2013 turned out to be an eventful year! I submitted my thesis in February (the final weeks were pretty grim). I had my viva in May and passed with minor corrections. I completed these corrections while performing at the Edinburgh Fringe and got it bound by the excellent Libris Bookbinding, who as you can see, did a beautiful job.

Photo by K Gupta

Photo by K Gupta

This meant that I could graduate in the December ceremonies and graduate I did. The ceremony itself was a bit odd. I especially enjoyed the cajoling for money and the slideshow of an imagined undergraduate’s life, and my fellow PhD graduands and I were a bit baffled by it as it didn’t reflect our university experiences at all – where were the library fines, the teaching of reluctant/hungover undergrads, the frustration of tracking down a book or journal article not in Hallward? But I digress – the slideshow was for the parents, and I got to have a day of strutting around in only slightly ridiculous robes and spend time with my family and partner.

Photo by J A Gupta

Photo by J A Gupta

In a way, these robes are a place to settle. Whereas my BA and MA gowns felt transitory – I always wanted to pursue further study – these are the formal academic robes I’ll wear for the rest of my academic life.

It also means that there are officially four Doctor Guptas in my family – my parents are both medical doctors and my sister has a PhD in astronomy. Woe betide anyone who phones or posts something to us addressed only to “Doctor Gupta”. The letter addressed to “Professor Gupta” did throw us though…

I also found time to give a number of talks including my first two invited talks, visit Berlin, go on a programming workshop, start thinking about my next project, perform my creative work for the first time in ten years, get paid for performing my creative work for the first time ever, act for the first time since primary school assemblies, help organise a diverse community stage at Nottinghamshire Pride, and attended a number of conferences – as well as the ones I presented at, I also went to (Re)presenting the Archive at the University of Sheffield, Trans As Everyday Culture and Spotlight On: Genderqueer both at the University of Warwick. Somewhere in this, Heather Froehlich and I created conference bingo which has probably been read by far more people than will ever read any of my academic work.

Next year is already shaping up to be hectic but exciting, and as soon as some details are confirmed I’ll be able to post more about them. But for now, there are books to read and trains to catch and parties to go to, and I shall leave you with this view of the University of Nottingham in the low December sunlight.

Photo by K Gupta

Photo by K Gupta

To prepare for my viva, I came up with a list of viva classics questions and a list of questions specific to my thesis – mostly about weaknesses that I wanted a ready response for. The list of viva classics ended up being more useful than the list of perceived weaknesses and so I thought I’d share it. My examiners started with a couple of these questions to put me at my ease (ha), then we moved to going through my thesis chapter-by-chapter, then we finished by talking about plans for dissemination.

  • What is the main contribution of this thesis?
  • Why this topic?
  • Has your view of your research topic changed during the course of the research?
  • Who has done the main work in this area?
  • Who is your audience – and what is your message to different elements of your audience?
  • Where do you position yourself?
  • What would you do differently if you started now?
  • What have you learned from the process of doing your PhD?
  • What research questions does this thesis open up?
  • What are your plans for dissemination?

The first question is an absolute gift as it gives you the chance to give a good summary of your research and why everyone should be interested in it. I found it helped to make a note of my main finding(s) for each chapter and use that to make sure I didn’t miss anything out.

These questions are more open-ended than the tightly focused “so why did you use term x and not term y” questions you might get during the chapter-by-chapter examination, and are meant to help you reflect on your research, your research practice and your development as a researcher. Your examiners know you’ve produced a PhD thesis; they’ve read it. What they don’t know is how your thesis has shaped you as a researcher.

I had my viva last week and passed with minor corrections. So I am now Dr Kat.

On the whole it was a really positive experience – I was only in there for about 1hr 45 minutes and both of my examiners said at the start how much they enjoyed reading my thesis and how creative it was. My internal examiner said at the start that it was going to be more of a chat and that’s pretty much how it felt.

Both of my examiners are experienced researchers and I think that was reflected in their examination style – they weren’t out to win their spurs but instead were really engaged with my work. They started off with a few general questions then we went through the thesis chapter by chapter. My chair was fantastic too – she was so calm and when I waited in her office after my viva while the examiners conferred she was reassuring about my performance.

I’d prepared a list of anticipated questions with bullet point responses – both viva classics and tricky things I was prepared to discuss – but interestingly, those didn’t really come up. I was most worried about Chapter 5 as that’s the most “original” (read: Kat discovers something original, goes off on a wild ride and drags the reader with them) and, I feel, my argument could have been more convincing – instead, they really liked it! There’s a section of close analysis in that chapter I wasn’t happy with and, indeed, debated taking out right until my submission date, but my external made a point of how much he liked it and would have liked to have seen more such analysis. Instead it was a section of Chapter 6 and what I’d called one of the named discourses in Chapter 7 that they paid most attention to. I’m not terribly attached to those things so explained why I made that decision, what I was trying to show and accepted their suggestions.

