Emotions, Ideology, and a PhD

Often, I think as serious students of English literature we are tempted to deny our most personal – frequently deeply emotional, sometimes frivolous, always totally nerdy – interests in our chosen topic, both amongst friends, and in our thesis-writing. As soon as I reveal my intention to study Anglo-Saxon poetry at PhD level to a new acquaintance, the most frequent courtesy follow-up question is ‘so what made you choose that?’ I feel like I should respond with some scholarly sound-bite, something along the lines of:

‘I’m simply fascinated by the philological implications of translation’

or

‘I’m concerned with exploring the linguistic word-hoard of a poetic idiom now lost.’

But I don’t want to start throwing academic jargon (that I’m not even sure I’m using correctly) around, even if it does give me a little thrill to say words like ‘philological’ or ‘idiom’ aloud. So I usually end up laughing away the bemused looks, murmuring something about how ‘someone has to do it’, before moving the conversation on. However, I’m always afraid that one day I’ll end up spilling my secrets and spout either something incredibly geeky and boring, or worse, I’ll reveal an innermost daydream that should never be said out loud:

“Actually, I am, like, totally in love with getting lost in a world of fearless seafarers and warriors, I mean, we’ve all seen Viggo Mortensen in Lord of the Rings right? I like to think of Beowulf having his face, I mean you definitely would, wouldn’t you…?”

Probably not something you should reveal on a Tinder first date. Alternatively, I’ll get political, and start bemoaning the fact that, in general, we as a nation know so little about our medieval past and I want to explore ways of changing this: isn’t it a shame that school children are more likely to think of Daenerys Targaryen than Queen Ælfgifu if asked to imagine a medieval woman? And by crowning Chaucer as the father of ‘English poetry’ aren’t we missing out on a rich treasure-trove of poems from the centuries before him? I could bang on about how outraged I am that the very words – ‘medieval’, ‘The Dark Ages’ – that we use to talk about the time period that spans 500-1400CE either get the bad rep of being associated with baddies from ISIS to FGM advocates, or are otherwise totally misunderstood as referring exclusively to Arthurian knights, damsels in distress, magical fairy kingdoms, and elves. So too ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is often appropriated now by the likes of the English Defence League or the Republican as a way of defining ethnicity, of othering and neatly excluding anyone they don’t like either because of the colour of their skin or their religion. Of course, I’ll conclude, my thesis will be part of an effort to reclaim and redefine all of these words, helping to liberate all things medieval from the clutches of fascists.

Image by Fran Allfrey
Image by Fran Allfrey

But again, this sort of conversation probably won’t make me many friends, or will at least have me sounding like a smug armchair activist with a grandiose delusion that anyone beyond my supervisors and my parents will read my thesis. Furthermore, it’s these sorts of conversations that I long to weave into my writing, but feel pressure to do so in a measured, academic way. Phrases like ‘I love’ or ‘I am outraged by’ feel too personal, too impassioned, and could never be part of a serious argument. But it is love, and outrage, a childish sense of adventuring and time-travelling, a complete fascination with playing with language, a desire to simply get lost in poems, reflect upon beautiful art, and immerse myself in the ideas of other people, whilst trying to come up with my own opinions, that are all driving me. So, over the next three years, I’ve just got to find a way of channelling all these drives that push against each other, compete for attention, and conflict with what I understand to be ‘scholarly’, into coming up with some serious, passable, research. If I can also find a way of making my PhD sound interesting to Tinder dates, that would be a bonus.

Fran Allfrey will begin her PhD in the English Department at King’s College London in October. Her research asks questions about what cultural work Old English poetry can do, or can be made to do, now, and what exactly medievalists might get out of this new work. Follow her @francheskyia.

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Out of the mind and onto the page: a critical examination of personal thought in the literary public sphere. 

Private faces in public places
Are wiser and nicer
Than public faces in private places
W.H. Auden
(1932)

I dislike the sound of the title already. Does it make me sound unappealing to the core? Have I become a Creative Writing cliché? I ask myself these questions for I live in an era of extreme self-awareness. The birth of the selfie, the Tinder pandemic, and the superficial allure of counterculture all lead me to realise that today’s society cares so much about the surface. Our stock stereotypes rely on the assumption that our physical appearance represents our internal ideal; businesswomen wear cruel heels and suits because they are sharp, serious, and driven, whereas artists wear smocks and spectacles because they are a diverse band of individuals (ahem). People use their exterior as a way of expressing their interior, but only the interior they desire everybody else to see. I used to find comfort in the idea that words could be free from this culture of shallow scrutiny, as they require a semantic understanding before they can be judged, and had hoped they would therefore survive as the most honest portrait of life. 

Unfortunately, however, I now realise even the sanctity of writing is not immune to social pressure. Continue reading

‘Omit Needless Things’

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When I was fifteen years old, I was tired of waiting around for my Dad to find the right weekend. During Spring half term, I rolled up my sleeves, tore down the pages of the NME that adorned my walls, and painted my earnestly floral bedroom chalk white. The gig tickets and photos that were plastered everywhere were carefully tucked away in scrapbooks and wood drawers, and I arranged my clothes into colour order, and band t-shirts into order of preference, with AFI first. AFI were always first. Though this was procrastination at its purest (which I’ve never really grown out of), as I inhaled the fresh air through my curtains, I knew I could handle my looming GCSEs from this place of newfound clutter-free serenity. And I did.

