I interviewed Will Self for the amazing One&Other [York] magazine. And he was brilliant. Have a squiz.
Here’s a CFP for what looks like it will be an incredible conference. I’m not involved with the organization & not trying to take credit for it by putting it on this blog, but it just seemed like the easiest way to share over Twitter etc since there isn’t (yet) a website.
I’d quite like to submit an improved version of a paper I originally came up with for a ‘Celebrating Carter’ forum I ran with two friends in the Spring to mark the 20-year anniversary of Angela Carter’s death. It’s called (something along the lines of) ‘Celia’s Bits: Demystification of the Feminine in the writing of Angela Carter and Jonathan Swift’. Would quite like to do a panel. Any other Swiftians / Carterites/ scholars of the grotesque / female bodies / mythologies out there?
In London at the moment researching – super interesting stuff emerging about surname change. Each name change petition a little narrative. Blog update soon!
This is the most bizarre poem in existence by Wordsworth. Or by, you know, anyone. Unsurprisingly, it was never printed. The Tinker Who leads a happy life If it's not the merry Tinker? Not too old to have a Wife ; Not too much a thinker : Through the meadows, over stiles, Where there are no measured miles, Day by day he finds his way Among the lonely houses : Right before the Farmer's door Down he sits ; his brows he knits ; Then his hammer he rouzes ; Batter ! batter ! batter ! He begins to clatter ; And while the work is going on Right good ale he bowses ; And, when it is done, away he is gone ; And, in his scarlet coat, With a merry note, He sings the sun to bed ; And, without making a pother, Finds some place or other For his own careless head. When in the woods the little Fowls Begin their merry-making, Again the jolly Tinker bowls Forth with small leave-taking : Through the valley, up the hill ; He can't go wrong go where he will : Tricks he has twenty, And pastimes in plenty ; He's the terror of boys in the midst of their noise ; When the market Maiden, Bringing home her lading, Hath passed him in a nook, With his outlandish look, And visage grim and sooty, Bumming, bumming, bumming, What is that that's coming ? Silly Maid as ever was ! She thinks that she and all she has Will be the Tinker's booty ; At the pretty Maiden's dread The Tinker shakes his head, Laughing, laughing, laughing, As if he would laugh himself dead. And thus, with work or none, The Tinker lives in fun, With a light soul (sic) to cover him ; And sorrow and care blow over him, Whether he's up or a-bed.
I’m incredibly happy to announce some brilliant Strange Bedfellows-related news. The project team has received funding to run a public engagement programme in York over Spring Term 2013 that will add a fascinating dimension to our research about project about creativity, analysis and arts/educational policy. Six humanities research students from the University of York, and six from the University of Leeds, will be workshopping with Year 12 students from Huntington School to observe and calibrate their creative and analytical processes, and interview them about their creative lives, curricula and aspirations. This will lead to a project report and hopefully a journal article about the findings of this strand of the project; a short film; and an exhibition of the Year 12 students’ creative work to coincide with the York Festival of Ideas in June 2013. We’re very grateful to Huntington School and the Humanities Research Centre at the University of York for investing in the project to enable this to happen!
We are currently recruiting postgraduate workshop facilitators - if you’re a humanities postgraduate at either university, and you’d like to gain unique public engagement experience, please have a look at the full info here and drop us an email!
Why are we doing this, you might wonder? What are PhD students doing poking around in secondary schools? Don’t they have enough on their plates? Well, yes, we do. But when we set up our project originally (see here for a post talking about its origins), we decided that we weren’t happy with the prospect being just a series of seminars or lectures given by academics to other academics in the rooms of a university. We wanted our knowledge base and audience to be far more inclusive than that. Inspired by the emphasis in recent years on public engagement in academia, we decided to talk to a rising generation of school leavers from different social backgrounds and pursuing different educational curricula, just deciding what to do with their lives, about the issues that we’re interested in. How do they see creativity? How does it relate to their current school curriculum or other analytical activity? Is creativity a passion, an aspiration, a hobby, a luxury, a necessity? We wanted to observe the processes by which they create and analyse, and give them the opportunity to challenge our values and preconceptions, which can’t help but be somewhat rooted within the academe.
We also wanted to try to give the students a voice in some of the debates about educational and arts policy that are currently raging – after all, they will be just as affected by current government policy on these matters as us, and perhaps more so. Recent developments in government policy indicate a worrying trend to dismiss the arts and humanities as unimportant or disposable. Key among these are the slashing of funding for arts organisations across the UK, the accepted recommendation of the Browne Report to eradicate the teaching grant for arts and humanities subjects in universities, and the recent decision to exclude arts subjects from the English Baccalaureate. The government’s current approach – paying lip service to the importance of creativity while systematically removing support from its facilitators – risks producing a generation of young people whose state education system dismisses arts subjects as unimportant, who are opting out of arts degrees which might enable careers in the creative industries because they are too expensive, and who have no access to affordable cultural activities in their local communities. To the best of our knowledge, the young people whose futures are at stake have seldom been asked for their opinions on the relationship between creativity and analysis, their curricula and their creative lives, their aspirations and the opportunities that are provided for them by the state. This workshop programme aims to give them an opportunity to intervene in this debate.
