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!

Life After Submission

I submitted my thesis last Thursday, on 1st August, on schedule, and while functioning the human embodiment of mixed feelings. Most immediately, submitting the thesis meant not having to spend another day worrying about my inability to use semicolons or the en dash correctly. Or whether I’d pitched my acknowledgments correctly.

Or whether I should cut those two paragraphs of megalols on the all-cursed eighteenth-century performance history of All’s Well, in a spirit of kill-your-darlings/academic maturity (answer: NEVER!!1). It also meant sticking to the date that, in a spirit of accountability, I’d given everyone for my submission, despite the fact that the precise date was something that only really mattered to me (and, okay, my university). People sent lovely messages, one of my viva examiners hugged me outside the exam schools, a friend was on hand to act as my administrator, I cried in Pret, and a dozen or so of my favourite people went out for cocktails and then on to Chiang Mai.

You probably noticed the bit where I cried in Pret. You are probably all bored of the posts where I swoon and wail about how much I love my research, so take that as read and skip to the bit where I’m sitting in Pret, having left my thesis in the superlatively capable but indomitably low-key hands of the Holywell Street print shop (to whom all praise), and Emily’s getting concerned because for the first time in three years (excluding the evening where my throat was so bad that I could only throw cushions and mime death to attract her attention), I’ve stopped talking.

OBVIOUSLY submitting is a good thing. I am delighted to have managed it. I had a perfectly splendid afternoon and evening, despite having submitted in the devil’s own weather and then, oh god, hugged my examiner while slimy and disgusting. It was all lovely. But in Pret, I felt so sad. And then, later on in Brasenose M/HCR, while I obsessively counted and re-counted all 425 pages of each of my triplicate theses to see whether the Holywell print shop had messed up the numbering (SPOILERS: they hadn’t), things became reminiscent of that scene in Friends where Phoebe’s left alone with the triplets. This isn’t new behaviour – I’ve cried after pretty much every play I’ve directed or been in. I well up when Michaelmas ends (but not Hilary. No-one loves Hilary). I can’t so much as look at the BBC Sherlock Reichenbach Fall and I turn off Four Weddings and a Funeral at the first glimpse of tartan. I didn’t cry after Finals because that would be certifiable, but the morning after the St John’s Commemoration Ball which followed Finals, I made all my graduating friends cry by bringing my hangover into their kitchen and reciting Larkin. To put it another, more obvious way: I loved being a DPhil student and I’m so sorry it’s (almost) over.

Submitting a DPhil isn’t the same as getting a DPhil. I’m technically (and in the eyes of the council tax people, thank god) still a student. My viva date is 27 September. I can cushion the psychological blow by reminding myself that there’s still a lot to do – and reminding myself, of course, that I have plans for this thesis. I hope it’ll one day be a book. I’m even luckier in that I have teaching jobs lined up for the next year, here in Oxford, across two wonderful colleges. One of them (say it quietly) even includes a book allowance.

And I do know that I’m meant to take time off (but if I choose to spend a sizeable chunk of it reading the reading list my Freshers should be receiving, who are you to judge me?!). So: I am doing downtime. I went to a village fete on Saturday (dog show = splendid. Lack of murders = not what ITV has led me to expect). I ate fajitas with E. I did a leaping shrieking dance at the announcement that P. Capaldi, god amongst cadaverous Scottish men, is going to play the next Doctor. My mum and I are planning a trip to London, not least to deal with the fact that a teaching wardrobe of Skinny Jeans And Tops With Leopard-Print is probably not acceptable for a proper job (except, talking of proper job and more specifically of grown up: on the way to submit my DPhil thesis, I got ID’d buying scissors. You have to be sixteen to buy scissors. I am twenty-six. This follows hot on the heels of The Time I Was Stopped As An Unaccompanied Minor By Border Control At Heathrow Airport). Later this summer, I am attending ANY NUMBER of weddings and going to the seaside. I am completely au fait with events on Coronation Street. I am doing downtime with a vengeance and if a small part of me still wants to buy a new A4 pad and get back to making myself to-do lists with two columns dividing tasks up as PRIORITIES or alternatively BONUS… then that’s sick and wrong and if you see me doing that you should buy me a cocktail. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to re-reading the entire nineteenth century relaxing.

