Happy National Poetry Day!

I love National Poetry Day, although I’m rather busy this year (you-know-that-thesis-business) so I’m not able to mark it properly today. Instead, here are some poetry related links…

Happy National Poetry Day from Great Writers Inspire – Over on the GWI blog, I’ve posted a Keats poem in honour of this year’s ‘star’ theme.

‘An opening identity crisis: I don’t call myself…’  – Instead of posting about my various anxieties and identity crises here, I’ve blogged about creative and critical identity over at Strange Bedfellows.

Feeling retro? – Here is what I was doing on this blog at this time last year.

PoetCasting for National Poetry Day 2009 – Recordings from a PoetCasting event held for National Poetry Day in 2009. I distinctly remember that I had a very rotten flu that night.


The start of term, and the end of the conference season

Term is officially here (or does 0th week not count?). Seeing the freshers unloading reminds me of my own arrival here, which was 2 years ago now. Time flies, and as I enter my third year it definitely seems to be shifting quicker.

Last Friday I attended the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association (FWSA) and Contemporary Women’s Writing Association (CWWA) conference on the theme ‘Feminism and Academia: An Age of Austerity?’ at the University of Nottingham. This was the last conference I have lined up for 2012, and I presented a paper on book reviewing practices in feminist journals and webzines. You can read the abstract online. (Which reminds me, I have a book review in the new issue of Modern Language Review.) Presenting on something other than poetry made a nice change, but was also a little nerve wracking.

Over lunch, the two host associations held their respective AGMs. I was running for the CWWA’s Website Officer position, and I’m pleased to say I was elected. I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into another WordPress based site.

The conference was a great success. Bringing together different associations with similar outlooks to host a joint conference is one way to combat the financial austerities, and the different papers and keynotes showed that across the humanities disciplines, feminist scholars are acknowledging the changing circumstances of Higher Education and adapting. I listened to papers on queer theory, medieval literature, Jane Austen scholarship, African feminism and women in Austrian science. I also attended an early career workshop, a panel discussion and a keynote from Professor Mary Eagleton on the anxious female in austerity academia in fiction in the modern and contemporary period.

As term gets underway, I have plenty to be getting on with. I have a plan of my thesis targets in place, and the Strange Bedfellows project launched today. I’ll also be welcoming my Modern Irish Literature students to our virtual learning environment on Wednesday.

(via AyeshaKazmi from the Occupy Boston protest, found on Mark Carrigan’s blog)

The summer has ended, and I am not yet saved (or much further on with my thesis)

I haven’t blogged for a long time now, sorry about that to my regular readers and subscribers. As term swings into view, I’m hoping to post more regularly.

I will be posting regularly, although not necessarily here. I’m going to be part of a team of bloggers for the Strange Bedfellows project,  a new initiative run by PhD students at the universities of York and Hull and supported by the University of York. The project seeks to engage with how creativity and critical analysis meet in the age of austerity. I’m very excited to be involved, and readers will know that I’ve blogged in the past about these themes. I’m part of a team of 11 bloggers, with interests which span film, music, fiction, poetry, publishing, art, archeology and philosophy. It should be an interesting collaboration!

Over the summer, I’ve taught at a two week social enterprise summer school, been awarded a scholarship for academic excellence, worked on a collaborative funding proposal, prepared for my teaching in Michaelmas, planned my thesis work to completion, attended an interdisciplinary Sylvia Plath Masterclass, written a journal article, and a book review, and two conference papers, attended one conference, been on holiday to Italy and Cyprus, moved house, and continued working on the Great Writers Inspire project. I’m about ready for a break.

What do you mean term is starting?

My ‘Introduction to Literary Studies’ class

Alternative Ways to Meet Thesis Word Targets: Death, Trauma or Self-Mutilation?

I’ve been writing up part of the chapter quite intensively for the past week or two. I’ve been so embroiled in this, I forgot to mark this blog’s second birthday on the 14th June (for she’s a jolly good fellow, etc.). I did remember to mark my own 24th birthday with some cake and pitchers of Pimms.

Each time I start the intensive writing process, I set myself the target of 1000 words a day. Some days, this comes easily and I pass that target by 3pm. Other days I can be still sitting staring at the Word document at 6pm with bloodshot eyes, a stack of tea stained mugs, messy hair and only 700 words to show for all my head scratching, before I give up and hope the next day will be better.

