Sunday, 13 April 2014

Punchdrunk 'Drowned Man'

The Drowned Man

This week I finally got to see Punchdrunk's latest offering "The Drowned Man" even typing that I wonder is 'see' the right word? Probably not. Experienced perhaps? Lived? Survived even? It's not anything you do as passively as 'see' there is nothing passive about it, as three hours of running up and down stairs will attest.

I have wanted to see a Punchdrunk show for some time. But it's difficult, it's not everyone's cup of tea and i rarely get to London alone. Plus, I'll tell you my deep dark secret now it's done: I was scared. Genuinely scared.

I'm what I think is commonly known as a wuss. A wuss with a hated bordering on fear of audience interaction. Scratch that I'm terrified of audience interaction directed at me, I just hate it with everyone else.

When I say scared I mean really scared. I don't do haunted houses, I don't even do Disneyland because people in costumes scare me (yes I do know it's weird) I'm not good in confined spaces, I'll admit I'm easily spooked in the dark. I'm just easily spooked. Like I say, wuss.

So why did I want to go so badly? Curiosity sure, the idea this was a major player in contemporary theatre I was currently missing out on. I also have a twitter friend who is utterly passionate about the show. They have excellent taste so I figured I had to find out for myself.

All this silly wussiness did manifest as genuine anxiety as the week drew in. I was helped by reading accounts of the show online, and by said twitter friend above who gave me some guidance (and valuable toilet info). I wasn't helped by the overly enthusiastic fan in the queue who regaled me and my new found queue friend with tales of experiences so intense she had to come out and sit down alone for a while and other such delights. Queue man (who was handsome, and had a very nice beard by the way) and I exchanged tentative glances, what had we let ourselves in for?

As the moment approached I'll admit genuine fear took over. Only telling myself I had paid for this, and people would see if I ran away kept me in the queue for the lift. I calmed a bit as I encountered my first actor in the lift. She was a person, she wasn't that scary (actually her make up was a bit scary) then I panicked, I failed to 'escape' the lift at the first point. Was that a good thing! Bad thing? Stepping out into the darkness I stuck close to my group until we came across some actors.

The first scene I happened to see was familiar, I'd seen it in promotional material for the show. Quickly I was sucked in by the powerful dance performance in front of me. The scene ended, I followed one of the actors a short distance, another scene began. Another breathtaking dance scene. A lover of physical theatre, and of dance to be up close to the actors for this kind of performance was mesmerising. I was quickly sucked in. Again I followed a character. I watched scenes unfold in close quarters- I'm keeping specifics vague for those wishing to avoid spoilers. I followed 3 interconnected stories for a while actors the 'loops' as they are known. As I was flitting a bit between three characters whose stories were closely entwined (because of course they are all entwined) I got an overall picture.

Following the characters began to build my confidence. I followed one to the eerie sand filled floor above, I grew braver in getting closer to the action. Having completed a loop with one set, in the town half of the story, I began to seek out another, in the studio part. Following a few characters I ventured into new spaces, but nerves and wariness, and perhaps weariness got the better of me. For a time I wandered I near empty spaces I'd already been in, taking in the detail, enjoying the chance to wander in the set.

This chance to wander without the actors or action close by was a real highlight for me. Many I know like to seek out the obscure characters in these quieter moments or parts away from the main action. For me the chance to wander in the world alone was actually better. The quiet solitude of wandering dream like through this world was so magical.

Eventually I found my way to the Studio 3 space which is an' in character bar'. Here audience members are permitted to take off their masks and talk to one another. A band and singers entertain while some characters drop in and out. For me, and many others I think it provides a chance to regroup, rest a moment before diving back in.

For the second half of my visit I immersed myself in the other part of The Drowned Man World, the studio. For a time I didn't bother following a particular character just explored the spaces I came across, observed what was going on, followed someone for a short time. Eventually I did settle on a character who saw me through to the end and the grand finale. For the finale they manage (and lord only knows how!) to get the audience in one space. It is a spectacularly executed finale that also brings the audience together as an 'audience' for really the first and only time.

So that's what I did (spoiler free) but what did I think? More importantly what did I feel? Part of me still doesn't know. But I also can't stop thinking about it. Not the plot, which I got in minimal form, but wasn't that bothered about anyway because that doesn't strike me as the point. The point really is the experience of it. What did I experience? I can't help feeling not enough.

Partly this is my a fore mentioned wussiness I was never going to be crawling into dark spaces or opening doors alone, and in a Punchdrunk show this is my failing not theirs. Maybe on a return visit, now I feel I know it a bit more, maybe, just maybe this coward would open a few doors. But I think even with the bravest intentions it takes more than one visit to really experience it. It's so overwhelming and sensory and experience that in one visit you can't wrap your head around it. On a return visit I'd have, not so much a plan, but an awareness. I'd also have taken in the bigger picture so be inclined to look at the smaller stuff.

