Magnificent Research Obsessions

‘Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.’

Walter Benjamin

There seems to be an inevitable element of obsession in any research project. A PhD is a commitment to spend years studying the minute (and sometimes seemingly infinite) detail of an instinct, an idea, or a passion. We asked some PhD students to share their magnificent research obsessions with us. From the resonance of a single object, to collections of postcards, books and other treasured ephemera, these objects tell an alternative story of the PhD experience.


Penny Newell

unnamed

Objects (from top left) with thanks to all donors: framed oil print John Constable, Cloud Study (1822); framed handmade cloud print on Japanese rice paper (2011); Cloud passport holder (2015); ‘CLOUD COLLECTION KIT’ notebook (2014); cartoon cloud notebook (2014); cloud drawstring bag (2014); Casio sky blue F-91W watch (2015); cloud birthday card (modified, 2015); postcard Paul Nash, Battle of Britain (1941, acquired 2013); handmade embroidered note: ‘I’m on cloud nine because you’re cloud mine’ (2015); vintage autograph book with cloud doodles, anon. (c.1941); postcard Lizzie Spikes, Howard’s cloud classification (2015); postcard Clay Perry, Mira Schendel (1966, acquired 2015); strawberry jam miniature jar containing plasticine (2013); gold capped miniature jar containing cotton wool (2012); cloud letters (modified, 2016); black and white cloud photograph found on Deptford Market (sample of 20, acquired 2013); postcard René Magritte, The Future of Statues (1937, acquired 2012); glass shaker containing cotton wool (2014); postcard Zoë Harcourt-Kelly, cloud study (2015); postcard Andrew Logan, Andrew Logan’s Bedroom, Outfit and Flower Sculpture, 10 Denmark Street, Oxford (1969); cloud luggage tag (2015); blue shift lomography film, 35mm (2015); chocolate wrapper ‘Finding faces in the clouds’ (2013); handmade cloud mobile with steel frame and cushion clouds (2012).

Penny Newell is based at King’s College London, where she is currently working on a literary studies thesis about clouds.


Rebecca Whiteley

Obstetric Model

My thesis is on early modern images of the pregnant body. When I found this little anatomical model I knew I had to have it as my mascot. I keep it on my desk to remind me that all times and cultures have had their own ways of representing and understanding the bodily interior. And while our vision of the bodily interior is very different to the early modern, we are linked by a fascination with seeing the unseeable – the unborn child.

Rebecca Whiteley is researching her PhD in the History of Art Department at UCL. Her research focuses on images of the pregnant body published in early modern midwifery and surgical books in England and Western Europe. Her thesis uses these images to construct a ‘body history’ for the period, asking what images can tell us about how people in the early modern period understood, treated, and visualised their bodies.


Brian Wallace

IMG-20160201-WA0000

I started this collection of vintage and reproduction Victorian postcards, cigarette cards and die-cut scraps out of the desire to own a cheap, colourful little primary source on the subjects I was writing about. Trawling through Portobello Market antique stalls graduated to browsing online markets, and the collection swelled with celebrities, ads, patriotic battle paintings, politicians, ‘Wish You Were Here’ imperial scenes, P&O liners, and scraps of odd ephemera (the General Gordon Safety Match label is a highlight). It’s become like a group portrait of my work on the era, growing with my PhD and always a work in progress.

Brian Wallace is a history PhD candidate studying Victorian colonial sieges at King’s College London.


Katarzyna Falęcka

Magnificent obsessions Katarzyna

My obsessive object is a 1917 photograph held at the British Library which shows two Algerian men looking though the focusing screen of a camera. It is an extremely valuable document as it shows the interaction between the colonised and the imported technology from Europe, urging us to rethink the role of the medium in colonised territories.

Katarzyna Falęcka is a first year PhD candidate at University College London, examining the role of photography in mediating the postcolonial relations between Algeria and France.


