Reflections 6 – Shelved Memories: The Occasional Hauntings of a Dissertation Long-Finished

HauntingIt’s been more or less two and a half years since that day in September when, sitting outside on the pavement, at exactly 9 am, after a horrific night of frantic formatting, editing and desperate attempts at taming the endless spaces and margins that should have been a bit wider, or narrower, slightly more to the left, to the right – a carnival of imperfections, really – I was on the phone with the printer’s: ‘Are you absolutely sure it will be ready to collect on Tuesday? Did you say you are binding it (my baby!) in… Essex!?’ ‘Well, you never know, there might be a fire on the truck on the way to London…’ …How dare he joke about this?! On a sacred moment like this. Would you joke with a woman in labour?! A woman who doesn’t know if her baby will even make it into the world? Will it be healthy? And safe? Will it survive the shock of birth? …It doesn’t matter now. It’s all done. Printed, bound, and sent to those that will determine its fate.

As I’m writing this little ‘memoir’, I can’t believe there’s a smile on my face. It seems so far away now, so extravagant and bizarre. Of course he was going to joke about my ridiculous submission drama. Of course the truck made it from Essex to the Strand intact. My baby did make it into the world, it was healthy and safe, with only minor corrections. It’s now sitting on my bookshelf, shiny and blue, winking at me every now and then.

That’s my relationship with academia too. I also wink at it every now and then, but I don’t dare venture too close; we’ve gone our separate ways. But when you’ve worked on an author so hard, for so long, there’s meant to be residues. At the final writing stages, quite close to that day in September, during one of my (failed) attempts at self-therapy, I wrote (not in my thesis, although I might as well have):

What happened to us Georges? We used to understand each other and share our secrets and I felt I got you like no one else ever could. Now I am terrified every time I see your face, and your name has become dangerously literal in my mind.

Now that it’s all over, I do miss Georges. We had some rough times, but we had some pretty good ones too. I’m sure that he would agree, and that he would forgive me for all the cursing (who are we kidding, he probably loved it). When you leave academia, it sometimes feels that, along with your thesis, you’re shelving four years of your life. But that depends entirely on you, and your own ‘Georges’. It’s difficult to redefine a relationship like this; to give it a space outside the one in which it was initially created. I’m still battling with Georges, still trying to learn and, most importantly, unlearn him; only now, I do it whenever I feel like it and without all the crying and despair. Our relationship has grown. My baby has grown.


Alexandra Tzirkoti is a former PhD in French Literature/Critical Theory at from KCL. Her research encompasses the theory and fiction of Georges Bataille. Beyond a personal mode of expression, Alexandra sees creative writing as a means of effective communication in academic contexts as well – a method for making topics approachable to wider audiences and to initiate new lines of inquiry. Check out an earlier submission she made for Still Point last year.

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Reflections 5 – The Internal Dialogue of a PhD Student Abroad

From the beginning of my PhD dissertation, I knew it would be likely that I would need to spend a significant amount of the project in Germany. There are simply not enough available sources in the UK on the particular esoteric area of East- and West-German art music in the years following the Second World War which I am researching. A few weeks’ worth of fruitless library searches for necessary volumes – WHICH MOSTLY TURNED OUT TO BE AVAILABLE IN ONLY ONE LOCATION IN THE UK, OFTEN QUEEN’S UNIVERSITY BELFAST FOR SOME REASON, AND RARELY INTRA-LIBRARY LOANABLE – made the need for a research placement not only clear, but imperative. As such, AND AFTER A HEFTY AMOUNT OF BUREAUCRATIC INSTITUTIONAL PAPERWORK ON BOTH ENDS, I find myself now roughly half-way through a year-long research placement at the Humboldt in Berlin, and now with access to a body of relevant literature that is sufficiently comprehensive to rival those institutions found in the UK (EVEN QUEEN’S BELFAST).

There is an element of pressure which comes with the time frame of my placement; there are sources, archives, potential interviewees and other resources available to me in Berlin to which I will only have access for this set period. As such, this time is precious and there is often the feeling that my schedule here should be more exciting, or at least different from what I have so far experienced as a PhD student. I SHOULD BE IN SOME MUSTY ARCHIVE OR ELDERLY GERMAN’S EQUALLY MUSTY ATTIC SEARCHING FOR A UNIQUE COPY OF A PARTICULAR DOCUMENT NO ONE HAS EVER SEEN BEFORE. More often than not, however, the reality is that I am simply working in the University or State Library. All those books which I couldn’t find in the UK are now available for my mundane perusal, meaning that my working patterns and habits here are more or less like they were in the first year of my project in London. There is also (WOE IS ME!) the need to balance the imperative to conduct as much research as possible with a desire to partake in as many of the vast cultural activities Berlin has to offer, ARGUABLY MORE COPIOUS AND DIVERSE THAN IN LONDON, before my year here is over. Continue reading

Reflections 4 – Student-led, LAHP-funded conference: ‘(Im)mobility: Dialectics of Movement, Power and Resistance’

This conference represented a joint effort between a ten-strong organising committee to hold a one-day event for early career and PhD scholars in the Arts and Humanities and Social Sciences to share, discuss and develop their research in a formal yet supportive conference setting. Drawing on the strategic London location LAHP offers, we were able to use the stunning LSE PhD academy to great effect, offering four interdisciplinary panel sessions and a keynote lecture by Dr Alexander Samson (University College London) across the day. The conference was a great success, pulling together researchers from the UK, Europe and beyond, and benefited the organising committee in a range of ways.