At first I was a bit perturbed by this, the idea of a show so big you can't possibly take it in all at once. How dare a company presume people would want or even could do that. I realise though, you don't have to. It's actually me. Many people will go, have the experience take it for what it was, whatever it was for them, and go away. Maybe tell their friends, maybe bring someone else to see it. The reason I feel, not unfulfilled, per se, more that there's so much more to get, to see and experience that I didn't get to see, is because that is my disposition. And it's a disposition that Punchdrunk feeds. There are countless plays I've seen well countless times. I've never felt the need to justify seeing them again because to me it's self evident, every time you get something different. The difference begin in the case of The  Drowned Man is that they tell you, they show you that there's so much more to see. They feed the addiction before you even begin. 

And the other key difference is it's visceral, or perhaps somewhat primal. I've had what I've described as visceral theatrical experiences before  sitting on my arse in a darkened room. It stands to reason that physically following, touching the story will only enhance that for the kind of person who connects to performance. I do think that's a caveat of these experiences, you need that kind of disposition to totally connect. The kind that is won over or indeed freely given over to the experience. Is it a little bit pretentious as some critics have claimed? Yes, but nowhere near as much as some far far lesser works but far lesser companies. I feel Punchdrunk have earned a little prevention by now! and anyway nobody died from a little pretentious art. And it's not really as bad as people make out. I found it actually so honest in its emotions, in the actors connection with the audience that actually the overarching idea, might be pretentious, the delivery isn't. Or is that all I their master plan? Is it part of the illusion, the game we are all playing in visiting Temple Studios?

As I type that last sentence I realise it's game over for me, I've given in. I've started thinking about it like a fans unpicking it,trying to identify the messages, the meanings. I want to dive into that world. It still scares me, but I think I'm ready for it this time. 

New Directions in Sherlock Conference

New Directions in Sherlock UCL

The "New Directions in Sherlock" conference at UCL on 11th March drew a diverse range of academics and fans to discuss the third series of the BBCs contemporary Sherlock Holmes adaptation, and other modern directions of Holmes.

The panels covered a wide range of areas topics and Holmeses (Yes it's a word, I said so) Because it seems that even if you try and discuss just one Sherlock, in this case  the BBC version, the others always creep in. Sherlock or Holmes or whatever you call him (personally I call him Sherly, but only when we're alone) doesn't come without baggage, without over 100 years of legacy. So while we debated where the BBC had taken him, and where he might go next the older Holmes from Arthur Conan Doyle's canonical texts, though Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett up to Robert Downey jnr and as far as the recent Norwegian Sherlock parody. What we saw is Sherlock cannot be boiled down easily to just the study of one tv phenomena.

Close readings of Sherlock were found in panels on Narrative adaptation and theory with analysis from Ann McKellan on Barthesian approaches to adaptation and Sherlock. other panellists looked at writing Sherlock or filmic adaptations with close readings on screenwriting from Bonnie MacBird or character analysis from Rakshita Patel. Fascinating comparisons with Medieval Quest narratives were Amdrea Williams, who showed that production of Sherlock and even fan responses are much older than we may think. Canonical Holmes and his previous adaptations were also featured prominently  Tom Ue considered Holmes' journey from magazine pages, while Joanna Kurcharska looked in detail at Irene Adler's recent journey in adaptations. 

The panels were diverse covering a range of aspects of Sherlock the series and the wider Holmes canon. I got to talk about filming Sherlock and the series 3 "Setlock" movement in which fans followed filming online and I person gathering information about the series, speculating and sharing. This was followed by a paper from Chai Buchmann on tourism and Sherlock alongside Richard Burnip's analysis of Sherlock and other Holmes adaptations, in London. All three generated interesting questions about how we as fans and as human beings want to engage beyond the screen with location and our favourite literary or television characters. Why do we want to follow in the footsteps of Holmes? Why do certain landmarks take on more resonance when associated with fiction? How in the digital age is the relationship between fans filming and location canning? All interesting points to be discussed at length for many more papers.

Fans and engagement were a topic of an afternoon panel as well. With three insights chaired by Bertha Chin,  a part of the team behind the Fan Studies Network(  In this panel Chiara Codeca explored the world of Sherlock  fan fiction while Elizabeth. Minkel explored what it meant to be a fan girl. The discussions that followed showed the voice of fans at this conference, as did the response to Matt Hills' paper on 'Sherlock series three. Fan service and the subtext of Mystery' the fan voice, particularly when discussing the fan response was a fantastic addition to the conference. Hearing from voices outside academia particularly in this field is vital to keep research and thinking fresh. In hearing from fans and having the engagement of so many passionate fans in the conference was a real strength of the day. I think this and similar conferences and networks are beginning to build bridges and strengthen discussions between fans, academics and those of us who find ourselves I the curious position of being something of both.   

