On The Last Four Months

I am still here. I can’t believe I never updated this whirring box of tricks to say that I did, in fact, pass my viva and am, in fact, Dr Sophie Duncan BA MSt DPhil (Oxon) (all right, Dr and DPhil is a bit of a tautology, and if I paid Oriel the necessary LUCRE I could be MA MSt DPhil, but give me my letters and my moment of glory). I had my viva on 27 September, implemented my minor corrections and was officially signed off/passed/”given leave to supplicate” (the last and most bizarre Oxford phrase of my student career) in early October.

Then lots of things happened.

  • I was a Stipendiary Lecturer at St Catz! I loved this job. My colleagues were fabulous, I became embarrassingly attached to the ten Freshers (against whom all future Freshers shall be judged, sternly) for whose education in the realm of nineteenth-century literature I was responsible, and there was a cheeseboard every day. In sunlight, the SCR looks like the triumphant set of a Roger Moore Bond film and, in darkness, a sinister chamber from an old version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
  • I was an Admissions Tutor at Catz. This was very different to my previous experience at Hertford, but equally great. St Catz will have some amazing first-years, come October (well, it has amazing first-years now, see above), and I wish I were going to be teaching them. As ever, Admissions was hectic and fascinating and infuriating and left me with a desire to burn down the British schools system and rebuild it along more egalitarian lines. It also reinforced my faith in the Oxford admissions process.
  • Now I am at Harris Manchester, Oxford’s college for mature students (which means over 21), as Supernumerary Fellow in English. This is brilliant in a very different way: tiny year groups; a small, close-knit SCR; and, frankly, something fascinating happens every day. I also have the most beautiful office (which now contains two framed RSC posters, starring one David Tennant; many mugs from my parents’ kitchen; any number of books; and a typewriter). As you’ve probably guessed, the “mature students” bit means that many of my undergraduates are older than me. So far, all this has meant is that I’m intrigued by their backstories, and what their experiences to date (of work, travel, and – frequently – very successful study in a totally different field) allow them to bring to their work. I should say that my only other “mature student” turned out quite well. On the teaching side, I’m the Organising Tutor for a team of four, all female and relatively early career. This is great.

It’s hard to keep blogging when you’re teaching a lot, less because of the time commitment (it’s not like the DPhil was part-time) than because all the most interesting things that happen in your professional life revolve around your students and colleagues – the things they write, the things they think, the hilarious bits, and the much harder pastoral issues. I can tell you that my Catz students temporarily and erroneously thought I was very jet-setting when I emailed one of them from a plane: actually a last-minute attempt to distract my flying-fear by tapping on my Blackberry before flying to Hamburg for under 72 hours, but they seemed to assume I’d jetted off to the Caribbean in celebration of the end of 4th week. I can also tell you how much I enjoyed seeing Oxford again for the first time, through their eyes, right up to the moment when I found myself being asked to suggest costumes for an Unhappily Ever After bop (one of them went as The Titanic, I’m not really sure how, but I admire it). So my posts between now and June will probably say relatively little about how I’m spending most of my time.

And then, in October, I’m starting a three-year research contact at Magdalen College, Oxford, as a Postdoctoral Research Associate on “Adults at Play(s): The Psychology of Dramatic Audiences”. I’ve got the blurb —

Adults at Play(s) will study the psychology of dramatic audiences. At its heart is the notion of make-believe, which is psychologically puzzling: audiences know that what they see or read is fictional (the characters, the plot) but they respond to it emotionally as if it were real – a form of ‘cognitive dissonance’. This oddity raises psychological questions: what psychological mechanism(s) make(s) these seemingly contradictory mental states (knowing while pretending) possible? What benefit do audiences derive from this investment and engagement? At the same time a reciprocal literary question arises: how do dramatists manipulate the nature and the degree of the audience’s commitment to the transaction (‘I know this is not real but I temporarily behave as if it is’)?
 
Audiences at Play(s) will explore the psychological and literary questions in tandem. The methodologies will be drawn from both psychology and the humanities. We will, on the one hand, carry out practical experiments with live audiences and live drama, as well as cognitive experiments online and in the lab; and we will, on the other hand, study the dramatic texts.
The aim is to further our psychological understanding of how adults believe in things that are not ‘real’ as well as to study the textual and performance-related cues that audiences respond to. Our chosen body of material is Greek and Shakespearean tragedy.
 
