The V-word, part II

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.

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The V-word

Every single country seems to examine PhDs differently, so I thought I’d just explain how it works in the UK, and what happened for me, in case anyone’s interested. (And because it was a big big day and I want a record of it!) I left my camera in Norway, otherwise I’d intersperse all these thoughts with photos of the fat sunny green trees along the canal. Although, from my window I can also see a rather large man waiting at the bus-stop with no shirt on, eating crisps, which is not such a pretty sight. Anyway…

So, in the UK, you submit your thesis, and then a few months later you’re called in for a viva. Usually this is a couple of months later, but sometimes it’s longer. The viva is an interview with your examiners – one internal examiner from your own institution (but who has not directly supervised you in any way), and one external examiner from another institution. They ask you all sorts of awkward questions, and then at the end of it all they tell you whether you’ve passed or not. These are the possible outcomes: if it’s not good enough for a PhD they can give you an MPhil; if it’s not good enough but they think you are capable of getting there in the end you can get ‘referred’, and given an extra year to work on it; you can pass with ‘minor deficiencies’, if there are small things you have missed out or they want you to change, and you have three months for this; you can pass with ‘minor corrections’, in which case you get four weeks to do this; or you can pass with ‘no corrections’ if they think it’s set to go.

At the beginning they tell you that the viva is an active part of the examination process. It is a form of exam. According to my supervisors, this is especially important if there are weaknesses or inconsistencies in your thesis. Although the viva is in many ways a ‘defense’, there is no point defending the indefensible. They both had stories of examining theses that needed changing, but the defendants were so stuck on defending what they had written that they came across as incapable of reworking the thesis to the required standard. So they failed.

When I handed in my thesis my supervisors assured me that I would have nothing to worry about, so for the most part of the two months I hardly thought about the viva. I think the concept of a viva is quite nice – you actually get to talk to experts in detail about your own work, which doesn’t happen every day. I think this is much nicer than the way it works in Australia, where, for the most part, the examiners are anonymous, there is no viva, and you just receive reports in the mail.

But still. The week before, the days before my viva were quite nerve-wracking. Who was it that said you can’t send a poem out into the world with a tag on it saying ‘this is a good poem’? I’m quite happy with that state of affairs. But in a viva – and, I guess, in an academic career – you’re in it together. You stand beside your work, claim it as your own, and are judged accordingly. So I was a little nervous, sitting in the hallway, waiting to be called in.

Agh, this post is too long already, will finish it in a follow up post! Stay tuned…

Snapshot

I walk the long way back to the train station. The street is wide and the Victorian shopfronts glow faintly bronze in the fading light. The sky is opaline, scalloped, pink and blue. Two aeroplanes pencil bright orange trails beside the crisp white rind of the moon. My belly is just slightly too full of Hansa’s curries, mango lassi, white wine. My head whirls with the discussion about openness and uncertainty with three sweet Danish girls. Happiness is curry and wine and the slow evening sky so close to the city. I remember the first weeks of my phd, in October, hurrying back to the train station as the sun set earlier every day, watching the fiery clouds touch the buildings. Four winters have passed since then. Now the plane-trails broaden and turn pink. Like paths I could tread.

On the train, I realise I’m still carrying the thesis. The window takes on a sheen because it’s finally dark, though I hardly notice. I take out the manuscript – fat heavy green thing that it is – to read my favourite poem about the river. But I don’t open it. I hug it. I hug it tight.

The last hurdle

I’m about to read over my thesis. My viva will take place exactly one week and four hours from now, taking the UK/Europe time difference into account. I had a bizarre dream last night in which I had to play my flute and paint a picture of a castle on a wall as part of my examination. I projected confidence but my flute playing consisted of truly dodgy sight-reading and much confusion over the key I was supposed to be playing in. I don’t think my castle painting would have won any awards but apparently speed was of the essence rather than quality. Then I was supposed to draw a picture of an ancient sword, but instead I sat for hours listlessly wondering where to find a 4b pencil. Argh!

So. Crunch time. I would have started reading an hour ago had I remembered that the default printer on my computer is not my printer, and therefore I have to specify a different printer every time I print anything. I was getting extremely frustrated at the printer as I thought it wasn’t working…

Anyway, I think I have run out of displacement activities, as there is at least half an hour before I can legitimately eat lunch. Here goes…

Everybody’s happy!

After Norway’s stunning victory in the Eurovision last night, the annual 17 May parade was even more fun than usual.

It was perfect flag-fluttering weather: warm, windy and bright.

Everybody said ‘hurrah! hurrah!’ You even needed to say ‘hurrah’ instead of ‘hei’ (hello).

We learnt from our mistake of turning up in scruffy clothes last year and dressed up for the occasion.

Parents turned out in force to watch their babbies’ big moment.

Michael said it would never work in Germany: troupes of blonde children and marching bands waving flags and yelling ‘hurrah!’ I think Norway’s nationalism is sufficiently benign as to not offend anyone, except possibly the Swedes. An historic victory against Sweden was achieved at Halden’s very own fortress. But Sweden awarded Norway 12 points in the Eurovision last night, so all must be forgiven.

The Russe (graduating final year high school students) were out in force with their red overalls and hangovers, celebrating the culmination of two weeks of mayhem. (We saw a group of them sitting around a campfire on a roundabout at two a.m. the other night.)

I envied the dresses. Each region of Norway has its own colour and pattern. When all’s said and done, who wouldn’t want to be Norwegian for the day?

