“It’s all the same stuff as before, isn’t it?” – Conference Season: Part 4

A few months ago I began a series on being a fresh PhDer at academic conferences. In this, the fourth post, I want to talk about my experience of turning my MA Thesis – a study into Australian perceptions of Britain as a tourist destination – into a conference paper and ultimately a publishable article.

As part of the new grad student training programme provided by the Geography Department at Cambridge, students are required to produce a ‘dream CV’. The point of the exercise is to make new grads, who spend much of their first term buzzing from the thrill of starting a PhD and eating way too many formal dinners, think seriously about their plans for the future. My own Dream CV, as well as prophesying a future Cambridge Junior Research Fellowship straight after finishing my PhD in three years (!), demanded from me two things in the first year: 1) get AHRC funding for a research visit to the Library of Congress; and 2) write-up my MA thesis into a publishable article. I did the first; the second was (and still is) a bit harder.

In fact, ‘write MA thesis into article’ was probably the most well-grounded ambition I had when I first started my PhD, right behind ‘don’t fuck up the PhD’. My MA thesis, while not perfect, is the closest thing I have to an academic article right now – in word count and in substance. Also, although it may dismay many Sherlockians, I came into the PhD vowing to be more than ‘the Sherlock guy’. My main academic interest is in travel, mobilities and the way we use literature to talk about the world. My MA thesis handily combines two of my long-standing interests: Australian history and travel writing. So it seems like a good thing to get this out first, to make my mark as ‘the travel writing guy’. Not a great tag but a good first step.

So how did I go from the vague, Dream CV command to ‘write an article’, to actually being on that road? If it had been up to me alone I would probably still be sitting on that nice pipe dream. I got lucky, really, when two things happened in my first year to kickstart the process. The first was finding a paper called ‘Time Travel’, published the year before by Richard White, an eminent Australian academic (one who, surely, doesn’t need another publication as badly as I do). The paper appeared, at first sight, to cover exactly the same ground as my MA thesis. It definitely used the same or similar sources. I kicked myself when I first saw it. “Why didn’t I write up my thesis as an article six years ago?!” I asked anyone within earshot. I would have had the jump on this guy!

The second, more fortuitous event happened shortly afterwards. I learned through a friend about a conference she was organising at my old university on migration and public history. My MA thesis, which used Australian travel writing and guidebooks about Britain to explore the ways in which Australians’ perceptions of the old imperial metropole changed over the twentieth century, covered to some extent the idea of a changing sense of ‘Britishness’ at the root of Australians’ identity. This was very much connected to the idea of Australia as founded by Anglo-Celtic migrants. So there my thesis had a link to the conference. This conference was perhaps the more motivating ‘event’ because it provided my rewriting with focus, direction and a timeframe. Knowing about White’s paper and that the debate is still alive was interesting, yet without something towards which I could direct my energies, it’s unlikely I would have started looking for ways to improve my writing. Like most pieces of humanities academia, the research story can be told in many different ways. A focus on the Angl0-Celtic migration aspects of my research provided a point around which to organise, and reorganise my ideas.

Encouraged by this thought, I took a second look at the terrifying ‘other paper’. Of course, I should have known that the Eminent Australian Academic hadn’t covered exactly the same, even nearly the same, questions as I had. His focus was more on tourist experiences of Britain; mine was on how literature written for tourists framed their expectations. A subtle but important distinction. Reading it again I also realised that I disagreed with his argument. I disagreed because my interpretation of my sources told a different story. White argues, in essence, that personal accounts of travel indicate that Australians valued Britain as a travel destination for the idea of history it conveyed. They weren’t interested in the content of that history, just the fact that Britain could boast barns, say, that were many times older than the oldest houses in Sydney. My contention, however, is that for many Australians, particularly younger travellers, where they were interested in Britain’s history at all it was precisely because of its content: they either saw it as a grounding of their own Australian heritage or they rebelled against it in interesting ways.

