Thursday 2 February 2012

Reflections on a doctorate

Stylus tablet 836, one of the most complete stylus tablets unearthed at Vindolanda. The incisions on the surface can be seen to be complex, whilst the woodgrain, surface discoloration, warping, and cracking of the physical object demonstrate the difficulty papyrologists have in reading such texts. 

Only two research projects left to talk about in my survey of what I have done previously, and this is the biggy, the blast-from-the-past upon which your star will forever be hung, the doctorate. I cant even say PhD - you get a DPhil from Oxford, which will confuse people evermore.

My doctoral funding came from an EPSRC grant, working on an established, funded, project at the University of Oxford, which was split between The Department of Engineering Science and the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents, as a collaborative project between Professor Mike Brady, and Professor Alan Bowman. They were interested to see if they could use new and novel imaging techniques to try and read the damaged inscriptions on the Vindolanda stylus texts, above. At the start of 1999 I joined them on a 3 year project, where two doctoral students and a postdoc were employed. My role was to work in the space between the classicists and the engineers, given I had a training both in classics (but classical art!) and in computing science.

I'm not going to kid that this wasnt hard work, nor a tough time for me - but looking back, I see its part of the doctoral process that you generally get the stuffing knocked out of you, and then you rebuild yourself and are academically stronger as a result. Essentially, I hadnt done an undergraduate in Engineering, or Maths - but was being examined in Engineering. It was a steep learning curve, and I had a lot of catching up to do, learning a lot both about Latin and Probability Theory, Roman Archaeology and Parallel Computing. I successfully defended in January 2003 - although it took me months to even face doing the (2 hours worth) of corrections, and a further year to go back to the work and turn it into Image to Interpretation, my monograph published by OUP.

I published five pieces on my doctorate, as well as the book. One of them is pretty promissory (in general, something that has the words "Towards" in the title, you think, aye aye.....)

Terras, M (2000) Towards a reading of the Vindolanda Stylus Tablets: Engineers and the Papyrologist. Human IT , 4 (2/3) PDF.
Although the further three pieces are more substantive, the last one contains the maths:

Terras, M. and Robertson, P. (2004) Downs and Acrosses: Textual Markup on a Stroke Based Level. Literary and Linguistic Computing , 19 (3 ) pp.397 - 414 . PDF

Terras, M. (2005) Reading the Readers: Modelling Complex Humanities Processes to Build Cognitive Systems. Literary and Linguistic Computing , 20 (1 ) pp.41 - 59 . PDF

Terras, M and Roberston, P (2005) Image and Interpretation: Using Artificial Intelligence to Read Ancient Roman Texts. HumanIT , 7 (3) PDF.
The final paper is a contribution to an edited volume we were all asked to write a paper for, to reflect what research was being undertaken in our department at UCL, so it has crossovers with these two, above (and there is probably room, at some point, to discuss just how much you can publish in a paper that has already been covered elsewhere, in a different format, for a different audience, as its a pretty murky academic practice):

Terras, M (2006) Interpreting the image: using advanced computational techniques to read the Vindolanda texts. ASLIB Proceedings , 58 (1/2) 102 - 117. PDF.
It's only in the most recent couple of years that I've started to focus again on imaging of manuscript material, and how best we can tackle degraded texts. I'm working again with computer scientists and engineers on some fairly gnarly imaging problems, and its very rewarding - although the fun, now, is knowing I wont be examined at the end of it, and I dont have the "what will become of me!" stress that people have to face at the end of their doctorate (even though I am committed to helping my PhD students over those mental hurdles). It's now almost (six months short of) a decade since I handed in my PhD. How did that happen?????


Palaeography on the rocks said...

May I ask for an identification of the tablet which you use to illustrate your blog? At least one loyal reader hopes to learn how to be a better palaeographer as a result of your labours. And since palaeography is all too positivist, facts are sacred.

Melissa said...

terribly sorry about the delay - have now added a identification of this tablet at the top of this post. Thanks for spotting that I missed it out (one forgets, sometimes, that not everyone would go "why! that is tablet 836!" :)