Interview with Zita Rohr
Dr Zita Rohr is a member of the Royal Studies Network who is well known to participants of the Kings & Queens conference series. Aside from her research into medieval and late medieval queens and gender politics, she also coordinates the CCCU Article Prize for Early Career Researchers. We caught up with her to discuss the art of writing a prize-worthy research article!
Cathleen, Elena, Kristen: Hi Zita, and thanks for taking some time during the Australian summer to do this interview! First of all, could you please tell us a bit about the CCCU Article Prize in general? What are the conditions, who can submit, and so on?
Zita: My absolute pleasure, I am always happy and keen to sing the praises of this great initiative. Launched in June 2015, the RSJ Early Career and Post-graduate student prize is awarded annually to a current early career researcher for the best published or unpublished scholarly article-length work (approx. 5,000-10,000 words), which should be based on original research on any topic that falls within the scope of royal studies. The RSJ and the prize sponsor, Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU), are committed to assisting, encouraging, and supporting the career development of early career and young researchers in a highly competitive professional research environment.
Entrants for the Prize must be current Early Career Researchers. Early Career Researchers (ECR) are researchers who are within 5 years of the start of their research careers when they submit their applications. The applicant must be working towards or have a PhD or equivalent research doctorate, awarded within the last 5 years. At the time of application, applicants must not be in a tenured or permanent academic position. Entrants may make only one submission to the Prize per calendar year. Contributions will be accepted on a year-round basis, with a submission deadline of 1 March 2018. The judging panel looks for exceptional research, and the ability to communicate it, emerging from early career stage scholars.
Cathleen, Elena, Kristen: Speaking from our own experiences, all early career researchers, two of us non-native English speakers, it is quite challenging to write an article. One has to figure out the overall argument, connect the case study to method and theory, discuss literature, think about audience and style, struggle with unwritten rules of academic presentation, and so on. What advice could you give researchers on how to approach such a project?
Zita: From personal experience, I would observe that, in the process of pulling together doctoral research, many interesting possibilities for further consideration/emphasis emerge – which may, or may not, have to do with the task at hand. The article format (5,000-10,000) words is an excellent framework within which to explore such possibilities. We are all very pressed for time, particularly during the earliest stages of our academic careers, yet if one can find the time and the inspiration to explore a particularly tasty morsel of research – or a truly innovative finding, I think that a well-framed article, or scholarly book chapter is a great way to unpick ideas and communicate innovation. So, what advice might I give – advice that has been extended to me by my own generous scholarly mentors, collaborators and good friends? Here is a quick and dirty list which might be worth considering:
- Have a clear question, idea, great finding to which you seek to respond/communicate.
- Be able articulate your methodology and argument with clarity and concision. Be precise in your thinking, and in communicating your thoughts. Think Hemingway rather than Proust.
- Edit sober. By this I guess Papa Hemingway meant that we should hone our prose, and be ruthless with our cuts – not merely to keep the word count down, but moreover to achieve beautiful, simple (but not simplistic) communication.
- Do not assume that your reader is an expert in your field – but likewise do not go overboard in your efforts to backfill.
- This is perhaps the hardest: show your writing to as many people as you can corner, who are willing and able to make objective comments and suggestions. Climb out of your silo – it is sometimes our harshest critics who will give us the most honest appraisal of our work. This hurts – I know from very personal experience – but once one gets over the hurt feelings and has a good hard look at both the work in question and the criticism of it, the work improves. I am still learning about my writing. The more of it one does, the better and stronger it becomes.
Cathleen, Elena, Kristen: Conventions are very different, already between the UK, US, and Australia (never mind, in other languages, disciplines, and traditions). How can prospective writers deal with this?
Zita: We accept articles and scholarly book chapters for consideration in languages other than English. I always seek out native, or near native speakers, for these who likewise are specialists in the field of the particular research under consideration for the prize. Each submission is allocated a minimum of two specialist external readers who comment upon and grade the submissions according to specific and uniform criteria. Regarding conventions, we do not expect contributors to alter the way they structure their submissions – consistency is the key.
Cathleen, Elena, Kristen: One of the most difficult questions is always the one which sources to use. It can become very complicated, also from a financial point of view, to always get access to the original sources or the original quote. How important is it for an ambitious young scholar to always be on track of the “original” or “best” source?
Zita: On this, I am pretty much in lock-step with our man Erasmus, “Sed in primis ad fontes ipsos properandum” (Above all, one must hasten to the sources themselves). I realize that this is not always possible, or even feasible – living down here in the antipodes, Australian scholars of the pre-modern and early modern European world have a particularly hard time of it. That said, with increasing digitization of primary material, things are getting much easier and it behoves scholars (ECR and established) to persist and dig down into them. Interlibrary loans and electronic databases are invaluable aids to current research undertaking – as are digitally-connected networks of scholars and academics. There is nothing worse than reading books and articles that seem to rely only upon ‘edited highlights’ drawn from the research of other scholars. But, all of this takes time, and lots of it. When I think of the amount of excavating and reading I was obliged to do to unearth the life and deeds of Yolande of Aragon from original and secondary sources, my head fairly spins. That said, I still think that the ad fontes approach is still the best and most reliable method for getting at the ‘truth’.
Cathleen, Elena, Kristen: There is a lot of sensational or pseudo-scientific literature around that is often frowned upon but sometimes offers an interesting point of thought or simply a chance to compare. Can you give us any advice on how to make the leap and use such sources without risking the quality of our scientific work?
Zita: My suggested strategy would be to engage with such source material, ideas, and points of view as and when appropriate, but I am quite leery of hybridizing or over-popularizing academic research. There are many other fora where this approach might be considered; magazine articles, blogs, chat rooms etcetera. I am a bit old-school, I like to keep the standards high in scholarly undertaking and writing. With so much information out there these days, it is very easy to muddy the waters with unsubstantiated thought-bubbling that is not sufficiently backed up with hard scholarly evidence.
Cathleen, Elena, Kristen: Could you tell us a bit more about the side of the judges for the CCCU Prize? What are the criteria, and what are the most critical points?
Zita: There is a jury made up of three judges, who make the final call on the award of the prize. In order to be able to do this disinterestedly, and for us to be equipped with the very best advice, each submission is allocated at least two external readers in a double-blind review process. The jury looks for rigorous, exceptional, original research, and convincing results expressed in clear and effective prose.
The external readers are asked to make comments that highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the submission under review, and to make a recommendation as to the submission’s worthiness for the consideration of the award. The external readers are also asked to score the submissions in three categories viz. Originality and Depth of Research; Analysis and Argument; and Presentation and Clarity. The data are then collated for careful consideration and comparison by the three-member jury who will come to a definitive collegial decision. Should the readers indicate that none of the submissions meet the criteria for exceptionality, and the jury agrees, or if insufficient submissions are received, then the prize will not be awarded. This was the case for the 2017 campaign.
In closing, I wish to reiterate that we should call upon our wider networks to publicize this important prize. The exceptional work of post-graduate and early career researchers needs support and encouragement, and we need their fresh insights and ideas if we are to continue our work in promoting the importance of royal studies and the nurturing of new talent in the field.
Cathleen, Elena, Kristen: Zita, Thank you very much for giving us (and prospective early career article writers) some insights into the CCCU Prize.
Zita: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss this important initiative.
Are you interested in submitting your research for the RSJ – ECR Article/Book Chapter Prize, or the RSJ – Boook Prize, both sponsored by Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU)? Check out all information here, the guidelines, and the nomination forms for the Article and Book Prizes.
The next deadline for submission is March 1, 2018. Good luck!