I should say here that MA thesis was perhaps the hardest piece of academic writing I ever attempted. Coming up with the idea was relatively straightforward, though over the course of my MA year I’d struggled to hit the nail on what exactly I was interested in, academically speaking. The idea to look at Australian travel writing and guidebooks came out of my already-existing interest in travel writing as a reader. From there, through the Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing and the piece by Peter Hulme on his first arrival in the UK, which revealed how at once loaded with significance and yet entirely unexpected the experience of first arriving in Britain could be for an Australian, I arrived at my thesis idea: to explore, using Australian travel writing and guidebooks, what images of Britain Australians were taking with them when they travelled and to ask what role this literature played in their crafting. In the end my argument was (quel surprise!) that Australian travellers approached Britain less as ‘British’ people ‘going home’ and more as independent Australian tourists as the decades of the twentieth century wore on.

Thinking about the process of writing my MA thesis whilst rewriting it as a conference paper was useful. We all know, and read all the time, about the alternate pains and joys of academic writing. For me, an awareness of where the writing was painful, where it was fun and what relationship that had to my interpretation, was a good guide to how I should approach the rewriting. It turns out that chapter 1, which dealt with travel writers of the 1940s and 1950s was painful to research, painful to interpret and painful to write. Chapter 2, however, on youthful travels of the 1960s and 1970s was a breeze in comparison. Chapter 3, concerned with the modern period, was an anomaly. I don’t think I got the interpretation right then and I’m still working it out now.

This process wasn’t just an exercise in dredging up the writing pains of the past. As well as being a good learning moment for writing my First Year Report (rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, ever dissatisfied), thinking about how and why I enjoyed writing a particular argument (or didn’t) was key to discovering where my new material was. In this case, an idea I am still working on, I enjoyed writing the section on youthful travels of the 1960s and 1970s because it was, and is, new. My argument is that Australians and to a lesser extent New Zealanders in this period took with them and honed what I am calling an ‘Australasian Gaze’. It was a particular type of Urry’s and McCannell’s tourist gaze; a way of looking at Britain not just as ‘another tourist destination’, though that packaging was a part of it, nor simply as a repository for a detatched ‘sense of history’; the Australasian Gaze was formulated specifically against earlier forms of Australian gazing, themselves developed within the context of the British Empire and with the inherent subtext of British superiority. The Australasian Gaze subverted this, belittling core aspects of British history and Australia’s own Anglo-Celtic migrant history and asserting a new Australia (and New Zealand) on a cultural par with Britain.

Interestingly, this concept really challenges the ideas behind the third part of my original MA thesis. In that piece I had argued that the historical focus on many British guidebooks written for Australians betokened an archetypal Australian tourist who wanted to indulge in fantasies of her country’s British heritage, at once alive in Britain and yet maintained outside of time, through monuments and historical sites. Thinking about the belligerent rise of the Australasian Gaze in the 1960s and 1970s alters this reading. In fact, it now seems, that Australian tourists in the 1980s and 1990s (generally speaking) really did want a version of White’s ‘time travel’. While the recognised the importance of certain British historical sites to Australia’s own heritage, this wasn’t at the core of their tourist experiences. They wanted history, any history, for the sake of history. And Britain, repackaged by the likes of Rough Guide, Australia’s own Lonely Planet and all the other guidebook empires, was made into ‘just another tourist site’ which would deliver what they wanted. The tourists were seeking an authentic experience of medieval castles, Norman churches and old hay barns, but it was one a mile away from the ‘authenticity’ of the 1940s and 1950s, when Australians still clung on, by the skin of their teeth, to ideas of Empire, Queen and country.

To get from popular 1950s Australian travel writer Frank Clune’s idea of Britain as the Grandmotherland, with all the ideas of Imperial loyalty, history and shared culture that it entailed, to the 1990s Australian tourist, hungry for some more historical camera fodder, intent on ‘doing’ England in a few days, before moving on to ‘do’ France, Italy and the rest of Europe, required a big shift. That shift was the intense rise of the Australasian gaze, which shredded the Australian tourist imagination of any sense of Anglo-Australian context for Britain’s history and tourist sites. This Gaze, written in two specific guidebooks, is what my article will focus on.

Sometimes, the length of the road and the pain caused in walking it can seem worthless, if the traveller ends up back where she started. In my case, my article draft bears many resemblances to my original thesis. Much the same is true of my PhD thesis, one year on from the start, whose basic ideas haven’t changed. I’m hoping that’s a sign of their academic strength. Really, the truth is I won’t know until I test them. That, after all, is what conference season is for.

‘Walking the Walk’ – Conference Season: Part Three

This is Part Three in a series on being presenting at conferences as a first-year PhD student. You can read the other sections, Part One on finding a conference (and finding a topic) and Part Two with an extract from one of my papers, here. In Part Three, I discuss the experience of actually attending and speaking at a conference.

