Reaching the limit

I’m a few months into my “writing up year” i.e. the fourth year of the full-time PhD process. The finish line is both tantalising in sight, but terrifyingly real and frustratingly not quite tangible. I am on track. I have a structure for my thesis and a lot of words written. I have a lot of data and research to work with – most of which I obtained in a frenzy of activity since returning from maternity leave last autumn (for instance, 10 interviews with translators plus a handful of interviews/meetings with other key individuals for my research… phew!). The PhD hangs over me a lot – constantly? – and interferes when I’m doing other stuff, like putting the baby to bed, making tea, and walking to playgroup.

I’m incredibly lucky to have a supportive family around me ensuring that I can do this. I get to the library, I get to these research meetings and interviews, conferences, trips abroad… some days the stress is HUGE, but some days I feel happy to be able to work on something I enjoy around all the utter busy-ness that is family life.

 

What’s working for me right now: 

Formal and informal childcare – it feels like we have more childcare than ever, and it’s more structured than ever. On the two days the youngest is in nursery, generally my mum collects the eldest from school to give me a full “working day”. On Fridays either my partner has a full day off with the kids (owing to his ongoing flexible working arrangements) or my mum takes the youngest while the eldest is at school. Since the summer I’ve committed to using a weekend day most weekends and a couple of hours on weekday evenings when I have the energy to keep up the momentum and get this damn thing done! We have a routine and we (I?) thrive on routine.

Living where we do – the eldest (the original “baby” of this blog’s title!) started school in September! She and we are happy with the school. The walk there is through the city’s biggest and most beautiful park. We’ve made friends locally, mostly via playgroups and other meet ups, but school too is ensuring we get to know people here and feel part of the community. I’ve also endeavoured to see “old” local friends when I can. Additionally, as made obvious above, we are massively benefiting from living near my parents! We feel settled here and like it was the right long-term decision for us.

Keeping everything ticking over – the kids (now aged 5 and nearly 2) are fed, clothed, bathed every day. I’m managing to get fed, clothed, showered every day as well! And every day the kids are read to, cuddled, chatted with, walked with outside, listened to, ignored a little (for the purposes of “independent play”, perhaps), wiped (oh so sticky), nagged at too. When we first moved out of London and my partner was still working/staying there 3-4 days a week, I roped in help from my parents as often as possible for the bathtime and bedtime routine (which, for those who don’t know, takes place at the “witching hour” when every participant is at their most tired and short-tempered!). But now, though he’s still away two nights a week, it’s fine getting on with it by myself – at least we’re mostly not all crying at once and everyone’s in the correct pyjamas and their own bed by the end of it.

Things I have limited brain capacity for right now:

Keeping the house tidy – I do the essentials including washing up, hoovering when there is a visible layer of crumbs under the dining table(!), but I simply cannot deep clean a bathroom or organise a bookshelf any time soon, and toys are left strewn on the floor overnight. Thankfully no one here thinks tidying is solely “my job”, and perhaps this level of mess and lack of motivation for tidying is true for anyone spending hours looking after small kids?! [She asks slovenly hopefully]

Planning for the (long-term) future – in the summer I briefly allowed myself to do my typical daydreaming/crossing my bridges before I get there, specifically in relation to job hunting, but I had to forcefully stop contemplating The Future in order to ensure I focus my mental energies on getting the PhD thesis done. No job or “what’s next” plan happens without the PhD being submitted and passed, so that’s all I need in my headspace right now. This has been a big challenge for me as it has required changing my usual thinking patterns! But career ideas and plotting how to get there was fuelling unneeded stress. (Frustratingly this has included putting off writing a journal article that I was massively keen to do, but again I shall leave that until after the PhD is submitted.)

Planning for the (short-term) future – My present inability to plan ahead for the Big Stuff also covers not thinking about whether we might move house within our city soon and other practical life plans… it seems such a bad use of my time and mental capacity to even contemplate this yet. Right now I cannot even bring myself to “plan” anything for Christmas – I’m hoping to delegate 90% of this to others, though Christmas is also a busy time at work for my partner, so we will see how it goes. There’s some guilt too, for instance my daughter’s birthday cake and special tea (with family) was purchased at the supermarket the same morning as it was planned!

And, finally – Updating this blog – time is extremely pressed right now, hence updates being even more sporadic than usual.

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Sustainability of positivity – on hoping the bubble won’t burst

Not long after my fantastical conference trip to Canada, I spent a week in Denmark for research and some serious future planning for the translators’ network.

Since returning from my trip to Canada I’ve been on an absolute high. It boosted my perception of my own progress with the thesis, but also made me feel connected again to the field. Working from home can be a lonely place. It’s good to get reassurance that you’re studying something interesting and relevant (or, more importantly, that other people find it interesting and relevant!). Since the trip I’d also had a positive supervision meeting in which the whole thesis structure looked to be taking shape; scarcely imaginable to me nine months ago when I returned from maternity leave.

