Archives for category: Manchester Metropolitan University

I sat yesterday evening in that peculiar space that is Manchester Metropolitan University Library, pecking at my iPad ( as I do this I feel I resemble a pair of pigeons nodding over breadcrumbs).

In MMU library one studies against a background of the roaring white-noisiness of air conditioning, which when it abruptly ceases at 6:30, makes someone giggle with surprise. In the more distant background, the lifts repeatedly announce “Second Floor!” and “Doors Closing!” in a strict voice that reminds me uncomfortably of Mrs Thatcher. Here and there a phone vibrates on a tabletop, as a nod to the challenging concept of “quiet study,” but the person who picks it up and rushes for the foyer inevitably yells “Hallo” before they reach the door.

Occasionally the concept of quietude is misunderstood. Only an occasional one-sided telephone conversation is brazenly carried out in the room. However it’s amazing how annoying whispered conversations can be, mostly because one is caught within the paradox of not wanting to listen but on the other hand instinctively straining to make out what is being said.

Apparently hard-of-hearing library staff thump past, their walkie-talkies scolding at their hips, and proceed noisily to crash books onto sorting racks, or rustle in the depths of the recycling bins, or animatedly discuss the weather with a colleague. Interesting that both supermarket and library shelf-stackers are constantly asking each other “When are you on (or off) next?”

Our library work-surfaces are designed, it seems, for limbo dancers. To plug a laptop power supply into the nearest-available socket, one has first to poke the plug through a hairy-edged slot at the back of the desktop, then clamber beneath the desk to insert the plug into a socket hidden deep under its surface. Surely this must be breaking a dozen Health and Safety rules? Will I be able to sue for an industrial accident when I strain my back, split my trousers or bang my head?

Meanwhile, the overhead lights over the book stacks are controlled by motion sensors, and every now and then, they will eerily turn themselves off, only to go through the tedium of turning themselves on again when the next student plunges into the gloom.

I stand up to leave and find I now have at least a dozen zip fasteners to negotiate, each one echoing around the room, or so it feels. I stumble out thankfully into the rushing torrent of noise that is Oxford Road!

As a postgraduate researcher it is of course up to me to organise my academic life. However there is one day a week, Wednesday, when good stuff happens at MIRIAD. That’s the day when I am pretty well guaranteed to bump into most, if not all, of my fellow research students. So I am determined to be there.

The trouble is, people keep scheduling interesting and tantalising events that clash, and I have yet to develop the skill of being in two places at once. This, combined with my new-boyish wish to take part in as much as possible, is frustrating. Perhaps the powers-that-be haven’t heard of shared calendars…

My days in Manchester are getting more crowded with research-related activities, the best of which involve my fellow-students. It is fascinating how just listening to others explain their projects, their approaches, their writing goals, their interests, their problems and their achievements creates a chain reaction of thoughts and ideas in my own grey matter. Although some enjoy the freedom and peace of studying alone, I find I need this stream of seemingly-random stimuli.

In Writing Group the other day we briefly talked of different preferences for environments in which to write. I get more ideas sitting for a couple of hours in a quiet pub with a notebook on my knee and pint or two of beer nearby than I would in a whole day trapped in my study. Of course, turning those notebook scribbles, bullet lists and mind maps into something more concrete requires me to be glued to my desk. But this way I avoid empty page syndrome, and it seems that for some people, like me, the brain has to be almost tricked into creativity.

Today, three of us who have in common a research interest in the nineteenth century met to launch a study group. It was a small but significant step, and for me could be a way to avoid clutching my work protectively to myself as if it were a swaddled baby. Good for me…

The other day we research newbies heard the plaint of an almost-finished PhD candidate who had been instructed by his external examiner to reformat his entire thesis using Times New Roman font “because that’s what a thesis should be set in.”

Although I can see the point in discouraging difficult-to-read fonts from hefty documents, and I am as snooty about Comic Sans as the next person, the incident made me think about the relevance of a chunk of reconstituted cellulose splattered with carbon in this digital age.  Today, need a thesis even be necessarily communicated via such an old-fashioned medium such as ink on paper?

