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Neo-Victorian #AcWriMo: week 3

Week three is up, and my #AcWriMo/#NaNoWriMo project is on-track at 36,500 words and counting.

I spent a fair amount of time this week tinkering around with Scalar to try to improve the styling, and I’m increasingly sceptical of the merits of Scalar for digital publishing. It might be useful for people without the time or inclination to produce something independently, but the Scalar 2 interface is currently poor. In the end, I abandoned it and reverted the whole piece back to Scalar 1 in order to get something that was more manageable. In Scalar 2, for example, it proved difficult to change the background colour (because it overlays its grey-and-white page over the top of it) or right-align any text without it intervening into the space left for the annotation tab. The whole structure seems to be under-developed at the moment, so reverting felt like the right thing to do.

I also had to go through the pieces already posted in order to deal with html that followed me from Scrivener. I haven’t used Scrivener for quite a long time, as it didn’t really suit my PhD writing process. Although I still like the organisational structure it gives for chapters and other pieces, which works well for creative projects, for future chapters I’m going to take things first through Atom and do some marking up there, as the Scalar HTML content pane isn’t very friendly for larger pieces (this is one of the few points where the Scalar 2 interface had the upperhand).

In terms of the writing itself, the story is finally branching out from the original, so the amount of creative work required has increased substantially. There’s quite a lot of research to be done, but I’m looking forward to getting the story substantially completed this week, and then getting to work on the framing and final touches. Only 10 days left!

(Nearly) Vernon Lee Week

By rights, this week should be Vernon Lee week as I continue writing up, but as most of this week is being taken up by NAVSA, I’m using the few days before as NAVSA prep. I’m refreshing my memory of some of the texts that form the focus of the panel I’m moderating, as well as the individual panels that I’m interesting in hearing. 

The trick to conferences is the prep: having a plan for which papers are most relevant to your work, and the people you’d like to catch up with; being ready for the in-depth discussion of texts that you may only have read once, a decade ago; and having a sense of how your own research and interests dovetail with your fellow conference-goers. 

So I’m going to finish re-reading Wilkie Collins’ Poor Miss Finch, and refresh my memory of Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera, and skim over the participant list one more time. I’m going to conference the heck out of you, Phoenix!

A question of machines

I’m doing some wider reading this week now that I’m in the final stages of revising my PhD, and I started reading through some of Steven Connor’s talks and speeches on machines. I’d forgotten just how much I enjoyed his writing. Try out How to Do Things with Writing Machines!

Pitching papers

Inevitably at the end of the summer, there is a crunch period for submitting papers to conferences for the next academic year. Some of the biggest conferences have deadlines well in advance of the conferences themselves, as do journal editions that take years to produce, so getting things in for September and October deadlines becomes a bit of a struggle.

I find producing abstracts for pitching to conferences or journals to be a particular challenge because I so often don’t know what I’m going to want to say until I’m most of the way through writing!

Opportunities to review recent articles or new publications have also been coming out of the woodwork, so I now have a wide set of documents open lest I forget about them.

If I have any success at all with my abstracts, this year could be one of many irons in the fire…

Consuming (the) Victorians: BAVS 2016

The annual BAVS conference is a chance for PhD students, ECRs, and established academics to come together and really get into the detail of their research for a few days. This year’s whirlygig was kindly and ably hosted by Cardiff University, and I thought I would do a quick write-up as part of my sporadic conference series (see also Swinburne, 150 years on and Forgotten Geographies).

The first keynote set the bar high, and I think may have been my favourite thing of the whole conference. Patricia Duncker was insightful, hilarious, erudite, inspiring, and more or less everything that I one day aspire to be. Her talk about imagining George Eliot was more fascinating than one could have hoped, and I am certainly going to take a look at her books (particularly James Miranda Barry).

I was, I must confess, a little sceptical of this year’s theme. Consumption in the nineteenth century? Nineteenth-century consumer culture and what it might tell us about today’s consumer culture? It felt a little Idylls of the Marketplace. Notwithstanding the continued development of Neo-Victorian genres (a significant subtheme), wasn’t this fairly established ground?

I’m not sure that ultimately I can answer the question of whether the theme could sustain the sheer volume of panels included in the programme, as I unfortunately had to miss some of the sessions (having a conference so near to family is both a blessing and a curse!). From what I managed to squeeze in, the theme did seem at times rather to constrain some of the intended strands of panels, such as those on gender, medicine/science/technology, and digitisation. It did, however, provide an excellent opportunity to focus on work along a materialist line. Analyses ranged from the taxidermy specimen (Alexandra Murphy), recycling and reuse (Christopher Ferguson, Kate Flint), Victorian Valentines (Alice Crossley), violins (Rachel Cowgill), and the collections of the Dickens Museum (Louisa Price).

