, etc. When I realized my progress wasn’t going to fit into my initial paradigm, I began to rearrange my chapters structurally. I actually started with my 3rd chapter, because it was the one with which I was most comfortable at the time. And right now I’m actually writing two chapters simultaneously. Another of my challenges is that I like research so much, I spend most of my time doing research while instead I need to balance both research and writing.
How do you keep yourself motivated and disciplined on a day-to-day basis?
Meghan: First of all I realize that some days are going to be better than others. I don’t usually plan that this day I’m going to work for X amount of hours. I try to break up the time, but I have a document in which I track my progress every day. For example, I’m working on chapter 5 today, so I’ll record my word count at the beginning and my word count at the end, and note some of the major changes. Sometimes my notes might say something like “today I spent a lot of time translating latin for a footnote.”
I usually give myself goals or rough deadlines, but life happens and I don’t always stick to them. Sometimes I’ve had challenges where I haven’t been writing well and that can be frustrating. The most useful thing I’ve learned is that sometimes I just need to turn in what I have to my advisor, even if its incomplete, and then work from there. A chapter doesn’t have to be perfect to be submitted to advisor.
Something else that’s helped with my motivation is being part of a dissertation writing group. In the History department we have a small group organized by our graduate studies director Dr. Black. We meet every other week and one person will send out their work five days in advance, and then we will all provide comments on it. It provides us with some accountability to others for deadlines, as well as a pair of fresh eyes which often help you to see where you are being unclear in your writing.
How have you seen Marco evolve over the years and what hopes do you have for it in the future?
Meghan: Over the years we have become so much bigger and more interdisciplinary. Marco is bringing in more speakers and organizing more workshops and reading groups, many of the latter prompted by the impetus of graduate students. It is really nice to see graduate student taking initiative to start these groups. I’m also so happy to see the development of The Cohort blog as a means of expressing what we are doing in the community. It’s lovely to have a sense of a common experience here.
In the future I think it would be useful to have a dissertation writing workshop group similar to the one I have mentioned, but affiliated with Marco rather than particular departments. I think graduate students getting together and critiquing each other’s work would be tremendously beneficial. It would help to have those interdisciplinary eyes on your work. It would also be a great forum for students to work on giving and accepting constructive critiques, as well as to foster relationships that will extend even beyond our careers as graduate students. I really enjoy the spirit of camaraderie here at Marco and hope it will continue.