Writing about Reading

When I had been at uni for a semester or two, I was given an assignment to write a Literature Review. This made very little sense to me. I asked my anthropology tutor, “What is a Literature Review and how do you write one?”

“It’s a review of the literature on your essay topic” was the best explanation I was given. I couldn’t believe how little I knew. I have been a reader my whole life and now I discover that I have read all the wrong books. Many years later I had a similar conversation with my PhD Supervisor. “I’ve read so many books” I said, “but hardly any of them are of any use to me here.”

This is about when I worked out that a good simile for the research behind a PhD Thesis is a stack of many fat Yellow Pages directories with a thin Telephone Directory on top. The Yellow Pages support the Telephone Directory. The PhD candidate has to have all the Yellow Pages (research) stacked up before the Telephone Directory (Thesis) can be useful.

To return to my assignment Review of the Literature, I actually wrote one by mistake. Once I knew what I was meant to be doing I found I could do this thing. Writing an Annotated Bibliography was another hurdle for me. I ended up by keeping copious notes of every academic paper, every book and any other learned source that might prove to be useful. All these notes, alphabetically filed, written in pencil, are still here in my study. I need to clear them out.

Teaching tertiary students, which is where my studies eventually took me, made me appreciate the obstacles I had managed to overcome. I think lecturers, teachers, and tutors sometimes forget the ways of learning before actually grasping something. Meeting the student at the bottom of the ladder and not halfway up is probably the most effective way to teach.

Once my Thesis was out of the way, my next task was to learn to read for pleasure again. However, my critical eye will always be open and not a few books have been scrapped because of this. Deep reading is a skill that I had to learn. Sometimes reading like this is a nuisance and I have to suspend my pedantic internal reader.

At the moment there are two books that haunt me. Both are novels, one very well written the other not so brilliant but both have the power to startle me when my mind is at rest. Oyster by Janet Turner Hospital is one and the other is The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. I was warned that Oyster would cause flashbacks – and so it does. The Lovely Bones, well I don’t know. I wouldn’t recommend it. I reviewed it on Goodreads and have just managed to post it to this blog.

I have reviewed Oyster and published it to this blog but will do so again. Ironically, I decided to read Oyster for relief, to break up the intensity of The Neapolitan Novels. Well, I do some silly things sometimes and this was one of those times.

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Writing about Reading

Writing and Research

Thinking about what to write in this week’s blog, I mull over the events at the Lessons with Persephone Retreat at the weekend. In the quiet of the Retreat, writing came easily. At the moment, this blog is going nowhere.

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When we were talking about if, and when, we had been published, I mentioned that I had only published in a couple of academic journals and one chapter in a book. This chapter was a shared enterprise with my PhD Supervisor, Prof. Jenny de Reuck, and a colleague who was also one of Jenny’s Post Grads, Sharifa Ahjum. The title of the chapter is “The Remembrance of Things Past”: Memory and Migration as Tropes in the Construction of Postgraduate Subjectivities. (You can see we didn’t resile from long and involved titles). When I reread it now, I am struck by the clarity of the writing and the sense of community we shared.

The book is Bartlett, A & Mercer G (Eds) (2001) Postgraduate Research Supervision: Transforming (R)Elations. New York. Peter Lang. pp 233-245.

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The paragraphs that I want to bring to this blog are my own.

In the beginning my doctoral research was to follow my own background – about the women who went to Africa, not from England. That was the intention. In the event, I didn’t follow that research – a common enough story for any PhD Candidate.

In this essay, I moved to writing about Jenny, Sharifa and I – our positionality and affective ethnicity. This is what I wrote: “Where do I stand to Jenny? Where do I stand to Sharifa? How are we so inclusive of each other? It is our coming out of Africa that is our ‘affective ethnicity’. Our form of ethnicity is beyond blood and colour. We draw our connection from our African origins, shared memories of experiences from a country we have left. ‘Affective ethnicity’; meta-ethnicity! Affective pedagogy!” I drew on the work of Moshe Shokeid (‘An Anthropologist’s Work between Moving Genres’ in Ethnos. Vol 57, 1 – 4, 233- 44, 1992.)

Following this I bemoan the fact that I have such difficulty in understanding some of the texts such as Foucault and Bhabha. Sharifa can read and understand these but I battle to make sense of such abstract concepts. Here, again, I quote myself, “Is it my age that stands between me and truly understanding these readings? Has my mind closed the doors—atrophied in the cells? Am I trapped in ignorance? Sometimes I bang my fists against these closed doors, “Open up! Open up!” I call, then, “Think Woman! Think!” Who is the teacher who can lead me to comprehension? Where is the insight that I deny myself? Self-proscribed knowledge, self-proscribed wisdom.

Finally, back to the beginning.

The first entry in my PhD journal reads thus:

Some of the things I want to include:

The spiritual aspect.

The sense of self.

The sense of place.

Identity as a fragile, contextual thing … I worry about my rigidity.

Can I sustain the energy?

The essence is this, researching and writing a doctoral thesis is a lonely thing to do. It is atonement for curiosity; an exercise in humility; self-inflicted isolation. Nevertheless, this is my search for an identity in an alien space. I was never brought up to be an academic. I was never brought up to be an Australian. I catch a glimpse of myself and ask “Who are you?” or maybe, “Who do you think you are?” And then I continue—because what else is there to do?

So, I did continue and eventually, a couple of days before I turned 60, I was notified that I was through. I was now a bona fide doctor.

Writing and Research