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The week in Denmark this month was full of meetings – including two interviews, and the translators’ network meeting (which was the primary motivation of the trip) – and a full day’s library visit. With a “whole week” to myself I’d also pencilled it as a solid writing opportunity – I mean, all that time alone, away from the kids, what else could I possibly do? Turns out that was brightly optimistic. A full week is rather shorter when you factor in travel time and looking after yourself (meals, fresh air…). Every day had one thing planned and to my surprise the rest of the time filled up. But still, I felt so positive, to be “doing” research and “being” there in meetings. Doing and being. Not exactly living my regular life with the PhD around edges.

The comedown, of course, is that now I can’t hide from myself and my work under the guise of being busy “doing” research or “being” present. The trips are an amazing privilege – admittedly with bonus fun thrown in – but they create work: writing up my conference paper and finding somewhere to publish (well, tentatively…), interviews to transcribe and their content to analyse and integrate into chapters, notes from reading to add to chapters and more reading to start as a result of that reading, and a reassuringly long to do list following the productive translators’ network meeting. But the action stops and the fear of the blank page before me gets ushered in. Where will I find time and focus again to write? Around the kids, the nursery runs, the household, preschool summer holidays, my eldest starting school in September (wail!), adjusting to my partner’s new pattern of working from home more/away from home less…

The Fear today is prompted too by me receiving my final stipend payment from my studentship. I’m in my writing up phase and there is no money or job on the horizon. I have to make the last few years worth it. The countdown is on to submit a coherent 90,000 word document within a year!

Speech to text to thesis

Transcribing interviews. I’ve been doing a lot of it. Quickly managed to move beyond hating the sound of my own voice. Fascinating picking up on things I didn’t ‘hear’ when face-to-face.

 

I’ve only spoken with articulate, well-educated professionals, but it’s still tough accurately transferring speech into the written word when nobody actually talks in nice neat distinct sentences! (I’m reminded of this when I read transcripts of Trump speeches/interviews: he speaks as well as an orange perched on a jelly, so I feel sorry for anyone transcribing him – they must worry their transcript makes their work look shoddy)

 

I’m excited about this part of my research. It helps me see where my ‘original contribution to knowledge’ might stem from. I’ve still got a reading list a mile long. I’ve still got tiny notes-to-self in draft chapters that will actually be HOURS of research or reading or whatever. I read someone else’s brilliant thesis recently and sank into my chair realising how very far I have to go. But I will get there. I’m feeling motivated by all the patterns emerging and information acquired from these recorded chats with passionate people.

 

Transcription is also quite a good task to do in the spaces between children and crippling tiredness. An hour in the evening. Using headphones on the train. After a broken night’s sleep and a very early start when nothing on the day’s To Do list looks realistic as I just can’t focus. Sit and listen and type it up for a while – feel instantly productive – plus the added bonus of re-hearing the conversation and getting ideas for chapters, sub-chapters, sections, and where it might all fit together.

 

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How I obtained some great data after creating a lot more work for myself

I have been very lax at updating this year. I would apologise, but I’m essentially writing this blog for myself, so I’ve only myself to be disappointed by. Anyway, on with the rest…

After my Upgrade, I started planning how to embark on some actual tailored original research. I planned I would need a research trip to Denmark to visit the national State Archives to see what I could uncover there about the decisions made by a key state agency – the Danish Arts Foundation – around the grants offered for translators (and perhaps authors). I discussed my plans with a contact at the Arts Foundation who suggested I meet with some of the key decision-makers themselves and interview them about their work. What an opportunity! The meetings were scheduled for the end of April. But then came the paperwork, and this dull but nonetheless important facet of the project is what I’m documenting here. NB for any newcomers: This is all obviously applicable in the UK (where my research is based and therefore where my ethics approval requirements had to be met) but data protection, copyright law, etc differ slightly around the world.

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Copenhagen in late April – my ‘commute’

My university – as all universities, I imagine – requires Ethics Approval for any research involving human participants. This could mean submitting a full ethics application for something as seemingly simple as a face-to-face survey of students on campus, or even perhaps any (non-anonymous) online questionnaires, as well as all the obvious scenarios that come to mind involving medical trials or sociological experiments.

So now I intended that my research would involve interviewing in person, one-on-one (or in fact one-on-many in one case). I intended to record the interviews using a digital audio recorder. Potentially a straightforward case, but I still had to complete and submit the ethics application form correctly and gain official approval from the chair of the university’s research ethics committee before embarking on any interviews. My ethics application form had to be approved and signed by my lead supervisor and Head of Department. My lead supervisor also had to use the university’s system to undergo a risk assessment. As part of the application I had to ensure I had appropriate information sheets and consent forms for the interviewees, and this was the part that took the most research to get right, but ultimately ensured I understood why the ethics application was an important part of the process. Incidentally, as you can imagine, this process took much longer than I initially anticipated, probably a few weeks or so piecing everything together!

