My new voice

New voice blospost

The title of this post might sound ludicrous at first, but this is a genuine issue I have been developing over the last few months, so bear with me.

In February this year, I submitted a mammoth of a chapter. It wasn’t good, and I know it. It lacked many things, and as I was writing it, I knew something was missing – but I could not really tell what. My supervisors noticed this too. Things that I had been good at, like planning and structuring, had gone a bit awry. And issues that I previously had, such as dubious grammar and horrendous use of prepostions, just got worse. Whilst we did not really agree on what needed to happen next, it seemed apparent that the chapter would need a ridiculous amount of editing in the best of cases – and worst case scenario, the whole thing would need to be rewritten.

This is such a daunting feeling, particularly as it happened in such a short period of time. I was submitting on a Friday, feeling smug about my 20,000 words. Five days later, after a Wednesday meeting, I was looking at major changes and a complete rewrite. The worst of all was that the feedback, whilst prompt and exhaustive, was far from helpful. The bottom line was that I wasn’t convincing enough with my arguments, and that I took far too many words to explain one little thing. And then I had gone off in a bit of a tangent by comparing some short stories having no background and experience in doing comparative literature whatsoever. It is safe to say, I brought the situation upon myself.

Fortunately, timing could not be better, and I attended a workshop that same week I received the feedback, and I was confronted with the reality of how much needed to be written in how little time, whilst knowing that writing is not necessarily a strength of mine. I did come out of that workshop willing to learn a new way of doing things and trying to stick to the norms a bit more. That same weekend I worked for more hours than any other weekend this year and tore my old chapter apart. I downloaded Scrivener. I created a new work plan and a new structure. And I decided to just try to write the introduction to the chapter, a few paragraphs only, trying to recreated the style that the workshop recommended.

It was NOT an easy task at all. But I decided to start chipping away at it, and slowly but steadily I wrote a new introduction, with clearer sections and different number combinations, and two weeks after the feedback meeting, I met my supervisors again. I had barely given them two pages worth of work. I knew it wasn’t much but I wanted to let them know I had started to write – differently. Their reaction could not have been more positive! They both called it “my new voice”. I wasn’t sure I wanted to name it something that shiny (it sort of sounds as if I bought it somewhere!), but it seems to have stuck.

I was not really sure wether the “new voice” was going to work out in the mid-term, so I kept writing slowly, particularly scared of losing it. At times it still feels that way – that I am going to wake up one mornning and “my new voice” will be gone, lost amid some poor grammar choices and some dubious paragraph structuring. So instead of waiting to write everything up and then send it to supervisors, I have been writing painstakingly slow and revising everything three times over, and I have been submitting every little thing to my supervisors, almost section by section.

The feedback has only been postiive. I seem to be going from strength to strength, and every section I write is just as good as the next one. In the latest email I got, one of my supervisors said that, despite some sentences needing rewriting, my voices “shines clear and concise through the content”, and that it looks like the newer version of the chapter will hold together well. This is great news, all things considered.

I am now at the final revision point, with a few paragraphs to conclude the last section still to go, and some conclusions to wrap up. And the many little chages. And my “new voice” has stayed with me all along, for the past three months, without hesitation. I still feel that one day I will accidentally lose it, but when I think that, I also realise that I read every sentence properly, and make sure I revise the whole paragraph before I am happy that I have conveyed the right idea, before I can “move on”. Whilst I keep doing that, I suppose my new voice is in safe hands, sort of speak. I hope I can keep it that way.

Next submission day: hopefully this Thursday (yes, two days to go! Revision, revision, revision!)

Shut Up and Write – a promising start

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A few weeks ago, PhD in AVT and I decided to set up a writing group in our school, and ever since then, we have been working relentlessly to procrastinate from our pressing Annual Review presentations to put together the School of Modern Languages and Cultures’ first ever Shut Up and Write session. I thought I would take the time now and write a little bit about the experience, hoping to inspire a few others to set up their own writing groups elsewhere.