One of their criticisms was that I’m far too modest in my conclusion and can afford to make a much bigger deal about my research than I did. As my external pointed out, it’s a nice problem to have – rather than trying to inflate relatively minor findings, I apparently have this original, ambitious research that I can be proud of. They’re also both keen for me to publish findings and we talked a bit about publication strategies. I then left the room with the chair while they reviewed the viva, and after about ten minutes I was allowed back in to be told the result. They let me go off for a few minutes to make phonecalls, and when I got back my supervisor was there with a bottle of fizz.

I’d spent a few anxious nights googling things like “UK viva failure rates” and my friends had cheerfully shared viva horror stories (5 hour long vivas; examiners hated the thesis; examiners expounded on their theory rather than engage with the candidate’s work). While I wouldn’t say that I’d be thrilled to have another viva (at least not immediately – no offence to my examiners!), it wasn’t the traumatic experience I’d half anticipated. I’m not sure I’d go as far as my supervisor’s claim that she enjoyed hers, but I did find it rewarding to discuss my work with other people who were familiar with it and liked it.

Right, time to crack on with those corrections…

thesis

And….breathe.

So, yesterday I submitted my thesis.

My supervisor told me to take a good break before we meet to start preparing for my viva, so genuinely not sure what to do with myself now that the ever-present feeling that I ought to be doing some work has lifted!

Annoyingly I had to submit the thesis using my legal name as that’s what’s on the university’s records. I never use that name and if you try calling me that, I probably won’t respond as I’ll assume you’re talking to someone else.

It’s a busy time in the world of Kat! I finished my marking a couple of weeks ago (horror, despair, consumption of an inadvisable amount of chocolate hobnobs) and since then it’s been trying to beat my thesis into shape. Add to that family illness and a sick pet, and well. I’m sure you can imagine.

One of the things I’ve found most difficult about my thesis is reconciling a data-driven approach with theory. My instinct is to let the data guide me as much as possible rather than approaching the data with the expectation of finding something if I look at a particular, pre-selected word. On a methodological level, I’ve found looking at mutual information really useful because it shows links between words that aren’t necessarily obvious but often worth further investigation. This is especially true of the texts I’m working with. While suffrage-produced texts have been studied closely by lots of people, newspaper reporting and discussion of the suffrage movement isn’t something that’s been researched in depth. I’ve tried to let myself go of assumptions about whether or not they’ll behave like suffrage-produced texts. In some ways, letting go of the conviction that they’d be radically different is harder – every researcher wants to find something completely new, after all! However, as Lesley Hall might say, “it’s always more complicated”.

In my first year I tried to learn as much as possible about early 20th century British history so I could contextualise my data. Instead of looking at it simply as machine-readable data, I can recognise the discourse it draws upon – that of separate spheres for men and women, the effect engaging in public life was thought to have on women, ideas about who should choose a government of Empire. I’ve found evidence of these in the Times texts I work with and it’s been exciting to find these – little moments where things click into place, where the historiography and the data align. Bringing together these two fields has been rewarding and I hope my research is better for it.

Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) and I, however, are a different story. I’m sure at one point I could do Critical Discourse Analysis – indeed, I got a 75 for a CDA essay as an undergraduate. I like the concepts underlying it – after all, recognising ideologies, examining power relations, questioning assumptions and destabilising cultural hegemony is interesting, not to mention very relevant to my research. However, I’ve realised that one of my problems lies with the nature of the texts I work with. Analysis of news discourse – things like newspapers, TV, radio – seems to rely on some assumptions about how news discourses are organised. For example, one theme that recurs in analysis of (written) news discourse is that news texts are organised by importance rather than chronologically. This means that you can read the headline and first paragraph of a news story and have a pretty good idea of what the news story is about.

Here’s a news text selected at more-or-less random. The headline, “US teen survives spear through brain” and first sentence, “A US teenager’s survival after a spear was shot through his brain is a miracle, doctors say” answer a lot of the “wh- questions”:

Who? A US teenager
What? Survived being shot through the brain with a spear; doctors say it’s a miracle.
Where? In the US

The next sentence, “Yasser Lopez, 16, is recovering after he was accidentally hit with a spear gun by a friend during a Florida fishing trip this month” answers some more of these questions:

When? This month
How? Accidentally hit with a spear gun by a friend.

