Thursday, 28 May 2015

The Dreaded Question

Right now, there is one question that I really struggle to answer. Every time someone asks, my mind goes blank. So far, I've babbled for a bit until they get bored. But I still dread the simple question

So what is your PhD actually about?

I dread this question because, at this early stage, I don't really know. I don't have an abstract, an argument or any findings whatsoever. But I can tell you what motivated me to do this project.

I am really interested in gender, and how it's taught and how it's performed. (SPOILER - I've been a femininst since before I knew what the word was.) By the time I found out what the word was and what it meant, I was an awkward teenager who felt awful because she wasn't very 'good' at being a woman. So a lot of my early self-centred feminist thought was about what being 'good' at being a woman meant. And while my horizons have broadened since then, I'm still interested in what it means to 'do' gender, for men and for women. (If this is sounding like a poorly-phrased echo of Judith Butler, that's probably because it is.)

More importantly, I'm interested in how people learn to 'do' gender - modern sources are easy to pinpoint and analyse because there are so many (film, television, school, parents, magazines, blogs, music, music videos, peers, adverts). So I wanted to know more about the sources that were available to late medieval people.

I am really interested in 'popular' culture and what 'normal' people were doing. Specifically, I'm interested in the overlap in consumption between 'high' and 'low' culture. Where we see several sources grouped together (as in household books), there are all sorts of texts thrown in there. How did people navigate them? Did they read in different modes for different texts? If similar ideas/concepts are contained in different types of texts, how does the presentation of these ideas differ? How did their response vary depending on which exact member of the household they were?

Again, this stems from my own interests today - I don't exclusively consume 'high' culture: I consume plenty of 'popular' culture too. (Although if watching RuPaul's Drag race is wrong, I don't want to be right.) 

Based on those two things, I am looking at a medieval miscellany aka. household book - Oxford Bodleian Library MS Codex Ashmole 61. It's a collection of 41 texts housed in a pretty unfancy manuscript. There aren't any illuminations, just a few choice illustrations of shields, flowers, and a grinning fish. No, seriously. The breadth and number of texts means that there is a lot of scope for reasearch. 

This brings up the second, lesser Dreaded Question: can this project contribute to scholarly knowledge? Well, yes. I think. Admittedly, a fair bit has been written about some of the texts in the MS, mainly the romances (The Erle of Tolous, Lybaeus Desconus) and the conduct texts. (How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter and How the Wise Man Taught His Son). So these aren't texts that have been totally overlooked by scholarship.

But there are two main ways that I think this PhD could contribue. Firstly, I'll be looking at some of the more studied texts in this specific context. There are quite significant varitions between some of the version in Codex Ashmole 61 and elsewhere. That'll be interesting, right? Secondly, not much work has been done on this manuscript as a whole: apart from one PhD thesis and two resulting articles from the mid nineties, I can't find anyone else who has written about this manuscript. 

So, if I were to offer you an 'elevator pitch' now, it would probably run as follows:

My PhD explores the reception and audience of Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 61. By studying the contents of this household book, I hope to develop our understanding of how gender identities were formed, enforced, and negotiated in the late medieval period.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The First Three Months

Words written: 8,500
Supervisions attended: 2
Cakes baked: 4

I can't believe that it's been just over three months since I started this PhD. The transition has been less dramatic than I thought it would be, although I have learned a lot over the last few weeks. And there's still a lot more to get adjust to. I'm sure in three months time, I'll look back on myself now and not quite be able to believe that I knew so little.

Hopefully, these recaps will give me some perspective, as well as a prompt to set (and reflect on) short term-goals.


I think part of the reason that this transition has been less difficult than I thought it might be is because I've started developing routines. Some of these relate to my PhD work: for example, I always arrive at the workroom around 8.30 because I know this is when I do my best work. Some are more about making sure I take time away from the PhD. Regular lunch dates and weekly swimming sessions don't take me away from the PhD for that long, but they help me keep things in perspective. Finally, some routines are just as a consequence of moving house and our routines changing: with open kitchen living room, the Doctor and I hang out much more when we're making/washing up dinner. 

