Monday, 14 May 2012

Bridging the Gulf

All ready to bridge that gulf

This Saturday marked the end of a long, significant process for 3 of us Keelites (Katie McGettigan, Emilie Taylor-Brown and I)- it was our first organised conference: Two Cultures or Co-evolution? Science and Literature 1800-present. 

It probably wasn't the easiest topic to pick for our first one; we were determined that it be truly interdisciplinary, and so were not only grappling with the organisational issues inevitable for this kind of event, but found ourselves in the very practical process of 'bridging the gulf.' Our keynotes comprised of two literature professors (Prof. David Amigoni of Keele University and Prof. Sharon Ruston of the University of Salford) and one microbiologist (Prof. Joanna Verran of Manchester Metropolitan University); a good start in bridging that gulf, we thought. The papers engaged with a phenomenal breadth of topics; the three panels took us from Romantic to contemporary literature, from England to Australia, from astonomy to neurology. Our delegates and keynotes can't be thanked enough for the quality of the papers, and the range of discussion generated from them. Two things did stand out however: one a discernable thread through all the papers, the other a fiery roundtable discussion.
Delegates arrive in the Claus Moser Research Centre, Keele University.
Note the sciencey statue in the middle of the humanities building.
The two cultures already at work!

That the first surprised me may be a sign of being too conditioned by propaganda from the likes of Google and Apple, and my deep love for the BBC Science web page: if someone mentions 'science', I think of newness, progression, development. The papers, from Professor Ruston's keynote (on Frankenstein and natural history) in the morning onwards, shared a vocabulary of destruction and degeneration. Our first panel title, 'At what price progress?', seemed to be answered by an overwhelming consensus that progress has come at a cost to individuality and social identity. Stella Pratt-Smith's paper, 'Technology and Civilization: the Questionable Progress of 19th-century Prowess', explored the representations of electricity as it began to enter into everyday life. What struck me most was that her discussion of its enabling (almost superhuman, by one personification) qualities was situated among reflections that it simultaneously 'invalidated' and 'invalided' the user; if electricity could take over, what need for the individual? The Wallace and Gromit-style house of inventions thus assumes a sinister, controlling role (electricity as the evil penguin, perhaps). Ann Loveridge's paper on vivisection continued this language of dehumanization, and Christine Chettle's examination of Gwendolen Harlow's loss of selfhood, which adopted the language of Lacan's 'mirror-stage' theory, likewise looked at the non-human side of Gwendolen; her reflection, not her person. Rebecca Bitenc suggested that representations of dementia suggest a 'struggle against dehumanization and Chris Mourant's discussion of the image of the disembodied eye on the poster for the First International Hygiene Exhibition (think the eye of Sauron with less fire) continued to complement this theme; this eye, at the intersection between Victorian and Modern society, looks Janus-like across the de-individualisation processes of both eras. Grace Halden's discussion of the 'apocalyptic imagination' in cold war literature took these dehumanizing readings out of the text, and suggested that the death of the self was intertwined with the death of the reader; in the twentieth century, it is not only the characters who lose their autonomy, but the readers too.

The second stand-out aspect was most obvious in the round table discussion, although several of the papers anticipated it; that is, the practicalities of bridging the gulf between Snow's 'two cultures'. Thomas West's discussion of J. H. Prynne's Wound Response interrogated Prynne's use of scientific language within his poetry, and concluded that Prynne used it playfully, deliberately mocking the gulf. It was a point emphasized by Professor Verran's keynote, and, indeed, by several of the delegates during the final discussion; Professor Verran confessed that, the first time she attended a literature class the word 'trope' seemed something quite alien (cue laughter from literature delegates, all guilty of over-using the word in seminars at some stage). Prynne's deliberate (mis-)use of scientific terms highlights the ways that language itself can widen the gulf; every delegate could nod in sympathy at the suggestion that projects have remained in some way incomplete because of the seeming impossibility of learning about something from 'the other side'. A sense of mutual bitterness was apparent; Adam Palay's suggestion that, for Humphry Davy, poetry was a thing of youth and science one of age could perhaps be translated to the evident feelings of the humanities delegates. The sense that we are often made to feel that projects with something scientific about them are more valuable (not least because they are the ones which attract the most funding) was palpable, and so the sense that something purely literary was a thing of youth, but not of 'serious' academics. On the other hand, the scientists felt unfairly pigeon-holed as an unimaginative bunch, with little creative flair and poor social skills. Both groups felt that they were in some way mocked or derided by the other 'culture'. Both, however, agreed that it is down to us - maybe starting with academics - to change that, and that, of course, is what this conference was trying to do.

