If you are considering pursuing a postgraduate degree, or have just begun, a word of warning: there is nothing more perilous to your work, more distracting and dangerous than the DVD box set. It is only February and already I have watched the whole of Boardwalk Empire; I’ve seen two series of The Good Wife, 1.5 series of Mad Men, and secretly stream Grey’s Anatomy every Sunday evening. It has become a furtive practice, usually carried out alone when I slope off to my room to do some ‘work’. I reward myself with a wee episode after an hour or two of work.
But I am a B-S junkie. I can never watch just one episode. If I am in the middle of a bout of intense work, you can generally find me at lunchtime, in my grotty dressing gown and fingerless gloves, hunched over Dexter. Be warned my friends, the PhD is a route to madness. Most days, it is just you and your mind and your TV friends. Lots of students opt for Jezzers Kyle or the eminent Judge Judy. I at least pick excellent TV shows which are unfortunately unputdownable. Working at home is always dangerous. I generally don’t bother getting dressed, and I often work in bed if I’m reading. I’ll find myself distracted by the smallest things – laundry, hoovering, putting up that picture frame that has been gathering dust for months. I talk to my plants, encouraging them to grow like a deranged horse whisperer. The most mortifying moment will come when an unexpected visitor knocks on the door. This happened last week. I was mid-episode of Mad Men, doing a bit of knitting in my PJs and painting my nails, when the landlord walked in. His look of disgust may or may not have been from the smell of the dishcloths I was boiling at the time. But I am ashamed. Do yourselves a favour – get up, get dressed, and go into the library. Even if you don’t achieve much, you will probably learn more than the problems in Donald Draper’s marriage. Stay away from the box sets!
I’m trundling along enthusiastically at the minute, interspersing bouts of hard work with many fun evenings. The Six Nations has started. It is a competition I love for many reasons – the brevity of it is exciting and makes it easy to follow; I like the banter and rivalry of all the Wales-Scotland-Ireland-England games; rugby is a ‘real’ sport (as opposed to soccer, which is overpaid and under-performs RE: World Cup 2010); and Ireland generally does well. Not on Saturday though. It was a pitiful performance against Italy, and we would have lost had it not been for O’Gara’s beautiful drop goal. So I’m doing better than the Irish rugby team. I’m also doing better than the Pittsburgh Stealers, who have just lost the Superbowl. And Fernando Torres, who lost his first £50million match against his old club. The only difference between me and these sports stars is that I have 8,000 words to write for a deadline in 6 days, and they do not. And there may be a small disparity between our wages. I need a drop kick.
I haven’t updated in a while, but that is a good thing – I’ve been researching like a crazy academic wannabe fueled by caffeine and over-zealous enthusiasm…oh wait.
I’m focusing this month on female autobiography, and I read an article about blogging that I’ve been mulling over all day. The autobiographical tradition is popular in Irish literature, especially in the Revival period, but it has always been a privileged male discourse (related to ideas about Ireland as a woman/maiden). The absence of women’s autobiography is notable in our fair nation(s). But this article was about women who blog about their personal lives on the Internet. It is a way to tell your life story, out there in the infinity that is cyberspace, with guaranteed anonymity, and without being judged by literary critics. The sheer number of female blogs suggest that women do want their stories to be told, but on their terms, and in everyday language. Irish women cannot publish their memoirs without inevitably being either sexualised or drawn into the nationalist question by the sensationalist media. Reviewers pounce upon the autobiographies of women, only to dismiss them as ‘misery lit’, or to dissect the ‘otherness’ of their experience. Nuala O’Faolain, for example, wrote a successful ‘literary’ memoir, Are You Somebody? (1996). She was an important feminist journalist and commentator on Irish culture, but when interviewed on the Late Late Show, Gay Byrne’s most pressing question was how many men she had slept with. Eavan Boland’s autobiography, Object Lessons, recounts the difficulties she faced as a woman poet trying to enter the canon in Ireland, because she cannot see herself as the romantic hero of nationalist verse. My focus at the minute is on the strange and interesting genre of abuse survivor memoirs. Not the most joyful reading for this cold, dark January month, but fascinating. I’m trying to understand their popular appeal, and to examine what they say about the collective shame inherent in Irish history.
Apart from my research, I’ve been doing lots of things with the Belfast Feminist Network. We went to a play called Stripped, which dealt with one woman’s true experience of working as a lap-dancer. It generated a lot of debate. As did the BBC programme ‘The Abortion Wars’, which was scandalously deficient in fact and far from a balanced account of the status quo in Northern Ireland. We went to an exhibition on ‘Women in Media’ at the Golden Thread gallery, and had a group discussion about the observers gaze. If you’re at Queens, and care about women’s rights, then join us!
Men talk of killing time, while time quietly kills them. ~Dion Boucicault
I realise that this may sound incredibly glib coming from my twenty-four year old self, but as I grow older the decades seem to roll by more rapidly. My first decade seemed interminable, a nostalgic montage of Barbie vans and trips to the beach. Then the teenage years struck, and I spent every second wishing away the agony of puberty. But after the bells of New Year struck in 2011, I realised with panic that ten years had slipped away. That a decade from now, I’ll be thirty four. Hopefully I’ll be a doctor of literature with a dazzling career and a cottage in Scotland (life is not worth living without unrealistic aspirations), but importantly, I hope time won’t have sped by in a blur of deadlines and worry.
