• Kat Gupta’s research blog

    caution: may contain corpus linguistics, feminism, activism, LGB, queer and trans stuff, parrots, London

So let’s sing while we still have time…

On Saturday night I was singing in the University Choir, performing Mahler’s 2nd symphony. There’s a review up by Professor Stephen Mumford in which he notes that “music especially gives us access to the sublime”. As a singer and performer of music I won’t argue with that; there is something especially transcendental about being one voice among many, knowing your part perfectly and combining to create a glorious, complex sound.

However, I’ve also found singing a particularly rewarding experience as a PhD researcher. We were singing in the fifth movement of Mahler’s second symphony which is less than 15 minutes of actual singing, but we still rehearsed for at least two hours a week and sometimes closer to five hours. The intense focus reminded me of an extreme form of close reading, where engagement with the text is all there is and everything else ceases to be. Every rehearsal brought something new; a different nuance to be coaxed out of the text through a diminuendo, a different shade of meaning expressed through a quaver rest.

Singing requires a different kind of concentration – you can’t be distracted or only half pay attention to the words and music you’re singing. It requires all of my focus and attention, yet I find it calls for a different kind of focus and attention than my PhD demands. Ultimately, it’s a communal concentration – I am focused on my score, the person conducting, blending my voice with the other people singing my part, and listening to what the other parts are doing. It’s very different from the often intensely solitary work of my PhD. I also find it gives me permission for switch off from PhD work without feeling guilty or lazy; and in fact, more often than not, I find myself refreshed by the change and ready to get back to work.

As well as a relationship with the rest of the choir, singing also creates a relationship between the singer and the conductor. As part of the choir, I was struck by the sense of connection Jonathan Tilbrook established with us. He’s an expressive conductor with eloquent, fluid gestures – during the performance I was mesmerised by his fluent conducting of the orchestra. Jonathan encourages a suppleness and responsiveness; when he was conducting us, he, quite literally, held the power of an 140-strong choir in his hands and could ask for ppp or fff with one gesture. We were there at his fingertips, our voices ready to soar or quieten to almost a whisper if he asked for it. While obviously you can’t abdicate all responsibility and expect the conductor to indicate every change in dynamic, Jonathan clearly knew what guidance we would find helpful. My worries about a difficult entry melted away as I realised that he would tell us when to come in. Again, this is different from the PhD experience of uncertainty. One of the things I was unconsciously struggling with was the responsibility and pressure of becoming the expert in my area. It was with a feeling of relief that I could relinquish control and trust someone else to guide me for at least a few hours.

I often feel a sense of disconnection from my body for a number of reasons, and this blog isn’t the place to go into detail. As a researcher, I find myself neglecting it – sleep? eat? but I’m too busy! – and resenting its demands. Singing, however, is one of the most physical things I do. Far from being something non-physical, singing is an embodied act. When you sing, your body becomes an exquisitely sensitive, expressive instrument. You support the sound with your diaphragm and abdominal muscles; you produce different sounds through the complex interaction of your vocal cords, the space inside your mouth, your tongue, your soft palate, your lips. As a linguist I knew exactly what the chorusmaster meant when he asked for open vowels, closed vowels, more schwa (and oh, how interestingly different from my experiences singing church Latin!). You have to be relaxed to produce a clear sound; tension will affect your tone. Simultaneously, you have to be aware of your posture; you can’t sing when if you’re hunched up or slouching. It’s a complex balance that requires body awareness. I’m fascinated by how our physical practices shape our bodies and how you can read a history in someone’s skin and muscles. It’s very satisfying to allow something I love so much to shape me, carve me into something that makes me an even better singer. And, in doing so, it challenges the Cartesian dualism that allows me to conceptualise a mind-body split. What singing does is merge the two, gently reproaching me for even thinking of my body as mere transport for my mind.

As well as offering a useful counterpoint for my life as a PhD researcher, this involvement with music also makes me a better teacher. On Friday I was teaching on metaphor. One of the exercises my students had to do was slot different words into some constructions, such as A is the B of C and A is like B to make metaphors. We’d then discuss the target domain (what you’re trying to talk about) and the source domain (the ideas you’re drawing on to talk about it), and discuss the features of the source domain that made the metaphor work. For some reason, my students really liked “music” as a source domain, coming up with things like “patience is the music of love”. When I asked them what made that particular metaphor work, they said things like “music is beautiful” and “music makes me feel happy”. I tried to encourage them to think about other features of music that might disrupt the neatness of the metaphor: that it can be complicated, that looking at a full orchestral score can be overwhelming, that learning to play an instrument often involves frustration and creating some truly awful noises, that making something look effortless and graceful requires hard work. I could explore that metaphor more fully with my students because I do have this musical background, and hopefully enrich their understanding and learning experience.