I do have some posts coming up, though, along the lines of “The PhD Acknowledgments It Seemed Better Not To Include [With Especial Reference to Kentish B&Bs And/Or Sheenagh’s Stephen Fry Impression]”, “Since I Apparently Managed It, Here’s How To Survive Your DPhil” and “While I Was Writing Up, Misogyny Exploded, How About That”. Oh, and I’m on the radio again tomorrow. BBC Oxford! One-ish! Tune in!

As I said, there will be proper thank yous, but if it takes a village to raise a child (which surely depends on the village), it took an internet to submit my DPhil. If you answered a stupid question, or shared your thoughts/wordcount/CV, or send a kind email, or thought my tweets were funny, or wished me luck in the fortnight when all I seemed to do was go to job interviews, or followed the blog or commented, or wrote something witty and sane, or gave me a teaching tip, or put your teaching resources online and told me to download them (making you a pedagogical superstar and doubtless also sexy), thank you very much indeed.

Three Weeks

Three. Weeks.

This morning I discovered crows’ feet: definitely multiple crows, but only around one eye. What am I, Popeye? Have I been walking round with the lopsided squint of a spinach-eating cartoon? And why are the inside of my eye? Why? This post is brought to you by green tea, currently over-caffeinating me as I strive not to gain approx. 700% of my body weight (see: the run up to undergraduate finals).

Yesterday I bumped into a friend who’s submitting at the end of September. It made me wonder what on earth I am playing at. I don’t know what I’m playing at. Shouldn’t I have stopped leaving the house? Aren’t there more hours in which I could be working? Why have I told people I’m submitting on 1 August – isn’t that the perfect way to guarantee that I don’t? Wouldn’t it be helpful if I could stop feeling – every time I read a CFP or an advert or a tweet from someone not even in my field – that all this writing-up business is taking too much time and that the rest of my life-slash-career is just passing me by?

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon (or, indeed, someone with nearly three degrees in reading) to see that the above questions (turn the internet upside down for answers: no, no, poss, YES) probably fall well within the curve for Normal. Not that anything about DPhil-writing is Normal (certainly not the people who do it). This week I said on the radio that I was attempting to become Dr Duncan soon, which is the psychological equivalent of Oblivion at Alton Towers. Oblivion at Alton Towers would be an excellent pulp fiction novel.*

The main problem is that I’ll be really sad to submit. I love this thesis. That’s not an indication of its quality; it’s an indication of my continuing love for the mad denizens of Shakespearean theatre culture, and the fascination which the Victorians still hold for me. I have ideas for new projects which seem equally exciting, but… I love this project. I love it so much that the reason I’m even making this post is because I just traced the various cultural allegiances of a few aristos whom I mention briefly in chapter three, and discovering all their little socio-political, arts-patronising, club-belonging, doubtless-inbred late-Victorian interactions gave me a thrill of researcher happiness that just cannot be voiced on the first floor of the Cornmarket Starbucks (for one thing, it would frighten the Spanish teenagers).

Thank you so much to everyone who’s said kind words about the last few posts, here or on Facebook/Twitter. Some have suggested that this sort of rambling makes their own writing-up a bit easier. Blogging brings a little clarity to my endlessly-lengthening and occasionally horrific working days. And perhaps this’ll be a nice record to look back on, you know, after. Obviously I don’t actually believe that. Magical thinking says  I’m jinxing the whole venture with every blogpost, and denial can’t believe after will ever happen. But still, there it is on the calendar: three weeks. Wish me luck?

 

*No it wouldn’t, Sophie. You’ve had too much tea.

Writing up a DPhil: things which help

I have read several posts about the role of partners and relatives  in the PhD writing-up-process. I have always been slightly iffy about these, because I don’t think writing a PhD makes you the most important person in your relationship or family, nor the most hard-working one, and this genre of posts tends to imply both.  Speaking strictly from personal experience, I have enjoyed my DPhil to an almost embarrassing extent, and don’t really deserve to start whinging about the Valley of Shit at this point. I chose to do a DPhil. I work hard, but I’m working at something I enjoy, and whilst I hope and believe I’m making a contribution to my discipline and to [embarrassed handwave, British discomfort] knowledge, I’m also working for myself, on something I love. I’m not trying to do this while working full-time elsewhere, or being a carer, or being a parent. The fact that these last few weeks seem alternately gruesome and boring is merely karmic equilibrium.

