January 07, 2014

ATTENTION PLEASE!


The PhD life blog has moved (click image)

phdlife.warwick.ac.uk


new Phd life blog


November 27, 2013

Dance dance revelations

This post starts, as so many do, with a confession: I have recently become a dancer in the dark. No, this does not have any great metaphorical meaning, nor is it a reference to Lars von Trier’s millennial masterpiece. Of late, I have literally and physically been turning off the lights in my kitchen cum dining room cum living room, perching my headphones around my ears and careering around to the various tempos of my iPod. Sometimes I do it wearing socks, sliding up and down to the rhythms of new wave indie pop, and sometimes I go barefoot and pogo to the discordant beats of classic punk. More often than not, however, I just hit random and see where the mood takes me. This lasts anywhere from thirty seconds to a full hour, and seeing as my housemate has recently disappeared back to the mysterious climes of Gloucestershire, I anticipate doing it much more over the next few weeks.

Three facts about me are pertinent here. First, I am not a good dancer, no, not a good dancer in the slightest. I have little to zero sense of rhythm. Case in point: I went out in Leamington a few weekends back, determined to shake my stuff to the best of my ability. The whole debacle was slightly shattered when a stranger at the bar told me that I danced as if I was wearing high heels and I was worried I might fall over at any point. My sister once told me to dance as if no-one were watching, but I dance like the floor is slowly melting around me.

Secondly, I have form when it comes to dancing in the dark. In the summer of 2008, I used to cycle back from Cambridge late at night (to my eternal shame, without lights, the sound of my clunking unoiled chain my only company), and then, hyped up from who-knows-what, I would boogie in the backyard, behind my father’s studio. Sometimes the cats would come and watch me, and perhaps wonder why I was moving as if there were a wasp trapped beneath my clothes.

Third and finally, I am not averse to dancing with others. As already mentioned, I will go out and get down without any concern but my own inabilities, and I recently had a very moving episode where some friends taught me how to tango (after a few neat whiskies, I should add) at two in the morning. My sister and I have even devised a signature Bray-family move, and even if our parents refuse to participate in the genealogical choreography, we plan to perfect it step by faltering step.

dancing

If you've ever wondered like I look like when dancing, then wonder no more.

But why, you might wonder, am I telling you all this? What could my penchant for going footloose away from the lights have to do with PhD life? Why, the audience murmurs, is he dancing around the topic?

Aside from my newfound love for dancing in the half-light, I have also been pulling a few late nights recently. Not the extraordinary undergraduate ‘one-more-Red-Bull-™-and-I-pass-out’ kind of late, but certainly the kind where I am sat alone in the office, a single lamp illuminating my notes, only to glance at my watch and think ‘My, is that the time? I should cycle home while I can still balance on two wheels.’ These late-night sessions, on a campus which is politely humming with people coming and going outside my window, have been something of a revelation. There I am, just me and my research trying to produce something better than ourselves, the spotlight from the Ikea lamp (which I bought from my Mexican neighbours, so it always reminds me of drinking their very expensive coffee whilst playing darts) and the incoming Premier League results (I have taken to Fantasy Football like a duck to water, or like Alan Shearer to punditry) my only company.

I have talked in the past of how the PhD needs to be a social experience, how there must be a component of discussing ideas, mistakes, and revelations. I stand by this, and I always will: for me, there is nothing like presenting a paper at a conference and seeing people’s faces light up with excitement. But there are also moments, as I have recently discovered, where losing oneself in the strange and wonderful world of your own research, seeing all the pieces come together and watching an argument, really quite a good argument, emerging from your computer screen, is a deep and personal pleasure. You’ll sometimes slip, of course you will, and sometimes you’ll miss the beat and the break-down. You may doubt your ability to do this again, putting this flight of fancy down to luck, kismet, serendipity. But you will enjoy it in the here and now, this peculiar strain of brain-tango.

In the darkened office, your mind is dancing. There is no-one to watch you, no-one to applaud, but you don’t need anyone else to recognise what’s happening. You can’t wait to show off your moves. For the first time since I learnt to solve quadratic equations and perform a backhand winner on the tennis court (they did indeed happen on the same day, almost twelve years ago), I am making friends and sharing abstract pitchers with the technicolor ramblings of my fevered mind. It’s quite the sensation.

