L. T. Meade: Brain Surgery and Patient Consent

I’ve been researching L. T. Meade and rereading stories by her for my ongoing research. Meade’s full name is Elizabeth Tomasina Meade. She published extensively in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

She was best known for her fiction for children and young women and her medical novels. However, she was also the second most prolific contributor to The Strand Magazine—second only to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. My work on Meade thus far has focused on the short stories she wrote for The Strand. In her Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Meade, Sally Mitchell credits her with inventing the sub-genre of the medical mystery story. Meade’s contribution to detective fiction in this sub-genre and more generally has often been overshadowed by Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

Doyle and Meade saw themselves as professional writers and understood the necessity of writing what sells when earning their bread through writing. However, where Doyle came to resent this necessity, Meade embraced it.

Doyle famously tired of Holmes and his popularity. He tried killing him off at Reichenbach Falls only to later cave to pressure to bring him back—first in The Hound of the Baskervilles (set prior to the other stories) and then to fully resurrect him in The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle’s resentment stemmed from his frustration with the relatively cool reception of the works he saw as his true art—his historical fiction. Doyle wanted to be known as an artist, not the producer of engaging, but formulaic detective stories.

Meanwhile, Meade had a much more workmanlike attitude toward her writing. In March of 1897, Meade published an essay entitled ‘A School of Fiction’ in The New Century Review. She opens the essay by noting that there are schools of cookery, music, acting, and art, and she thinks there should also be a school for fiction.

Meade expects opposition to this proposal. She says her detractors will claim that ‘the novelist is born, not made; that writing comes by nature; that the novelist is like the lark with his Art all complete; that he needs no reading and no study’ (220).

After making the point that she is not writing of the ‘giants’ of the literary world (Austen, George Eliot, Kipling, Scheiner), Meade explains she is ‘speaking now of the novelist whose name is legion—the novelist who supplies the bookstall and te periodical’ (220). Though some literary giants did publish in periodicals, Meade’s point is that the majority of cheap fiction was not and did not need to be written by literary geniuses.

To support her claim that training is necessary for writers, Meade points out the large portion of their annual income people spend on reading material. She takes her numbers from those reported in the journal Book Bits. She reports that letters sent to the Book Bits editor in reponse to this question showed that people on a small income (<£100 per annum) spent at least 10% of their income on literature, while wealthier respondents report spending larger proportions. Also, two respondents earning £500 per annum report spending 20% (or £100) on literature (222).

Clearly, demand for reading material was high, but Meade despairs that increasing demand has not led to increasing quality (222). Thus, she calls for formal training for writers. She wants them to understand ‘[t]here are rules which belong to the art of fiction which cannot be disregarded if successful work is to be the result’ (225).

Meade was certainly not the first to criticise the poor quality of much published fiction. One important precursor is an essay Marian Evans (pen name George Eliot) published in the Westminster Review entitled ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’ (12 September 1856). Though Evans does not call for formal training for novelists, she does, like Meade, object to novels by undereducated writers.

Meade’s fiction demonstrates that she not only understands rules of grammar and the conventions of characterisation, setting, and plot structure, she is also well-informed about the world she lives in and about which she writes. Many of her stories for The Strand, for example, demonstrate her understanding of current medical practice and the public’s anxiety about scientific advancements.

Brain Surgery on Children

Brain surgery became more common, and thus more of a concern in the late nineteenth century. With the acceptance of effective anaesthesia and germ theory, brains surgery became more successful. Also, the understanding of cerebral localisation allowed surgeons to determine the location of a blood clot in the brain, thus allowing them to remove the clot if it was deemed to be in an operable location. Meade’s first series of stories in The Strand, ‘Stories from the Diary of a Doctor’, co-authored with Clifford Halifax, MD, address these issues.

In ‘The Heir of Chartelpool’, Stanhope is suffering from a clot on the brain as a result of a fall. Dr Halifax, the narrator, believes an operation to remove the clot is worth the risk, but Mr Parsons, a famous London surgeon, will not attempt it because the clot is too close to the brain stem; Halifax performs the risky, experimental surgery and the previously unconscious and paralysed child makes a full recovery.

