My resources for art history postgraduate research

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

In my previous post, I wrote about my experiences and my learnings during my masters. In the period of rediscovering myself, there were many things I need to relearn to optimise my research. For instance, I found out that I am a visual learner and a read-writer learner. This knowledge about my learning styles drove me to find suitable materials for myself rather than just following other people’s recommendations blindly.

Therefore, I will be sharing books and videos which helped me a lot in different aspects of my life — from research, procrastination, mental and emotional health and culture. I believe in holistically approaching research — as one part may affect another aspect of my life. Hence, I ensure that I find these materials based on my learning styles: books and videos.

Books

Becoming an Academic Writer: 50 Exercises for Paced, Productive, and Powerful Writing

Author: Patricia Goodson

My struggles
English is my first language, but I am trilingual. I have to learn the international language, national language, and language of my ethnicity. As a result, I may add slangs in my writings that are contextual to my community rather than the general public.

Furthermore, academic writing is strict, which means that I have to write formally with precise words. As I am a feeling-based person, I knew I need to improve my academic writing discipline instead of writing too freely.

What do I like and learn from this?
This book was recommended by one of the postgraduate candidates on Instagram. This book consists of 50 exercises; each exercise takes from 15–20 minutes to help the writer warm up and get familiar with sentence structure, grammar, and tone. Eventually, these exercises build up to writing a full research paper.

I benefitted from one of the exercises, which asks the writer to copy passages into a notebook for personal practice. The purpose of copying is to observe the grammar, usage of words and tone — not placed into your writings as plagiarism.

While this book focuses primarily on academic writers whose first language is not English, I find that exercises are helpful for any writers to brush up on their writing and language skills. I still refer to this book and continue using it to improve my writing in other languages.

Academic Phrasebank

Author: The University of Manchester
URL: https://www.phrasebank.manchester.ac.uk/

My struggles
This phrasebank was listed in Becoming an Academic Writer by Patricia Goodson. There are many considerations to think about in writings, such as transition words, citation words, etc.

Most academic papers are dry and sometimes hard to comprehend. Sometimes, I could not connect from one point to another, and my writings ended up disjointed. I repeat too many similar words and did not use transitional words to connect my points.

What do I like and learn from this?
There are general rules and functions in the English language, such as tenses and transitional phrases. I like the categorisation of each phrase. For example, I wanted to explain my findings in a cautious manner. I will search for the section and choose the relevant phrases based on my results.

Example of being cautious when explaining results. Screen capture from Academic Phrasebank by the University of Manchester.

There are many other functions such as being critical, classifying, comparing etc. These phrases helped to make my writing more interesting with better flow. Furthermore, it is a timesaver for me when I am too tired to do an initial edit of my writings. I need to choose the correct phrase based on the situation. Once I put in the necessary phrases, I will edit my writings to ensure that my writings are clear.

Although my examiners commented that my research is superficial, they commented that I have good English. While findings can be challenging to explain, having good English helps the examiners suggest improvements for the findings. If I have submitted my research with bad English, the examiners will pick on the language instead of the results' efficacy.

TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking

Author: Chris Anderson

My struggles
I learnt bad habits of presentations from my previous workplace. Most of the time, my bosses prepare their presentations; they wing it. Sometimes I know they are winging it as they start to exaggerate the presentation to get sales. The client who is not so well-versed in the industry may buy into my bosses’ pitches.

I brought these bad habits of winging a presentation when I was proposing my topic. The oversimplification of my findings results in the panel questioning from different angles to verify the validity of my findings. I learnt in a hard way that a sales pitch is not the same as a research defence, and that is when I picked up Ted Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking to help me.

What do I like and learn from this?
While this book is about TED Talks and not academic presentation, some of the points highlighted in the text were general enough to be implemented in any public speaking events.

For example, the similarities between my defence and public speaking are time. The author recommended to present within 18–20 minutes, and people will lose interest after that. I struggle to meet up to the 18–20 minutes as I tend to oversimplify my topics to get over with the presentation quickly.

