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Wilde week

I’m going to let the obvious pun slide… But it has been a pretty fun week!

This was the final single-chapter week of writing up for my thesis, and it was focused on Wilde’s Dorian Gray. This chapter I have used, in a modified form, as a writing sample, so it was in good shape a a stand-alone piece. Again—and this is something of a refrain now—scaffolding was key to the week. I think of writing larger pieces as a construction project; segments that might stand alone, or which have an inherent coherence, need to be tied and pegged into one another in a way that is structurally valuable, rather than like a McMansion! At times, this can feel like structurally weakening the individual pieces, particularly if they’ve already been shaped, like this chapter, to hold their own weight.

Some highlights of the week:

  • Nicholas Frankel‘s two “unedited” versions of the novel. I have both hardback and paperback, as the former contains a greater depth of commentary. I’ve read them both a few times, but they remain a highlight of my Wilde research. For critical purposes, I think that this edition will probably stand as definitive.
  • Finally getting a chance to read the early chapters of Richard Ellmann‘s biography. I have mostly read the portions related to specific events or publications, but it was nice to read around Wilde’s early life a bit more! I’ve doubled-up with this research, as it’s also been really helpful as part of my digital humanities Wilde project.
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Rossetti Week

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Here we go. Week 2 of writing up, and I’ve been spending my time with Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Comparatively, this chapter has been through the most iterations beforehand, so the way forward seemed pretty clear when I began. Again, there was lots of building up my methodological framework and plenty of interweaving with other chapters to be done, and now I’m a little worried that it might be the chapter with the most work still to do when I come back to doing round two of this process.

Still, the week was a pleasure. Some of the highlights included:

  • Enjoying what might be the original Victorianist digital humanities project, the Rossetti Archive. What it lacks in an up-to-the-minute appearance, the site more than makes up for in comprehensive detail. It’s an invaluable resource for images of printed texts, manuscripts, and paintings, as well as summarising some of the key foundational critical works dealing with Rossetti’s work.
  • Taking advantage yet again of the wealth of texts and information available on Monoskop.org. This week it was a quick canter through Umberto Eco’s The Open Work as well as Gérard Genette’s Paratexts. Not only does it offer full texts in PDF form, but they’re searchable too. I promise, it’s one of the sexiest research tools on the web!
  • Coming back to a close reading and just thinking, “Nope. Plain wrong!” It’s wonderful quite how many interpretations a sonnet might hold, particularly if it has the convoluted and condensed syntax and imagery of a Rossettian one! In case you’re wondering, the misreading involved ‘A Superscription’, one of sonnets from “The House of Life” with some real pronoun problems! I think I have now satisfied myself as to what “that” in “the glass” is, but I may have changed my mind again by the time I come back to this chapter, so watch this space.

 

Image (c) Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard University

Michael Field week

As part of writing up my thesis, I’ve decided to dedicate a week to each chapter. This week was Michael Field Week.

My Michael Field chapter was the first drafted, almost two years ago, so it inevitably needed a lot of work (if I’m lucky, it’ll be the most work of all my chapters).

The core argument was clear and still solid from when I left it. I’ve presented my overall thinking before, at a Birkbeck conference (the Prezi is online, and I subsequently blogged for BAVS about it). The overall theoretical framework for my thesis has developed hugely, though, and there was a great deal of reframing and signposting to be done, particularly to weave in some of my thinking around cultural techniques, and to create links between this first chapter and the three others that follow. For me, signposting and structural work is always the last thing to happen, and I will forever envy people for whom a definite structure is a starting point.

Some of my highlights of the week, aside from the copious coffee and the fun of editing on paper:

  • Needing to rifle through Michael Field’s life-writing, and finding this online archive of their diaries a total lifesaver, as the British Library is now a continent and ocean away! Marion Thain and Ana Parejo Vadillo are progressing a project to transcribe these so that they can be searchable, and I’m hoping to be a part of the team transcribing the 1890s diaries when we get to it.
  • Having fun using Sarah Kersh’s wonderful digital edition of Sight and Song (it uses a similar annotation function to COVE and is simply beautiful). I’m hoping to add some of my close readings as annotations to it, and I think it’s a great resource that anyone studying Michael Field should be using.
  • Playing around with graphs and charts that Excel and Numbers have to offer. I had a quick visualisation of the rhythm of the volume in my Prezi, which I included in the BAVS blog post, but it was crude. I’m not sure either package quite offers what I need, though, so once I’m going to look further afield once I’m done writing up.

Accidental blogging: some thoughts on academia.edu’s sessions format

I’m a relatively infrequent user of academia.edu (aren’t we all?), but I noticed recently the ‘sessions’ feature. And by “noticed recently”, I mean that I logged on one day to find that academia.edu was telling me I had an “expired session”, and I had no idea what the hell they were talking about, so I went away to find out!

It turns out that a session is a piece of writing that is opened up for comment and discussion. To open a session, one uploads a draft paper. One can ask for feedback from specific people in your network, but the draft is automatically open to comment by certain groups of followers (e.g. supervisors or mutual followers). I now recall that when I uploaded the paper in question, I did upload it as a ‘draft’ because it was a record of what I had presented at a conference, which was still a work in progress. I didn’t realise that labelling it ‘draft’ would throw it open in the way it did. 