I think PhD in AVT and I were expecting to attend a session by ourselves. The prospect of having more people in the room, engaged in the writing activity, was an exciting one, but I reckon we were both feeling realistic about everybody else’s commitments. We scheduled this SUAW first session strategically after everybody’s Annual Review – we thought that, since APRs are full of writing promises, this was a good palce for everyone to start. In the end, however, I think we both knew that we wanted to do a SUAW session (I myself feel that I particularly need these to get things going), and that if other people would want to tag along and try it out for themselves, we were happy to organise it.

We booked a rather large room, and had it set up around one large table made up of smaller tables. In a way, we would not be able to see what everybody else was doing, but we knew what we were all there for. In total, it was five of us, which I think it is a massive success, considering our expectations.

We wrote for one hour in two pomodoro chunks. I had my doubts about how it would work to get everyone to simply “shut up, and write”. But everyone did shut up and write/read/think. I had brought with myself a notebook as I was concerned that my netbook might be too slow for writing and set up, and also because I wasn’t sure I wanted to type up everything. I needed the session to be about getting words and thoughts out, but I was not sure I wanted to have them set in stone – in a notebook, there is more room for strike-through, mistakes, abbreviations, etc. and it feels less formal.

And it worked great for me – got two paragraphs drafted, a section thought through, and lots of notes and arrows pointing at the right areas. I reckon everybody else went well as well – PhD in AVT said she had written 1,000 words once she typed everything up. Others completed their aims too – a presentation, a chapter read, smiles all around!

The great point as well was that we all broke the writing for five minutes, and then were able to get back to it straight away. When the hour was done, everyone felt that this was the right amount of time – not too long, not too short, demanding but within certain limits. At the end of the session, third years seemed keen to have this as a regular, weekly spot – something to look forward to during the week, knowing that it will be there, available for everyone. The agreement was to try to keep it going weekly on Wednesdays for just the one hour, and invite more people to try it.

As a co-organiser, I feel good that our idea managed to come to life, and I am hoping people will continue to engage, come to the sessions, shut up, and write. Many more words need to be written and I am sure everyone can use the space! Come on, give it a try!

#beamongrel

A literature review now? At this stage?

Next week is my Annual Progress Review. I feel pretty confident despite the fact that, at first sight, it looks like I have taken a step backwards in my research. I suppose that is okay, and it happens to everybody. I am preparing a presentation for it, and I expect the panel to come up with the million dollar question: “What are you working on right now?”. And the honest answer to that is “I am rewriting a complete chapter that will NOT make it into the final thesis, and a literature review”.

A literature review, you say? But are you not in second-to-third year?

It is odd, isn’t it? The common perception is that a Literature Review gets ‘done’ and written at the very beginning. In my College, it is one of the requirements for passing your first year annual review. So it’s okay to wonder if telling the panel that I am writing a literature review at the moment will make them go “hummm, really?” and raise questions about my research. I am ready.

There are several ways to see it, I believe. Writing a literature review is never easy, and since it is meant to help you ‘locate’ yourself within the research, that doesn’t necessarily mean you will ‘find’ yourself whilst doing it. It is particularly daunting at the very beginning, because the amount of sources to deal with and the absolute zero knowledge on how to go about it are an additional burden in my opinion. That doesn’t mean I am finding the task less of a burden now, but I reckon I have a slight sense of perspective of how things work in my field to have a hint of confidence that the lit review is going to work out for me.

Because of the rationale behind doing this review, doing a lit review half way through your PhD might appear like a step backwards. In a sense, this is true. Having to locate yourself within the research in order to do more research is going backwards. However, it is not going backwards for the sake of it; it’s one or two steps back in order to take a few further steps forward. I have changed the focus of my PhD. It’s the same sort of topic, and the same sort of area, but there are many blank spaces to fill that I could only possibly address by going back to a lit review. So whilst it is happening at an odd time, it is the right time from a general perspective.

