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:

Diary
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
Belt
Medication
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
Lipbalm
Cloth bag
Plastic bag used as bike seatcover
Chilli plant
Tube map from 2008
Wallet
Headphones
Keys

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.

Sorry Delicious; it’s not you, it’s m…oh, what am I saying? It is you

A few months ago, it looked like Yahoo were going to close Delicious down. Lots of people were happy when it got bought by AVOS rather than simply having the plug pulled on it. In the past week, they relaunched Delicious, but the relaunch seems to have lost a lot of functionality. People are not happy about it, particularly those in fandom (comparison of old and new Delicious; hacks using the API to see what you have; this amusing stack). Fandom promptly began searching for an alternative, and when asked by Maciej on twitter how Pinboard could be made more fandom-friendly, duly produced a 60 page collaborative spec and feature request (see also the Organization for Transformative Works, Archive Of Our Own and Dreamwidth for fan-led/friendly projects). As Maciej put it, “[b]y 2008 a whole suite of theoretical ideas about folksonomy, crowdsourcing, faceted infomation retrieval, collaborative editing and emergent ontology had been implemented by a bunch of friendly people so that they could read about Kirk drilling Spock”.

Anyway, I have a pinboard account now: mixosaurus. Not because I’m fannish, but because I believe in supporting collaboration, engagement, innovation, crowdsourcing, folksonomies and grassroots, user-driven sites. I don’t like being forced to manage my information in alien, awkward ways; if someone’s offering an alternative and is so clearly willing to listen, then I am willing to try it out and see if it serves me better.

So sorry Delicious, we’ve had some good times but for now it’s on hold. I hope you understand.

Reminiscing

The other day I bumped into a friend on campus and ended up eating lunch with him and a couple of other friends. Perhaps inevitably, our talk turned to Freshers’ Week – not, perhaps, tales of drunken debauchery but the question of whether any of us had actually enjoyed ours.

Later, I read this piece by a professor in a US university about move-in weekend and found myself nodding along. Marykmac tweeted about a discussion she’d had with colleagues where they’d all hated Freshers’ Week for different reasons.

Personally, I found Freshers’ Week weird. I found the general over-excitement about bar crawls and going out slightly inexplicable, I found the commercialisation at the Freshers’ Fair uncomfortable, I was dismayed by the misogyny and pretty alarmed by the inter-hall rivalries that were already springing up despite us moving in mere days ago. There was a doggedness about having “fun” – that if anyone paused for a moment in the pursuit of fun, they might realise that they weren’t having such a good time after all. Privately, I questioned whether I wanted to be at university at all, whether it was actually right for me or if I had made a terrible mistake.

Happily, Freshers’ Week is only one week. By the end of my third year I’d marched in demos, was involved in student radio and presented a weekly show, had DJed in a few clubs and at events, had done work experience at Xfm, was singing in a choir and had performed Handel’s Messiah and Mozart’s Mass in C Minor, and was living with people who’d rather go to a grubby rock club than student cheese nights. It wasn’t all great but it was much better than I hoped for during Freshers’ Week. I found that, despite my reservations about Freshers’ Week, I enjoyed playing hard as well as working hard.

So the moral of the story is that even if you don’t like Freshers’ Week and feel out of place and unhappy, hang in there. You don’t have to hang around with your hallmates if you don’t have anything in common with them. Find a few societies or clubs you find interesting – whether it’s rock climbing, flair bartending, archery or anime – and try them out. You can try things and if you don’t like it as much as you thought you might, you can join something else. You might discover a life-long passion or the best friends you’ll ever have. Then again, you might not – I met my best friend when we were postgraduates and it’s been a few years since I’ve driven a desk – but it can still be three or four years of exploring things you might not had a chance to otherwise.

Also, as a postgraduate tutor, I’d like to suggest engaging as much as possible in your seminars or tutorials. You’ll get a lot more out of it if you do and it’ll be a much more interesting seminar if people contribute. Sometimes I sneaked into friends’ lectures just to get an idea of other areas – Middle English literature, as one example. Your department might organise lectures from visiting speakers or have an annual open lecture. One of my favourite nerdy things to do was to just wander in P or PE and find books that looked interesting. These are three or four years where you can think deeply and read widely – seize the opportunity.