With this particular paper, I don’t mind too much that confusion during the upload process meant it was accidentally opened up, but: 

  1. I don’t particularly like the way that academia.edu is trying to redefine collaborative processes as inherently a public one; and 
  2. I think it will only lead to the site becoming a partial blog for people workshopping general ideas.

Rather than, say, uploading your paper to Dropbox, or iCloud, or Google Docs, or just plain ol’ emailing it around to people whose insights would be valuable, this proposed model of academic collaboration is open by default. There are some pluses, perhaps. Your paper might receive attention from those in your extended network, or beyond, who can offer valuable insights that you might otherwise have lacked. 

However, the process fails to take into account the fact that publication is a key metric for academics hoping to progress in their careers. There are relatively few disciplines or cases where the model that academia.edu is offering is a desirable one for academics. This is not necessarily a good thing, but it does mean that the incentives to share so publicly early drafts of exciting and publishable work is pretty low. 

In addition, particularly for those who are on the very lowest rungs of the academic ladder, for whom publishing might be a hurdle they are seeking to jump, academia.edu muddies the water. By taking steps to link one’s rate of “producing quality content” to the metrics of how much pieces have been viewed and commented upon, it constructs a competitive blogging environment. 

In terms of how the feature will be used in practice, perhaps it remains to be seen, but what I have seen of the feature so far doesn’t make it a great method for collaborative working. One session that I joined, out of curiosity both about the form and the subject matter, was on The Study of English Literature, based on a short paper by John Xiros Cooper of the University of British Columbia about the future of the discipline. I did not actively seek the paper out; nor did Cooper seek me out to solicit my feedback. His session simply appeared in a list of open sessions related to my research interests, floating on the right-hand side of my home page. I requested access and was granted it. (Many thanks, John!)

To me, the paper was the sort of thing one might expect to find on a high-calibre academic blog as an extended post, and the comments were similar to those one might expect on such a post. The feature doesn’t allow for in-line editing and commenting, such as might be seen on scribophile.com or even in OneDrive, that old corporate lag. In general, the way that papers are presented is a bit undesirable; they rely on scribd, and there is always a delay in viewing/downloading a paper. If the purpose of the ‘draft paper’ function is actual collaboration, then it lacks the features necessary for nuanced comment and discussion.

Personally, if I wanted to throw open ideas for comment by anyone with an interest, I would use a blog post with moderated comments and tweet the link… 



Disclaimer: I should also say that this is a very separate issue to open access to academic literature, which is one of academia.edu’s main aims, and a laudable one. As part of its general mission to open up more and more content to be available for free on its site, academia.edu encourages academics, particularly doctoral students and early-career researchers, to publish PDFs of their work. In 2013, when Elsevier issued a take-down notice for numerous papers, the site was clear and unequivocal in criticising the move, as were many academics (Michael Clarke’s analysis of the incident is particularly worth a read).

Acwri tools (old and new)

I’m rather relieved that in the deepest recesses of August, I have finally found enough time to escape from work, decompress, and get properly stuck into PhD work ahead of the autumn term. As an ‘off-campus’ part-time student, I will be working on my own over and above the usual experience of a PhD student. Whilst that was true of my MA too, a PhD is rather different in scale and scope. At the moment I’m not anxious about it, but I am conscious of needing to do some groundwork now to make the most efficient use of the resources I have — included my own time — later.

Some of this is practical. I have yet to quite figure out how I’ll address my library needs (membership of The London Library is a luxury I don’t think I will be able to continue to afford, quite literally; on the other hand, the university campus is several hours away by train…). I have yet to have a detailed conversation with my supervisors about exactly what they will expect from me in terms of ‘face time’. I know that work commitments mean that I will struggle to do very much in the autumn, so I hope that I’m on the right track in terms of my preliminary work this summer.

Some of this is also exciting, though. I have an opportunity now to try to set up a process that will serve me well over the next few years, particularly in terms of writing tools:

  1. I’m still using Scrivener, which I used for my MA, but I’m finally starting to make better use of its tools because I’ve had a moment to think clearly about structure. I have folders for all of my readings: primary (fiction); primary (non-fiction); ‘pre-primary’; and secondary. I have a serious number of sub-folders for each author and specific works, within which I have PDFs, imported webpages, links to sound files (for references to lectures by Foucault, etc.) and jpegs of related paintings and sculptures. Being able to include the PDFs means that I can now do a lot of my readings from within Scrivener, making it even more of a one-stop-shop. 
  2. I have finally gotten to the stage where I feel like Zotero will be helpful. It is a bit clunky, and it is harder to organise citations in the same way that I can organise texts in Scrivener. Given that I’m working with a lot of obscure texts, I’m finding that even when I have ISBN numbers, they don’t necessarily exist in the databases that Zotero uses, so I’m entering a lot of things manually. I know it’ll be a kludge and still take me a long time to clean up the bibliography, but I think it’s going to be more efficient than trying to keep my bibliography up-to-date any other way. 
  3. I also have a new to-do list keeper: Wunderlist. I have a work, research and personal to-do list, and the app syncs across all of my devices, including my laptop. It’s a much more efficient system than typing out a to-do list in Evernote! It also allows me to structure my time more successfully than blocking out chunks of time on my calendar, which I do at work, but which I find to not be a very responsive or flexible structure.

