Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Should I stay or should I go...

I always believe using a Clash song title improves, well almost anything. Particularly when coupled with a video involving David Morrissey and David Tennant drowning each other in a swimming pool:


Musial interlude aside, this 'should I stay or should I go' mentality is something I've been stuck in for a while now relating to academia, and where I go next.

Putting aside the continual questions of 'What are you doing next' and 'So does this mean you have to get a real job now?' (and just, FYI the next person to ask me, particularly the latter will get punched in the nose. The nose. Hard) Putting aside the 100 plus job applications I've sent in the past year (yes, 100 plus and no I am not exaggerating, I wish I was) which includes a wide and varied amount of jobs, from academic jobs (ranging from teaching to research and ranging from full time to 1 day a week, permanent to hourly paid work. I've applied for theatre based jobs of many kinds, and other 'heck it's nothing like I want to do but it's money' jobs. I've had several jobs (often at once) and still have one. But not one that I want to do in it's current form long term, nor would it sustain me financially. But that actually less relevant. Because now that the PhD is finished I'm now thinking about real steps forward. And I'm not entirely sure what direction they should take.

Firstly, to consider the option of continuing in academia. It's no secret I've had a terrible PhD experience. But I know that not everywhere would bring similar experiences, nor would there be the same experiences once working elsewhere within academia. That said, it's left me riddled with insecurity and paranoia around my place at the academic table, something that is difficult to shake off.

On the plus side, I did love teaching courses, I loved working with students and I enjoyed the challenge of working with them. I enjoy research, and the chance to research would be a key motivator to stay. However, I cannot help but doubt myself in both of these areas. And in academia in general. But I constantly fear my inadequacy. I feel like nothing I've done to date is enough, so I'll constantly be playing catch up and possibly never excelling  at anything. Is that frustration, that insecurity worth it? I don't feel quite the same doubts in my teaching ability, I've always been confident in the classroom, in short I survived the PGCE Secondary, I can survive University teaching. But things are changing, students are increasingly powerful customers rather than participants in education. And I question my place as a teacher in that.

Linked to that is the cold hard fact that there simply aren't the jobs in academia. I know people, far more talented, more advanced in their careers, with publications and experience far beyond mine who can't get a job. And after four years of struggle,  working multiple jobs and barely scarping by, I can't and won't carry on that way indefinitely. The trouble is to stand a chance at an academic career I'd probably have to. Currently, there isn't a single suitable job to even apply for in the UK, though these things come in waves the ratio of jobs to applicants is maths I don't even want to think about too hard.

Which leaves me questioning is it worth it? is it worth another year, 2 years, 5 years before getting a "secure" job (that turns out not to be secure because then the department's funding gets cut...) And perhaps more importantly I'm asking myself is that the life I want? After back to back PGCE and PhD, I'm frankly exhausted. It's hard to explain the kind of cumulative tiredness that comes as a result. I'm mentally and emotionally drained from the hardest work I'll ever have to do, and the juggling of jobs and life to get there. And that's the other thing, I'd kind of like my life back. Even when finishing I was straight back to (paid) work and unpaid work. There's always a book chapter, conference paper, journal article to write. Right now I've a list of calls for papers to hash together abstracts for that I just don' have the energy to think about. I have things I should be researching, writing, doing all the time. And even in a full time job, that's always there and 90% on top of your working hours. And that is the job, and the life. And part of me loves the research the chance to do that kind of work, but also I want a life. I want a weekend that doesn't involve frantically trying to catch up on work, or a guilt free one that doesn't. And lets not forget all that academic publishing is for free, particularly for those destined to spend years as independent scholars while waiting for an elusive job to appear. Spending 100s on conferences, hours of precious free time between jobs on writing articles that may or may not make it publication and earn you nothing.

And so I'm asking myself, do I want that? do I really want to stay. And it's hard because in some ways I love it more than anything I've ever done, Lord knows I couldn't have stuck it out this far if I didn't . But perhaps I don't love it enough, perhaps I don't have that fight in me anymore.

So what instead? That's the other question. Last week I had some interesting and thought provoking meetings with someone who said to me 'I wish you knew what you wanted to do' so do I. And to feel like it could work out.


But what could work out? what are my options? Well, I could stay teaching or academia adjacent. I could go back to teaching in schools (ok not even I believe that one, with love and respect to my teacher friends because I couldn't do it) I could teach in some other capacity. I could carry on with my Student Services related work, I genuinely love it and for someone with zero maternal instinct I genuinely care about the little monsters. But somehow I'd feel like I'd failed, given up somehow not to 'use' my PhD in the 'right way. Which is where all the anxiety about making the call to step away from Universities entirely comes from. But maybe I'm not supposed to, maybe I just need to use my experience in a different way? or maybe after 5 long years in various roles I need to run, far, far away.

There's theatre, the obvious choice and possibly (no possibly, defiantly) as hard to get a start in as academia. I could take my theatre knowledge, my various skills and do something...useful somehow, feel productive and creative and that would be amazing. It would actually be a dream come true to do something anything theatre related. It probably involves moving to London, and at the grand old age of 30 maybe that's not something that is practical anymore, student style living again isn't something that appeals to me anymore, I've done that far too much. But I'm also mindful of not throwing away the best opportunities to develop a career. Again it's how much of a trade off between a life (such as it may be) and career (such as it may be)

I could also take my writing skills, another dream come true, and do something useful with the extra four years of writing work that academia has given me. Some day even I could actually get paid for a piece of writing (nobody is holding their breath on this one)

Or maybe, maybe it's something else entirely that I haven't even thought of yet? Maybe I'll fall into something (I am very good at falling both metaphorically and literally). But I doubt it. It's decision time.

