The Academic Community

On the back of yesterday’s good news post I began to think of all the times I had been the recipient of another academics generosity. And there have been many.

SO here is my list of things that have made my life as an academic easier

  • My supervisors never fail to respond to emails promptly – which as any fraught student will know is invaluable. Their feedback can bite sometimes but I know when I do submit that my thesis will stand up to any scrutiny as it has already been seen by the most invested and thorough of eyes!
  • Support staff at my institute and others are usually the most accommodating, usually bending over backwards with the skill of a contortionist to provide the help and support I have needed.
  • When attending conferences I usually find the discussions are unrestricted and unguarded – information is freely shared and whilst some academic reticence is necessary there seems to be little jealousy. More a kind of shared enthusiasm for the subject.
  • Librarians – now libraries are usually a source of contention in any HE or FE institution. Book provision has to be the no.1 talked/complained about matter at any student/staff council. But setting that aside I have found librarians (the proper qualified kind with expertise knowledge in your field) to be the most patient  and generous with their time and knowledge. Our specialist librarian once had me in for a one to one session on how to search for information and locate archives. This was of a great help to me when I was floundering. Her name will be included in the acknowledgements to my thesis because it was as important to my research at that time as my supervisor’s feedback
  • National Libraries – busy busy places that deal with all levels of enquiry yet never fail to come up with the goods – they are like specialist librarians on speed – is there anything they don’t know?
  • Archives and repositories – the best place to get in touch with someone as enthusiastic as you are – the curator of any archive that relates to your topic! It’s a reciprocal relationship because you can learn from them but they can also learn from you!
  • Department faith in students – ours recently handed over book ordering responsibilities to the student. This means we can access our Coutts account and order books that we need in order to carry out our research effectively. They may be subject to approval but simply letting us be responsible is a great sign that our faculty trust us to behave in a grown up fashion.
  • Other academics inc. fellow students and bloggerstudents – Apart from yesterday’s wonderful gift I have also been given book chapters before they were published, as well as articles and information relevant to my work. One in particular involved other academics talking to each other so I got an advance copy of a seminal text that was not going to be complete for another 6-10 months – Thank you Peter Brooker and Jean-Michel Rabaté  for you utter selflessness … I bought the book!
  • Family and friends – last on the list maybe but never least. None of us could manage this without their unstinting support.

Sometimes in life it is just the right time to stop and smell the roses and realise things are never as bad as they seem – that in the darkness of that blinking black cursor and vastness of the empty white screen there is always a glimmer of light

Have a good Wednesday – I am off to write!

UPDATE ON SCRIVENER: it was so good I bought the license – I cannot imagine writing without it now. It just organises all the information you need into these neat little split windows – it shows you any view of the document you want and is adaptable for academic and non-academic writing. Well worth it. Even though I would say it still has a lot to offer that I haven’t tapped into and it is not glitch free or perfect, the forums are fantastic for tips and the software creator is constantly trying to improve the product with regular updates. If you are serious about writing it is well worth downloading the FREE 30 day trial! 

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Reading Between the Lines

… is a skill that we really should develop and hone as academics but is something I find difficult. I need to read every word in context and then usually twice (with particularly difficult concepts) in order to even begin to grasp the basics.

This means I am a very slow academic. Things take a long time to ‘happen’ as my nose is often buried far too deeply in a book to notice that time is flashing past and I haven’t written a word. It’s exacerbated by the fact that every time I read one thing I am exposed to numerous other ‘essential’ sources that have thus far eluded me … which ensures I often end up on an erogenous  erroneous book hunt ( Oh look … we are right back full circle to my good old friend Procrastination). My strap line should really read – the more I learn the less I seem to know! Too much knowledge is a dangerous thing – as is being intelligent enough to know how little intelligence you actually hold … I am beginning to wish I was born ignorant and blissful. I was most certainly conceived in blissful ignorance but that is a whole other blog post! 

So I am trying to read a little and write a lot, changing the old habit of reading oodles and writing in a panic! I have even changed my Facebook profile to a KEEP CALM AND KEEP WRITING notice … a good warning to those near and dear that I am in deed in the throws of giving birth to yet another piece of research.

