Category Archives: Musing

Postdocs

I’m writing this in the living room of my new flat. The sky is iron grey, the temperature is low, and all is quiet. An excellent time for some introspection. Today subject is how I got here.

newcastle-upon-tyne-bridge-640597_1280

The story begins at the very end of my second year as a PhD student, when I wrote the first chunk of text worthy of the name of chapter. It was entitled ‘Transition’, and examined how sequences of passions could be used to analyse drama of the long eighteenth century. My supervisor liked it very much, and confirmed that it could form the basis of a postdoctoral application, should I wish to apply for postdocs during my third year.

That, of course, was the question. In the end (and as you’ve probably guessed by now), I decided to do so. I’ve already taken a few years out of academia, and was eager to find stable employment before turning thirty. On top of this, writing applications during my third year turned out to be something of a boon for my research. Being forced to confront the big questions of your work over and over again (“describe your research and its importance in 500 words”, etc.) really made me focus on what I wanted to do and why it should be I who was doing it. When I eventually came to compose the introduction and conclusion to my thesis, months of proposal and summary writing paid off many times over.

While applying alongside writing up worked for me, I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. It is, after all, immensely time-consuming, not to mention very dispiriting. It can be very hard to keep going when you receive periodic rejections of your academic hopes and dreams. Some good advice I received about dealing with this is to consider postdoctoral applications undertaken during the third year as a ‘dry run’, a chance to learn new skills and, as it were, enter a lottery where you at least have some chance of getting employment rather than none at all.

And now for a numerical interlude. Having spent decided in August 2014 to try and obtain a postdoctoral position that I could take up immediately after my PhD, I then, from September 2014 to July 2015, applied for 41 jobs.

  • 14 JRFs – Junior Research Fellowships: the Oxford and Cambridge postdoctoral position par excellence
  • 17 ATER positions – Attaché temporaire d’enseignement et de recherche: the standard French postdoctoral teaching fellowship
  • 2 Lecteur positions – Language assistant at a French university
  • 2 Maître de langue positions – Language course convenor at a French university
  • 4 Teaching Fellowships – Of varying length and at various institutions
  • 2 Lectureships – Permanent, full-time posts combining teaching and research

Out of all these, I got:

  • Shortlisted 3 times for a JRF
  • 1 offer of an ATER position
  • 1 offer of a lecteur position
  • 1 interview for a teaching fellowship
  • 1 offer of a lectureship

Which brings me to Newcastle, and this still, grey morning. The weather thus continues to invite some more reflections, so I’ll conclude with some general points.

First, the world of postdoctoral employment is extremely opaque, such that it is very dangerous indeed to try and draw conclusions from the way your application is treated. With regard to JRFs, a combination of the sheer quantity of candidates (sometimes more than a hundred to a single fellowship) as well as the internal needs and politics of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges make it all but impossible to get a sense of how people felt about your research. Fellowship committees rarely give feedback either, although it is always worth trying. Such opacity is pushed to absurdity in the French system, where ATER applications are fed into an online platform (a bit like UCAS) and sent off in the post. Two months later you might (as I did) receive a phonecall saying that you have a job waiting for you or (as often happened to me also) you’ll get an automatically generated email telling you to log on and read the notice of your failure.

The second thing, following on from the first, is that it is important not to lose heart. This is far easier said than done. Strategies that I found useful for keeping up morale included: strict limits on the time spent applying for postdocs, formulation of a back-up plan if I found nothing, and regular opportunities to present my research in a non-competitive context (be it showing chapters to my supervisor or giving conference papers).

The sun is peeking through the clouds. Time to go and visit Newcastle a little more. I hope that this post is useful to those who find it. If you have questions, do sound off in the comments.

When does a PhD end?

When does a PhD end? This is a bit of an awkward question. I’ve now handed in my thesis, typed, proofed and bound, and am waiting to have my viva on 2nd October 2015. My PhD isn’t officially over until my examiners, Tiffany Stern and Christopher Tilmouth, decide that my work is good enough and allow me (after completing any corrections) to receive a doctorate at a ceremony most likely due to take place in November 2015 at the earliest.