Francesca Brooks

Fran Magnificent David Jones Library

Filled with inscriptions and dedications, collected ephemera and lengthy marginal notes, the Library of David Jones (a collection of 1,500 of his personal books) promises to reveal the ‘mysterious connection between [the writer’s] reading and their own work.’ This archival work represents the foundation of my thesis: an obsessive methodology for reading with David Jones, an imagined attempt to read over his shoulder as he sits with a pencil in hand, ready to mark up the margins of his books. My magnificent research obsession is the creation of an echo-collection of a subsection of Jones’ library. I’m slowing gathering my own shadow-library, in identical editions, of the books he owned that are related to Old English literature and language, and the history of Anglo-Saxon England.

Francesca Brooks is doing her PhD with the English Department at King’s College London, her research looks at the influence of Old English on the twentieth-century poet and artist, David Jones.


Have your own magnificent research obsession? Why not tweet us a picture @stillpointLDN

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Learning to eat my vegetables: food and the PhD experience

The following post was published on Pubs and Publications, a blog curating musings on the PhD experience. We enjoyed it so much we wanted to share it, thank you to the Pubs and Pubs team and Laura for letting us do so! Based at the University of Edinburgh, they are always looking for contributions from across the UK and beyond.

There’s been more than one occasion where I’ve looked on, often in despair, at other PhD students’ lunches. I look down at my somewhat deflated looking sandwiches whilst they are happily heating up what looks to be something ridiculously healthy. There’s green stuff in it. Green. I try and hide my Wotsits, or whatever other kind of junk I’ve felt like polluting my body with this week. Judging my lunches next to theirs’, I feel like I’m still in secondary school, somehow. When did people ‘grow up’ and start eating so well?

Erich O. Krueger 'So klappt es besser!', Ferienplatz Schloßpark Charlottenburg in Berlin 1947.
Erich O. Krueger
‘So klappt es besser!,
Ferienplatz Schloßpark Charlottenburg’, 1947.

I Google “PhD students eating” because I’m a lazy researcher at heart. Aside from some of the usually surreal stock photos that pop up (there’s pizza, obviously), numerous articles pop up on how to eat healthily as a grad student. There are the usual tips that seem to litter advice articles like this: buy seasonal, check out discounts, cook at home. This isn’t an advice article. I’m not here to tell you how to eat properly, because I don’t. I know plenty of PhD students who find time to cook, eat well, and manage a thousand other things, too. You really should ask them, because I’m only just beginning to learn how to not eat like a devil-may-care teenager who lives on a diet of Doritos and toast. Continue reading

The Pub That Wouldn’t Die: A Case of Architectural Resilience

When I was a teenage drinker in mid-90s Manchester, we used to go to a certain pub – the Old Wellington Inn, a.k.a. the Old Shambles, or just the Welly – that had, and would continue to have, a very peculiar history. Twenty years on, having devoted much of the intervening period to studying philosophy, conserving historic buildings, and/or (as in my present research) applying the former activity to the latter, the place is often in my mind. If anything got me started down my current path, perhaps it was this.

Old Welly 1

Old Welly 2

Built around the year 1550 in what was then a nondescript south-Lancashire market town, the Old Wellington was the very last of Manchester’s half-timbered vernacular buildings to survive the city’s stupendous nineteenth-century growth. Modified, extended, re-fenestrated, it clung to its little patch of ground among the tottering brick piles of the Victorian Cottonopolis, accommodating a wine merchant, an oculist, a fishing tackle shop and a series of squalid tenements. It narrowly escaped annihilation in the 1940 Christmas Blitz, but post-war rebuilding left it stranded on a traffic island, and comprehensive redevelopment in the 1970s saw it placed on a concrete raft and jacked several feet up into the air, ultimately to grace a rather bleak little plaza round the back of Marks & Spencer’s. Continue reading

Getting Started: the PhD thing

Getting Started illustration 12.32.49

So. It’s the 21st of December, which means I’ve been ‘doing this PhD thing’, as my housemates put it, for almost three months now.