I improved my presentation skills when I learnt about preparation. With preparation, I began to build up a narrative about my research. Moreover, I timed my research to ensure that I do not oversimplify my work and monitor my talking pace as I can speak too fast. Instead of following the flow, I took control of my research and presented to the best of my ability.

How to Write About Contemporary Art

Author: Gilda Williams

My struggles
As my topic was art history, I have to describe many artworks from colours, textures, methods, patronage and historical background.

Describing artworks is not new to me, as I had an undergraduate degree in multimedia design. One of the compulsory courses was art history, and I did it for one semester. In my undergraduate days, the art history course was superficial, and I have to relearn many things during my masters.

Though many books focus on methodologies, they are not suitable for art history majors, as they were more scientific. Sometimes, it is hard to adapt to art history. For example, describing findings from tables is different from describing artworks.

What do I like and learn from this?
This book is particular to art history and gave pointers for writing research or articles. One of the focus of the book is writing captivating descriptions that capture one person’s attention. Moreover, the book also gave comparisons of writing good descriptions, which trained me to differentiate between good and bad descriptions.

Therefore, I took time to find decently written art history journals and Youtube videos on visual description and analysis. From there, I copied various descriptions to improve my describing skills. Furthermore, an excellent visual description is a form of storytelling.

Chronicles of Narnia

Author: C.S. Lewis

My struggle and weaknesses
While How to Write About Contemporary Art addresses a structured approach to writing, I needed to express myself further without the constraints of research and societal expectations of women not speaking up. One day, I was tired of my research, and I decided to pick up Chronicles of Narnia. I discovered that C.S. Lewis wrote the most compelling and vivid descriptions, which I thought, “I want to learn this to improve my description skills.”

What do I like and learn from this?
As I mentioned earlier, an excellent visual description is a form of storytelling, and Chronicles of Narnia is one of my benchmark of good description. Also, the version of Chronicles of Narnia that I have does not have many illustrations, which means I have to imagine the scenes by their descriptions.

Chronicles of Narnia has been one of my favourite books to read, especially watching the story's film adaptation. I find that each scene's visual descriptions are more vivid than the film, which is very useful when learning how to describe.

Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now

Authors: Jane Burka, Lenora M. Yuen

My struggle and weaknesses
I struggle with perfectionism and procrastination, as I often felt that I was not good enough. These struggles are exacerbated by my sensitive nature, in which feedback can paralyse me from doing more.

To overcome perfectionism, I created a routine to write. However, the routine did not work for me. I knew I need to dig deeper to find out why I am not efficient.

What do I like and learn from this?
I learnt that break down my goals further in my routine and journaled more to find out my emotions. Every time I journal, I reflect if I am too irrational. Furthermore, journaling helps me to revise my goals if I stagnant in my writing, as this statement from the book caught my attention:

We can think about procrastination as an attempt not just to avoid particular tasks but to avoid the feelings that are somehow associated with those tasks.
- Burka and Yuen

Another interesting point highlighted in the book was looking for non-judgemental, kind, and encouraging people. I have a fair of judgement from some people who have done a postgraduate before. Instead of finding out my struggles, they said that I did not complete my masters earlier because “I did not start writing or I am so disagreeable.”

Therefore, I was sad when I had to let go of certain friendships during my research as I realised we are in different phases of life. Though I let go of certain friendships, I also discovered friends who were supportive of me. The few good friendships helped me to be more positive, which helped to reduce procrastination.

Videos

I find books provide a detailed explanation of a specific topic, while watching videos provide comprehension. For example, if I want to understand complex theoretical frameworks, I would rather watch a video than reading it. Most of the time, the presenter gives a big picture view of the theoretical frameworks. Often, the presenter of the videos explains complex topics in simple terms. Once I understand the subject, I will read books for detailed explanations.

Here are some videos that I have watched through my research.