Most of the key information is contained in the headline and these two sentences – you could read this much in a news in brief article and it would make sense. At the article continues, the information offered becomes more detailed and less “key” to understanding the news story. By the end of the article, we’re getting information about which part of his brain the spear passed through. Obviously this is a pretty basic analysis and looking at moves in news discourse can be much more elaborate.

However, what do you do when even these basic tenets of news discourse – that information is organised in terms of importance rather than chronologically – cannot be relied on? One of the ways early 20th century news texts are different from present day news texts is that they are often organised chronologically. In fact, quite a lot of assumptions about news discourse don’t work when it comes to these texts – after all, this was a period when printing 17,500 word Parliamentary transcripts in the Times was normal.

The style of CDA I’m going with, therefore, is not entirely news discourse analysis. And, having thought about it in the writing of this post, I’m okay with that. That a big chunk of news discourse analysis doesn’t work for me isn’t a failure on my part, but demonstrate that my texts are, once again, doing something different. This is okay, and in fact something interesting to add to my discussion of CDA.

Anyway, at the moment I’m in Leeds for IVACS. Some people are presenting using data from Old Bailey Online which sounds fascinating – historical forensic linguistics and corpus linguistics? Sounds good to me.

Because I’m trying to clear some tabs, here’s a useful definition of representation I found and need to read more about:

As Gilles Deleuze [...] has argued, the politics of representation which currently predominates is not interested in representing as the term is commonly understood; it is no process of ‘speaking on behalf of’, but rather one of silencing; one of crushing difference in favour of identities constructed by those in positions of power. In this instance, the diverse, plural and problematic identities of those marching have been collapsed into the creation of a majority which cannot speak for itself.

From Anarchists: ‘unemployable layabout scum’? at Ballots & Bullets

One of the difficult things about doing an interdisciplinary PhD is the amount of catchup in other areas you have to do. My background is in linguistics rather than history, politics or sociology. As such, it’s a joy to come across something like this – not only should it lead to a citable text for my thesis (gotta catch em all!), but it also shows that my thinking isn’t completely out of step with theorists in these different areas.

26. March 2011 · Write a comment · Categories: Thesis · Tags: ,

A couple of weeks ago I found a link to 7 Stupid Thinking Errors You Probably Make and it reminded me of being introduced to fallacies in AS Critical Thinking. There’s a rigorous, elegant beauty to lists of fallacious arguments – that all these fallacies have been recognised and identified and named and summarised. A taxonomy of bad arguments.

They’re very useful for PhD researchers. As people who engage with other people’s arguments, it’s extremely useful to be able to identify fallacious thinking – whether it’s someone else’s or your own. Writing a thesis is hard enough without falling into the trap of straw men or post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Sometimes I like going into the library and just browsing, skipping the catalogues and directed searches, and just poking about until I find something interesting. Sometimes you find things you didn’t know existed – Rethinking Language and Gender Research: Theory and Practice opened my undergraduate eyes. At other times you find seemingly random things. A couple of months ago I was flicking through a book on “fashioning the body politic” and to my interest, found an article on fashion and the suffragette movement. I photocopied it, thinking it would be an interesting diversion but not really relevant to my thesis, but it’s turning out to be surprisingly useful.

I’m currently analysing a report of a WSPU procession and having an understanding of suffragette visual signifiers is proving essential. The procession was in honour of Emily Wilding Davison and accompanied her coffin through London to the station, where it was taken to Morpeth and buried. The procession itself is more like a state funeral – colour coordinated dress, music, groups of women marching in formation, banners, a cross-bearer, and young girls dressed in white and carrying laurel wreaths. It’s astonishing in terms of scale and organisation – there’s a sense that every visual element is there for a specific reason and to have a specific effect. One of the aspects I’m interested in is the procession as publicity – this was an opportunity for the WSPU to create a new kind of visual spectacle. Rather than being purely a political demonstration, this procession celebrated the life of a suffragette. The banners read “Fight on and God will give the victory” “Thoughts have gone forth whose power can sleep no more” and “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”, celebrating Davison as a fallen soldier who had given up her life for the cause.