I’m always on the look out for tools to make myself produce more/better words. I’ve tried turning off all internet connectivity, or blocking certain web addresses which are known procrastination hotspots. I’ve even turned off the laptop completely to see if I can produce anything better without the looming word count easily accessible. During a visit to one of my procrasination hotspots last week (yes, sometimes I work willfully against myself), I read this article about this app, Write or Die, which allows you to write in kamikaze mode. It allows you to pause typing for 45 seconds before it starts deleting words you have already written.

I have not downloaded this app, for I fear in the course of a day it might delete my entire thesis. What if I can’t find a reference in time? What if I can’t turn it off? Frankly, chopping off a finger every time I don’t reach my 1000 word target would be about as effective a method of encouraging me to write more. It would work, but if it didn’t the consequences far outweigh the reward. More importantly, I am fairly sure that the stress involved in the 45 second rule would probably hospitalize me eventually which would overall effect productivity more.

Some days, I don’t need any additional stressors.

Event Retrospective: Return to the Political: Literary Aesthetics and the Influence of Political Thought

This was my second year attending the University of Oxford English Graduate conference. The theme this year was ‘Return to the Political’, and the variety of papers running across 4 parallel panel sessions addressed everything from pamphlets and performance to propaganda and poetry.

My paper was on the ‘Ireland’ panel, and I presented on the politics of dedications in Northern Irish poetry. This is work that I completed for half of a chapter, but I found it so fascinating I’m considering making it into a full chapter. Also on my panel was Rosie Lavan who spoke on Heaney, making reference to the feminist critiques of North, new (queer?) perspectives on the bog woman, and the representation of women of the Troubles in the tabloids. Francis Hutton-Williams spoke on the relationship between the poet Thomas McGreevy and Paul Valéry in inter-war Paris, arguing for a re-politicising of Irish poetry in the time when it was better known for its neutrality.

I also attended panels which featured papers on Saul Bellow, Isadora Duncan, The Crimson Petal and the White, Shakespearean actresses and the suffrage movement and voice in Black Atlantic writing. From a contemporary writing perspective, I enjoyed a paper from Leeds MA student Georgina O’Toole which read Angela Carter with Eavan Boland to produce an ecofeminist reading of the notion of landscape. It was refreshing to hear a paper which considered a poet and a fiction writer together.

One of the keynotes was a panel discussion on ‘What is a Classic?’ with Baroness Helena Kennedy QC (former Orange Prize judge and on the Booker Trust), Dr Ankhi Mukherjee (author of What is a Classic?: Postcolonial Rewriting, Repetition, and Invention of the Canon) and Judith Luna (editor of the Oxford World Classics series). It was a fascinating discussion which brought together the market forces of book selling and prize judging with the academic considerations of reading lists and broader canonical issues. Booker Prize winning author Ben Okri gave the second keynote, and he discussed aspects of tyranny and politics in art, drawing on Nietzsche.

Completing a course online (for the first time)

I’ve just started my first fully online course through the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education. Incidentally, this course is about learning to teach online, and I’m looking forward to learning in this kind of environment as a student so that the experience can inform any teaching I do online elsewhere.

I did find that online learning environments in my undergraduate experience supplemented my courses when used well. Most of the time it wasn’t an engaging space, and the common criticism was that they were just a data dump for PowerPoint presentations and lecture handouts. Those who didn’t turn up to lectures because these were online were fools. Studying from slides with words on is like buying a CD and listening to it with your ears covered. When esed well, the module spaces became a focal point for all sorts of stimulating material – mainly links to online articles and photographs relevant to the books we were studying.

Whether the online learning environment was used well or not was of relatively little consequence when we had 8(ish) contact hours of lectures and seminars. It is absolutely critical to the success of distance learning courses which I think will continue to be an expansion area in higher education.

Advances in technology (or perhaps just advances in our understanding of existing technology) can make online learning environments increasingly dynamic. What I’m learning in my online course is that no matter how spangly the delivery method, there are still key skills online tutors need to get to grips with. Communicating in a text-based environment, addressing challenging students and supporting online learners wherever they are based are all essential programme management skills.