So if you know anyone at York or Leeds who might be interested, do point them in the direction of this blog post or of the Strange Bedfellows website, and ask them to drop us a line. We’ll be selecting facilitators just before Christmas, and training in January to commence the workshops on 30 January 2013.
Recently Arts Council England published this write-up of my German translation deal for Rites. http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/news/arts-council-news/yorkshires-next-great-young-novelist-signs-transla/ This led me to reflect, first soppily, then angrily, on a couple of things.
I’m constantly aware of the huge debt of gratitude I owe to ACE for its role in funding the Next Great Novelist Award and the publication of Rites. However, not everyone appreciates its importance in the same way. Among other measures, the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement announced £34million cuts to DCMS, some of which will very likely hit ACE (which has already cut administrative costs by 50%) hard. (see here http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/charlottehigginsblog/2012/dec/05/autumn-statement-2012-arts-funding).
Once again, it’s been a ridiculous amount of time since my last post. Well over a month. As ever, I have big gropey handfuls of excuses. Been away. Been writing a play. Been exhausted. Been teaching. Been marking. Been applying for fellowships and funding. Been supporting friends going through difficult times. Been planning public engagement project. Been submitting papers for conferences and journals. Been drunk. Been reading Bring Up The Bodies. However, most of all been doing something I haven’t blogged about that much so far – the bread and butter of PhD work – a Chapter.
The fact that the Chapter, and the associated re-working of my thesis that it occasioned, took up so much of my summer and autumn means that the academic side of stuff has been on my mind a lot recently. Given this, and the fact that I have recently been chatting to several friends who want to start a PhD / have just done so and are anxious about it, I thought it might be worth blogging a bit about the thesis in its own right – where it comes from, how it develops, why it takes as long as it does. Partly because my posts about academic work seem (somewhat to my surprise) to find the readiest audience and most enthusiastic reception to date, but also partly as a selfish exercise in reflectiveness. Doing a PhD in my subject, you’re so often bogged down in the most quotidian and minute of details – how can I go about dating this letter? where can I get access to this out-of-print book? – that I think it’s beneficial from time to time to squint broadly at the project as a whole as if taking in a view of a landscape. Ask where it came from, ask where it’s at, ask where it’s going. Ask why you’re bothering and why it’s important.
I am now a bit over two years into my PhD, which is sort of only supposed to last for three years (that is, this is how long the AHRC pays my fees and gives me a stipend for) but really always lasts four (that is, I’ve only ever heard of one person doing my subject who finished in three, and a senior academic confided in me recently that “when someone’s finished in three years, you can usually tell by looking at their thesis”. The fourth year is a tricky prospect, which shall be blogged about hereafter. For now, any offers of lucrative work that can be combined with frenzied writing-up will be gratefully received). My project, as I think I’ve mentioned before in this blog post, examines how the relationship between personal proper naming and identity was conceptualized in Britain in the late eighteenth century (specifically 1779-1800). I do this through examining a large number of different kinds of text – novels, poetry, plays, pamphlets, diaries, philosophical and political treatises, dictionaries, prints and paintings, government records and correspondence – for manifestations of concern or preoccupation with this relationship. I then work from that evidence to ask how and why the act of proper naming was made, during this period, to stand as this kind of site where anxieties about kinship, belonging, social position, gender, race and nationality were worked out. What impact this process of working out has on literature and especially the development of the novel. And how it has impacted on notions of identity as they exist today.
At least, that is what my project is NOW about. It wasn’t always thus. It started off like this:
This is a page of notes I found the other day that tickled me pink, because it records the exact moment at which I hit on a PhD project. I was doing my Masters degree at the University of Pennsylvania, and I was sitting in a seminar on William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, which was taught by Professor Stuart Curran (a great man in the field of 18th century studies… it was actually the last seminar Stuart taught before he retired). Stuart casually mentioned at one point that he wished someone would do a project on literary names, because the name ‘Tyrrel/l’ (as in, Godwin’s character Barnabas Tyrrel and Burney’s character Justice Tyrrell) has an interesting lineage and there are many others like it in literature of the era. My notes show my excitement. “Names! Names, names, names. Waverley / Willoughby. Anville / Lovell / Tyrrell” I scrawled. For that seminar, I wrote a paper about how the novelist Charlotte Smith engaged with Lockean philosophy around naming in her novel Desmond. Stuart was incredibly supportive of the essay, and encouraged me to send it off to a competition run by the journal Eighteenth Century Fiction. They turned it down for publication, but sent me a very nice letter saying I was ‘considered a runner-up’. Mildly gratified, I left Penn to start a job working for the government back in London, and forgot all about it.
