Navigating a Research Project

 

source: http://vlhval.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/aeneid12.gifIn a lot of ways, this project has made me rethink the way I go about writing an academic essay. Since I’ve been at university, my routine for each piece of coursework has been pretty much the same: I spend one week, maybe two, reading as much secondary literature as I can, I make a stack of notes, mull it all over for a while (usually with a large cup of coffee in Costa), and only then, once I have the structure laid out in my head, will I put something down on paper. For a two thousand-word essay, that works pretty well. Fast-forward to this summer, however, and faced with having to submit something to my supervisor only a few weeks into the project, I realised I had never actually been in the position of needing to write before I knew what I was going to say.

During this internship, I have been studying the Aeneid, a poem which has much less cultural resonance now than it once did (cue many a conversation with my friends: “it’s the one that’s not the Iliad, not the Odyssey, and not in Greek”). At one point, however, the Aeneid was quite literally bigger than the Bible. It was the text by which the Romans defined themselves after the collapse of the Republic, and by which scholars of the Romans at times defined them too. What that means is that the amount of writing on the subject is huge. Too much to read in a lifetime. And so pretty early on, I realised that my usual tactic of ploughing through everything I could get my hands on about the text just wasn’t going to work. I had to get selective.

My project is all about journeys, and the difficulties of carrying on with a mission when the end seems out of reach. After Vergil’s hero, Aeneas, witnesses the destruction of his birthplace, he is told that his destiny is to found a great city—a city that will ultimately become Rome, the seat of an empire that will last forever (imperium sine fine, as Vergil’s Jupiter says). The challenge that Aeneas faces is that he does not know where this place will be. His directions tell him to go west, but how far west, he doesn’t know. The third book of the poem depicts his struggles as he is forced to use trial and error in order to determine if each land he reaches is the right one. The text is as much about a psychological journey as it is a physical one: Vergil’s gods will not just pick Aeneas up and take him to Italy— he has to navigate his people there by means of his own determination, keeping the big picture in mind in order to achieve his potential.

Now, I’m not saying that undergoing a research internship is like sailing a fleet of ships into the unknown, having just lost your wife and your main man Hector, and with an angry goddess on your back. But there have been times when I have faced setbacks. I’ve been working on an argument only to realise that I had mistranslated a word, meaning that everything I had written on that point was suddenly invalidated. Likewise, the elements that I had expected to find in the text quite often simply weren’t there, and so I have had to go back and consider how to rework my theory as a whole. This project has been more about reviewing and rewriting than I had ever thought possible. I am glad, though. I think that I have learnt just as much about myself and the way I work as I have about Aeneas and Vergil. I am so grateful to have had this opportunity to really test myself. I am especially thankful to Dr Nikoletta Manioti for all of her help and support (especially though some of those early drafts), to the CAPOD team for bringing the leadership weekends together, and to Lord Laidlaw for making the internship possible.

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