With all my recent posts about online tutoring, Twitter in academia, interactive novels and OERs, I feel I should add a disclaimer (as much for me as for readers). I *am* still writing a thesis on poetry. I am. I will. I must.

Some thoughts and a minor existential crisis over online courses/OERs

I’d like to say I discovered this video when researching the use of digital media in learning or something, but really, I stumbled across it in between watching that stray dog that completed a 1700km road race, and watching some Japanese women make cartoon characters from rice and seaweed. (Procrastination is a very large part of my creative process, I believe).

Back to the education video, blog readers. I’m in favour of making education resources available online since it democratizes education (which is getting more and more expensive), and it encourages life-long learning. I even work for a literary themed online educational resources project (which now has a development site in beta!). My first arts project offered free recordings of poets reading their own work, and I like to think that throughout my career I can have a positive effect on learners both within and outside the academy by never losing sight of how things connect to the world outside the library.

Encouragingly, people are engaging with the content universities are putting out there. That video makes that clear, and the Great Writers Inspire project had more than 38,000 downloads of short lectures and talks on iTunes U in our first fortnight on it. So, delivering free online content obviously find a willing audience.

However, I think we still have some way to go in the digital learning community to make these projects feasible. How do academics, already under more and more pressure to publish/teach/mark/lecture/go to conferences/etc. find the time to give their expertise away for free? And, should they really be giving things away for free when students are paying £9000 a year for access to it? Are these OERs just an academic zeitgeist, or a marketing tool for universities? Are more basic introductory online courses really the premise of higher education institutions in the first place?

We still have a long way to go, and in some senses it is true that the Open University and other distance learning programmes have been quietly doing these things for years.

However, in this slight existential crisis I’m having over this, I did discover udemy which is like an app store for online courses, which can be paid for or free. Perhaps this kind of direction would allow universities to offer meaningful courses in a new way. These sorts of ventures do not replace a face-to-face seminar dynamic, or permit the tangential meanderings that make higher education learning so stimulating for academics and students alike – but they do certainly raise some questions about how we can do what we do in different ways.

#phdadvice in the news… and some #lecturingadvice

In a bizarre turn of events only possible in the twilight zone that is the Internet, I am quoted in today’s issue of Times Higher Education. This follows on from my earlier blog post on the hashtag academic community.  For those of you who can access a print copy, the article is on pages 22-23. It can be read in full on their website too, which is nice.

Last week I asked those following the #phdadvice tag for their advice before I delivered my first lecture as part of the Developing Learning and Teaching programme. The lecture was aimed at first year undergraduates doing a ‘Doing English’ module, and we were lucky enough to have complete freedom on our topic and content. I chose to cover ‘Modern Poetry: Form and Function’ since learning to decipher the links between the two was something of a watershed in my own undergraduate study.

Super Woman Nadine is curating the responses to the hashtag over at the newly created The New Academic, but since I had such a positive response, I thought I’d share them here too for anyone else seeking lecturing advice.

@Rick_Hall, who has more experience than most people of communicating with large groups, told me to ‘relax and enjoy the experience of sharing ideas (oh and keep breathing)’. Very true.

Fellow blogger and PhD student @theplathdiaries tells me ‘I focus my vision on a specific point in lecture theatre & don’t take it to heart if people look bored!’. Also true. The natural facial expression of some undergraduates does look like boredom.

@NulaPimple should be a mind-coach or possibly a mind-controller, because she told me to ‘Fool them into believing you are incredibly confident, comfortable and in control even if you don’t believe this yourself..’.

Poet @JoanneLimberg shared some advice from readings ‘When I do a reading, I look out at the audience and think: ‘Right, you are all my b**ches now…’ Oh, and make eye contact.’ Yes, I thought, they are my undergraduate b**ches.

@lisa_the_drama is not an academic, but the woman talks sense. She told me to buy their love with sweets. Lecturing could be as easy as giving candy to undergraduate b**ches.

@claireocall liked my new summer hat, which she thought I should wear to lecture. Everyone likes a jaunty hat.

Having given the lecture, I can report that they looked confused more than bored (I promise they were confused by the sestina and not my headgear). I’m a fairly calm public speaker by nature, but I did have to reign in my speed. I am a notoriously fast speaker and I have a Northern Irish accent which doesn’t help. I also enjoyed the slightly performative aspect because I basically just like attention.