P.S. As a last minute aside, I want to share the most terrifying thing which ever happened to me whilst discussing the joys of academia. My mother did a PhD herself when I was in my mid-teens, so we’ll often trade experiences. Once, when I was ruminating on the pleasures of chasing an idea through to its conclusion, my mother chipped in with the immortal phrase, “Oh, Tom, it’s an amazing feeling, it’s almost like…(long pause)…almost like sex.” Thanks Mum, that was an easy image to get out of my head during late nights in the office.


November 02, 2013

The Food Problem – Volunteer?

My name is Chris Maughan and I’m a third year English Literature PhD researching the representations offood problem environmental activism in contemporary literature and film. I also run two food related projects on campus: the Warwick Allotment Society and the Uni Food Co-op. As president of the Warwick Allotment Society I was fortunate to be the co-recipient of two awards this summer, the ‘West Midland Local Food Hero’ award and the ‘It’s Your Neighbourhood’ Royal Horticultural Society award. These projects are very much at the heart of food activism on campus, providing access to low-impact food production and consumption systems, as well as a platform for engagement with the politics of food both within the University itself and far beyond.
Participation by postgraduate researchers in these projects is low, which is understandable given our time constraints. However, these projects (and other similar socially-engaged projects) provide unexpected benefits which many may overlook. Food is a simple way into innumerable complex issues, many of which many be relevant to a researcher. Both are also actually not that demanding in terms of time - an hour a week volunteering at either the allotment or the food coop is of massive value to each project, and can pay dividends in terms of exercise, relaxation and contact with the lovely people that volunteer with us.
Most important of all, food is often at the centre of many of the world’s biggest problems and grievous injustices. If you have a problem with the way modern the consumption and production of food affects those that grow it, eat it, or the environment, this is your chance to engage (oh, and the food is tasty too)!
The Warwick Allotment Society meet on the campus allotment from 2pm every Wednesday and the Uni Food Co-op trade between 12-5pm every Tuesday in the SU Atrium. We look forward to seeing you there!
Don’t hesitate to contact me if you’ve any questions regarding either project or find us online.

Photo credits: JourneyWoman

October 28, 2013

Virtual Campus Life

This post originated in a reflection on Thomas Bray’s excellent PhD Hub blog post on the values of getting involved in campus life. This evoked a mixed response in me, being in the second year of a fulltime PhD, yet – for a variety of reasons – living over 90 miles away from campus in North London.

alone, beautiful, big windows, city, cityscape


I manage this 90-mile displacement with a variety of techniques and networks I refer to (in the quietness of my own mind!) as my ‘virtual campus’ – and far from being a poor compensation for the benefits of full-time Warwick life, I’ve come to think of it as a distinct advantage. So I want to introduce you to my virtual campus, and invite you to create your own, regardless of whether you live in Coventry, halls of residence or even further afield than me.

So WHERE is this virtual campus of mine? Apart from trips to Warwick for training, supervisions, and resources, I have to carve out a study space elsewhere. Mostly the libraries and buildings of other universities. Now I’d admit I’m spoilt for choice here, with the big smoke on my doorstep, but armed with nothing but a SCONUL card I’m able to regularly make use of my favourite study spots:

British Library

  • City University – The ‘everyday’ space; closest to home, accessible and friendly, with the wicked CoffeeWorks Project nearby!
  • The British Library - Feels like the academic equivalent of a spa day; check everything in your locker apart from books, papers and a pencil and indulge in some old school scholarship
  • Goldsmith’s College - Satisfyingly arty campus and close to many of my South London friends and work commitments

I get the advantage of accessing books that might not be easily available in Warwick (many universities will let SCONUL card holders you check out a small number of books) and get wind of a variety of seminars and events which have enriched my research and which I never would have come across otherwise.

Visiting these other universities allows me to also make links with academics in my field (theatre education) across London. I feel this network is vital in developing a robust career, and I know not being able to knock on my supervisor’s door each day has made me much bolder about approaching other relevant academics in London and beyond. In my experience they are usually only too happy to help.

So, apart from this motley crew of professors, WHO is my virtual campus populated with? Other students! I’ll admit that I have a stroke of luck here: one of my closest friends started a PhD in London the same time I started at Warwick. So we regularly meet for study days, and she’s put me in touch with another group of London students (at a different university again to hers) and we run reading groups and attend events together.