Mark Taylor's paper perhaps provided the most suitable metaphor: the two cultures (mental and vertebrael states in that paper) must be balanced, else there can only be a 'mob state'. At the moment, it seemed clear, we do feel trapped in that 'mob state', neither side fully comfortable with accessing the other. Events like this highlight the way that, even if 'incomprehension' is mutual, so too is the desire to overcome it - and, moreover, that we have no excuses for continuing not to do so.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012


Joining Twitter a couple of months ago revolutionised my days in surprising ways. I had guessed that it would give me another site on which to procrastinate - although at least checking the most up-to-date Leveson tweets seemed more productive than scanning through the photos of someone a friend of a friend once met on a night out several years ago. For the first couple of weeks, I was blown away by the sheer volume of tweeters and bloggers talking about my topic specifically, or, more often, research generally. I spent the first 3 days of my Twitter life obsessively clicking on links from the likes of @phd2published or @thesiswhisperer, my browser buried in mounds of newly-opened tabs as I greedily collected more and more Twitter-inspired online reading. Although, a lot of the time, reading these resources is deflecting from that paper I should be writing, or that book I should have already finished, the psychological effects are worth the addition to my workload; the sense of being a part of an online community, even when you're in the midst of an intensive week when the only other being you've seen is next door's cat, is an invaluable addition to life as part of a small researching body, whilst anecdotal research blogs and a seemingly constant stream of career advice help to keep me looking ahead.

What I hadn't thought of was the influence of non-researchers and non-academics. I've never seen Coleridge as being a particularly popular subject; when asked what I'm doing, my summary usually ends up along these lines: 'I'm studying the Coleridge family. As in 'The Ancient Mariner.' Umm... 'Kubla Khan'? He was a poet in the nineteenth century.' Once, the addition of 'no, he didn't know Chaucer personally' was necessary. As the Telegraph helpfully observed a few weeks ago, nineteenth-century poets are not a part of the popular consciousness (see my previous blog post); unlike the most popular of Victorian novelists like, say, Dickens or Gaskell, their works are transferred to screens big or small only infrequently, and so don't form a part of the pop culture conversation. Nevertheless, one unproductive day I searched for Coleridge on Twitter, thinking that I would at least be spending my time-wasting reading the relevant name, even if I wasn't doing anything with it. On that day, I was surprised that there was so much being posted about Coleridge over the course of a day; a couple of tweets an hour, usually repeating a 'quote of the day'.

This week, however, something of a Coleridge renaissance has been occurring. The Daily Victorian (@Daily_Victorian) has quoted Coleridge five times since Monday; @1812now has mentioned him six times since Sunday. A quick search shows that he has been mentioned, in various capacities, fifteen times in the past hour. Once again, a lot of those mentions are 'inspirational' quotations. (Today's favourite seems to be: 'All men, even the most surly, are influenced my affection.') Clearly, taking quotations outside of any reference point means that the meaning becomes problematic. But that doesn't necessarily matter on Twitter. The sentiment's the thing, and Coleridge was nothing if not sentimental. In spite of the Telegraph's implication that nineteenth-century poetry is no longer relevant, and despite my inevitable weekly defence of what I do (researching Coleridge=wasting taxpayers' money), Twitter today demonstrates that there remains a significant number of people who still connect with the poet in some way. (Two more posts have appeared just in the time I've been writing this paragraph.)

Inevitably, I wonder what Coleridge would have made of Twitter. I imagine it would have suited him - his notebook entries, for instance, are often short enough to be compressed into a tweet. On the other hand, he would be plagued with constant updates from the Tweeter from Taunton (or something), and 'Kubla Khan' could then have been nothing more than a tweet in itself. Regardless, whether it's bored students 'learning Coleridge,' quotation sites cashing in on him, or ordinary tweeters posting some of his pithier remarks, for today at least Coleridge is a hot topic. So, thank you Twitter, and thank you tweeters, for reminding me that Coleridge is still relevant, and that my research is still, for some one, worth doing.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

The further I go...