The greater understanding of the development of the brain in the nineteenth century also allowed for the possibility of treating conditions such as microcephaly caused by craniosynostosis. This condition occurs when a child’s brain does not develop normally because the skull has fused prematurely. In ‘Creating a Mind’, Halifax performs a craniectomy on a microcephalic child, thus allowing his brain room to develop normally. Within six months of the surgery the intellect of the toddler at the centre of the story has almost caught up to that of his peers. Cranial enlargement was controversial in the 1890s owing to the high mortality rate associated with it, but Meade, rather than engage with this debate, depicts Halifax as an innovative surgeon curing a child.

While these early stories recognise the risk of dying in surgery, and Halifax warns the boys’ mothers of this risk, both Halifax and the boys’ mothers deem it a risk worth taking. In ‘The Heir of Chartelpool’, the child’s mother wants more for her son than the bare existence he would have without treatment. While in ‘Creating a Mind’, the child’s mother both wants her son to be able communicate and to be accepted as his grandfather’s heir—his grandfather refuses to leave his property to a child with compromised brain function. Thus, in these stories, Meade’s attitude toward brain surgery is largely celebratory; both procedures are successful, the boys make full recoveries and have the power of both movement and communication restored to them, and both inherit the family fortune.

Brain Surgery on Women

silenced 1

The stories in which Meade depicts adult women who are subjected to brain surgery are decidedly darker in tone as she considers the threats posed by unscrupulous surgeons and their knowledge of cerebral localisation.  As Anne Stiles argues in Popular Fiction and Brain Science in the Late Nineteenth Century, ‘cerebral localization theories […] undermined a sense of a stable human identity. By suggesting that certain parts of the brain controlled specific emotions and behaviors, localizationists contradicted the popular belief in a unified soul or mind governing human action thus narrowing possibilities for human agency’ (10). The experiments in anatomy and vivisection that led to localisation theory began early in the nineteenth century across Europe, but research activity in the area increased from 1861 when French scientist Paul Broca linked the third convolution of the frontal lobe on the left hemisphere of the brain to ‘linguistic ability’ (Stiles, 2). Meade resists the materialist explanation of human consciousness and identity championed by localisationists—in fact, all of the stories I discuss in this post link the mind and the soul. However, she could not ignore the fact that experiments showed that localisationists knew which part of the brain controlled certain behaviours, and this knowledge gave them the power to disrupt these behaviours. In both ‘Silenced’, a standalone story published in 1897, and the Mrs Kort plot line in Stories of the Sanctuary Club, published in 1899, unethical surgeons use their knowledge to silence their victims by destroying or at least hampering the part of the brain that Broca linked to linguistic ability.

‘Silenced’ is narrated by Nurse Petre; she happens to learn that Captain Gifford, the lost lover of a former patient and dear friend Miss Trefusis, is alive and in the house of her employer, Mr Hertslet. Hertslet is due to trephine Gifford the following day and to marry Miss Trefusis in six weeks’ time. When Nurse Petre tries to take the news of Gifford’s presence to Miss Trefusis, Hertslet silences her; he describes his actions as follows:

“I waited until you dropped asleep, then I administered an anaesthetic. The rest was
easy. With a suitable instrument I made a small opening through the bone at the top of your temple, just over the centre which controls the power of speech. Having made the hole through the bone, I introduced a probe and broke up the brain tissue.” (701)

He then staged an accident to explain the injury on her head and her sudden partial paralysis and inability to speak. Nurse Petre suffers in silence for six weeks, but the morning of the wedding the paralysis is starting to wear off and Miss Trefusis comes to visit. While she is there, Nurse Petre prays that she will be able to speak just enough to warn her about Hertslet; her prayer is answered, the wedding is averted, Hertslet disappears from England, and Miss Trefusis marries Captain Gifford. The resolution in the text is as sudden, and almost as short, as my summary. Though all ends well for most of the characters, Hertslet’s disappearance raises the question of whether or not such practitioners can be policed or controlled in a way that protects the public. This story is written and set well after the major Medical Acts of the nineteenth century of 1858 and 1886, but it raises the concern that though practitioners were required to be properly educated, the regulators had little power over how they would use their knowledge.

