Merry Christmas

I’m taking the next three days off to finish the marvelous Anne Lister diaries and celebrate some of that Christmas business. It remains to be seen whether any of my expensive Christmas gifts for academics are under my tree. I suspect not.

See you on the other side…

The Five Word Thesis

‘I remember being at a noisy party in Australia and an acquaintance asking me what I was working on. When I responded “Irish women’s writing”, he looked surprised and said “I didn’t think they had any”. It turned out that, in the noise, he thought I had said “Irish women’s rights” but ultimately decided that the same answer applied in both cases.’

Rebecca Pelan, Two Irelands: Literary Feminisms North and South (Syrcacuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005), p.xiii.

‘The Five Word Thesis’ is the short description you tell to people you meet at parties who may or may not be particularly interested in your thesis – just enough information to be specific without going on at length. Mine is ‘contemporary Northern Irish women’s poetry’.

I’ve been surprised on a number of occasions on how people’s responses often unknowingly reinforce the very point of the thesis. My responses are usually ‘I didn’t know there was any contemporary Northern Irish women’s poetry’, or they totally disregard ‘women’s’ and eagerly nod, saying ‘Like Seamus Heaney?’.

Seamus Heaney - Famous Contemporary Northern Irish 'Woman' Poet

Seamus Heaney - Famous Contemporary Northern Irish 'Woman' Poet

McClay Day (1)

I spent yesterday afternoon in the spangly new McClay Library at Queen’s University in Belfast. The library opened in 2009 (like the David Wilson Library at Leicester) and seems to have plenty of computer terminals and quiet study spaces. I was in the Special Collections room with some theses and other rarer materials. I found yet more maths in feminist literary criticism in the Field Day vols. 4 and 5.

Visiting other libraries is always kind of fun, and I’m lucky that the QUB library is so well stocked on Irish literature materials that I can use if I’m home in Bangor.

My plan to dander up to MacNeice House on the Malone Road was scuppered by the cold. It is really, really cold here. So cold and snowy that the ‘Echo’ sculpture outside of the library has a snow-hawk.

'Echo', Queen's McClay Library

'Echo', Queen's McClay Library

‘World is suddener’ – A Weather Poem

‘The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.’

Louis MacNeice, ‘Snow’.

I’m back in Northern Ireland for the Christmas vacation. Plenty of others attempting the same journey over the next few days (including several friends) will have rather a lot of difficulty since Northern Ireland is having what police are calling the worst conditions in 25 years.

Weather permitting, I intend to visit the McClay library at Queen’s University, Belfast on Tuesday. There are several useful materials there I’d like to see, including theses. It feels very strange working in libraries which aren’t ‘your own’. If the snow is still thick I might walk to MacNeice house to see the snowy gardens.

MacNeice House

MacNeice House, former CoI Bishop's palace where MacNeice looked out the great bay windows at the roses.

What We Look Like

‘it is ourselves we want to express, and the truth in us; and a glance at the shape of Ulster writing over the past fifty years can help us to discover what we look like.’

Barbara Hunter and Roy McFadden, ‘Introduction’, Rann, 20 (1953), p. 1.

Expensive Christmas Presents for Academics

There are some useful new tech devices I’ve spent some time reading about online. Both these devices, if they work as well as advertised, could radically change the way I and other academics work.

1. CopyCat Portable Scanner – £79.99
This is a handheld scanner, about the size of a remote, which can scan documents and save them to a memory card. Optical character recognition software can then turn these documents into editable and searchable text.

I’ve not yet seen anyone using one of these, but I would not be surprised to see one soon.

For the researcher this is a no-brainer. The ability to capture documents and save them for future use makes me positively foam at the mouth; especially for use on material in reference only libraries. Making these documents searchable would also be very useful. The price would really not put me off buying this.

First off, there are loads of copyright complexities to contend with – in the same way as photocopying. Some libraries go mad when you photograph material, so I presume they’d also go mad at this. Also, having potentially thousands of images of documents over the course of an extended research project would require some serious data management.

CopyCat Portable Scanner

CopyCat Portable Scanner

2. Livescribe Smart Pen – Over £100
This is a pen which can do more than just ink paper (although it does that too). It had a mic embedded in it, so it can record discussions and lectures. This playback is actually associated with what you were writing at the time, so you can hear again what exactly it was you meant by a cryptic note. It also saves the writing as a digital file which run through OCR software again makes hand written notes editable and searchable on the computer.

I’ve been in a workshop with a student who used one of these. He really rated it highly.

This seems to be a great solution to aligning notes with speech and also making notes searchable.

Again, this is a copyright minefield. Recording lectures, conference papers and panels is a grey area since whether or not you are allowed to do this depends on the speaker. I also feel it is a big investment since most seem to be around £150 and then you need special dotted paper to make notes on which is an additional and continuing cost. I also lose biros quite often.