Last Monday morning, I woke up with a hangover. This was bad for several reasons: firstly, its tenacity meant that my useful output for the day was almost guaranteed to be rather low; secondly, it being the first Monday of the month, I felt it should be started as I meant to carry on; and thirdly, being hungover on a Monday at all gave me recurring thoughts along the 'I need to sort my life out' lines.

I have always been ridiculously superstitious about things like New Year; I have a new year/month/week = a new start kind of mentality, and always think that anything useful should only be started on either the 1st of the month or a Monday. If the two happen to coincide, my mind boggles with the regenerative possibilities. Sadly, I struggle to extend this mentality to new day = new start, and so this week, for example, I have really achieved very little, having essentially written the whole week off because Monday was a bad beginning. Now, I'm not saying that I've done nothing; I have done lots of things, but nothing so speedily as I could have, and certainly without the urgency that I should by now be feeling. (I have had several conference papers accepted in the last couple of weeks, all to be presented in June - which is marvellous, except that I completely forgot about that minor thing - Progression.) Yet again, it's Thursday and when I come to evaluate what I've done this week I don't really know what I'll say.

I'm meant to have nearly finished the research for a paper examining the relationship between Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Lord Byron, through their works based around the biblical Cain. The title of this post is taken from one of Byron's letters to his mother whilst he was travelling in Greece in 1810; the sentence. 'The further I go, the more my laziness increases,' sums up my worry about my journey into academia so far. However much I love what I'm researching, thus far I've been truly terrible at keeping myself in a routine. I've given myself plenty of excuses: after teaching, after Christmas, after this paper's written, and, invariably weekly, after the weekend I will do better. But, again invariably, I don't. When I was working in a 'real job' (as in, regular hours, regular pay, and 'Sunday syndrome'), Sunday nights were my sleepless ones, where I dreaded going to work. That wasn't because I didn't enjoy my job - I did - but it wasn't what I really wanted to do, and so Sunday nights tended to be spent sleeplessly wondering about how to achieve my professional goals (getting onto a PhD, basically), and all the things I would do and learn when I got there. Nowadays, Mondays are the sleepless nights, when I think about all the things I was adamant I would do, and the routine I was sure I'd maintain, and try to self-evaluate to work out what's been going wrong. Imagine the plunge in my self-confidence when, every week, the only excuse I can make to myself is, like Byron, recurrent laziness.

Unfortunately, unlike Byron, it is highly unlikely that I will ever become a world-renowned poet, and in posterity there will be no-one to excuse my laziness as part of a higher creative purpose. It's unlikely, too, that in future job interviews the phrase 'I could have done more' will impress. So, does all this self-indulgent whining have a point? To be honest, not really, but I am interested to know how other people manage their time, and how others motivate themselves. How do you stop yourself from stagnating at your desk? All suggestions will be gladly taken up. On Tuesday (after Easter).

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The Tale Goes On and On

To commemorate UNESCO's World Poetry Day last Wednesday, I organised a reading group based around two newspaper articles which had appeared in the preceding week, the idea being to discuss the rather nebulous topic of contemporary problems with teaching poetry. The two articles, one from the Guardian, the other from the Telegraph, agree that 'old' poetry is in some way irrelevant to modern society; the Guardian reports on Italian human rights organisation Gherush92's claim that Dante's Divine Comedy is "offensive and discriminatory," whilst the Telegraph questions why, in the year of Dickens's much-publicised bicentenary, Robert Browning's has been forgotten. It concludes, with somewhat lacklustre conviction, that Browning deserves to be read despite the off-putting obscurity of many of his poems. An academic reading group is perhaps an unfair place to objectively assess the apparent overall message of these articles; we weren't exactly sympathetic, for example, to an ignorance of Browning's sources being a legitimate excuse to not reading his poetry. But then, that's to be expected. The whole group consisted of researchers at different stages in their education and careers, and with different levels of knowledge about the modern state of poetry (although it was interesting that the music student in attendance felt that very similar slights were levelled against his subject). We have all, essentially, publicly acknowledged that we like the obscure stuff - so much so, that we're willing to base our professional lives around proposing ways to decode it. Naturally, then, we sprung to an animated defence of Dante's now-outmoded religious and social views, and disdained the Guardian writer's apparently Wikapedia-derived knowledge of Browning's works.