But not for long. Civil service work did not agree with me, and I hankered after the books. So after a year or two, I got back in touch with Stuart, now retired, and asked him if he thought my project had legs as the focus for a doctorate. I got an incredibly encouraging email back, and the name of a potential supervisor at York with whom he strongly recommended I get in touch. She was no less supportive. I managed to slap together an application in my evenings after work; the rest is history.
But the project, the project. What even was the project? I remember well the feeling of utter disorientation I got from turning up at York with this vague idea, this inane-seeming suspicion that “there was something quite interesting about how people were talking about names” and little else. I knew I thought several writers were talking about names in particularly interesting ways – Burney, Godwin, Smith – but what they were really getting at or why they were doing it or what its importance was I had no idea. I felt guilty that someone had given me money, had placed their confidence in me to come up with something worth knowing, when I had so little solid certainty to offer in return. I spent my first year reading widely and erratically – about seventeenth-century memorial sculpture; twentieth century memorials for genocide victims; deed poll procedure today; eighteenth debating societies, charities and embryonic law enforcement agencies. I blundered down blind alleys that led nowhere (presenting papers about epitaphs and satire) and others that actually led somewhere fascinating, though not the place I’d imagined (surveillance theory, anyone?). I changed the focus of my prospective thesis a million times; in terms of chronology, generic focus, subject matter. I narrowed it to one author and widened it to include the world. I lay awake at night worrying that I would never settle, never get it sorted, that I would be kneading and poking a vast limitless expanse of playdough-like text, failing to mould it into any definitive shape, for time immemorial.
Eventually (and not before a few months ago) I settled on a compromise that just – and I really can’t put it any better than this – felt right. Twenty years, not fifty. Five or six major writers and a lot of ‘backup singers’ to boot, not just one. Proper personal naming only – the names that human beings call themselves and others – rather than all kinds of naming, which basically becomes a thesis on language itself. I defined roughly, clumsily, how the question I wanted to explore fitted in with criticism that already existed, on historical naming practices, on literary naming strategies, on existing theories about how the fluid notion of ‘identity’ came to exist in the form that we understand it today, on accounts of the novel’s importance in this process. I took the material I had written so far- one long chapter on Burney, about five conference papers and a lot of book reports and fragments of text – and parceled them out into five rough clusters of related material. I kept those pieces of paper on a notice board and wrote questions and ideas and re-shaping suggestions on post-its and stuck them up there. One of the chapters was bullying all the others in a most unseemly manner, so I broke it up and moved all its bits around. Another was clearly never going to thrive, so I brutally exterminated it. Eventually I was left with a workable plan. And a lot of things that I still had to do.
This was the work of a whole summer. And, really, of two years. Just to get an idea of the shape of it all.
And I’m not even finished yet. I’m so far from it. Barely halfway there. I have a monstrous first chapter, a sort of engorged scene-setter, about the relationship between common naming philosophy and proper naming theory from 1700-1779. It needs fully rewriting and a lot more work on dictionaries. I have a reasonably polished second chapter on Frances Burney and the historical phenomenon of surname change, but this still needs to benefit from a two-week research trip I’m undertaking to the College of Arms in January. I have a conference paper and an abstract and a lot of notes that will become my third chapter on Godwin, Bentham, and disciplinary naming. I have that old paper that was rejected by Eighteenth Century Fiction, which should form the basis of Chapter Four on matrimonial naming (it looks crude and confused when I read it now, although there’s a kernel of sense at the heart of it. I can see why they said no). And I have a scattered multiplicity of book reports, anecdotes and general feschtenschrift that will become Chapter Five, which reflect on how all these different kinds of concern with naming interact when an author names a character, and what this can tell us. That’s it. And I’m willing to bet that by this time next year, it’ll look different yet again. All the chapters will have grown, shrunk, swapped limbs, merged, dragged in their mates that I don’t even know exist yet. I will have many sleepless nights.
But the great thing? The great thing is that I’m starting, as the thing solidifies in my hands a bit, to stop feeling like a fraud. To start being able to say with a bit more confidence, “No, there is a need for this. This is a good project, and it’s important.” When I hear any discussion about civil liberties on the news, I start thinking about what I’m going to say about Godwin and Bentham, about how little work has been done about the origins of the census, and about how patchy work is on practices of documenting individual identity. When I hear someone talking about whether to change their name when they marry, I’m able to offer some kind of historical context for the way that the notion of changing this symbol of identity makes them feel; to surprise them with how many people laid out vast amounts of money on getting an Act of Parliament to change their surname in the eighteenth century and why; to interest them in Burney’s Cecilia and its pantheon of fans (Burke, Johnson, Gibbon, Napoleon, George Washington, John Quincy Adams…). When my undergrad students start chatting about J.K.Rowling’s (deft and intelligent) use of allusive names in the Harry Potter series, I’m able to enrich and contextualise their understanding a bit by talking about some of the traditions of literary naming of which she is a part. Recently I got an email from a TV production company who were potentially interested in making a programme about personal proper names and the role of eighteenth century fiction in popularising certain ones – clearly they think there might be some kind of appetite among the non-academic public to find out about this stuff.