So universe, or at least a particular corner of the internet, send me a sign, send me advice, hit me over the head. Or offer advice. Offer wild suggestions. I'm open to ideas.

And academic friends in the same situation, it's hard to know, hard to make that call between sanity and security, and pursuing the thing you love. But I think it's really about knowing whether you still love it enough. No job is perfect but sometimes I wonder if any job should be this hard. Which actually sounds more like a Coldplay song....

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Watching Michael Palin makes me common (apparently)

I've lately taken to summing up how terribly "common" I am with the following analogy: I watched Michael Palin travel documentaries growing up, not David Attenborough ones. This may seem like a strange analogy, but around a year ago, while visiting a friend, it was made clear to me that my upbringing was terribly remiss for not being raised on the velvet voiced naturist's work.

In terms of the documentary makers the analogy doesn't actually work, both come from fairly well to do backgrounds, and both went to Oxbridge. But actually the point was about what 'nice families' would watch. Or what 'educated people' have grown up watching. Probably a better analogy for my life would be my love of Paul O'Grady, working class Birkenhead drag queen extraordinaire. Or indeed Ant and Dec (or Ant or Dec as I'm fond of calling them) Both of whom, I have it on good authority, are markers of a distinctly common upbringing.

Well good. Much like O'Grady I'm proud of my roots. I don't see anything to be ashamed of in coming from a working class background, and much like O'Grady I see nothing wrong with the popular, or feel a need to hide who I am behind.

So there you have it I'm a working class populist. The idea of class, or indeed what I liked or didn't like being a defining characteristic of my upbringing or intelligence never really occurred to me until recently.

Yes, when I moved schools for sixth form to a much more well to do area of the city I was acutely aware that many of the other students were from far wealthier backgrounds than I was, but I never felt particularly judged for it. When I went to University in Nottingham, again I was well aware of contingents of ex public schoolboys, but aside from registering that they were mostly utter twats, this failed to affect my life in any way. When I went to London to do my Masters, being at RADA was my first experience of feeling like an uncultured swine. At the mixer for the start of the course, several of us were asked what our parents do. Not myself actually, which is a shame because I relish the day anyone asks me specifically what my Father does and I can answer 'Not much he's dead' which at least puts a halt to such idiotic lines of questioning. Why does it matter what my parents do? Ask me what I do.

Things from here on got worse on the class warfare front. Not only was I from a) a University that dared not be in the top 5 of the Times listings but b) I was clearly an uncultured urchin who somehow wandered into the hallowed halls.  I had, forgive me dear Universe, at this point, never heard 'The lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock' until this point in my life. I had also not read 'Metamorphosis' and probably about 20 more things I'm forgetting. Bearing in mind I didn't' have a degree in English Literature like most of my classmates, but in History and American Studies. I never felt more like an extra from 'Oliver' in my life. Oh and lest we forget that being something of a mass-market commodity, musical theatre is also indicative of my social standing or intellectual ranking. This is something I battled with across my PhD, the idea that musical theatre is somehow less 'worthy' of analysis than 'proper' theatre.

It seems to happen a lot more in English Literature in fact, this judgement based on what you have read or know (or say that you've read or know) as to your value or status in life. In my history degree it was kind of a given that nobody knew all the history. Therefore if you started a module knowing next to nothing about the Cultural Revolution in China it was just assumed that it was an area of history you hadn't yet studied in detail, so you did some reading went to some lectures and there you go, you are informed, on to the next. Which strikes me as how education is supposed to work. I see the same in the sports students I work with currently, nobody passes a moral judgement on them for not knowing a great deal about a particular sport, it's just assumed they've never come across that sport, everyone learns about it, we move on. Why then in English Literature and Drama are we so judgmental? why does what you have or haven't come across in personal reading or education a marker both of intelligence and social class?

This element is one of the many things that feeds into my questioning of my place in academia, for several reasons. Firstly I feel I am and will always be too working class for academia. Perhaps it's centuries of working (Wo)Man logic in me, that I am deeply practical and pragmatic at heart. This is in many many ways not a skill that academia favours.  I also have no time for pretentious nonsense (that I actually wanted to write 'pretentious wankers' also I believe betrays another flaw in my  suitability for many an academic role) I also have a overriding fear that once anyone in academia discovers  not only am I the only person in my family to go to University, but that my parent held no academic qualifications at all to their name, that I would be swiftly ejected from the building, doctorate or no doctorate.

I refuse to bow down to, or hold any pretense about what I do and do not like. Frankly I don't care if something is considered 'classic' literature, it doesn't mean I have to like it. It also doesn't mean I can't appreciate it but the two aren't one and the same. Example, personally I loathe Jane Austen, I have no logical or intellectual reason for this other than I have tried and failed many times to enjoy her work, I just don't. That doesn't mean I can't appreciate the literary or indeed socio-historical value of Austen's work. Not liking it, simply put, doesn't mean I'm too thick to understand it. Also not having read, or even encountered a person's work (literary or otherwise) doesn't mean a person is either stupid or uncultured, we all have different encounters with the room dependent on so many factors is it really so surprising that we don't all encounter the same works of literature film and art? and must we use that as a judgement of intellect or social class?

Another example, I wanted to cry and possibly never return to my choir a month or so back. I read music in the most basic sense, but again it's something I never learned as a child and had no reason to learn as an adult (despite being in choirs and other musical productions for the last 10 years or so). But explaining this, and explaining in a song that has the same words and notes repeated over and over meant I got lost following the music, well I felt like I'd said I couldn't read at all. I felt judged, as though somehow my ability to follow dots on some lines was a marker of my intelligence and upbringing. The fact that I bet nobody before then would know based on my ability to produce the right notes with my voice, is apparently arbitrary. Not reading music just served as an illustration of my distinctly common and therefore intellectually deficient upbringing. Well as my Mum said when I told her that story, Michael Ball cant' read music and it hasn't done him any harm.

