The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Seven Lessons from Jenny


After a summer spent in Oxford, I returned to Leicester to begin my PhD in the autumn of 2009. I came with bold intentions; here, I quote from my original application.

Through 'Timespaces' I intend to explore philosophical, historical, anthropological and sociological aspects of time and how they relate to museums as institutions, the stories they tell and the collections they hold. With a grounding in 'time theory', and after defining what I mean by 'timespace' I hope to explore several topicsTime in Museums, Time and Museum Collections, and Time, Museums and Wider Society.

Three years later, and my subjectintellectually and literallyhas somewhat run away with me. After brief forays into philosophical and anthropological approaches to temporality in the period leading up to my application, the months after, and the first semester of my thesis proper, much of this original intent began to ebb away. My description of my work now looks much more like this;

My PhD research considers the production of temporalities in the museum, thus far somewhat undertheorised. The research uses literary theory and analysis as a tool for understanding and speaking about these productions on a richly diverse theoretical level. The full temporal complexity of museums as such productions needs to be examined in more depth, and it is to be hoped that such research will enable the richness of both disciplines to be augmented, and the practice of both museum and exhibition display and design, and literary construction to be developed.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again; rarely is it the case that the final thesis looks much, if anything, the same as the original idea. I'm sure many of you have realised, or are beginning to realise, this fact already. What is probably more of interest to you is the process by which one became the other; prepare yourselves for a ride.

Pre-APG Flounderings: Lesson 1: It's OK (to flounder) and Lesson 2: Choosing an Approach.

I suspect that most of you sitting here, waiting to take your APGs, have spent time up until now trying to work out what it is that you actually want to do. That's OK! Actually, it's what I did. Once I knew that I was coming back to study for my thesis, I began to read as much as I possibly could upon the subject of time. I floundered – a lot – through various philosophical concepts; A-Theory, B-Theory, the Eternal Return, Élan vital, teleologies and the like; and scientific concepts – relativity theory, entropy, Minkowskian space-time diagrams. Sometime during the November of my first year, I emerged from Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason in something of a panic. I had realised that I had no idea what I was doing, where I was, and the horrible thought came to me that this whole thing had been a massive mistake; someone, somewhere, had made a serious error of judgement in letting me do this. I contacted Simon, my supervisor, and he told me precisely what I'm going to tell you now; the first lesson.

It's OK.
You will flounder.
You'll read a lot of things which you don't end up using.
Remember, at this stage, it isn't about the final end product.
It's about the process of discovery.
Enjoy the process.

I hope that it's clear that this process of discovery is not strictly periodised. You'll continue with such processes long into your thesis. I'm coming to the end, now, and I'm still doing it. The simple fact is that you have to learn to control it the further in you get, but, ultimately, it never goes away. Continue to enjoy it, when you get the chance to.

So, I floundered, and eventually I came up with my concept, my toolkit and language for investigating my rather large topic. For me, that concept was literary theory and strategy. I decided on this for probably two main reasons. Being an art which is, in Lessing's terms, 'temporal'that is, it unfolds over time in the process of reading, and in terms of the information being related inside it,  literature has a great body of work discussing its use and production of temporality. Hence it has a language, and various conceptsmetre, plot, perspective, style, and many morewhich can be usefully applied to its study in a museum context. The other, slightly less intellectually based reason is that I like reading. Literature is something I love, it's what I know and what I'm comfortable with, and perhaps my second lesson, then, is this.

The choice of a theoretical grounding or base concept for your thesis is, in part, down to your personal joy in that theory or frame.
If you don't love it, don't use it.
The choice may feel arbitrary.
But it isn't. Things are reasoned.
The point is to be honest about those reasons.

APG Lesson 3: Being Challenged is Good.

One of the reasonsperhaps the main reasonthat we're gathering this week is the APG and review process that many of you will be going through. You'll all now have written that report, handed it in, and be wondering what will happen tomorrow. I found that writing the report allowed me to clarify some ideas, to think about what I wanted to say, and it forced me not only to justify my choice of literature in a much more academic sense, but it also forced me to think about the way in which I might go about implementing those ideas as an actual approach to research. The review panel itself was similarly useful. I am sure that many of you are worried about this. I know that I was. My review panel were Ross, Viv, and Dave, and each of them had a number of interesting things to say and offer. Ross and Viv, being the characters that they are, were quite sympathetic to my ideas, offering points of clarification and asking me to explain certain terms. Dave, on the other hand, was a much more challenging proposition; and challenge me he did. He questioned me hard about my choice of literature, and how I could justify that against the manifold of other basis upon which I could situate my research. I thinkI hope at leastthat I defended myself well. At least, I defended myself well enough to pass, and perhaps herein lies the third lesson.

