Without going into inappropriate detail, events have conspired such that I am called upon to write a 500 word summary of my recent MA work and ‘other accomplishments’ during the course. I’m happy to write about the thesis, I have plenty of practice, and I’m rather proud of it. I am less enthusiastic about the rest.
I have mentioned my profound dislike for the ‘personal statement’ genre, those tedious little exercises in self-promotion that only earnest, overachieving kids who started extra credit work in pre-school and spent weekends learning concert piano and Olympic archery. In the summer they joined youth groups, or founded charity corporations and built hospitals for displaced kittens in Eritrea. And if that sounds bitter, then I’m being too subtle, because it is bitter. I’m not proud.
Of course, these aspirants aren’t making things up, but they are writing for a genre that expects a certain degree of hyperbole. Spend any time reading through online guides for funding applications and you get the picture. American Universities are the worst for this approach. Grade inflation may have all the headlines but there is a corresponding effect at work in personal statements and letters of recommendation.
My prospective supervisor at Cambridge told be of her profound discomfort in reading these kinds of letters and statements and this is more than just an aesthetic issue. If every candidate walks on water and is the next Mahatma Newton, how are you supposed to tell one prodigy from the other? Like formulaic academic writing, the formulaic personal statement eventually reduces itself to a ritual act of self-promotion that is expected to sound like all others.
I know that there is a need for aggressive self-interest, at least within certain limits of propriety, and you can write a personal statement that doesn’t sound like a beauty pageant answer to the question ‘how would you change the world?’ The worry is, will anyone recognize the difference?
This is my cognitive obstacle to writing about myself in a deliberately, and un-selfconsciously, promotional way. In this case, the cause for which I write, is a graduate thesis prize. This is what I have so far (with names changed to protect the oblivious).
I studied three anonymous manuscripts, produced between 1420 and 1550, for the thesis. They record, for the first time in English, the rudiments of personal combat. My goal was to describe and explain their historical contexts, and how and why they were constructed. I also wanted to prove that they could tell much about elite conceptions of martial skill and the place of that knowledge in elite culture. Previous studies of martial texts focused on re-constructing technique, something of dubious historical value, and impossible in this case. Historical study of practical martial literature has been largely overlooked, even within the narrow specialties of military scholarship.
Comparison with other martial writing, the fechtbucher or fight-books of the German and Italian masters of swordsmanship, revealed no real relationship between the English and continental texts. English writers, ignorant or uninterested in existing techniques that adapted oral and aural instruction to text, produced their own solutions which appear unique. I also found remarkable similarities between these early fight-texts and 16th century English dance choreography, which wrote in a style peculiar to the English context. So close is the style and vocabulary in the two genres it suggests the same authors and readers at work. These results run counter to accepted models for developments in technical and practical writing, particularly the books of secrets and practical secular writing, created elsewhere at the same time. This insight into the English environment has implications beyond the study of martial culture. It subtly alters the historical understanding of the classification of knowledge, processes of adapting oral instruction to text, and diversifies authorial approaches used in early vernacular and secular writing.
This work was supported by a GTF from St. Bloggins College, a Teaching Assistantship from the Department of History, and two research and travel grants for work in London. My coursework in 2009-10 earned the Bob Bloggins scholarship, which was a genuine surprise. I presented preliminary research at The International Conference of Medieval Nerds in 2010 and 2011. One paper was abstracted in The Journal of History of Technology Nerds and was later published in Obscuriana. I am currently revising the thesis for publication as a monograph. The University of Big Scary Place Press has expressed interest in the manuscript.
I wrote and published a second paper during my course which was published in The Venerable Nerds Journal in 2011. I have secured places at Oxford, Cambridge, and University College London for 2011 entry in their PhD programmes, but I have deferred entry to 2012 to seek funding.
I have spent many years working to compensate for a significant learning disability and I had to leave the University of Lameville, in 1996, because of poor grades. I mention this not because I expect special consideration, but because my experience reflects well on this institution and my supervisor, Dr. Cool. The understanding and support I have received was vital to my success. It was with the help of Dr. Cool that I finally gained a formal diagnosis and professional support.
So, how does that sound?