Uh-oh am I betraying my working class roots again? We like Mr Ball in my family. Pretty sure he's not highbrow enough either, am I right?

Because linked to class or some other intellectual ranking, there is so much judgement around what we do or don't like. We're supposed to like watching Scandi dramas and The Wire, not Downton Abbey and The X Factor. We're supposed to like quirky sketch shows and pretend to find them hilarious and no American sitcoms are allowed.  Of course nobody is supposed to like big budget American films (except for some reason The Hunger Games). In books it's ok to read young adult if it's now a film, but not under any other circumstances, basically any book that makes it onto Supermarket shelves must be terribly common and not intellectual enough. And I can't remember am I allowed to like Taylor Swift and Benedict Cumberbatch this week?

Now I jest (a little at least) and there are always culture snobs, who will try and dictate what is in or out or cool or hot. And that's just white noise. I've never been one to follow fashion in any sense, but that what we like or don't like is seen as not just a marker of good or bad taste, but of intellect, upbringing and class, even now in 2014, that makes me sad. What makes me angry is that people will pretend that class and the associations of upbringing and intellect that come with it no longer exists. But they do.

I'm not someone with an accent that gives away my roots (unlike the delectable Mr O'Grady mentioned above) that's more by default than design, I'm a natural mimic who has absorbed a multitude of accents so nobody can tell where I'm from anymore. There's little comfort in that though because as the years go on I'm more an more aware of the little 'tells' that give away my working class roots. That betray me as possibly uncultured, uneducated, as something other.  Despite being highly educated in some respects, my cultural background and tastes still mark me as something.

And you know what, I'm starting not to care. Not least because in terms of things I enjoy, nobody will tell me not to enjoy them on the groups on taste or what is proper or common. I don't care if it's more intellectual, more middle class to enjoy certain things. I'm going to watch, eat, drink and enjoy what I like. And I know the reasons we like or don't like what we do are far more complex. I've felt judged for not knowing the rules to Monopoly or having never played other board games that nice families play at Christmas time. That's not because I'm common it's because I'm an only child and it's pretty difficult to play board-games by yourself. My weird tastes are because I'm weird, not because I'm common or stupid. And isn't it sad how the two are still so inextricably intertwined?

My problems with class and academia are a discussion for another day, but it's no coincidence that several of the friends who I've quietly (or not so quietly) let go from my life in the last couple of years are those who made me feel this way. That somehow my background, is somehow something to be ashamed of something deficient in me. And I say it's not. My upbringing, what I watched on TV, what I read or didn't read, where I went or what I wore made me who I am, made my brain what it is. I like my brain, I like me. I like Ant and Dec. None of it has done me too much harm so far.

Now if you'll excuse me, it's Sunday night and I'm re-watching some Michael Palin travel shows...

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Dyslexia and academia (part 2?)

So this morning I'm thinking, and writing about being dyslexic and doing a PhD again. And thinking of the last time I wrote about this. Here's that blog: 


I wrote that blog at one of the lowest points in the PhD process. But in it's context it's very abstract, it's about the broader experience of a dyslexic PhD, as well as my personal experience. It's about how we have different struggles, and that our struggles are as real, valid and important as any other student with disabilities. It's also about how at PhD level we tend to maybe negelct student needs. It's about the way we work with dyslexia which I'll come to in a minute. 

The week after I wrote that blog I was called into and office because I'd been accused of being mentality unstable and a possible danger to myself. Based on that blog and the meeting that sparked it. In that meeting I'll tell you what happened blog reader; I cried. I cried in frustration that I couldn't no matter how hard I tried fix the thing that needed fixing. The tears were the annoying tears that well up in your throat and eyes and no matter how hard you try they won't leave. I apologized for my tears, and for the thing I couldn't fix. The meeting went on. It wasn't a good meeting but there was nothing other than my momentary overwhelming frustration to mark it out as extraordinary. Imagine my surprise when frustration at my dyslexic shortcomings and a momentary lapse of composure (and we're talking a few sniffles and chocked words, not full on sobbing) turned into that. It felt like, as it did in that meeting, my disability was being used against me. It felt like a battle, and as it's something I cannot change about myself, it's a battle I can never win. 

In getting my corrections for the thesis following the viva, this rears its head again. Luckily both examiners and chair were incredibly understanding and supportive. This concept is by now almost alien to me. The idea that yes it is a problem, but that I'm acknowledged as obviously hard working and trying my best to get to this point is actually strange to me. 

That doesn't help the fact however that despite all the work, and a substantial sum of money getting it professionally proof read, it's still not good enough. I'm embarrassed that it isn't. I feel bad for the examiners that they might have thought I didn't care enough to present it properly. But actually again, they didn't. Once told I was dyslexic they were understanding-it still has to be fixed but they understand why. 

And that is the key difference. What made it so hard to this point is being accused of not doing the work, of being lazy, of not caring. In fact as a dyslexic person I work twice as hard at some things. It takes me longer to read, it takes me forever to proof read and I will sometimes never ever get it right. I'm not asking to be held up to different standards, the finished product has to be equal, and judged equally, what I'm asking for is reasonable understanding and adjustment in the process. Particularly academic process. 