At lunchtimes there was a screening of "His last vow" a great way to focus the audience and remind us in the midst of all the thinking, analysis and maybe arguing, why we were all here. Having a chance to view without commentary or analysis And immerse themselves I the source material actually really enhanced the experience. In watching Sherlock over lunch I felt my kind refocus on what this was about to some extent.

The keynote speech from Ben Poore drew the day to a close in great style. In a lecture entitled "Fighting Paper Dragons? The emergence of Political Ideology in Sherlock series 3" Ben Poore explored the use of Charles Maugnussen I series three as a purveyor or newspapers and evil simultaneously. Asking what the inclusion of a newspaper mogul does the political bias of Sherlock via its use of newspaper headlines, Poore then moved on to some real life headlines and press engagement with Sherlock and its creators. Asking questions about where as a whole, but I particular in political terms Sherlock or its creators were headed which nodded to previous incarnations of Holmes and their political bias as erased do at the time and retrospectively. Drawing, by way of Malcolm Tucker, questions of where things may go next. In a lively Q&A discussion covered everything from politics to Sherlock's character development, morality and the reception of the series in America versus Britain. The keynote by Ben Poore was not only hugely enlightening and interesting but also entertaining and accessible. In short it was the kind of keynote every young academic aspires to someday (I must point out here I'm not implying Ben is an old academic, I do value my life. He is however a talented one and incredibly an engaging speaker as the keynote attested). Poore's interesting subject matter, enthusiastic delivery and engagement with discussion were perfect in tone and topic to close the day.

As discussions carried on over dinner for many of us (and even online once safely back at my hotel) showed that Sherlock and whatever new directions he is heading in leaves us a lot to discuss.  This conference was the tip of the iceberg in terms of analysing Sherlock and his predecessors (and successors?) the balance of fans and academics (and those in between) and the passion with which Holmes is held gives these discussions a life all of their own. Much like Holmes, Sherlock and all his incarnations.

With thanks to Tom Ue for his organisation, Ben Poore for his keynote (and overall support) and the staff at UCL. 

Those interested in the Fan Studies side of this conference may also be interested in the Fan Studies Network conference and call for papers here:

As a little treat, as its Sunday and Im in post-conference hangover mode, heres the Norwegian Sherlock parody mentioned above, to prove we dont take ourselves too seriously. 

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Staying sane in a PhD? Or fighting a PhD?

I found this article yesterday in the Guardian about 'Staying Sane' during a PhD

My general thoughts on the article were as follows 'Well that's common sense, and I think I've stayed relatively sane' followed by anger that the one thing I do to stay sane is write about it, however I'm no longer allowed to publicly share much of my feelings/journey on the PhD in detail. Which actually was key to my staying sane (fear not it's been stored up to be written about at some point)

Then I thought about it some more, and the day (week, month) had been so spectacularly bad, I thought this instead: every time you think it's the worse it could get, it gets worse. And when do you actually stop fighting?

Because that's how I feel right now, I have not once ounce of fight left in me. I realised this when I got a parking ticket on campus yesterday. Despite being angry (I have a permit, I'm waiting for a new one as I changed my car, I'd also 'paid and displayed') and yes I was a bit rude to the warden who refused to listen and answer my questions about appealing (since I am registered in the permit system) But I got home and just thought 'I don't have the energy for one more fight' so despite not having the money really, I'll just pay the fine.

Then I thought about it some more, and the day (week, month) had been so spectacularly bad, I thought this instead: every time you think it's the worse it could get, it gets worse. And when do you actually stop fighting?

Because that's how I feel right now, I have not once ounce of fight left in me. I realised this when I got a parking ticket on campus yesterday. Despite being angry (I have a permit, I'm waiting for a new one as I changed my car, I'd also 'paid and displayed') and yes I was a bit rude to the warden who refused to listen and answer my questions about appealing (since I am registered in the permit system) But I got home and just thought 'I don't have the energy for one more fight' so despite not having the money really, I'll just pay the fine.

Now I'm a fighter, often to my detriment. I will fight to have the last word in an argument and I will go miles out of my way to prove a point. All the makings in fact of a good academic, ironically then the PhD beats such drive out of us, well it has out of me.

