Welcome to More Books, Please

My name is Alex Pryce and I’m currently reading for a DPhil in English at the University of Oxford. My research addresses the work of contemporary Northern Irish women poets. The posts on this blog discuss my research as well as aspects of contemporary scholarship including digital scholarship and collaborative networks. Find out more about me and my research. You can also follow my tweets or view my academia.edu profile.

I’ve moved!

I’ve moved house, and I’ve got a job, and I have a new website.

More on the other side.

For now, thanks for following morebooksplease.wordpress.com . If you’d like to still hear my news and my blog-muttering, you can update your subscription at www.alexpryce.com (which is still under construction – so don’t mind the dust and wet paint for now).

Between here and the end of this chapter

I’ve been working for some time on Morrissey’s Japan sequence in Between Here and There for my consideration of form. It has been refreshing to spend time really getting into forms, experiences and whole language systems that are completely unfamiliar to me.

The Japan sequence interests me not only on its merits as a beguiling exploration of frustrated communication, culture shock and Otherness (I’m using it in the Lacanian sense, not the postcolonial sense), but because it marked a change for Morrissey in terms of her writing practice. I’m including here a short extract from an interview with Declan Meade published in The Stinging Fly (and available to read in full on their website).

My lack of any explanation here is because I’m still mulling, and because what I’ve brewed so far is in my thesis.

Tell us about how you write a poem.

I write very differently now from how I did up until the writing of that Japanese sequence.

Well, how was it then?

It was much more inspiration-driven. I would get first lines and I would just start writing. It would be more a matter of listening and then the poem would just flow onto the page. I’d have to go back and rework it, but the body of the poem would be written pretty quickly and the voice would be very, very clear. Since the writer’s block I’ve never had that clear voice, I don’t know if I ever will again. It just stopped. I haven’t been inspired to write since. I’ve had to develop a completely different way of writing. It’s much more like chiselling away, of something emerging, rather than having a clear direction at the beginning. There’s much more labour, more craft involved. Within that process the poem isn’t going to work, unless something, whatever it is, takes over and the poem starts to move.

So do you now sit down and force yourself to write?

I have to make time to write a poem, to clear a space. It’s quite scary facing the blank page like this, every single time, with no idea how the construction process is going to go. Then again, aspects of writing like this can be less scary than inspired writing. When the voices stopped, when I stopped being inspired, I was terrified because I’d always written under inspiration which is something I couldn’t control. I couldn’t control when it was going to happen or what it was going to tell me to do. When that was taken away, I felt I had no inner capacity to write a poem. Since then I’ve got this whole new approach in which I can create a poem through an act of my own will. The fear has diminished. I feel more in control. I’d love the voices to come back but I can’t make them.

Do you have any theories as to why they went away?

Maybe I just grew up. It was just so clearly defined, in that I got food poisoning and my thyroid function collapsed, and from that point on I couldn’t write like before. But maybe it was just about being twenty-four as well. When you’re young emotion is so pristine and intense, it can drive a poem. Maybe as you get older, emotion doesn’t have such force.

What is academic blogging?

Blogging has been on my mind recently. One reason for this is that I’m responsible for posting a series of blogs written by Oxford graduate students on the Great Writers Inspire blog, so I’ve been spending a lot of time in the WordPress interface. I’ve been impressed by the blogs that my peers have written – and I do think that the blog form still represents one of the best and most democratic ways of communicating literary and non-literary ideas.

Mark Carrigan, on his blog, recently asked ‘What is “academic blogging”?’, the same question I’ve asked here. He quotes Professor Martin Weller (who incidentally will deliver the keynote at an event on digital humanities I am organising in Oxford in June 2013). In his work The Digital Scholar, Weller suggests that ‘a well-respected digital scholar may well be someone who has no institutional affiliation. The democratisation of the online space opens up scholarship to a wider group, just as it opens up subjects that people can study beyond the curriculum defined by universities’. Given that a recent Guardian article suggested that more than a third of academics are now on short term contracts, it seems that unless institutions properly invest in people, they may in fact miss out on the benefits of digital scholarship as researchers become well known bloggers, rather than well known institutional academics.

Carrigan in his post comments that there are ambiguities which the term ‘academic blogging’. ‘I guess my fear is that that, unless this is more widely recognised, certain possibilities about what it could be taken to entail might be foreclosed i.e. “academic blogging” comes to be defined as only one of the many specific activities that are currently subsumed under this rather vague term’. I quite agree. What used to be a relatively individual activity is now entering the mainstream as institutions offer ‘how to’ workshops on academic blogs. Blogging is even, I hear, an assessed part of undergraduate courses at institutions at which some of my colleagues tutor.