Given my research interests in travel and in literary responses to border crossings (this blog is called travelling histories, after all) it may seem odd that my first conference presentation happened in Cambridge, not a mile from my own front door. Yet again, perhaps it wasn’t so odd, after all. I was lucky enough to be selected as a speaker at a conference on ‘Thinking with Things’, put on as part of Cambridge’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH). In keeping with CRASSH’s aims, the conference was avowedly interdisciplinary. The keynote speaker talked about the hidden depths of art history and what an appreciation of materials, of things, can bring to the understanding of works of art. Other presentations ranged across subjects from seventeenth-century didactic geographical board games, to the historical significance of Irish episcopal palaces and the histories of collecting cultures. My work’s own interdisciplinary approach, moving across the boundaries of geography, history and literature, meant that I felt quite at home in this apparent academic hodge-podge.

Even the walk from my flat to the conference venue, a journey of about 15 or 20 minutes, depending on how rushed I am, involved the (legal) transgression of a variety of geographical and social borders. For instance, the fastest way across the river Cam to the Sidgewick site, home of the Alison Richards Building and of CRASSH, is through the grounds of King’s College. As a member of the university I have the right to walk up to the imposing, be-gowned porters standing outside the college’s famous main gate, on King’s Parade, wave my card and pass through to the relative calm of the front court on the gate’s other side. Yet, as a member of Emmanuel College, not King’s, there’s always a slight chance that that privilege could be revoked. So, my walk past the throngs of indignant tourists (“why can he go in?!”) to the gates is often (as it was on this day) tinged with a small sense of excitement. Of course, on that day, as on most days in term time, I was allowed through.

But today’s post shouldn’t really begin with the morning of my first academic conference itself. As I’m sure is the case for many people, when I came to read my paper to the room of expectant faces that afternoon, it was not for the first time. Over the course of the previous four or five days I had read and re-read my paper, out-loud to myself and to others, around ten times. This was the real bridge between the draft text with which I ended Part Two of this series, and the paper I read out at CRASSH. Reading my words aloud was key to the redrafting process. It enabled me to actually hear where certain words would cause me to stumble, or where certain sentences  ran on for far too long. Given that I will, if left to my own devices, write in a more personal and confessional style (much like the tone of this blog), I have to work hard in academic writing to polish up my prose to a less bloggy, more professional standard. I still strive to maintain a sense of myself in what I write. I am a firm believer that the reader must know it is me writing those sentences, reading those words, framing those ideas. They did not arrive, fully formed on their own. They do not stand for some abstract, academic truth. Sadly, achieving the balance between these two outliers is not always easy and I often fall back on my tried-and-tested, undergraduate writing style: informative, clear but bland and repetitive. Reading my prose aloud helps me to correct for that, too.

One of the things I enjoy most about giving academic presentations is that, at least in my fields, it is very acceptable to ‘read’ a paper. That is, to prepare a word-for-word text and to read it out across the podium. Good presenters will work, in their text and their delivery, to put a lively and interesting voice to their words and will strive not to simply drone on in monotone for 20, eternal minutes. This practice saved me from the greatest issue I have as a presenter: my habit of forgetting most of what I want to say and the nervous tics, stumbles and ‘ums’ that accompanying this forgetting. By reading a prepared script, I could fully impart every bit of my in-depth arguments while sounding (I hope) confident and clear. Some may argue, as did the woman sitting next to my during the keynote speech, that reading a paper rather than talking extemporaneously, kills any interest the audience has. I would counter, as I did then, that the point of academic conferences is to listen to, and discuss the ideas. If reading from a paper helps the presenter to argue for all their ideas and not to leave half of them, forgotten, on the cutting floor of their mind, I am all for it.

Another great benefit of reading a written paper is that I was able to listen to and enjoy the speakers whose turn it was to speak before mine. In the past, following the ‘speak to a powerpoint, don’t use notes’ format loved by my old teachers, lecturers and bosses, I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on anything other than the looming fear that I would forget something. That was not a problem at CRASSH. One anxiety that still remains is that I might go over time. Thus I am prone, on a first attempt, to cut deeply into my paper and actually go under time. I was a full four minutes under time at CRASSH.