The dissertation mentor by Dr Guy E. White

Free videos: https://www.youtube.com/user/drguyewhite
Paid course: https://www.thedissertationmentor.com/

My struggle and weaknesses
As I jumped into postgraduate without much thought, my research fundamentals were weak. After getting feedback from both of my supervisors that did not help, I decided to take a course from Dr Guy E. White.

Here are a few reasons why I paid for the course:

  • Free resources mean that I have to spend time collating and processing the resources.
  • Free resources are also less personal, and there is a chance you may not be able to reach the instructor.
  • The free videos online are often teasers to the actual course, which offers more content and personalisation.

What do I like and learn from this?
As the free videos had limited content, I decided to pay for The Dissertation Mentor to improve my fundamentals for research, and it was worth it.

Firstly, my first impression of his videos is pleasant. When I saw his videos on Youtube, he has a pleasant voice. He gives context to each section found in Chapter 1 of the research.

Secondly, he gives context to each section. Most of the time, most instructors tell you how and what to do without providing context. Sometimes, when you press these instructors for context, they cannot do so because they do not understand the contexts.

Thirdly, he focuses not only on the research methodology but also on managing life and responsibilities as a postgraduate candidate. He gave pointers on dealing with different advisors, such as angry advisors or advisors who do not reply to emails.

I like how he mentioned that research is circular. The research has to answer the thesis statement, research questions, findings to answer the research question, and the conclusion to answer the original thesis. The understanding of research is circular gave me a bigger picture of research. Some of the instructors taught sections of methodology in silos rather than linking them to each other. That was the reason why it was so hard for me to answer my research questions initially.

Fourthly, I had a short chat with Dr Guy towards the end of the course, which was helpful. Unfortunately, I could not afford the personal courses that he wanted to sell. Despite the unfavourable exchange rate, the one month course was worth the money as I was able to fix my problems.

Smarthistory channel

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3R-xanNgtoa8b7gpVexVlA

My struggles
After fixing Chapter 1 of my research, I was struggling to write my findings. A lot of the results is very dependent on visual descriptions and analysis. If I do not describe my artworks, I would not be able to analyse and present my findings.

What do I like and learn from this?
I like the curators’ discussion of the artworks. They point out different elements of the artworks and explain the history behind them. When I read, I hear the words in my voice, but when I watch a video, it feels like someone conversing with me about artworks. These conversations make the visual analysis relatable.

Sometimes I download their subtitles and observe the tone and words they use. Not all the words use are suitable for research, but there is no harm in learning different describing styles. After all, mixing different styles result in interesting ways of describing and writing.

There are art galleries channels to follow, such as the National Gallery, UK, The Museum of Modern Art, to name a few. I put up Smarthistory because they had certain artworks similar to the artworks I was researching.

Descriptive Writing: Crafting Vivid, Immersive Scenes (Skillshare)

My struggles
As my research covers illustrations, film, and artworks, I realised subtleties and nuances in describing them. For example, illustrations and artworks are static, but the film is moving. As illustrations and artworks are static, I fall into the mistake of describing them in an uninteresting manner.

What do I like and learn from this?
While Kathy Fish's approach to descriptive writing was more open-ended, it set a foundation for students to describe. Some students' interpretation of Van Gogh was inaccurate, but the initial exercises help students be more imaginative in their storytelling. After all, the visual description takes practice before one become good with it.

While the assignments were open-ended, I learnt so much about freeing my writing. The rigidity of research wore me out, and I wanted to express myself freely. Hence, this course exercise was a way for me to escape by expressing how I wanted to without verifying facts. I may use it if I want to explore storytelling.

In conclusion, I found materials that fit my learning style: visual and read-write learning skills. If you have noticed by now, I did not put any podcasts in because I have a short attention span. Furthermore, I tend to forget what I have listened to unless I write them down. Finding my resources is time-consuming, but it is very fulfilling when these materials work and become a better person.

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Elle L

Elle L

I create art to find personal meaning, and I write to understand diverse meanings. This is a place to document my life and its processes.