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MA progress

Well, just as NaNoWriMo threatens to begin, I have shined up the first draft of my final dissertation chapter and sent it off to my MA tutor.

I posted before about my general writing process for longer academic projects. I am teetering about mid-way through Step 7 of that ‘system’. Everything is now together in something resembling prose throughout the Introduction and the three chapters. All that is left to actually write is the Conclusion, but before that there is a lot of re-reading, editing, and re-proportioning that needs to be done!

I’m not sure whether I am ready to tackle my secondary sources once again just yet, though, which means that I am definitely stuck in Step 7. Time now to start reading through what I already have to make sure that it is in some semblance of order before I make sure that I’ve got in everything I can and should!

At least I’m getting there.


A nice weekend!

This week has been very hectic! I’m travelling for work on Monday, and then have two very busy days on Tuesday and Wednesday, so I’ll probably be in a grumpy mood by the end of next Wednesday too. Still, I’m trying to have a nice, quiet, productive weekend.

So far, I’ve managed to: fill out my tax return (it’ll be in by the deadline — woohoo!); finish reading Florence Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire; do some successful shopping for work clothes (I tried last weekend and succeeded in buying a coat and bag that were not strictly necessary); and make some progress on Chapter 3 of my dissertation (it was starting to get worrying!).

Unfortunately, I’ve not managed to keep up with Introduction to Genetics (post here), or do much critiquing on Scribophile (post here). I think I do fill my life up slightly too much though, and I may have to strip back some of my activity, at least until the MA dissertation is out of the way. One of my colleagues, on learning that I was doing my dissertation, did let out a plaintive wail along the lines of: ‘But how do you find the time?’ Evidently, I’m often not….

I’m going to try to get to the British Museum this weekend, which apparently has some Goya on offer (as well as a Shakespeare exhibit, although I’m a bit put off by the fact that it’s funded by BP)! I’ve still not made it to the Tate Britain to see the Pre-Raphaelite exhibit, but I really am planning to. Fingers crossed, anyway….

EDIT: Liverpool University’s Paranoia Pain blog has a quick post on Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Beloved, currently at the Tate Britain exhibition. I absolutely need to get myself in gear and get over there!

Writing methods

I have been suggesting for a while that I will do a post on writing methods, i.e. how I go about conducting ‘big’ research projects that are over 7-8,000 words. This means that ‘writing methods’ is, strictly speaking, an inaccurate title, but ‘research methods’ might be more misleading, so I’m going to stick with it!

There is some great advice out there about how one should write. People like Clarissa, Jonathan MayhewMictlantecuhtli,  et al are proponents of the Pomodoro technique (and its variants), perhaps epitomised in this post by Thomas at Research is a Second Language (hat-tip to Clarissa for pointing it out to me). I wish I did this, and I need to think seriously about how to implement it in my life (although I suspect ‘thinking seriously’ is simply a wonderful way to put off implementing it in my life…).

I am currently a user of the slightly chaotic, it-will-all-come-right style of writing, about which Mictlantecuhtli and I had a brief conversation in the comments of one of Clarissa’s posts last week. This is because, I confess, I harbour deep down a romantic notion of the academic literary critic as being spontaneous, beholden to inspiration, etc., just like the romantic image of a brilliant genius author. I was not directly encouraged in this by any of my undergraduate professors (at any Ivy League school), in part because I was always far too shy and self-deprecating to ever put a demand on their time (i.e. seek out their mentorship). I do not perpetuate the approach to writing by virtue of their support up the academic career ladder, as I haven’t really started yet. My only explanation is that I am, quite simply, sporadic at all things. It is an unfortunate family trait, and despite sincere longing for proper self-discipline throughout my secondary and tertiary education, I’ve never actually done anything about it!

With this confession in mind, then, below the fold is the process by which I sculpt (the best term for it, I think) longer research projects on the assumption that I have already chosen at least one of the texts on which I will be writing.

  1. Conceive: Have a vague idea of where you’re going. Usually, I find this to be a natural product of the process of reading, re-reading and annotating the primary text on which I’ll be working. Sometimes, I have a specific idea that springs to me and then deliberately annotate around that idea; with other texts, it is only after I’ve been through the whole text for the first time that I begin to have an idea of what I would like to do with it. (N.B. By this, I mean the first time with a view to formulating a topic for writing; I have normally read things at least once before!)
  2. Scout for materials: Hunt out some readily accessible secondary sources on some relevant keywords. This generally happens via JSTOR or other journal search engines because it is a speedy and convenient way to get started. This helps to shape the initial, more general ‘vague idea’ I have by pointing out where critics have already done something to death, where potential gaps or disagreements might be, and therefore where I might most productively start to work.
  3. Play with these new materials: Read some more and make some notes. This is the point at which my almost obsessive note-taking kicks in. Scrivener informs me that I have some 36,000 words of notes (mainly quotations) in my ‘research’ section of my dissertation. The dissertation itself is to be 12-15,000 words long. This means that I have two to three times the number of necessary words already in notes! Scrivener makes it easy to excise certain sections from PDFs via the clippings feature, and this can be really helpful, given that a lot of JSTOR’s PDFs are still images (so no copy-and-paste available) or are very badly formatted for copy-and-paste.