Happily, this meant that I could restore a lot of material and add more things for my paper’s second outing, at Portsmouth University’s Centre for Studies in Literature‘s annual symposium, which this year was on ‘Material Objects in Detective Fiction’. As at CRASSH, having written out my words and having practiced them out-loud again and again, I was free to listen to the other presentations and contribute to the lively discussion. I was very lucky to attend that conference for three reasons. First, it was organised by the wonderful Christopher Pittard, whose work on Strand Magazine readership and the ‘moral community’ they constituted has been of great help to my own thesis. Secondly, I was able to meet the interesting Kate Brombley, who is Chris’s PhD student and whose work on Doyle and Sherlockian fandom nicely overlaps with my own work.

Thirdly, unlike the horror stories PhDs and ERCs hear of senior academics who use conferences as an opportunity to tear young researchers a new one, I was approached after my paper by the keynote speaker, Janice Allan, senior lecturer at Salford and editor of the journal Clues: A Journal of Detection. Janice simply noted that her paper, which I had unfortunately missed that morning, disagreed in parts with my own analysis. She offered to email me a copy and suggested we discuss our disagreements. Janice certainly provided a lesson on how to handle academic disagreement in a way that doesn’t demand a 30-minute ‘question’ in the Q&A session and which doesn’t lead to the humiliation of the inexperienced (and often nervous) speaker.


A Study in Predecessors

Does this sound familiar? In the early 1930s the New York Times ran an obituary for a famous detective fiction writer, born in the middle of the nineteenth-century. The author combined full-length detective fiction with collections of short stories and wrote to great acclaim from the late nineteenth-century through to the 1920s. In the obituary, the NY Times noted that the author wrote genre-altering detective fiction in the hope that it would draw attention to their more serious, literary work.

Although the newspaper’s description fits the well-known biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle it was actually an obituary for US novelist, poet and crime fiction author Anna Katherine Green, who died in 1935. It might seem puzzling that Doyle is widely assumed to be the father of modern detective fiction (at least among those who have never read Murders at the Rue Morgue), when Green and many others are all but forgotten. Green’s prodigious output, beginning with her first novel, The Leavenworth Case (1878) includes many more volumes of detective fiction than Doyle’s own career. In fact, Green found fame as a detective fiction writer from the very start, more than nine years before Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel A Study in Scarlet flopped on it’s initial release. (Another bonus fact: Doyle was so enamoured by Green’s work that he sought her out on one of this first visits to America.)Revelations of a Lady Detective

Green isn’t the only woman to disrupt the popular notion of the ‘founding fathers’ of detective fiction: Poe, Gaboriau, Doyle. Among them, Metta Victoria Fuller Victor, who wrote her most well-known works under the pseudonym Seeley Regester, stands out for mention right now. She is recognised as having written one of the first American examples of the genre, The Dead Letter, in 1866. Although this fact is not contested nowadays – I first found mention of it on Wikipedia, for goodness’s sake – what is interesting is how Victor and Green’s contributions, among many others, are glossed over in popular histories.

For example, take Daniel Stashower’s excellent The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and the Invention of Muder, which interweaves the histories of the horrific murder of New Yorker Mary Rogers with Poe’s attempts to write the events into a new kind of fiction and to engage with the real-life detection efforts at the same time. Stashower, who is an expert on Doyle first, discusses the likely influence of Poe’s early work on the later Sherlock Holmes stories. Now, I am not arguing that there was no link; indeed, Doyle referenced Poe’s creation in A Study in Scarlet. What is interested is that by drawing a line directly from Poe to Doyle, Stashower reinforces the popular perception that these were the only detective fiction writers in town. 

The-Female-Detective_-1864In order to address this misconception I plan to (at some point!) discuss various writers that predated Arthur Conan Doyle or who could be considered to have influenced his work. I hope to demonstrate that the world of nineteenth century detective fiction was far richer and far more socially and gender diverse than is commonly supposed nowadays. This project was inspired in part by the news that the British Library recently reprinted three excellent works of mid-nineteenth century British detective fiction, two of which feature women detectives as main characters and one which is thought to be the first example of the detective novel: William Stephens Hayward’s Revelations of a Lady Detective (1861), Andrew Forrester’s The Female Detective (1864) and Charles Warren Adams’s The Notting Hill Mystery (1863).

