It’s a start

It has been a long time since I posted anything on here, and the last thing I posted was a bowl with a picture of Charles II on it. I’ve been a little distracted.

The distractions have been many and various, like writing stuff and applying for jobs and all that malarkey. Especially recently, when I’ve been gearing up to move, scrounging boxes from the cash and carry and staring at my books while saying things like ‘All my friends are bibliophiles, I THOUGHT THIS WAS NORMAL’.

Anyway, apologies. Please accept a tale about a bike. It contains thrills (well, maybe not), spills (definitely), mythical hidden treasure (none at all, actually), and a moral about academia (of course) because that is (as they say) how I roll.

Happiness is a Gold Bike and a Good Book

I remember going to buy my first bike. It was at someone’s house, and the bike in question was painted in dull gold and cost my father five pounds. I used to ride it behind our house, in an alley between two lines of terraced houses, where the neighbourhood kids would congregate to muck about on bikes and kick footballs. In my brain the image of us there has blurred with history, into some approximation of a Hovis advert or a Shirley Hughes book, all earth-toned 1950s clothing and cameraderie.

not good at prams

Representative alleyway friends, about to embark upon game of marbles/conkers/postwar regeneration

I’m pretty sure we weren’t wearing short trousers and trading cigarette cards, but in my memory we might as well have been. I remember the boy who was my particular friend, though to my sadness I can’t remember his name, who was convinced that my five pound bike was a valuable antique under its gold paint. I borrowed a piece of sandpaper from my mum’s tool box and we tried to take the gold paint off to see what was underneath.

Some sort of skewed bike creature

I assume this is what we thought would happen. NB. One serious flaw with this blog post is that I can’t draw bikes for toffee.

I was never that confident on the bike. I hadn’t taken particularly well to my father’s tutelage, and I never really trusted my ability to kick off from the ground and keep going, a frail travelling coincidence (to misuse a Philip Larkin quote about train travel) of balance and momentum. The bike’s last day was a fairly dramatic one. There was a park a short walk away, where a gravel path snaked through the woods that ringed a lake. The lake had once been an open-cast mine, from which they’d dug the cream-coloured clay for the bricks of the terraced houses. I was there with my family, on my gold bike, doing better than usual. Towards the end of the circle of path was a hill, and as I freewheeled down it, closer to the edge of control than I usually liked to be, the rust that was under the gold paint finally gave way and the frame of the bike sheared in half and I fell smack at speed onto the gravel. My sister still says it’s the funniest thing she’s ever seen.

Imagine my sister laughing, too

Unfortunately when you chop a bike in half it does not grow into two bikes

Anyway, this is why I didn’t ride a bike for twenty years. I was a very nervous child. Having experienced a top-speed bike collapse once, I wasn’t in any hurry to do it again. To be honest, I wasn’t really in any hurry at all. I grew up not really trusting any speed over a sprint unless someone else was controlling whatever mechanism was making it happen. I don’t drive either. I walk and I use public transport, a policy that made me pretty well-suited to living in London and not at all suited to living in most other places.

I even walked everywhere while I was an undergrad in Oxford. Oxford is a town for cyclists. It’s even a town for unsuitable cyclists, like dons on creaking ancient bikes with baskets crammed with fat books on medievalism wobbling up St Giles with long skirts flapping dangerously about the pedals, or worse-for-wear undergraduates weaving through Cornmarket at times they’re not supposed to. I walked everywhere, and when a friend’s dodgy secondhand bike suffered a fate not dissimilar to my golden one – the handlebar shearing off, tipping him into the Banbury Road traffic (he was fine, thankfully, largely due to the fact that he, unlike 90% of Oxford’s travelling coincidences, was wearing a helmet) – I took this as confirmation that cycling, like most team sports and the study of Romanticism, was a death-defying venture and something that I Did Not Do.

Byron is a terribly stubby man and the Wordsworths are stick creatures

I would, however, act as a guide to south Devon for the consumptive Keats. He had an awful time there, which I think would be at least partly mitigated by knowing where the good pubs are.