I’ve never been the kind of person who can relax by watching TV or films. Sometimes the PhD makes reading seem more of a chore than something you do to escape it. But in singing, I find something that is active and engaging enough to be stimulating, yet different enough from work to be relaxing. It’s a delicate balance between it being challenging enough to not get boring and it becoming too much like more work – I’ve never got on well with music exams. But music, and singing in particular, is such an important thing to have in my life and I’m lucky to be in a university community that encourages my involvement.

Data point

I’m intrigued by the things people carry around with them. What they deliberately carry, whether because they choose to or have to. What they carry as a matter of course. What they carry because whatever it is lingers among the crumpled bus tickets and softly fuzzed edges of papers that don’t get taken out. The talismans, the transient work, the things that, to them, are unthinkable to not have on one’s person.

So, the contents of my bag:

32 gig USB drive
Phone charger
60 teaching evaluation sheets
60 handouts for tomorrow’s seminar on metaphor
1 set of tutor’s notes for the seminar
Reading for the seminar: The Metaphorics of Literary Reading by Peter Stockwell, Life’s a beach and then you try, and metaphor and metonymy from Paul Simpson’s Stylistics
Water bottle
Pad of A4
Cycling gloves
Small towel
Mahler Symphonie Nr. 2, Chorpartitur (Kaplan Foundation Universal Edition)
Slice of malt loaf that I forgot to eat
“An Examination of Suffragette Violence” by C. J. Bearman (published in English Historical Review)
Whipping Girl: A transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity by Julia Serano
Woolly hat
Packet of wasabi peas that I also forgot to eat
Poster advertising the Mahler 2 concert
Postcard for a theatre production of Roger McGough’s translation of The Hypochondriac which I saw in 2008? 2009?
2H pencil
HB pencil
Two black biros, both from conferences (Corpus Linguistics in the South and Nottingham TEDx)
Green highlighter
Bike headlight (x1)
Bike rear light (x3)
Various notes – chapter planning, meeting minutes etc
Cloth bag
Plastic bag used as bike seatcover
Chilli plant
Tube map from 2008

I think this offers an interesting summary of my life right now. A month ago it would have included a railcard and an Oyster card; after tomorrow it won’t include the handouts, and after Saturday it won’t include the score. Synchronic rather than diachronic data, one might say.

The magic AAB

I was interested to read Peter Scott’s critique of the “government’s decision to allow universities to recruit as many AAB students as they like, while sharply constraining the overall number of students”

To quote his article:

There are two fundamental objections to this policy – one educational and the second ethical. The first is that universities have always chosen students according to their future potential, not past performance. Of course, A-level grades are important evidence of potential. But they should never be treated as decisive evidence, even in an age of mass higher education when computer-generated offers are almost inevitable.

To rely on A-level grades alone is, in effect, further to privilege the already privileged, to give disproportionate rewards to those whose way in life has been smooth. The correlation between school performance and social advantage is too plain to deny. For years universities have attempted, feebly perhaps, to level the playing field by making differential offers. Now, on the fiat of David Willetts, they are no longer so free to do so.


The ethical objection to the government’s AAB apartheid takes me back to Popper on the Viennese streets 80 years ago. The arguments for widening participation, and for (genuinely) fair access, are usually seen as rooted in ideology of the kind that Popper disapproved of (“social engineering” is the standard put-down). That is only partly true, although unlike Popper I would not disavow collective action to secure social justice. The argument is also about individuals. First, is it fair to offer students an enticement, in the shape of a generous bursary or an attractive fee waiver, in the expectation that they will get AABs, only to withdraw it if they slip a grade (and since when have A-level examiners been infallible?).

But it goes deeper still. The vice-chancellor who swept the “tail” into oblivion from that restaurant table, and the vice-chancellors now struggling to “manage” their AAB entrants, are behaving in the same way as the zealots of right and left who battled in the streets. They are putting an idea, an abstraction, a policy construct, before the lives of real people who are born, live, love and are bound to die.

As Scott observes, these aren’t abstract decisions, made as if we were all so many players of the Sims and presiding over our tiny virtual kingdoms. Instead, these are decision that affect people’s lives – decisions that can make a huge difference to someone’s life and future.