There are also my Warwick colleagues – several of which I’ve become firm friends with though the necessity of having to beg a sofa to crash on in times of multiple Warwick commitments. But the other fellow students in my virtual campus are also more ‘virtual’ in nature, through twitter and social media channels (recent posts on the PG Hub blog here and here cover where to find these) Yes, there’s the general chat and sharing of links you’d expect, but what’s surprised me is how ready people are to provide detailed, practical and sometimes very subject-specific advice. Via judiciously-tagged twitter requests I’ve been advised on audio and video equipment for field research, had texts recommend for everything from ethnomethodology to social theory, and attended conferences I never would have heard of if relying on Warwick networks alone

I’m not going to lie, being a 2 hour commute from campus is tough sometimes, with a definite element of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out – don’tcha know). But ultimately, the necessity of having to carve out this independent and inter-dependent world for myself has made me develop as a researcher. I’ve often heard academics describe the process of making a contribution to knowledge as like that of joining a conversation – and I think it’s eminently worth remembering that conversation is not just happening at Warwick.

Are you based off campus? Do you have an equivalent ‘virtual campus’? If so I’d love to hear from you!


October 21, 2013

Event Alert – Arts Launch Lunch

Writing about web page http://artslaunchlunch.eventbrite.co.uk/

arts Launch lunch


Everyone talks about how isolating the PhD is, but it's surprising how there are so many avenues for collegiality (at least in Warwick Uni), if you look in all the right places.

I thought it would be really cool to bring this upcoming event to your notice - the catch about it is that it is organised by students (with RSSP help), but most importantly for students.

You know how you embark on the PhD and questions keep popping out of your head, but you have no idea where to find the answers? Well this is an opportunity the Arts faculty is putting together to facilitate chats about the PhD process and whatever questions you have, not to mention the chance to get to know one another.

Personally, I think this is going to be 2 hours of fun and mind-provocating chats - I sense that attending this lunch would offer me a fresh insight into my PhD and what value it holds. To be honest, I am one curious cat.

Although it's organised by the Arts Faculty for the PhDs in Arts and Humanities, I reckon you, doing a PhD at Warwick, are still welcome to attend. Kindly register on this Eventbrite Link (and secure your lunch place), using your Warwick email account.


I look forward to seeing you there!


October 14, 2013

From Warwick to Oxford…Who You Know Won't Do You Harm – Dr Samantha Lyle

Full Title: From Warwick to Oxford - A Little Bit of Who You Know Won't Do You Any Harm

Since I arrived at Warwick as an undergraduate in 2001, these are some of the things that I have done:

  • Gotten a BA in Politics, International Studies and Gender
  • Dyslexia diagnosis
  • Refined my thinking/learnt a lot
  • Won a teaching award
  • Set up a highly succesful student society
  • Did loads of part-time work in catering, admin, research, careers service, teaching and as an academic coordinator
  • Made friends
  • Went on inter-rail
  • Galivanted about on a study trip to Berlingive_me_a_job.png
  • Met my partner
  • Did an MA part-time
  • Had two children
  • Made succesful funding bids
  • Organised a post graduate conference
  • Published joint papers and solo papers
  • Ran workshops
  • Organised speakers
  • Completed my PhD
  • GOT A RESEARCH POST AT OXFORD UNIVRSITY!

When I arrived at Warwick in 2001 I was 24 years old (a mature student) with no A-levels, half a dozen GCSEs and an Access to Higher Education certificate. Now in November 2013 I am preparing to (finally) leave Warwick to take up a research post at Oxford University, and leaving has put me in a reflective mood. In an attempt to work out how all ths happened, ive realised that the relationships I have built here have been instrumental in generating opportunities.

Unlike the stereotypical academic, I love engaging with people. The most productive moments during my PhD were when I was in the Wolfson Research Exchange, surrounded by my peers from different disciplines. Looking back at my time here at Warwick, every job opportunity has come about from my networks. As an undergraduate I was aware that I should be ‘networking’ (cringe) and getting loads out of the Student’s Union. However, with all the paid work I had to do and the extremely challenging course material I had to grapple with, I didn’t have the time or the confidence to ‘network’. It wasn’t until I was a postgrad that I suddenly felt able, and then decided that I would actively shape my networks in a way that felt natural but was still purposeful. I have been strategic in how I use my time and whom I give my time to; I also have an eye on where things might lead. But I have neither aligned myself with people I don’t like nor generated projects with people who I think are powerful or useful, without also being committed to them or the project. All of my key moments at Warwick have been down to the relationships I have built with my peers and those higher up the university chain. A good example is when I got a summer research assistant post at the Medical School, which has ultimately led to my current post at Oxford (oh and meeting my partner along the way).