(Yet) another move

Something I thought about, as I once again carefully packed my books into boxes and less carefully stuffed my clothes into bags, is the instability of PhD life. I’m told that some people do their entire PhD at one university, in one department, even while living in one place.

I am not that person.

In the almost exactly three years I’ve been working on my PhD, I’ve been at two different universities, been based in three different departments and so far, lived in four different houses. Weirdly, for something that is in a constant state of development and change, my thesis has been one of the few constants in my life. The other, somewhat worryingly, is my supervisor. Not sure how I feel about that!

In a way it’s made me a more independent researcher and that’s a good and positive thing, but sometimes I wish I could relax and be at least somewhat confident that I won’t have to move again for at least another nine months.

I have Thoughts on how it’s affected my research, my friendships and collaboration with other PhD researchers and on me as a researcher, but that can wait for another day – I have a chapter to write.

Redesign

You may have noticed that the layout has changed recently. I’m now using Alahualpa and I think I’ve more or less finished fiddling with CSS – it helps that there’s an active forum prepared to answer things about centreing the logo and removing dotted lines to satisfy my perfectionist streak. There’s something quite relaxing about coding.

The image is taken from this one of Edith Garrud, known as the suffragette that knew jujitsu. I like how she’s this small, slender figure who’s already flung some men around and that was just to warm up. The group of big, burly policemen surrounding her seem rather reluctant to approach her.

Better learning through cake

Let us travel back in time, around 13 or 14 years ago or so, and revisit my experience of compulsory education. More specifically, a subject for which I reserved particular loathing and hatred: Food Tech.

My friend Maria and I shared a counter and sink. We weren’t just bad – we were inspired. We ruined pasta. We earned the rage and ire of our Food Tech teacher by swapping bits of our scone dough (mine – sultana, hers – coconut) to create mutant scones. And finally, there was The Fruitcake. The Fruitcake was the nadir of my brief foray into cooking and sufficiently traumatised me to Never Ever try baking again because I would unleash untold horrors. Again. We had technology for the double period – two hours – in the afternoon, and I remember sitting in the classroom after the bell had rung and my friends had gone home, waiting for the teacher to allow me to take it out of the oven. I thought it was done; she was convinced it wasn’t. The result was so dry it sucked all moisture out of your mouth and made saliva a distant and fond memory. In the end I crumbled it up for the birds because my family, long suffering as they were, quite understandably refused to take it to extremes.

At the age of thirteen, I decided that I distrusted this baking malarky and would have nothing to do with it. In fact, Maria and I were genuinely worried we’d starve or die of scurvy if we had to fend for ourselves.

Years later, and I find myself reasonably competent in the kitchen. Soup, risotto, curries, roasted vegetables, lentilly-couscousy-salady things – yep. But despite my love of cake, I haven’t dared bake anything. I’ve watched people bake, I’ve enthusiastically tested their baking, I’ve regularly attended my LGBT Network’s Queer Cafe and I’ve even decorated cakes (sadly, this seems to be the best photo of the Spiderman cake but it was pretty awesome). I’ve just never quite worked up the confidence to combine flour, eggs and sugar in a mixing bowl. Logically, I know I’ve cooked far more complicated stuff than this but it was no good: I had The Fear.

My friend Hannah at Stress Baker told me that baking is an excellent way to escape from PhD stress and bakes delicious things so often she’s started a blog. My housemate made carrot cake last evening and it smelt wonderful plus, as she argued, the amount of carrot and dried fruit in it meant it was at least one of your 5-a-day and therefore good for you. You can even buy butch cupcakes if your fragile masculinity is threatened by baked goods or you’re amused by manifestations of socially constructed and validated performances of gender. Also, and let this point not go unnoticed, you end up with cake.