But we did agree that we are not entirely representative of the modern reader. Both newspaper articles engage with poets long-forgotten in popular culture; discussing them at all will, in all likelihood, result in at least a handful of new readers. But what happens when future generations, those reared with TV as the place to go for all knowledge and entertainment, grow up? Our reading group could already share tales of despair; we all knew of students who had actively avoided modules purely because they contained poetry in the reading lists. Telegraph and Guardian readers are, at least, exactly that: readers. The Telegraph wondered why Dickens's memory has survived so much more robustly than Browning's; I suggested (in, I admit, a comment spurred by a moment of defensive fury on Browning's behalf) that it was because Browning's poetry cannot be translated into a film or TV series. More objectively now, I stand by that theory; we have less and less readers, and more and more 'viewers.' So how will poetry fare in an increasingly multimedia age?

Naturally, my first concern was for my own research. How would Coleridge survive this death of the reader? (By now my worry had reached apocalyptic proportions, resulting in terrifying visions of a bookless world, where the occasional reader, ostracised by society, remained alone in the remnants of a library, remembering their glory days.) I did the only sensible thing. I searched for him on YouTube.

I was pleased to see that a search for 'Samuel Taylor Coleridge' returned nearly 900 results, many of which were readings of his poetry. Undoubtedly, these 900 videos will provide me with hours of 'productive' procrastination over the next couple of years; there's all sorts to be said about reader engagement through video. The first page, however, threw up a result which I found particularly exciting: an Iron Maiden song entitled 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,' released on the album Powerslave in 1984.

The song, although still a mammoth thirteen minutes long, essentially summarises the tale of the Mariner, although it does include several stanzas, unaltered, from Coleridge's poem. Being a complete novice regarding anything musical, the only thing I can say about the musical qualities of this song are that it sounds, to me, like most Iron Maiden songs - but that the consistent beat does subtly mimic the original rhyme scheme, and that the quotations from the poem are 'marked' by elaborate musical parentheses. (If anyone can say anything more about the reflection of the poem in the music itself, I'd be delighted - it's an interesting angle, I think.) From our current perspective - the modern state of reading poetry - there is one aspect of the song which is particularly relevant. Coleridge's 'Rime' has a complex narrative structure, but most of the poem is told in first person from the point of view of the old sailor. Iron Maiden's lyrics, on the other hand, are written almost entirely from a third-person perspective. There is one exception: after the mariner has killed the albatross, bringing a curse to all the crew, that curse extends beyond the boundaries of the song: "The curse goes on and on and on at sea / The thirst goes on and on and on for them and me," Dickinson wails, the higher note at the end of the line implying the first-person desperation. 'Me' - the singer, and by extension the singing listener - is absorbed into the song, and so the poem. The 1980s listener was drawn into the eighteenth-century poem, and the 'Rime' is drawn into twentieth century popular culture.

At the end of Coleridge's poem, the Mariner describes how he must tell his "ghastly tale" over and over again, teaching others the moral of his story. The wedding guest becomes 'a sadder and a wiser man' thanks to the Mariner's tale. That is not the end of Iron Maiden's rendition: the tale, they say, "goes on and on and on." Which brings us back to the Telegraph, the Guardian and the future generations of readers. The tale of poetry continues to go "on and on," a process that events like World Poetry Day encourage. But the reader's tale goes on and on too, and as the Telegraph and Guardian go some way towards recognising, perhaps the only way to engage new students with poetry is to approach it from a twenty-first century perspective. Better ask Justin Bieber what he thinks of Browning, then...

Monday, 19 March 2012

Wandering restlessly around the Gates of Fairyland

My first blog post is a daunting prospect, and one that has been haunting me since I started my PhD back in September. To blog or not to blog has been the great question, and it is only in the last couple of weeks that 'to blog' has become the obvious answer.