    I do this detailed note-taking for three reasons. The first is that it enables me to always have everything on hand (particularly useful in step 8). The second is that my notes dump (as one could uncharitably call it) serves as the main citation/bibliography check. Finally, it is only be actively manipulating my secondary sources that I begin to tune in fully to the resonances between them, the links, connections and discontinuities, and how I might begin to stitch them together.

  4. Begin to piece these materials together: Structure the notes and ideas. Now that I have plenty of things down ‘on paper’ (in Scrivener), it’s time to start grouping them together. With my MA dissertation, I’ve been doing this using a variety of collections for theory, items relevant to each specific author, and the dissertation itself (the working drafts of each chapter). In the past, this has involved simply copying things from the notes dump into a new Word document (very low-tech!). In order to keep everything straight (and to get a good sense for what critics might be dominating), I colour-code each individual secondary source. This makes it easier to go back and locate something if I’ve lost a reference (e.g. to an author or a text), as well as making the monolith of text much easy to handle visually because it is rainbow-coloured!

    It is at this stage that a lot of the writing starts in order to link bits of the material together and really guide my thinking. So, for example, am I going to highlight Kaja Silverman’s writing about the dominant fiction over Eve Kofosky Sedgwick’s vision of homosocial triangles? This will by guided not only by the annotations I have on my primary texts, but also by the sense I’ve got of where other materials are leading. The point is to try to flag up the interesting things that I’ve noted down but that, ultimately, don’t belong.

  5. Start hewing chunks off: Print out and begin scribbling in red pen. Despite having switched to Scrivener and using colour-coding, I still struggle to do everything I need to do on the screen. It is just too easy to glaze over and get lost in the word count that you have. Actually printing out onto A4 divides the blocks of text up into a much more user-friendly set of materials. At this stage I am cutting out and moving (with vigorous arrows) chunks of text that will not work.
  6. Turn back to the initial concept: Re-read the primary text(s). Now, with all of everyone else’s ideas floating about in my head, I return to the primary text(s). Depending on how long the text is, I will make notes about the most salient parts of it either in Scrivener or do it longhand on some good ol’ lined paper! This means looking at the text partly through a new lens, but of course refreshing my initial thoughts on the topic and refining them, as necessary.
  7. Sculpt, tinker and weave: Bring everything together in something resembling prose. This now involves imposing a real framework upon what is a wordy and colourful mess! Unless things fall into place fairly quickly, then this often involves a few ‘prints’ and handwritten sections of chapters until I have enough of a structure in the Scrivener document to be comfortable tackling it purely on the screen. Typically, I start at the beginning of each chapter and go through until I have made so many edits that the print-off is getting hard to follow. Then I type these up (as described in not much detail here), print off and start again. This means that the start of each chapter gets read through quite a bit more than the end, which can be rectified in step 9!
  8. Turn back to the key secondary sources: Re-read the notes (and occasionally the full texts) of the secondary texts. Through various reworkings, it can be easy to decontextualise or distort a quote from a secondary text, or to lose something really useful by accident or because ideas have developed. I will go back through my notes and re-read all the bits that I thought, at the start, might be useful. Any new gems (or errors!) that I find, I will work in to the specific paragraphs I already have written.
  9. Step back and check the proportions: Read all the way through a few times to tighten up from start to finish. It is easy for a long essay to wander and digress during the course of however many thousands of words are available. This way I can check that the key terms I am using do not morph slightly through the course of the essay, that I actually achieve what I promise in the introduction, and that there is a strong, consistent thread running through the whole essay. Sometimes, this may involve writing short one-sentence paragraph descriptions (often on the back of a print-out!) to make sure that things are ordered in the best way possible and that nothing is repeated unnecessarily. I can also check that interesting digressions haven’t started to dominate particular parts of the essay, which is a particular risk in the middle part of an essay!
  10. Check the foundations and do a final polish: Do all the citations, check the word count and polish up the flabby sentences. This speaks for itself. The notes dump makes the citations relatively easy, particularly with the colour-coding. The time spent reading and re-reading each paragraph should make the polishing fairly easy to do!
And that is my ten-step ‘system’!