The WSPU leadership seemed to have been ambivalent about Davison. Her propensity for unpredictable and independent direct action outside the guidance of the leadership seems to have caused tension; for example, she set fire to postboxes before arson became an acceptable tactic and this did not appear to have gone down particularly well. She was knocked down by the King’s horse in the 1913 Derby – it is unclear whether she intended to stop the horse, pin WSPU colours to its bridle or was merely crossing the racecourse after she thought the horses had passed – and died three days later. The inquest recorded her death as “death by misadventure”. What I find interesting is the WSPU reaction to her death. The paper reports no immediate WSPU response, although a day or so later WSPU colours were draped on the screens around her bed. This rather muted response contrasts with the extravagant procession; I’d argue that the WSPU leadership realised the potential for publicity after her death, wanted to capitalise on it, and so brought Davison’s actions under their aegis. The resultant procession involved thousands of sympathisers and the crowds gathered to watch were so thick the police could only keep the way clear for the procession with “utmost difficulty”.

The procession was rich with symbolism. One of the mistakes I’m trying not to make is interpreting the imagery as a present day reader would; the cultural touchstones are different, and this is illustrated clearly in the use of “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” on the banners. My immediate association with this phrase is the bitterness and outrage of Wilfred Owen’s war poetry – written some four years after this procession and published seven years after it. Today this phrase has connotations that weren’t widely present in 1913. Instead, I’m trying to look at early twentieth century interpretations of colour and flower symbolism, religious and classical allusions, and banners. What does it mean when the WSPU members wear purple, white and black rather than the WSPU colours of purple, white and green? Does it really symbolise the death of hope? This is where the article on fashion in the suffragette movement comes in – not just because it touches on some of the areas I’m interested in, but also because it draws on sources that look really exciting. I badly want to get my hands on Lisa Tickner’s The Spectacle of Women: imagery of the suffrage campaign, 1907-1914.

Naturally the library doesn’t have it. Am tempted to take up a Cambridge friend’s offer to swap beer for books.

I’m currently working on something that seem to have mutated out of a chapter. No, wait, that’s a rubbish description.

In Chapter 4 I examined words derived from Mutual Information for the words suffragette, suffragettes, suffragist and suffragists. Between the historical research and my data-driven categories, I identified the following categories: constitutionalist vs militant, class, geography, gender/gender roles, origins, direct action, legal and prison, proper names, organisational, politics and opposition. I then investigated the direct action category in more detail.

The terms I looked at (disturbance*, outrage*, violence, crime*, disorder and incident?) were evaluative on a lexico-grammatical level. However, upon reading the texts, I realised that there were other types of evaluation at work in the texts. These were longer and more analytical, operating at the discourse level and could only be discovered by reading the texts. So I read texts. One of the themes that emerged was the tension between organised actions and individual actions. I started planning out Chapter 5, worked out which period to focus on, worked out which articles in that period I was going to analyse, and read a lot of discourse analysis.

I then started to analyse the articles, only to discover something a bit interesting in the arrangement of texts within the articles. It wasn’t mentioned in the scholarship about historical newspapers I’d read. I’m still searching to see if someone, anyone has researched it. I thought it was interesting though, and talked to my supervisor about it. She encouraged me to explore that idea a bit more; maybe it would be interesting in its own right, maybe it would make another chapter stronger.

It’s now becoming something that I think makes the link between Chapters 4 and 5 stronger, but which I think ought to be a chapter itself. This is very much data-driven research; I thought I’d be doing some fairly straightforward (critical) discourse analysis and I wasn’t expecting to find something like this, but instead I’ve found something that makes me reconsider the structure of my thesis.

In a way, I like the chaos. I like having a sense of freedom to explore things, I like being able to say “wow, this is interesting, I should pursue it”, I like getting excited about new things and part of me is going what, wait, how has no one else discovered this? Am I really the first?. I’m a perfectionist, and I have a hard time committing to something because I’m convinced that if I fussed over it just a little more it would be even better. But at the same time, I’m incredibly conscious of the time restraints and the fact that I need to knuckle down and get this thesis done.

Does anyone else feel like this about their thesis? How do you decide between sticking solidly to your plan or haring off after something interesting? Am I setting up a false dichotomy here and it’s possible to have a compromise?

In my research, it’s impossible not to come across issues of direct action. Earlier this year I was looking at words derived from Mutual Information for suffragist, suffragists, suffragette and suffragettes. A category for direct action terms emerged from this data, and I started to look at disturbance*, outrage*, violence, crime*, disorder and incident? in more detail.

To quote from a draft of this chapter:

The terms examined in this chapter can be paired – two relatively high frequency, non-specific terms disturbance* and outrage*, two low frequency, specific terms violence and crime* and two terms, disorder and incident?, which are both used to describe suffrage campaigners’ interactions with non-suffrage supporters, but differ in which groups they are used in conjunction with. Reports shy away from using violence and crime* to describe suffrage campaigning and instead use more ambiguous terms such as disturbance and outrage; the actions encompassed by disturbance and outrage include the disruption of meetings and heckling as well as more destructive acts such as ‘fire outrages’ and bombs.