Similar questions are raised in Stories of the Sanctuary Club. These stories are narrated by Dr Cato, who founded the club with Dr Chetwynd. In the third story, Dr Kort joins the establishment, and his wife moves into rooms in the Davos suite shortly after. Over time, Cato and Chetwynd notice that Mrs Kort is cheerful and intelligent when they visit her in her rooms, but when she ventures out into the rest of the house she often becomes extremely forgetful and ill. They also notice that after Kort joins their practice, quite a few of their patients meet suspicious and violent ends. In the final story, Cato and Chetwynd insist on speaking to Mrs Kort alone and the truth comes out. Kort is a murderer; he murdered both to conceal what he had done to his wife and for money. However, as horrific as these crimes are, they pale in comparison to what he did to Mrs Kort.

She explains that they met when they were both studying medicine in Vienna. She was engaged at the time, but Kort mesmerised her periodically and used his influence to persuade her to break off the engagement and marry him. After their marriage, he reveals his ambitions to his horrified wife:

He told me on one special awful night that it was his belief that every thought or motion arises, not from a spiritual source, but merely from a physical change in certain cells in the brain. He said it would be possible to prove this by stimulating these cells, so that character, moral sense, even conscience itself, and all that had hitherto been accepted as belonging to the spiritual part of our nature would be really at the mercy of the physiologist. (674)

Sanctuary Club.png

He says he can only prove his theory through human experimentation, and then mesmerises her and makes her his experimental subject. To test his theory, and control his wife, Kort depresses a section of bone above the area Broca linked to linguistic ability. At an ordinary level of atmospheric pressure—in London today it’s about 15 pounds per square inch—this causes extreme pain and forgetfulness and would eventually cause death. To prevent this, Kort fits her with a small metal cap that relieves the pressure on her brain; she can only survive without the cap at lower pressures—in Davos today the pressure is about 12 pounds per square inch. He makes sure she knows that if he removes the cap she will die if she is not in a pressure controlled space. Once she is established in the Davos suite he can control her by removing the cap, thus preventing her from revealing the truth about him when she leaves her rooms; in her rooms, she is under the careful watch of a nurse in his employ. He furthers her torture by telling her the details of his murders; his first murder victim is her former fiancé.

Through Kort’s experiment on his wife, Meade engages with two important scientific debates of the fin-de-siècle: the theory of cerebral localisation and the practice of vivisection. It is, of course, well-known that antivisectionists were concerned with cruelty to animals and the infliction of unnecessary pain. But even those who were not against the practice of vivisection had long had serious reservations about it. For example, according to David Agruss, Jeremy Bentham, who was not an anti-vivisectionist, nevertheless worried that if the act of vivisection did not serve ‘purely scientific ends’ it could cause problems for the vivisector and ‘For Bentham, the danger of vivisection is that it risks veering from “medical experiment” to “bad habits” and to “amusement” at the sight of suffering’ (267-68).