I also had my first article accepted for an academic journal. It’s about Godwin’s Caleb Williams, the text that originally sparked my interest in this stuff, way back in 2008 in Philadelphia. My interest now comes from an entirely different angle, but it owes its existence to that early, formless instinct – “Yes, there’s something here, there’s something“. Difficult as it is at the start of the PhD, I think you have to trust that instinct. I’ve often been tempted to describe the thesis as like a jigsaw that you need to put together, fitting pieces in, taking them out, forming different clusters and then it all suddenly coming together. But in a way that’s a rubbish analogy, because it implies that there is an ur-thesis, an ideal thesis that just needs to be figured out and assembled. A friend of mine got much closer the truth, I think, when she said last night when we were discussing this, “When you get pregnant, how can you know what the baby’s going to turn out like? Even though it’s inside you.” Same with a thesis. You want it, you look forward to meeting it, you know the materials that go into it. But what will come out at the end is anyone’s guess. Hopefully you’ll love it no matter what.
I do not like science. I’ve never liked it. This may have something to do with the fact that when I was eleven years old, an odious boy in my biology class put earwigs in my glasses case. Or it may have something to do with the fact that science has always seemed, in a vague way I’ve never really bothered to articulate properly, to stand against what I love most about art. It seeks to state, rather than to question. To close things down to facts, rather than open them up to possibilities. To say (mangling the words of Virginia Woolf) that “someone [or something] was this or that”. Literature, my most beloved form of art, has always seemed to be about the opposite of saying that things were this or that. It seems to be about taking the thisness or thatness, and prizing it apart to show the contradictions, the inconsistencies, the room to reframe or reinterpret. Science is a bossy bully, literature the dreamy geek in the corner. Oh, of course it’s NECESSARY. I owe science one every time I turn on my bedside lamp or log into my beloved Twitter. But that doesn’t mean we need to TALK about it.
What I say above is, of course, in itself a statement. Perhaps a rather silly one. In recent years, following my re-entrance to academia and the current vogue (an entirely worthy one, in my book) for interdisciplinarity, I’ve started to wonder whether my instinctive prejudice against the scientific bullyboy is misguided. Counterproductive. Whether perhaps my dislike for science is born more of fear (all that jargon! all those graphs!) and envy (so NECESSARY! so INDISPENSABLE! so … government-funded!) instead. I’ve started to take a tentative interest in one particular branch of science – psychology. What I’ve found has surprised and (cautiously) delighted me. Psychology, it seems to me, might be the story of the mind. Which gives it something rather in common with literature.
This is another, more eloquent way of putting it.
“No professional group is more interested in the workings of the human mind than writers of fiction. Novelists as different as David Lodge, Jonathan Franzen and Ian McEwan have turned to the language of neuroscience in exploring venerable ideas about human experience. Even those writers without any overt interest in the mind sciences face the daily challenge of representing human consciousness on the page. The problem with mental states, for writers as much as for psychologists, is that they are unobservable. Confronted with the task of portraying the unportrayable, writers do what scientists do: they build models and reason from analogy. Writers’ most powerful tool in this respect has been metaphor, the likening of mental processes to non-mental, usually physical, entities. But have these metaphors kept pace with the advances made by cognitive scientists? Can literary metaphors of mind shed light on our unspoken assumptions about what goes on in our brains?”
That is the psychologist / novelist Charles Fernyhough speaking – you can read the full article here http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/oct/15/scienceandnature.society It’s rather old (2005) and Charles has done a lot of other stuff since then, but it was enough to convince me and my fellow Strange Bedfellows coordinators that we wanted to ask him to be our first speaker in the SB speaker series that kicks off on Thursday. The mission of the Strange Bedfellows project is to investigate and clarify the relationship between creativity and analysis. Who better to address this relationship than a scientist/artist, somebody who not only practices both disciplines but also sees a powerful and persuasive linkage between them? I’m looking forward to hearing how Charles separates the different strands of his professional life, forces or encourages them into interaction, and perceives the similarities and differences between them; to having him no doubt demolish my woffly objections to science’s stranglehold on the truth, but also perhaps to query convincingly whether science is concerned enough with beauty.
Come and join us if you’re in York on Thursday and it sounds like your kind of thing. See the poster below for details. You can find out more about Charles here http://www.charlesfernyhough.com/about.html and more about the Strange Bedfellows project (including the recent fantastic posts from our interdisciplinary blogger team) here http://strange-bedfellows.org/?page_id=25.