To be challenged at this stage is good.
You must be forced to think and to justify yourself.
If you are not, your thesis may become woolly and loose.
You may be immersed in a wide, exploratory process, but the rigour of that exploration remains crucial.
           
Post-APG Flounderings: The Fourth and Fifth Lessons: Floundering Happens. It's OK.

The APG is a massive thing; I understand only too well how it can take over your mind. But it's also important, today, to think beyond that. What happens when the whole scariness of Research Week is over?

Perhaps some of you will have a clear idea of where you want to go, what you want to do. This is great; go with it, and see where it takes you. I, however, found things still to be problematic. Whilst I found the APG a useful and enlightening process, which only strengthened my confidence in my theoretical frame, if you can call it that, I found that I had some significant problems with the implementation strategy which I'd designed for the APG. I had some basic concepts taken from literaturenarratological, linguistic, and prosodic approaches to the study of temporal functions in literature. I should make it clear that I did not intend to use pieces of literature with time as their content, unless those pieces were also manipulating time in a formal sense; for what I was, and still remain interested in, was the structural creation of temporality. The question remained, however, as to how I was going to put these concepts to use in the study of the museum. I knew that I would have to use case studies, just to provide me with some 'texts', as it were, and I had, in my APG, suggested the idea of a 'phenomenological walk', which has come under increasing scrutiny as a anthropological research methodology, and as a subject of investigation in its own right. I had intended, moreover, that these walks be relatively unstructured, that random observations merely 'bearing the concepts in mind' could be recorded via field notes, perhaps audio recordings, and photographs. I had also considered the use of film.

I tested out these ideas in New Walk Museum during the summer following my APG. These flaneuric digressions certainly produced copious quantities of words, but I found them to be of little value. I couldn't get anything really concrete from them. And I still had yet to decide on the final case studies which I would select. Again, I began to get worried, and by the September of 2010 I was beginning to get sorely concerned. I thought that the APG would set me on a sure and certain course, and was puzzled as to why it hadn't. I began to get angry with the time I was wasting messing around with this, and began to think that my whole concept had, from the start, been flawed. Perhaps I should have taken something more scientific than literature, perhaps I should have been more structured and less subjective. Perhaps, I thought, I was just being lazy.

But I then realised what had happened. I'd had a toolkit, I'd had an idea; and I'd left it behind. Why, I don't know, and can't explain even now. Without wishing to analyse my own psychological processes in any great detail, or to put post-facto interpretations on my behaviour, it is perhaps the case that I'd become scared of the rigour, had become to distracted by the surfaces of other new and shiny ideas. This is certainly a danger which you'll face throughout your thesis. For some time this plethora of thought and reading will be find, but there will eventually come a point where you just have to decide, just have to choose an angle and a focus, to buy the ticket and take the ride. In any case, I realised that I had to return to literature, to investigate once again why I had looked at it in the first place, what were the structures by which literary temporalities were investigated and how I could more rigorously apply them to my investigations here. So I spent some time beating down my interpretive, emotive self, and got down to building a set of questions with which to investigate my institutions. They're partial, and to some extent hugely reductive, the questions asked don't always apply in every situation, and I have found that, at times, those questions encouraged me to look for and see things that weren't actually there; learning to recognise this was important too. I had to realise that these questions were a way of structuring and guiding my investigationmy readingof the museum space, guidelines which made my reading of the environment deeper, more subtle, and much much more critical. By the time I got around to implementing my approach, which I'll discuss in a moment, the ideas expounded in my APG report had undergone a massive shift, an increase in subtlety, and an increase in rigour.

So, the fourth lesson.

Your APG will not teach you everything.
That is not what it is designed to do.
It is designed to push you onto the next phase, and to make sure that you can get there.

And the fifth.

If you flounder after your APG, that's ok.
It's frustrating.
You feel as though you should be getting somewhere faster than you are.
Don't let it take you over. Focus. Remember that you may still be testing ideas.
If the ideas don't work, think of other ideas.
In many ways it's still about the process.
But in the end, you have to make a choice.

Fieldwork: The Sixth Lesson: Beckett's Razor.

It wasn't until the February of 2011 that I had developed this toolkit far enough to begin to analyse my museums. I had a series of questions with which I would, as Simon phrased it, conduct an interview with the gallery space, and had decided to use photographs and images as aide memoirs and illustrations of various points. I had chosen three institutions, and had agonised over this choice. Again, the selection was based upon a variety of reasons both personal and intellectual; I certainly loved all the museums I was intending to visit, and to pretend that this did not play a part in their selection would be remiss of me. However, I chose the Ashmolean, the Pitt Rivers and the Oxford University Natural History Museum for practical reasons toothey were close to each other, and easily accessible from Leicester. Yet they are also interesting academically, all having undergone redevelopment in recent years, all being iconic institutions for one reason or another, and all being of different styles and disciplines which would allow for some interesting comparative work. I contacted them, requested to essentially sit in the galleries, writing and photographing for a week at each, to which they responded positively.