I should say that I know I’m ridiculously lucky , not least in that the AHRC had mercy on me for the last two years of doctoral study. Self-funding is necessarily far tougher, and can also be demoralising, exhausting and life-postponing in almost infinite ways. I have huge respect for everyone who sees it through (and, actually, equal respect for everyone who gets out).

But yes. Writing up. Nasty. My parents and partner have been fantastic since day one (the latter submitted her own PhD a couple of weekends ago. Wahoo!). But a myriad other things also help when you’re less than a month (what) off submission (how). And so, at the risk of producing my own post on the care and feeding of overstressed bookworms foolish enough to attempt a career in the Humanities, here is my personal list of That Which Helps To Make The Final Throes of DPhil Writing Infinitely More Bearable:

  • Friends who tell you how productive you are, but who don’t question you when you explain that you’re also a disaster.
  • Friends who greet your imposter syndrome by confirming that, yes, they will definitely think you’re stupid when they read your chapter, and will not only show your stupidity to other friends, but will also find the secret online forums where other academics hang out, then type up the worst bits there.
  • Toddlers who, when you accurately identify what the wooden fruit in their toy kitchen is, tell you not only “well done”, but, a second later, “good boy”.
  • People on twitter who will actually enter into your angsty #phdchat discussion about when the right time is to throw away early but annotated drafts of chapters.
  • Schoolfriends who turn up, umpteen years on, and have howling, cackling conversations in which you acknowledge a shared personal conviction that your teenage passion for him makes you entirely responsible for Rory Kinnear‘s career success, and remind you that you once drew a tiny Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, on their History notes, accompanied by a speech bubble reading ‘Look at my conceptual empire’.
  • Friends and colleagues who follow the worst possible remark you can make to a PhD student approaching submission, “Ooh, you seem very calm for someone who’s about to…” with an anecdote about how they spent the weeks before their submission as a hirsute blob with no mental health, who went to sleep at nights hugging their laptop like a teddy (a true compilation of real-life submission stories).
  • Loved ones, friends, colleagues  and mere acquaintances who have submitted DPhils and who thus prove by their existence that it is  possible.
  • People who offer to read stuff for you.
  • People who offer again.
  • People who more or less order you to email stuff to them right now.
  • People who follow up all of the above offers with a final words-of-one-syllable missive covering every contingency and confirming that they are actually happy to read your stuff, in language that even your paranoia can understand.
  • People who suggest you meet for lunch.
  • Parents who are on your side and proud of you, vocally.
  • People who make you pasta bake in tupperware containers so you eat recognisable meals for the next few days.
  • The same person, who will have umpteen conversations with you about the perfection of Gill Murray, so you stop dying over the new draft of your introduction.
  • Supervisors who answer your texts when on holiday, who are patient about your inability to use semicolons, and who find you RA employers who pay their invoices fast.

Unfortunately, a lot of writing up a DPhil is still about being on your own. Working from home is brilliant for me in short bursts. Too much and I go insane and have to emerge from the house to buy food and remember what speech is. This is always the point when I bump into the smartest-dressed students of my acquaintance. Far too much of finishing your DPhil is about you and the desk and the dull/deranged/delightful process of polishing three years’ work. So, here’s a list of popular culture goodies that might stop you setting fire to that desk or indeed, that thesis, when editing’s insupportably dull. Or, at least, Popular Culture Goodies Which Remind Me There Is Joy In The World (For Given Values Of Both “Pop Culture” And “Joy”):

  • Stephen Fry doing rubbish dancing while Hugh Laurie plays the piano.
  • Jeremy Hardy starting sentences with “My anarchist friends in Leeds…” on The News Quiz.
  • Scott and Bailey.
  • Alan Coren‘s nine hundred thousand Hemingway parodies.
  • YouTubing the following search terms, in conjunction with “puppies”: shorkie, bichon frise, yorkiepoo.
  • Emma Thompson’s episode of Ellen.
  • The menu at Bill’s.
  • A book called Brothel in Pimlico, which my mother bought me, and which is quite genuinely a collection of estate and lettings agency ads placed by a socialist in 1960s London. Imagine the LRB Personals, but for houses.

