Researcher’s Notebook: On Making Discoveries

The printer’s mark of William Caxton. Late 15th century. Reading University Special Collections JGL 1/2/3. Attribution: By BabelStone (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
When historical humanities research makes the news, it is often because a document or object has been ‘discovered’.  To take one very recent example: fifteenth-century English book publishing made a rare excursion into the headlines of late, thanks to the work of Erika Delbecque, a librarian at the University of Reading.  She has made the remarkable discovery of a rare set of pages believed to have been published in the 1470s by William Caxton, the man who brought book printing to England for the first time.  Part of me was delighted to see this story in the news, not least because it put a spotlight on the brilliant but all-too-often overlooked work of the librarians and archivists on whom we rely so much.  

But part of me was a little uneasy too.  The interest in these stories, it seems to me, lies in two rather old-fashioned preconceptions of what humanities research should look like.  Firstly, there is the fetishization of the dusty archive as somehow essential to ‘real’ research, with the scholar as a pioneer who brings back new objects for our communal collectors’ cabinet of cultural and historical goods (a narrative palpably brimming with potential colonialist subtext).  Secondly, there is the notion that progress in research happens in bite-sized eureka moments of brilliant individuals (Archimedes’ bathtub, Newton’s apple) as opposed to the less romantic, but probably more realistic picture of a slow slog of collective effort over a number of years.

There is certainly an argument to be made that the ‘discovery’ stories can do much to make research accessible to a wider audience, the example of the Caxton print being a case in point.  But is there also a danger that these narratives might hinder more effective communication of what humanities researchers actually do and why it matters?  It is with these anxieties in mind that I want to talk about my own experience of making a small ‘discovery’ of sorts. Continue reading

Absent Voices #4: Giving Voice to the Dead and the Non-living: Music and Collaboration on the Battle of Vimy Ridge

Canadian National Vimy Memorial in Northern France. Designed by Walter Seymour. Completed in 1936.

In early April, Canada will mark the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge: a seminal conflict in the First World War, relying on the successful collaboration of British and Canadian forces on the French battleground, and which was to be the first true moment of nationhood for the infant Canada. Indeed, the battle was hugely successful in military terms, which saw the soldiers retake the ridge from German forces in three days. But lest we forget, such success also inevitably relies on the deaths of thousands.

To that end, let us also consider the Vimy Memorial: a monolithic, modernist construction unveiled in 1936, comprised of two stone pillars jutting up from the battleground at Vimy. It is grand, imposing; the structure dominates the ridge and peers over the picturesque French landscape below. Around the base of the structure, some 11,000 names are engraved: the dead Canadian soldiers whose locations remain unknown. However, in a startling juxtaposition of style and form, the pillars are inlaid with twenty neoclassical statues, each variously personifying virtues, symbols, people, and tableaux. At the base of the memorial, Mother Canada (both a personification of the nation and a symbolic Mater Dolorosa), looks despondently upon the now-peaceful ridge, still scarred by this century-old battle. Continue reading

Valentine

Gertrude Stein didn’t write her poem ‘Idem the Same: A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson’ for Valentine’s Day. She wrote it in the winter of 1922. I have always liked this fact. Valentines don’t have to only be given in February. Nor was Sherwood Anderson Stein’s beloved. He was her friend and the author of the introduction to her collection Geography and Plays.

I love the recording (below) of Stein reading ‘A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson’. Listening to Stein read the poem you can feel the weight and texture of the words, which she speaks in a strong and clear voice as the poem changes rhythm – back and forth.

Continue reading

Sounds to Accompany a PhD #4

The British Library, 96 Euston Road. Pack up your things, remember which locker your stuff’s in? Let’s get out of here before they close the gate at the main road.