When I submitted my MA dissertation I had to courier three bound copies from Canada to England, which involved several days and not insignificant cost, while at the same time I emailed, in a few seconds, the same pdf file from which the copies had been printed to the department just in case the hard copy got lost. The cost of this latter process was, of course, negligible. But the same information could have been presented in other easily accessible and shareable ways, for example as a html file, easily searchable, with dynamic links to images and other resources that could have included video, and audio. I could have included 360 degree images of the objects about which I was writing.

But even this might not be ambitious enough. What about something that records the process of research from day one, and includes all the discussions, head scratchings, failures, successes, frustrations, triumphs, discoveries, mysteries, losses and findings that a research project involves? I get some of my best ideas/brainwaves,lightbulb moments whilst sitting in a noisy pub or during a hike. Those eureka moments are rarely recorded in published research. OK, an e-thesis might be difficult to “mark” in the traditional manner of course, but why should assessing something that has absorbed three years or so of someone’s life and which we hope will contribute to and enhance human knowledge, be easy?

In addition, something as potentially dynamic as a digital thesis might also be accessed, read and used by many more people than the handful (if you are lucky) who will glance at the bound copy mouldering in the university archive.

Hmmm, Plantagenet Cherokee sounds like a fun typeface!

In the midst of all the advice and encouragement we’ve received over the last few days I’ve experienced a personal paradox. Like everyone else, I’m being advised to hurry up and get down to defining and refining and sharpening my research proposal, to produce plans and hone methods, in order to satisfy my supervisors and, with their help, successfully complete a seemingly-dreaded RD1 form and leap my PhD’s first bureaucratic hurdle.

But at the same time I’m wanting to immerse myself in what I’ve imagined to be a warm sea of serendipity, in which floats a dense plankton of knowledge and the flotsam and jetsam of university life. To stick close, Remora-like, to the big fish of academia. (OK, enough marine metaphors). To pick the brains of those around me. To be inspired and energised. After all, as Professor T.R.E. Southwood told us on my first day as a zoology undergraduate, the word “university” is derived from “universe,” and suggests that this is a place where one can study without bounds.

I have a sort of form dyslexia. I am incapable of completing a form, however simple, without making a mistake and having to cross something out. My handwriting becomes instantly  arthritic and tottering as soon as my pen meets the first form field. I even manage to make errors in online forms.

But writing this is diverting me from my research proposal! I must get on…

I’m sitting in a otherwise empty room in Manchester Metropolitan University’s Righton Building, at about the middle of my first week at MIRIAD, an induction week filled with a general feeling of being a little lost, a week spent meeting about 100 new people and immediately forgetting their names, being handed sheaves of  forms, being frightened by an avalanche of acronyms and initialisms, shuffling to stuffy lecture rooms amongst crowds of equally confused students along corridors that range from brand-new to decrepit, and being reminded by a series of cheerful staff on the one hand what a daunting, if not terrifying challenge we are facing but also what a wonderful experience we are just beginning! Gulp!

I’ve happily explained my research topic to my new peers at least a dozen times, finding, interestingly, that my bumbling description of what I’m going to be doing is different every time! I’ve listened in turn to my 20 or so fellow newbies, who all are starting along fascinating paths to their various MAs or PhDs. Meeting them has been a great experience. We appear to be a friendly, relaxed bunch, refreshingly free of arty-farty bollocks and weirdness, and there seems to be plenty of chemistry amongst our personalities and synergy amongst our research areas. Phew! At least three other PhD researchers will be working on nineteenth century material. I hope some of the results of these parallels will not only appear here but will influence my final thesis. Exciting stuff!

I’ve met, briefly, my Director of Studies, with whom I am going to enjoy interacting (if that’s a suitable term for the supervisory relationship). One of my supervisors is on maternity leave, but, two days in, I’m confident that I’ll not only survive but will enjoy my own process of giving birth to my research project!

And today I learned that the journal World Archaeology is calling for papers for an issue focusing on miniaturisation, which gives me a fantastic and hopefully achievable goal for this time next year…

Oh, and it has rained almost continuously since I arrived in Manchester!