Example, if I was working in a "normal" office job environment, and I had to produce a report. I would make whoever I was reporting to aware of the dyslexia issue. I'd probably work out with them a strategy for working with this, for example agreeing that a colleague could take time out to proof read it before it was due. Or submitting further in advance than it was actually needed so that further amendments could be made. I wouldn't be asking my boss to make those amendments, just to give me the space/time to ensure those amendments could be made. It's about creating your own safety nets, it's about making adjustments. In the workplace I'd never ask to produce less work or to a lower standard, I'd simple make adjustments to my working practices to ensure I reached those standards. In the same way being in a wheelchair wouldn't stop a person doing a job, they'd just have to consider how they go about it a little differently. 

I think what I'd like future PhD students to experience is that 'reasonable adjustment' I guess it upsets and frustrates me more, because I've worked for student services for nearly 4 years now. I both know what is expected, what is reasonable and I know what a difference adjustments and support can make. And it makes me sad that for PhD students that doesn't happen. It makes me sad that in my case, not everyone on the team could see it for what it is-something beyond my control that I do my best to work with. 

I don't mind being dyslexic. I don't curse it. To me, it's a different way of thinking about the world. The way I approach things is different and that's an asset. I think creatively, and I think outside the norms. In actuality I'm a real asset to academia-we need people who think differently and creatively. In the scheme of things if my grammar and proof reading are a little iffy then that should be something that can be worked with, not against. 

Of course I'm frustrated. Right now I could cry. I've no way to fix this PhD, doing these amendments now seems an impossible task because what I handed in was my best (it was also a very expensive best given the cost of proofreading) and I don't know where to go from here. 

That said, I am so very grateful to finally have reached a point where conversations about dyslexia and the PhD are supportive. That makes the world of difference. It's hard to understand if your spelling grammar, reading and maths are immpecable. It's become trendy to be a 'grammar Nazi' and that, by the way feels like an attack on us who can't see it. We aren't stupid, you wouldn't pick on a colour blind person for not being able to pick out red would you? don't pick on a dyslexic person for a syntax error then. 

But still, is there a place for dyslexics in academia? I honestly don't know. If the prevailing attitude is that we're lazy, or stupid then no. If they attitude is that we make errors others don't but we think creatively, differently and are an asset. Then yes. 


Thursday, 13 November 2014

"May the odds be forever in your favour" or surviving the Viva

Ok, it might be a little dramatic to compare the viva to The Hunger Games. In my defense I spent the week before re-reading and re-watching The Hunger Games (not as any weird kind of prep, just because) though actually the analogy, the more I think of it isn't so far off; the chosen few, put into an arena to fight to the death (ok not quite to the death) and one emerges victorious...throw in an external examiner like creepy president snow, and a slightly unhinged supervisor like Haymitch and we're nearly there.

In fairness, it wasn't like The Hunger Games. And more importantly I survived. I'll try and write this both as an account, and throw in a few things I learned to help anyone who might also be entering the arena any time soon.

Firstly preparing for it. Let me tell you something this was the most tedious and frustrating part of the whole PhD in terms of work I did (I've had far more frustrating experiences but they weren't directly connected to my own work) There is nothing, nothing more dull than re-reading your own work weeks after you hoped never to see it again. There is nothing more frustrating also than the constant see-saw of 'ooh this might actually be alright' and 'this is the worst thing anybody ever wrote' The first thing I did was to 'mark up' the thesis using sticky labels and post its. This I enjoyed. A bit of colour coding and labeling? while also the chance to write 'amusing' labels that  included "sex" (snigger) that I could do. Then the tricky part; reading the damn thing. I forced myself to work, to pay attention. And for me that means note taking. I re-read it making detailed notes on seperate sheets. While I did that, I underlined or starred key things in the text, at the same time I wrote 3-4 bullet points opposite every page summarising each page. Then I took my notes and consolidated them into 2 page summaries of each chapter, then onto note cards. In the final week I went over key theorists, key essays and books, and went over practice questions. Overall in the last week I felt as ready as I was going to be.

Oh and as with the rest of the PhD I did this while still working. My viva was on the Monday. On the Wednesday before they changed the time (thankfully to earlier). On the Friday before, at around 4.30pm my supervisor sent me a list of 'areas I might want to think about' basically a 'what's wrong with you PhD' Now this supervisor meant well (she actually always does, it's in the execution and communication things sometimes go awry) but the timing...well it could have been better. When I calmed down I saw that it wasn't as bad as I thought and actually I already knew how to talk about most of these things. I spent the weekend going over that list and my sample question list a friend had linked me to. I also covered the thesis in more post-it crib notes than you can imagine (actually imagine a whole pack of post-its because that's what I used) I didn't use any of the notes in the viva. Not a single one. That doesn't mean they weren't useful in preparing, but I didn't use a single one.

The day itself went smoothly. I met with my supervisor, made 15 minutes of small talk, before being called into the viva. As predicted the first question centered on how I got to write about this-with an amusing element of 'Why, no really why the hell did you choose this topic' thrown in, even external examiners wonder, as in a previous blog post 'what a nice girl like you is doing in a PhD like this'.http://fixedpointintime.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/whats-nice-girl-like-you-doing-in-phd.html Immediately I felt I got on with the external examiner, and any worries I had about the internal (which were few, but still very present in the run up) were extinguished. Luckily they also seemed to get on with each other, and have worked out how to approach things amicably and collaboratively (always a worry also, that you'll end up with two people that just don't get on) and the discussion flowed well. Both of them seemed to appreciate my manner of talking (I despite a stuffy formal approach to discussing things, I'm talking about musical theatre, which I think should be taken seriously, but it's also not brain surgery a little humour is allowed)

There were a few moments where I thought 'this is going down in flames, it's over I've failed on this' but I kept talking, kept trying to show I knew if not the exact thing they were alluding to, then plenty that showed  I had a right to be there. We finished and I had no real idea how it had gone-I knew I hadn't bombed it, but I didn't know if it was enough. The same way as when you come out of a job interview and you gave the best answers you knew how to, but if they just didn't like you or your answers then it was pointless.