Another very strong theme was the Neo-Victorian, and in particular TV and film adaptations of Victorian fiction. Presentations ranged from adaptations of Dickens  (DickensianA Muppet Christmas Carol, etc.), Zola’s The Paradise, and Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland to analyses of Penny Dreadful, and this plethora seemed to at times flow solely from excitement at the level of general public interest in ‘our’ period. Not that there’s anything wrong with popular appeal—I’m with Duncker in enjoying the ‘trash’ of both the nineteenth century and our own!—but long conferences like BAVS can be exhaustingly full to begin with…

Perhaps one of the most interesting panels was on digital visualisation, as the range of presentations on mapping (deep or otherwise) raised the question of how academics produce products for consumption by others. Can maps such as those produced by the deep mapping of the Lake District be repackaged in a readily accessible format for tourists visiting the region? What is the purpose of doing so? How does one acquire the research funding needed for some digital humanities projects when they may not have definite or discrete end-times, the process of peer reviewing them remains unclear, and they throw up re-use challenges owing to the use of proprietary software? This was a wonderful twist on the ‘consumption’ theme, and it threw up a whole range of questions with which I’m sure many of us will be grappling for years to come.

I should also say that one of the useful innovations that has been popping up at a number of conferences is the attempt to run professionalisation workshops focused on PGRs and ECRs. This conference was no exception, with a set of small sessions run ahead of the main conference’s start. I went to two: on creative writing and academia, and on illustrations.

The former was quite fascinating and had something of an alt-ac flavour to it (although unspoken). Damian Walford Davies was insightful in his account of all critical writing as life-writing, arguing for a highly permeable barrier between academic and creative work. His advice to “run with anachronism” because we are inevitably situated from any historical subject matter really struck me, and I look forward to reading some of his poetry, which reminded me particularly of Anne Carson’s Red trilogy. Lucy Andrew provided an interesting insight into the early phases of using academic knowledge for creative purposes. The illustrations workshop was ably run and gave us an opportunity not only to paw at some wonderful texts from the university’s Special Collections—including Moxon Tennyson’s, which are always fun—and to play at doing some lino engraving. It didn’t offer a great deal by way of professionalisation (although I admit that was never formally stated in the programme), but was certainly a pleasure.

And with all these conferences, pleasure and personal take-homes are key. I’m now looking forward to seeing how the NAVSA conference in November sizes up!

Academic publishing: four conundrums starting out

As the cliché goes, most people have summer reading, but academics have summer writing. August is a key time for ‘side projects’, and for grad students this is often writing for publication, versus writing for one’s degree. I’ve been keeping a running list of open calls for papers during the spring, and this August is time for me to polish those abstracts and check out some possible key terms. As I wrap up my thesis, I know that I need to be making a start on building a publication record, but how to proceed is always fraught. I don’t pretend to have firm answers, but these are some of the conundrums that I’ve come up against while planning my workload for the summer and the months ahead, and my inclinations on how to solve them.

1. Call For Papers vs journal submission

Lots of journals pitched towards graduate students and early-career researchers have calls for papers that do the rounds in the winter and spring, including the journal that I’m an editor for (HARTS & Minds). Meanwhile, many of the more established or prestigious journals operate rolling submissions, usually accompanied by somewhat opaque or unpredictable assessment processes and timelines.

CFPs can be very attractive, as they often require only a 500 word pitch, rather than a completed, polished manuscript. For time-strapped grad students, particularly those who are focusing on publishing mostly during the summer months, this has a real allure, as it keeps the up-front investment low.

The difficulty, however, is the risk that the short-term gain is a long-term loss. It takes real insight and experience with academic work to know the level a particular piece should be pitched at. Coupled with the anxiety that (for most grad students) comes with the first steps into publishing, the decision is a tough one.

I suspect the best advice is still to wait and publish something of excellent quality in as prestigious a publication as one can muster. But that seems predicated on an old, romantic view of academia where academics might be protected by their institutions until they can achieve this. Now, ‘publish lots’ seems to be the prevailing wind…

2. Fresh work vs developed grad-school work

Whether you’re developing a 500-word abstract to pitch a book chapter or journal article, or preparing a polished manuscript for submission, it’s difficult to know whether to build on your existing work or to produce something bespoke. Again, this is about up-front investment.

Developing grad-school work appears to be the easier option. You’ve done all that thinking already, right? However, there are challenges around trying to force old work into a new hole, such as a specific CFP, and of course the fact that most polished grad-school pieces are longer than your average article. Trimming a piece down is a skill in itself, and not one that we necessarily all develop while producing academic work. There’s a risk that trying to customise grad-school work leads to something less publishable than if one had struck out into a fresh field of research, meaning that in fact the time investment may be wasted.

3. Thesis vs ‘old’ work

A subset of the conundrum above, but I think this poses an additional dilemma.

Most grad students will have produced good research while completing previous degrees. Is it best to use our newest research or to refresh older pieces? Work on a PhD thesis is likely the highest quality academic work that any graduate student will have produced. That means it’s automatically ripe(r) for publication than, for example, Masters research. However, there is an increasing tendency for PhD students to draft their thesis as a prospective monograph. Taking chunks out of it might, therefore, risk the publishability of the whole, or at least present additional copyright difficulties.