This sort of behaviour sounds suspiciously like ‘networking’. To me it sounds instrumental and even socially disingenuous however I am genuinely interested in talking to people and finding out about them and their work, but I don’t get jobs and opportunities just because I am nice and chatty. I am good at the work I do. Most of the opportunities seemed serendipitous, but on reflection it’s not that I somehow just end up being in the right place at the right time. I made conscious decisions to work out what was going on and where; I look for the connections when I meet new people and take part in projects that I find interesting.

I took longer than average to complete my studies here at Warwick, but I would have missed out on all of the other things that I did here had I gotten my PhD done sooner. It was my connection to people in conjunction with my PhD that got me the job at Oxford. I was lucky and got a break, but I generated that luck by nurturing and investing in the relationships that I made along the way.

Academia is competitive, especially within the Russell group, everyone who stands a chance has a PhD and a publication record but I think that meeting as many people as possible, talking about your work, listening to others and getting involved in your community is a really good way to gain opportunities that can lead to amazing things. So if you are a Warwick PhD student and you haven’t bought into the idea of ‘networking’ then think again and get yourself into the Wolfson Research Exchange, it’s a very good place to start.


September 17, 2013

On giving a conference paper, by I. M. Esteemed

This week we are blessed with a guest post from renowned waffler Isengard Matlock Esteemed himself, who has, for a small fee, agreed to share his thoughts on the giving of papers and subsequent throwing of monographs.

The conference season is now drawing to a dignified, signified close, and as such, I have been asked by the Editor to gather together some notes on my extensive experience of presenting. Mine is an illustrious career to which you, dear reader, can only dream of aspiring, but I hope that some crumbs from my Ikea desk will enable you to develop from a conference con to a symposium superhero. Read my words carefully, such a brush with greatness only comes around once in a blue-cheese moon (blue cheese, that’s my first tip, lots of blue cheese).

The art of the conference paper dates since the dawn of man, and possibly before. Archaeologists have recently uncovered a forum in Swindon where they believe monkey-like creatures held a series of academic meetings, including the seminal conference, ‘Tools: The Future for Apes?’. We do know that cave-dwellers would keep the second half of Wednesday free from hunting-gathering duties in order to participate in reading groups, and that pre-historic Slough (at the time a swamp) hosted the first ever international conference on interdisciplinary approaches to paper and papyrus manufacture. At this point I tend to skip over the Romans and the Greeks, who did not really contribute anything except perfecting the sandwich.

Of course, when the time comes to present your own paper at a conference, you should carefully review such histories, preferably in the short and rather relaxing walk between your chair and the lectern. It will also be helpful to keep the following pieces of advice in mind; in fact, you should write them down right now on the back of a receipt or a beer-mat, or send off for my new book, ‘Overcoming The Mind-Numbing Fear That You Might Make a Fool of Yourself in Front of People Who Are Considerably Smarter Than You’, now available at all good book-shops and bus-stops.

Never forget the importance of time-keeping, by which I mean, understand that a time-limit is little more than a barefaced challenge. When the conference organisers say ‘twenty minutes’, what they mean is ‘we don’t think you have more than twenty minutes worth of witticisms’. In this they are undoubtedly correct, but the trick I find (and I can tell this works because the organisers always look so angry that I have uncovered their ruse) is to only start discussing original work (if any) in the last fifty seconds of your paper. Yes, your panel chair may flash cards at you saying ‘five minutes’ and ‘one minute’ and ‘STOP’, but what they mean is ‘five minutes until I fall in love with you’ and then ‘I’m pretty much in love with you’, and finally ‘STOP…in the name of love’. To help them with this problem of the heart, try and act like a strutting peacock, pronouncing the long words very carefully and proclaiming that ‘the best is yet to come’.

