Wednesday 21 October 2015

PhD diary #1: 21/10/2015

Officially, it is one month to the day since I began my PhD studies at Aberystwyth University. A lot has happened in these past few weeks – miles travelled, people met, words written. Far too many things to recount (and to do so would be rather tedious for those who have not experienced them).

I owe the idea for this post (and the few dozen that will follow it) to a presentation I heard at the Millennium conference in London last weekend by Erzsebet Strausz of Warwick University (formerly also of Aberystwyth). Reading out excerpts from her own thesis, she reflected on the process of writing and related it to the panel's theme: in a word, Foucault.

I missed Erzsebet's talk at the EISA conference in Sicily a few weeks ago but I did go to a couple of sessions organised by new friends and co-students here at Aber on research methods. Not nearly as dry as it might sound, we talked at length about creative writing, reflexivity and the importance of laying the workings of the research process bare – in other words, incorporating the messiness of research into the finished product rather than stripping it all out and polishing it all away (see John Law for more details). Megan Daigle (of Aber until a couple of years ago) talked about how she wrote up her fieldwork in Cuba more or less chronologically, structuring it around a narrative of her own journey. We also complained, as any people with a shared vocation do when they get in a room together, about the strictures and rigmaroles of university research training – and of the university in general. (That can all stay in the room.)

I don't think that I have Erzsebet's talent for self-reflection, nor does my less travel-oriented project really lend itself to Megan's approach to writing. Nevertheless, sitting in that stuffy room, on that uncomfortable chair at the LSE, I was brought to ponder: What is a preface for? To set up what needs setting up, to preempt what needs preempting, to give thanks to whoever or whatever needs to be given it. Although it always sits at the very front of a work (in older books it might even be before the contents page), it is usually the very last thing to be written. But why not, I thought, write this often rather perfunctory document as I go? Why not allow this usually withered and forgotten organ to become something more interesting?

And so, and I do not mean to give this great fanfare as I'm sure that someone else has done it before, I decided to write the preface to my thesis as a series of monthly diary entries, the overall number to be determined simply by when I finish the damned thing.

There is, of course, quite a risk in committing to this this! I feel somehow exposed even writing these words. Do I really want to commit right now to the words (these very words!) that will open my PhD thesis in three years time? It goes against every instinct towards perfectionism that I have (and I have a few). And yet that is precisely the reason why I should finish this post, click 'Publish' and send it out into the world (or onto the screens of my, shall we say, select readership, at least). If I am this pretentious at this point, I am unlikely to be less so after 36 months of breathing inside an academic bubble. So, why not?

It seems fitting given that I had been pouring thousands of words after thousands of words on this blog for several years before ever setting foot on the west coast of Wales. If anything prefaces the academic work that I have now thrown myself into, it is this.

I don't have much to say about the progression of the thesis so far other than what was obvious all along. My initial plan was acknowledgedly over-ambitious and I plainly need to peel away large slabs of it until I arrive at something more direct and manageable. My supervisors, if they are reading this, may be relieved to hear such sense being spoken. How they are feeling about my somewhat impulsive decision to write (and, more to the point, to commit to) the first few hundred words of my text so far ahead of time, I do not know.

But that, I am sure, will be fine. The real challenge will be to avoid the fate of almost every diary that anyone has ever started to write: fatigue, disinterest and abandonment.

We shall see, we shall see…