On the one hand, it offered an unrivalled opportunity for us to refine and develop our skills in conference organising, something several of us noted would be invaluable as we continue forward on our academic trajectories. In the run-up to the conference, this included abstract selection, communicating with delegates, use of social media, venue liaison and teamwork. On the day of the conference, it also meant panel chairing, photography, liaising with delegates, and ensuring other aspects of the conference including the evening meal, ran smoothly. On the other hand, it also represented a great opportunity for the group to develop scholarly relationships with delegates from outside London whilst at the same time nurture a sense of collegiality with other LAHP peers. Similarly, the conference also provided a significant opportunity for establishing connections with students in other disciplines. The program included ten papers, with subjects ranging broadly in the fields of the Humanities. Talking and listening about mobility, we spent a day travelling through time and space, gaining awareness on how the mobility paradigm can be successfully applied to various fields, and to studies with very different approaches and aims.

We began the day listening to Johanna Hopp (University of Oxford), who communicated her work on hitchhiking as a psychological experience, focusing on aspects of how this particular mobility is inherently gendered. Then Avital Beirach Barak (Tel Aviv University) and Philip Corran (King’s College London) reflected on experiences of mobility or immobility as forms of resistance to the dominant trends in society. Avital’s paper concentrated on corporeal mobilities, namely the decolonial mobilities of Palestine Parkour groups, and was contrasted by the contribution of Philip, who elaborated on his ‘non-corporeal’ (but still ‘transportive’) mobilities research with elderly disabled Londoners. Various contributions then focused on narratives of mobilities.

Maria Teresa Franco Aguilar (Queen Mary University) talked about Mexican cinematic narratives of urban automobility. Urban movement was also the focus of Lise Villemoes Grønvold (University College London), whose paper dealt with the novels Open City (Cole 2011) and 10:04 (Lerner 2014). Lise stressed how, the high amount of narrated corporeal movement corresponds to a lack of aim and destination in the novels. The same lack of teleology in narrative movements was then identified by Jonathan Lewis (University of Liverpool) in the novel Bel-Avenir (Tadjer 2006), which Jonathan presented as a ‘site of transcolonial francophone connection’. The dichotomy ‘mobility-freedom’, Jonathan sought to challenge was also questioned by Semra Horuz (Technische Universität Wien) during her presentation of the autobiographical travel writings of two Turkish women travellers who lived in the second half of the nineteenth century.

More historically focused papers followed: Michael Economou (University of Oxford) reported on the Greco-Roman Red Sea as a liminal, multi-ethnic space, reflecting also on the dynamics of power and coercion which developed in the area, and, interestingly cautioning about the risk of ‘idealising liminalities’. Susanne Bartels (University of Geneva) then offered us some insights on seventeenth-century guild regulations in Dutch artists’ mobility, while Cosmin Minea (University of Birmingham) shared his research on the conflict between imported aesthetic canons and the will to preserve the Romanian heritage in the process of establishing the Romanian architectural paradigm in the late nineteenth century.

Topping off the day was Alexander Samson’s very dense keynote, which dwelt (among other points) on ‘errancy’ and ‘border-crossing’ as characteristic conditions of humanity from early modernity onwards (defined by the parallel emerging of the notion of ‘state’), aptly revisiting many of the themes which had been brought up by the speakers earlier in the day.

For full programme outline visit: https://immobilityconference.wordpress.com

‘A similar version of this article appears on the LAHP website’ 


Jacob Fairless Nicholson is a first-year PhD student in the Department of Geography at King’s College London. Sara De Martin is a first-year PhD student in the Department of Classics at King’s College London.

Reflections 3 – Our University: Some Thoughts on the UCU strike

The front windows of KCL’s Strand campus present fifty famous people who have some association with the college. For the most part, it is an honourable roll-call of former students and teachers who went on to do useful and remarkable things. Ivison Macadam, the founder of NUS; Cicely Saunders, who started the world’s first purpose-built hospice; archbishop Desmond Tutu. A notable exception is Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who neither studied nor taught at King’s, whose role in setting up the institution is sometimes exaggerated and who was one of the most reactionary prime ministers in British history. His direct descendant, Charles Wellesley, 9th duke of Wellington, was chairman of the college’s governing council from 2007 to 2015. Like his ancestor, he neither taught nor studied there (his wife, princess Antonia of Prussia, is an alumna) but did preside over a period of increasing student fees and stagnating academic wages.