I’ve just about pinned down my question into a neat sentence: ‘how do Anglo-Saxon things perform social, cultural, or political work today?’. I’ve scribbled that question on post it notes, each time with slightly different wording, and stuck them around my room, used them to save pages in my library books, and dreamt about them. I have the question, but what next? Continue reading

A brief conversation with medieval domestic objects

A pair of thirteenth-century shoes. Access granted by Museum of London.
A pair of thirteenth-century shoes. Access granted by the Museum of London.

I don’t quite remember the first time I thought about my ‘career’; neither do I remember a pivotal moment when I realised what I wanted to ‘be’. The only thing I remember is that I always had a huge desire to talk. Yet I do recall one peculiar moment at school, when we built our own ‘medieval feud maquette’. I loved building that feud. I loved building the cardboard castle and the incredible water mill, flowing with blue jelly. I also remember the first time I ventured into my mom’s wardrobe, in the late 1990s, where I captured a golden rope watch and a blue silk Indian scarf she’d owned since the late 1980s. I loved finding those objects. I loved wearing them (still do!) and loved the idea that they were my heirlooms.

There it is: I’ve always felt fascinated by objects. Actually, I’ve always liked talking to/about objects. I appreciate things that can tell stories, things that have a past. Somehow I inexplicably managed to design my career around stories from the past, mingling narratives from my past and from this curious geography that is medieval England – what a strange combination. Continue reading

The Importance of Unplanned Research Trips 

I have embarked on a three-year project which involves spending my time reading ancient Greek speeches and thinking about long-gone ancient Greek gods, so when I tell people I am off to Greece for two weeks, they assume I am going there to ‘do research’, ‘for work’, whatever that may be. I tell them, slightly embarrassed, that actually I am going on holiday. I am just travelling, hiking around for a bit.

I have been to Greece many times, and have travelled the well-trodden route of the country’s unforgettable and unimaginably affecting ancient sites, from Athens, via Delphi, Olympia, Corinth and Mycenae to Sparta. My PhD looks at political and legal speeches written in Athens in the fourth century BCE, and examines the religious discourse found in these. It is a study based on texts. Texts which are preserved in books and manuscripts and papyrus rolls not in Greece anymore, but dotted around libraries and archives around the world. I am not an archaeologist, nor an art historian. As such, I don’t have a particular, pressing need to go to Greece for my study. Continue reading

The Currency of Fieldwork

Interviews, receipts, recordings. This is the currency of fieldwork.

Sam Miles image

I interview gay men who use the digital apps Grindr and Scruff to understand how technology affects people’s everyday practice in London.

I knew my interviews would be fascinating – sex, after all, is fascinating. But what I was unprepared for is how rich the stories would be. Young or old, shy or outspoken: the men I interview pour out their stories. They talk and talk.

I understand for the first time what it means to be an active listener. I hear their stories and wind them into a bigger narrative: a narrative which presents their experience to audiences who might not normally listen.

Sam is a second year Geography PhD student at Queen Mary, University of London. His research combines sexuality and space studies with digital technology to understand the impact of GPS media on queer space-making practices. @sammiles87

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Writing in the sunshine and looking out over the Huntington gardens, I have a secret to confess. Something that I have been hiding from the books I’ve been researching for the past year, I am the person they are trying so desperately hard to discount and philosophically disarm. I am an Epicurean.

Some might wonder what exactly a research student of eighteenth-century British poetry is doing in Southern California. Yet, by some turns of a revolution and some serial book collecting by an American railroad millionaire, my research is just as at home in San Marino as it is in London.