Matters are never helped by libraries not holding books in stock. I am fortunate in that my institution is very generous to its grad students and we are allowed to order directly for the library (though it has to have approval), which can really cut out the middle man. I have already ordered up one set of books which prove to be a great help to my research and I have another on its way – though sadly it won’t arrive in time for this section but hopefully it will for the revisions later on. I understand the logistics in housing library collections, especially when it comes to specialist subjects but it can be frustrating to say the least to have to rely on inter-library loans and research trips. This week I found myself a victim of the distant learners curse. A library book I had out on loan was recalled, with all the sinister usual threats of heavy daily fines. I had to have it back in the library before 5 pm on Wednesday. Dutiful as I am I did as requested. Thursday morning I got another email informing me that a long awaited book from the British library was now available and I should collect it immediately, as it would need to be returned before the Christmas vacation and was also subject to immediate recall. I had little choice but to jump back in the car and complete yet another 40 mile round trip to collect said book! Again this inconvenience is ameliorated by the fact I don’t have to pay for Inter-library loans, and many grad students at other universities do, so I guess it is a small price to pay for such a service.

However this has caused a knock on effect – in that I now have book shelves groaning under the weight of books I have bought because they can be obtained cheaper in the internet than it costs me in petrol to get them from the library! Whoops!

I BLAME THE GOVERNMENT – because that’s what student’s do right?

I am also trying desperately trying to overcome the mental challenge of loathing Mondays – it is ridiculous really as I don’t have ‘weekends’ in the normal sense as I work to my own schedule and my partner works shifts, so why it should still loom ominously one each week is beyond me …

I know what will cure it – a bit of book therapy .. now where is that link for Abebooks … I am going on a book hunt! I guess I can always buy more shelves …

Going Experi-mental

Are you guilty of playing it safe? Of sticking to tried and tested methods of writing, researching, thinking? I know I am.

Write Dangerously

However the way to discover new things is to think outside the box, to challenge conventions and to get go a little bit experimental!

In the past I have talked about software I’ve downloaded, tactics I’ve tried, thoughts I’ve had, mind mapping, even blogging – all of these are my way of trying to find fame, fotune, a wealthy husband, notoriety, success, media attention  a new way to succeed in a very traditional field, that of Literary Criticism.

Yesterday’s post about lacking originality was another way of trying to find a pathway to something new – even when you feel there is nothing left to find.

It is very hard to be innovative when studying something like literature. But when you  analyse literature to any degree you are immediately confronted with writers who are trying to do something new, something hitherto unseen, something exciting. The trend of the Modernists to ‘make it new’ was a reaction against the generic formulaic Victorian and Georgian formalism. Modernism was the apotheosis of experimentation, with Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake being the apotheosis of that apotheosis … imagine if he had stuck to the tradition of writing in linear, structured, coherent sentences.  Whilst Joyce is often held up as inspirational and ridiculous in equal measure, and often to cries of Emperors New Clothes, it cannot be denied that his work has the authenticity of longevity – we will be talking about if for many, many decades to come. Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf wrote fervently to create ‘the woman’s sentence’ – the antithesis of the black imposing masculine ‘I” that had dominated literature in the preceding centuries. They argued against the male dominance of the novel and took a step allowing women writers to engage a more feminine approach.

If unlike me you are not into Modern and contemporary literature, it isn’t a far stretch to look at the greats, such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, et al and recognise experimental literature when you see it … any banned book is another test case for change and advancement.

It’s easy to dismiss this ‘experimental verve’ as part of the artistic or ‘creative’ process that as academics we ‘should’ sit outside of, but we don’t and we shouldn’t. Any piece of writing involves the creative process. Yes we do have to follow certain conventions, but that doesn’t mean what we ‘say’ has to be conventional. Whilst I do find some forms of new criticism, like the idea of Hymenal Space (especially considering it’s medically questionable that the Hymen actually exists/ed)  ‘out there’ and I find my nose wrinkling up slightly at the thought, I do applaud anyone who is prepared to push back boundaries to create or investigate something new.

We don’t have to be Joyce, Woolf or even Leavis, Bahktin or Chomsky, but we can all try to look at our work from a different angle, structure our work in a way that works for us as well as for the examination boards and test the boundaries (via out supervisors) a little. Even if it turns out it doesn’t work, you will have learned new things in the process and become a more thorough academic in the process.