I'll be honest, I've never really had much time for social networking generally; too often, it seems to become a space for bemoaning the trivial tragedies of life which, face to face, probably would never be mentioned. This immediacy of social networking can, then, be a problem: you don't need to think before you share your views with the whole world any more. But, it is this immediacy which gives bloggers, Tweeters and Facebookers the world over an unprecedented advantage: we can share our ideas as soon as we have them, get feedback as soon as we have readers, engage with a whole interactive planet without ever walking out the door. On the whole, it seems that the relationship between researchers and social networking is one which is set only to grow stronger and become more integral to academic life (Amber Regis and Charlotte Mathieson have each written excellent posts on the unforeseen advantages of becoming an active social networker). Besides these professional advantages, for the lonely PhD student, or in fact any lone worker, this sense of a community being literally at your fingertips, perpetually just one click away, can keep you in contact with an outside world that it's quite frighteningly easy to forget.

So, basically, this blog is a way of keeping connected with both the academic and wider worlds, and of doing so as a part of a dialogue (as opposed to, say, only reading online journals and checking the Guardian once an hour). Having been convinced that entering into this community of social networkers is a good thing, I had then to agonise over what to call the blog. Unlike my Twitter name (I opted for as close to my real name as it's possible to get for someone with one of the most common names on the planet), I wanted a blog name that reflected all of my reasons for embarking into the wide, wide sea of the blogosphere: disseminating my research, communicating with people inside and outside academia, and, inevitably, deploring the hard lot of the PhD student. Where it should come from was easy: my focus is on the Coleridge family, and who better to go to than the most famous member of it: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a writer who experimented with pretty much every thinkable mode of discourse. Were he alive today, I have no doubt he would be among the Stephen Frys of the online world: his notebooks and letters acted then in much the same way as the tweets and blogs of today. His notebooks recorded fragments of his thoughts, and, although they were written for his personal perusal, he was always aware of their potential to be published. His letters, meanwhile, discussed all aspects of contemporary life, from his own deeply private issues, to long theses on, amongst other things, politics, religion, travelling, finances, publishing and biography. Again, Coleridge was constantly aware of the ways that his correspondence was disseminated beyond the person to whom it was addressed. To Coleridge's letters, then, I turned to find a name, and found one in a letter of advice to his second son, Derwent. Coleridge is 'anxious' about Derwent's 'dissipated' student lifestyle, and worried about the distractions of 'society' upon Derwent's academic life. Coleridge advises him to sequester himself from 'extra-academic Society,' using himself as an unlikely example for studious habits:

'In my first term... Six nights out of seven, as soon as Chapel was over, I went to Pembroke, to Middleton's (the present Bp. of Calcutta) Rooms - opened the door without speaking, made and poured out the Tea and placed his cup beside his Book - and went on with my Aeschylus, or Thudydides, as he with his Mathematics, in silence till 1/2 past 9'. [Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Derwent Coleridge, January 11th 1822]

Coleridge may not, in reality, have been quite the academic paragon he implies here, but the idea of this kind of student lifestyle may sound familiar to the PhD student, even as it has undergraduates snorting in derision. Gone are the days of constant 'dissipation;' 'extra-academic Society' now means research seminars; it often feels like you are, or should be, at your desk 'Six nights out of seven' - and even if you're not stationed there, chances are you're thinking about something that you should have got done at least two days before. Reading in silence with many cups of tea sums up my early PhD career rather neatly - even if my subject ('old Books') is something that Coleridge thought could only 'dissipate your time and thought'. (I can't help feeling that, if it does, at least some part of me is becoming 'dissipated' on a regular basis.)

The last hurdle - of course - had to be what to write about. I turned to another Coleridge for inspiration: Mary. Mary complained that she felt 'condemned to wander restlessly around the Gates of Fairyland, although I have never yet passed them.' Mary's 'Fairyland,' like her great-great-uncle's, was that mystical place reserved for canonical literature; mine is that mystical place where academics go. The 'academic' or 'critic' is still another beast, and I am still looking at them from the wrong side of the Gates. I suppose my main feeling since starting the PhD has been one of exclusion: neither student nor professional, the PhD seems to float around a liminal space, anchored down only by the hope that it will, one day, be the key to the Gates. This blog, then, will I hope be one of the ways by which I search for that key - and if anyone knows where it might be, please feel free to let me know!