I've also made a conscious decision to try my best to attend as many relevant conferences and research seminars as I can. Many people I've spoken to say that they wish they hadn't waited until so late in their PhD to start going to these sorts of events. For me, it isn't so much about networking. (I don't find these events that sociable - is it just me?) It's more about seeing how other people approach and disseminate their research. I figure that once I have any research of my own, I'll know more about how to talk about it.

The only problem I've found so far is that between these events and work commitments, I can sometimes be quite far away from the actual research thing. I'm really excited for a one-day conference this Saturday, but coming after two weeks of lots of travel and very little time in the workroom, I'm a bit anxious that I haven't actually done any research in a while. I think I still need to plan my time better.

The other thing I've tried hard to do is to write. A lot. I get very anxious about putting work out there, and I don't ever want to be in a position where I'm sitting down to start writing my first draft. I figure if I write as I go, I can cannibalise these little snippets when I start writing properly.  Of course, part of my commitment to writing is this blog. Which I am still confused about. I don't know whether I just want to focus on my research, or on this PhD process more broadly. I don't know who the audience is. I don't know who would even care to read it. I don't know how to find the other first year PhD students who might find any of this relevant. Thoughts would be very welcome! At the moment, I'm just intending to keep on doing it and see where it goes. But that isn't a particularly long-term plan.

Goals for the Next Three Months

  • Finish reading my primary texts.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

How to Make Every Session useful

Picture the scene.

You're at a mandatory training session. Or a conference session that isn't in your area. Or a research seminar. 
You sit down. You get ready to take notes. Your speaker[s] welcome everyone. And they start. And maybe after 10 minutes, maybe after 15, you think 'oh god: this session is irrelevant....and I'm stuck here until it finishes.'

It happens. It may be that the session doesn't match your interests. Or that you don't gel with the speaker's presentation style. Or maybe you're already familiar with the topic. In any case, you can't really leave. As I see it, you've got three options:

1) Sit there, silently fuming at this poor speaker, and hating anyone who asks a question because they're prolonging the agony.
2) Ignore the speaker. Browse the internet, check twitter, send emails. Try not to feel guilty when the speaker catches your eye.
3) Focus on making the session useful for you.

So, before I adopt 1) or 2) and make the speaker very uncomfortable, I try 3). Here's how.

Wait Before you Check-Out
If a session starts off with information you already know, or on a topic you aren't that interested in, it's tempting to disengage and save yourself the trouble. But, if you've given papers, or delivered sessions yourself, ask yourself some questions. Do you always introduce your key points at the start of every session? Every time? Do you sometimes take a while to warm up when you start a session? Perhaps days where you don't feel up for it? Do you sometimes remember a relevant point when you're in mid-flow and add it in?

From experience, I know that the best part of session I've delivered are very seldom the first 5-10 minutes. I know that I'm guilty of all of the above. Because of this, I try to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt. And very often, there is at least one nugget of useful, thought-provking information somewhere in there. 

Take Part!
This is particularly useful for sessions where you already have quite a lot of knowledge in the area. Retention rates are highest when individuals are asked to teach someone else what they've learned. If the session invites small group discussion, don't hang back. Share your knowledge with the people you're talking with, ask them questions.

A while back, I went on a mandatory training session which replicated training I'd had elsewhere. Although I went in sceptical, when we got to group discussions, the people in group actually challenged me on something. And I realised I didn't know the answer. Apart from being humbled by this, it challenged me to go and read up on that particular area, and fill the gaps in my knowledge.

Don't Focus on What They're Saying...
...focus on how they're saying it. If you're a PhD student, the odds are you'll one day be giving a conference paper, or delivering a lecture, or a seminar. Every example of public speaking is one you can learn from, and this session is no exemption. Is the speaker [over]using power point? How do they introduce their points? Do they look and sound confident? Why? How are they providing the right background without boring those in the know? Are they using notes? Flashcards? Are they winging it?

At my first ever conference, I went to a session that was completely irrelevant to my research. But the person giving it had the most natural, authentic and knowledgeable manner I'd ever seen. I spent the entire 20 minutes taking notes on how they did it. I still refer back to my notes if I'm presenting a lot of complex information. 

Not every session you ever go to is going to be relevant. But since I started trying to engage with every session I attend, I spend a lot less time feeling grumpy and resentful. 

How about you: have you been to any sessions that turned out to be surprisingly useful?