So Happy New Year! My resolutions are many, and I am resolute. This year I’m going to focus on speaking at one or two conferences. I will try and get something published (which also means I have to produce an article that is publishable). I must get better at networking with potential employers, rather than leaving events early to have a crafty pint with my friends down the local. I have an irrational distain for exercise, but this year I’m going to take up Pilates, which I hear is gentle and relaxing (v.good). My body is my temple etc. Saying that, we are five days into the year, and I have spent it curled up on the couch, stuffing my face with Christmas chocolates, and reading Steig Laarson’s Millenium Trilogy, which is decidely unacademic. But Christmas doesn’t end until the 6th Jan…right?
Collected my Master of Arts degree and the snow miraculously melted away on the eve of graduation. It was a lovely day, the university put on some great celebrations. Helen Vendler was receiving an honorary doctorate for her work in poetry, which includes 24 academic books, and she gave an inspirational speech about the importance of literature in the world. It was very welcome for the many humanities students graduating into an uncertain economic climate. The ceremony lasted about an hour and a half, and nobody fell onstage (I was sure that I would topple, my heels were ridiculous!) Afterwards, there were tonnes of photos – every QUB graduate gets a photo with the marble statue of Galileo in the Lanyon building (in whose noble company it is not sacrilege to stand on graduation day!) And our silly hats were a hit! We’re on the QUB website, and we got in the local papers – and the photos are memorably silly. In the marquee there was a band playing and refreshments (tea or champagne to stave off the cold). The School of English had a party for its cohort, then a large group of us went to Deane’s for lunch, which turned into a delightfully jovial affair. The MA politics class and the MA English people had a few celebratory shandies on Friday night in the Student Union and there was some enthusiastic dancing. A fun day.
My MA graduation is on Friday. The continuing artic weather begs the serious academic question – what to wear?! I’ve scheduled an emergency shopping trip tomorrow to purchase a Sensible Dress. Graduation itself will be nice, all my classmates from English will be back for it. Most of them are doing PhDs in various universities around the world or doing the PGCE teaching course. With the pending university cuts, the teaching course suddenly looks like a wise choice. But all griping aside, there will be 15 of us wearing silly hats in our graduation photos, due to a low-intensity banter/propaganda campaign. I’ve bought a sombrero. Mum will be so proud! Graduation is at 10am, then the School of English are putting on a wine reception for us at midday (never too early to drink apparently). There is a marquee party for all graduates hosted by Queens, and then it’s off to dinner and champagne.
Slipping update: 5 skids on the ice today, but still haven’t hit the deck. Hurrah!
The blizzards continue outside and the distractions are never-ending! I had two friends staying this weekend, foiling my good plans to sit down and write. Instead we struggled through the hordes in town doing our Christmas shopping and had a well-deserved mulled cider at the Christmas Market. I think one of the misconceptions about PhD life is that you have all the time in the world to do research. But family commitments, meeting friends, academic seminars, meeting supervisors, student society obligations, drafting papers and applying for scholarships eats into the precious hours. It’s incredibly frustrating trying to get the balance right.
I met with my supervisor on Monday. He is great craic and very entertaining, so we spent a few hours chatting about music and methodology and student fees. I have to wonder if this is the last hurrah for the Humanities. Am I the last of a generation who takes free education for granted? Is it possible that in ten years English departments in the UK will be facing extinction? The Browne Report is hard to fathom. Of course vocational courses are important, but is life worth living without the arts?
It’s the 29th of November and life is good… apart from the wretched snow. The newspapers are calling it The Big Freeze (again). I nearly fell over four times and let out some ungodly shrieks on my walk into uni this morning. I can’t get songs about falling out of my head (Fall Out Boy’s We’re Going Down, Duran Duran’s Falling Down, Hot Chip’s Ready for the Floor (Fall).
In academic life, I went to a fascinating interdisciplinary conference on Ireland and Modernity. Some very interesting ideas were thrown about. It was a large conference organised by PhD students at QUB. I was impressed. Apparently organising a big event like that looks great on the CV. I’ve been to talks on publishing your work, and how to get an academic career (with superhuman perseverance and willpower it seems). I’ve also been reading mountains of books and trying to work out my methodology. I’ve always loved postmodernism, but it’s a difficult approach when combined with feminism, so I’ve been tinkering with some arguments. I’ve also started writing words. Hurrah!
I’m just back from an epic Glasgow-Birmingham roadtrip to see some friends, and can feel the work starting to pile up. My plan is to soldier away until the 20th December, then take two weeks off. Hopefully the weather improves…
They never said it was going to be easy. Three vast years stretch out before me, with a vague target of 2013 for submitting my thesis. Numbers have become meaningless. The moon is 240000 miles away. My thesis deadline is 1034 days away. I have already frittered 32 days away on a well-earned holiday after completing my MA, on visiting friends, and on a sally forth to the countryside to see nine piglets. Everyone has been telling me that the most difficult aspect of the PhD is time management, and I think the first few months are all about trying to achieve the right balance between work and play. My peers are dealing with this in different ways. A fellow English compadre is working frantically in the library all day, buying shares in Red Bull, and typing thousands of words every week. Another friend has become addicted to Jeremy Kyle and refuses to leave the house in the mornings until it is over. I am finding it challenging to get motivated, to say the least. Did you know they’ve started showing One Tree Hill on E4 every morning?!
I went to a PSTP course (which are personal development courses for PhD-ers) on Beginning Writing in the 1st Year of the PhD, which helped a bit. There were good tips on evaluating research and it was reassuring to know that everyone has similar concerns. I’ve also started going to the School of English research seminars, which are inspiring and are helping to familiarise me with the academic environment. And they provide free wine. Today and yesterday were my first full days of geeking it up in the library, and I actually feel like I achieved something. So I hope I’m starting to find my groove.
It’s harder than you think.