Furthermore, Bentham worried that practicing vivisection on animals could lead to practicing it on humans (268), a fear shared by fin de siècle anti-vivisectionists. Kort’s experiment on his wife confirms these fears are well-founded. When he first tells her he needs a human subject, she expresses pleasure in the idea that he will never be able to prove his theory because he cannot experiment on humans. That is when he reveals the discrepancy between their moral or ethical codes: he has no qualms about experimenting on her or anyone else. He asks her, ‘“What is your life? … “What is the life of any woman, any man, compared to the knowledge which through you I am gradually obtaining?”’ (675). These are exactly the sorts of questions Bentham and many others feared physiologists would ask, and gothic literature in the 1890s questions time and time again. To name just a few examples, the issue is central to James Machen’s The Great God Pan, Arabella Kenealy’s short story ‘A Human Vivisection’, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. These texts share with Meade concerns about issues of patient consent, human autonomy, and the nature of the mind. Unlike the gothic texts, however, Meade’s more realistic narrative of Mrs Kort’s suffering has a happy ending. She is finally allowed to tell her story and Cato and Chetwynd restore her health by repairing her skull. After their restorative surgery, however, she has absolutely no recollection of her marriage or any of the suffering that followed it. Cato, in a rather paternalistic way sees this as a blessing and he and Chetwynd never tell her what she’s forgotten. There is no indication that withholding this information is a violation of her rights or of her sense of self. Finally, though Kort is hanged for the murders he committed, he is not punished for his experimentation on his wife; as in ‘Silenced’, Meade leaves open important questions about the possibility of effectively regulating medical practitioners.

SC 2
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Impostor Syndrome

There’s been an outbreak of impostor syndrome in my social media feeds lately. I’m not going to be terribly specific because I don’t want to embarrass anyone, but I belong to several Facebook groups about writing (fiction writing, academic writing, editing…) and follow several twitter accounts and a few twitter chats on similar subjects.

A common theme over the last couple of weeks has been people wondering if some colossal mistake has been made—the hiring committee wouldn’t have hired me if they knew…; the publisher wouldn’t have accepted my manuscript if…; how could they give me a degree/certification/job? All of these worries stem from the worrier thinking they’ve somehow erroneously achieved whatever it is they’ve achieved. And now the worrier fears everyone will find out the truth—that they aren’t good enough.

When I was researching this topic, I came across several TED Talks on impostor syndrome. I watched four of them: ‘Thinking Your Way out of Impostor Syndrome’ by Valerie Young, ‘Impostor Syndrome’ by Mike Cannon-Brookes, ‘Why Does a Successful Person Feel like a Fraud?’ by Portia Mount, and ‘The Surprising Solution to the Impostor Syndrome’ by Lou Solomon.

The speakers all mentioned the statistic that 70% of people have experienced impostor syndrome at some point in their lives. I, however, have to agree with Lou Solomon when she suggests that number sounds rather low. For the general population, perhaps it’s correct—I have no way of knowing. But for the highly-driven creative types I spend most of my time with, 70% is way too low.

The very qualities that are necessary to be a writer, an academic, or an editor are the same qualities that lead to impostor syndrome. We have high standards, tend to be perfectionists, and care deeply about what we do. I’m not suggesting that you lower your standards or stop caring, just that you find a way to put your inner critic in their place.

The Effects of Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome can cause significant physical, emotional, and professional damage. Near the end of her video, Valerie Young discusses the effects of impostor syndrome. She says it can cause sufferers to ‘fly under the radar’ at work; by this she means sufferers don’t take risks or speak up. They don’t want to draw attention to their perceived imperfections, but in the process they don’t call attention to their strengths, and they risk being overlooked for promotions.

This image made the rounds of a few of my social media feeds; try to remember it the next time you’re struggling to speak up:

tornado full of sharks

Impostor syndrome, according to Young, can also be responsible for procrastination. The logic of the syndrome can be ‘if I don’t do anything, I can’t fail at anything’. Of course we all know this only works in the short term, but if you’re just trying to avoid the negative feelings brought up by the syndrome, that can be enough.

Young also links impostor syndrome to workaholism. Lou Solomon and Portia Mount address workaholism as well. In all three talks, the link between workaholism and impostor syndrome is perfectionism. Our education system tends to teach from an early age that it’s good to always have the correct answer, to always present work in the correct way, etc. This becomes a problem, though, when the need to be perfect leads to agonising over insignificant mistakes.

Solomon tells a story about not being able to sleep because of a typo in a memo she’d distributed at the office (in the days before email); she got out of bed, went back to work, retyped the memo, and redistributed it. She didn’t get back to bed until about 2am, but no one knew she’d made a mistake. For a mind controlled by impostor syndrome, that lack of sleep was justified.

