As I was waiting for my examiners to arrive, I made friends with a first year undergrad who was waiting to apologize to my examiner about a late essay. He seemed more terrified than I was. He confessed that he’d been five minutes late to his medieval literature exam, and I told him I’d taught on that subject last year. ‘Taught!’ he exclaimed, surprised. I must have still been giving off student vibes.
Once the examiners arrived, and the apologetic undergrad was dispatched with, things got under way. While the internal ducked out for a moment to deal with the student, the external leant over and whispered – ‘there’s nothing to worry about!’ I’d actually met both of my examiners before, which made things a little easier. Then the internal returned, and ran through the official procedures with me, including the possible outcomes. ‘Well’, he said, ‘there’s no chance you’ll be demoted to an MPhil, so we can forget about that. And there’s no chance you’ll be referred. So you know you’ve passed, and we’ll take it from there. We both really enjoyed reading your thesis, but our job here is to ask difficult questions, so that’s what we’ll do.’
They proceeded to start things off incredibly gently, by first asking me about how I came up with the idea, how the project had developed, and how I had ended up writing a thesis on Australian literature in Leeds of all places, given that I was Australian. So that was quite nice, really, to be able to reflect on the beginning of the project as I stood on the brink of its completion. I remember clearly that page of my notebook on my desk in my bedroom in Adelaide, where I listed the things I was interested in: medieval literature, Australian poetry, spirituality, and I looked for the places where they touched.
From there, all the difficult questions emerged, questions that would have stumped me three years ago:
- You thesis seems to have quite an evasive relationship with postcolonialism – you bring it up only to define it as tangential to your work; why do you do this?
- Is medievalism studies a valid discipline? Should it not be seen as simply a branch of cultural studies?
- What is particularly interesting about representations of the Middle Ages as opposed to re-creations of other periods of history?
- You seem to evade the question of gender in your work. Why don’t you engage more explicitly with the masculinities your authors construct?
- Imagine I’m speaking from a dated, twenty-year-old perspective that Australian literature should eschew preoccupations with Europe. How would you defend your work against such a challenge?
- The perennial: How can Randolph Stow be regarded as an Australian writer when his later novels are so quintessentially English?
- Could you take the concept of ‘Australian writing’ out of your thesis and have it still work as a thesis? (This was the one that most confused me.)
- Are you being unfair to Murray by positing his medievalism as somewhat naïve, and reading the other authors as offering more complicated engagements with the Middle Ages?
- It seems in your Hart chapter you stretch the concept of the Middle Ages quite considerably – you talk about the fourth-century Pseudo-Dionysius and the sixteenth-century John of the Cross – is there a danger of your categories disintegrating?
- You talk a lot about “belonging” but this doesn’t seem to be solely connected to location. Can you explain this a little more?
- Can you explain the relevance of the concept of “trauma” to your work?
- Is Australian medievalism simply an evasion of more problematic aspects of Australian history, as can be seen in the “history wars”?
- At some point you say medievalism is not just a theme or an issue but a process. You seem to be claiming medievalism as a methodology. It’s not a methodology. How will you overcome this problem in your work? If you had to come up with a different methodology, what would that look like?
This list of questions is just from memory; they probably worded them slightly differently. In most cases – even in the gender case – I had actually discussed these issues at various points in my thesis, so I was in a good position to formulate answers. But it was extremely interesting to be forced to discuss my work in the context of broader theoretical, methodological and disciplinary concerns. If you go on with an academic career these are the contexts you need to work in. About two thirds of the way through we got side-tracked and they started giving me advice about what I would need to do to turn it into a book. Between them they thought there was two ways I could go: make it smaller, possibly cutting it down to three writers, maybe with a greater emphasis on poetry and Catholicism; or make it much broader, more of a survey, and contextualise it with regard to earlier instances of Australian literary medievalisms. (When I passed this information on to my supervisors they weren’t entirely convinced, and suggested that something fairly close to the current layout might work as well.)
I did pretty well answering the questions on the whole. The one where I felt I didn’t quite make myself clear was the methodology one. Because although I did at one point refer to medievalism as a process, I in no way intended to claim it as a methodology for myself. I meant that it is something that the writers I study in the thesis do. They ‘do things’ to the Middle Ages: use, revise, reconstruct, re-imagine, re-locate, translate, question, mirror, refract, untangle, idealise, defend, rewrite. So medievalism could, perhaps, be claimed as a methodology of these writers, both a tool and a process. So in some senses I would describe medievalism as a methodology, but not one that I would aim to use. (Although, as anyone with an interest in this field knows, the distinction between medievalism, medieval studies and medievalism studies is a slippery one. Hmmmm. Much space for more thought here – I have raised an issue that cleverer minds than my own are attempting to solve…) Anyway…
At the end of all this they sent me out of the room for all of about three minutes while they decided my fate. I sat on a chair in the hall with my bag and my bottle of water. I could hear their voices through the door but couldn’t make out what they were saying. I breathed. They called me back in. ‘You’ll be pleased to know’, said the internal, ‘that you’ve passed’. I nodded, happy but dreading what might come next. ‘And you’ll be even more pleased to know that no corrections are required’. All semblance of professionalism left me. ‘Yay!’
Once they’d ascertained which pub I’d be heading to, I bounded out the door to round up my supervisors and tell them the good news. And honestly, this was one of the most fun bits of all. They were so excited, so happy, so proud of me! It was just great to think that this project that we’d spent years discussing had ended so well! I then scampered up the steps to the postgrad computer room, where my marvellous friends waited with a bottle of bubbly. (Emphasis here on marvellous. The staff, the supervision, and the postgrad/postdoc community at Leeds are out of this world, and I am soooo happy I did my PhD here.) We then meandered down to the pub, postgrads, postdocs, examiners and supervisors and all. As I sipped my cider and bounced with happiness, my external examiner commented that this was the first time he’d ever seen anyone seated but jumping up and down at the same time. And I didn’t mind one bit.