As with time limits, abstracts are a formality which it is de rigueur to openly ignore. No-one in the history of conferences has ever attended a paper on the strength of an abstract, apart from a man in the eighteenth century who decided he quite liked the cut of this Isaac Newton fellow’s jib. For this reason, it is advised, neigh, it is essential, that your abstract makes a promise which you cannot possibly keep, usually involving paradigm shifts and a decent PowerPoint, and that the first thing you do as you take the stage is to say ‘oh, the paper’s changed quite a bit since the abstract’.

Actually, no, scrap that. The first thing you should do upon taking the stage is to pick out the most senior person in the room, and then pitch the whole paper at them. If necessary, mention them and their publications by name. If this proves too easy, seek out the second most senior person in the room and recklessly rip them a new pigeonhole. I find the words ‘outdated’ and ‘lacto-normative’ are particularly good for getting across one’s general vibe, funky or otherwise.

Most conference papers will usually be followed by a period for questions, or questions for a period, depending on whether you have stumbled across the American Symposium for Punctuation and Punctuality. By now it is well-established that you only need to listen to the first three words of the question, and then discuss their specific relationship to your research. I was recently asked ‘can you expand on your methodological assumptions regarding post-capitalist state formations in the Arab Spring?’, to which I replied, ‘yes, absolutely, that’s why I always have a second helping of crumpets at high tea.’ Everyone found that very funny, but it was the kind of laughter which looks very frown-y. 

Most conferences will end with post-conference drinks, and if you have had a bad conference, by which I mean you have made intelligent comments and surgically removed the proverbial roll from the metaphorical sausage, then the drinks reception is the time to redeem yourself. It is essential that you try everything on offer, preferably by mixing them in the same receptacle. If other delegates do not appreciate you holding a glass full of white wine, cranberry juice, pretzels and fingers (Ed: surely ‘Fingers’), then they are not worthy of your time. Conferences are also famous for being hotbeds of open debauchery, so I would advise you to proposition, in a ridiculously overblown manner, the nearest piece of furniture. Many academics have over the centuries made their reputation with some well-timed table-mounting.

After this you may be asked to leave, but if not, you should climb to the highest point in the room (usually a waste paper bin) and announce your imminent departure. ‘Fare thee well, dear friends, colleagues and academic flotsam’, you might bellow, ‘my work here is done. Now I must carry this nuclear device clear of the conference centre limits and subsequently emerge, without reason, in Florence’. No-one will get this reference. Thereafter you bake a cake made out of rainbows and smiles, whereupon a single lone voice, echoing from the back of the room, will shout, ‘She doesn’t even go here.’ No-one will get this reference either, and by the time they do, you will have gone to a better place: the library.

i m esteemed

All your blue cheeses are belong to me.

Heed these words well, my disciples, for someday I will pass on the torch of ebullience, and one of you will take my place on the ‘Do-Not-Invite’ list of every major conference. Until then, I will continue to lurk in the academic shadows, emerging only when I am needed, appearing only when a first-time presenter mumbles their opening lines, when an assistant professor is needlessly critical, or when all the crisps are gone in the first five minutes of lunch. Until then, I am truly, sincerely, faithfully yours, I. M. Esteemed.

Good night, and good luck.


September 09, 2013

28 Days Later; or, how to survive the summer as a postgraduate

Let’s imagine for moment (and I do mean ‘imagine’, don’t try this at home) that you were to wake up, á la Danny Boyle’s post-apocalytic fright-fest 28 Days Later, in the middle of campus, the fifth floor of the library, to be precise. You glance at your wrist, but your watch is missing. You have no recollection of your surroundings, no idea what the HVs and the JFs all mean. Searching around for an exist, you stumble down the stairs and out past the Help Desk, deftly hurtling the barriers sans library card.

Outside, the sun is casting long shadows across campus. Save for the magpies hopping around the rooftops, you are the only soul present. Deep, deep inside your mind there is the faint recollection that this ‘Library Road’ was once filled with people…but you shake it off. That was another you, in another time. Your hands retreating into your pockets, you tiptoe through the ‘Arts Centre’, marvelling at the unpeopled chairs and sofas, so colourful, so lonely. Then, finally, out onto the piazza. Here there is the detritus of humanity, crisp packets blowing in the wind, an empty can of non-branded cola. This is a landscape recently touched by people, but no longer. This amphitheatre once held lovers, friends, pigeons, but now…just you. You sit on the cold, damp concrete, and cover your face with your hands. Your weary sobs echo around the empty chambers of the Union, the aisles of Costcutters, the battered walls of the bus-stop.