Today, my friends, is an exciting day. As some of you may remember from this post, I’ve recently been working to launch an interdisciplinary academic/creative project called ‘Strange Bedfellows?: Creativity and Analysis in an Age of Austerity’. I run this with my York colleague Ben Madden, my Hull colleague Ryan Hanley, and more recently in collaboration with Alys Mostyn at the University of Leeds. We’re all PhD students with a keen interest in the relationship between creativity and analysis, both on a private cognitive level and in public and higher education policy. If you like my personal blog, which basically considers the relationship between creativity and analysis in my own life, I can say pretty definitively that you’ll find Strange Bedfellows interesting. You can find out more about the project’s mission statement here http://strange-bedfellows.org/?page_id=5.php
The project has four strands to it:
*a speaker series (kicking off with the fantastic Charles Fernyhough, novelist and Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Durham, speaking about Neuroscience And The Novel on October 18th http://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/events/public-lectures/autumn2012/neuroscience-novel/);
*a public engagement project in a local secondary school (partners on board; funding application submitted; sitting tight);
*an interdisciplinary conference and panel of writers reflecting on government treatment of creativity and analysis, happening at the year’s end (currently being put together; exciting developments afoot)
*AND A BLOG.
The blog is the big news today. Over the last few months, Ben Ryan and I have been soliciting and evaluating applications from a huge range of dynamic, innovative thinkers who have something important to say about the way that creativity and analysis interact in their daily lives and wanted to blog collaboratively for Strange Bedfellows. With great difficulty, we selected our final panel of eleven in August. These people think, study, work and create across the disciplines of visual art, music, film, poetry, fiction, philosophy, publishing and criticism. They will all be blogging approx once every fortnight for us over the course of the next academic year, interacting with each other and the public to develop their own and our communal thinking about this relationship and why it’s important. You can read their profiles here http://strange-bedfellows.org/?page_id=18.php and see the Strange Bedfellows post explaining what the blog is all about here http://strange-bedfellows.org/?p=199.
If you’re interested in higher education / the arts / creativity / interdisciplinarity, bookmark this blog and follow us on @StrangeBedProj to get a digest of blog posts from day to day and follow the Strange Bedfellows journey over the academic year.
A big welcome to the blogging team! We’re delighted to have you on board.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness! It’s that time of year again. The air is crisp, the leaves are falling and York is suddenly thronged with freshers, both undergrads and postgrads – some bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, others clearly already suffering from the first of many appalling hangovers. I arrived here in York exactly two years ago (almost to the day). I remember my sense of wonder at the city itself – the fresh air after the smog of London, the glorious jumble of architecture ranging from the medieval to the kitsch, the buzz of the bars, the smell of warm chocolate from the Nestle factory – and this late September weather always rekindles in me that glorious sense of discovery, possession and potential that makes York such a very special place to live. But I also remember feeling terrified – that I’d left everything I knew to move to a new city where I didn’t know a single soul, but also about the process of starting a PhD. I’d spent my twenties to date flirting with the idea of a PhD – skirting around it, coming close, fleeing into the arms of the civil service, igniting the spark again, finally making the leap and committing myself. I’d done as much research as possible, but I still felt like I had no idea what to expect. I felt like not only a novice but also a fraud.
When I recently wrote a piece for the Independent about the reality of being a humanities doctoral student, I got a vast amount of feedback from people all over the world. The most gratifying messages were from those who were about to start a doctorate and said they were interested and/or reassured by what I had to say. It was lovely to cast my mind back to my own feelings of trepidation two years ago and think that the feature might have helped to set others’ nerves to rest. With that in mind, it occurred to me that it might be nice to write a less generalist piece than my Indy one, more targeted at those PhD students starting their humanities doctorates now or contemplating applying for them this year. So here it is. It’s heavily influenced by the late and great Jane Moody’s Top Tips For Surviving A PhD, which was delivered as part of the York Humanities Research Centre’s excellent graduate induction course. And I nicked the ‘This Much I Know’ format from the blog of York head teacher John Tomsett, who in turn nicked it from The Observer magazine. I think it’s a good one because the title manages to connote the sharing of knowledge but also a very important sense of humbleness. Because although I know this much, I very definitely do not know it all. Only two years in out of three (or more likely four), I’m still feeling like a complete chump every day as I regret things I didn’t do earlier, worry about things I won’t do until it’s too late, or ask myself how I didn’t get around to this until now. All the more reason though, I think, to share the tips I wish someone had shared with me back in 2010. Please share the post if you think it might help someone you know.
THIS MUCH I KNOW – STARTING A PHD
1. Often during your first year, you will feel as if you’re flailing around in research outer space without oxygen. This is entirely normal.
