Why ‘Nineteenth Century Matters’ Mattered to Me

victorian-supperThe PhD is a strange thing. You spend three years (or four, or seven, depending on where and how you’re working) fixated on a single topic. You read lots of things you don’t need to read, and explore many avenues that will turn out to be dead ends. Your time is largely yours to spend how you choose, although there are more than enough obligations to choose from. In many ways, it represents a kind of academic freedom that you’re unlikely to ever see again.

After your PhD, potential employers seem interested in everything but your thesis. They want to know what you have published, what you have taught, and what additional impact and engagement skills you can bring to the table. The interstitial space between the PhD and the mythical academic job is feared, densely populated, and vigorously prepared for. Speaking to those who are there already, it can also be incredibly soul-crushing. Applications require a great deal of time and effort, but you are competing against hundreds of other highly qualified people, often your friends, and your chances of success are slim. The sea of tick-boxes, online forms, and buzzwords can be depressingly dehumanising.

Th graves of Jane Austen's mother and sister at Chawton House
Th gravestones of Jane Austen’s mother and sister at Chawton House

This is why I was especially glad to be able to attend the Nineteenth Century Matters training day at Chawton House Library, a public engagement event organised by Catherine Han and sponsored by BARS and BAVS on 28 January, 2017. I’m not going to give a content summary of the day—that’s already been done by a number of different reviewers. You can also check out the live tweets using the #c19Matters hashtag. I do want to comment on a couple of things I particularly enjoyed about the event, though.

Most people at the training day were what we call ECRs (Early Career Researchers), and many were in that uncertain space between the PhD and full-time employment. The first thing that became immediately clear was how much everyone cared about their research. Yes, we exchanged the usual banter about the dire state of the job market, the gruelling commutes between part-time teaching jobs, and our lack of future prospects, but the subject always turned back around to the work. Most had a clear idea of why the research they were conducting into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was still important and relevant. If the world couldn’t see that, we would find a way to show them.

Chawton House
Chawton House, in Alton

This was one important difference Mark Llewellyn, research director at the AHRC and one of the speakers, identified between scholars of his generation and ours. Where some established academics don’t see the need to make their research directly relevant to the public, ECRs tend to immediately see the benefits of getting their research out there. This willingness to get out there and do the work is partly born out of necessity, of course, but Llewellyn sees this as vital to the future of the humanities.

Llewellyn and the other speakers (full programme here) also did a great job of breaking down the meaningless buzzwords that circulate around funding and public events. What does ‘engagement’ actually mean, for instance? Addressing the neo-Victorianists in the room, Llewellyn asked whether the Victorians even mean the same thing to us as they do to the people we’re trying to engage. In the mad dash for employment we often feel it’s our job to somehow make people care about our work, but the process is much more organic than that. It requires connecting with specific people and communities, learning about their needs, and building up a relationship that is fulfilling for both parties. We need the public to engage, but they also need us to be engaged.

Sound a bit saccharine? Fortunately the tone of the day wasn’t at all patronising or abstract. Claire Wood had a few useful tips about identifying who this mystical ‘public’ actually is, and who we should really be talking to. Gillian Dow, Mary Guyatt, and Holly Furneaux all shared direct examples of the strengths and pitfalls of public engagement. The presenters also did a brilliant job of dispelling the Romantic myth of the scholar, who dispenses knowledge from an irony tower to the ignorant masses. For each speaker, engagement had impacted their own research in profound and resoundingly practical ways. It was precisely the act of doing something for and with the public, without worrying about the immediate relevance to the research, that yielded new and unexpected results.

Four of the speakers at the training day
Four of the speakers at the training day

The training day also did a remarkable job of making us, the participants, feel like human beings again—no mean feat for an event with so many big names attached. Each speaker was very approachable, and was not only excited to talk about our ideas, but also keen to offer help and advice. The staff at Chawton House were kind and very professional, and the day was organised without a hitch. Because there weren’t too many of us—several dozen in total—there was just enough opportunity to chat without making the networking feel like a chore. The location itself was also quiet and intimate, and made the whole thing feel like a relaxing retreat rather than an ideas mill.