Maybe to give myself some credit I am just worn down. In the last month I've got a full time job and lost a full time job. In the process I've also lost a couple of friends. The kind of friends, probably I'm much better off without but still. I'ts also soured my relationship with theatre in the area. I've taken a step back separated myself from that world. Mainly because I've just had enough. In time that will get better but for now I've sold tickets to a show I was going to because I just can't face stepping in the door (well that and honestly I can't stand the show really)

It also adds the dimension of worry about not having an income. My Mum offered to help me out a bit so I can concentrate for a few more months and get it done. But it's been 'a few more months' for nearly a year now. Every time the goal posts move and there's only so many more 'a few more months' I have in me. In fact I think I might have already reached my limit.

I got an old job back, supporting students with disabilities (a job I love) but yesterday found out I'd be working on one of the courses I used to teach. I know it's shallow and petty and I should just have some perspective that it's not a reflection on me, it's pure coincidence, and in fact that it's no difference to supporting students in any other lecture. But I'm not a big enough person to do that.

On top of this, someone who started with me passed their mock viva yesterday. Which makes two people who started with me almost complete and one who started after me too. As much as everyone takes different amounts of time, I just can't pin point where I went wrong. If I knew I'd messed up majorly along the way and had to fix that I'd understand, it still wouldn't be ok but at least I'd have something to focus on. As it stands I feel like all along I was doing ok, I was checking off boxes or milestones and I thought it was all on tack. I was wrong but I don't know where it all went so wrong.

There's been so much focus on my dyslexia for the last few months to that I'm feeling affected by it more than I ever have. I usually barely give it a second thought. Speaking to a colleague in Student Support yesterday they sympathised that usually I'd know how to get on with life/work just dealing with it but with so much attention on it I feel ten times more affected. Like someone pointing out a limp and then feeling it's more obvious. So it becomes another obstacle.

So right now I feel beaten down, exhausted by both life and PhD. I have no fight left for life around the PhD, because I'm asking myself really how many more times can I get back up again? how many more jobs and friendships lost as a result of it? how many more months of struggling by financially, in finding time for things, in just trying to plod on. And then the PhD itself. I'm exhausted, I can't face any longer because I don't know what to do with it anymore. It currently looks like an amorphous grey mass when I think about it. I think momentarily that yes it's almost done and I can fix whatever's wrong. But then I get the feeling it's not fixable, it's never been fixable or do-able but I don't also know when it got so broken. So I'm stuck with the grey mass.

Part of me knows I'll keep plodding on because I have no choice and that ultimately  hopefully it will end. But it's not so much about staying sane as the Guardian article suggests it's more about how you keep going. I can keep myself happy and sane day by day. What I can't seem to do any more is find the fight to keep fighting.

Note: All of the above is in reference to my own personal journey. Any reference to the University is in passing for context. None of this is intended to reflect the University's part in this, simply my personal, emotional reflection on the current situation.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Selfies and Make Up

The latest Facebook 'craze' has been women taking 'selfies' without make up to raise awareness and money for Breast Cancer charities. It's a lovely idea, not started by the charity itself but showing to have real results in money raised and hopefully in awareness by people linking to their website and resources. I took part, I actually donated to teenage cancer trust, firstly because it's my nominator's cancer chairty of choice, secondly because I feel we should seize this massive fundrasing opportunity and spread the donanations to as as many cancer charities as possible.

Here's mine:

And here's an "after" shot too:

I think the idea itself is lovely-women showing natural beauty and empowering each other has got to be a good thing. I love all the comments women are making 'so goregous' 'oh look how pretty you are' 'look at your pretty eyes' etc etc. It's supportive, it's empowering. I love that men are liking the photos, saying how pretty girls look. What I don't love is men saying "see you don't need all that horrible make up anyway".

To me a man (or anyone) saying I don't need make up is as bad as telling me I do need make up. For several reasons.

Firstly it implies you have any say in what I put on my face (or anywhere else). You don't. Nobody does. You can tell me it looks daft, you can tell me puce lipstick really isn't my colour or that electric blue eyeliner went out with white pvc coats. But don't tell me not to use it at all. The only analogy I can think of is that I can tell a bloke that his choice in facial hair is frankly ridiculous, but if the man wants to grow a handlebar mustache well that's his business.

Second the idea that men can tell women not to wear make up implies we do it for them. Newsflash boys, we don't. Putting aside, oh I don't know the entire lesbian community who, shock horror also enjoy make up but don't enjoy boys, Women don't wear make up for men. I can hand on heart say I have never considered a man's opinion when putting on my make up. Except maybe Gok Wan's.

This is momentarily putting aside the centuries of conditioning to conform to what men view as desirable in fashion, appearance etc for women. Which is a blog, not least a book for another day. But what I'm arguing is that on a day to day basis women putting on make up don't give a second thought to what men are thinking about it.