What I mean by this is that it’s okay to have no idea what your project will look like as you blunder your way through your first year. Yes, we all had to write a proposal to get on to the PhD programme, and pretend we were dead certain that it would pan out exactly as we said, but that’s just a hoop that you have to jump through – albeit an entirely necessary one – to demonstrate that you’re capable of knowledge of your area, forethought and careful planning. As you start to read around (hopefully with the guidance of a supportive and knowledgeable supervisor) you’ll realize that some of your assumptions and theories that make up even the best proposal are old news and have no originality whatsoever. Others are wrong. Others are laughable. Part of being a good PhD student is reacting to this by adjusting your project accordingly, which can mean that you rather wildly redefine your project from day to day, hence the floating around in space feeling. Eg. I started off wanting to talk about naming in the novel within a forty year period. In the middle of my first year I read so much exciting stuff about the radical novel that my project lurched rather unsteadily into being about the novel as a forum for political debate, with emphasis on transit and crossing physical borders. I then realized that this subject had been rather exhaustively covered already, and that I was in fact still interested in names, so I went back to my original focus but with a circumscribed time frame and an interdisciplinary focus and a far more carefully historicist approach. My supervisor oversaw this reeling and lurching around with superb calm. It’s all normal.
2. Your supervisor is, metaphorically speaking, a tool. Not a taskmaster.
This is not a criticism of the supervisor. Quite the contrary. I and many of my friends started the PhD terrified that each supervision was some kind of test; that we would be found wanting and chastised unless we put in a superb ‘performance’ every time. This is rubbish. They really don’t care how you ‘perform’. I find it far more productive to think of my supervisor as a very sophisticated, expensive, useful tool. She has these vast stores of knowledge, these excellent critical faculties, these unrivalled contacts. But fundamentally the relationship exists to make my research better. Not so I can get a gold star every term. It’s tough to bear this in mind when your supervisor’s as impressive as mine is, but I try very hard and I think it helps.
On a related note…
3. Your project takes up about 75% of your mental space. It takes up about 0.75% of your supervisor’s. If that.
As per above. Submitting work is an intimidating process. I and my peers used to operate on the principle that that each quavering book report submitted for inspection would be dissected with the ferocity of a mad surgeon intent on finding a tumour of bullshit. This is not the case. Your supervisor will have a gazillion other things to think about, including their own research, the research of their other PhD students, the MA and undergrad courses they’re teaching, departmental duties, conferences, networking and their personal lives. They will be reading your initial work briskly and broadly, and commenting on only the things that jump out to them (though they will obviously be giving more careful attention to, say, your final thesis). I found this thought extraordinarily comforting for some reason. It stopped me feeling that submitting work was an ordeal, and gave me the confidence to challenge my supervisor’s criticisms on the basis that, even if I wasn’t as extraordinarily intelligent or experienced as her, I had given my project more thought than she probably had.
4. Do the boring stuff now. You’ll be glad of it later.
I’m talking about all the induction week things that you miss because you’re suffering from last night’s Cheeky Vimtos. The library tour. The ‘Using Resources’ session. The IT induction. Go. Go. Go. By listening carefully and taking away the notes to consult in the future, you will save yourself hundreds of hours of future grief agonizing about how to work the catalogue, the best archive search, the referencing guide. This stuff is bum-numblingly dull, but it is important. And it is necessary, if you’re to waltz off at the end of three or four years with that delightful doctorate.
5. Use Zotero.
I CANNOT BELLOW THIS LOUDLY ENOUGH. I did the first two years of my PhD without any referencing software whatsoever, largely because I failed to follow Tip #4 above and failed to realize that such things existed. Embarrassing. This meant, in short, that I had to manually enter every citation and every bibliography, which resulted in (a) boredom (b) errors (c) mislaying useful references or late-night Google books discoveries because it was too much of a blag to note them properly. Zotero is a free iTunes-style library of bibliographic information, which lives in your web browser and enables you to record all the information (publisher, ISBN number etc) of any useful resource you find on the internet with just one click of the mouse. You can then insert this info into your writing, in one of thousands of referencing styles, by dragging and dropping. It is like magic.
I’d like to note that I’m not paid by Zotero to say this. Honest. I believe there are other similar programmes out there and they might be just as good. But personally I’m loved up with Zotero now. You should be too. http://www.zotero.org/
6. Join Twitter.
JOIN TWITTER. JOIN TWITTER. JOIN TWITTER. If you’re not already on it, that is. I firmly believe that anybody in academia who’s not on Twitter is shooting themselves in the foot every day that they stay away. Their foot is now a puddle of bloody smithereens. Pretty soon they’ll have no foot at all. You get the picture. #overextendedmetaphor
I have found funding opportunities only on Twitter. I have seen amazing jobs advertised only on Twitter. One of my best friends got her studentship after seeing it advertised only on Twitter. I see conferences, Calls for Papers, Calls for Panels and exciting projects advertised only on Twitter. I have obtained valuable research leads and had fascinating discussions with a range of both fellow academics and eclectic others including higher education specialists, novelists, historical biographers, policymakers, Private Eye cartoonists and interested public – ALL ON TWITTER. You can’t rely on posters in the grad common room and the odd expensive conference for your networking opportunities. GET ONTO TWITTER.