The damage and destruction was largely confined to property. If there was physical aggression, it was nearly always faced by the suffrage campaigners than posed by them. The Times describes “large hostile crowds”, “active hostility to suffragists”, several “scenes of great disorder” and meetings broken up by “young roughs”. The texts I am working with at the moment describe “disorderly scene[s]” at suffragist meetings, but on closer examination the meetings themselves seem to have been highly organised and the disruption was due to members of the public, who formed a “hooting and jostling mob”, hassled the speakers and attempted to hustle them out of the park.

And then the Browne Review was announced. As a young researcher in arts, humanities and social sciences (I might declare which area I’m in if someone decides to fund me), I am worried about what this might mean for these areas. I’m worried about the Education Maintenance Allowance, AimHigher and Lifelong Learning UK being scrapped with no clear information on what will replace them. I’m worried about the privatisation of Higher Education. These cuts to education take place against a background of cuts to public services, and it’s difficult not to interpret them as ideological.

I was not the only one to feel like this, and direct action began to seem rather closer to home. Students marched on the 10th November, 24th November and 9th December. The argument that “the broken pane of glass is the most valuable argument in modern politics” began to be heard again and yet again, damage to property was positioned as worse than damage done to people’s lives.

With other students at my university, I engaged in peaceful direct action. I made my placard, marched, chanted, and was duly kettled for around six hours. I’m pretty sure that this video is from where I was kettled. Protesters were injured – a woman beaten and racially abused by police, a man nearly died after being beaten and Green and Black Cross has an appeal for witnesses. People found being inside a kettle a “shocking experience”. There are photos of the day (link 1, link 2) but I’m not sure how well they capture most protesters’ experience – the vast majority were not hurling paintbombs and setting benches on fire.

Parliament still voted to allow an increase in tuition fees.

There are criticisms of the focus of reporting, criticism of kettling tactics and outrage over the state (and state-sanctioned) response to these protests. I am confident that more criticisms will emerge.

There are things I will take from this on a personal and political level, but at the moment I’m trying to work out what I can take from this as a researcher in direct action.

One of these things is the sheer courage it takes to engage in direct action. I can understand why people may be ambivalent towards militant direct action in the suffrage movement – at times it can come across as misdirected or petty. But it takes bravery to demonstrate when you know this could lead to police violence against you.

A second point is about disenfranchisement. Many of those on the demonstrations were young and without a political voice. Demonstrating – being physically present at the gates of Parliament – was one of the few ways open to them to get their demands heard. While these people are excluded on the basis of youth – a temporary condition, rather than the more fixed one of sex – it still shows how easily those not able to vote can be ignored by government.

A third is about the nature of direct action. There is a fair amount of discussion going on about what direct action should encompass. There are calls for peaceful demonstrations, candle-lit vigils, writing to MPs…but these have been going on for years with no demonstrable effect. There’s a sense of frustration amongst protesters. I was marching against top-up fees in 2003 and I think these protests have partly come about because people have tried to be nice and polite only to be ignored. Suffragists, too, tried a peaceful approach – they had demonstrations and rallies, they lobbied MPs, they sent deputations to members of the Cabinet, they organised petitions. If I can feel frustrated after a mere seven years of campaigning, it makes me more sympathetic to women who’d been campaigning for over 30 years with no real progress.

A fourth is a about the fractures in a movement that can result from direct action, and the willingness for some parts of the movement to disown those who do take part in property damage. You can almost hear the ‘respectable’ protesters scrambling to distance themselves from the balaclava-clad youths clutching spraypaint and lighter fuel. No one seems to be asking why they’re engaging in such actions, yet these “bainlieue-style youth from Croydon, Peckam, the council estates of Islington” are well aware of what university will cost them and are one of the most vulnerable groups: “We’re from the slums of London, how do they expect us to pay £9,000 a year uni fees? EMA is the only thing keeping us in college, what’s stopping us from doing drug deals in the street now? Nothing.”

While direct action within the suffrage movement was organised by a different demographic, there still seem to be the same split between those urging peaceful direct action – such as the NUS’s Right to Recall campaign – and those engaging in different forms of protest.

What I’d take to these protests from my research is an understanding that there’s room in a movement for lots of different forms of protest. It’s not an either/or decision between things like the Right to Recall campaign and more confrontational things like occupations, and it’s important not to fracture along these lines.

I didn’t really expect to be a participant-observer of direct action when I started my PhD, but I hope it makes me a better researcher – a less judgemental one, and one better able to understand the pressures that lead to direct action