What not to Wear to a Conference: “The Dusky Fluff of the Thibetan Goat”

It is always a risk setting a broad theme for a conference. Increasingly, diverse and detached topics have been known to find shelter under the over-generous canopy of an umbrella term.

When the PGR conference announced the theme of “Communication and Interaction” you might have been forgiven for thinking that this would be an invitation for just such an incoherent jumble of papers. However, many candidates commented that the joy of this particular conference lay in the surprising consonances and overlaps which emerged within and between panels. To a large extent, this was a reflection of the far-sightedness of the committee chaired by Marina Hannus. It was also down to the team of staff in the humanities postgraduate office who brought their unfailing support to the committee’s vision: Cathryn Baker, Lizzie Millican and Matt Barber. These people showed that the organisation of a conference is as much a part of its success as any other aspect of it.

After Professor Richard Toye’s opening address, which encouraged candidates to eschew cloistered scholarly isolation in favour of sharing and presenting, Professor Regenia Gagnier opened the conference with a lecture about cross-cultural influences and cultural appropriation. The lecture theatre were amazed to discover that the tenets of Western liberalism, derived from Marx, gained linguistic currency in China in the early twentieth-century while Walter Pater’s coinage for decadence, “Art for Art’s Sake”, had an afterlife in Vietnam. The theme that emerged out of the first panel was that of a struggle to break away from stereotyping. Hasnul Djohar’s lecture discussed how Arabic words like “Jihad” and “Hijrah” have specific historical meanings and more general personal meanings relating to personal struggle and journeys of self-discovery. Similarly, Katie Newstead discussed the struggle of actresses in their forties such as Angelina Jolie and Meryl Streep to find new roles outside the simple Hollywood caricatures of witches. Finally, Jacqueline Hopson pricked the conscience of our Western society with a shocking insight into the reductive and shallow presentation of psychiatrists in popular culture.

During the lunch-break there were some poetry readings. Esther Van Raamsdonk Mike Rose-Steel gave us a taster of their project to translate seventeenth-century Dutch poetry into English iambics. Their reason for doing so became arrestingly apparently as the poems are beguiling beautiful in their original language and the translations rise admirably to the challenges they present. The poetry reading was brought to a close by Alison Stone, whose crisply-worded, sensuous poems, often emerging out of her own experiences living on Dartmoor, were a short-lived joy to hear.

In the post-lunch panel, chaired by Imogene Dudley, medieval and early modern worlds collided. Henry Marsh and I were talking about signs and symbols, in his case the prodigies and portents in which God revealed the future to the medieval chroniclers like Adam of Usk and in my case the spots and features in which God revealed therapeutic uses to herb-enthusiasts like Shakespeare. Michelle Webb and Sarah-Jayne Ainsworth brought great sensitivity and insight to the social problems of facial disfigurement and dying well respectively.

Dr Natasha Lushetich spoke to candidates at the conference dinner, describing an art installation in which the artist extracted the breath from an inflatable object blown-up by a friend who had passed away. The condensation and the re-vaporisation of the breath in the vessel in which it is currently contained means that the art installation poses unique questions about what it means to be alive and to breathe. Conference delegates moved stones with each other’s breath—contained within plastic bags—participating in this artistic initiative in more modest ways. This meant that by the time the food had arrived everyone was feeling like they had earnt it through their small but significant artistic endeavours.

The following day opened with a panel in which a theme of female presentation in the media united the three papers. Aqeel Abdulla, with a stylish lecture, suggest that just as in the old magic trick, society delights in putting women in boxes until they disappear. He examined this pigeon-holing with relation to dramatic presentations of Muslim women. Gill Moore then took us into the field of nineteenth-century clothes advertising, which sounded at once familiar and very alien to twenty-first century ears. Victorian ladies were bewitched by ingenious turns-of-phrase promoting tiger-skin alongside “the dusky fluff of the Thibetan goat.” Finally, Leonie Thomas described the ascent of 1930s BBC producer Hilda Matheson, who managed to break out of many boxes, having no less than six careers at a time when few women were able to work.

