Student mental health part 2

Following on from my last post about student mental health, here’s a post from the other side of teaching about making space for “quiet students”. There are some really interesting ideas there and it’s made me reflect on my own teaching practice.

When I was an undergraduate, one of the people I was taught by seemed to have an air of desperation and mute appeal whenever we scrutinised the floor rather than meet his eyes. I found it unbearable; it would make the seminars drag on (dull – I wanted to get to the interesting stuff!) and honestly, I felt kind of sorry for him. So I talked a lot (which I disliked, and disliked myself for not shutting up) but furthermore, I felt I was being forced into the position of the talkative student who risked looking daft just so that the tutor at least had something to build on. I wasn’t a quiet student, but I resented not being given the chance to be one.

When I started teaching, I was determined not to reproduce that dynamic but at the same time, didn’t want to pick on people. I think there’s room for silence as a pedagogical tool but it wasn’t something that I wanted to use on a regular basis. In addition, I knew what access requirements my students had requested; some of these requirements concerned seminar room dynamics.

Instead I got my students to talk in pairs, trios or small groups while I visited each group in turn, listening to what they had to say, encouraging them and making sure they would have something to offer. I then brought the whole seminar group together and elicited something out of each group. I don’t know how obvious it was to my students but everyone got the chance to speak in the seminar and usually did so.

Obviously this tactic wouldn’t work everywhere and in every type of seminar which is why I liked Sarah’s post so much. I also think that strategies for helping quiet students create a better environment for everyone – everyone gets a chance to participate, no one feels vaguely resentful like I did as an undergraduate, and these strategies help make a seminar a supportive environment where students can try out ideas.

Something I didn’t discuss was mental health as specific to PhD students; this isn’t due to me not caring but, rather, it being a bit too personal. Jessica has recently been writing about this – there’s more in the series, but I particularly liked PhD blues: mental health and the PhD student and Having “the chat” with your supervisor: what I talk about when I talk about depression.

I also like this post about the experience of doing a PhD while disabled or chronically ill and the sheer stubbornness it takes: disabled PhD students of the world unite, unite and take over

And yet our inability to show up has no significant bearing on our ability to contribute beautiful original things to the world. We have the experience of working successfully according to our own strategies: we must do, for how else could we be here, now? We have strategies to get around these walls in our world. We need only your support, your belief, and your acknowledgement that the stories here speak to a state of affairs whose days should be numbered.

In other words: we know how to do this. All we need is the right support, the right conditions. In this respect we are no different from any other PhD student, or any student, or any individual embarking on a project of any kind.

Every single PhD student has worked hard to be where they are. Every single disabled PhD student has had to do this work within a context where things may be harder than they are for your average bear. They are not the only ones. Nonetheless, their experiences represent a distinct category of experiences among many. As with so many things it is only by bringing these experiences before the eyes of the world that we can hope that things will ever improve.

Viva classics

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.

Viva

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…

life after thesis submission

My PhD supervisor told me to have a break after submitting so I did. In the past couple of weeks I’ve been to Death: a self-portrait at the Wellcome Collection, London’s Diversity Choir’s performance of Duruflé’s Requiem, the Transpose: Cinematic Edition and, yesterday, June Purvis’ public lecture on “The Struggle For Women’s Suffrage In Britain, 1865-1928″. All of these events were fascinating in their different ways and it was nice to remind myself that I have interests outside my thesis.

I also came down with a bad cold because my Faustian pacts of “please body, just let me get through this term/chapter/thesis and then you can be as ill as you want” eventually caught up with me – although more prosaically, my terrible pre-submission diet of peanuts, pumpkin seeds and cheese sandwiches might have had something to do with it.

I have a viva date and will be hurling myself into viva preparation soon, but at the moment I’m writing a talk I’m going to give on Monday about trans* media representation. It’s my first 45ish minute presentation so I’m a little nervous, but luckily there’s a lot I can talk about and I’m having fun planning the structure and content. I’m planning to end up at a place where I can talk about trans* people representing themselves in film, music and journalism – there are some brilliant projects out there like My Genderation and META magazine – although there are still massive problems with the way trans* people are reported in the mainstream press.

It’s at 7pm on Monday 11th March in the Portland building, University of Nottingham – do come if you can make it.

Submission

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.

The organised(ish) PhD researcher

Recently I was in a cafe with a friend who is just starting her PhD. Talk turned to what we were lugging around in our bags: the usual annotated journal articles, academic books, phone, keys, wallet, railcard, pens, notepads…and my organiser. I’m one of those sad people who still uses a paper organiser. To add to that, it’s also a filofax. I am either so very cool no one else recognises my coolness (yet) or I am just a bit of a loser.

I like writing on paper for several reasons. A diary is harder to lose, my style of scribbling in diaries doesn’t lend itself easily to electronic means, I find actually writing something helps me remember it, I like my handwriting and pens and the smooth trail of ink over paper. I don’t like feeling dependent on a phone for all my needs and already feel somewhat over-reliant on it. Laptops are often more cumbersome and heavier than I want to carry around with me all day, a tablet is prohibitively expensive and ultimately, I like having something that doesn’t run on batteries and therefore won’t inconveniently die on me and force me to hunt around for a coffee shop that has a plug point I can borrow.

I like using a filofax in particular because of its flexibility. I can add more stuff, shift the diary from a Jan-Dec to a Sept-July format, rearrange bits within it, and create new sections if I need them. I am also ridiculously fussy about the diaries I use, and when I bought a bound diary each year I would get slightly obsessional about finding exactly the right kind of diary – week to two pages, either faintly ruled or unruled paper, not-hideous fonts, decent quality paper. While the filofax diary inserts aren’t perfect they are at least consistent.

The set-up I have at the moment:

  • a page with my name, address and contact details
  • a section for my to-do lists
  • a section for my diary
  • a section of plain and lined paper for general notes
  • a section of paper for thesis notes
  • two spare sections that I can use for something if necessary
  • plastic pocket, card holder and map at the back

filofax coverfilofax inside

I live in a household of two medical doctors and two academics so we have a good stash of stationery! Perhaps appropriately (or not at all appropriately, depending on your sense of humour), Aricept is used to slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. And therefore, they give out post-it notes to help doctors remember things (like their brand).

filofaxstuff-sm

I have a front card with my name, permanent address, personal email and phone number. I don’t like the front sheet that comes with filofax organisers as it’s too much detail that I don’t particularly want to share. I made the dividers out of card then laminated them so they’re hopefully durable enough to last.

filofaxnotes-sm

This is the first page in my general notes section and is my “you’re leaving the house in 15 minutes, have you got everything you need?” list. Trust me, it’s not good to have your laptop in one county and your laptop’s charger in another!

filofaxthesis-sm

This is the first page of the thesis notes section, complete with scribbly 4am writing. I try not to take my work to bed with me, but sometimes it happens.

You don’t get to see my diary because there’s too much personal stuff in there! I use it to keep track of where I’m supposed to be when – so meetings, research seminars, my various bits of paid work and deadlines as well as meeting up for coffee, reminders to buy cereal, eye appointments and so on. When I’m very busy it’s a relief to be able to write these down and not worry about forgetting them. The downside is that unless I write these down, I forget them.

My organiser is pretty minimalistic compared to some – if you want a look at how other people organise their things, I recommend looking at Philofaxy and particularly their regular Reader Under the Spotlight profiles.

CDA and me

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.

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.