Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Secret lives of academics

One thing which gets interesting the more you read and the more you learn about your subject is watching the critics change. Or, more precisely, watching the critics’ names change as they apparently grow up, get married, and move on. This has nothing to do with my PhD, and probably no-one else cares, but I like it.

I have recently noticed that some of the eminent critics whose works I cite seem to have been around much longer than I realised; the thing is, in fact, they have changed name. Some of them have gone from single surname to double-barrelled; others, apparently, have gone all the way, starting out with one surname, going for the double-barrelled, and in the end dropping the first one and sticking with their new married name. This, to me, is interesting.

If, as a young academic, you have always published under one name, is it better to try and keep that name, so people know who you are (hence the ones who keep it forever, or adopt the double-barrelled approach), or is it perhaps preferable to take your husband’s name, and thereby reinvent yourself as a ‘new and improved’ you, subtly disassociating yourself (but not) from the stuff you wrote earlier, and thereby making your new work the new focus of everyone’s attention?

Maybe I have been reading too much into this. Maybe I just quite like the idea of these eminent academics as human beings, and maybe there’s a part of me that wouldn’t mind sitting down with them and being shown the albums of their wedding snaps.  Or maybe it is because, in the course of my PhD, I have come across people  - writers – who do this; they change their name from whatever they originally published under, thus at some point disassociating themselves from the less-than-perfect things they wrote when they were young and still learning their trade.

Also, I am wondering what will become of me if ever I get this PhD and become a ‘doctor’. Will this be something I will want to put on my credit card? Or will it be weird if I insist on people adding ‘Dr’ in front of my name on things?

Maybe I should stop fantasizing about this and go do some work.

The Joys of the PhD

For those of you who read this blog: have you noticed that posts have been infrequent, and that I have not really been doing what I said on the tin (ie. using this blog for extensive complaining about the PhD)?...

Maybe it’s the fact that, just having a blog called ‘I hate my PhD’, and just posting the first disgruntled little blog post on it, is enough, by way of therapy, to make you feel better. The blog kind of defeats its own purpose; just describing why you hate the PhD actually goes a long way in terms of making you feel better about it.

Maybe it’s just because there are the odd perks to doing a PhD, and here are just some of them:
-       Sometimes you write something good, and you get to read it back to yourself in joy and wonder. You realize you are clever and you’re actually doing well. (of course that’s before you then look at your research schedule and realize that, yes, you wrote a nice chapter, but in fact you are five chapters behind, as far as your targets are concerned. Ah, well…)
-       Sometimes you can stay in and write your PhD from home. There have recently been many days when I have not needed to go to the library for a whole day, just for an hour or so in the evening to check the odd reference and to look something up quickly. The joy of staying in bed and writing can be immense.
-       Writing a PhD means you can be free at odd hours in the day, when other people aren’t; therefore, you can pop out to go shopping and run errands mid-afternoon. Sometimes, when you are on the way from one library to another, you can use it as an opportunity to swing by some weird and wonderful shops on the way; my favourite is a quick visit to the People’s Supermarket in Bloomsbury, or the Alara organic shop in Marchmont Street, on my way to the British Library. (warning: avoid the mid-afternoon coffee break, where you waste the entire working afternoon having a nice catch-up with an old friend. Your friend is not doing a PhD and therefore does not know that he or she is actually taking up your most productive bit of the day.)
-       Writing a humanities PhD does something to you. It might not make you much cleverer; it may not make you happier; but something happens. It is a transformative process. You come out somehow… better at something, more able to understand people, things, the world, than you were before.
-       Sometimes your Mum asks you what it is that you are actually working on. You tell her. ‘That is so wonderful. I’m so proud of you!’, she says. And your heart swells with happiness.
-       The PhD will one day be over. You can take things further and make it into a book and try and get an academic job, or you can give a copy to your grandad, put one copy on your own shelf, and forget it ever happened. You can just treat it as the little project you did when you were young and crazy and fancied spending three years of your life grappling with a huge, near-impossible thing... 