A decade or so later, though, I am moving back to Oxford and the issue of cycling has come up again. There are buses that travel most of the distance between my new house and my new job, but it is an unavoidable fact that it would make a heap more sense to cross this distance on a bike. With this in mind I decided fairly recently, as a nearly-30-year-old who has now managed to suppress her sense of social embarrassment enough to not mind overly about teens watching her make a wobbly fool of herself in a park, to learn to ride a bike again. My old flatmate offered to teach me, so we headed to the park next to the house with my other flatmate’s bike and she proceeded to teach me in a wonderfully funny and patient manner and I proceeded to be better at it than I thought I would be.

I’m not saying I am *good* at cycling. I’m not saying that I don’t need a hell of a lot more practice before I unleash my abilities on the unsuspecting public, even the Oxford public. I’m not saying that I am fantastic at aiming the thing, or that I did not at one point in my second lesson crash very slowly into the stone marking a vault containing nine people (the park is also a churchyard. It has a few stones marking family vaults dotted about, and at one side of it is a wall covered in gravestones: a literal Wall of Death. I’ve nearly crashed into that a few times, too). I’m most certainly not saying that the little voice in my head that doubts the coincidence – that doubts my ability to bring balance and momentum and belief to a point, and to move that point forward without running over a dog – isn’t there. But I had been saying for years that I was an exception that proves a rule – I *did* forget how to ride a bike! – but this turned out not to be true.

whooooooo

‘We’ve just popped by to give you some tips on braking’

I was in a great mood on my way home after my first lesson. As I sat on the top deck of the bus, bobbing my way happily up through Hackney, I had a realisation: I felt proud of myself. Proud in quite an uncomplicated way about having got on a bike and made it go about. A second realisation followed: I hadn’t felt like this for a while.

On ths surface, this is a pretty weird thing to feel. I did finish a PhD this year, and that is traditionally something you are supposed to feel proud of. I had no shortage of people being proud of me or proud for me. We had a barbecue shortly after I submitted my thesis, and my copy was taken down from the shelf and pawed about a great deal by various friends (this is how it got a barbecue sauce stain on its title page, something I announced ten whole minutes into my viva). My friends threw me a party after my viva, even though I’d grumpily declined to organise one myself. People were lovely to me about it all on social media, even people I’ve never met. I was surprised, I remember, at how lovely the staff in the English department were after my viva. For some reason I hadn’t expected them to be proud of me, too.

This all sounds really odd (or worse, like a lot of compliment-fishery) now I write it. But for a long time my thesis was ‘that damn thing’ to me, and I didn’t let myself feel proud of it. I tried to shut it away instead. A PhD dominates your life in a way that means it can’t just be shrugged off, though. Sealing words away in blue covers and avoiding opening them up again is one thing, but you can’t do that with four years of experience and thought. I certainly had that desire in the weeks after I submitted the thesis – I wanted to put it away, get away from it – and remembering how deeply and defiantly I wanted that makes me feel, now, very sad. It’s been a while since I felt that way, but it’s still been a bit difficult to feel actual pride in what I’ve done.

lotta me sitting about basically

I attempted to represent that feeling a bit in this comic. It’ll get bigger if you click on it, though it won’t get more cheerful.

My realisation on the bus was pretty damn useful. My brain tried to minimise my pride at riding a bike pretty damn quickly – ‘what, you’re proud of starting to learn something that you should already know how to do?’ – but at least I saw it doing it. I felt proud of the cycling thing, and then I thought about the thesis, and for perhaps the first time I really thought ‘HELL YES. I WROTE A BIG BLUE BOOK. NICE WORK, BRAIN’.

It’s a start. Accepting that I did something and that it was pretty good and that I should feel at least a modicum of pride is an important part of the process that lets me do new work. I have to recognise that it’s good and it’s worth sharing. Like the whole cycling thing, it’s not a case of standing back, surveying my achievements and saying ‘Yup, job done’. In this academic lark you don’t just do a thing and finish it. The relationship to past work is discursive and developing: when I read my thesis through before my viva I liked a lot of it more than I thought I would, and now as I rewrite bits of it in the hope of making them into articles I find myself disagreeing with them, wanted to scale back on some things and go deeper on others. It should, perhaps, hurt to feel like I’m picking apart my own hard work like that. It doesn’t. It feels like my thoughts are waking up again, stretching, pulling back the curtains. It feels like I’m looking out of the window and seeing a hundred things I want to do – I mean, on top of the hundred things I have to do, but so it goes – and that I can do, if I choose. It feels, in short, pretty good. Not uncomplicatedly good, like my pride at riding a bike again – but complicated in a way that could work. That I can make work. Like I say, it’s a start.