We wear make up for a variety of reasons. Mainly to feel good about ourselves. I don't need make up to feel good about myself but it helps.

Telling women to 'lay off the slap' is also insulting to those who do need it for confidence. While I feel confident enough to go out without it now, years of bad skin meant that wasn't/isn't always possible. I have scars all over my face. I have scars on my cheeks from terrible adult acne which leaves scars only laser surgery can fix. I have a scar on my mouth from who knows what (I'm a clumsy oaf) and currently a cut there are well (again clumsy oaf) I have a scar always hidden by my hair where the doctor cut my head when I was born. None of these are terrible, years attending skin clinics for my issues there taught me I have it relatively easy. But I still want to hide them sometimes.

Then there's the simple fact that make up is fun! I enjoy make up. I enjoy experimenting, I enjoy playing with styles, techniques, products and colours. In the same way anyone who knows me knows my nails are rarely 'naked' because I love to experiment with nail polish, I also like nothing more than experimenting with new eyeliner. I enjoy matching my eye shadow to my outfit, I enjoy making myself look a little bit different with a bit of colour. It's not hiding my 'natural beauty' it's enhancing it, but also playing with it. Again boys, you grow facial hair with the aim of making yourselves look more grown up, more masculine, more like Poirot. That's your call. (I'm coming down hard on facial hair, I do in fact love a good beard)

And yes I also enjoy not looking like an extra from 'Shaun of the Dead' by concealing the massive dark circles under my eyes.

Make up does give me confidence. It helps me feel pretty in the same way styling my hair or putting on nice clothes does. Yes it helps me compensate a bit when I'm feeling a bit rough (see dark circles) but it isn't a substitute. And most of us know that.

I'm not innocent of make up commentary. I've made remarks about girls who are as orange as a bottle of tango, or who have that much eyeliner on they look like they've been punched. I've looked at a women on tv and said 'blimey love did you put that on with a trowel' but it's not my place to say these girls shouldn't wear make up.

I think it's great for a man to tell a women she looks beautiful with no make up on. I think it's great for him to tell her she looks really nice when she's made up and dressed up for a night out (or even just a day at work) I don't think it's great to tell her she shouldn't wear make up. Likewise it's really not cool to tell a women 'blimey get some slap on love you look like death' just in case anyone was wondering....

Anyway back to the point. If you haven't (and blokes I'm looking at you again now) donante to one of these charities:

Cancer Research UK

Breast Cancer Research:

Teenage Cancer Trust

Friday, 14 March 2014

PhD Student....will work for food or books

A couple of weekends ago I had a conversation about self-funded PhD students that made me want to write this post. I didn't get around to it then, however this week has motivated me to write it.

Friends will know that I recently started a full time job. Well started and finished in the space of two weeks. I won't go into why here, suffice to say the circumstances are not pleasant.

But I'm ok really. It wasn't my dream job. I was more than any job in recent years actually, doing it for the money. And I hated that. The reasons I had to leave aside, a week in I was already counting the months until I could leave. It wasn't horrible, I was just horribly bored already. Because that's the thing, once you've done a job you love, once you've found the thing you're good at it's hard to go back to anything else. More of that later.

What I wanted to address in this blog post is the constant battle that self funded PhD students face. I'm including in that too those who get a scholarship or partial scholarship for fees. Because even if you don't have to pay out increasingly extortionate sums in tuition, supporting yourself while balancing arguably the most demanding course of study anyone will undertake, is a big ask of anyone.

In Britain also there is shockingly little in the way of financial support available. Putting aside the lack of funding schemes for PhD and postgraduate education, there is no loan system that adequately supports PhD students. We have an excellent Student Loan scheme in this country (well unless David Cameron gets his way) by which students from all backgrounds can access funds for their studies. I wouldn't have been able to complete Undergraduate study without it. But as soon as the BA or BSC is after your name there is little or no way to access loans for study. I'd gladly have added to my (already substantial) student debt to secure a loan to cover my PhD. For me it's an investment, the earnings potential later in life is offset by the short term investment. That aside, the peace of mind of having even just my fees covered by a loan would have been worth the interest eventually paid.

Then there is the struggle of what kind of work you do? I was lucky in that I was given teaching work at the University for the first three years. A blessing and a curse in that it gave me all the experience I needed and then some for my CV but obviously preparing at one point 3 different courses to teach. On top of that it's only paid in term time (and on an hourly paid basis) therefore another job was also needed. At one point I was teaching, working two part time jobs and doing the PhD. This enabled me to have a financial cushion at least when things dried up in one job or another. Because of course, the most convenient jobs to get are zero hours contracts, therefore earnings are never guaranteed.