Now, I am not saying that campus in the summer feels like the scene of a zombie apocalypse…and yet that is exactly what I am saying.

warwick

Can you imagine this as the setting of a zombie film?

At such a time, it can be hard to keep the motivation going. I am sure that I do not just talk for myself when I say that the hum and buzz of a campus in rude health can be helpful for the ticking brain. Take a walk around in late October, and people are doing things, social things, academic things, wandering around with lacrosse sticks and library books. The whirr of the machine oils wonderfully the cogs of the postgraduate brain. This is an environment where opinions and ideas, formulae and fun are all jostling for position, and you cannot help but get stuck in. Yes, you may have many, many more commitments, but it is all energising, it all carries you along in the pursuit of getting stuff done.

Only two months earlier, however, the deafening silence and utter emptiness of these corridors built for the masses make for an insurmountable mental block. You have time, you have space, to do all the things you couldn’t get around to during term-time. All the marking, the omnipresent patter of seminars and talks, the daily crush of the bus, these all conspired to stop you thinking, to stop you making that much-needed breakthrough. Now, though, alone in your office without anyone to come and knock and disturb, you are at peace to do your best work.

One problem, though: it ain’t happening.

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think so: after all, the adage goes, if you want something done, give it to a busy person. It is paradoxical that the emptiness of the summer holidays, which would seem to invite progress, are actually quite the struggle. Keeping the spirits up is half the battle, so here are some ideas which I have found useful in surviving the long summer of postgraduate life. I will freely admit, though, that I still find it difficult to keep focused, so any suggestions will be much appreciated.

First of all, the summer can be very useful to get the practical things out of the way. Your movements are less restricted than normal, so now is the ideal time for research trips. One of the most common complaints about such trips is that they often involve days, even weeks, spent in a strange, unfamiliar place, and necessitate long hours, usually waking early for travel. Relish, then, the extra hours of sunlight: raising at six in the morning is easier if it isn’t still depressingly dark outside. In addition, destinations tend to be a bit livelier in the summer: in my case, Chester proved to be much more fun in July than in November, with the result that my happy brain was content to continue apace its academic quests.

Secondly, keep the routines. It may sound trite, but keeping term-time hours will help you maintain term-time habits. This does not just mean your working habits, but also the social ones. If you and your colleagues like to head to the pub of a Thursday evening, there is no reason to drop the schedule just because it is the summer. All of this will also help you make the transition back to term-time behaviour in early October.

Thirdly, celebrate the little victories. If you set out to do something, and then manage it, this is no small achievement. One of the best rewards, in my experience, is to start pleasurable projects. If there is a book you have been dying to read for months, now is the time to start. If you and your friends fancy walking all day through the finest Warwickshire countryside, well, there is no finer time of year. The simple fact that you are keeping active, that you are keeping your mind sharp at a time when you could easily let it drift, is something to be gleefully acknowledged.  

Finally, give your brain a rest. No-one is able to go for three years without taking some time out, and sometimes you need some time away from your work to enable you to return refreshed and prepared to overcome some of the more difficult challenges. It can be difficult to find the time to step a step back during the intensity of term-time, so use at least some of the holidays to recharge your cognitive batteries. Although it may be tempting to sit and stare at a laptop screen or a journal or a test-tube all day, a good, productive rest (by which I mean absolutely NOT doing work, doing anything but work, for a decent amount of time) will be beneficial in the long run. Then, when you do decide to return to your research, you will be fresh and you will (hopefully) have fresh ideas.

All of this might go some way to helping you through the summer months. Of course, these are just some of the outcomes of my own experience, and although I have been a postgraduate for what feels like a very long time, I am still but a drop in the pool of wisdom compared to the might of the collective thoughts of the postgraduate community, so please, fire away with your suggestions.

Oh, and if anyone now feels like staging the first scenes from famous zombie movies every Friday, I sense this could well become a thing. Much improved would be the week which went: research, teaching, research, marking, supervision, fighting off the hoards of the almighty undead. It may just be my summer-addled brain talking, but I tend to think that the impending annihilation of humankind might help me to meet my deadlines.