Portia Mount describes how impostor syndrome felt to her: “I was unravelling; the more success I experienced the more anxious and insecure I became. Thoughts kept racing through my mind; I couldn’t shut the voices off. I lost weight; I couldn’t sleep. On the outside I looked happy and successful, [but] inside I was dying”. This idea that success worsens impostor syndrome was common to all four talks.

Impostor syndrome doesn’t only effect you at work; it causes problems elsewhere, too. Whether it’s causing procrastination or workaholism, it will be having an effect on your personal life. If it’s making you miserable (emotionally and/or physically) it will affect your relationships.

How Can We Deal with Impostor Syndrome?

Valerie Young suggests changing your thinking—she says the body doesn’t know the difference between fear and excitement. So, when you feel your nerves kick in tell yourself you’re actually excited. She acknowledges that you won’t believe it at first, but in time you will.

I’ve had some success with this in certain situations. When we expressed performance anxiety, my flute professor always told the flute studio to ‘fake it till you make it’. She was right; week after week in studio, I walked onto that stage and pretended I was confident and happy to be there. By the end of my degree, I really felt that way.

Mike Cannon-Brookes takes a different approach. He doesn’t believe one can overcome impostor syndrome; instead, one must learn to use it and to slightly reframe it. He says successful people still experience doubt, but they don’t doubt themselves; they doubt their knowledge and skills—things they can change. Most importantly, he says successful people don’t see asking for help or guidance as a weakness, but as a necessity.

Portia Mount emphasises focusing on facts; you have had some success, so don’t diminish it. She also encourages people to challenge limiting beliefs. Finally, she says we need to ‘talk about it’. We aren’t as perfect as our overly curated online lives suggest; our meals are not always picture perfect, our hair is not always perfectly coifed. Find a time and a place that you can discuss the realities of your life.

Lou Solomon suggests dealing with the inner critic’s voice directly. She says having impostor syndrome is ‘like having a crappy best friend in your head who says mean things’; she’s named hers Ms Vader.  She deals with Ms Vader through another internal voice, ‘a radical hero’ she’s named Betty Lou. Betty Lou calls out Ms Vader’s nonsense.

As this list demonstrates, there may be as many ways to deal with impostor syndrome as there are people suffering from it.

What Can You Do About It?

imposter 3

First, remember that you are not alone.

If impostor syndrome is causing writer’s block, try some of the tips I cover in my post and ebooklet on dealing with writer’s block. If it’s keeping you from submitting your work for publication, get someone else’s opinion. The options for finding someone to read your work are endless: a friend who doesn’t sugar-coat the truth, a writing group, an editor, a mentor, a writing coach… Also, follow through on the age old advice—if it’s rejected, send it off to somewhere else as soon as possible.

If you’re a student (undergraduate or postgraduate) and impostor syndrome is making it difficult for you to participate in seminars or conferences, you’ll find some helpful tips in my post on succeeding in seminars. To recap the main points; set small, achievable goals (like speaking once per seminar and building up from there); discuss the issue with your personal tutor or supervisor; seek support from your university’s counselling services; and talk to your GP.

If you’re in an academic post and your impostor syndrome is making it difficult for you to assert yourself in staff meetings or in lectures and seminars, your university likely offers a lot of support options. The teaching support department probably has workshops on running effective seminars and giving lectures. You may have access to confidential counselling (some universities require you to go through occupational health to access this—if that sets off a whole different kind of anxiety, and you can afford it, hire a private counsellor or talk to your GP). Make contacts with academics at other universities (private social media groups are great for this); it may be easier to ask for help from someone you won’t see at the next board of teachers. Find someone you can talk to about this. It’s a common problem, but if feels lonely when you have it.

Editors suffering from impostor syndrome should engage with continuing professional development to keep your skills up to date. Also, remember it is okay to ask for help. My feed is full of editors asking questions about grammar—you aren’t expected to always have the answer; you are expected to know how to find the answer. Often that means asking someone else.