Whilst writing this review, I have found that some things are made easier by the fact that I am doing this so late into my PhD. First of all, I have previous experience of doing one. It was not a very good one, but it was still a lit review, so I have the knowledge of how it feels to ‘locate’ yourself within the field. I also know how not to do it, since my first attempt was only mildly successful, and I have read a lot about how to improve this. The best point though is the ease to find yourself compared to doing a lit review at the very beginning. I know how the field roughly looks like – all I need to do is fill in the blank spaces. I can tell by the quick review of an article whether it is relevant and its degree of relevance towards my research. And I can understand where other scholars are coming from when establishing their knowledge of the field. I can see how every source is set around my contribution, and how my contribution fits within the wider framework. And that is a feeling that you don’t get at the beginning.

Speaking to my supervisor about this, she argued that lit reviewing is something that needs to occur throughout the research, one way or another, to keep up with the development of the field over the four years of research. It is a very valid point. She also agrees that the process of establishing my voice within the field at this point in time is better than never really finding your niche. This is all great news – at the end of the day, if your supervisors have your back, you’re good to go.

So whilst it may still be hard to argue to the Annual Progress Review panel why doing a new lit review is important, the sense of clarity I have at the moment is something I would not change for, say having a few obscure chapters written. Changing the focus of my research meant stepping away from not knowing where I was going (whilst having written over 40k words) to knowing exactly how I want every piece of my thesis to work, albeit with only about 5,000 words in the bank. It is a risk I am glad I took. And I am confident the panel will see it that way too.

#MongrelLitRev

Useful procrastination(?)

I jotted down some thoughts about what I wanted to do today this morning.

procras1

I felt good with myself because it included two things I desperately need to do: read and write. Reading I have been very good at lately. I have never really been. But in the last two weeks I have been awesome. I have started to feel I am reading so much and so well just so I don’t have to go into point two of that mini to-do list: writing. I need to write – but everything, right now, seems more appealing. I am, however, not the first person to be in this particular mind loop, judging by the stuff on Shit Academics Say.

shitacademicssay1

It’s Thursday, and the weather outside, by Glasgow standards, is pretty nice – 13 degrees and clear, sunny skies. I went for lunch and had a long, productive conversation with PhD in AVT, who had just been at a workshop this morning.

Now being at a workshop is dangerous – awesome but unproductive ideas can come to you at any time after you leave the classroom. We discussed a few topics all related to research – mainly related to writing (or to not writing). We have fiddled about with the idea of setting up our own Shut up and write group, but we seem to be still quite immobile as a group – ideas are good, action on them is slow.

The idea that came up from our conversation was to set up a Peer Feedback Group, as a counterpoint to the SU&W idea. We went through all the specific points, and even discussed smaller details when one of our colleagues pointed at particular pitfalls in our plan. So it’s fair to say that what was set up for an afternoon of potential writing (mind you, perhaps one sentence or two), it has now cascaded into putting together a proposal for both our colleagues and the school about our writing group ideas.

This is fantastic, of course. But how much of a distraction is it? Are we awesome at organising communal things or we are just very good at procrastinating?

I am a self-confessed PhD/research-blog-reader. I love reading about research, as opposed to doing any. I love books about reading, and #phdchat and #acwri discussions. Again, as opposed to writing any sort of research. I feel this might be a bit odd (like loving books on literary criticism but not reading any actual literature), but I suppose that if I want to make a career out of this, it’s good to be informed. I am also a keen early adopter of new techniques. If anyone tells me to try something different with my research, I will – even if that implies taking an entire afternoon changing references from one bibliographic system into another. In some ways doing something new, in a different way, is like having a new toy, only in an academic-y, boring environment.

This obsession for new articles to read and new things to try is, in a way, a massive procrastinating factor of mine. I know this. I have assumed the fact that, some times, I just need to read another post about writing or note taking so that I can try it again and see if it works this time. I enjoy this form of procrastination more than dwelling on Facebook or watching videos of cats. It’s terrible. Yet I cannot avoid it.