Worth a try? Answers on a postcard, please.


August 19, 2013

Heart of Darkness; or, how I learnt to stop worrying and embrace third year

Edit: Since publishing this post, I have been informed by a few learned people (some real, some less so) that I in fact spent a week on a narrowboat, not a longboat. Before you write a new batch of disgruntlement-mail, please be aware that I have recognised this slip-up, but that I have decided to keep the references to 'longboats'. This is because Vikings used longboats (Vikings are cool), and because my cleverest joke in this article, detectable only by 0.427% of the population, revolves around the word. Thank you for your comments, and I apologise for any inconvience it may have caused to you or your PhD.

Please excuse me my long absence. I have just returned from two very confusing holidays, and it has taken me a while to recover. Even now my eyes are slightly glazed over, and I have a near-morbid fear of prime numbers. It’s a long story. If you stop me on the fifth floor of the library, I’ll tell you and then run away.

The first holiday was to Sri Lanka, and was all the various shades of interesting and eye-opening and oh-my-days-that’s-a-monkey-with-a-cricket-bat you can imagine. I will leave that one aside for my memoirs. My second holiday, and by now everyone I know has been well briefed on this one, took place on a longboat with four of my oldest, dearest friends. Before I went, I had visions of an easy, relaxing week, laying on top of the boat reading books and perhaps occasionally giving a thought to my PhD. In the evening, maybe we’d stop at a canal-side inn, where we would play cards and amuse the locals with our humour, charm, and dashing good looks.

I was wrong. So, so wrong.

this is a longboat

This, by the way, is a longboat. It is NOT, as several rather fussy locals reminded me, a barge. Don't say I never teach you anything.

In hindsight, the maths is simple. Five fellows in their mid-twenties + rather cramped longboat x an interesting amount of fun-inducing juices to the power of seven days = …well, I can’t do everything for you, use your imagination. Needless to say, my memory of the week is very clear in some places, and slightly hazier in others. My initial vision was not actually all that far off, except that I neglected to include the profanities, the partial nudity, the sheer, sheer debauchery. I am not ashamed to say that not once during the endless games of Risk, the constant jumping off boats and across water, and the omnipresent searing of meat and burning of toast, not once did I think “Ooohhh, I wonder what will happen next with my research?”

It might come as no surprise that by the end of the week, things were getting a little…tense. We happened to spend the final night in Leamington Spa, and since I once, in another chapter of my life, happened to live there, I thought I could keep a lid on things. I was wrong (seriously, why do I keep making predictions? This is why I’m an historian, because I am so useless with the future). In all honesty, proceedings were unfolding at a relatively civil level, until we walked into the final pub of the night (which shall remain nameless). My friend, who, incidentally, is about to get married, walked up to the bar, his face contorted with barely-contained glee, and announced:

“We shall have five pints of your worst ale, and all of your packets of crisps.”

All of our packets of crisps?” asked the slightly bemused bar-staff.

“ALL of your packets of crisps!” my friend thundered in response.

The night went downhill from there, culminating in a half-hearted punch, a bottle of half-finished Diet Coke being thrown into the Grand Union canal, and a voicemail message which may confuse future generations of the NSA.

When we were all safely off the boat the next morning, having returned it to a very relieved proprietor, I found myself sitting on the edge of the water, and taking check of my personal state. Body: pretty much decimated. Mind: none too sharp, dulled by excess. Soul: utterly destroyed, its last fragments jettisoned somewhere around Tamworth. Happiness: through the frickin’ roof.

And then it dawned on me. I didn’t need a week on a longboat with four old friends to achieve this particular state of affairs. Oh no, for the last two years I have willingly, perhaps even enthusiastically, been on a different kind of longboat, an academic longboat made up of pieces of paper, Internet searches, and cups of tea. If there is anything which batters me, mind, body, and soul, and yet keeps me coming back for more, it is my PhD. Little did I know, but all that time floating through the Midlands not thinking in any way whatsoever about my research was actually preparing me for a third year in which I am assured that my resolve will be put to the ultimate test. And now I am back on campus, back in the archives, back in the strange abstract world of what happened once and may never happen again.