Until next time, happy writing.
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GSU: Seminars

In the humanities, the main forms of instruction are (usually) seminars and lectures. To get the most out of these students need to be active participants. I’ll discuss what this means for lectures in a later post. For seminars, you need to prepare, listen to other students (not just your tutor), and join the conversation.

Why should you prepare for and participate in seminars?

Successful seminars are those in which everyone gets a chance to speak. This is important for your education because seminar is the place for you to try out your ideas and get feedback from your lecturer and your peers before you complete your next assessment.

If you turn up to seminar unprepared and just listen, are you really hurting anyone other than yourself? Yes, you are. First, it’s rude to expect everyone else to carry the conversation. Second, if you just sit and listen you are taking from everyone who’s speaking without giving anything back. Seminar discussions, like good dinner party discussions, require give and take from all participants.

Do you need to prepare for seminar beyond just doing the assigned reading and briefly looking at any suggested topics or preparation questions? Yes!

How do you go beyond basic preparation?

Seminar tutors often open with questions like the following:

  • What did you think of the text?
  • What did you find most interesting?
  • What did you find challenging or confusing?
  • If you didn’t like the text, why not?
  • If you liked the text, why?

If you’re worried you won’t be able to answer such questions spontaneously, jot down short answers while you’re preparing for seminar. Also, make note of your tutors’ favourite opening questions.

I’ve led seminars in which ‘What did you think of the text?’ was the only question I had to ask. The students had varied and strong opinions and we spent the seminar unpacking them.

Seminar participation isn’t all about answering questions, though. It’s also important to ask questions. While you’re reading make note of any questions you have or topics you’d like to investigate further. Then, you’ll have a response when your tutor asks if you have any questions.

What if you really, really don’t want to speak in class—ever?

As you’ve hopefully gathered by now, seminar participation will require you to speak in class. I know the terror the prospect of speaking in class strikes in the hearts of some students—I was one such student.

I completed degrees in music and English (at the same time—in British terms, I did two single-honours courses simultaneously; yes, it was insane, and I also worked part-time). I had no trouble standing on stage by myself playing my flute for the length of a recital—that was all well-rehearsed and I had my flute between me and the audience. What I worried about was thanking the audience and inviting them to the reception after the recital. As for speaking in seminars, that didn’t come up very often—the American system is different than the British system, and it was very different twenty years ago.

I did, however, get over my shyness. I can now lead seminars, give lectures, give presentations at conferences, and so on without giving a thought to nerves. How does one overcome this level of shyness? Preparation, planning, and support.

If you’re shy about speaking in seminar, remember that you are not alone. Sometimes, the most insecure students are also the most talkative; so, don’t fall into the trap of thinking ‘everyone’ else is comfortable with this.

To make seminar participation easier, write out answers to set questions and anticipated questions. This way you can read out your answers—this is less scary because you don’t have to worry you’ll forget what you wanted to say. Also, if there are any words giving you trouble (synecdoche and metonymy always trip students up) you can either choose a different word or learn how to say it. Collins Dictionary online is brilliant for this—just look up the word and click the little red speaker symbol next to it to hear the correct pronunciation!

If you’re shy, you need to plan to speak in seminar. Challenge yourself to speak once in each of your seminars for the first few weeks of term. Then, increase the challenge to twice per seminar for a few weeks. It’s highly likely that after five or six weeks, you’ll be comfortable with frequent, spontaneous participation.

If you suffer from severe anxiety, please don’t try to tackle it on your own. Discuss your anxiety with your personal tutor, and if you’re comfortable doing so, with your seminar tutors. You may also need to enlist the help of a therapist at your university’s counselling services centre and have a chat with your GP.

Most seminars involve some sort of small group work before the groups feed back to the whole class. If the prospect of speaking to the whole class makes you feel ill, start by becoming an active participant in small-group discussions. Once you’re comfortable with that, set bigger challenges like volunteering to feed back to the whole class for your group. With the right plan and support, you can overcome shyness.

What if I’m not shy?