Image © Vic Jane Clark
Image © Vic Jane Clarke

The only thing I would have liked more of were the workshops, for which we split into small groups based on our research and expertise. I’m still in the early stages of my public engagement plan, and so was matched with a group designed to generate some ideas for how to bring your research to specific groups of people. Our research was randomly paired with two categories: a target group and a type of project. Target groups included easier audiences (retired adults) and more challenging ones (youth not in education or employment), and it was interesting to think about which groups fit best with which topics. The projects also ranged the gamut from exhibitions to podcasts to board games. Everyone in my group was encouraging and full of ideas, and though we had to move quickly from project to project, many of us exchanged contact information so we could take these ideas further after the event.

Despite the renewed confidence in both academia and in public engagement this training day has given me, I remain convinced that the current state of affairs is not a good one. As Furneaux pointed out during her talk, the ability to build bridges outside of academia and engage in impact research still requires a fair amount of privilege. It is often done out of pocket or in a volunteer capacity, and not everyone has the luxury of that kind of free time or disposable income. Researchers are still required to be jacks of all trades—extroverts, scholars, teachers, self-publishers—which ignores the realities of twenty-first-century academia and the value of individuals who don’t fit this mould. Until we figure out how to build a fairer system, however, it’s good to know that people on both sides of the job divide are committed to being there for each other, and ensuring that this important research has a future.

Selfie at the training day
Selfie at the training day

10 Things You Learn While Writing a PhD

© Mateusz Kapciak on FreeImages.com
© Mateusz Kapciak on FreeImages.com

It’s a deadline week for me, meaning I’m quite fed up with writing in general, and writing about academic things especially. Fortunately, it also roughly marks the halfway part of my thesis funding, meaning that instead of writing about my research, I can write a bit about my research process and progress. In another 1.5 years I will be expected to have finished a book, of roughly 80,000 words, about this thing I call the neo-historical monster mashup.

What have I learnt so far about writing a PhD in the field of English literature, and (because this is a blog about popular culture) how can I best fit it into a somewhat arbitrary, clickbait-style article?

1. Everything is arbitrary; or, you can define something pretty much however you want, as long as you’re aware that you’re doing it, and make that clear in your thesis. An overwhelming amount of how you actually put your thesis together, from the ground up, will be dictated by the discipline you happen to be working in. This is especially noticeable if you happen to be in an allegedly ‘interdisciplinary’ field. I’ve spent a lot of time so far trying to fit things into multiple frameworks, before finally deciding just to pick one and stick with it. In retrospect this seems obvious, but I don’t think it’s something that’s really emphasised (or problematised) enough.

2. You don’t necessarily do that much writing. Don’t get me wrong. You write a lot. But even given how much you write, you spend most of your time thinking and editing. It’s as much about what you do when you aren’t working as what you do when you are. I discovered this during a period where I was forcing myself to write every day. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your thesis is stop writing entirely for a couple of weeks, and only take it up again when you have something specific to write. Your subconscious will carry on working in the meantime, and when you get back to writing, everything will suddenly seem much clearer.

© Kyryl Lakishyk on FreeImages.com
© Kyryl Lakishyk on FreeImages.com

 

3. Inspiration strikes at strange moments. During the middle of your grocery shopping? Sure. At 2 a.m. in the morning? Why not? In the bath? Every time. It pays to have a notebook (or a note-taking app on your smartphone) handy at all hours.

