Friday, 21 August 2015

Diploma, Person, Power.

Yesterday, Jonathan Hsy asked:

Rather than paraphrasing the whole conversation, I'll let you read it because it's fascinating. The main strands of the conversation have been collected (along with Jonathan's summary) here. What I want to pick up on is one particular area that was mentioned by a few people: whether displaying your certificates undermines your humility. Or worse, if it's a sign of arrogance.

As a woman, I get very edgy when the term 'arrogance' is used. When applied to women, it seems to be very easily confused with any of the following, in both professional and personal contexts:
  • Rebutting a point in a debate;
  • Being quiet;
  • Being outspoken about your opinions; 
  • Failing to vocalise a dislike of your appearance; or
  • Acknowledging your achievements.
Although all of these uses frustrate me every time I encounter them, it's the latter point that concerns me here. For anyone, a PhD is a huge achievement. It's challenging (both intellectually and personally); it's difficult (both financially and emotionally).

But - and there is a but - the same outcome (a completed PhD) is a different achievement to each and every person. And for those of us who are outside of the demographic in whom academic authority is invested, this achievement means something different.

As Jonathan rightly suggests, for people who don't t embody academic authority (because it's still seen as invested in certain types of people: read white men, mainly) the display of certificates is a means of displaying that authority. It's a visual rebuttal to those who might question your worth. It's also a visual reminder of the people who shaped you.

I should disclose here: I'm a second generation immigrant. Neither of my parents completed their secondary education. No one in my family had ever graduated from university before me. And then I went and got into a prestigious university, and graduated.

In my undergraduate graduation photo, I am smiling awkwardly in the way you do if you're being instructed to hold a fake roll, and turn your body and tip your head and SMILE, LOVE! But my parents? They are there, in their best clothes they bought especially for the day, grinning from ear to ear with pride. I had never seen them look like that. 

If that photo didn't make me well up every time I look at it, I would probably put it in my office. But when I look at my certificate - when I see that achievement typed out in words alongside my [foreign as hell] name - I get a faint echo of what my parents must have felt that day. I feel grateful; I feel humbled; I feel proud of myself; I feel bemused that it ever happened. 

I don't feel arrogant. I don't think many of us do.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

3-Month Update

In Numbers: 
Thesis words written: 7147
Non-academic conferences attended: 3
Supervisions attended:3
Crochet/Knitting projects finished: 4

In Words
If the relationship between me and my research were a romantic one, I would describe the first six months as the awkward first few dates. You meet this person and they seem promising. You’re at the very early stages of getting to understand them. How do you approach them?  How much time should you spend together? How should you spend your time together anyway? How do they fit into your life?

Over the last three months, my relationship with my thesis has had a lot of competition: attending two conferences; speaking at another; settling into a new city and a new flat; new hobbies and social groups; hosting family and friends. Some weeks, my thesis and I don’t get to spend much time together. 

But (and mainly because it’s an abstract concept, but I’m really enjoying anthropomorphising it) my thesis has remained loyal. It’s accepted my cancellations, it’s accepted my mind being elsewhere when we are together, and it’s waited for me to get back to it.

And when I’ve got back to it, we’ve done a lot together. I’m becoming more aware of what work patterns enable me to be most productive; I’m exploring ways that help me to write more effectively; I’m reflecting on where I need to deepen my understanding (social history, I’m looking at you).

So, here's how I've progressed on my goals from last time:

  • Finish reading my primary texts. With hindsight, this was FAR too ambitious a goal. I've managed 25 texts out of 41. I'm over halfway there with a few long pieces to go.
  • Draft a paper proposal for Gender and Medieval Studies. Work in progress: I have ideas, but they need shaping to better reflect the themes of the conference. Something to discuss with my supervisors.
  • Continue to blog once a week. With the exception of two weeks, I've managed this. I'm now starting to plan posts ahead of time, so this should enable me to keep it up. I want to review whether once a week is sustainable in the long term, though.
  • Write a blog post that gets a comment. Not yet. But this blog has now had 1100 page views in 3 1/2 months. (Thank you!)
  • Sign up for Parenthood and Childhood in the Middle Ages. This is looking increasingly unlikely partly for budgetary reasons, and partly because of another commitment.
 Looking Forward: November 2015 
  1. Finish my primary reading. No, really. I'm going to do it this time.
  2. Decide on my next research goal. Getting through the primary reading has been my main goal. Once this is done, I anticipate I'll feel at a bit of loss. So I want to have a plan in place before November.
  3. Send out a call for papers for a conference I’m organising. I am very excited to be organising a conference this early on in the process. More to follow.
  4.  Hit 2,000 page views on this blog. I want this blog to be a place for discussion and for community. I have big ambitions for this space: why not pursue them?