One panel covered a lot of ground: the transatlantic of eighteenth-century Bristol and Boston; a particularly fertile stretch of land along the Amazon River and the Trent Valley in the Midlands where the Anglo-Saxons had set up a system of defences. The last two in particular came to focus on fire: use of fire to create the fertile black soils which were such an important part of the Tapajó tribe’s foodscape and the use of fire in hill-top beacons to communicate the approach of the Dane in long-ships.

The final panel of the day brought the conference right up to the present hour with a discussion of digital media. Gemma Edney discussed the origins of Youtube and the way that make-up tutorials and baking instructions can be interpreted as feminist voices. Sofia Romuldo explained the concept of “gameful play” and argued that we should strive to reconcile the playfulness of games with knowledge acquisition and learning. Richard Carter’s lecture, which was given in a wistful vein now that he has achieved his doctorate, discussed how writing can hamper academia from embracing its digital potential. It would be fair to say that all three lectures left us wondering if there might be a less serious, writing-orientated way of approaching academia and offered the audience some attractive alternatives.

The conference was brought to a close by Professor Steven Barnett, who whilst pointing out that there was good journalism in tabloid press, also exposed some of the worst excesses of journalism, when it could be malicious and cruel. He referred to Tony Blair’s words about the “feral beast” of the press and suggested that enough was not being done in the wake of the Leveson Enquiry to keep the beast chained.

Of course, not all the conference happens in the panels, much of it occurs in conversations over tuna sandwiches, in the swapping of cards and asking of questions, and in the tireless work of its organisers. Nevertheless, the panels themselves made for a bold, eclectic conference, striking up surprising dialogues like a well-ordered anthology of poetry.

Author’s Bio – Harry Ford

I am a first-year PhD student trying to why Shakespeare introduces so many plants into his writing and where his plant knowledge fits with regard to the reformation. One of the disadvantages of studying Shakespeare is that his mode of punning is carried uncomfortably into your own writing style and into every-day life. Most of my other puns are lifted from the “Joke of the Week” in the window of an Exeter tea-shop called Cake-a-doodle-do.

This blog was first published here.  To learn more about Harry’s research visit his e-profile


The Self-Funded PhD: Is it Really Worth it?

No one likes talking about money; however, for researchers, it is an increasingly pressing concern. It can be demoralizing, depressing, and devastating being turned down for funding at the beginning of a PhD, but there is another option: self-funding. In the current economic climate, more and more students are opting to take the self-funded path. But is it really worth it?

One of the questions I often get asked, but really hate answering, is “who are you funded by?” The vast majority of PhD students I know are funded by various institutions, research councils, or organisations, so I understand the assumption. However, with bigger and bigger cuts to funding, and the re-organisation of how funds are allocated (for example, from 2014/15, AHRC funding was largely given to groups of universities, or consortia, for allocation to new starters only, thus removing the opportunity for second-year students or above to obtain it), the number of self-funded students is rising.

It doesn’t stop the questions, though, or indeed the looks of shock/horror/awe when I tell people I’m self-funded.

“How do you do it?” they ask. “Why didn’t you get funding?” “How do you time manage?” “Is it really worth it?” So I thought I would write a blog post about my experiences, and what consequences my status as self-funded has had.

When I was first applying for my PhD, I read article after article, forum after forum, that essentially said “no funding, no point.” What is the point in doing a PhD if you’re not being paid for it? If a university doesn’t believe in your project enough to fund it, why bother doing it? And so I went through the application process thinking that if I didn’t get funding, I wouldn’t do the PhD. I would stop, work for a bit, and try again. Sounds simple enough.

The thing is, is that by the time I had gone through the arduous, and at times frantic, application process, I was so invested in my ideas that there was nothing else I wanted to do. I had no interest in spending time on anything except this project. I was so confident in my ideas, that I felt sure the funders would be too.

Unfortunately, for me, that wasn’t the case. I was devastated when the rejection came through. I had put every bit of effort I had into refining my proposal and was all but ready to start, and then suddenly it was all taken away from me in one, small paragraph.

So, I had three options: 1) try again a year later, 2) do it anyway, or 3) throw in the towel and give up. For a while, the third option seemed favourable. But then I realised that there was nothing I would rather do, so I decided to start the course.

I am in an incredibly privileged position: thanks to the wonderful support of my family I was able to start as a full-time student, rather than part-time. I understand that this is not a privilege that most people get, as the costs are just too high, but being able to go into a full-time course, with the added benefits of council tax exemption, desk space provision, a full-year’s quota of printing credits, and the generally (in my personal experience) greater feelings of community that come from being full-time, has made all the difference to my experience as a PhD student.