Does knowing more about the perks of doing research help me do any good research at all? Well, this is a bit of a difficult point to argue. It’s like the old adage of if you can’t do it, teach it. Perhaps it does, perhaps it doesn’t. In certain days, it can definitely get in the way. I try my best to focus on the actual research but there are days that only cats on the internet will occupy my brain span. It’s just the way it is. There’s no point in fighting it at times. What I know, though, is that at least I have a wider knowledge of what is expected of me, and what is involved in conducting research, and hence all the acquired knowledge has guided me towards getting certain things done correctly over the past two and a half years. Or else I have spent some really entertained afternoons pretending I am doing actual research, which is also cool.

I don’t know if our ideas for a Shut up and write and Peer feedback group will work out the way we want to, but certainly they are good initiatives to tackle a problem that me and PhD in AVT seem to have. Which is summarized so well again by Shit Academics Say.

shitacademicssay2

#alwaysamongrel

The nod of approval

And after a few weeks off and some really lazy Easter antics… I ‘resurrected’. I did it in the back of both good and bad news, but for today, I will only focus on the good stuff. The bad stuff, in the end, has not turned out to be so bad, and it has been positively embedded in the good news. Let me try to be more specific and clearer about what I mean.

Two weeks ago I was told I had been given a scholarship for a project I submitted a few weeks ago. The awarding body is essentially the agents of the polysystem I am currently working on, and it’s meant to take on the project I have been working on for months, and give it a financial push.

This is great news because the Mongrel PhD in me thinks that, at least, half of this year’s university fees will be paid within the next few months and I will be able to breathe out of my overdraft for a couple of months before taking one final plunge into the fee-paying/overdraft pool. I say this many times to my colleagues, but having experienced both sides of the coin, I prefer being short of time than being short of money – time can be expensive, but it definitely does not pay the bills. So getting this award/scholarship is great news from this particular point of view.

The most important thing, however, is not about my temporary exit of the red number balance club. This is an award given to researchers in the field of Catalan studies, about a very specific historical time, and normally involving a particular author, which up until recently, was the main author in my thesis. This is the second time I receive this funding. The project this time is even better than last time around, so I am hoping it will receive even better feedback. I have been assigned a tutor for this, someone who is, very obviously, an agent of the Catalan polysystem. A great authority in the field, who thought that my project was worth investing in. I cannot put into words how much that means to my research. In the last few months of the year (particularly after my first ever article was badly rejected), it became very obvious that my post-doctoral life was outside academia – within an HEI setting, but not as a researcher.

One of the reasons behind it was the lack of funding in Britain anyway. This award is important in many ways, but particularly in the sense that having two funded projects by the Institute of Catalan Studies can only mean that they trust me to deliver as a researcher and that I am good enough to be doing what I am doing, despite certain doubts around the edges.

I can see the irony in all this – perhaps if I was doing my research somewhere else, I would become an academic. The legitimization of my research, this nod of approval from those in a really high status withing my field, is a big deal. And if I was completely over the moon the first time around, this second time around is even better.

Going back to what I outlined at the beginning, the ‘bad news’ of the last month were that my chapter three was, after all the efforts, a piece of unreadable, dodgy research. I need to revisit some of the points and I have taken a completely different approach, an approach that my supervisors have blessed as the potential proof of ‘having found my own academic voice’. This is quite a painstaking process, particularly when my change of direction means that this will no longer be part of my final thesis. However, this is the project that has received the award, making it very much worthwhile to keep on working on it, and grinding through the process, never mind how hard I find it.

The award has provided clarity to my next few months – this project will be done then, and after that I can move into the reality of building the first chapter of my thesis. But at least I know that re-drafting this project for the third time in six months is not a wast of time, but an investment in money. And with those good news, I roll on and start preparing my Annual Progress Review and the defense of my new structure, which will see me put 40,000+ words into the shredder.

Wish me luck.

#stayresilient #alwaysamongrel