Masters work may, therefore, seem like a better bet (unless the PhD follows directly on from it). However, there’s a lot of critical thinking to be done about the quality of Masters work—even if it achieved a glowing mark. The Masters degree is a staging post in terms of preparing for a research career, and accordingly the critiera for excellence differ. If approached well, however, developing Masters work for publication can be a learning experience, and be like coming to a subject fresh, but with a hell of a lot of background knowledge!

4. Submission articles vs thesis

As mentioned above, there is an increasing tendency for PhD theses to be constructed and drafted as prospective monographs, in order to cut down on the time from degree to publication. Not only does this have an impact on the types of theses that are being written (an issue worthy of a whole other list of conundrums!), but students in this position have to balance time spent on their thesis with time spent on side-project publications.

Graduate school can be a great time to begin building experience with academic publication, and ideally a publication profile. Protected time with an academic affiliation (and the attendant access to journals, seminars, supervisors, etc.) is a safety net that ECRs cannot take for granted, in particular in the light of the increasing adjunctisation of higher education. However, anxiety about being seen to ‘dally’ in grad school is a real pressure. And let’s be frank: the summer is just not long enough for side projects.

With ‘publish early and often’ becoming the guiding force for grad students, there is probably no decision to be made. Both articles and thesis seem to be ‘top priority’, as though we’re politicians unwilling to say where they’ll make the hard choices! However, scandalous though it may sound, for grad students aiming for a research career (and not everyone is), I think the thesis should take second place. To attain the degree requires a lot of hard work, but no thesis is immediately publishable without revision. Developing the skills to produce publishable work—and deal with journals and publishers—will stand you in good stead for your whole career. Why not develop them while you have the support of supervisors and can work on side projects that are shorter, more contained, and frankly things that you likely care less about than the thesis? Once you have those skills, they’re yours, and you can use them to produce publishable articles, or a monograph, from the thesis that earned you your degree.

Recent conferences: Forgotten Geographies

Forgotten Geo

As part of what I hope will be a growing series on conferences, this weekend I got to attend the second half of the Forgotten Geographies conference at Birkbeck.

There were a wide range of panels across both days, exploring Scandanavia, Anglo-Indian relations, Scottish New-Zealanders, Eastern European literature, as well as imaginary geographies.

Day 2 opened with Stefano Evangelista talking about fin-de-siècle Japan and Lafcadio Hearn‘s writings from and about that country. It was interesting to hear how writings that could be read from a twenty-first century British perspective as exoticising or othering—even despite Hearn’s love of Japan—are not necessarily read in the same way in Japan. Hearn’s house in Kumamoto remains a museum, and the 110th anniversary of his death prompted an article in Japan Times.

The panel on Global Emblems of Decadence focused on three fascinating individuals: Forrest Reid, in a paper by Alex Murray (@alexwmurray); Napoleon Lapathiotis, in a paper by Kostas Boyiopoulos; and Ronald Firbank, in a paper by Peter A. Bailey about the presence—or absence—of decadence amongst fin-de-siècle West Indian writers. This panel established a tension between geographical distance, be it Reid in Ulster refusing to move to London, or West Indian writers consuming British Victorian literature, and cosmopolitanism.

The panel on Queer Cosmopolitanism approached a variety of different forms of writing: botanical literature by Reginald Farrer, in a talk by Dominic Janes; correspondence between Carl Van Vechten and Firbank, in a talk by Kate Hext (@kate_hext); and the little magazine form, in Richard A. Kaye‘s paper on Akademos. All three were thinking about geography in different ways. Janes, in exploring Farrer’s non-fiction writings, turned explciitly to topography and the shape and feel of natural landscapes. Hext asked questions about where Van Vechten and Firbank could have met if not in the imaginary space opened up by their correspondence—the likely answer being nowhere—and about how shared imaginary landscapes might be constructed from specific uses of allusive language, such as “camp” and “camping”. Meanwhile, Kaye examined how the little magazine might create political as well as aesthetic agendas.

The final panel of the day that I went to was on Scandinavia and Cultural Transnationalism. As in the Global Emblems of Decadence panel, this panel invited a specific focus on geographical tension. In opening her paper on Knut Hamsun‘s Sult (Hunger), Eveliina Pulkki noted how Norwegian can still be treated as a humourously ‘other’ language and how Norway was often portrayed in auto-exotic terms by its authors. Rebecka Klette (@RebeckaKlette) expanded on how degeneration theory manifested itself particularly in Sweden, while Peter K. Andersson looked at how dandyism manifested in Stockholm, in particular amongst lower class men.

The whole conference was brought to a close by the premiere of a lost Ukrainian silent film, The Lie (1918), recovered from a film archive by Olga Kyrylova and based on the play of the same name by Volodymyr Vynnychenko. This closing keynote was a wonderful reminder of the value of archival research in turning up new material that can enhance our understanding of the periods that we study and open up fresh avenues that might never have been imagined.