Wednesday, November 19, 2008

My end of Certainty

This blog has been a bit silent of late. Apres PhD I've felt less inclined to throw up pointer posts -- posts that expanded on a particular concept, or worked through a line of argument that I thought would subsequently by useful as the draft was composed -- although the rush of posts that came in the wake of what might be called the shuddering convulsions of the financial crises have lessened as the US Election neared and the economic crises have metastasized into aspects of the real economy. In Australia a couple of private childcare companies are in receivership, partly due to the financial convulsions but also due to the imbrication of a heavily state-subsidized childcare industry into some of the dodgier financial practices of recent years. It is early days for the federal government's response to these collapses, but how it deals with these will give some indication of the direction that the Rudd Government will head in as it seeks to present its alternative to what Rudd has termed extreme capitalism.

I'm back on campus tomorrow for a Work-in-Progress day: where the school's postgrads and supervisors gather for the postgrads to report on the state of their research. I'm on a completions panel and have been helpfully given a set of questions in advance that the Postgrad co-ordinator will ask a couple of us completees. So, as an exercise in preparation, and in case you might be interested, I thought I'd work through these questions in this post.

1) Did your research project change from the one you scoped in your
preliminary research plan? If so, how? How late did those changes
occur? What will / would you do in planning your next project as a
result of this experience?

The basic concepts contained in the preliminary plan remained, but the specific readings shifted considerably. My initial frame was to marry citizenship studies with the politics of Australian literary fiction in the period 1984 to 1996. So, my plan was to read around public sphere theory, theories and histories of citizenship, political theory, and Australian realist fiction. The changes occurred in the attempt to merge literary and political history with citizenship theory. For example, Habermas' history and theory of the public sphere contains an interesting theory about the importance of the epistolary novels of Samuel Richardson to the formation of the form of privateness and publicness that, in effect, provided the pre-conditions for the bourgeois or political public sphere. This is a similar argument to the one the Benedict Anderson makes in Imagined Communities: that the novel is a social form that makes nationalism through its address to a shared public who imagine that who they share the reading with forms the nation. So, it was the attempt to merge political theories like Habermas', which is elegiac -- mourning a fallen rational-critical culture -- with the imaginative and aesthetic nature of the novel that impelled me to move away from the directions I'd initially thought I'd be heading in. Luckily my supervisor could see well into the future of my project and pointed my almost immediately toward Pierre Bourdieu's Rules of Art which gave me a very useful model for blending sociology and literary aesthetics.

There were a number of other major changes from the preliminary plan to the final submission. The most significant were learning about the sociology of literary form -- rather than attempting to read fiction as sociology -- and becoming increasingly interested in and persuaded by the governmentality school as a way of approaching both the concept of citizenship and Neoliberalism as the dominant governmentality of the period.

My supervisor had also, wisely, lead me toward Franco Moretti's more recent quantitative methods for literary history, and this, in turn, helped to bring me to Moretti's earlier work on the Bildungsroman. In terms of the literary side of the thesis reading, applying and adapting Moretti's explanations for the rise of this literary form to the generationalism, contests over youth and coming-of-age novels that I was studying gave me a grammar and vocabulary for articulating a historical sociology of literary form. What was then opened up for me was how the political history and speeches of the period were also traversed by conventions of the Bildungsroman. This was a real breakthrough and a fairly late development: early in the third year. It meant that I had to get through Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship -- fairly hard going -- and Flaubert's Sentimental Education -- which reminds me that I should read this again soon, as it was so funny -- which is also the key novel in Bourdieu's Rules of Art.

The main thing I'd do differently, in terms of preliminary planning, would be to read more fiction, especially novels like the Goethe and Flaubert, as you don't really consent to the literary history, literary sociology arguments until you have a feel for the works through which these arguments are being made.

(2) How long did the process of "finishing your thesis" take? What
did it feel like? How did your relationship with your supervisor
change during this period?

The whole process is 'finishing'. I know that there were milestones which did help to punctuate the process -- giving conference papers, and passing annual reviews -- but there is a background anxiety that is really the sense that you are always slowly moving towards finishing. This anxiety, however, does intensify. Having given up smoking cigarettes in the beginning of the fourth year, I found that the shock of adrenaline that came during those acceleration periods in the final six months had to be produced out of unfamiliar parts of the body, so that when it was time to face down the deadline I didn't really know how to get moving. I put this lack of body-knowledge down to quitting smoking. So, what I mean to say is that the finishing end-game was trance-like and involved a self-game of will that was new to me and that took a long time to intensify. To be honest I had to mourn the thesis: to let it go and to say goodbye to it in order to write it. That was hard.
The relationship with my supervisor shifted along the plane of authority: I became more capable of arguing for my method and arguments and as what I had initially imagined as the reach of the research shrunk to a slice I became more the expert on the terrain of that slice. What also changed, as a corollary, was that I came more to appreciate my supervisor's areas of expertise and to gain a realistic sense of his understanding of areas that were newer to him.

(3) What would you tell yourself at the beginning of your
candidature, if you could travel back in time?

The winners of the last four years' Melbourne Cups.
To do a course in Word Processing a lot sooner. To always make notes after reading something, so to avoid having to read a chapter or essay over and over again. To use some system of book page-tagging and annotation. To use Abebooks for cheap second hand books. To take accurate bibliographic notes. To read more fiction.

(4) What is key thing you've learnt about yourself in the process of
finishing a thesis?

That I try to save up the actual practice of the literary reading until the very last minute; that's what I love doing but I try to prolong the pleasure of it, as much as possible, by over-reading the non-literary histories and theories. That I need to trust the value of my previous work more: I kept thinking that I could start afresh every time I sat down to draft a chapter, but I learnt that the guy that made those notes a couple of years ago had some idea about what he was doing and he was actually doing the same project.

(5) What is the key thing you've learnt about academic work in the
process of finishing a thesis?

That it's excruciatingly hard and pleasurable at the same time.

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