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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!

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‘Carmilla’ and Dracula’s Legacy

I read an excellent post by Miranda Butler on ‘Carmilla’ on YouTube a little while ago, and I thought it would make an excellent addition to my blog series on Dracula’s legacy. I watched the first two seasons a little while ago and have just finished the first half of Season 3, which only recently came out (the second half is due next week). What follows attempts to avoid spoilers as far as possible, but don’t proceed if you want to watch the whole show without any details about it at all.

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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.

The Historian and Dracula’s Legacy

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As part 2 of a series of posts about how we might apply some of Friedrich Kittler‘s media theory insights and reading of Stoker’s Dracula to modern vampire tales, I thought I would look at Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian (2005).

Kostova’s text is concerned with how history is represented, in particular in book form. As I noted in my post about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is an inclination for vampire narratives to focus on old media, manuscripts and books, and the histories that they contain within their pages, legible hundreds of years after the fact of their production, perhaps because these media in some way mirror the ageless and unaging central characters. In his essay on ‘Dracula’s Legacy’, Kittler notes this similarity—with a difference—in observing that “the race of the Count” in Dracula “is the history of Transylvania, his blood a different sort of memory than reference works” (p.150). The Historian seeks to complicate this distinction by producing a vampiric cult that is mediated by texts, and a master vampire who is an obsessive collector thereof.

Although published in 2005, the novel chooses to return to the 1970s as its dominant ‘present day’, with the 1950s and 1930s featuring heavily as flash-backs. There are various personal (and political-historical) reasons why the author felt drawn to these time-periods, but as with Buffy, there is a deliberate authorial choice that limits the possible impingement of technology on the vampire narrative. The real lives of academics in the early 2000s—Google, JSTOR, digital archives, mobile phones, in short, Discourse Network 2000—are deliberately avoided, and the narrative proceeds on the (nostalgic but false) basis of what Kittler has called the “monopoly of writing”, to the extent that the novel often draws on manuscripts, a vellum-bound book inspiring Rossi and Paul, her father’s letters inspiring the narrator.

The Historian does not deny the supernatural power of the vampire, but chooses to inscribe Dracula within the same discourse network in which his foes exist. The Historian goes a step beyond Stoker’s Dracula’s destruction of letters and wax phonograph cylinders in an effort to control the flow of information. Instead, vampires invade the library, and as Paul correctly deduces, seek to impede research into Dracula. Helen is almost killed by a vampire librarian early on in the narrative, who follows them throughout most of their travels, and ipon discovering Rossi, near death, his big revelation is that Dracula too is a scholar who has founded his own secret library.

In a way, then, we can say that Kostova’s Dracula becomes like Kittler’s caricature of Jacques Lacan, who had his seminars recorded and then transcribed for him to read ahead of the next lecture. Kittler notes that in such circumstances “speech has become, as it were, immortal” (‘Legacy’, p.143). Like Lacan, Kostova’s Dracula has become a consumer of his own narratives; he holds a copy of Stoker’s novel in his library and takes an inordinate interest in the writings about him, whereas Stoker’s Dracula hoarded documents only that might prove useful to him (railway timetables and the like). Kittler notes that, “in order to replace the Id with an Ego, to replace violence with technology, it is necessary that one first fall into the clutches of this violence” (p.149). In his analysis of Dracula, this refers to the travels of the characters to Transylvania. Kostova, however, provides a more psychoanalytic account of Dracula’s own development of an Ego, having emerged from the “clutches” of violence into a figure of a literary man. Unlike Dracula, which posits the vampire as backwards and having a “child-brain”, The Historian suggests that even this most bodily and blood-y of demons, the vampire, is inscribed within the discourse networks in which he finds himself. Dracula is a librarian because books have come to rule the world.

We have here, too, what was almost entirely absent in Buffy, with its isolated Slayers and controlling Watchers Council. The Historian proposes a geneology of vampire hunting. The unnamed narrator is at the end of a line of academics who have hunted Dracula: Professor Rossi, his daughter, Helen, and his protege, Paul. This invisible blood connection with vampire hunting combines with the secret societies that are familiar from Buffy. One of the academics who help Paul and Helen gain is Professor Bora, who reveals himself to be part of a secret organisation, derived from the elite of the Janissaries, set against the secret organisation associated with Dracula, the Order of the Dragon. While imprisoned in Dracula’s library, Rossi writes an account of it, which he conceals within the archive. He employs, in lieu of the traditional crucifixes and garlic the same “modern defensive techniques of espionage” as Jonathan Harker (p.152).

While Kittler opposed text and geneaology in his reading of Dracula, reference works and blood are intertwined in The Historian‘s narrator. Dracula has begun to incline towards the former alone, while his hunters are connected through the latter. Espionage against the vampire—Rossi’s account, the novel itself—becomes, involuntarily, counter-espionage; the texts become part of the vampire’s own library, part of his own power, and the Order of the Dragon and its vampiric scholars continue to taunt each new generation of vampire hunters; the novel ends with the narrator, an academic in 2008, receiving the same book that led her father and grandfather towards Dracula. The Historian blurs the lines between vampiric and human modes of knowledge and draws into question the tools at the disposal of those on both sides.

Buffy vs Dracula’s legacy

As a change is as good as a rest, I thought I would take some time away from thesis redrafting to write something here about vampires from a media theory perspective. Yes. Vampires. Media theory. Settle in!

One of Friedrich Kittler‘s few extended literary analyses applies toBram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), wherein Kittler invites us to see Dracula’s fight as primarily against new mediums, particularly the typewriter and the gramophone. Here, I want to put Kittler’s reading of Dracula against one of the most influential vampire stories of our own turn of the century, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

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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.

Setting up research projects

Today at work I am mostly tinkering around in the background with a research project we are going to be doing. It has been internally agreed, but is not yet out in the big wide world. This gives me a lot more opportunities to fret and be anxious about aspects of it (such as recruiting someone experienced in the area to work specifically on it) than I would have if it were announced and ‘public property’.

Nothing will go wrong, and we do plenty of these projects every year, but I find them much more challenging than developing and starting my own (academic) research projects, which have never to date been collaborative to the same degree as the ones in work. I know that there are some people who find it much less stressful to be involved in a group or pair when doing research, but I find myself much more anal (and, therefore, anxious) about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s when there are other people with a stake in endeavour. I don’t find this to be so with any of the academic advisers I’ve had, but perhaps that is because none of them have ever really invested very much!

I will fret about this project until it is under way, anyway.