Livescribe Pen

3. Kindle (or other ebook reader) – £100-49
The Kindle and the many other ebook readers available have had lots of press attention. Basically, you could have any book you want in digital format and carry a whole library around on a device not much bigger than a paperback.

I haven’t seen any of these around the library, but then you do tend to go to the library for books…

A whole library in a tiny package is the most obvious. You can make notes and annotations on the text too, and export these.

It isn’t really clear to me what kinds of texts are available in ebook format. I assume everything that is out of copyright, so older novels and poetry. But what about literary criticism? Are the academic publishers on board? Is it all popular fiction? Another downside is that according to this blogger there are no page numbers, which would make referencing a nightmare. You also can’t check ebooks from a library, so you’ll need to pay for everything.



Maths in Feminist Literary Criticism

Maths is not a skill I necessarily expected to be using almost daily during my DPhil thesis on poetry. Yet, more and more I’m having to scribble sums since feminist literary criticism rather likes to use ratios and fractions to demonstrate the poor esteem women’s poetry is held in.

I first noticed this trend where it is made very explicit in Eva Salzman’s ‘Introduction’ to the Women’s Work (2008) anthology:

‘Here are some of the figures, mostly from volumes published in the enlightened post-1960s: Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse ed. Kenneth Allott – 5 women/90 men; New Penguin Book of English Verse ed. Paul Keegan – 16 women/81 men;  British Poetry Since 1945 ed. Edward Lucie-Smith – 7 women/37 men […] Ad nauseum. I could bore us all to kingdom come.’ (p. 9)

There are other examples, but Salzman’s is the best because it is so withering.

‘In the UK, any glaring gender imbalance is typically explained away as a ‘coincidence’ here, an ‘accident’ there. In that case, one should send for the doctors. If the selection criteria are in fact gender-blind, based on quality alone, this implied opinion of women’s writing is an offence demanding a response.’ (p. 7)

Crunching the figures for anthologies of Northern Irish poetry (which is very time consuming for a few digits in the final chapter) shows a similar lack. One woman to 26 men (Poets from the North of Ireland), six women to 62 men (A Rage for Order), 4000 pages and scant acknowledgment of any women (The Field Day Anthology, vols. 1-3).

Combine this with many high profile women poets such as Sheenagh Pugh declaring that they do not wish to be involved in the ‘ghetto-ising’ publication of women’s only anthologies – and the result is that very few women will ever appear in anthologies.

Where are the women poets?

‘”Where are the women poets?” asks […] Frank Ormsby, “Reviewers will latch on to that and repeat it ad nauseam. In my more splenetic moments I think: ‘If you think there are all these women poets, then you do an anthology of women’s poetry and see how far you get. If you get to 10 pages you’d be lucky.”‘

John O’Mahony, ‘Troubles In Mind; Literary life in Northern Ireland seems to be flourishing as never before’, The Guardian, 7 July 1993, p. 4.

Thoughts on Evernote: ‘Remember Everything’

Evernote is software which has become invaluable to me in my academic writing (and much else). The company tagline ‘Remember Everything’ might indicate why. Basically Evernote remembers all the information that I trawl through at 1am. The name is annoyingly similar to Endnote.

It acts as a kind of interactive scrap book where I can simply drag and drop interesting web pages, text, journal articles and images and then catalogue according to my own preferences. This can then be accessed in the application on my MacBook, online from any computer – or even from my iPod Touch.

There are plenty of other tools to do this, I know. Endnote and Zotero allow you to add notes to your bibliographic references and Pages allows you to make a catalogue and library of journal articles. Dropbox syncs content from the designated space on my computer to the web. Evernote has really entered into my working practice though. I use it to save important web links, or notes about books I should follow up on, or photographs. I’ve even taken notes on my iPod during a meeting and you can tweet @ Evernote and it files it.

The other really useful aspect is for those annoying pdf scans of articles on databases where you can’t highlight or search the text. Evernote sends the pdf to their big computer and makes it readable, meaning I can then search within the application for the word and it highlights it.


I’m demonstrating a peculiarly British tendency this week since my work has been disrupted by snow. I had a meeting in Nottingham yesterday evening with the Theatre Writing Partnership (I’m on the board, not a theatre writer), and found it a fairly terrifying drive there and back. So bad that I stopped in Leicester, so I didn’t get back here until early afternoon. I missed a computer class on Endnote, which is really annoying.

My MA annotated dissertation was waiting in the post box when I got back. The examiner thought the latter two chapters were the strongest, which goes to show that I know nothing since I thought three was the weakest. I aim to take the research I’ve already done for this and make it into a journal article, but this term getting the thesis started must come first.

Last week ended with the Wadham graduate advisee dinner and this week with the college Christmas dinner. I feel like a turkey they are fattening up. I know they say Christmas comes earlier every year, but the 8 week terms here mean that the halls are already ringing manically with carols.

Create a free website or blog at