But, it is still hard. I work a part-time job whilst studying, fortunately at the university with incredibly flexible working hours, but when, as one member of staff so lovingly reminded me, you should spend “90% of your time on the thesis. Everything else can wait,” time management can sometimes be difficult, as can the feeling when you’re having a productive half-hour but have to go to work, subsequently breaking up the day and sometimes losing track. Aside from tuition fees and general living costs, research is expensive. Conference registration, travel, printing, books (and, in my case, French films that aren’t available in the library), stationery, it all adds up. I’ve become very good at living on a budget, but it’s tiring sometimes having to turn down invitations from friends who have long since graduated and entered the “real world,” or having to meticulously manage my spending.

Sometimes people ask me if being self-funded will make it harder for me to get employed: if the funders didn’t believe in my PhD, why would they believe in me as an employee? First of all, there is no obligation to state whether or not your PhD was funded on your CV; I attended some departmental interviews here at Exeter two years ago, and only one of the applicants stated their funding on their application. Secondly, I genuinely believe that a lack of funding does not reflect the quality of the research; it simply reflects that, at the time of interview, you were not as strong as the other [insert small number of available studentships here] candidates. Getting a job is hard for everyone at the end of the PhD; I don’t think a self-funded PhD is the deciding factor in an application.

So yes, it is difficult, frustrating, and sometimes downright miserable. But at the end of the day, what research degree isn’t? There is still nothing else I would rather be doing (except maybe sitting on a beach somewhere sipping margaritas… but that’s not a viable career choice), and as long as that is true, then it is worth it. My advice to anyone considering self-funding would be to think about practicalities: if you are in a position to start, be it full-time or part-time, (and also realistically still going to be in a position to continue in a few years’ time), and you are passionate about your project, then do consider the self-funded option. If you’re not so sure it’s viable, then there is no shame in taking some time out and re-applying at a later date when you have more savings.

In short: yes, my PhD is definitely worth it. I just might pass on that fancy conference dinner or cocktails after work…

Author’s Bio – Gemma Edney

I am currently in the second year of my PhD, researching the role of music in contemporary, French girlhood film, focusing on the interaction between music, character identity, and spectator subjectivity. When I’m not writing my thesis, I spend my time getting stuck in traffic, baking, drinking coffee, and being paid to answer questions that people could mostly answer themselves using the website.

This piece originally appeared here:https://basementcontemplations.wordpress.com/ and is reposted with permission.

Three risks I’m glad I’ve taken as a researcher

Self-promotion, standing out from the crowd, and developing a good reputation are said to be key to climbing the academic ladder. One way of standing out is by doing something unconventional or daring. Here Sarah Foxen describes three situations in which she has taken risks as a junior academic. For each she discusses the dangers involved and illustrates why it paid off to take the risks.

I was bricking it right up to the moment I heard the first reactions to my audacious behaviour. As soon as the room erupted, though, I knew taking the risk had paid off.

Have you ever found yourself thinking, “oh, I’d love to XYZ, but I’m not sure I’m daring enough?” About a year ago I was invited to lead a discussion seminar at Cardiff University. In advance, one of the conveners emailed me with the instructions: “you’re welcome to use any format you wish…”

What would you do faced with that information?

Amazing I thought to myself, for once I don’t have to prepare a standard PowerPoint-And-Paper-Combo; I can do something different! But what?

I’d been asked to talk about my first experiences of ethnographic fieldwork, and I felt like I had a story to tell. Hmm; a story. One idea sprung to mind, but it seemed a bit outrageous. It was logical but was so far removed from the PP-A-P-Combo. I grappled with it for a few days then decided I’d take the risk.

Fast forward to that cold, grey Wednesday afternoon. People start filing in. It’s not my institution, so I’ve really got no idea who anyone is: that chap coming in with the stripy jumper, for example, could be a PhD student or lecturer or dean of faculty.