I’m now off to learn about semicolons and find a rhetorical flourish or seven. And, possibly, to eat some more pasta bake.

 

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?

 

The dreaded rewrite

I have just finished rewriting the third chapter of my thesis. There are no appropriate metaphors for how I really feel about this chapter. I’ll stick to claiming that I feel like a successful fisherman waving aloft a shiny prize carp. This is, of course, a lie. I feel more like I’ve been locked in a cellar with something saber-toothed and nasty, until we eventually emerged, dragging each other by the teeth and splattered with most of each other’s brains. On this occasion, the chapter lost, but not by much.

This is, of course, an entirely irrational and overblown reaction to the end of a process that occurs while sitting down, in a centrally-heated flat, with ample access to tea (but not biscuits. I hate Lent. I would sell my face for a Jaffa Cake) and Twitter. I like my thesis. I love my research. I don’t like footnotes, except when I can knock the “pp.” off forty or so notes at a time, and thus pretend I’m saving words. But, my god, I have hated the last bit of rewriting this.

Even deleting items from my three-column, word-documented, cloud-computering to do list (truly, I am the Hunter S. Thompson of doctoral research) hasn’t mitigated the pain. “Don’t get it right, get it written” is the golden rule of DPhil-writing, but in third year, you also have to get the damned thing formatted and polished and devoid of square-bracketed injunctions to [MORE] (also [QUOTE] and [EVIDENCE] and the stomach-churning [PUT CONCLUSION HERE]).

Perhaps the subject matter made this so tough. This chapter contains most of the really depressing stuff in my thesis; the sexualisation of children, child suicide, the anorexic aesthetic, and the fetishising of celebrity illness (especially female mental health). This has, in turn, led to much re-reading of Sarah Kane and looking at the growing cultural obsession with underweight female bodies in the late nineteenth century. It didn’t help that I’d written the first draft in an immensely slappable style, although lord knows I’d rather rewrite for style than because of terrible holes in the research.

Here’s a fun fact, though: rewriting makes me wish I were a man, because if I were, I would grow a big Periclean, Roger-Allam-as-Falstaff-style beard every time I had a major piece of work to complete. I would rejoice in it. It would be a totem of chapter-writing and people would bow before its length and unrepentance. Everyone, knowing I was writing, would close their eyes in silent respect. As totems of chapter-writing go, a majestic beard would be much better than the library mumble (when you go straight from studying to coffee with a friend, and can’t form coherent sentences until the caffeine kicks in), or just looking slightly rough after days at a laptop.

NB: I don’t think this is a case of misdirected penis envy, or even a desire to have Roger Allam as my spirit animal. ‘Spirit animal’ is my new phrase. In the last week, two people of whom I am fond have informed me that Enjolras from Les Mis is their spirit animal. One is a socialist writer on the working class, feminism and politics, and the other is my Christian, drama kid visiting student from California.

Anyway, the last few footnotes are underway, and although it’s a sunny day, I don’t want to go out in case the phone rings. #freelanceproblems.

Chapter-wise, next up is Ellen Terry in Cymbeline, or the chapter which is meant to be about a pretty Briton princess, but ended up involving vampires, somnophilia, and pseudo-medical fanfic…

Paris.

[Scene: a very small flat somewhere near the Cowley Road. A short girl with damp hair is writing about the ideological fragmentation of 1890s Shakespeare performance, which makes a change from teaching Harold Pinter and reading about Sarah Kane.]

This is a short post to say that I should like to go to Paris, now, and leave my various written commitments to, ah, dispose of themselves as they think best. I shall probably have to settle for a French lesson this afternoon.

It seems ridiculous not to be in Paris when Paris is still there. I suspect the vast majority of you reading this are also NOT IN PARIS. We could ALL be in Paris, and are managing our lives SO BADLY in not being so.

Just think, the French are at least in the same country as Paris. ALL the time. Except when they misguidedly go on holiday to places which aren’t Paris.

Stop reading this and book your tickets. Go quickly. Many of us could be there within HOURS.

[the curtain descends. DPhil student is heard to cry ‘PARIS!’ in manner of displaced Chekhovian not-Muscovite, as the lights fade.]