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Actual thesis advice: Make a BDP (Big Damn Plan)

A post with actual advice about actual PhD writing! I think this may be the first time I have offered proper advice. Don’t get used to it. Below (um, quite a lot below. There is… preamble) is pretty much the best tip I have…

Well, as previously noted, my whole ‘getting back into blogging after handing in the thesis’ resolution went the way of all things aka it quietly decayed before its time like trees broken by a storm or something I’m sorry I’ve been teaching about Milton today sometimes this happens. 

I handed in my thesis a few months ago and since then have been in the odd no-man’s-land between submission and examination. It’s a bit like the time between Christmas and New Year, except that you don’t get to spend it watching Elf and working your way through a selection box. (Well, I did spend some of it watching Elf and working my way through a selection box. My father wraps up Cadbury selection boxes ‘from Santa’ for my sister and me every Christmas, despite that fact that at time of writing we are, respectively, 26 and 29 years old, because he is an adorable human being. When I was a child I was unnecessarily Charlie Bucketesque about it and kept my store of chocolate going till Easter, but now I am a ravening hellbeast who ate it all in a few days, and then bought another Wispa because I had forgotten how nice Wispas are).

Maybe it’s best to reflect on the PhD experienced straight after submission, when it’s all still fresh. Um, Kirsty, you appear to be… just blinking a lot. And saying ‘Ohgodohgodohgod I bet it’s full of mistakes ohgod’. Right. Maybe give it a couple of days… Oh. You’re in a pub. You’re in all the pubs. That’s the sort of dedication a PhD demands, I guess. Perhaps in a few weeks, then, when it’s all sunk in and you’ve had time to – hang on, where has the time gone? That’s months, just – you’ve been teaching? That’s not much of an excuse – well, fine, OK. So it’s been months, Kirsty, and by now you must have some clear opinions on how to do a PhD.

Nope.

Not a sausage.

Not a chipolata. Or not much of one, anyway.

I'm not sure those sausages are a foodstuff so much as the physical expression of transport ennui

My thesis is a big blue book, a copy of which sits on a shelf downstairs. How I feel towards that big blue book is sort of indicative of how I feel about the whole damn ridiculous-and-occasionally-awesome circus of making it: it’s simultaneously unworkably giant (it is a very big blue book. Suitable for pressing flowers or dropping on the heads of invading armies) and weirdly small (I spent four years on this! It should be more impressive somehow, surely).

This is all by way of being ridiculously lengthy preamble to a fairly practical thing. One day in the indeterminate future I might write a halfway-serious post about the stupid stress of finishing a thesis, or indeed the precipitous emotional tumble that I – and I think quite a few people, though by no means everyone – found was waiting for me afterwards, like a treacherous kink in a slushy halfpipe (I have been watching the Winter Olympics. I have a deep and abiding weakness for any sporting championship that involves lots of different events I know basically nothing about. I have never been skiing, did one unsuccessful snowboarding lesson on a dry ski slope as a teenager, and the closest I’ve ever been to the sparkly gorgeousness of figure skating is probably going to the ice rink next to the Toys R Us in Plymouth while wearing jeans I’d customised with multicoloured sequins, at some point in the late 90’s, when people did that kind of thing to jeans. Anyway, how about that halfpipe?).

That poor innocent denim, what did it ever do to anyone

That says ‘shoes’, not ‘shots’. I was sadly never in the habit of concealing shots of alcohol in the hems of my voluminous jeans.

Frankly, though, that’s not a thing I’m up for right now, because hells no. But I did have a realisation the other day, while talking to a student about the pitfalls of keeping track of an argument: I made a plot of my thesis towards the end of it and it was basically the best thing I did.