And if we can’t do that in our actual Ph.Ds we can do it in places like this! Or NaNoWriMo … places that encourage you to be different and new and unique and uninhibited – unleashed from the constraints and conformities of traditional academic writing.

So today is ‘Forget health and safety Tuesday – go a little bit experimental’.

Playing Catch Up

This is a game I am becoming an expert in. I am approximately two weeks behind on my targets. I know I can up the ante and get it done but why do I always feel as though what lies ahead of me is way out of my reach?

I did better on the 1000 words a day goal after my last post (hence the reason I didn’t blog on Friday) but I should be sitting at around 7,000 words by this point – and I have approximately 3,000! Finger needs to be pulled out – nose needs to be put to the grindstone and efforts need to doubled in order to get some hope of getting it ready.

And it’s Monday.  A day of disruptions and interruptions and kids in and out. There is no food in the house so I need to spend time doing an internet shop!

Gosh – what a gripe I am today!

1000 Words a Day!

I am trying to implement the very wise advice of The Thesis Whisperer of writing 1000 words a day. 

This seems a really sound piece of advice when you have a lot to write in a relatively short space of time as it makes your output quantifiable and measurable in terms of time.I wasn’t initially convinced (I think you may be getting the very accurate impression that I am not easily convinced about most things) that this was sound practice because all researchers know it’s quality not quantity that counts. I thought a 1000 words a day would be counter-productive because lets face it, usually you agonise over each and every word … this surely is counterintuitive to the researcher-writer process.

However – by writing a 1000 words a day you are  often unwittingly tapping into reserves in your mind that when consciously sought are nowhere to be found. Out of the 1000 words written you may discover the nexus of a new idea, the groundwork for a competent study or even that your 1000 words are of such a quality that all that is necessary is a little tweaking and polishing. It sets you  daily goal that is very doable (Given it would take me weeks to craft a 20 minute paper of about 3000 words this came as a bit of a shock to me – what the hell was I doing with all my time? Probably procrastinating on Facebook. )

When I had a presentation to prepare in 10 days I also adopted this approach. Initially I was ditching more than I was keeping of the 1000 words written. That worried me (as a lot of things do – You don’t get frown lines like this for nothing you know!) I have always hated shedding words … but when you are writing a 1000 a day you become blasé about it all and realise that for every 50 slashed another 50 wait to be used. You become omnipotent and daring! I continued, bravely, and  slowly but surely I noticed that my writing was becoming more accurate and more focused in a much shorter time. I was procrastinating less and less and writing more and more. My ideas were also forming more coherently as part of the writing process. So I have broadened my approach to ALL my writing not just my papers. Given the tall order of 25k by mid December it’s very necessary! However with 1000 words a day in 5 weeks I could have my target total. That is an appealing (and not too panic-inducing) thought!

Writing is a skill that takes practice – the more you write the better you get. That bizarre and and oddball event NaNoWriMo also has a lot of good tips for writing efficiently and quickly regardless of whether you want to produce a fairly unpublishable  novel.

I have a lot to thank the Thesis Whisperer for. I signed up to her blog a few months ago and every issue has something of interest for me. It is motivational and empathetic. I can’t count the number of times I have read the blog entry and thought – so I am NOT alone in this after all. That Thesis Whisperer is one clever chick! 

I don’t normally blog on a Wednesday but I am finding the composition of a blog post to be a good way to start a day – it gets me into the swing of writing and kicks stars the grey matter!

Have a Good productive none ‘procastoratory’* day all!

*yes I made that word up!

Fresh off the plane …

and into a new blog.

I used to blog here at  http://thephdpimpernel.blogspot.com/ but I fell into bad habits and one missed post turned in to several months of missed posts and even though I have decided there is space in my life to blog again I felt the need for a fresh start.

Firstly I am an academic. I refrain from using the word ‘student’ (though really that’s what I am) as I feel my PhD demands a greater level of commitment than any other course of study I have undertaken and therefore needs a greater degree of professionalism. It has to be a full time job and incorporate all the aspects of working as a full-time academic, be it teaching, publishing, editing, conferencing and last (but not least) blogging.

