Aiming to Do Better

Monday

Llenin Llama - he actually really enjoyed Debord's bookToday I challenged myself to sit down and work on my revised research proposal, and in particular my aims.  We had a session a week or so ago on the RPC course which was designed to get us up and running on our aims (although it was more than a little fuzzy on the difference between them and objectives).  Not sure if it was the dreary wet weather, or the fact that I wasn’t simply reading through another book – but I found it quite hard.  One of the things that the PhD has brought home to me is the need to look a lot more critically at my work.  Even the initial proposal I wrote some months back in order to get my PhD place looked horribly flawed in the light of day. I’ve written many project outlines over the years, along with aims and objectives, but they’re normally a healthy collaborative process.   Sitting here with only a stuffed llama to talk to about them means it was pretty much a steep uphill struggle all day.  I did conclude though that after working on them, and my draft proposal, I’m going to share them with my supervisors for input so maybe I can get something of the collaborative experience going.

I also spent some time looking up papers I want to print off and read, and as I’m on campus on Wednesday dumping the references to my email account.  Printing them at Uni is a lot cheaper (and double-sided) than running them off at home; just so long as I don’t have to make a special 30 mile round trip just to do it.  I’ve also scribbled various notes about research methodology to myself.  Think it’s high time I did a bit of background work into the  how of my work rather than just the why I’ve been focussing on to date.  Strange thing is in sitting down to seriously think about my proposal I seem to have ended up flipping between two states of high anxiety.

  1. Oh my lord, this is all just too basic and sketchy!  This will never pass muster!
  2. Oh my lord, this is all too expansive and Hegelian in nature!  I’ll never have the time and resource to carry out this work!

I keep telling myself that hopefully after a few dozen reworking it’ll be nothing of the kind, but these have been the thoughts upper most in my mind today.  Unhelpfully they tend to drive me towards a state of immobility from fear; a fear of doing anything because that thing might be the wrong thing. *sigh* I know in 6 months this will all seem so trivial, and I was heartened talking to someone online today who is close to the end of their PhD; and unsurprisingly they’re still refining aims.  That helped quite a lot, knowing it’s not just me struggling with this bit.

Ding!Weirdly the highlight of the day came in the last few minutes.  I was updating the glossary of terms I’ve been keeping, and looking into one of the ones that I flagged up in Friday’s philosophical tract by Debord.  And stap me vitals if it isn’t directly related to a useful theoretical underpinning that I can investigate and apply to my research aims.  It almost made slogging through the book on Friday and slogging through my planning today worthwhile.  Certainly a light bulb moment all the same.  Tomorrow though back to reading to give my brain a rest before blasting back into planning on Wednesday.

Tuesday

A Hacker Manifesto
As planned a day of reading.  In the morning I read (on my supervisor’s recommendation A Hacker Manifesto; which while part philosophy and part political was at least easier reading than The Society of the Spectacle.  Just.  Not quite sure how it left me feeling having read it, but maybe when I think on it some more I might be able to draw more from in.  In the afternoon I bit the bullet and started reading another eBook, although thankfully the author (Boyle) had made it available as a downloadable PDF; so I didn’t have to suffer another terrible eBook interface.  I did have a quick look at it via the library system and actually looked even less user-friendly than the previous one.  Sheesh.

March of the Feathered FellonsI’m going to reading through this book for the next day or two, but was delighted to discover that the third chapter opened with an old poem that linked one of my favourite animals (the goose) with something my research is related to (the commons).  So here it is with a gratuitous shot of some gooses* I took earlier this year.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.

The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break;
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.

Anon, but attributed to Edward Birch, 1821

Given my experience of the licentious activity of gooses, this sounds about right!

Wednesday

Red in tooth and clawToday I’d booked to finally go into the University to attend one of the weekly lectures that pop up in my email.  None of them to date had looked even remotely like they might tickle my intellectual fancy, which is a shame as I’m dying to meet up with a few more PhDs and academics as part of my research experience.  One of the problems is most of the ones in my school (and indeed other schools) all take place on a Weds afternoon, which is when I have my weekly RPC classes.  However, this week being a reading week (or RED week as seems to be the NTU parlance – I was utterly clueless when I got an email about RED Week activities – I thought werewolves might be involved) I didn’t have a class.  So rather than sit at home and work all day I came in.