So I found a recipe that seemed to offer maximum return/chocolate for minimum effort/skill and an hour or so later, had this:
Chocolate cake on a plate
Perhaps not the most beautiful of cakes, but who cares, it tastes fine. And, more importantly, can’t be used as a substitute for floral foam.

It made me think a lot about experiences of learning. As PhD researchers and academics, we tend to be good in our fields. It might not always be easy and we’re not going to be amazing at every single area within our field, but usually it doesn’t compare to the head-banging frustration of studying something you have absolutely no talent at and are scared of. Those we teach sometimes have no previous experience of whatever we’re trying to teach them, but they often have some – and had bad experiences rather than good ones.

In my experience, it’s often grammar; they’ve found it boring or confusing or pitched at the wrong level – too easy, too hard, or suddenly lurching from “easy” to “scarily difficult”. Sometimes they had a bad teacher. Sometimes the exercises were boring and tedious. Sometimes it’s been taught in isolation and no one’s shown how it can be used to analyse texts. The experience of being told you’re rubbish at something has many effects, not least lack of confidence, resentment and aversion.

Sometimes, when you’re good at something, it’s unfathomable how anyone could possibly find it difficult. It’s useful to make ourselves uncomfortable to remind us how that feels in order to be better teachers.

For that reason, I have purchased white chocolate chips and dried cranberries. Exactly that reason.

apologies for the lack of posting….

Ginger and white cat sitting on someone's lap with they're at a wooden deskOh dear, haven’t posted for a while. In the past ten days I’ve moved house, one of my pet rats had a lumpectomy and spay, I attended the NUS LGBT annual conference (where our LGBT Network won LGBT Society of the Year!) and I’ve been trying to compile my annual report. Tomorrow I’m going to a session on whether my thesis is publishable (hah), and on Wednesday I’ll be presenting at the annual Postgraduate Symposium in my department.

Today I was “helped” with writing my annual report by Itchy, one of my housemate’s cats. His help seems to consist of purring and kneading my leg with his claws, but I’m not refusing any help I can get.

At the moment, I would very much like it to be this time next week.

Five (plus two) questions from Sophie

Sophie Duncan at Clamorous Voice thought it would be interesting to bring the five question meme to our academic or otherwise real-life blogs. She describes it as a “creative nonfiction thing…little snapshots of what’s going on with people” and well, how could I refuse an offer like that? So here goes, and if you would like five questions from me, comment and ask!

What would you like to ask Christabel Pankhurst?
I always get a bit nervous about “what would you ask [famous person]?” questions because I’m worried that I’ll be like I am in real life and gaze worriedly at them, realise I have no intelligent question or, indeed, response and blurt out something about paneer. So this takes place in an alternate universe where I a) can time-travel and b) am not totally useless at talking to people and c) am cool.

At first I’d probably try to start off with vaguely academic questions, like her thoughts on direct action and how she’d gauge its success, what her intentions were in founding the WSPU and how these changed over time, her thoughts on the role of male suffragists, how she felt about the portrayal of the suffragist movement in the press and so on. And then I’d probably get increasingly nosy about the intra-suffrage movement tensions, so really, tell me exactly how you feel about the NUWSS, and what really happened with the Pethick-Lawrences, and why did you choose to base the WSPU on a military organisation and whose idea was that and ooh, syphilis and white slavery. And then either ask her about falling out with her sister, Sylvia Pankhurst, or possibly present her with a cuddly syphilis. Either way, it would go magnificently.

Sue Perkins or Sandi Toksvig? [This is probably the most important question I’ll ask anyone, nota bene]
I really admire Sandi Toksvig’s knowledge on such a wide range of subjects, how she’s a ferociously intelligent and respected older female broadcaster, presenter and entertainer when there are so few on TV and radio, and how she’s fought discrimination against her and her family due to her sexuality. On the other hand, Sue Perkins is one of the few comedians who can make me laugh and laugh (I saw Mitchell and Webb live and fell asleep, true story), and while she’s self-deprecating she’s also whip-smart and passionate about the arts. On balance I’d say that Sue Perkins is ahead by a whisker, but that’s due to her commitment to empirical research as demonstrated on The Supersizers go….