Avoid the faster roads around Euston and let’s bury ourselves straight into the romance of Russell Square. The concrete melts away, notice the plane trees, the hanging baskets on the flats, the deep green of Coram’s fields. Let’s go back to the early twentieth century, we might bump into one of the Bloomsbury Group, or catch the whispers in English, French, Russian of local artists and political asylum seekers. Get the thrill of just passing the British Museum and imagining the treasures inside, the bones and feathers and fabric and stone all catalogued and ordered and ready to be consumed by thousands of eyes. Watch out for that cyclist. Continue reading

Sound Series #2: Reflections on ‘Soundscapes’

Soundscapes-The-National-Gallery
Image for ‘Soundscapes’ exhibition at The National Gallery, 8th July-6th Sept 2015

Last summer the National Gallery presented an experimental exhibition, ‘Soundscapes’, with ‘six new music and sound installations in response to paintings from the collection’. For me, it was a fantastic opportunity to see how musicians and sound artists interpret pieces of artwork as sound. Additionally, it gave me the chance to see how my own research could benefit and develop from the exhibition.

Journeying through the exhibition ignited the senses. In a departure from the whitewashed galleries, the visitor entered into a darkened room with a spotlight on the painting and the sound installation issuing from precisely positioned speakers. This created an immersive and very personal experience with the combined art forms. The eye focused on the selected painting while the ear tuned into the surrounding sound piece. It was an entirely new experience of perception in which each artist responded to the complexities of the artwork through different sound uses. Each sound piece became a creation of the painting itself. The shared aural experience demanded the visitor to actively listen to their surroundings. Continue reading

An evening of poetry, prose and music

The research experience is often imagined to be impersonal and isolated: anxiety-ridden scholars reading alone at their desks. Last Sunday, the launch of the journal’s first print issue proved this to be far from the truth. Researchers, writers, and friends came together to share their own peculiar experiences and to enjoy the curious connections between our work. It was with this aim in mind that we created The Still Point Journal, and pushed for it to be published in print, as well as online.

launch 2

launch 5The event took place at the beautifully lit Gallery Café in Bethnal Green and featured live readings from our contributors and music from The Interiors. Over good wine and great music, people were put in dialogue with one another in an informal, relaxed setting. Hearing the stories and poetry read aloud introduced a new tone and rhythm to the words, helping to continue conversations and start new ones, as well as put faces to pages. It was a showcase of everything we had hoped to achieve.

launch 3The evening was also a celebration for us personally: a culmination of twelve month’s worth of planning. We have thought about, written about, and talked about The Still Point Journal in various ways. There were initial emails asking if anyone was interested in setting up a new literary journal that would offer space to explore our research creatively. There were conversations in coffee shops, corridors, and wine bars, where we argued the pros and cons for keeping the word ‘The’ in the title. There were submission deadlines, all-day proofing sessions, and design meetings. There were ‘Still Point’ events: afternoon poetry readings and evening art exhibitions.

Now, finally, it’s officially launched as a print journal. It is, in fact, so official that it has it’s own ISSN number and a copy will be kept in the British Library.

launch 6

A brief round of thanks: to The Gallery Café for letting us take over; to The Interiors for providing the soundtrack to the evening; to sound engineer Natan for stepping in last minute; to the designers and contributors; and to all who came to celebrate with us.

launch 4

Photos by Christopher Webb, view them all on our Facebook page.

Write up by Briony Wickes, a second year PhD student in English Literature at King’s College London. Follow Briony @brionyjoy

Sounds to Accompany a PhD #3

I must start this post with a disclaimer: I don’t really listen to music when I’m working on my PhD. I’m a silent writer and reader, someone who needs peace in order to become properly absorbed in my materials. Sometimes, I find the vague hubbub of voices and machines in a coffee shop relaxing whilst I reference. At other times, I have listened to just one song over and over on endless repeat to encourage greater focus. I can also admit to playing various RuPaul albums at max volume on those occasions when I’m either having a slump in productivity and confidence or I need to be reminded that I am a PhD ‘Glamazon’. These sounds, however, do not a PhD playlist make and, mostly, I prefer peace, quiet, and a strict lack of noise.

