Worcester Sauce

Short post today. 

Funny though. 

I was reading a diary of a guy from the late nineteenth century the other day and came across an entry that made me chuckle (and email my husband straight away). 

I read it again to make sure I’d got it right. Yep. 

He was travelling and no where near ‘civilisation’, but his ink had run out so he was using worcester (or is it worcestershire) sauce to write his journal.

Ah, the sheer resourcefulness. Genius. So think of that when you reach in the cupboard for some Lea and Perrins!

That’s all for now folks. 


Easter eyes

Happy Easter to the void. What a great time of year, and what a great period of celebration. I love Easter for so many reasons. 

I was a little anxious about this one though, as a couple of days before, I was due my first ever eye test. 

I had noticed over Christmas, when I was driving, that my husband could read road signs a lot earlier than I could. It had me a little worried as I’d always thought my eyesight was perfectly normal. However, find that sometimes, after a long day of close reading, for example, it takes a while for my eyes to be able to focus on something far away. Because of this, I went to the opticians (found a free eye test using http://www.moneysavingexpert.com).

I rocked up. Sat in the blindingly white waiting room (I reckon it’s all part of the test), and attempted to read any sign I could see around me. I then had a preliminary test in the world’s smallest office, which involved air being blown on my eye and lots of machines being used. Was relatively amusing, although I was disappointed I didn’t have to read any letters. 

Sat back out in the waiting room and was called into anther tiny room for the letter reading stuff as well as some very close-up examinations – not one for those who are protective of personal space. As I looked at the letters on the wall, I tried so hard to make my eyes see them. Of course, it didn’t make a difference, but I at least passed the stage where you are allowed to drive. 

Result was, I possibly need a low strength lens for driving and for church or things requiring long distance reading. No serious problem. Phew. 

However, it got me thinking. I’m staring at words on pages or on a computer screen constantly for around 6/7 hours a day. Apparently, there is no research to say either way if long periods of close reading will affect your eyes long term. It just takes a little time for your eyes to readjust (this is what the optician told me). However, I would recommend, for those who are slightly worried about it like me and who like a bit of preventative medicine:

– give your eyes rest. If you stop to think, think with your eyes closed. Massage them lightly with your fingers. 

– give your eyes practice. If you need to go somewhere in the department, as you walk down the corridor, focus on the exit signs on the doors furthest away from you. Or if you’re in an office, look at the small writing on posters once in a while. 

– give your eyes time. Of course they’ll take a while to adjust after being close-up to pages/ screens for the whole working day. So on the way home, keep looking from short distance to long, focusing on different objects. 

As for me, no glasses as yet – have only shopped around one opticians and found it quite an exhausting experience. Will persevere another day. 

Privilege and Dust

Last week I had the privilege of reading some extraordinary writing.

My PhD involves literature from the 1800s, and so I often find myself in the obscure parts of the library whenever I visit. But last Thursday I went to the ‘special collections’ section – that little-known and little-seen area located in the basement of my uni library.

As I descended the stairs, the smell of books got stronger. The dust started to make me sneeze. I put my bag in one of the lockers provided at the door, realised I didn’t have £1 to lock it and so, trusting that thieves wouldn’t think to go to the ‘special collections’ section, I continued into the room. Before I got there though, I saw a sign informing me that only paper, pencils and laptops were allowed. I haven’t carried a pencil in my bag since I was 11, and I’m more of a note-scribbler than a typer, so I proceeded into the rare books section armed with only a notebook.

After a touch of confusion with the man in charge (who let me borrow a pencil), I found out how to find the books – fill in a piece of paper for each book, he disappears, and then reappears with the requested books. I sat down at the table to begin my day of reading.

Hours later, with tears still streaming down my face, I left with the feeling of privilege.

All day I had been reading diaries and letters of people who were in an uncertain context, who were working because of conviction and integrity, and who were brutally honest with their writing. I had been reading words and pages that I doubt many have read. I had been reading glimpses of someone’s world, a world they’d scrawling in notebooks, not necessarily thinking that some emotional PhD student would one day be weeping over them. I read a wife’s description of her husband’s final hours on a boat to Mauritius. I read a lonely man’s lament after his wife died in Sierra Leone. I read a traveler’s sighs as he pondered over the potential futility of his work.

I have been reading for weeks, but only dry words and emotionless records. On Thurday I felt like I was reading people, lives. I read something almost tangible.

Perhaps it’s just the dust, perhaps it’s just the fact that the books are yellowed and fragile, but that day felt like my PhD might actually touch something precious.  

What a privilege. Bring on more reading.

So what are you doing?: defining your doctorate

The ultimate question. Simple, on the face of it. A natural query. In fact, I heard it a lot this weekend as we had a big family gathering with aunts and uncles and cousins and second cousins (or first cousins once removed, whatever the definition is).

How are you? Fine, thanks!
What are you up to at the moment? I’ve just started a PhD actually…
Oh right!….So what are you doing? *Silence, hesitation, racking my brains for a starting point*

How do you explain a potential three years of research, which happens to be in a very specific field which you’re only just beginning to understand after reading half the library’s books on the matter? How do you put your entire research proposal – with all its concepts and assumed knowledge – into a simple answer for someone who knows nothing about the subject?