So my PhD ends in November 2015. Or does it? As far as the University of Cambridge and my college are concerned, my PhD ended when I submitted the thesis: I no longer have to pay college fees or university tuition, and my grant has come to an end as well. This seems right too, particularly as I now live and work several hundred miles away from the Great Saint Mary’s (the traditional point for measuring one’s distance from Cambridge).

So my PhD has already ended. I think my examiners would disagree. And, to be frank, so do I. Indeed, I’m beginning to wonder now if PhDs ever really end, even once has gone through all the rituals of closure. Like others before me, my thesis will hopefully constitute the basis of my first book and my continuing research and teaching interests in the years ahead. Quite how many years that may be, I can’t possibly know, but a quick mental survey indicates that the number is likely to be quite high.

I ask these questions here because this post introduces an already advertised shift in the identity of this blog. Rather than something tied to the trials and tribulations of a PhD, it will become a more general space for academic reflection. As my opening paragraphs have just shown, this might even be a more honest approach to the nature of one’s development as a researcher, which rarely follows the boundaries of administrations or qualifications.

Some changes are in order. They are:

  • A new category “Thesis”, which will replace both the awkward categorisation by chapter, which never really worked, even if it now makes an interesting record of what shape I expected my dissertation to take between 2012 and 2015.
  • Further recategorisation by subject, to make it easier to find material and to connect past and present work. This includes removing the label “Outside thesis”, for obvious reasons.
  • A slightly different look to the website and an update to the master pages (“About”, etc,)

Enjoy!

A Sea Change

I have big news, so big that I can no longer sit on it. From September 1st, I am going to be a lecturer!

More precisely, I will be a lecturer in Restoration and eighteenth-century literature at Newcastle University. I cannot wait.

I also cannot devote more time to a longer post, although I promise to return here as soon as I can and write the following:

  • The story of my job-hunting
  • An account of the end of my thesis (and the final form it took)
  • My first impressions of life in Newcastle

I shall also reboot the blog into something more like a carnet de recherche, capturing my ideas and whimsy more generally as opposed to something tied to a specific project.

For now though, I need to find a flat.

The Zotero Quest

Those who know a little about role-playing games (RPG) may be familiar with the concept of ‘levelling up’. When your character acquires a certain quantity of experience (all experience is quantitative in these games), they pass from their current level to the one above, becoming – in a variety of ways – more powerful.

In some ways, the life of a PhD student is a bit like an RPG. And not just because of the peculiarities of our habitat. As you complete the various quests that constitute your research (find and read all your sources; write a conference paper, an article, a chapter, a thesis, a book…), you acquire experience and, ultimately, level up.

Of course, there are some events during a doctorate (as in an RPG) that earn you more experience than others. In a game like <i>Final Fantasty</i>, for instance, one earns a great deal more experience from defeating a story-specific enemy – known as a ‘boss’ – than from scything your way through all of his or her underlings.

There are many candidates for the academic equivalent of a boss. My supervisor, much as I’m fond of him, has occasionally played this role (albeit without the tentacles), asking me a difficult question, which, once answered, unlocks new power for my research. Alternatively, and perhaps more plausibly, one might consider job interviews, journal submissions or conference presentation as boss battles. Or maybe I’m just too combative a speaker.

I’m also wandering from my original aim. You see, I have just had a level up moment. It involves footnotes, a word I only use here, after a long and exciting exposition, in the hope that it won’t make you stop reading.

The chapters of my thesis have between 150 and 200 of what the French call “notes de bas de page” each. Inserting all of them was a long and painful process, but it would have been far longer and far more painful if I had not been using Zotero to store my bibliographical data. Like a particularly potent piece of equipment, this program has made my forays into the dungeons at the foot of each page of my thesis much easier. And yet, as I discovered recently, I had been wielding it ineptly.