I share my above confession with one of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the same in a letter of 1819. Having moved to his country, I find myself asking who couldn’t help but be one when working in a veritable research paradise? A place that has Jefferson’s reverberating political statement to serve the unalienable right of ‘the Pursuit of Happiness’ as one of its treasures on display. Here I have access to the first editions of my texts, reading the very same warnings against the dangers of Epicureanism my eighteenth-century readers would have been, in amongst a garden where a conversion to such a philosophy is all but inevitable.

life liberty

The Huntington Library, set within its vast botanical gardens, is a unique experience for any researcher, and for me has become my own Epicurean garden. If we are to believe William Temple writing on the Gardens of Epicurus, or, of gardening in the year of 1685, ‘no other sort of abode seems to contribute so much, to both the tranquillity of mind, and indolence of body’ as a garden. Continue reading

‘Piling, not filing’

‘Piling, not filing’ is a piece of advice to which I attribute my relative sanity. It was given to me in the very early stages of my PhD and has remained the keystone of my self-help litany. Spending the first couple of months meticulously taking both type and handwritten notes, I had been filing these away in neatly labelled folders (both real and virtual), ready to be instantly recovered and referenced at a later date. This, I told myself, is the year I get organised. This is the year that I streamline my life, via my research, into a super-efficient, well-oiled machine. No more messiness, no more chaos. All this was epitomised in and enacted through my filing system. 

Imagine my horror, then, as it started to fall apart at the seams. As my research simultaneously broadened and deepened, the neat dividing lines between my files and folders and categories started to distort under the pressure. One set of notes was no longer only relevant to one avenue of investigation; one label no longer quite defined the uses and abuses of the notes it was supposed to contain. As hypothetical chapters began to emerge in my mind, both paper and virtual notes needed to be in several places at once, rather than in one folder forever. In what I now see as a vain attempt to control this burgeoning chaos, I flitted from one filing system to another. Expandable folders to contain the different sections of a chapter; a ‘current’ folder in which I would assemble that week’s work before deciding what to do with it, or in which to insert older notes that had permanent homes elsewhere. It was all getting rather complex, and my Ryman’s bill was steadily rising.

I never quite committed to either handwriting or word processing the notes I was supposed to be filing. Seeing advantages to both, I wanted them all. For a while I experimented with a division of labour: I handwrote less important notes, and typed notes from texts to which I thought I would need to refer more regularly and in greater depth. Of course, this was based on the naive assumption that I would be able to make this distinction before I had read the texts in question. This prescriptive error, as it turned out, was at the heart of the collapse of these systems. Instead of being led by my research, I was trying to force it into pre-ordained shapes and categories, the ultimate consequence being that I didn’t listen to what the words in front of me were saying. Not only was I prescribing how I was going to understand them later in my research, I was also, inadvertently, trying to file my notes before I had written them.

Before I realised what the problem was, it just looked and felt like I was unable to handle my own work. In a state of confusion and mild panic, I had a conversation with my second supervisor. Trying to conceal the fact that I thought everything was already falling apart, I casually mentioned to her that some of my notes seemed to want to be in lots of different folders at once. In an equally casual reply, belying the profundity of the sentiment, she told me, “There’s a lot to be said for piling, not filing. Trust yourself.”

I have been learning to trust myself ever since. I stopped filing. It felt at first like giving in to disorder, like losing control. But I gradually realised that gripping things too tightly suffocated and contorted them, and that the less I did this to my notes, the less it happened to my thoughts.

Most of my notes are now in a series of notebooks (albeit meticulously numbered, with handwritten page-numbers and hand-drawn margins), each one physically different from the last to facilitate recollection. I write down the date and location each time I write in the books for the same reason; I am, I have learnt, much more likely to remember something I have read or written by remembering where I was when I read or wrote it. I will also probably remember whether it was in the large purple notebook, or the small Mr Men notebook, or the mid-sized stripy notebook. I think of my notes as a kind of horizontal pile, or a series of diary entries, documenting not only what I have read, but how I read it, where I read it, and how I felt about it at the time. If a text particularly takes my fancy, I make notes on loose leaf sheets, so that they can circulate around and about the notebook bedrock, and can be read alongside complementary theory and scholarship. But the lion’s share of the notes are in the notebooks, and they are what I would rescue from my burning flat.