This blog is aimed at fellow mature students, post-graduates, academics, bibliophiles, fans of Rebecca West, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Modernism, WWI, feminism, gender and all things literary. I hope to share insights into life as a PhD candidate who is fast approaching the final hurdle, and also those of a book and literature lover. Sometimes I wil take time to explore somethings which have fascinated or preoccupied me in order to make sense of the world … or as Rebecca West once said to a prospective dissertation student who approached her –

I explained that I was writer wholly unsuitable for her purpose … that I had never used my writing to make a continuous disclosure of my own personality to others, but to discover for my own edification what I knew about various subjects which I found to be important to me …

Supernatural Power

I am going to kick off my first entry with a post about the joys of Academic Conferencing as I am fresh off the plane from Baruch College City University of New York having presented a paper there on Rebecca West.

When I first started my career as an academic in 2003, conferences didn’t figure too largely in my life. The odd class presentation was bearable, if a little uncomfortable, but not too demanding. I could cope. But my first ever full-size conference was another matter altogether! I had submitted an abstract based on the thesis I had written at the conclusion of my MLitt course. The argument was condensed into a 20 minute format and I was not confident in either the content or the structure of my paper. The conference was at Newcastle University and was to host over 200 delegates. I was terrified. I could barely speak for the entire three days … and my 20 minutes (well the entire 1 hour 30 minute panel session) is a bit of a blank for me. I do remember that I shook, my hands trembled as I turned the pages of my talk, my throat closed up, I licked my lips repeatedly, I spilled water, and  stumbled through the Q&A without actually hearing any questions properly at all. All in all I looked a complete wreck!  Or so I thought. The feed back was fabulous – my paper was even referred to by the keynote speaker,the author Kate Mosse (Labyrinth and Sepulchre) because her new novel tackled similar issues to those I had raised in my paper on Vera Brittain and The Lost Generation Myth.

I was heartened. I presented the paper again at a smaller venue for local scholars at my home university, but also in front of many of my former tutors. All people I admired and wanted to impress. Again I felt my paper lacked adequate erudition to impress and I stumbled my way through it, blinking like a proverbial ‘rabbit in headlights’ each time a question was directed my way. Again the feedback was not so bad.

By this time I was well into my PhD, which was slowly taking on a proper form. So I felt bold enough to submit an abstract to a huge international conference, held at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge as part of their week long celebration of Women’s Writing.  I worked hard, adapting a large chunk of my thesis into a 20 minute Powerpoint presentation, with photographs and quotes. This foray into technology did oohing to quell my nerves. I  dreaded the return of my usual stammer and twitchiness but to my surprise when I took the floor I found myself giving an accomplished and articulate presentation. I fielded the questions with skill and dexterity and even managed to throw in a few laughs along the way. I found I actually enjoyed the experience! What a transformation. The feedback was better than I ever expected. I felt I had made a success of my trip, and yet I knew I had missed opportunities to chat to other delegates in the preceding couple of days because of my social nervousness.

But this time I took a new approach to presenting in front of an audience of world-renowned West scholars. Conferences are a necessary part of any academic career. They give you the unique opportunity to ‘geek it up’ with fellow nerds who find your subject as equally as compelling as you do. Unlike your family, who tend to glaze over when you even utter the name Rebecca West, these individuals embrace the conversation and provide you with fresh and new insights and approaches that can only enhance your future research. I embraced the conference experience and as a result I found that I looked forward to the event with far less trepidation and as a result my paper went even better than I’d hoped. I have also made some new friends and some important contacts who will be able to help me in my future research. It has been an invaluable experience.

There is a reason that this trajectory has taken the course it has and that is confidence. Presenting is a skill that can only be learnt through experience and over time. Some people are born presenters and they may flourish from the get go but most people are like you and me and they take time to acquire the confidence and know how to give a polished performance. And conferences are the killing fields of experience. It’s where you can make mistakes and no one will remember them. 20 minutes in a 3 day even t is a mere blip in time … I’ve accepted that the only way to approach a conference is with my head held high and my paper well researched.

I am already scouring the web to find future events that I can participate in and share what I am learning about the fabulous writer Rebecca West … I embrace the conference challenge!

BTW – the banner header photograph is one of my own, and it is the torn fragments of a rejected draft of my recent conference paper … my other love is photography and I can also be found on Blip – a daily photographic journal. Please feel free to come visit.

All photographs are my own unless otherwise acknowledged.