I am not a serious PhD student. That is to say, I love the irreverent, the flippant, the funny and the absurd elements of my research.
It's very rare that I read a new primary text without the little irreverent voice piping up in my mind. Are pilgrimage narratives a little like asking your insufferable travelbug friend about their trip to Thailand? Maybe.* Would Lybeaus Desconus be a good basis for a magic-based RPG that satirises the idea of the hero by having 'fair Elaine' actually defeat each enemy without Lybeaus realising? I think so.**
I have another confession.
I don't tell many people about these absurd little asides. And, increasingly, I realise that this is partly out of an awareness that there are enough reasons for others to consider me not a 'serious' academic. I'm part-time. I'm self-funded. I study popular culture for goodness' sake. Very often, I feel as though my credibility doesn't need yet another blow.
But as funding opportunities dry up, and as I see academics bringing their research to less 'serious' (read, less overtly academic) spaces, the more I want to interrogate this idea I have about what constitutes a 'serious' academic. Particularly, the ideas of funding and popular culture.
Let's start with self-funding. Funding opportunities are few and far between. Given the changes that are being made to the structure and funding of HE, I don't believe that it's very long before PhD loans become a reality. But unless the application process is academically rigorous, can anyone taking on additional debt be considered as having secured funding? And does this lack of funding directly dictate the quality of their research? (Short answer: no.)
Secondly, popular culture. Poor, poor popular culture. We are increasingly moving away from scholarship which dismisses the vast majority of what actual Late Medieval people were reading as 'minor' poetry. Yet. So many chapters on romances, ballads, comic pieces and lyrics are at pains to stress that the author is only studying this inferior tripe because people actually read and enjoyed it. There's a real sense of distaste that pervades a lot of this writing and which - in my opinion - can weaken the arguments that are made.
Rarely, there is an acknowledgement that even something that isn't poetically brilliant might have constructed meaning for its audience. Even more rarely, an attempt might be made to unpack these meanings. For me, it seems obvious: if people were reading these works, they had a relationship with them; they took meaning from them; they engaged with them. And how exactly that relationship worked can tell us a lot about a given context.
Perhaps, at heart, the very method and subject of my studies is linked to my love of the flippant, the absurd. For starters, the absurd is in my subject matter: popular culture is of its time, and can sometimes translate as [un]intentionally amusing. Secondly, I have to have a lot of love for my subject to approach it the way I am (see funding, above). And this, fundamentally, is why I wanted to write this post. Because I find my subject deeply, deeply interesting. And I love it. I doubt very much that 'loving' your subject is enough to get a PhD. But I ultimately have to believe that even the most serious academic is driven by a love (or a passion, or an interest) in their subject. Otherwise, what's the point?
* More than maybe. Both accounts will be slightly breathless, overlong, and probably contain some sort of spiritual epithany which you sort of had to be there for.
** This could honestly be a blog post in itself. I have a plot worked out.