While academia has for years been defined mainly by ‘traditional’ outputs – monographs, journals, students successfully getting degrees – as academic blogging develops as a discipline, many different outputs are now happening in that form. None of the blogs I read regularly are doing the same thing in the same way. Dr Nadine Muller from LJMU is combining advice for graduates and early career researchers in The New Academic with personal musings on being just one such new academic. Professor Elizabeth Eva Leach from Oxford blogs about her research into medieval musicology, but often also reflects on the ways in which the work of the contemporary scholar is informed by technologies and changing knowledge frameworks (including blogging). My digital friend Maeve O’Brien, like me, is reflective on the thesis writing process – although she occasionally posts about issues in Plath scholarship (including a recent post on The Bell Jar cover controversy). My PG CWWN colleague Emma Young from Salford is experimenting with the blog format in her new e-portfolio, a part of her PG Certificate in Academic Practice. The Great Writers Inspire blog has always been about using the form to introduce readers to the themes of the main project (enticing people to explore the thousands of literary resources). Politics in Spires, an Oxford and Cambridge OER project from the politics and IR departments, invites the critical exchange of ideas about politics between academics and the public as these things are happening. This blog, for what it is worth, started as a way to reflect on my MA dissertation, but now is ‘about writing a thesis’ – although increasingly I am finding that what that involves is more complex.

Wikipedia defines ‘blog’ more helpfully than the OED. Wiki claims it is ‘a discussion or informational site published on the World Wide Web and consisting of discrete entries (“posts”) typically displayed in reverse chronological order (the most recent post appears first)’. As a description, this is as open-ended as the description of ‘book’ as a ‘set of written, printed, illustrated, or blank sheets, made of ink, paper, parchment, or other materials, usually fastened together to hinge at one side’. What blogging means for academia is still in flux – there is no clear cut example of what an academic blog is. What there are, instead, are academics who are blogging in different and interesting ways. Just as academics are rightly reflective on their other practices, the self-reflective vein in many academic blogs is important. What is academic blogging? What are we doing?

Your research network(s) need you!

The Postgraduate Contemporary Women’s Writing Network is currently recruiting new Steering Group members. The network is a cross-institutional and student-led initiative which aims to bring together postgraduate students working on contemporary writing by women. I’ve been on the Steering Group since 2010 and although I’ll be leaving when my doctoral studies finish it will be with regret because I have thoroughly enjoyed working with my peers.

I’m posting this to explain and reflect on the benefits of being involved in PG CWWN (in my case), but I strongly suspect it is true of any research network, group or association.

It is repeated time and again that doctoral students need ‘transferable skills’, and that even if you stay in academia, first class research often isn’t enough to secure that elusive first post. The nature of much literary research is that it simply doesn’t leave itself open to the kinds of activities which are necessary. I spend most days alone at my desk.

Being part of the network, though, means that I have experience in organising and hosting conferences and symposiums. I’ve built and maintained a website, run a blog and edited a newsletter. I’ve managed a mailing list and social media channels. I’ve applied for funding on both minor and major levels, and delivered the projects that funding was for. I’ve worked with my peers, represented postgraduate interests on a research association level and liaised with both literary writers and senior academics. I’ve reviewed abstracts and journal articles and edited a journal issue. I’ve also worked to find ways in which our network can build links with publishers and the public.  These things, of course, don’t guarantee me a job. They do however make me feel a little better about my prospects in the market.

I’ve also had fun. Doing all of the above on top of full time research isn’t always easy but, call me a glutton for punishment, I’ve enjoyed (nearly) every moment of it. I’ve built close relationships with the people on the steering group and I count many of those I’ve worked with over the time among my closest friends. Working together on various projects while at different stages of the doctoral journey has allowed for support, hints, tips, and encouragement when required.

This is the sort of fun you could be having in online meetings.

In a recent #ECRchat on Twitter, Charlotte Mathieson (@cemathieson) commented:

If what you need isn’t there, set it up! Make networks, journals, etc #feminism #academia #ECRchat

I quite agree. If it isn’t there – set it up. If it is there, make the most of it and in doing so make the most of your own research experience.

Woman (or man), your network needs you!

Hi, Hilary Term

Following my last post, in mid-December, you could be forgiven for thinking that I’ve been buried in marking since then. Rest assured, things aren’t quite that bad. The marking was done, the feedback was sent, the course ended. There was something about Christmas, and then it was term time all over again except this time I have 4 students to tutor one-to-one and the DPhil finishing post is hurtling ever closer. There is also a graduate progression assessment which required chapter outlines, a schedule to completion and a chapter extract. Later this term, I’ll be interviewed as part of that process. I am trying very hard not to freak out about this.