If you’re always eager to speak in seminar, don’t lose your enthusiasm—seminars need people like you. However, if you notice you’re always the first to respond to questions, try holding back occasionally; sometimes seemingly shy students just need time to compose their thoughts.

When seminar’s over, I’m done, right?

Not quite. You’ll find exam preparation and coursework essays easier if you take a little time while seminar discussions are still fresh in your mind to make connections to previous seminar discussions. This needn’t take more than ten or fifteen minutes; I’ll discuss how to organise these post-seminar reflections in a later post on preparing for assessments.

Until next time.
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Guide to Succeeding at University (GSU): Managing Your Time

I’m going to write several posts that deal with issues facing undergraduate students. These posts will be most relevant to British undergraduates studying in the humanities, but other groups of undergraduates will find some useful tips, too.

I’ve taught at three universities; at all of them, some staff had a tendency to expect students to know how to be students from day one. If you’ve finished your A-levels and secured a university place, you’ve likely been told that ‘university isn’t just an extension of school’. So far as it goes, this is true. However, knowing what university isn’t doesn’t do much to prepare you for what it is.

Time Management

One of the biggest changes you’ll have to adjust to is that your time management is all up to you now. Most of you won’t be living with your parents or guardians, so you won’t have anyone to make sure you study, go to class, sleep, eat the occasional vegetable…

This newfound freedom is exhilarating. Enjoy it! Go out with your friends, stay up too late (on occasion), and have fun. You’ll have more fun throughout the academic year, though, if you develop a plan for keeping up with your studies.

When you receive your timetable, you’ll probably have about 10 to 12 hours of timetabled events (lectures, seminars, etc.). This does not mean the other 154 to 156 hours in the week are ‘free time’.

British universities, more so than their American counterparts, expect students to engage with a lot of independent study. How much, you ask? If you’re enrolled in five units, you should plan to spend seven to eight hours each week on each unit. If a unit has a one-hour seminar and a one-hour lecture, you need to spend five to six hours preparing for those and engaging in further study. As a full-time student, you are expected to see your academic work as your full time job.

Below I’ll show you what a weekly calendar would look like for a fictional student called Maggie (after my sweet 16-year old cat; in the picture below, she’s investigating a clome oven).

Maggie loaf

S = Seminar, L = Lecture, Numerals = Course name

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Sat. Sun.
9:00 S4 Work
10:00 S1 L2 Study L1 Study Work
11:00 Study Study S5 Study Study Work
12:00 Lunch Study Study Study Study Work Study
13:00 L3 Lunch Lunch Lunch Lunch Work Study
14:00 Study Study Study Study Work
15:00 Study Study Drama Club Study L4 Work
16:00 Study S2 Drama Club Study Study Study
17:00 Study Drama Club L5 Study
18:00 Study Study
19:00-late Work 19:00-22:00


Work 15:00-21:00


As you can see, Maggie works, is enrolled on five units (each with one seminar and one lecture), and is involved in Drama Club. Though she is busy, she manages to have most evenings free and still get all of her work done.

How does Maggie fill 26 hours of independent study time?

This will vary from course to course, and unit to unit. It is common for your lecturers to outline topics or questions you need to be prepared to discuss in each seminar in addition to the more general discussion you can expect to have about the assigned reading. Thus, a large portion of your study time should be given to reading the assigned text(s) and making notes—write down questions you have, answers to the suggested questions, etc.

When you finish the prep for the next seminar, you’re not done. Students on courses with heaving reading loads will benefit from reading ahead—ideally you’ll start this the summer before, but if not start now.

Look at when your assessments are due; if the first one isn’t due until the middle of term, take the first couple of weeks to get ahead on your reading and seminar preparation. This way, when you need to devote more time to researching and writing essays, you’ll have more time. Also, if (when) you catch whatever head cold/flu/stomach bug is going around, you can take a day or two off to recover without falling so far behind.