Take a look at this.

bad notes

Although these footnotes follow the MHRA style guide to the letter, they are not good footnotes. Numbers 126, 128 and 130 all refer to one edition of Shakespeare’s plays, while notes 129 and 131 refer to another. This information will be quite useful to my reader, but to make it appear I would have to complete the oddest quest my PhD has set me yet.

Enter Zotero’s Visual CSL editor. With this tool, once can rewrite the ontologies of a style. It takes some time to work out how it functions (although a lot less time than reading the code itself), but, once you have it, you can create your own, modified style guides.

good notes

Voilà.

While I am, perhaps, a bit too proud of these footnotes now, there is a larger point to be made here too. Changing the format of these lines entailed acquiring a far better understanding of how Zotero worked, and how to modify it. On top of this, it also taught me about the ontology of citation: the immensely clever system that has the capacity to enclose all other systems of reference.

I’d say that makes me, roughly, a level 28 researcher.

 

On the Legality of my Thesis

My thesis has five pictures in it. They have caused me quite a lot of problems, enough to merit this post, which will – I hope – veer between entertaining lament and useful advice about copyright and doctoral research in the age of the institutional digital repository.

My thesis has five pictures in it. They are:

  • Charles le Brun, La Tente de Darius (1661)
  • William Hogarth, David Garrick as Richard III (1745)
  • Adelaïde Labille-Guiard, Jean-François Ducis (1782)
  • Adelaïde Labille-Guiard, Brizard dans le rôle de Léar (1783)

And…

  • An engraving of Cleopatra applying the Asp, from volume six of Nicholas Rowe’s edition of Shakespeare’s plays (1709)

All the above images can be found relatively easily on the internet. Problems arise, however, when one wishes to publish them in a thesis.

Let’s start with the four paintings. All of them, having been painted centuries ago, are in the public domain. Or, rather, the originals are. Unfortunately, images of paintings (i.e. images of images) have their own copyright, and many museums assert control over these. They are entitled to do so, since taking a photo of a painting, particularly a photo of sufficient quality for book reproduction, seems to constitute artistic labour in its own right. I say seems because British law is a little vague on this.

Thankfully, as a lowly doctoral student, I don’t need to use a museum’s expertly created images of their paintings for a book that is going to sell millions of copies. Rather, there will be exactly one copy of my thesis printed and stored in the Cambridge University Library. Given this situation, at least one institute (the Théâtre de l’Odéon in Paris) has – at time of writing – been kind enough to give me an image for free. Other places seem likely only to charge me a negligible amount.

Unfortunately, these days, PhD research is not just being made available in a room of the university library, it’s also being posted online, in digital institutional repositories (the Cambridge one is here). This means that whatever image I put in my thesis can have a potential audience of the entire online population. Rights for this kind of distribution do not, unsurprisingly, come cheap. Indeed, at least museum only allows me to rent online distribution rights for a year at a time, and not to purchase them at all.

The solution to this problem is rather radical. The online version of my thesis can only contain either public domain images (so pictures taken by myself, or whose creator has waived any copyright in) or empty frames, inside which I should write something along the lines of: “please consult the paper copy of this thesis to see this image.” Or, you know, Google it.

This image is copyright ©Boston Public Library. It may be used for educational, non-profit purposes.
This image is copyright ©Boston Public Library. It may be used for educational, non-profit purposes.

Enough with the paintings. The engraving is actually very similar. Rowe’s book is out of copyright, but the image of the book’s page may not be. In this case, however, there is an image of the image I need, which – while not fully in the public domain – is available for scholarly use, providing I give sufficient acknowledgement to the Boston Public Library. Which I shall do.

Thus concludes, for now, my adventures with copyright. Funnily enough, I actually talk a little about this topic in the course of my thesis. The first statute to provide for copyright regulated by the government (and not by private parties, like the Stationers’ Company) was the Statute of Anne in 1710. Its promulgation was a spur to the publication of both Rowe’s edition of Shakespeare and several of those that followed it. Early publishers of Shakespeare were just as interested in maintaining the rights to his work as modern museums are to their holdings now.