Pointless is the best way I can describe the idea of failing (or having 'major' revisions, which now means a re submission) I said if I had to resubmit I was walking away, and I think given the experience I've had in the PhD that's what I'd have done. But after an excruciating hour long wait (in which I hoped my student I work with didn't see me as I didn't tell her where I was that day for fear of failing) Luckily that wasn't the case. I passed with 12 weeks to make the revisions.

And just like that it's over! It's done and decided.

I was overwhelmed by the support I had from friends in the run-up and following. On the morning of I was getting texts (and then more texts asking if it was over) to think that I had so many people cheering me on that morning was amazing. And to be able to share the good news after was incredible. To have so many congratulatory messages from people obviously feels good but maybe not for the obvious reasons. You spent so much of a PhD feeling like everyone thinks you're a lazy layabout, that it must be easy to read a few books and write some 'stuff' so to have people recognise that as an achievement, was great. Pro tip though, don't quiz a person about their future plans less than 5 hours after the viva. You're lucky I can string a sentence together, never mind formulate a life plan.

I'd be a liar if I said I wasn't more than a little smug, but I've earned a little smug. Moreover that I did this the hard way, in every way possible. Everything that could go wrong did at some point. Some was circumstantial, some couldn't be helped, some very very much could be helped. Some was my own fault, my own doing, some very much not. I look at other people who have a research community, supervisors who are invested in their success (heck at some points supervisors who plane existed would have been nice) and I could, and do, get angry about all that. Those feelings don't just disappear because I've finished, they just don't, but I can also hold my head up high and said 'I did it anyway, and I did it well, I finished and nobody can take that away from me.

And so that's it. This blog changed a while ago (for, ahem 'legal' reasons) from 'confessions of a PhD student' but I guess this is the last real entry of that version of the blog. This blog, along with my Tumblr has been so important in shaping my PhD experinece and how I think about it, giving me an outlet. I fought to keep this blog and I'm glad I did. It's not going anywhere, it like me is just starting a new chapter.

I'm going to sign this off with three videos. The first is the Rent parody from 'Team America' that I got so sick of people referring to when they knew what my PhD was on I refused to watch it until after I was done. And now I have. It's cute, it's a fun paraody. But puppets wig me out.




The second and third are scenes for me that sum up why I got inspired, why I did what I did. And maybe explain a little of what I've done to those who have followed along.


Neither actually from the original productions, but both from the point in time I fell in love with these plays. And you know what? despite it all, I still love them. (just don't ask me to read or watch them for a while)

I survived the viva and the PhD. And you know what, at graduation I might just raise my hand in the Hunger Games salute, in solidarity with us all....

Friday, 10 October 2014

Jean Valjen and Twitter (or how social media saved my PhD and my sanity)

Social media and online interaction have been a massive part of my PhD experience, and  my life experience over the last five years or so. There's been some really negative consequences, but many many more posative ones. To the point I think some days I might have given up if I was doing all this before social media. It's also been a fantastic tool, both for general knowledge gains and for networking, again in a way pre-social media I wouldn't have had. So I decided a blog was needed.

The reason this came to my mind again was yesterday I experienced one of the best kinds of social media storms, and it also made my day so much better in ways those involved couldn't have known. Short version, I was sitting on my sofa allegedly writing a job application and I'd put on the Les Mis 25th Anniversary concert in the background. In reality I was feeling like ten kinds of hell having been to the hospital that morning for a particularly unpleasant procedure, and hadn't eaten for a day and a half before that (I'm fine, nothing to worry about) It's not been the best few weeks in general so I was feeling decidedly sulky. While watching I tweeted the following:



A fairly innocuous tweet. The kind of fannish nonsense I tweet regularly. What happened next was brilliant. Over 50 tweets and replies from friends and acquaintances, in which the merits of characters were discussed, to different casts, to...slightly questionable scenarios where Javert and Valjen have a very different kind of relationship possibly involving the boys from 'Supernatural' (when I say 'questionable' I mean 'glorious' and someone owes me that fanficiton NOW) The point being that over the course of a hour or so, several people-some groups who knew each other, some eavesdropping on the conversation, and some who just wanted to comment as I continued to live tweet my Les Mis watch with gems like these:


Demonstrating the, yes silly, but also uplifting afternoon that I had via social media. I might add that 90% of these participants are academics. And this is a glorious thing.

As a fan social media is really important also. Firstly I find out useful information from show creators, actors and fan accounts about all manner of things connected to my fannish intersts. I also get to interact with other fans. I can tweet about a theatre performance, or respond to someone else's and have a dialgoue I wouldn't get to have in person. Social media has been invaluable in connecting fans, and it's something I wouldn't want to be without. I'm a heavy twitter user for fannish things, and it allows me to connect quickly with people who share my own interests. It's also something I've written academic work on. In my work on the BBC's Sherlock, specifically fan following of filming through 'Setlock' that relied on social media engagement, to my work on theatre from The Drowned Man and it's Facebook community and twitter interaction, back to Rent and the early eras of online fan interaction.