The context was this: I got a new supervisor (long story, but for entirely-good-no-drama-brilliant-for-my-thesis reasons), and he asked me to explain the argument of my thesis. My explanation was… not good. I made about as much sense as some of the judge’s decisions in the women’s halfpipe final I mean seriously I know it wasn’t an entirely clean run but the tricks were amazing I SHOULD REITERATE I ACTUALLY HAVE NO KNOWLEDGE OF SNOWBOARDING WHATSOEVER

Well, what we had here was a failure to communicate. I’m traditionally better at communicating when I write stuff down, so I decided to make a big plan of the whole thing. I entitled it ‘Thesis chapter breakdown’, which coincidentally is also an emotional phenomenon that turned up a few times towards the end of my writeup – a phenomenon that, I found, my Big Damn Plan was really helpful for avoiding. Or limiting, at least. The day or so I spent carefully breaking down the arguments of my chapters was pretty much the most useful time I spent during the whole four years, and then once I had the plan it I felt less like I was floundering around in a big mess of words and more like I was making a formed thing. I mean, obviously I beat myself up because I spent a day not writing in actual chapters, but I am an idiot.

In fact, I wish I had made one of these much earlier on and adapted it as my project changed. Most of of the PhD advice I’ve ever given has started with ‘Hah, don’t do this thing I did…’ but I wholeheartedly endorse the making of a Big Damn Thesis Plan.

EDITED TO ADD: discussing this on Twitter has reminded me of something I should really acknowledge at this point – that this big picture stuff is really difficult. Both practically – theses are long – and psychologically. By the point I came to make my Big Damn Plan my thesis felt like a big smog of words I couldn’t see my way out of. I sat in the Rare Books Room at the BL and forced myself to write the plan whilst basically flipping out, like I had intellectual vertigo – this is why it took a whole day – and then felt so much better once it was written down. There’s the tough bit of my advice, I guess: breaking down your argument, especially when dealing with stuff you’ve already written, can be really difficult but is absolutely worth it. I can’t overstate how useful this was to me, both in terms of actually practically working out what to write, rework, and cut, and in terms of making me feel more in control of my material.

This is what the plan looks like (adapted, obviously. I have removed my own thesis plan from it, but inserted the plan for one chapter of my mooted next project, a rumination on how I have spent much time watching winter sports recently). Click on it to enlarge, because this WordPress theme makes pictures a bit small:

I can rationalise my love of the Summer Olympics because I used to do athletics but winter sports are like another universe to me so I am going to blame this on free-floating procrastination

Two other projected chapters are ‘”Look at those mountains!”: Why watching cross-country skiing makes me want to do it myself, and why that would probably be a bad idea’, and ‘”So it’s like normal luge, but they lie on top of each other?”: Doubles luge and why it looks kinda weird’

I’ve also attached it to this post as a .doc file (it’s an A3 file, incidentally):

Thesis chapter breakdown example

Download it! Use it! Adapt it! Add more chapters if you are doing more (I wrote very long chapters). Don’t write the chapter planned in this example because it does not advance scholarship in any way I can think of!

Hopefully it’s fairly self-explanatory, except maybe for the bold/not-bold text in the final column – the bold is the basic scope, and the not-bold the actual pithy bit of the argument I want people to remember.

So essentially that was my big thesis-writing discovery – and I wish I’d started planning/keeping track of writing like this sooner (while writing undergraduate essays, frankly). I hope it helps some people – and I’d love to hear any tips about this sort of thing! Obviously this is a pretty arts and humanities focused model, so any advice as to how I might make this more useful for people in other fields would be much appreciated, too.

Writing your thesis the Sam Vimes way

So I keep belatedly trying to write a blogpost about finishing my thesis, because I sort of feel I should. And, um, there’s one getting there. Not sure it’ll contain much advice about how to do one of the damn things, to be honest – erm, don’t do quite a lot of the things I did? – but meanwhile, I have been rereading the Watch books, and I reckon you could do a lot worse in a lot of areas of human endeavour than follow the example of Mister Vimes.

(Discworld spoilers ahead, which is why it is under a cut from the AtB homepage. I mean, you should prolly go read these books if you haven’t already. Thank me later.)

(this may be the geekiest thing I’ve done since attending the Doctor Who Prom)

(which was ace)

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Have you ever thrown your draft introduction in the air and gone ‘aargh’?

I am currently doing that thing where I stare at my half-written thesis introduction and flip out a bit at the fact that I have to make an introduction exist.

So I drew this to make myself feel more positive about the whole thing.

You can have frontispieces to theses, right?

I love the smell of footnotes in the morning.

 

This autumn’s big release: me, from servitude to my thesis. I AM GOING TO RUN FREE LIKE ELSA THE FREAKING LION CUB.