Everyone is finally installed: It’s showtime.Thump, thump, thump: I can hear and feel my heartbeat. Why did I ever think this would be a good idea? No going back. I begin:

“Hi everyone, for those of you who don’t know me, I’m Sarah, and for today’s discussion I’ve drawn a cartoon…”sarah_foxen_cartoon

Cue: excitement, amusement, surprise, interest, laughter, recognition, engagement, questions, tangential thoughts, and animated discussion…

Like I said, as soon as the group reacted I knew the risk had been worth it. Just because we are scholars and are used to traditional forms of delivery doesn’t mean they’re the only ones we should use. I’m so glad I didn’t play it safe, because five awesome things happened as a result:

  1. I got a great reaction to my presentation
  2. I got to consider my research in a completely different way
  3. I was able to contribute in some small way to diversifying the appearance of academic research (cf. the ocean being made up of drops of water)
  4. I got to bring my creative skills into my research
  5. People remember me (a year down the line, the convener emailed me asking if she could use my cartoon to illustrate a blogpost on the discussion group)

Maybe cartoon drawing isn’t your thing, but I bet this next risky situation is one that has been – or could be – on the cards for many of you: the interdisciplinary conference.

An opportunity recently arose for me to submit an abstract for an interdisciplinary conference. I thought to myself: Interdisciplinary? Hmm, risky: I’d be out of my comfort zone, I might look stupid. Though that probably is the worst thing that could happen. 

But lets be rational: it’s interdisciplinary; everyone will be a bit out of their comfort zone. People sort of expect you not to be an expert.

And what about the best thing that could happen? It’s interdisciplinary: people will have very different research backgrounds to mine; they could give me really great input and insight.So shall I take the risk? Yes.

And so what happened on the day?

Well, I went to the conference and ‘confessed’ to my audience that I wasn’t an expert and that I wanted to learn from them. Then this happened:

  1. I felt liberated because no one expected me to be an ‘expert’: I could legitimately be a ‘learner’
  2. Others imparted their wisdom to me
  3. I met people from really different disciplines, and diversified my network
  4. I got to enrich the minds of my audience by sharing theories and ideas from my discipline

Now finally, some reflections about the biggest risk I think I’ve taken, and a risk I imagine at least some of you have contemplated: tweeting data, results or research as an expert.

Last summer an article appeared oni100 listing the top ten baby names for boys and girls.  Something linguistically interesting appeared to be going on. So I did some basic data analysis and visualisation.

The patterns that emerged were fascinating (we have a gendered alphabet: boys names favour consonant letters and sounds, whilst for girls it’s vowels). The thing is, the patterns were so striking, I wanted to share what I’d spotted with the wider world.

But there was a problem. I’m a PhD linguistics student: I’m supposed to be (becoming) an expert. What if I’d miscalculated something or made an error? Putting my calculations into the public domain felt quite risky. But the data was astonishing. So what did I do? I checked my calculations a zillion times, scrunched up my eyes and clicked tweet.

In came the likes and the retweets. I was beaming; others had found the linguistic patterns equally fascinating.I was loving seeing the retweets, then suddenly I got a notification of a reply: someone had said I’d got it wrong; I’d done my vowel analysis wrong.

What you have to know is that my PhD is all about vowels.

Ground swallow me up. Not good. Not good.

I looked again at the data; I was sure I hadn’t made a mistake.

And then salvation came: another linguist pointed out that I’d analysed the data with a British accent in mind and, since it was British data, I hadn’t made a mistake. They supposed my accuser had had an American accent in mind, which would explain their confusion.

Big sigh of relief.

So what did I learn? Well, it was a high risk, but, because I went for it:

  1. I got to use my skills and expertise to analyse data not related to my research
  2. I was able to share some remarkable linguistic patterns with experts and non-experts
  3. I strengthened (virtual) links with my research community
  4. Will I do it again? Yes. But I’ll continue to look at my calculations a squillion times, which, let’s be honest, is no bad thing.

And so to conclude, I encourage you to think about taking a risk or two – with presentations, conferences, social media, or whatever. What’s the worst thing that could happen? But what’s the best thing that could happen?

Author’s Bio

Sarah Foxen is a postgraduate researcher in French Linguistics. Her research investigates the interactions between language and identity in the Franco-Belgian borderland. She is also interested in trends and developments in academia, and blogs about researcher skills, research and impact from the perspective of a junior academic.

This piece originally appeared on the author’s personal blog and is reposted with permission.