And yet, every morning, cycling over fields with the sun rising over the blooming corn, dodging dogs and freewheeling down hills, my mind is on only thing: what will those dusty old journals tell me today? Sometimes, at the end of a long day with little to show for it, when the wind is strong and the path back home seems a bridge too far, they seem to say, ‘Mate, darn lucky that you made it through that longboat holiday’. They may have a point. Bring on third year, I say, I have already looked deep into the abyss…and darkness, thy name is barge.

P.S. Inspired by my friend’s crisp-related antics, I tried walking into the archives and announcing, ‘I would like to order ALL of your documents’. They didn’t take it to it so well.


August 06, 2013

3 Things you need to know about the Field

I have been on the field, Nigeria, for the past couple of months. As is Warwick tradition (and in other universities I wouldtee_fieldwork.jpg expect), your supervisor would prep you for life on the field. I was kitted with all relevant information and training, from code of conduct as a “Warwick Researcher”, to ethics, security, health etc. I have an awesome supervisor! However, in addition to the key tips he gave me, I have learnt a few extra lessons of my own that I thought would be nice to share on the blog.

It pays to be nice

Nobody should tell you this really – however, just in case you are not a naturally nice person, FAKE IT!

By being nice, I mean being genuinely interested in others, greeting them with a smile (I promise that doesn’t hurt), and being conscious about not taking others for granted just because they really want to help. Being nice has given me access to information and people I would have spent a decade and a half trying to reach. I have missed my way many-a-time to locations for interviews and gotten help just because I asked nicely, really nicely. The average man next door does not give a hoot if you find your way or not (just like London), especially where Naira (Nigerian currency) is NOT changing hands. I have to be grateful for the 5 seconds the guy took out of his busy dayto give an almost confusing description. When you ask for directions to a place, for instance, Washington Street, the response goes something like this:

“Go straight, keep going straight. When you get to the junction, turn right; then turn left. Go straight small, you will see a turning on your left. Don't turn. Keep going. At the SECOND turning, enter, you will see the Washington street.”

Woe betides he who asks for a repeat of the instruction.

In other instances I have negotiated really cheap taxi fares, just because I was nice to the taxi driver. Perhaps a puppy-eyed-pout or two helped the situation as well (shrugs). Hey, a girl’s gotta do what she gotta do. If you have a nice smile and a pout that shames Rihanna, use it girl!

Amp your personal planning & project/data management skills

I have met many people who throw this line around often, “I work best under pressure” – not on the field, it doesn't work there. The need to improve on one's project management skills is a point that is best experienced not explained. When you lose an audio file or two (recorded interviews), forget to send an email or misplace some crucial phone number, you will realise that water no dey pass garri.

*Water no dey pass garriis a Nigerian-pidgin proverb that figuratively means “a mess resulting from poor planning or lack of it.”

Keep a notebook on hand (even in the toilet)

A few days ago, a taxi driver told me he wants the military government back in power, because being under civilian rule in Nigeria was doing nothing for him. This was unsolicited information, other than the fact that a soldier walked up to us in the middle of the road; that was was sparked up the conversation. This insight from the taxi driver was relevant and interesting to my research for different reasons, so I immediately snapped my iPhone on and noted it on my notes app.

You never know where ideas would strike you – one’s eureka moment may be over a shared yahuza suya(grilled beef by Yahuza - yummylicious) and a can of Malta Guinness with a mate. You have to note that shizzledown! By shizzle,I mean any new information, insight or whatever. My friends are used to me now, when mid-conversation my eyes brighten up and I am slamming away at my keyboard or punching my touch-screen mercilessly. They shake their heads knowingly and carry on the conversation.

That little demon which whispers to your very smart brain that you would remember it all is LYING – don’t neglect the notepad.

Generally...

Being on field, gathering data (via interviews in my case), and meeting new people, is an exciting experience. Although I can’t wait to get back to the comforts of the University of Warwick Library...don’t look at me like that, I am very happy to be immersed in the society I am going to write my thesis on.

I am experiencing first hand some of the society-challengesI am going to discuss in my thesis. The tone and quality of my work will be better for it; I can feel that coming on already. If I were embarking on the same task from the “ivory tower” without connecting with the society where the policies I am going to critique and recommend will be affected, my work would have lost an important touch.

Do you have any lessons you are learning or learnt while on field that you didn’t glean from your supervisor? Please share.


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