Because as a PhD student what work do you do? You can't take one a 9-5 particularly in the first years of study, unless you do the PhD part time. And unless you already have a great job you don't want to give up, who wants to commit to 7 or 8 years of a job you don't want and no life because every spare hour is taken up with the PhD? So we do all the student jobs we swore when we graduated (the first time) we'd never do again. And I never minded that. I will work in customer service, I will work the long hours for little pay but just now and again I want someone to acknowledge that it's hard, and that I'm better than that.

Yes, I said better than that. I am not ashamed to work these jobs. I don't judge anyone who does. I'm a working class girl who by virtue of some natural talent and opportunities has managed to work hard and get ahead in life. Another set of circumstances and I could still be in my first job in a supermarket and there is nothing wrong with that. But, I have two degrees, a teaching qualification, 3/4 of a PhD and 4 plus years of professional experience in a variety of job roles. I don't think it's unreasonable to say "I not want to be doing something more than making coffee or pulling pints. I want to use the skills and experience and yes the intelligence I have"

But employers see PhD and run a mile. You know what I would too. I'd think 'they aren't going to stay' or 'they are going to need time off' or just be scared of what that means. A middle manager say in a company gets a girl in her 20s a year, 6 months off having 'PhD' after her name. He's intimidated. And yes in that I use girl deliberately. But that's a whole other discussion. PhD's scare people outside of academia. Which means getting any kind of 'proper' job while doing one is nigh on impossible. Which means we're back to coffee and pulling pints.

I have been lucky. I got part time jobs in theatres that fueled my knowledge of my field and allowed me to work in an environment with like-minded people. But it had it's drawbacks, short shifts and low pay mean you can't survive on that alone. Late nights combined with getting up and working on the PhD meant I was exhausted. I burnt out, I knew I was on the verge of not doing my job or my PhD properly so when a 9-5 none to challenging job came up I jumped at it. But again this wasn't going to work. Putting aside the unfortunate circumstances in this job, I already realised that it was going to be so difficult. Scheduling PhD work, sacrificing everything else even as far as exercise or time to cook properly was becoming apparent.

And it's hard because people don't understand. I don't resent anyone who gets funding for their PhD, but it's hard particularly those who got it a while ago, to think what that experience would have been while dealing with such financial stress. Those in workplaces can't really comprehend it either. They think it's like a part time course, or like writing a slightly longer dissertation. And I don't blame them, unless you've done it you don't know. On the flip side, academics who were lucky enough to be funded, or have family support, can never truly get their head around it. To both those groups I say simply: it's not as easy as just finding a job, it's not as easy as just finding the time for the PhD. It's a constant act of juggling with swords never knowing which part of your life is getting impaled next when you drop one, because you will drop one, and you'll pick it up and drop another. And so on, and so on.

All that said, I find myself an unemployed PhD student again. Anyone who has any job suggestions send them my way. There's almost nothing I won't do. There's almost nothing I haven't done so far. And if nothing else I earned every last payslip and every last letter in front of or behind my name. I've done good work for every employer, and I've produced my PhD alongside it. And I'm proud of that.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

When is enough enough? dyslexia, writing and PhD's.

This blog post is about two things that are interlinked. Mainly it's about the impact of dyslexia on the PhD but also by default it's an update about where the PhD is (or is not)

I had a PhD meeting the other day that opened with what boiled down to 'this isn't good enough. And you haven't proof read at all'

Now leaving behind the fact that professional pride would never let me hand in something not to the best of my ability. Nor, even without dyslexia would any self-respecting PhD student hand in something not proof read. Also leaving behind that I followed the edits and re-writes given on the previous draft to the letter. Leaving behind all of that, opening a meeting with that, to a dyslexic person is about as soul destroying as it gets. It also flies in the face of any kind of guidance for working with disabilities.

Let me use an analogy. I've worked supporting students with disabilities in HE for three years. I would never open a discussion with a student with, say a physical disability, by listing all the things they were going to do badly because of their disability. It's common sense right? I'd start by saying 'right lets to x and y and z and then lets think about those things that are more challenging because of your disability.' I'd follow that by asking what I could do to help. If the student told me 'x or y isn't really a help' I'd accept that and find alternatives, because they are the one dealing with the disability, not me. They know their personal situation, I am there to respond and support as best I can.