The layered and multimedia nature of my Scrivener project has also led me to wonder whether I should think about producing a digital thesis.

One of the academics I follow on Twitter (Lee Skallerup, @readywriting) tweet about an interesting new authoring tool, Scalar, which aims to provide a platform for writers (academic and not) to create interactive, multimedia publications. It is pretty new, and the website is not fantastic at the moment (resemblances to Wikipedia are striking). Still, I think it is pretty interesting. My thesis will focus on how aesthetic responses to art-objects are coded in poetry and prose fiction, and it would seem logical to try to produce something that can juxtapose the written art-objects I am analysing with images of the art-objects to which the authors are responding. Given how effective Scrivener is as a tool for collecting my sources and structuring my thinking, however, I suspect that any Scalar project would be more of a restructuring of a finished thesis, which misses the point… Still, I’m giving it some thought!

Pomodoro technique and health and wellbeing

Along with using the Fitbit, I have also taken to reading some fitness mags. Not all, not all, I promise, and many bits still bewilder me!

One of the articles in Women’s Health really did hit home for me as an “office worker”: the one claiming that for every two hours spent sitting, we lose 44 minutes of our lifespan. You can read a version of the article online (clearer, actually, than the article I read in the UK version of the magazine!), or the NHS online page about “sitting disease” (ugh! Awful name…) and recent research.

This got me thinking about how long I spend sitting at my desk each and every day, particularly when I have lunch at my desk. Plus, at home, I will sit watching DVDs or reading for long periods of time, meaning that even though I might walk my 10,000 steps every day and do yoga/strength work-outs, I’m still sedentary for almost the whole day.

As a remedy, I downloaded StandApp, which is free and sets an interval timer for you (at 15, 30, 60, or 120 minutes) before alerting you to take a five-minute standing break, even giving you a little workout to do too, if you’re so inclined. I thought that this might be quite intrusive, but actually, it was the push I needed to start implementing the Pomodoro technique properly into my working life.

Pomodoro traditionally recommends working on a specific task for 25-minute blocks of time before taking a short break. This fits pretty well with what StandApp offers, and I’ve started using 30-minute blocks wherever I can, with breaks every 60 minutes as the absolute max (barring hideous meetings, when I at least try to dash out for a “bathroom break” every hour!).

I already have a to-do list system (a monthly list with tasks allocated per day and crossed off when completed), but had never actually made the commitment to breaking up my tasks and working day so consciously before. Knowing that taking the five-minute break every 30-60 minutes does my health good is therefore a valuable incentive for me to change the way I work for the better too, and I’ve even started using it during academic work at home, particularly reading. I find that my mind will naturally begin to wander every 20-30 minutes or so, especially when I’m reading something very dense or challenging (I’m looking at you, Lacan and Zizek!), so just standing up and getting the blood flowing again, allowing my mind to wander for a minute or two and digest what I’ve managed to get through, is working surprisingly well!

I am still struggling a little with the temptation simply to take my laptop with me when I stand (e.g. at my breakfast bar or kitchen table) and continue working, but I think by trying to combine both Pomodoro and a more healthy attitude to my sedentary working habits, I can get the mental benefit of taking standing breaks, as well as the physical.

Student blogging

Jen Bloomfield (@jembloomfield) has started a fascinating new series of blog posts about undergraduates’ use and experience of blogs, which got me thinking about my own blogging history as a perpetual student. 


I got into Livejournal at what I always think of as ‘late in the day’: early 2006. This was my first engagement with blogging of any sort (Facebook obviously not counting, although statuses were more like Tweets in them days!).

I’m not embarrassed to say that my LJ was mostly fandom related, with some personal stuff tossed in. At no point did I ever—that I can remember—blog much about my course of study, though. If I had, I would have probably treated it in the same way as some of the students who replied to Jem: as a tool for processing thoughts that do not fit within the confines of the course curriculum or assessments. 

I also ran one of the undergraduate journal’s WordPresses too, a little later on, so put my knowledge of blogging to good use in that sense, but whilst that was the sort of thing I could put on a grad school application, my personal blog was not. To be fair, content-wise, it really wasn’t! But it never occurred to me to try to run a personal blog that was. I’m very impressed by those undergraduates—and prospective undergraduates—who do. I think this is a valuable tactic, and many blogging grad students/academics have a similar motivation, even if there is still resistance in some quarters to taking blogging seriously!

Since I graduated (2009), I’ve noticed a huge increase in the number of blogs being run by academics, grad students, educators, and even within/as part of academic courses. However, I’ve mostly not noticed blogging done by undergrads, which is why I think Jem’s series is a great thing.