Ten years later, I’ve been somewhat seduced by the minimalist movement again. There’s something about all those white, peaceful, Scandinavian Instagram feeds that has really captured my imagination; those tiny squares on my phone somehow conveying that glorious sense of space. While so many of us may fall in love with the minimalist aesthetic, however, it can be a little hard to live it. Who are we, if nothing else, without our stuff?

For a PhD student, one might argue that the constant budgeting and moving from overpriced London bedroom to overpriced London bedroom prepares us for the minimalist lifestyle rather beautifully.  One doesn’t, however, tend to factor in the inextricable clutter of the Arts & Humanities researcher: books. Though my books have recently undergone a 3am colour-ordering session to fit in with my rejuvenated bedroom, they are still everywhere, and will likely remain so. I leave a paper trail wherever I go; so far, not so minimal. But minimalism isn’t merely an aesthetic; it’s an approach, and an approach us new researchers might benefit from.

In William Strunk Jr.’s classic treatise on minimalism, The Elements of Style, he offers young writers his golden rule: ‘Omit needless words’. This is not that all sentences are short and mundane, but that ‘every word tell’; we all apply this rule in our feverish editing of essays that have found themselves miles past the word count. But perhaps we might swap ‘words’ for ‘things’, and widen the realm of possibility for this principle, taking the unnecessary clutter out of our lives and away from our research. If we keep what is necessary to our work and our happiness, and omit those drains on our energy that are not, surely our research can only improve. Minimalism, to the PhD student, isn’t only a neat, tidy and white workspace; it’s learning to say no to seven conferences and three undergraduate classes. It’s identifying where your time needs to be spent, uncurling those shoulders from eight hours of solid work to have a look around you. It’s also having a good clear-out, seeing what you can sell on eBay to bump up that funding packet, because every little helps.

Minimalism is not having or doing as little as possible; it’s knowing that everything you have or do counts. So I’m striking a couple of things off of my ever-growing ‘to do’ list, paring back on my aims for the week to focus on my writing and give myself space to breathe. Time to dream and sit quietly with a hot drink fall under the category of ‘necessary’ to me; the dangerous glorification of ‘busy’ is everywhere, especially in this strange world of academia. By omitting what is needless, our work can become clearer and more purposeful, and our sense of wellbeing might even defy all the horror-stories of PhDs past.

I’m keeping my books, though. They will remain necessary in their white bookcases, bathed in natural light and the perfect Instagram filter.

Sinéad Kennedy Krebs is a first year PhD student in the Department of English at King’s College London. Her research examines the cultural legacies of the Great War in Ireland. Follow her @sineadkk, or head to sageolympia.blogspot.com

A Guide for New PhD Students

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Start the video.

Here is how to begin. Fill a fresh notepad with calming notes to yourself such as “how the hell do I even start this thing” and “this might all be a terrible mistake”.

This is the grey, sinister building that you will only ever enter late and panicked and sweating. Use your time in the lift efficiently by regretting your complete inability to manage basic aspects of day-to-day life.

Here is how to forget your purpose with unsettling frequency and stutter around in a mute stupor for weeks on end. Always remember to take sensible breaks while you stutter around in a mute stupor for weeks on end.

Here is how to structure the formless shadow of your half-remembered thoughts into a clear and achievable chapter outline, indicating the anticipated word count for each reckless and inexplicable tangent.

Here is how to feign interest in your own best ideas long enough to write them down.

Here is how to optimise the ergonomics of your desk to help you maintain control during unscheduled emotional convulsions provoked by some insignificant thing that may or may not have recently occurred.

This is a chart developed by experts to help you organise your throbbing obsession into regular study blocks. This is how to forget about the individualised chart you made after devoting what everyone would agree to be an unhealthy level of attention on the column widths. You’ll quickly learn how to stare incomprehensibly at the chart every now and then during the feverish midnight hours.

Here is how to keep your spirits up and persevere in exploring all the available options with an impressive pragmatism as your shitty laptop slips indifferently into some kind of electric coma.

Here is a little bench on a nameless road that you can sit at for almost two hours until lunchtime is definitely, undeniably over but you don’t have the slightest clue of what to do when you go back or even where to go.

Here is how to avoid ever discussing the three-and-a-half hours you spent colouring in the elaborate detail of your mind-map’s inappropriate and miserable centrepiece.

Here is a great place to relax and ache quietly with self-doubt in an atmosphere of academic excellence.

We hope you found this useful.


James Fisher is a PhD candidate at Kings College London. Follow @JamDanFish

Sound Series #1

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What can you hear at this very moment? As you continue to read concentrate not on my words but on the sounds around you. Can you hear the clattering of cutlery, the clink of glasses or the tapping of a computer keyboard? Is there a clamour of voices, indistinct and murmuring? Or does one voice drift into focus craving dominance on your ear?

Are you listening?

As you focus, your ear will switch between volumes and pitches, between natural and artificial sound: you are identifying your very own soundscape. As I sit mulling over what should be written down, my own soundscape has become internalised. Fading in and out of recognition depending on my own focus. Cars rumble past my house and my single glazed windows shake with the force. Keys clatter, footsteps thud the stairs as life goes on below my room. Builders are drilling the ground outside.

Are you still listening?

As you focus on digesting my soundscape in your imagination, your mind will have inevitably tuned out the murmuring din happening around you. But you are not perceiving silence. The noise has not stopped but remained, buzzing away in the background. What can you hear now?

Are you listening?

Charlotte Rudman is a first year PhD student in the Department of English at King’s College London whose research focuses on sound and sound representations in Medieval dream vision poetry.  Follow her @charrud