Now let me explain how this approach made me feel this week (with the caveat that this is far from the first time this has happened). It was like saying "It doesn't look like you've worked at all on this. And here are a list of things wrong with it' and that list of things being something you knew with the best will in the world you weren't going to be able to fix. Because you've already done the absolute best you can do. And I try to understand that a person who doesn't have this condition can never really understand, in the same way that I can never understand a physical disability. But we can all try. By leading with the thing most out of my control, and most hurtful, most damaging to my confidence every other discussion was coloured. All I can now hear is 'what does it matter what I do to the content, no matter how hard I work I will never, ever be 'PhD standard' whatever that means' or 'what does it matter, nobody believes I put the work in or have the ability to do this'. Because intended or not, what I heard is 'you are not and we think cannot produce work to the standard needed.' And maybe in part I am just not capable, but I know a good deal of the reasons at this point were to do with issues that I cannot help, and need not so much support but understanding to overcome.

I felt like I was then criticized for not getting myself adequate support for the disability that nobody was really speaking of. Like it was a dirty word, that somehow a PhD student with such an issue had slipped through the cracks. This world isn't for you unless you get "help" but the "help" like a stigma for mental health was a thing we shouldn't really be speaking of. When I explained the "help" available wasn't really able to help in this situation (support for dyslexia at PhD level is really difficult to manage, as its so specialist) This is nobody's fault, support is difficult particularly at this level. What was difficult was although I try again and again to explain how my dyslexia affects me and what kind of support does or doesn't work for me, it feels like nobody is listening. It's like it's a dirty word in this world. The way the world shies away from mental illness, we don't want to discuss the idea that the 'dirty dyslexic' still has a place at the table if only someone would try to understand and to understand how support can work, and sometimes how it doesn't.

Most of all this hit me where it really hurts. My writing ability. All my life some variation of 'writing for a living' is all I've wanted to do. I've always been honest with myself it will probably be a 'sideline' to another job/career because that is the nature of the beast. However, even as a hobby it's what I've loved to do. And I flattered myself I was if not brilliant at it, then alright-bordering-on-good-sometimes at it. Having clawed my way into academia and PhD life, having convinced journals and books my work was worth publishing, I thought I was finally on to something. And that feels like the floor has opened up underneath me. The one thing I had confidence in has been taken away from me and I'm not sure where I go from here.

I know my other shortcomings in my PhD, and I had already planned my future career around them. I'm not a theorist. I recognise and respect the place of theory in academia but I have no desire to spend my life dwelling on it. I'm also not a natural at literary analysis, it's not where I come from it's not where I want to be. I am a good historical researcher. I'm also good at media and meta analysis in that context, all of these are areas I saw myself working in. Because the beauty of post-doctoral work is directing the foundation of what you have done into what you then want to do. But if I can't write, then what's the point?

I was also left with the feeling that the whole thing is no longer fixable. Which leads me to the general 'state of the nation' in PhD land. When is the point at which you give up? I'm loath to give up. Not even any more due to the amount of work, but due to the fact I've paid out £11, 000 in tuition and sacrificed nearly 4 years of 'real' income. Because at this point it comes down to a financial decision. Do I give up, find a full time job and maybe (maybe) finish it around that. Do I keep plodding on, in the vain hope it will come together?

Because I'll be honest: I am exhausted. I'm exhausted physically, literally from working evenings and scarping together maybe 20 hours work at minimum wage a week. And getting up, sitting at my desk by 8am to work again on the PhD. I'm exhausted emotionally from worrying about scarping together a living, and scraping together a PhD. And I'm exhausted from feeling worthless. I feel worthless in my customer service minimum wage job. I feel worthless in my PhD. Surely that's the point at which you draw a line? But it's sad. Because I've finally got a taste of what fulfilling work can be. I've finally got if not a foot, then a toe, in the door of several jobs I'd like to do. But I'm also acutely aware that door could be slammed shut any time. So as I near 30, and near the point at which it may be useless to continue, maybe it is time to shut the door myself.

I worked, and I fought to get this far but maybe this is as far as I can go. I never thought dyslexia would be the undoing of me. For me, yes I can't add up and I can't spell for toffee. Yes the dyspraxic arm of me means I fall over and into things and am constantly bruised....and that I can't dance. But I never until now believed it was something that would stop me. And maybe it isn't that, maybe the PhD is just a disaster regardless. But when conversations and criticism start with the things you can't control it's harder and harder to see the difference.

As a p.s to this blog post, if I'm still being 'spied' on here, I maintain as ever there is nothing in this blog I would not say directly to those involved (in fact I would welcome it).

Thursday, 9 January 2014

PhD waffling (p.s I'm not actually gay)

So what about this PhD then? where is it? why is it taking so long? Well your guess is as good as mine there dear reader. This blog isn't so much a where is the PhD but where is my head at.

Short answer? bloody miserable, fed up and willing to punch a wall.