Actually it was doubly useful as I picked up quite a few books on social research theory and method, and printed out about a couple hundred pages worth of articles and reports to bring home to read.  I like to ensure my infrequent visits to campus pay off!

The lecture I’d chosen to go to was from the English series, and since I’m an English, Culture and Media student thought it would be interesting to attend.  The subject was social assemblage theory which thought might be somehow linked to my own interests in the open and social media communications.  Looking back at my notes there is a comment at the bottom of the page, towards the end of the lecture “So, just what the hell IS social assemblage theory then?“. Yes, entertaining though the lecturer’s style was he rather pitched it to an audience level that assumed you already understood what the theory was, which was a bit of a fail.  I kept waiting for the slide that gave a concise, precise description but it never came.

I also got a bit annoyed by the appropriation of terms like thermodynamics to be applied to the motion of people.  As a former scientist it just felt utterly wrong (and I shan’t recount the given explanation of what scientific thermodynamics was from the session for fear of breaking the internet).

Actually, I’m probably being a bit harsh – the topic looked at the movement of ideas and concepts through the medium of 18th Century Theatre and conversations had by audiences.  The idea that because a million tickets were sold that therefore a million people saw a play and hence conveyed its ideas into the popular consciousness was at the end of the day not a million miles away from the impact social media or indeed main stream media has today I concluded; through this was not explicit in the talk but rather my own reflections afterwards.

All the same, the session has given me something new to bore people with at the countless dinner parties I attend** and it did get me out the house.  Also had a few minutes chatting to another PhD student about my research, which was probably the high point of my entire day.  I also felt inspired to draw a brief concept map and draft research aim following the session, so perhaps the experience helped to rekindle my inner academic.  I’ll certainly be coming back for more lecture sessions as time allows, as frankly I’ve a capacious thirst to know about the world at large beyond my own subject disciplines.

Thursday

You can buy a copy though it is also in the public domain (fittingly)
Today’s been spent working through the majority of Boyle’s The Public Domain.  A really engaging and well written book, that comes across a lot less preachy than some of the others I’ve read of late.  Good logical garments and illustrations, with just enough reasoned cynicism to bring the points across well.  And perhaps more importantly, the last line features gooses once again.

If we assume that the enclosure of the commons of the mind will bring us prosperity, great science, and vibrant culture, well, we will look like very silly geese indeed. Boyle, 2008

A satisfying days work that has actually finished around an hour or so earlier than I expected it to.  I could spend the time thinking about aims again, but I believe I’ll leave that to tomorrow when I have a fresh head on.

One thing I was discussing with Mrs Llama this morning was my paranoia about the originality of my research.  It’s one of the things we’ve had drummed into us at the university, the importance of making a unique contribution to the scholarly corpus.  The more I read around my subject, the more I can’t help but get this niggling feeling that I’ll need to re-scope and reconsider my research focus yet again.  I know that this is probably something that every PhD student gets in the early days, before you’re fully locked on to your research topic but it is a little unsettling.  And at the same time I’m trying not to think about what happens two years in if I find someone who’s done the same research.  Okay, that thought’s going to come back to haunt me!

Friday

I’ve ended the week by spending the day working on my aims and research proposal a bit more.  Having read around a bit more on methodology I am feeling a little happier, although this was amplified wonderfully following a few brief exchanges on twitter on the topic.  Honestly without twitter I’d be tearing my llama fur out over this issue.  Neither my aims or my proposal are still in any fit state to go anywhere, although I’m hopeful a morning’s work on Monday will bring them to a format that I can perhaps share with my supervisor and get a bit of quick feedback.  At the moment they’re filled with notes to myself like “Must find out if this makes any sense” and “Is this an assumption or can I prove it?“; thus very much a work in progress.  As I worked late last night though I’m going to call it a week now.  I might pick up the notes over the weekend and write them up a bit more, but frankly my brain is just fried right now – I’m off for a post work doze…

*yes I know grammatically it’s actually geese but as a goose fancier for years I’ve fallen into the habit of pluralising goose to gooses.  It seems to reflect more accurately on the goose disrespect for authority to ignore the rules of written language.

**I cannot remember the last time I attended a dinner party. Might have been 1994…

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