I’m pleased with how it went because as Rick said, sharing your thoughts is enjoyable. While lecturing is a less immediately rewarding form of teaching (compared with seminar discussion or one-to-one tutorials), it is something I’ve always wanted to do because I know that many of my most memorable learning experiences as an undergraduate came from dynamic lecturers.

Making (up) Your Name

One of the challenges of my PhD topic comes from its contemporariness. There are various things to tackle, from a lack of critical material and a lack of awareness of this poetry in the academy, to the seemingly shifting contexts of the work I’m attempting to criticise (new poems published and so on).

The following isn’t a serious issue, more a bug bear often encountered. It is is this – people, with all the best intentions, get the poets’s names completely wrong. I’ve met people who familiar with the work of O’Morrissey, or once heard Letitia Flynn read. Particularly withering was an email exchange with a (nameless) MA student who was writing a dissertation on Collette, rather than Colette, Bryce.

All things considered, though, I’m lucky to get to work on such current writers, and in many ways the challenges of the poetry’s modernity is part of the process and increases my enjoyment of it. Sean O’Brien recounts a humorous block he encountered – which is also testament to the distance contemporary Irish poetry has come in the past half-century.

‘As an undergraduate in the early 1970s when I applied to the Cambridge English Faculty Office for permission to write my Long Essay on Heaney I received a curt note to the effect that ‘Seamus O’Heaney’ was not considered a suitable subject for study. Such moments make it all worthwhile, in retrospect. My then tutor sympathetically suggested I tackle R.S. Thomas instead – ‘who, though Welsh, is also a Celt’, as he put it.’

  Sean O’Brien, The Deregulated Muse (Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 1998), p. 11.

The Hashtag Academic Community (#phdadvice)

Within days of beginning my first term as a graduate student in October 2009, I was told by peers and mentors that being a graduate student was isolating. I hadn’t really considered this before – I certainly hadn’t found any aspect of my undergraduate study isolating. Even a few months later, as I started to submit PhD applications, there were well meaning friends and advisors telling me that doing a PhD would be lonely. By this time, the chorus of voices was joined by some nagging doubts of my own.

The main thing that worried me wasn’t necessarily being alone per se – I was well aware that individual work is central to literary study. I didn’t worry about not having friends because I was lucky enough to have besties behind me. Obviously there were lots of niggling concerns like if I had the ability, if my topic was ‘good’ enough, if I could afford the time and expense, and what I would do at the end of it all. However, what concerned me the most, entering this apparent wilderness, was that if PhD research is so isolating, who could advise me?

Over 2 years on from the PhD application process, I’m happy to report that I’ve found advice and support in some likely and unlikely places. I have peers here in Oxford, and the companionship of others in my field from a research network – this much I might have hoped for. At the time, this fair blog was only a glint in my eye, and engaging with readers through this and reading other blogs (such as those in my blogroll) during my work has also been a source of support.

Increasingly, though, it is Twitter which is my most prevalent academic comfort. In the past year there has seems to have been a boom in academics and students using the network to discuss aspects of their work. I can post something about my working day, ask a question, make an observation, and receive almost immediate feedback. Yesterday, I noted that I was starting work on a conference paper in order to free up time for actual thesis writing at some stage. @EKSwitaj from QUB tweets back ‘See, that’s why I don’t write conference papers anymore. I just get up and blag.’, and @DrMagennis agreed. This, I hasten to add to any budding academics, is not exactly wise advice (but full time wisdom is time consuming and boring).

Better advice is currently being dispensed with great fervor, tagged #phdadvice. Initially started by @Nadine_Muller from the University of Hull, flagged up by mailing lists and spreading like wildfire, this hashtag has prompted questions and varied responses from those considering graduate research and from those of us already engaged in it. Such is the speed and appeal of this simple tag, that I see (on Twitter, naturally), that Nadine has already been interviewed by THE about it.

I already felt quite strongly that social networks were providing me with a very fruitful and engaging community, but this recent hashtag has me even more convinced that we can strengthen our working relationships and academia more widely by our participation and awareness of each other. Isolation isn’t trending, but #phdadvice is.

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