Because of course as a fan it goes beyond twitter or Facebook, and often my fan-based discussions and frienships have begun elsewhere. On message boards, on Tumblr and slowly those streams have begun to merge and cross. I'm still quite particular about who I let into what. About 80% of my Facebook friends (by definition more of my 'real life' friends) would have to walk over my dead body to get my Tumblr URL. But increasingly, my twitter friends, my 'online' friends and Tumblr followers have made it onto my Facebook. The analysis of which is both several therapy sessions  and an academic paper. But in the past few years through meeting more 'geek' or 'nerd' or 'fan' friends, I've become more open in general about my fannish idenity. And while my online idenity in other platforms has always been fan-based, these naturally, as social media peremates our lives, creeps into the other aspects. And this is no bad thing. While there are particular aspects of fan engagement I'd rather keep in the 'fan space' of Tumblr, or message boards, I have no problem sharing other aspects of my fan idientiy. In a kind of definant 'I am what I am' moment I don't mind my 'real life' friends seeing that.

And actually, with social media the line between 'real life' and 'internet' friends is blurred. I defy anyone to tell me you can't have a meaningful relationship with someone online. And I will provide you several case in point examples to prove it. Which brings me back to my original point. The past five years (through PGCE and PhD) have been hard. Really hard. They've also been isolating. I've either jumped from one job to another, where there has been little interaction or relationship building with colleagues, or I've worked in isolation. My social life has taken one hell of a beating. So I've spent a lot of time interacting online. It's not that I haven't been seeing people in person, but in long long days working on the thesis, the chance to interact online with people has been a godsend.

Sometimes this is through 'official' or 'mediated' channels-such as the #PhDChat on twitter. Which connects postgraduates and offers a chance to ask quesitons of those in a similar situation. Sometimes this has been an offshoot of Facebook groups connected with academia, or again interests of mine. Sometimes it's been random connections-replying to a tweet, commenting on someone's Facebook post or blog. Sometimes it's been through my own twitter. I've also lost count of the times I've been 'introduced' to someone online, once it was through having a shared hairsytle with a friend of a friend. That friend and I communicate often ourselves now and even met at the theatre reccently. The organic development of relationships across platforms-from Tumblr and message boards to twitter or Facebook has been fascinating and invaluable.

The thing is, all this has saved me I don't know how many times. I can't actually put into coherent words how much it means to put a post on twitter or tumblr that says in essence 'I can't do it, I give up,  X and Y and Z has happened and it's too much' and to have people reply. Not even to be a cheerleader (though I'm privileged to have many of them) but to say 'I understand I'm there too' or simply 'that sounds utter shite, go and have a cup of tea' or to distract me with pictures of bunnies, or whatever, to simply be heard. My PhD expereince has been an isolating one. The only person in my discipline, and for a while the only one in my department. Isolated from supervisors it's been incredibly difficult. So I built my own community online. I have a small but dedicated band of fellow PhD students, fellow academics who support each other and more importantly talk to each other online. Some of these just the odd message here and there. Some, I talk to more in depth. But it's having people out there who understand. And as they are often also working in isolation, they are also relying on virtual communication.

On the other side of this, there's also the benefit of networking. On behalf of introverts everywhere I say God Bless The Internet. I once saw (and bad academic here no source) Twitter described as networking for introverts and it's so right. It's so much easier to build up a relationship via social media. Simply to take the sting out of first contact, walking up to somone at a conference, and saying 'hey I follow you on twitter I enjoyed your livetweeting xx conference last month' or the reverse tweeting someone saying 'Hey I see you're going to xx conference me too, looking forward to meeting you' is a brilliant way to break the ice and give someone like me confidence going in. And also, let's not forget the shameless self promotion of conferencing, publications and job searches it providdes. Building up a network online also allows quick access to expertise. Nobody can read all the relevant journals and books in a field, nobody knows all the resources for various things. But a quick bit of crowdsourcing from your academic friends can often yield great results.

Two years ago I was told my Twitter account was still public and this was a problem. I dug my heels in and said it was public, would remain public. And I'm so glad I did. Social networking and online resrouces have without doubt been intrinsic in getting me through my PhD. Without the people I turn to online I'd have been lost.

There has been a dark side. I've had numerous issues relating to social media use. I maintain, and will be more open in future that I've yet to say anything outright 'wrong' yes at times I may have been more tactful, but it was always entierly without malice and bourne of sheer frustration. There is a difference between venting about a fear of something, or the amount of upset that something is causing you (admittedly occasionally without thought, but such is the nature of being upset and being human) versus deliberatly being malicous, libelous or even, bullying. I have of course as in 'real life' (such as it is) opened my virtual mouth without thinking. However, as in life, there is very little I do or say with real malice or intent to hurt. The amount of times I've worried about posts I've written or comments I've left being take the wrong way by people I do not even know indicate that.

For all the trouble I've had however, the virtual world of my time in PhD land has been so valuable. I have people I consider true friends. I have people I talk to almost every day who I would not have known had it not been for this strange online life the PhD gave me. As a result also, I have learned much, through the work of the people I know and interact with, through the real life oppotunities these have given me. More than all this though it's the feeling of being cared about by people who are in the traditional sense 'strangers' to me. I value them so much (and I hope those reading this know who they are)

As a final aside, they also of course provide me with endless entertainment. Through funny tweets, posts and the endless pictures of cute animals or Benedict Cumberbatch they share. These online friends however cannot be forgiven for one thing: this week after years of (virtual) peer pressure, I started watching 'Supernatural' as a result I anticipating losing the next few months of my life to watching it and finally getting a lot of memes...I hate (love) you all.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Being bored and being a fangirl: towards the end of the PhD

As I've resolved to write about different stages of the PhD I thought it was time to blog about the most recent stages. At the very least to have a record for the farce-play that I will eventually write (reasons why will become apparent)

Admittedly this post comes weeks after I submitted. Partly due to sheer laziness, or a kind of denial in not wanting to think about the damn beast any more.