And, indeed, I was one of those people. I don’t have great A-levels, courtesy of the kind of sixth-form experience that screams “mitigating circumstances”. I ended up doing an extra year at a sixth-form college just so I had a set of A-levels that wouldn’t get me instantly rejected from anywhere I applied. On the basis of my A-levels alone, I would be one of those students on restricted intake. However, my sixth-form college were able to give me excellent references and the University of Liverpool, having met me, took a chance on me. Three years later I graduated with a First in English Language and Literature. Eighteen months after that I graduated with an MA in Corpus Linguistics. And now, ten years after doing my first set of A-levels, I find myself writing up my doctoral thesis, presenting at international conferences and teaching. I’d like to think that despite my poor performance at A-level, I’ve not done too badly in academia.

A-levels are just one way to predict someone’s future performance, but they don’t necessarily map onto academic ability. They’re a crude index at best – and at worst, fail to distinguish the students who will thrive in a university environment from those that won’t. Ultimately, it’s in universities’ interests to attract the students who will flourish in the academic setting they offer, and fetishising A-levels above other ways of evaluating potential students does not necessarily do that.

International Women’s Day: Suffrage

I found this brilliant video by Soomo Publishing about the US suffrage movement.

More information on their website.

While it is presented as a linear narrative and simplifies some of the movement’s complexities, there are some great things about it. I like how working women’s voices are included and the video format is very useful at demonstrating how strikingly visual the suffrage movement was – something that can get lost among the text and black-and-white photos.

I especially like how anti-suffrage views are presented: advocated by a woman who is supported by men, and that these views enter into the song as part of a dialogue. The lyrics – “Well, I think you’re psycho/I think that it’s sick/I’m queen of my home, raise my babies/That’s it/Don’t need to vote” are a neat summary of the separate spheres discourse and the elevation of the private, domestic sphere as a rhetorical strategy by anti-suffragists.

However, the problems of the video are similar to the problems of the suffrage movement, and indeed reflective of (some? many?) types of feminism. It’s presented as a narrative where by the end, white, able-bodied, young women step out in confidence and in doing so, present the attainment of suffrage as a triumphant endpoint. There were indeed suffrage campaigners who saw suffrage as a symbolic gesture of equality and who campaigned for women’s suffrage as an end unto itself; these women were often white, financially comfortable and upper and middle-class. However, there were also women, often working class and active in trade unions, who saw the suffrage as a means to gaining employment rights, improve their working conditions, gain healthcare for themselves and their families, and increase support for welfare. These women didn’t have the comfort of financial stability – they were vulnerable if they lost their jobs or couldn’t work, and to them the suffrage was not merely symbolic. Instead it was a step towards dignity and independence with endless practical implications. These women can be left out of the suffrage narratives. Some, like Annie Kenney, negotiated a role within organisations like the Women’s Social and Political Union; others, like the radical, trade unionist, Northern suffragists examined by Jill Liddington and Jill Norris, were “rediscovered” by feminist historians.

As Avory Faucette tweeted earlier today, “Big love for #IWD for all my trans women, queer women, Women Of Colo(u)r, Women With Disabilities, neuroatypical women, fat women, & all women left out of dominant picture”. There are still problems in feminism not addressing the needs of all women, clearly shown in this article about addressing white privilege in feminist organisations. As with the suffrage movement, feminism risks ignoring or dismissing the women with least power but to whom we should be listening to most carefully. The nature of intersectionality means that:

…racism, patriarchy, class oppression and other discriminatory systems create inequalities that structure the relative positions of women, races, ethnicities, classes, and the like. Moreover, intersectionality addresses the way that specific acts and policies operate together to create further disempowerment. For instance, race, ethnicity, gender, or class, are often seen as separate spheres of experience which determine social, economic and political dynamics of oppression. But, in fact, the systems often overlap and cross over each other, creating complex intersections at which two, or three or more of these axis may meet. Indeed, racially subordinated women are often positioned in the space where racism or xenophobia, class and gender meet.

The groups of women mentioned by Faucette are positioned at these intersections of cissexism, homophobia and heteronormativity, racism, ablism, health and beauty norms.

So for me, International Women’s Day isn’t just about celebrating women and the strides made in gender equality – although that’s exciting and important too; after all, it’s encouraging to be able to look back and see you have changed something. It’s also a day of reflecting on the many areas where work remains. I’ve been dipping into the Guardian’s coverage of IWD and liked these articles on the hurdles obstructing equality around the world and migrant and refugee women. It’s important that IWD isn’t just a day of celebration, but also one of anger, protest and, to use the noun so popular when reporting suffragist actions, some old-fashioned outrages.

Liddington, J. and Norris, J. (1978) One Hand Tied Behind Us: The Rise of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. London: Virago