7. Go to conferences.
See my post here for why I think they’re still useful. Although Twitter is an ESSENTIAL part of academic networking, there is nothing like face-to-face contact to forge contacts and enable detailed discussions. Chose your conferences carefully (they are frequent, far-flung and expensive) but try to go to as many as you can within reason. Always try to write a paper that will push your research forward, not distract you from it (I have slipped up here, but am trying to mend my ways). Arrive early and stay late. Talk to as many people as you can. You never know what opportunities will emerge.
8. When somebody is unpleasant to you, ALWAYS try to put it down to awkwardness rather than malice.
This was the Hot Tip of Jane Moody’s that I remember best. She told us that it is one of the downsides to academia that you will meet a lot of very awkward people; brilliant intellectually but not so great socially. Some of them will express this awkwardness in conventional and easily interpreted ways; by blushing, mumbling, shuffling etc. Others will ignore you when you speak to them; or turn away abruptly when you’re talking about your research and start a conversation with someone else; or say something slighting; or react aggressively to an innocuous comment about their own research. All of these things have happened to me on occasion, and my first response was always to run away and cry. My second was to remember Jane’s excellent advice; try where at all possible to understand that these people are awkward and not malicious. Don’t take it personally. Smile and be unruffled. Continue to try to be friendly. Generally, I feel like this is very very effective, although also very very hard to do.
8. Do earthy stuff to stay sane.
It’s a popular York joke (again perpetuated by Jane) that academics are obsessed with cakes, and baking more widely, and I know a number of PhD students across an international network of institutions who keep food blogs. I think there are good reasons for this. When you spend so much of your time grappling with intellectual problems, there is something marvellous about escaping to an earthly realm for a while, doing something very physical and tangible (no lewd jokes please). And what could be more so than making food with your hands and then stuffing it into your greedy craw? This is one of the ways I stay sane, along with boxing and running, and all three make me feel so much better and saner when I’ve had a long and tortured PhDay. It doesn’t have to be those hobbies, obviously. But I would recommend developing some kind of extracurricular life that’s unrelated to your PhD. Otherwise, you might finish in three years, but you’ll also be a shell of a human being.
9. Don’t compare yourself to others.
One of the things about doing a PhD is that you’re in a cohort. You start at the same time as a few other people – intelligent, talented, competitive people – and you progress at roughly the same pace throughout. What do you think happens? Someone gets a paper published first. Someone gets told their upgrade was the best their supervisor’s ever had. Someone wins a prize. Someone gets offered teaching where others don’t. The easiest thing in the world is to measure yourself up to your peers and wail “I’M SHIT!” and start to resent them for being so bloody excellent and smug. Resist this like the plague. Firstly, it doesn’t do you a shred of good and it does you a lot of bad. Secondly, there’ll be something that hasn’t even crossed your mind that they’ll be resenting you for (or trying not to) at the same time. Collaborate with your peers, learn from them, get drunk and have superb times with them… but when it comes to progress, try to view yourself in splendid isolation. Are you going at the right pace for you? That’s all that matters.
10. Enjoy it.
This, inspired by a fellow PhD student @pathadley on Twitter the other day. “It’s not about ‘getting’ a PhD. It’s about doing one.” Slightly cheesy though it sounds, this is extraordinarily good advice. Try to relax and enjoy what you’re doing – the reading, the drafting, the socializing, all of it. Even the shitty parts, and yes there WILL be shitty parts, like when you’ve been rejected for funding or a conference and your writing makes no sense and you’ve got no money and you’re ill and it’s all gone to hell. Try to find SOMETHING to enjoy. Because when you’ve finished, when you’re holding the diploma and you’ve changed your name on your credit card, I reckon the acquisition of ‘PhD’ will feel pretty anti-climactic. As with most acquisitions, the sense of pride/satisfaction will fade rather quickly, and you’ll be left asking what memories you have from the three or four years of your life you devoted to this. Make ‘em good ones.
Alright. It’s been a rather indecent amount of time since my last post, close to a month I think. A month in which, after the madness of launching Rites and the subsequent burst of reviews and publicity, I’ve sort of changed lane a bit to concentrate on other projects.
But when I go out to the pub and run into people I haven’t seen for a while, they still invariably ask me “How’s the book going?” or (more frequently if I’m honest) “How’s it selling?” So I’m forced to consider those questions quite frequently. It’s often a bit awkward because the fact is, funny as it sounds, that I don’t really know. The book is out in the ether, selling or not-selling, being talked about or not-being-talked-about. I get the odd google alert that somebody has said something about it somewhere on the internet, and if I pester my publisher reasonably determinedly they will tell me the sales figures as far as they can make them out from the mysterious web of distributors, retailers and sale-or-return, but it’s all very vague and in general it has just sort of gone off my radar.