Anyway, firstly the weeks leading up to submission. This I can characterise in one word: Boring. For the weeks leading up to submission I had this monologue from John Finnemore's 'Cabin Pressure' in my head (imagine it in Roger Allam's dulcet tones)

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. We’re now about halfway through our flight from Hong Kong to Limerick, and I just thought I’d let you know that I … am … bored. Bored, bored, bored, bored … bored.... So, if anyone on board knows any card tricks, ghost stories, or would like to have some sex, please do make your way to the flight deck. Thank you. "

Sadly, nobody, not least Allam's character, or his hapless pilot friend offered to help me out with my boredom (ahem) so it was just me and my thesis. To put this in context, I'm sure whatever anyone reading this does for a living, they've had to proof read or format the odd document. I was proof reading and formatting 100, 000 words. That I'd written, and edited to death. Four years in I'm out of fresh ideas, and frankly out of enthusiasm for altering it. But it still needed checking, tweaking, editing. And that is boring. 

Of course alongside the crushing boredom there is the crippling fear and anxiety that it's all  wrong. Suddenly four years in you realise it's all very very wrong. Or not original. Or badly written. Not referenced. Not interesting to anyone in any shape or form. You've missed vital reading and research. Anyone mentions an academic even outside of your field and you should have quoted them. You picked the wrong plays. The wrong subject. The wrong life. It's just wrong. But you're too scared to change it too much, because it's wrong, and you'll just be wrong again. 

Bored and wrong. If I had to pick two words for the last two months those would be the most accurate. And frustrated. Annoyingly my final months had (finally) fallen over the summer. So trying to get information out of anyone was like shouting into a black hole. Without external examiner, without a real idea of submission date, and having nobody to ask because it was the summer was the most frustrating experience. Again added the worry of my anxiety and frustration being misconstrued as 'rudeness' or 'inappropriate' I felt like I was treading on eggshells, but at the same time, I needed to submit by the end of September for my own sanity (and bank balance) luckily, overall this element went smoothly if slowly. 

Of course the actual submission wasn't without it's problem. It's me after all and this section will feature heavily in the farce play I'm sure this will one day become. I submitted, there was much rejoicing. (Well, I went for a smoothie with my Mum and spent the evening seeing off the best part of a bottle of wine while watching 'The X Files') at midnight, when I should have fallen into a wine-induced coma I realsied something: the damn thing had no page numbers. Frantically I emailed registry, praying this wouldn't be the first time in the history o f all Universities that something had been efficiently dealt with the day it was submitted (it wasn't of course) and spent the best part of the next day re-submitting the damn thing. On one hand I got congratulated twice by the lovely people in registry (and the copy shop) on the other I didn't really need the additional mini-heart attacks that those 24 hours caused me. Still, I had an excuse to drink further wine the following night. For my nerves. 

And then it was done. I wish I could say I've blissfully relaxed since enjoying my new found freedom. Or that all my woes are over now the damn thing is submitted. No such luck. 

On the positive side I had a conference paper to write for the Fan Studies Network conference, which as the previous blog detailed was frankly the best conference I've been to.(http://fixedpointintime.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/did-captain-kirk-just-call-me-butthole.html)  I'm also glad of the enjoyable distraction it caused. Although for anyone in a similar position I don't recommend the three weeks following PhD submission as the best time to try and write a conference paper. 

That aside I've been in job-hunt mode. It's so difficult, with the viva looming to plan when to apply for jobs, or which you can. Moving away beforehand isn't really an option, but I don't want to miss out on good jobs either. It's also exhausting, the constant cycle of job applications. But I'm also being more discerning with what I apply for, although I need a job, and though no perfect job exists, I also don't want to find myself stuck in something I hate once again-that's where I was for several years before the PhD and having gone through all this I'm not willing to take that step back. 

It's been a rocky few months in other respects. Some other work elements that I can't talk about a present, but led me to the above conclusion. I've always had as my mantra 'If I quit now they win' (geek points for knowing the source) but now I've finally switched to 'It's not worth it' and 'There's so much more I have to do with my life' (further geek points there...oh I'm not even trying now am I?) And actually to quote last night's Doctor Who, "Never finish with someone when they can still make you angry...when you're calm that's when you walk away" I'm calm now, and very soon I'll be walking away. A slightly (necessarily) obtuse paragraph there, but I think the general idea is clear. 

So now I'm in limbo, it's almost over but not quite. So it's back to boredom and panic. But so almost very nearly there. 

I'd like to end with an upbeat story, I put this on Tumblr the night I submitted (well...the first time...) a short version of 'how I got here' 

In 2002 I went to see a play called 'What the Night is For' at the Comedy theatre in London. I'd never been the theatre before really. I think I went to see a pantomime a couple of times, but that was about it. Theatre just wasn't a part of my life. But as a teenager I was a big X Files fan (perhaps the understatement of the year) and Gillian Anderson was doing a play in London. So I begged (no really that is accurate) and Mum and I went down for a matinee. Now there'a a lot to be said for my fangirl life in terms of what sitting three rows away from Gillian Anderson felt like, or what meeting her afterwards felt like or meant. But what that day really meant was falling in love with theatre. It wasn't a big flashy play, it was two people in a hotel bedroom talking (well, and some other stuff, I'm not willing to speculate on the affect Roger Allam's bare behind had on teenage me) but to me it was wonderful. I spent a good deal of the next day writing notes all over my copy of the play to try and record everything as fully as I could (my near photographic memory finding a use for the first time there too). Most of all I was enchanted and enthralled by theatre, and the first steps made towards where I ended up. 