Settling in, or, everything is broken

We arrived back very late Wednesday night, or, more specifically, early Thursday morning, after discovering the car had flat batteries (brand new batteries, as it turns out, after the old ones died decisively during the relentless months of snow). Anyway, the car park attendant helped us out and the car seems fine now.

But the washing machine is broken. And the chest of drawers which I’ve been stuffing far too many clothes in for too long is broken. And the top shelf of the wardrobe into which all our paragliders almost fit is wobbly and unreliable. (These are the joys of the cheapest possible ikea furniture two years in.) So everything is very messy.

After feeling rather overwhelmed yesterday, we managed to restore some semblance of order. I found a temporary home for my clothes, I sorted and dusted and folded and threw things away. I collected a very tall pile of phd drafts to take to the recycling. It’s sort of sad to lose all my scribbled notes on the endless versions of chapters, but really there’s nothing I need them for now. Tonight we’re going to thread M’s paraglider back together (we had to disconnect some of the lines from the risers to get it out of the tree), and we’ll try to get a new washing machine on the weekend. Also there’s a huge pile of paperwork that we’re going to put into separate folders. Why does life involve such never-ending sorting and tidying?

I’m sitting at my reclaimed desk space and it’s rather nice. There is no way, however, that I can listen to any of the music that propelled me through the last stages of the phd. So for the moment it’s The Proclaimers.

There’s lots to be getting on with. Articles, book proposal, viva preparation, conference paper, job applications, German and Norwegian learning, getting my head around an Ethnography subject I’m taking by distance education (haha I can’t stop). I still have my ‘reasons to finish‘ smiling at me from my whiteboard. I’m going to leave them there a little longer, to remind me why it’s good to be where I’m at. Because I think it’s going to take a little getting used to. But the sun is shining today; the birch trees are shivering greenly in the wind and purple lilacs poke their faces over the top of our neighbours’ roof. I think I’ll go for a ride later. It’s all good.

Fairytale

We managed to catch the Eurovision semi-final on TV in the hotel in Switzerland the other night. Norway is in tonight’s semi-final so we didn’t see it, but everyone’s pretty sure they’ll get through, and we plan to impose on someone who owns a TV on Saturday night. How cool are the dancers? My absolute favourite, however, is Portugal. The song is beautiful, her voice is something else, all the musicians are so sweet, and the technicolour landscape is just fabulous. I was planning on being an honorary English citizen on Saturday, but their song is wretched, so I think I’m going with Portugal. Which would you vote for out of these two?

Many wonderful things

I am in Austria. Very close to Switzerland. If you climb a mountain – or, with much less effort, take a chairlift – you can see into a lake that touches Austria, Germany, Switzerland. I am surrounded by improbable lushness: meadows peppered with dandelions, mountains swathed in patterned cloaks of dark and bright green, the pine trees interspersed with deciduous trees in the first flush of spring. White blossom still flowers in the valleys, but everything is in leaf. Here, May is the most beautiful of all months. Winter is gone and summer is yet to settle, but the air is warm and the green burgeons with promises.

It is strange to think that on Tuesday I was in Adelaide, on Thursday and Friday I was in London, and now I am here. A week of contrasts if ever there was one. It was very sad to leave. It was just so nice to hang out with my family and catch up with my old friends. My brother and my grandparents drove me to the airport, and after a coffee and a very chocolaty raspberry muffin and at least three hugs from each of them, I felt bereft as they walked away. On the plane, I thought – why am I leaving? What am I going back to?

Autumn in the Adelaide Hills.

But as soon as I arrived I knew. Apart from being with M again, which is just brilliant, there is so much to see here! So much to explore and think and dream. I really enjoyed the two days in London. I usually just transit through London, but this time M had organized a two day workshop and they were all staying in the rather lovely Goodenough College, so I got to piggyback. I just loved wandering around all the green squares between the London University buildings, pretending to be Virginia Woolf. I’ve been to that section of London before but never spent much time there. Spring is in full swing and the huge trees are raining down little umbrella-shaped pollen things.

I spent an afternoon in the British Museum. It is all wonderful but I was especially amazed at collections of medieval and Roman rings – how strange to think of the hands that have worn them! And then on Friday evening we wandered around the Tate, which is possibly my favourite art gallery in the world. It’s all been re-hung since I was last there, and there are themed collections: ‘poetry and dream’, ‘energy and process’. I loved the way the words wove between the pictures, and the layout of the rooms made the paintings and sculptures talk to one another.

I started writing this in Austria but actually now I am in Switzerland. M is working here today and we are going back to Norway tonight. I haven’t been there in nearly two months! His parents joined us in Austria and we had a very relaxing couple of days. They made friends with the neighbours. Monica did a brilliant job of combating her fear of heights – she came with us as we drove over a high pass in the mountains (see above), and even went on two chairlifts!

Michael and I each had one beautiful paraglider flight – I was up for more than an hour and could have stayed up much longer if I wished. How strange to be able to work the air currents and drift above the mountain ridges and the trees.

We had a minor disaster yesterday when M tried to launch in a tail wind and didn’t take off in time and flew straight into a clump of trees. Luckily he wasn’t hurt but we spent nearly three hours extracting the glider from the trees! They were about four metres high, so not strong enough to climb but too tall to reach the top of. They were perched on a steep slope in a patch of snow, so there was a lot of sliding around. We even had to chop a couple of them down with a borrowed axe! Anyway, no harm done, and we are rethinking our safety policies…

But all in all, everything is beautiful. My viva is two weeks from today – I wonder if my examiners are reading my thesis yet.