I haven’t specified until now, but my PhD is in Translation Studies. If your response to that was, ‘Huh? You can do a PhD in that?’, then that sounds pretty much like every other response I’ve had. This answer obviously isn’t adequate to the ‘what are you doing’ conundrum. I need something tangible, understandable for the common man.  

I therefore go a bit more specific, I give them something recognisable: ‘I’m doing a PhD in Translation Studies and French Literature’. This seems to satisfy most. ‘Oooo, French, that’s complicated’. This makes me laugh – they still know nothing about my project, but they are quite relieved to know that at least it involves something tricky like a foreign language. Sometimes, however, they press me. ‘What specifically are you doing then?’ – they have recognised that ‘Translation Studies and French literature’ is a very broad subject matter and actually want to know more.

So here comes my little spiel. I’ve got it down to a sentence now, a reasonably short sentence that actually tells people what I’m doing without chucking them in the deep end of translation theory and french colonial criticism. Conciseness is a beautiful thing, and it helps me focus on my project. If writing a conference paper, or an article, or a thesis, I’ve had the incredibly simple but useful advice that you need to be able to summarise your argument in one sentence. If you can’t, you don’t understand your own argument. I think this is the same with the question that others pose.

Therefore, as someone asks you rather bluntly what you’re focussing your time and effort on, what you are interested in, what your next three years are going to look like, you get to refine your project even as you answer. You get to tell yourself again what your goal is, what your conclusion will involve. Take that opportunity. Refine the sentence to tell them, but also to keep yourself on track of your work.

I think what’s hard about this particular question is that often the hearer doesn’t want to hear the full answer. They want to voice an interest, they want to figure out what you do all day (yep, I read, I constantly have to tell people that at the moment most of my day is spent reading!!!). They want to be interested. But they’re not going to fully understand the spiel that you spout, let alone the actual project itself!

Of course you won’t be able to tell them every miraculous detail that fascinates you about your project, but you can give them something to latch on to, perhaps something to arouse curiosity, and something to answer the question.

‘So what are you doing?’

What’s your sentence?  

Nod nod nodding – supervision meetings

Last week I had my first official supervision meeting for my PhD. I started my research in January and, before now, have only had a couple of ‘check-ins’ where I’ve made sure I’m doing what my main supervisor thinks I should be doing…

However, official supervisions have started and are a different beast altogether. Gone are the pleasant conversations and nice half-hours of idea-tennis. Gone are the relaxed one-to-ones between the chilled out ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’ student and the ‘don’t worry about it’ supervisor.

In their place I found myself sat on the edge of my seat for an hour, rapidly writing pretty much whatever came out of my supervisors mouths (I have two), and nodding along eagerly, whether or not I actually understood what they were saying.

There is a danger with this nodding. At the time it seems to buy you credibility. The nodding makes you feel a peer, makes you feel like you can do what they do. Nodding makes you feel invincible.

But when you come away from the meeting – with your research plan covered in pen marks and scrawlings, the margins full of names of books by authors you can’t pronounce, let alone spell – the nodding turns to a fast shaking of the head. You have to summarise the meeting and document it. You have to write minutes.

I don’t know what the system is in other unis, but in mine, you have to give an overview of the discussions had and the action plan at the end of the meeting. You have to then submit this to your supervisors so that they can see you’ve understood their instructions (!), and then submit it to the university as evidence of your supervisory meetings.

The waiting game begins therefore, as I have submitted my minutes to my supervisors. Will they see through the zealous nodding, or have I been able to understand enough of the meeting that I can actually blag my way through this process?…Only time will tell.

Books and books about books

This will be a short one today folks as lots of things are going on chez moi.

Take this fable as a nugget of advice, a priceless piece of guidance in the abyss of postgraduate research tips.

I was travelling home from London a few weeks ago and was gearing myself up to read a good chunk of a novel on the way (Megabuses do afterall provide journeys long enough for more than a couple of chapters). It goes without saying that this novel was for my research. As I got past the laborious introduction, written by some ‘critical thinker’, I soon realised that what I had in my hand, and therefore for the rest of the journey, was not the book I wanted to read, but a book about the book. I struggled on with it, finding parts genuinely interesting (thankfully), and attempting to figure out the plot of the novel from its criticism without much success.

Lesson learned. Make sure to get the book. Not the book about the book. 

‘To do’ or not ‘to do’

I wandered lonely as a cloud….

My PhD began with a bit of an anti-climax to be honest. My husband came home from work and asked how my ‘first day’ had gone. I shrugged. ‘I read some stuff’, I said (very articulate as always). He then asked me what I’d read…How could I explain? I’d gone to the library, typed in a couple of keywords, taken out whatever was on the shelves, filled my – by now – ridiculously heavy rucksack, and proceeded to spend the rest of the day wading through the books and journals I’d managed to seize. 

I was a bit lost. 

Then, breakthrough. I had a meeting with my supervisor. It was daunting – I need to do a 3 month plan and a 6 month plan, both in terms of professional development and actual research – but it was so encouraging. I now have a ‘to do’ list. Phew.