Once you’re a couple of weeks ahead on reading and preparation, stay ahead by continuing to do about a week’s worth of reading/prep each week. However, now you should devote any ‘extra’ time you have to engaging with secondary resources and preparing for assessments.

Most tutors give you a recommended reading list or unit bibliography. You generally aren’t expected to read every text on these lists, but you should read some of them. If you have the essay prompts for your upcoming assessments, choose texts from the list that will help you with the title or question that most interests you. If you were particularly interested in a subject or text discussed in seminar read secondary sources related to it. If you’ve been confused about anything, do some research—the secondary texts might help, or at least help you articulate what it is that you’re confused about.

In future posts, I’ll discuss how to engage in seminar (even if you’re painfully shy), how to stay focused when studying or writing, how to get more out of lectures, how to prepare for exams, and how to approach writing coursework essays. Until next time, have fun!

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Research: Jennifer Phegley

I recently finished Jennifer Phegley’s Educating the Proper Woman Reader: Victorian Family Literary Magazines and the Cultural Health of the Nation (2004). Phegley’s book is important to the research for my book on anaesthesia because I, too, will be looking at the Victorian periodical press.

Anxieties about Women

Phegley argues some publications sought to ease male anxieties about women readers. For example, in chapter 2, ‘The Education and Professionalization of the Woman Reader’, she claims that through its ‘illustrations of women readers’, the Cornhill Magazine eased men’s anxieties about intellectual women by cautiously subordinating women’s reading activities to their domestic duties, making the former valuable only insofar as it benefited the latter’ (93). In other words, their illustrations made clear that it was okay for women to read so long as it didn’t interfere with their usual roles as mother and wife. The image below is one of the illustrations Phegley discusses in this chapter (Cornhill Magazine 6.31 (July 1862); this image is of Romola, the eponymous heroine of a novel by George Eliot, reading to her blind father. In this case, reading is not threatening because she is doing it for her father, not for herself.

Romola final

Phegley’s third and fourth chapters show that Victorians were even more anxious about women writers. Chapter three focuses on Belgravia, a magazine conducted by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Braddon’s penchant for writing sensation novels and her irregular relationship with John Maxwell caused concern for many Victorians. They didn’t like the class transgressions of the sensation novel; W. F. Rae famously wrote of Braddon’s novels: ‘She may boast without fear of contradiction, of having temporarily succeeded in making the literature of the Kitchen the favourite reading of the Drawing-room’ (204). Nor did critics appreciate the tendency of sensation novels to depict immoral and criminal behaviour amongst the upper classes.

Chapter four addresses concerns about women as publishers, critics, and agitators for equal rights. In many ways, I’m glad Bessie Rayner Parkes and the other women associated with the Langham Place Circle are not here, in 2017, to see the state of women’s rights—I fear they’d be disappointed—but this isn’t the time or place for my personal politics. However, the women’s movement and the publications associated with Langham Place and the Victoria Press are key to understanding the Victorian periodical press. In these publications, women were responding to national publications as literary critics. This cannot be underestimated, nor can the importance of seeing women readers as critical readers. So much of the rhetoric about health and reading centres on how profligate reading endangers women physically, mentally, and morally. When women read critically, they show that they are not passive creatures being acted upon by the text, but rather thinking human beings engaging with the text.

What has all of this to do with my book on anaesthesia? In that book, I am looking at how representations of anaesthesia in the press influenced public responses to anaesthesia. For example, even though ether was safer than chloroform, chloroform was more popular—it was also more favourably represented in the press. Thus, I need to understand the contemporary reputations and readerships of various Victorian publications in order to make sense of the extent to which readers might trust a periodical’s representation of medical discoveries. Phegley’s book offers interesting insights to some of these issues. For further information about my current research, see my post on L. T. Meade and patient consent.

Until next time, take care.


Works Cited:

Phegley, Jennifer. Educating the Proper Woman Reader: Victorian Family Literary Magazines and the Cultural Health of the Nation. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2004.

Rae, W.F. ‘Sensation Novelists: Miss Braddon’. North British Review 43 (Sept. 1865): 180-204.