4. Your supervisor is an incredibly important factor in how well your thesis work goes. Is he or she interested in your work? Too supportive? Not supportive enough? Do they read your work regularly? How extensive is the feedback they give, and what kind of feedback is it? Are they experts in your field, or do they actually know very little about what you’re trying to say? Often, your supervisor will be the only person besides you who is really involved with this body of work. If they don’t point something out, no one will. And they are too good at pointing things out, you may head in a direction that you’re not happy with. Fortunately, my own supervision experience has been largely positive. My supervisor is present when I need her to be present, and happy to let me go my own way the rest of the time. Not all of my fellow PhDs have been so lucky.

5. A lot has been written already. And you haven’t read any of it. This is something you’re vaguely aware of while you do your MA, but that comes more sharply into focus when you’re trying to make an original contribution to the field. This is especially true, again, if you’re working on  an interdisciplinary subject. In addition, your MA may have taught you how to quickly digest novels, poetry, comic books, films, and cultural theory, but what about philosophy, theology, photography, sociology, computer science, and archaeology? There are whole worlds of academic writing out there, overlapping slightly but never quite touching, and each is written in its own particular way, with its own particular conventions and vocabulary. And the possibilities for linking them to your own work are endless.

© Johanna Ljungblom on FreeImages.com

© Johanna Ljungblom on FreeImages.com

 

6. There’s also a lot that hasn’t been written. Sometimes you will start looking into a particular topic, only to discover that very few people actually seem interested in it. Or worse, no one actually seems to conceive of this subject in the same way that you do. I actually keep a list of these topics, in the event (hah) that I am ever given the chance to write a second or third monograph, but it can be exhausting to realise that instead of relying on someone else’s theoretical framework, you may just have to come up with your own. On the bright side, it makes you feel like your own research will make a more original contribution, once it’s finished.

7. Sometimes you need to be dumber. Yes you may be highly intelligent, and yes you may be able to juggle many complex topics simultaneously, but that’s not always the best way to approach your subject. Less is sometimes more when it comes to thesis writing, and you can always say a lot about very little. Adding that extra theorist, no matter how interesting their work or how relevant it is to your subject, can sometimes get in the way of your message. Additionally, saying something in a complicated way does not make you seem smarter. It is always to your advantage to be as simple and concise as possible – often that will already be complicated enough.

© Mario Alberto Magallanes Trejo on FreeImages.com

© Mario Alberto Magallanes Trejo on FreeImages.com

 

8. There is never enough time. This item is related to the previous one. No matter how well you plan, and how many weeks you give yourself to polish that draft you’ve been working on, you will never reach a point where you feel like you’ve said everything you have to say, or even really said it properly. For that same reason:

9. You often don’t feel like you’re working at all. This is, of course, not so because you aren’t working, but because something about brain work makes time go at once very quickly, and very slowly. Add teaching to the mix, and you can easily feel a week stretch into something that feels more like a month. I’ve easily already written upwards of 80,000 words in the 1.5 years, but if you ask me how far I’ve come in terms of finishing my thesis, I still feel like I’ve only started. A lot of those words will be rewritten, reframed, or simply discarded, which can be frustrating even if you know that writing them helped you to get to this point in the first place.

10. Finally, you discover the ways you had of working before starting your PhD are all wrong for (and unsustainable in) academia. I was never a marathon worker or thinker, and I did well at university without having to spend hours making notes, looking up terms, and re-reading texts. I would fit all my work into a few days a week, when I felt like doing it. As a result, I never properly built up a lot of the skills and tolerances I now feel would actually benefit me in academia. You just can’t muster those intense bursts of work that I used to thrive on for any sustained period of time. Here, everyone is a good student, but what you essentially need to grow into is a person who can maintain a consistently high level of surprisingly diverse work, indefinitely. That’s a whole different story.

© Jeroen Visser on FreeImages.com
© Jeroen Visser on FreeImages.com

Naturally this is all based on my personal struggles, and some of these lessons won’t apply to other people, or other academic disciplines. What do you think? Does this reflect your own PhD writing experience? Will my paradigm shift again completely over the second half of my degree? Leave your thoughts in the comments.