What is corpus linguistics?
Very very basically, it involves collecting together machine-readable texts and using a computer program to look for patterns in them. The patterns you look for might be whether a word prefers or avoids other words (collocation), have a certain grammatical function (colligation), are associated with a specific semantic field (semantic preference) or are associated with a set of words or phrases which can reveal (hidden) attitudes (discourse prosody). Some people work with massive corpora, like the Bank of English, and some people work with very small corpora of tens of thousands of words. Some people treat it as a sub-discipline in itself while others treat it as a methodology. As such, there’s a tremendous variation on what corpus linguistics is and it kind of depends on who you ask as to what answer you’ll get.

How and where do you see yourself teaching, in the post-apocalyptic maelstrom of the Higher Ed future?
It’s hard to say. I’m troubled by the attitude that universities are profit-making service providers and students are consumers; I believe it fundamentally changes the relationship between teacher and student. On the other hand, the networks and resources you find in universities are valuable and it’s hard to create them from scratch. The answer is that I’m really not sure; I’d like to do some teaching within the university system, but I’d also like to work with groups outside it – school and college groups, activists, the public and others.

What’re your own newspaper & magazine reading habits?
Being a bit of a cheapskate, it depends if I’m buying them or not. I sometimes buy Diva if I’m faced with a long train journey, but other than that I tend to do most of my reading online. However, if there are magazines or newspapers lying around, I’ll probably read them – National Geographic, New Scientist, the Metro, I’m not particularly fussy. I am also likely to pounce on people’s copies of trashy magazines, especially if they have dodgy real life stories (e.g. I made my mum-in-law out of toast). I probably won’t read the Daily Mail though – I do have some standards.

What’s the best thing about your life right now?
Right now? Possibly the cherry tomatoes, courgette and garlic roasting in the oven that I’m going to make something with for my dinner. It’s a beautiful sunny evening, my window’s open, and I can hear birdsong and collared doves cooing. It’s not the life I thought I was letting myself in for when I first started my PhD at Liverpool, but I’m trying to make the best of it.

What do your mornings look like?
Best avoided.

And now, questions for her!

  • Do you try to get distance from your PhD, and what form does that take?
  • What’s the arts organisation that doesn’t exist, but you really really wish it did?
  • Let’s imagine that you have the chance to go back in time and interact (talk, get drunk with, slap, etc) with any historical figure. They’ll then conveniently bang their head and forget they ever met you. Who would you pick and what would you do with/to them?
  • How has blogging influenced or affected your PhD?
  • What are you most looking forward to?
  • Comment if you’d like some questions from me.

    In India

    I probably should have posted this before I left, but I’m in India visiting family. My thesis has come along too and I can now say that I’ve written a bit of my thesis practically in a nature reserve. Where, incidentally, I saw rhinos, deer, wild boar, elephants and a tiger! The tiger was stunning – all power and sleekness and muscles shifting under the brightest red-gold fur I’ve ever seen.

    My thoughts on eco-tourism are complicated – at what point does it become too indulgent, is it okay to invade habitats with tourism, does it support the kind of human enroachment that threatens these habitats? but on the other hand, tourism helps people see the reserves and wildlife within them as valuable (which has all sorts of effects, including helping locals feel protective towards their nearby reserve and so defend wildlife against poachers), gets the government to protect the reserve because it brings in tourists and their money, and brings in money to fund the reserve, pay rangers and so on. The people running the hotel we stayed with did outreach in local schools during the rainy season when the park is closed and clearly cared about the reserve and those living within it. Without tourism, there’s a risk that the reserves wouldn’t exist, wouldn’t have support from the local community and there would be more exploitation of the reserves – poaching, logging, grazing and so on.

    As valuable as zoos are with their captive breeding programs, reintroducing species back into the wild and conservation work, they were miles away from seeing this tiger easily lope across the road, glowng in the late afternoon sun, and disappearing into the grass and shrubs. For tigers to become extinct in the wild would take something precious from them.