Orphan Black and General Sensibility

Have you been watching Orphan Black? I have, and enjoying it immensely as a way to get away from writing up my PhD. Unfortunately, though, the fact that my thesis is all about performance makes it pretty much impossible to ignore my research completely when watching a TV series. Especially this one. I can’t help but use eighteenth-century methods to reflect on the program’s plot, its mise en scène, or, in the case of Orphan Black, how it depends so heavily on its lead actress (and now producer too) Tatiana Maslany.

A bit of background is in order here, so prepare yourself for a few spoilers. Orphan Black is set in contemporary North America, with one difference: human cloning was achieved several decades back, and then – with key aspects of the research mysteriously lost – hushed up. All is well until, one day, a woman called Sarah Manning comes across what appears to be her identical twin (but is really her clone) in a train station. From there, a complex series of events unfold, in which Sarah meets (at time of writing) ten other clones, and, together, they try and work out who they are and where they came from.

Maslany in the role of: Sarah, Alison, Helena, Cosima and Rachel.

All the clones are played by Tatiana Maslany. Yet all of them are distinct characters: Sarah is former con artist, Cosima a geek, Alison a soccer mom, Helena a trained assassin, and so on. Maslany’s ability to transform from one person to the other is extraordinary, and has won her numerous acting awards.

What interests me, however, in my own little eighteenth-century way, is how this ability to transform has, to a certain extent, hidden Maslany herself. When watching Orphan Black, unless you try very hard indeed, you do not see the same actress in each of the parts. Televisual trickery sometimes helps with this: by combining several takes, it is possible for multiple clones to meet and talk (and, in one extraordinary season finale, dance) together. Yet even when there is no post-production help, the most critical of viewers will be hard pressed to say that Sarah, Cosima, Alison and all the others are visibly the same person.

Maslany’s ability to enter into each of these roles so completely that it is so hard to see the same actress behind them all is proof of something that was once called “general sensibility”. John Hill coins this term in the 1755 volume of The Actor.

Hill argued that “any particular turn of mind, far from qualifying a person for playing, is rather a disadvantage”. For him, an aspiring actor must instead possess a “ductility of mind”, a “general sensibility”. In other words, “It were best that the heart of the player had no reigning passion of its own” but rather a “ready sensibility of all”. In these circumstances, the actor would disappear into the role assigned to them, as Maslany does in Orphan Black.

Interestingly, Hill is pushed to theorise “general sensibility” as a way of understanding why performances by star actors of his time, like David Garrick and Spranger Barry, sometimes fell short of their full effect, because, as he puts it, “whether we see Mr Garrick in Richard or in Osmyn, still [we see] Mr Garrick”. Only an actress, Susannah Cibber, possesses the full general sensibility that means we do not identify the player from the play.

Perhaps Cibber is an ancestor of Maslany. If not by blood, than at least by intellectual tradition. There is certainly much more to say about Orphan Black with regard to early modern acting theory. For example: the TV series has (spoiler) a series of male clones too, but they – unlike the women – are far less varied. Perhaps the showrunners couldn’t find an actor with enough “general sensibility”?

Another question. If Maslany becomes more famous, will she lose the power to transform? Hill attributes Garrick’s visibility in to a lack of “general sensibility”, but more modern approaches might call this phenomenon a downside of theatrical celebrity. Isn’t an actor’s art also dependent on the eye of the beholder?

And one more thing to finish with. Hill suggests that “general sensibility” entails having “no reigning passion” of one’s own. I feel Maslany might take issue with this: is she really an unfeeling person, oddly characterless when not in front of the cameras? I doubt she’d say so. And then, to step once more into the world of Orphan Black, can we justly distinguish Cosima from Sarah, Helena from Alison, in terms of a “reigning passion”? If so, then where did it come from, given that the characters are all clones of each other? An important, submerged, implication of the premise of this series as a whole, but one that soon appears after a little reflection, is that we are not mere slaves to our genetics, but rather infinitely variable, if not – perhaps – to the extent of Tatiana Maslany and her “general sensibility”.