I have a new ‘Research Assistant’ (as Nadine Muller calls academic pets). Vita is a rather naughty 4 month old kitten who likes to chase laser pointers and either sit on my laptop or on me. So far, her outputs are not REFable. Her other interests include playing ‘Game for Cats’ on the iPad (seriously) and watching television.

The internet doesn’t have enough photos of cats sleeping.


I promise not to post more photos like this, honest.

This term, I’m also continuing my work for Great Writers Inspire, although this time with a focus on impact. To that end, there will be regular posts from Oxford graduate students on that blog – covering everything from Mary Wollstonecraft, the incumbent US poet laureate, Tagore and Leonard Woolf and more.

I have made a February resolution to blog more often here, since it seems a shame to have become so lax towards the end of the DPhil process. More anon.

Marking imminent…

Rather than posting in full, since a marking flurry is imminent, here is a post I made yesterday for Strange Bedfellows on creativity and staring out a word processor.

Also worth a read over at SB is information on a new creative mentoring programme for school students led by humanities graduate students at the Universities of York and Leeds. I look forward to hearing more about how that works out for both sides.

Compiling course outlines is a learning process in itself. Discuss.

Term is over here, but the wheel never stops turning. This week, I’ve been working on putting together course handbooks for my students for next term as well as preparing for a supervision tomorrow and thinking ahead to next term’s confirmation of status (graduate progression assessment). I also received some good funding news from the AHRC for a project for 2013 – more on that another time.

Today, I thought I’d take a break from my usual thesis blethering to talk about compiling course handbooks, specifically for tutoring in Oxford. So far, I’ve put together three handbooks for three visiting students who have (or will) each work with me one-to-one.

There doesn’t seem to be any magic formula, but from conversations with other part-time tutors, I’ve developed a framework for a handbook which tells the students most of everything they need to know for their course. I’ve included my contact details, details of where we will meet, an overview of the course content and aims, information on assessment, grade boundaries and essay deadlines, a reading list for each week, and essay questions.

The benefits for the student are obvious. From my own time as an undergraduate I know how reassuring it can be to have everything gathered in one place and all the expectations laid out from the start. I find it reassuring as a tutor too, because I know the student should have everything they need in one place. In addition, putting together a course makes me excited about the term ahead, and my favourite part is selecting a suitable and provocative image for the cover page. Having things formalized in this way makes me feel confident in the direction the course will take.

However, like many part time tutors, the topics I’m teaching are disparate, and often more than a little outside of my immediate specialism.* Compiling the reading list can be a challenge because of this, and, when I am preparing the course outline I have to acknowledge gaps in my own knowledge which I must rectify. It is time consuming and setting a selection of essay questions for each week that will encourage insightful responses can be difficult.

Quite apart from my attempts to bring some sense of order to my tutorials, next term I’ll also be teaching some final year extended essay students who are starting to take on responsibility for module direction themselves. I’m looking forward to comparing the two very different teaching formats.

*If you are one of my students and you are reading this, please rest assured things will fine. They will.

Snag List

It has been over a month since my last post, and even that was brief. This hints that I’m rather busy, although I have blogged three whole times over at Strange Bedfellows, so it is more a case of neglect on this side.

The thing that I’ve been busiest with in the past three weeks is getting a more advanced draft of my first chapter to my supervisor (I should add this isn’t the first draft of a first chapter, it is a later draft of the chapter which will come first). It needed restructuring, some re-ordering, more links made to the rest of the thesis shape, and I’ve supplemented all that with some surprisingly (for me) high theory. It has Derrida in the first paragraph. Serious stuff, you know. That chapter was sent off for feedback today, and the whole process starts again with chapter two soon. Once I catch up with the other things I’ve been ignoring lately (including work stuff, exercise, leaving the house and washing dishes).

The graduate community in my college have just received a very nice new graduate centre. It is very nice. Like multi-million-pound nice. It feels like a real privilege to have access to such amazing facilities. Access, this week, has been something of a problem though. The card readers which lock the doors weren’t working yet, so instead of 24/7 access it has been locked at night for security. This is top of the builders’s snag list.

Yes, snag list, a term for all the odds and ends that need fixing before the builders hang up their hard hats. I’ve taken quite a liking to the term, since it quite succinctly sums up all the tidying up that needs to be done to a thesis in your third year. Some snags are bigger than others – like, faulty door locks and major theoretical misunderstanding. Others are more minor, like a paint job, or making paragraph links more sensible. There are plenty more snags to be encountered in the coming months, but as long as I don’t have to completely relay the foundations I think I’ll make it.

And now, some pictures of said graduate centre (via Wadham Alumni on Flickr).

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