Now of course the last few months/last year/whole damn thing shouldn't be easy. It shouldn't be easy academically ever, otherwise well everyone would have a PhD right? But that doesn't mean it has to be so damn hard. (wait that sounds like a Coldplay lyric)

So where am I right now? ah that is in fact the immortal question. Honestly? I don't know. I feel like, I can get this thing done but I feel like I will be held up by logistics and bureaucracy from here to who knows when.

And its the not knowing. Unlike any other course of study you take there is no finite ending to the PhD. My PGCE year was one of the most hellish I have ever spent but at least then I had the luxury of knowing 'Only 6 more months, only 3 more, only 2 more" etc. With the PhD it is constantly changing. One minute you'll be done in 6 months, the next the implication is never.

But here's the thing, I am done. I am so done with this life now. I am bored with the PhD itself. Not my broader topic area, which I still love,  but the tediousness of shaping the research into somebody else's idea of what it should be. I am bored of formatting, bored of shaping ideas into a standardised package to the point I can't even remember what my point was and I don't really care anymore. I am bored of adminstrative loops and banging my head against beuaracracy. None of this is exclusive to PhDs of course, but it's a pressure cooker of irritations that leaves my head and my eyes heavy.

And I'm so fed up with this lifestyle. Calling it a lifestyle makes it sound far better than it is. And I suppose it is a lifestyle in that I chose it, I know that,  but I hate it. I hate my life so much right now, I can honestly say that in many ways I have never been more miserable. I am sick of cobbling together barely any money from part time jobs. I am sick of working in the kind of jobs that get you shouted at by the public and treated like dirt. I am sick of thinking "10 years at University for this?" every day. I am sick of the massive juggling act that employment and PhD is. I have struggled through 3 1/2 years supporting myself (and paying full fees) and I just can't do it any more.  And as one more a "lark" than an "owl" I just can't function on working until late at night and being back at my computer by 8am attempting to work on the PhD.

I am incredibly lucky that the PhD has given me great friendships that would never have flourished or even existed otherwise. But I'm also sick of not having a real life. I want to be a grown up, I want to socialise in a grown up way. But hell scrap that, right now I'd settle for the freedom to socialise at all, but the massive juggling act of jobs and PhD means that's not possible. I either can't go places because I work evening or the combined PhD and financial guilt gets me and I can't let myself do anything. I missed New Years Eve this year, because I gave myself Christmas off.

So why do it? that's a question I've been asking. Never more than in the last year have I thought of walking away from something. I'm not a quitter. I've stuck out jobs that I've cried every day going to, I've stuck out other courses that I've hated passionately, knowing it would be worth it in the end. I've worked through parts of the PhD research that I thought were doomed and pointless (and some have been) but I've always stuck it out to the end. I even find it hard not to stick with a film until the end even if I hate it. But I seriously considered giving this up.

Because you start questioning, why am I doing this? what good is it going to do? where is this really going to get me? you then start wondering about all the missed opportunities both professional and personal. I turned down a job before Christmas, an honest to goodness dream job because I put the PhD first. I've lost count of the amount of times I've put the PhD first in both small and large ways over the last 3 1/2 years, in personal and professional circumstances. I've sacrificed relationships with friends, family and potential romantic endeavors (well regular readers of the blog will know how well they go anyway) and you start asking for what exactly?

For two letters in front of your name? for three letters after it? Don't get me wrong some days its the thought of that which keeps me going, a small vanity but enough. In my logical brain I know it will help career wise, that doors will open eventually. But when currently all doors are slamming in your face, it's hard to see that. No matter what the Mother Superior in 'The Sound of Music' says.

So that's where I'm at right now. I will keep plodding on, because really there's nothing else I can do. But every day I'm a whisper away from saying 'sod it all' and just going and getting on with my life. And I still don't quite know what stops me. The only thing I can see is stubbornness, and some far off dream that I always wanted to do this. Right now I can't quite remember why, but perhaps that isn't that important, perhaps that I almost have is the most important thing?

Sub blog: I'm not Gay!

Now let's end on a comical note, after all that angst and moaning. I feel like John Watson here, but I need to say once and for all to the Universe "I'm not gay!!" apparently four years in (and knowing me for a few more) my supervisors and many others are under the impression I must be gay, because I  am writing about gay men. Now firstly, oh great leap in logic, if I were gay and wanted to write about gay experience would I not choose to write about gay women's experience? secondly, just because I write about gay experience does not in fact make me gay. If I were writing about camels in the Sahara would that make me a camel? no. People also assume I must have AIDS too. I don't. Again, if I were writing about Legionnaires Disease would you assume I had Legionnaires Disease?

Underneath this there is a serious message about assumptions that really warrants longer analysis. However I wonder how many other PhD students have assumptions made about their personal lives based on their research choice?