I’ll end as I started – with a puzzle. In 1994 at a symposium at the University at Albany (SUNY), Ellen Higgens presented a paper on ‘The Female Rivals of Sherlock Holmes’. In it she talked about Anna Katherine Green, Seeley Register and other women authors. About the reception of her work in some (Sherlockian) circles, Higgins is reported to have said, “People… don’t want to hear about women competing with the Master”. What’s peculiar about this is that women authors rarely, if ever, wrote female characters. As we have seen, the few female characters in nineteenth century were created by men. (Green did go on to create a female detective but only well after the success of her male police detective Ebernezer Gryce.) So who is the ‘Master’ that Higgins is talking about: Doyle or Holmes? Higgins is not alone in conflating the author Doyle with his vastly more popular character Holmes. I am intrigued to see whether the same can be said for the other authors here and what that might reveal about their relative popularity today.

To Geograph or not to Geograph?

I’m very new to the world of PhD-ing. Or, at least, I’m returning to university after a four-year break in the ‘real world’ and I’ve noticed that things can be very different as a Grad Student. I don’t necessarily mean the return to the inane smilies, exclamation marks and un-ironic uses of the phrase ‘roflcopters’ in emails, although that can be irritating.

(Don’t think, ‘real worlders’ that you can be smug about that – I’ve seen plenty of correspondence among government ministers and MPs strewn with pointless exclamations marks.)

Rather, I mean the practice of academic ring-fencing and disciplinary turf-wars. I’ve never felt particularly hide-bound by the demands or strictures of a particular discipline. I avoided the standard pitfall of “having to choose” between history and geography, or among foreign languages, at school by doing both. I side-stepped the need to ‘specialise’ too soon by doing a joint honours degree (history and politics) for BA and eliding any sense of specialism with an MA in ‘Australian Studies’. I am truly an academic jack-of-some-trades.

Naturally, when it came to striking around for a thesis topic I let the material guide me and chose from among the available critical lenses the ones which seemed to best suit the task. (At any rate, that’s my line and I’m sticking to it!). Where this got me was the dark, potentially career-defining interstice of ‘interdisciplinarity’. Where it actually got me was my university’s Geography Department.

I hadn’t realised the full ramifications of crossing the academic border until this week. All through my first term I had chafed against being defined as a ‘Geographer’, although that definition seemed to make sense in the eyes of my peers: it’s the answer to “what department are you in?”; it’s one of the defining factors in the arrangement of my social circle; and it explains why I have a key to the Geography Department buildings on my key ring.

But it didn’t feel right. It didn’t (and doesn’t) feel like I am a Geographer. History is what I really love. “I am a historian!”, I would bleat to myself. “The trouble is”, I found myself saying when stumped by Derek Gregory or the dreaded Foucault, “I trained as a historian: we didn’t do this kind of theory”.

Then, to my horror, this week I saw myself as others might see me. Signalling my interest in a proposed graduate lecture series run by the History Faculty here in Cambridge, I was pulled short by the organiser who notified me that the scheme is designed to encourage employability among young researchers in the History Faculty only. Ouch.

Has choosing the path of interdisciplinarity, of following the research questions that interest me with the full gamut of critical tools that seem appropriate, marked me out? Do historians, as my supervisor once said, operate a “closed shop”, blind to the useful employment of historical argument, critique and scholarship by other disciplines?

I’d like to think not. I’m comforted, at the very start of what I hope to be a long and fulfilling academic career, to note there are many academics out there, early career and established, who practice their craft using whatever tools they deem appropriate, rather than the tools that are “department approved”. At the same time, I am well aware of the need to be able to define myself within academia against other researchers and in tune with departmental or faculty research goals. Not to do so would kill any employment opportunities and with it the readiest means to continue my research.

What we really need is a Department of Interdisciplinarity. A place where researchers are encouraged to follow the leads they find appropriate with the tools they find useful and where the the “licence to practice” is not restricted with a trades-union-esque zeal. Given that, as our Director of Graduate Studies in Geography remarked, last term, “Geography is whatever geographers do”, perhaps I’ve not found such a bad home after all.

P.S. That’s not to say academic geographers don’t demand particular research practices, nor that I’m not still haunted by the question “where’s the geography?” about my research.

P.P.S. I’m still a historian, really. Really! Musty books! Mouldy smells! You can’t take them from me… No!…