MA (non)progress update

Due to a failure to follow anything like the guidelines Thomas at Research as a Second Language recommends, or even the Seinfeld Chain recommended by Clarissa and Jonathan Mayhew, I have failed to do any work on my dissertation today.

I intended to. I emailed myself a copy of the chapter I wanted to work on so that I could print it out at work and look at it on the way home. However, when push came to shove, I forgot to print it until 7:30p.m., and the fact that I was still in work at 7:30p.m. indicates that there were many demands on my time. Unfortunately, I did not manage them well, and by the time I got home it was the time of the night when I am simply no good for anything except blogging, tweeting, and watching television.

I will have to take a look at it tomorrow now, instead, and I’m a bit disappointed in myself.

MA writing motivation

My job may have gone into overdrive with the start of October, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to have any space to ease off with my dissertation writing.

Although we have no more formal tutorials or assignments to complete (barring final submission), my tutor is setting up some one-to-ones in the margins of a social event for our group. This will be very nice, as one of the problems of evening study without much need for class/on-campus time is that there is no real community of grad students, so unless you go out of your way to find it, you are very much on your own. Good practice for academia, perhaps, but isn’t there time enough for loneliness?!

My tutor is fairly undemanding (I am by far the least ‘troublesome’ of her students), so I am sure that if I simply sent her my second chapter, which is more or less done, she would be happy enough. I have volunteered my third chapter to her, however (or promised to do so), in part to motivate myself. Of course, it is a 5,000 word chapter that I haven’t started writing yet. It’s not due for four weeks, so that gives me plenty of time to get myself in gear!

Darian Leader: What is madness?

I am trying to blitz read Darian Leader‘s What is madness? today, having started reading a little bit of it over the course of the week on my commute. I have previously read his The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression (Guardian review by Hilary Mantel here), and his idea of depression being any illness invented according to the symptoms ‘anti-depressants’ treat was very interesting to me, although I don’t agree with everything he says, and I’m personally not a huge Freudian. Academically, however, his subjective patient-focused approach appeals to me and ties in well with the sort of thinking about madness, identity and subjectivity that I’m always trying to do. Already I have stumbled across some phrasing that are useful for comparing and contrasting some of the poems I’m writing about in my MA, and I like it when my wider reading cross-pollinates with the academic work that is never not going on somewhere in the back of my head.

Under the fold are simply some of the most interesting bits of the book that leapt out at me whilst I was reading.

Leader explores in great detail the idea that “delusion is less a problem than a solution” to madness, a response that can fulfil the “three crucial Oedipal tasks”, establishing a new meaning/world order, localising the body’s libido, and establishing a distance between the Self and the Other. I think that this ties in in interesting ways with the idea of a society’s ‘dominant fiction’, which acts as a mirror in which individuals are supposed to see themselves. This sort of collective delusion (what is the distinction between delusion and fiction?) is a compelling aspect of nineteenth-century gender identity.

I was also struck by the idea of psychotic individuals as immensely rational and obsessed with finding meaning and order in their surroundings, and of psychosis as potentially “untriggered” or “undetonated”, so that it would not resemble what we might commonly think of psychosis. Similarly, Leader critiques diagnostic methods that focus on surface ‘symptoms’ whilst ignoring the underlying structure and the patient’s relationship with or interpretation of the symptom.

Leader writes about certainty as a key indicator of the presence of psychosis, and the neurotic as always harbouring an internal doubt whenever he professes absolutely certainty. I think this is particularly interesting where political (and other) leaders must always live in fear of the ‘u-turn’ or not ‘putting out a clear message’, or simply making a mistake.

Fantasy/SciFi essays

As the Fantasy/SciFi course is almost at an end – and I’m certainly at the end of my enjoyment of it! – I thought I might post my favourite essays from the course.

The first is on The Island of Dr Moreau, and the second on Herland. Both are in some way linked to my MA research, which is why I think they are my favourites.

However, I really liked both of the readings, and they are probably my favourites from the entire course. I had never read The Island of Dr Moreau before, although I’ve read other H.G. Wells stories. Of course, I had a fair idea of the plot and themes, as they are pretty pervasive (my favourite inspired-by is this Mighty Boosh episode), but I really enjoyed reading the book itself. I have also read Charlotte Gilman Perkins before (The Yellow Wallpaper, natch), and some other similarly feminist utopian novels (e.g. Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666)), so I was always going to like Herland! For those who haven’t read The Yellow Wallpaper or The Blazing World, I would recommend them, providing you’re willing to stick with Cavendish’s seventeenth-century language.