One of the council’s current members is the principal, Edward Byrne. With academics’ pensions under threat, his six-figure salary has become an emblem of what is wrong with the institution. On Tuesday, under the gaze of Macadam, Saunders and Tutu, striking lecturers held placards comparing him to Mr Burns, the billionaire megalomaniac from the Simpsons. The enormous wealth of Byrne and vice-chancellors around the country makes the suggestion that academics should lose about £10,000 a year of their final pensions especially difficult to accept. It also gives students a sense that their astronomical fees are not necessarily being spent in ways which directly benefit their education. Student unions have encouraged their members to stand in solidarity with those on strike, and the response – if Tuesday’s picket line on the Strand is representative – has been impressive.

But the most obvious disparity is between the salaries of vice-chancellors and those of cleaning, catering and security staff. At King’s, Justice for Cleaners are campaigning against outsourcing, exploitative contracts and appalling working conditions. As campaigners have often pointed out, KCL has one of the best medical schools in the world, but its cleaners, often female migrants, are exposed to long-term health risks with little or no protection. Without these people, the university would collapse into chaos within days or even hours. Without students and academics, it simply would not exist. ‘We are the university’ was a refrain from all groups on Tuesday’s picket line. The managers, from Wellesley to Byrne and the rest, could hardly say the same.


Jonah Miller is a second-year Phd student in the Department of History at KCL and an editor at the Still Point Journal.

Reflections 2 – Planning a Conference on One’s Own: Women in Punch Symposium

 

The prospect of planning and organising your first academic conference often leads one into expressing mixtures of panic and dread, or perhaps very rarely excitement. Reflecting on the conference, which was a long time in gestation, it was an intellectual exercise. But I cannot simply forget the administrative and organisational tasks that are involved in running a conference, including, the site and scope of the event, budgeting, delegates’ needs, and collaborating. Despite a plethora of tasks involved in organising this event, it was a learning experience, as it certainly helped with my research ideas and simultaneously introduced a thought-provoking discussion on this subject.

In organising a one-day conference on Women in Punch, I had some guided principles in mind: that this conference should bring together researchers from different disciplines interested in Victorian journalism and gender studies; that it should itself be a thought-provoking experience and that it should exemplify the contributions of women in magazines like Punch. Indeed, the collective efforts of presenters made this completely successful.   Continue reading

Reflections 1: Anxieties of a Graduate Teaching Assistant

For postgraduate students there is a tendency to feel our identities have been subsumed under the research we carry out. The dissertation reflects the ultimate form of self-expression even if it is the ideas, not the sentiments behind them, that determine its value. However, there are other instances where the ‘personality’ of research carries great currency in academia. In their second year, several PhD students opt to teach undergraduate seminars. What I have learned from this experience, thus far, is that how I engage with the material shapes their educational experience in the classroom.

This term, one of the modules I’m involved with is taught by my supervisor. Knowing him quite well, it is interesting to see how much of his personality comes into the content of the course. The lectures and seminar activities demonstrate a comprehensive presentation of the module’s topic but also relate back to several critical issues approached in his own research. While he is careful to establish a line between content, criticism, and even personal sentiment, the environment of active engagement that he creates prompts students to do the same. Not all academics are comfortable bringing passion into the classroom. Continue reading

Sound Series #3: Sound and Architecture

I finally found it. A real architectural structure of sound. Muttering and uttering voices, music and speech along with an ever-present echo of static.

There is nothing quite like a moment of inspiration. It is childish glee: Christmas come early. That moment you realise there is someone else who has made that same connection. Rather than worry about the lack of original thought, it is affirmation and excitement that sparks my brain into action. It is moments like this when I remember why I study.

IMG_3509 Recently, I have been playing with the idea of ‘visualising the invisible’, considering the architecture in Chaucer’s The House of Fame dream vision to be structures built of sound. It was Cildo Meireles’s Babel (2001) which – when I visited before the June re-hanging – was positioned in the centre of its own room at the Tate Modern, and sparked so many ideas.

Meireles’s piece explores ideas about the unity of humanity despite language barriers, paralleling the story of the Tower of Babel. The work is an imposing structure made of hundreds of radios tuned to different stations in many different languages. I was most struck by my reaction to take a picture of this architectural structure of sound. Pressing the shutter-button, I realised that this was not an experience to be captured as a still image.

The hearer/viewer moves around the structure; the eye is looking for something that is not there. I took in the barely audible noise, the music I recognised and started to hum too, the languages I cannot speak and wondered at this at once static and constantly moving piece of architecture, like the House of Rumour in Chaucer’s dream vision. It was a moment of connection, with the music and speakers, with those in the room moving around me and the tower. It was a moment that will never happen again. And yet a memory of it lives on in the sonic space of the room.

The sound is heard and disappears and it is held in the sonic structure. While Meireles is concerned with exploring ideas of overcoming barriers and unity, I question how do we deal with the transitory nature of sound? Do the radios demonstrate a fixity? Or simply a way of transmission? The room was almost overwhelming with the various sounds and yet most of the people around me where silent when experiencing Babel (2001). I, however, was speaking rapidly to my very bemused friend. Sound can become tangible in these moments, for language, for communication, for the artwork; adding another layer human radios.

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Charlotte Rudman is a second year PhD student in the Department of English at King’s College London, researching sound and sound representations in medieval dream vision poetry, @charrud.