My sister got pregnant with my gorgeous niece Amelie at about the same time I found out I was going to be published, and it’s often amused me to compare the two situations in my mind. Authorship is remarkably subject to the same sorts of tropes as pregnancy – the conception is fun, the birthing a horribly painful process but worth it, etc etc – only the other day someone asked me if that was my only book and I said without thinking, “Got a second on the way”. But here is one very distinct difference between the two roles. When you have a child, you’re a “mother” or a “father”. You have changed state in quite a primal and intrinsic way. Your primary function is different. Whereas the idea of being a “writer” just doesn’t seem as real and permanent and earned to me. I don’t really think about Rites that much any more. It doesn’t define me, when I’m no longer writing it.
This feels both depressing and liberating. On the one hand, considering the amount of blood, sweat and tears I put into it and the sacrifices I’ve made in other areas of my life to give it my all, it can feel sad that feels like such an ethereal entity at the moment. On the other hand, I find this very ghostliness quite exciting. I’ve been able recently to throw myself back into academia with renewed energy and without feeling it’s a chore after fiction. I’ve also started an new kind of creative project. I wrote a short screenplay for a friend, and got such a taste for it that I’ve now started a full length play. I’ve got a good feeling about it. More on that another time.
One story that’s been setting tongues wagging in the publishing world at the moment is the exposure – mainly by the crime writer Jeremy Duns – of the practice of ‘sockpuppeting’. I’ve been following this story with some amusement and quite a lot of cynicism of the Bears Shit In Woods ilk, but considering it in light of my own brief experience of the aftermath of publishing a book gave me a new perspective. For the uninitiated, “sockpuppeting” refers to the practice of posting positive reviews of your own books under a fake identity, usually on websites such as Amazon. The nastier breed of sockpuppeteers also trash their rivals’ books under these identities. Duns has generally caught the culprits out – most notably the crime writer R.J.Ellory – by noticing when they sign the wrong name on an account. Essentially what the whole thing shows is that lots of writers are vain, cynical scoundrels out to fool the public and scupper the public’s trust in online reviews.
Or does it? While I hereby politely invite anyone who loves me to shoot me in the head if they ever catch me crouched over my keyboard logging into my fortieth Amazon account and swearing Rites was “guaranteed to touch your soul” (really, R.J.Ellory? Really?) I can also weirdly sort of understand why the sockpuppeteers do what they do. I can understand – though this is nothing more than a vague fluffy hypothesis – how it just might be not a cynical strategy designed to generate income, but instead a coping mechanism generated by a failure to dissociate in the way that I’ve found myself doing, once the hype dies down and life goes back to normal. If you don’t move on, if you continue to define yourself by the book which must in 99 cases out of 100 end up floundering around in the bargain bins, then how terrible must it feel? To receive “No new results” on your Google Alerts every day, to check Amazon again and again for five star reviews but see none, to search the shelves in Waterstones in vain? Impotent in every other sphere, how easy is it to create another Amazon profile? To write what you wish others would? Perhaps to set up a few different ones, create a few different voices, to start a bit of controversy? After all, nobody would ever know… or so you imagine, until Jeremy Duns comes along.
Pure hypothesis, of course, and probably a slightly sentimental view of a nasty practice. I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing these writers are exposed – quite the opposite, especially if they trash their fellow scribblers while hiding behind a pseudonym. Just that I think there is something in the very lonely, isolated activity of creative writing*, and in the very little amount of interest that the world seems to take in one’s hard work, that might make this kind of behaviour tempting. I also think the importance of sockpuppeting shouldn’t be overstated, because the nature of anonymous reviews lends itself to skulduggery of one form or another, and anyone who places too much trust in them is a bit of a dolt. I’ve encountered some writers personally who have asked me to write them a positive Amazon review. Once, when somebody sent me an unsolicited glowing review of Rites, I suggested without thinking that they might want to put it on Amazon myself, then immediately felt so cheap and grotesque that I vowed I would never ever do so again. Is this practice so very different from sockpuppeting?
One thing’s clear to me anyway; the most reliable way to avoid ever falling into that deep dark long-drop bog of ignominy is to keep your eyes on the prize of the next thing. September’s an exciting month. I’m writing a new thesis chapter, making research trips to find out about name changing in the 1780s, gearing up for the launch of the Strange Bedfellows project, chipping away at the next novel, and getting this play written. In which, as I tweeted yesterday, the characters are just as odious (delightfully so, from the writer’s point of view) as those in Rites. Will do my best to up my blogging rate along the way.
*perhaps in academia too, anyone remember Orlando Figes? -