As I’ve copied these essays from the Coursera website and read both the texts in an ebook format, you’ll have to excuse the odd citation formats!

Essay 1 on The Island of Dr Moreau
Erich Fromm describes “moral aloneness” as “a lack of relatedness” to the “values” and “patterns” of the world.1 I argue that Montgomery’s tragic death is a consequence of his moral aloneness in The Island of Dr Moreau.2

Montgomery first appears as a “medical man”, but we quickly learn that he has only done “some science” ten years before, making his position in society unclear.3 On the island, we learn little more about his position than that he is the “Other with the Whip”.4 Yet Montgomery does not identify with Moreau’s values and ideas. Distressed like Prendick “at first” on the island, Montgomery rejects Moreau’s amorality and indifference, instead “interfer[ing] in [the Beast People’s] affairs” and “half lik[ing] some” of them.5

Montgomery also cannot identify with Prendick, indicated by two parallel incidents. When Prendick first revives, Montgomery seems interested to hear his story, but then immediately reverts to discussing his former life.6 A few chapters later, Prendick interrupts Montgomery’s remembrances of London to question him instead on M’Ling’s ears.7 The men talk, but we sense that they do not share the same values or interests, and are unsurprised when no real friendship develops.8

Morally alone, Montgomery relies on drink and his quasi-amity with the Beast People. To him, drinking with a fellow represents a ‘normal’ activity, and when Prendick denies him again in the aftermath of Moreau’s death, we learn that it forms part of Montgomery’s bond with M’Ling. With the status quo destroyed, and unable to “join on” to society, Montgomery determines to have a final fireside carouse with the Beast People, which ends in a twisted echo of a bar fight. Prendick finds Montgomery dead, still entangled with his opponent, and M’Ling armed with a smashed whiskey bottle.9 At the last, Montgomery turns to drink and the Beast People, and so in death obtains some sort of relatedness to the patterns of behaviour he once knew in London.

1 – Erich Fromm, The Fear of Freedom (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 15.
2 – H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr Moreau (Adelaide: University of Adelaide, 2012).
3 – Chapter 2.
4 – Chapter 16.
5 – Chapter 14.
6 – Chapter 2. The topic of conversation recurs in Chapters 4, 8, and 19.
7 – Chapter 8.
8 – Chapter 17. See also Chapter 19, when Prendick states that Montgomery is “akin” to the Beast People and “unfitted” for human relationships.
9 – Chapter 19.

Essay 2 on Herland
Herland offers a feminised version of the Eden Complex, adopting five of the six characteristics set forth by Profession Rabkin while radically altering the final one.1,2

First, Herland is Edenic, “a land in a state of perfect cultivation” with well-tended forests supplying all their food requirements.3Second, the story is simply structured, focusing predominantly on the main protagonist, Van, and his two colleagues. Third, Herland depicts an Oedipal romance; the current generation seeks to surpass former ones, not only by efforts of self-improvement – “growth, always and always”4 – but specifically by returning to a bi-sexual state.5 Fourth, the book’s image system relies upon two main dichotomies, male-female and here-there; much of the book focuses on the contrasts between Herland and the world at large, and the male characters and their female counterparts.6 Finally, although Herland is structured upon the desire for continual growth and development, the inhabitants firmly believe that their society is limited. They are “prepared to believe [the outside] world must be better than theirs”,7 and we also learn that they had found themselves unable to support an increasing population despite their innovation and attempts at growth.8

However, nowhere in Herland do we find an isolated individual scientist who is (or strives to be) Godlike. Herland is characterised by communal living, each woman recognising her limitations and others’ superiority in certain spheres.9 This astonishes our male protagonists, who laud personal competition, try to “put in a good word for [it]”,10 and are troubled by Herland’s turning away from the obsessive individual motherhood known to them in the outside world.11

Therefore, while Professor Rabkin’s formulation of the Eden Complex foregrounds an individual scientist, usually male and typically in competition with his peers and with God,12 Herland offers a feminised version that focuses instead upon a society striving in unison for improvement.

2 – Professor Rabkin, lecture entitled Hawthorne and Poe – the Eden Complex.
3 – Chapter 1.
4 – Chapter 9.
5 – Chapter 8.
6 – See, for example, Chapters 4, 5 and 11.
7 – Chapter 5.
8 – Chapter 6.
9 – Chapter 7.
10 – Chapter 5.
11 – Chapter 7.
12 – Frankenstein, and ‘The Birthmark’. For discussions of the importance of competition to masculinity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, see Herbert Sussman, Victorian Masculinities, and R.W. Connell, Masculinities.