I've written before about my motivation for this particular topic, (http://fixedpointintime.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/whats-nice-girl-like-you-doing-in-phd.html)  but that day was the first step towards where I've ended up. Of course a million other decisions and moments also led to here (I blame Hugh Jackman for my love of musical theatre which led me to Rent for example) but I knew from that day that theatre was important. The week before I submitted, my laptop desktop background was the poster for that play. Because no matter what the twists and turns along the way, that moment led me to this one. 

If there's a moral to that story it's you never know where your fannish inclinations will lead you. 

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

My Night With Reg

Advanced warning this isn't really a review. The play has closed anyway, and I'm not able to be really objective enough about this to say much in the way of critical content. So let's agree to disagree and call it a reflection.

My Night With Reg is known by me, and possibly by many others as "The British AIDS play" it's not the only play to address the issue but it is by far the most focused on it as a single issue, although it never actually mentions it by name (more on that later). It is also the most British of British plays. And I adored it.

My Night with Reg centres on a group of friends, all gay men, ranging from 18 to mid-40s over three separate meetings at Guy's house. In the first gathering Daniel talks of his new love 'Reg' as the play continues it transpires he isn't the only one to have had an encounter with Reg. John in particular is in love with Reg also, having been with him the night before Guy's gathering. In scene 2 Reg has died, from AIDS related illness (again although it's never named) leaving John distraught but unable to confess to his friend Daniel why. In scene 3 Guy, the most 'safety conscious' of their group has also died, leaving his flat to John, who he had been in love with since University.

In terms of plot, to quote Sondheim, there's not an awful lot. But I like that about it. In terms of politics, again there's not a lot (generous in terms of capitol P politics there's none) but that doesn't mean it doesn't make a statement about AIDS. What I love about 'Reg' is it's ability to engage and move without being plot-politics heavy.

Perhaps it works only in context of the other AIDS plays. We need the others, we need angry vitriol of The Normal Heart, we need the sweeping world changing politics of Angels in America and we need the grass roots determination of Rent. All of these were and are important but there is also something wonderful about the approach Kevin Elyot takes in 'Reg'.

Michael Billington wrote about Angels in America that it finally took American drama out of the living room. In Reg the AIDS drama firmly returns to the living room. And alongside those big political texts that had been imported that works so well. In Reg the men involved aren't (as far as we know at least) involved in the political fights of the era, they are just trying to live their lives, gather in living rooms and drink Blue Nun. They are also older men, and later in the AIDS crisis, in their 30s and 40s when Elyot writes in 1994. But that doesn't make it less affecting.

It is however so wonderfully British. Which I think for me personally, spending far too many years studying plays on this topic, is refreshing. Although the American plays are brilliant, affecting and rallying cries. There is something wonderful about something which speaks your own language. In this case a language of camp humour and almost militant avoidance of the topics that should be discussed, making them louder than ever. Firstly the humour, in a hark back to that over used phrase 'Blitz spirit' there is a sense of a Britain under the AIDS crisis just getting on with it. All these men are more than aware of what is happening but they get on with their lives. In a sense this is highly realistic. Not everyone was Larry Kramer and despite the pervasive nature of the crisis, lives still had to be lived, jobs gone to, houses cleaned meals cooked. And 'Reg' shows this. I also love that Elyot includes in his mash up of men working class people. I'm always an advocate of seeing some working class people on stage, and not just in an Artful Dodger manner. In 'Reg' Benny is a bus driver, and AIDS crisis or no, he must carry on (also a gay working class man in the theatre, surely not?!) the point being life very much goes on, even as the play later unravels in the face of death.

These characters aren't particularly philosophical about it either. They talk of love and missing in a very honest way. When John, distraught at the loss of Reg-the lover he can't admit to in front of several friends-his finding comfort in a passionate kiss, and exit with Benny, is both emotionally charged and incredibly real. When people experience loss, even in the midst of a crisis that is inherently political, they don't always respond by rallying at the barricades, they express grief privately, they also do things like take a friend home to bed instead of dealing with the grief. And for this, Elyot's play is incredibly real, and moving. The kiss between John and Benny, or the final exchange between John and Daniel, loaded with everything they haven't said, is incredibly moving.

But against these moments, it's hilarious, truly laugh out loud funny. yes it's camp, yes there could (and have) been levied accusations of gay stereotypes. But to that I say, I give Elyot as a gay man writing about gay issues, the benefit of the doubt. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, and I'd lay money on each of the characters being based on someone Elyot knew. There's also the importance of this now being a historical text, and what was the cultural norm for some gay men in 19994 may well be different now, but that doesn't mean it's offensive. Also, have I mentioned, it's bloody funny? And perhaps forgive me for a moment of theatre nationalism, but it's a kind of combined black humour and camp humour (and don't those go together so well?) that only a British play could achieve in talking about AIDS. It is possible, even productive to laugh in the face of the darkest times and Elyot's play managed that skillfully with emotionally charged moments.

The play stands up well to revival. It feels like a period piece and that's fine. It also reminds us, perhaps unintentionally that we are again deliberately not talking about AIDS, even though it still exists. And perhaps that was Reg's strongest enduring message.

As for me, it was a poignant moment at which to see this. Weeks after submitting the theisis I actually felt like I had enough distance to reflect on this. And, if I had my time again one of the (many) things I'd do differently is include this play. It's so important, and it's such a strong British voice showing there is more than one way to respond to a crisis.

It's a great tragedy that Kevin Elyot died within weeks of this revival, I have a feeling he'd have been incredibly proud at how his play stands up, and how it was received.

Oh and as a less sophisticated footnote, being a Downton Abbey fan was slightly awkward this Sunday having just seen a lot more of one of Lady Mary's suitors than anticipated. Temptation to shout at the TV "You don't know what you're missing Mary"...tone suitably lowered I'll be on my way...