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

On Going the Hard Way

Since starting my PhD, I’ve read a lot about what it takes to make it through. One of the most common pieces of advice is that you have to be willing to fail. Repeatedly, painfully, and constructively.

No-one says you should court failure; rather, you shouldn’t be surprised when it creeps up on you. Some people would argue that the way I’m doing this PhD is not just courting failure, but outright chasing it down. You see, friends, I have to confess: I am an unfunded PhD student. I am an unfunded part-time PhD student. I am an unfunded part-time PhD student who took a few years out of HE.

And while I’m glad I got those secrets out, I’ve got another big one: for me, none of those things are outright negatives. In fact, they’re positives. I know I’m flying in the face of all received wisdom here, but bear with me for a minute.

1) I’m unfunded. This means huge financial headaches (try saving several hundred pounds a month for the next few months and you’ll understand.) However, it means that if something does go wrong, if I do have to drop out, or suspend: I answer only to myself. My worry about the state of my funding won’t stop me leaving if this PhD thing doesn’t work out.

2) I’m part-time. More importantly, I’m part-time because I need to work to pay my fees. Again, this presents more financial challenges, and can cause time management issues. But, all those ‘transferable skills’ PhD students are supposed to be developing? I’m developing them right now. And those horrible periods when your PhD engulfs your life and you find yourself crying onto your keyboard at 3am on a Thursday morning because you just can’t see the end of it? 

Well, I can’t do that. My PhD can’t dominate my life because two and half days a week, I need to be focused on something else. A few days ‘off’ from my PhD means that I come back refreshed every week, ready for more.

3) I took a few years out. My MA was intense. By the end of it, I was exhausted and entirely doubtful of my ability (and my desire) to do a PhD. So I moved in with my boyfriend, and I got a third sector job that was exciting and frustrating and challenging and pushed me to develop professionally. But those two years away made me realise that this PhD is what I really want to do. I know that certainty isn't permanent, and that it won't get me through every hard moment. But, when it gets tough (and it will), I will know that I am doing this PhD because I want to, not because I couldn’t think of anything else to do.

So, I may be chasing down failure by starting off this way. But, for me, I actually hoping I’m staving it off as best as I can.  And I’d be fascinated to know if anyone else is taking a ‘non-traditional’ PhD route, and how you’ve found it.

Friday, 1 May 2015

On [not] Blogging

It makes sense to talk about why I'm blogging. What I'll blog about, what I'm hoping to gain from it, what I'm hoping the reader will gain from it. These are all good places to start.

Except this isn't where I'm starting. The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that this is my third post. The even more eagle-eyed among you may notice that I actually registered this blog months and months ago and that I haven't really posted since then.

I would love to say that it's because I've been super busy leading the glamorous life of the part-time student. But I don't think anyone would buy that. Instead, I haven't blogged for one main reason: I'm terrified. I'm terrified that what I have to say isn't important enough. I'm scared that people won't like what they read. I'm scared that my writing won't be eloquent, and that people think what I'm saying is stupid. I'm worried that people will think I'm stupid.

I think it's interesting that the list of things that scares me about blogging is similar to the list of things that scares me about doing a PhD.
Of course, with blogging, there are other things that might make me not good enough. My photography is mediocre at best: I don't have the money for a DSLR, or Photoshop. (Unfunded graduate student here, hi!) If I take photos of myself, I'm not that photogenic. Or comfortable in front of a camera. Or sure what I could achieve.

But even though a PhD and a blog present vastly different challenges, at the root of my fear, there lies exactly the same thing: perfectionism. I've always been redundantly obsessed with getting it right, to the extent that at school I used to re-copy out pages in my exercise book if I'd messed something up.

I'm trying my best to combat my perfectionism in my thesis by writing a lot of unpolished things and -- here's the scary part -- actually sending it to my supervisors. So, why am I letting the blog defeat me? Why is writing something on the internet that (let's be frank) not many people are going to see more scary than early thesis work?

Well, in answer to your questions, self: 1) I will not let the blog defeat me and 2) Blogging isn't scarier than writing. So this post is a start. I don't know what what this blog is going to be or where it's going to go. But I know that I want to document this process, de-mystify it. And I do know that I can contribute to that desire, one post at a time.

So, consider this step one.