Violation of rules

There has been a silent but deadly combat going on, between myself and a lady who works in the British Library, and today she has won. Unfortunately for me, the seat that I always use (I always sit in the same one, because I have memorized the seat number, which they always ask you when you collect your books) is very near to the bit of the library where she always sits. She walks past my seat whenever she leaves her office. She makes sure she looks carefully, and she comes up to me as often as she feels she needs to, just to check that I'm not doing anything out of order.


[tap on the shoulder] 'Excuse me, is this one of our library books?' [she points at my own book, which I have brought in with me and which is dog-eared and old and has notes scribbled all over it in pencil, and post-it notes visible amongst the pages.]

Me: 'No.' [I am thinking: do you really think I got this book in that state in one day?]

Lady: 'Well, just be careful, because people might think that this IS one of our library books.' [walks away.]

[as I ponder the usefulness of this advice, the reader sitting next to me turns to me and whispers:] 'Don't worry... I didn't think this was one of their library books!!' [we share a smile.]

[repeat above exchange many times, various times of day, on numerous occasions, ad infinitum.]

Another example:

[tap on the shoulder] 'Excuse me, did you just scan that in from one of our books?' [points to the mobile phone in my hand, on which I have been reading 'The Guardian.']

me: 'No! I'm reading The Guardian on my phone!'

Lady: 'Sorry.'

And so on. Variations of the above have happened a few times now [tap on the shoulder, rousing me from the throes of PhD composition/ Guardian reading; accusing finger points at my stuff], not quite enough times to make me flip ('A PhD student has brutally murdered a member of the British Library staff in a Library reading room. Cloud Nine, 19*, has refused to explain her actions...') but certainly enough times for me to start to feel annoyed at this well-meaning do-gooder.

The silly thing is that, all of the times she has bothered me, I was not doing anything wrong. I was not using a pen in the reading room, or (God forbid) talking on my phone. I was not using a sharp implement. I did not have food, drink, water, sweets or gum on my desk. I was not behaving in a way which disturbed others. Literally, nothing. She just comes up to me and looks at my perfectly boring personal possessions and taps me on the shoulder and... annoys me.

Today, she got me. I did something wrong. I had my laptop open in front of me and was writing an email. I also had a hair clip. As I pinned my hair back with the hair clip so it wouldn't be in my face, I switched on my 'Photo Booth' application so I could check my hair. I just really, really needed to check my hair. I needed to see what my hair looked like, you know?... Vanity is never a good thing. In this case, it got me into trouble.

Two minutes later - tap on the shoulder, points at [now blank, camera-free] laptop screen.

'Were you using your webcam? I saw that you were using a webcam.'

And I said 'No' (because by 'using', I understand 'using to capture images', 'using to skype', 'using to take a photo', that sort of thing. I didn't think 'switching on momentarily to check your hair' counted as 'using'. What I should have said was... oh, never mind.)

Anyway, the woman disappeared and returned with the nice security guard from the front desk, who always says hello to me and asks me if I'm having a good day, and I found myself having to tell him (in front of all the other readers) that, far from 'skyping in the reading room', which was what he'd been told I was doing, I had used my laptop as a mirror to check my hair, and he had to tell me (in front of all the other readers) that if I really need to, I can check my hair in the mirrors in the toilets, and that, for this violation of the Rules, he would have to take my card and I would have to have my name written into the BL naughty book for posterity. All the while, a familiar figure stood solemnly somewhere at his shoulder, behind him, but still just in my range of vision. 

She got me. Guilty as charged. She finally got me for 'using a webcam' in the Reading Rooms. 

To all of you British Library users out there: don't use your laptop camera in the Reading Rooms, even if it is to check your outfit or hair. This (and I did not know this) is against the rules. Or: just don't sit in that one seat in the library. Then you can get away with pretty much anything. 

* 19 - not her real age.