I do listen to music, however, when I’m travelling around the city. Commuting takes up a significant portion of my day, an experience which I’m sure many other London-based researchers can share. Long tube trips should be the perfect time to catch up on journal reading or compose a few emails but, as anyone who has caught the Northern Line at practically any time of day will know, personal space is usually at a premium and there is no room for outstretched arms clutching unwieldy tomes. So, for me, tube-time becomes music-time, and I block out the world with a little bit of determination, a stony ‘commuter’ expression, and my over-ear headphones.

It is also in these moments that I do some of my best thinking. As I travel to or from my place of work, I’ll often use my time on the tube to think about the wider project that I’m working on. When I research, I tend to work chapter by chapter, section by section, which is great for the depth but does mean that I am also in danger of ending up with a series of isolated, disjointed articles rather than a coherent PhD thesis. When I’m on the tube, I can stand apart from my work, gain a better sense of the overall shape of my project, and clearly articulate (in my head) why what I do matters.

I’m not sure if the thinking and the music are related. But the latter does help to block out distractions around me and so it must, in some way, be conducive to the former. With this in mind, I thought I’d share a playlist. I’ve tried to pick songs which help me focus, rather than just my normal daily musical fare (which tends to be a combination of The Hold Steady, Drake and, of course, RuPaul). To call it a ‘PhD Playlist’, then, is perhaps bogus, but these are some of the sounds that help me find a much needed ‘still point’ amongst the commuter chaos. Maybe it will do the same for someone else.

Briony Wickes is a first year English PhD at King’s College London, researching settler emigration, human-animal relationships, and global trade in the nineteenth century. Follow her @brionyjoy.

Sounds to Accompany a PhD #2

 

This playlist could be described as one of study interval training. I’ve been an advocate of the ‘pomodoro’ technique (http://pomodorotechnique.com/) ever since my PhD supervisor introduced me to it during my MA. Its basic premise is that to maximise productivity, you work in 25 minute bursts with 5 minute breaks in between each work period. After four 25 minute sessions, you have a longer 15-20 minute break before starting again. 

I tend to use music to designate my work periods and this playlist follows this pattern, with intervals of 20 minutes of ‘study’ music blockaded by around 5 minutes of ‘break’ music. My work sessions are 5 minutes less than the usual pomodoro time, but I’ve found that I tend to work better with slightly shorter bursts. During my breaks I tend to pick songs that induce an internal 5 minute solo dance party at my desk to pull me out of work mode. Thankfully, I’ve only been caught during these breaks in public study areas once this year…
 
I have extended this playlist past the 4th 20 minute work session, just to give more of a taste of my study music preferences, but feel free to pause after 1hr 35m for a longer stretch (or more exuberant dance) and a well deserved coffee…
 
Enjoy. 
 
James Morland, @jameswmorland
 
James Morland is a PhD candidate in the English department at King’s College London, looking at the changing engagement with Lucretius in eighteenth-century poetry. 

Sounds to Accompany a PhD #1

This playlist is deeply dishonest. It is not, strictly speaking, what I play when I read or write. I play albums: long streams of steady tones with smooth transitions. I say “play” because I don’t want to listen. I want to induce certain moods in myself without paying too much attention.

I tend to work in two-hour blocks. But I couldn’t just offer you two albums. So think of the following collection of songs as a series of trailers for a larger playlist. The playlist I use is 61hr 21m. Nonetheless, even with a variety of artists and albums, disruption can be minimised and textures can be enhanced by careful selection.

But this playlist is dishonest in another way: these are the songs that did make me pay attention. The songs that made me listen. So forget what I said above, sometimes disruption is better. A few moments to suspend your thoughts. Enjoy.

James Daniel Fisher, @JamDanFish

James Daniel Fisher is a PhD candidate in his first year at King’s College London, studying the meaning of work in eighteenth-century England.

If you’d like to share your PhD playlist with us please email it to stillpointjournal@gmail.com with a short introduction of around 200 words.