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Music to Write a PhD By

There are plenty of people I've spoken who say they can't possibly hope to study with music on. There are others who need music on to focus. And then there are people like me: my ability to study with music in the background depends hugely on the type of music and the type of task I'm engaged in. I've found I can't possibly read while I have music on.
But writing to music? Is a MUST for me. It sets a pace, keeps my mood up, and help's me focus. Accordingly, for me, writing music must be pacy, upbeat, and instrumental.

Here are some artists/tracks that have been fueling my writing at the moment: what are you listening to? (All hyperlinks are to Spotify; all videos are youtube.)

Roderigo y Gabriella are a Mexican guitar duo who perform intense, often uptempo, guitar duets. Apart from being in awe of how intricately they play, the pacing of a lot of their music is pretty well-matched to my typing speed.

Good for: Intense bursts of writing.

I've had a soft spot for Bach ever since my first year at university: a graduate student tried to explain a chapter Joyce's Ulysses as a fugue and used Bach as an example. (Now that I've written that down, it's a pretty weird sequence, but it did make sense at the time.)

Anyway, the Brandenburg Concertos are A+ writing music. They're musically interesting, but each piece is pretty consistent (there aren't crashing crescendos here). And, some are more laid-back than others, allowing for shorter breaks, or 'down time' in your writing.

Good for: More paced, considered writing.

OK. Before I start, I am obliged to point out that this film is adorable and if you haven't already watched it, you are missing out.

Good. Now that's out of the way and done with, let me explain why I like writing to this album. Like most soundtracks, this one has little motifs that reoccur throughout. And I like these because they catch my attention and (for some strange reason) help me re-focus if my mind is wandering.

Also, I find it hard to listen to 'Test Drive' and not feel a sense of achievement, which is nice when you're writing.

Good for: Air-punching motivation.

I would love to hear your recs for music that gets you writing: I'm always on the lookout for more.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

The 17-Step Plan: An Update

I am trying very hard to adopt writing habits that make writing less stressful. If you'd like to feel as anxious and squirmy as I do when I think about my writing habits, feel free to read back on the post where I detailed the old system: it's here.

In the last piece I produced for my supervisors, I tried my best to adopt an approach that wasn't necessarily quicker, but one which didn't feel so harried.  After writing my last post, I remembered a useful post by Dr. Nadine Muller in which she suggests a way to get over the fear of the blank page. I should state unreservedly here that I LOVE this approach because it means my work plan now looks like this:

  1. Plan argument for essay, paragraph-by-paragraph
  2. Collate evidence/sources for each paragraph
  3. Write first draft: include references as you're writing
  4. Review first draft: annotate each section, then type up annotations.
  5. Review second draft.
  6. Add any additional references
  7. Final proof-read
  8. Send it off.

The process is now 8 steps, rather than 17. I don't even feel anxious writing it out or anything.

Apart from making the initial act of sitting down to write, this approach had benefits the whole way through the writing process: it meant that references were always to hand, and that I always knew which part of my argument should be coming next. This meant that I was able to side-step any tangents, and resist the urge to cram in just a little more information than was strictly needed. (A chronic habit.)

Having references to hand also made it much easier to give broader context to my arguments (because the quotes/paraphrases I needed were right there). Having references to hand also makes it easier to distinguish between areas where more evidence is needed, and areas where you just need to insert one reference. Ultimately, this results in better writing (if I do say so myself - I'm yet to see if my supervisors agree).

For me, another key element was pacing. I always want to do things as quickly as possible: it's my default setting. (It's also largely the reason that I have so many bruises, cuts and scrapes and any one given time: speed doesn't always equal safety.) Pacing myself meant a few practical steps. It meant pausing to choose the correct phrase, rather than rushing to get something down. It meant working in short bursts, punctuated by long breaks. It meant dedicating nearly three hours to collating all the references I needed. It meant taking some of the pressure off. It meant a happier writing experience.

I can't say this approach was quicker, or less intense.  If you include the time that I spent collating references, I spent over 28 hours producing 4900 words. I don't know if producing that many words in that length of time is 'good' or 'bad.' 

Increasingly, I don't care: adopting this approach meant an intense week, but one that felt -- ultimately -- fulfilling. I haven't yet met with supervisors to discuss this piece. I know it won't be perfect. But taking more time to write means that I now have enough distance to start appraising my own work. 

And for an arch-perfectionist, that objective space is a huge step forwards.