I can’t search my notes, but I know them well. I have much more involvement with them as I write them without a filing cabinet in mind; drawing in the margins, circling and highlighting, sticking in addenda and going back over them, days or weeks or months later, with a different frame of mind and a different coloured pen. I feel, when I write my notes, that I am having a conversation with the words and ideas I am reading. It is much easier to recall a conversation in which you have been personally involved, than one you have observed at a distance.

For what it’s worth, I have kept the notes I tried to file in the folders they were in when I started trusting myself. They were put there when I was in a particular frame of mind and had a particular perspective on my work. They, and their plastic homes, are part of an era of my research from which I have moved on, but which I can’t erase.stillpoint 1

Alice Hazard is a third year PhD student in the French department at King’s College London. She works on faces and faciality in twelfth and thirteenth-century vernacular literature.

A Literary Topography of the City of London

Trawling through a database from 1650 to 1800 whilst sitting in the clock tower on Chancery Lane trapped in starkly lit, windowless white box number ‘4’, or in the simultaneously overheated and overchilled department on Kingsway, I find myself constantly at the heart of my research. Monotonously documenting the publication history of the translations central to my study has instead turned into a mapping of the 1-mile radius surrounding my research vantage point. The ‘Bibliographic’ column instead becomes the topographic:

The Strand
Catherine Street
Chancery Lane
Middle Temple Gate
Fleet Street
Black-Fryars
Temple-Bar
Pater-noster Row
Little Britain
Gray’s Inn

Stretching from Nelson’s Column to St Paul’s, they are the London landmarks and checkpoints of my morning commute. My own personal guided tour of the eighteenth-century interaction with Lucretius. My university life is a constant retracing of my research’s physical history. A daily pilgrimage of sorts; I pay my dues to the producers of these texts through walks from library to library to study the product of their work.

John Strype 'A new plan of the city of London, Westminster and Southwark' 1720
John Strype ‘A new plan of the city of London, Westminster and Southwark’ 1720

As I print the copies of these texts from my department on Kingsway, they gain another printed life in the centre of the square mile of their original emergence. By adding my own 21st century marginalia the texts are born anew, becoming my own manuscripts as I hope they will ‘guide [my] searching mind to farther truth’.

In this search I use the poem as my guide:

Pursue coy Truth with an unerring sense
Into her close recess, and force her thence:
Go briskly on, and in such things as these
Ne’er doubt, I’le promise Thee deserv’d success

It is in this pursuit and promise of success that I walk the close recesses of London herself. I weave through the Rows, Inns, Gates and Bars as my eighteenth-century counterparts in my search for ‘coy Truth’, becoming a new addition to the ‘curious Youth’ Creech’s translation of Lucretius’ poem originally appealed to. Retracing the history of my text, I cover 150 years in an hour’s circuit.

Through my poetic walk, Lucretius promises that ‘We from one Thing known/ To hidden Truths successfully go on’. These landmarks are my current ‘one Thing known’ in the depths of my uncertain research, not just cells of data but physical connectors between me and the eighteenth-century readers I’m trying to understand.

Here my research has a sense of true belonging, from my vantage point on Kingsway the streets of this eighteenth-century city pull me along, retracing the journey of my texts to uncover the ‘hidden Truths’ waiting to be discovered.

To turn to John Banks in 1738, ‘This is London! how d’ye like it?’

James Morland is a first year PhD student in the English department at KCL, researching the changing interactions with Lucretius and Epicurean philosophy in eighteenth-century poetry. After spending a year in art school, James has spent the past few years studying English literature, though constantly tries to find ways to tie together the academic and visually creative sides of his thinking. Follow him @jameswmorland