— and it’s basically a project about what happens when we go to the theatre. Since going to the theatre is one of the most interesting things in the world, and generally extremely high on the list of things I’d most like to be doing, at any given moment, and this since the project is led by Professor Laurie Maguire, Dr Felix Budelmann, and Professor Robin Dunbar, and based at Magdalen, this is essentially my dream job. The interview remains a blur of terror, although I remember interrogating the panel on why we clap plays, and talking a lot about the time I spent working in Front of House at the RSC. And I had an aggressive handout with bits of bibliography on it. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend any of these as a strategy.
 
Meanwhile, thanks for sticking around, and I hope to start using this blog more frequently!

BBC Oxford & viva

On Friday, I made my radio debut! I was on BBC Oxford’s afternoon show, presented by Sybil Ruscoe, talking about my research & myself, as well as the show’s daily topics – which, on Friday, included disappearing surnames and readings. For reasons not unrelated to a passionate desire to be (you can’t really say ‘appear’) on Woman’s Hour, an average of 8 hours daily spent listening to Radio 4, and an unnaturally early acquaintance with The Archers, I have always wanted to be on the radio. The producer got in touch on Wednesday (a researcher had found my blog and twitter and thought it was funny), and I remained delighted until late Thursday evening, when I became so nervous I more or less wanted to die. A psychosomatic cough and 90 minutes’ worry about my outfit (for radio) ensued; the nerves receded slightly after I was talked down by my taxi driver, an elderly rocker who builds motorcycles for African midwives (apparently. I think he’s driven me before and spent that journey claiming to know Gary Barlow).

Everyone at the studio was lovely (especially Cristina Parry, the producer, and Sybil Ruscoe, who hosts the show), and apart from ten hideous seconds when I put on the headphones and remembered this was live, I really enjoyed myself. Unlike in Frasier, we all sat round a table, as opposed to facing out, which made more sense when I remembered that Frasier was a fictional radio psychiatrist whose booth only had three walls. I was profoundly but (thank God) silently excited to discover that Cristina, as producer, actually did sit on the other side of a glass panel, just like Roz Doyle. If you want to listen to the show (I’m on in the first hour), it’s on BBC iPlayer for the rest of this week, and, excitingly, they’ve asked me back – so tune in again on 22 March. I am, surely, only weeks from meeting Sandi Toksvig and Jeremy Hardy.

Also on the show with me (similarly for the first time) was wildlife photographer Andy Walmsley, whose work can be seen at awimages.net. Hopefully, he’ll also be back on 22 March – it was lovely to meet him.

I have my confirmation-of-status viva tomorrow. This is the Faculty’s final DPhil hurdle before, you know, actual thesis submission, and in stark contrast to the dreaded transfer of status, we’ve all been a bit… underinformed. I’m currently not nearly as scared as I was before transfer (though that particular maelstrom of terror set the bar high), although there are, of course, hours yet. I know a lot of first-year DPhil students are working towards the transition from PRS to DPhil, and remember (all too clearly) the combination of misinformation and panic which ensued. I wrote about it here, in 2011. My clearest memories are still 1) the total panic that my interviewer’s chair (an ex-theatrical prop, papier-mache) was going to dissolve beneath my rain-sodden state, and 2) being told by my supervisor that my interviewers had told me during the viva that I’d passed – something, conversely, that I don’t remember at all.

I just hope tomorrow goes well. I don’t mind being rained on, if it does.

The thesis itself seems to be going reasonably well – I’ve got a better overview of the project, now I’m revisiting all the chapters and redrafting more than one at a time. I do really like my research, and part of me is incredibly sad that this project ever has to end. Not so sad that I want to finish late or have the ending go anything but smoothly and swiftly – and I do know exactly what project(s) I want to do next. Apart from dreadful skirmishes with bits of rewriting, I know I’m lucky not to be in what the Thesis Whisperer calls The Valley of Shit. The hubris-obsessed part of me is very aware it could still strike as submission approaches. Basically: I’m still here, there’s another hurdle to jump, I’m still writing, and I have mixed feelings about being so close to the end. Not that I particularly want to do transfer again, of course… anyway, confirmation’s tomorrow. Wish me luck?

Any DPhil/PhD types reading this – how did your confirmation viva differ from your transfer/upgrade? Do you have any tips?