This was a manic period. The investigation of each case study was intensive and tiring, and I suspect that I made a mistake in beginning with the Ashmolean. Such a vast museum rather outfaced me, and, in a panic, I neglected my toolkit for at least the first day, simply perambulating around the galleries in a haze of confusion and puzzlement. This is a mistake I should like not to have made, but it is one which happens. There is no accounting, sometimes, for your response when faced with a challenge, and this is lesson six.

Critical investigation, of whatever form, is hard.
There are likely to be times when you panic.
Sometimes, the only thing you can do is to accept the consequences, and move on.
The enactment of a methodology is often thus;
Try. Fail. Try again, harder. Fail, but fail better.

By the time I came to my final investigations in the OUNHM, I was failing much, much better. Beckett would have been proud.

Well Now What? Staring at Data and Wondering What to Do.

Faced with a pile of data, it may be the case that you don't know what to do. Trying to figure out how to analyse and understand all the stuff you've gathered is a serious challenge. For some of you, there are software tools such as Nvivo (buggy and annoying as they may be) which you can use to make sense of some of your data. My approach forced a different form of investigation, a long and arduous one of reading notes and writing them up into three folders of approximately 114 thousand words each.

That took me until the September of last year, by which point I was shattered. I took a break for my birthday, went to Sweden for a conference, and then came back to it, much better for the break. I then began the stage in which I am nowwriting up.

The Final Part: Making the contents of your brain accessible to others.

It took some time to formulate a chapter structure for the thesis as a whole, and to some extent the structure is still fluid on a micro level. But it falls out roughly, like this,

            Introduction
            Chapter One: Literary Temporalities
            Chapter Two: Temporal Topologies
            Chapter Three: Temporal Gestures
            Chapter Four: Temporal Ontologies
            Chapter Five: Conclusion

Please, if you feel so inclined, ask me about these chapters. I won't subject you to their detailed content unnecessarily, however.

It's been a hard process, this last stage, to try to communicate the contents of my brain, and of those massive folders to other people. It's been perhaps the most intellectually challenging part of the whole project, as I've been faced with a problem I've never encountered before; a lack of voice.

I've always been garrulous, always able to communicate my ideas clearly and in an entertaining way. But at least in the first chapter, my ability to communicate suddenly dropped off in quite dramatic fashion. Constantly going back to Simon and being asked for re-writes was soul destroying. Having to pick apart ideas you loved and phrases you thought expressed them, and discovering that you didn't understand the ideas and hadn't communicated them well is heartbreaking. It may well be that it was, in part, an issue of confidence. Still, even then, I was unsure that my ideas held weight, that I understood what was going on, and I was covering it up with sentences such as,

            Looking down into Human Image, this Critical Reader sees other trace their multiple paths, watches unknowable futures generate from multiplicitous presents. Against the Pyramid of abstract reason, the organization of space and experience imposed from the outside, the thread their own Labyrinth or, rather, their own route through the rhizome. And they, like the characters in At Swim-Two-Birds, may well be looking at us.

If you understand what I meant by this, please do tell meI'd be glad to know.

However, the process of re-writing, painful as it is, has allowed me to come to the point I am at now, where I am becoming increasingly confident in handling the ideas and how I want to express them. Again, consistent and hard challenges have been vital to this development, and you should be making them of yourself all the time. It is when you loose that detached critical brain that the problems arise. This is not to say you should consistently beat yourself upfar from it. The process is not one of self-loathing, but of self- assessment. It's about trying, failing, trying harder and failing better. And better, and better.

How it will all finish, when it will all finish, and what I'll do afterwards, I still don't know. The final lesson I can leave you with here is that, at this stage and throughout the project, the point is to challenge the book as it challenges you. If it gives you unfamiliar words, look them up. Question the book, the text, question why you're reading it, and why you're reading it in this way. Remember that it's a long, hard slog boring and isolating at times, but also wonderfully immersive, challenging, and hopefully endlessly fascinating. The point is that, when you turn over the last page, you want to be satisfied with the reading; you want to be satisfied with what you've done.

'Scholarship has not been cheerful always and everywhere, although it ought to be.'
Herman Hesse, The Glass Bead Game

1 comment:

J said...

The process is not one of self-loathing, but of self- assessment.
This really rang true for me. And I guess I would also add that a PhD is only a beginning of a life-long career as an expert in your field. It's not supposed to be perfect, but just the summary of your finding your way to a project that will engage you for much longer than 3-6 years!