Interesting aspects I had to work out:

Data protection

Data protection is to protect individual’s privacy; their right to a private life. That’s the privacy of the person being interviewed, but also of anyone else being discussed. To start off, I had to register my project with the university’s Data Protection Officer (an online process) and assure them that my audio files would be backed up to the university’s secure servers as soon as practical, and deleted from recording devices asap. It’s crap data protection if any ol’ person can find and listen to the raw recordings.

My plan was to interview people about their job role in their workplace, which on the surface should not present any data protection issues – after all, information about their job title etc is in the public domain, and we would not need to discuss personal or confidential matters. On the consent forms, I covered myself with the following statement, which demonstrates the reading up and subsequent thought process I had to go through when considering data protection (however in hindsight, it probably should have been slightly extended to explicitly cover ‘any personal data about you or anybody else‘):

Data will be held about the your name, job title, professional contact details, and the place and time of the interview. Interviews will be about the your work and therefore no personal data will be intentionally recorded, for instance I will not request information about your age, ethnicity, sexuality, and personal contact details. If any such personal data is inadvertently discussed during the interview, I will ensure it remains confidential by omitting it from the final report, unless I gain express permission from you to submit the full unedited transcript in my final report.

In the event, there was only one very minor occasion during the five interviews where I will have to adhere to this statement, and it makes for an interesting demonstration of why this stuff is important. In idle conversation towards the end of the meeting, the interviewer and I were chatting about {a person} and how we established that {the person} had probably lived in {a country} for a while on the basis that {the person} had had {a child or children} in {that country}. This part of the interview I will simply omit from the eventual transcript as it is not directly relevant for my research nor is it appropriate to to include such personal information when that person was not in the room to consent to this information being shared. Of course, this is only the kind of personal information that would naturally be shared all the time in conversation between two colleagues (e.g. me and the interviewee), but things get complicated once it’s recorded, and it’s not okay to reproduce this kind of conjecture about someone’s personal or family life, even if you think that the subject of discussion probably wouldn’t mind one jot! In addition, the more I think about this issue, I (and others, I’m sure) have concluded that it’s better to simply redact anything that might be considered personal information as it is risky, not to mention unfair to those involved, to break data protection protocol. Heck, even my heavily redacted statement up there makes me nervous as it is borderline identifiable in my opinion – it is near impossible to ensure anonymity in the very small field in which I am studying!

Copyright

Again, a line on my consent forms does the talking here:

Copyright of the audio recording and eventual written transcript is jointly held between the interviewer and interviewee. In this case the researcher kindly requests that the interviewee agrees to transfer copyright to the researcher in order that the recording and transcript can be used for other related purposes, for instance academic journal articles or conference presentations. You can request to be consulted on every occasion this material is used outside the remit of this PhD research project, and the researcher will endeavour to do this.

Copyright is an important consideration as a researcher. I plan to transcribe most of the interviews for my PhD thesis, so I could have just gained consent to use the material for this purpose alone. But perhaps I’d also like to submit them in whole or part as part of journal articles or even book chapters. I don’t actually know yet, but I do know that if I hadn’t got express permission – a transfer of copyright, no less – from the interviewee at the time of interview, it would have been a hell of a lot more complicated to use the material in any other form in a year or so’s time. Maybe I’d even have to contact them again back-and-forth for some sort of permission, which looks less than professional and risks them overthinking it and withdrawing consent. My last line was to cover this kind of hesitation or reluctance (of which there was none, but you never can tell beforehand); no one has opted to be kept informed so far.

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Gaining consent in practice

I presented the information sheets and consent forms to interviewees at the start of our meeting. The participants kept the information sheet and one copy of the consent form for themselves; I have a signed and dated copy of the consent form from every person I recorded. None of the participants sat and read through both sheets word-for-word, but all had a skimread and broadly understood the purpose of the consent form – I explained it was necessary because I was recording the interview. Everyone was speaking to me in a professional capacity and they had already received information via email about the purpose and scope of the meeting, so really it wasn’t necessary for them to read all the information in depth as they consented by agreeing to attend the meeting, and as conversation got warmed up we always got round to discussing my research project and the purpose of this specific research trip anyway. I’m not trying to deflect accusations that ‘no one reads these things anyway before signing’ (because they did albeit briefly!), but it is just to reflect that it was a necessary formality that did not stilt the conversation – in fact, it provided a useful opener for me to discuss what was about to happen and make switching on the recording device a little less awkward – and it provided me with paperwork that ensures I can use the data in a different form in future, beyond the boundaries of my thesis.

Not me, but another Nelle living a parallel life in Odense

Not me, but another Nelle living a parallel life in Odense…

Upgraded!

At the end of January I had my Upgrade and I passed! The Upgrade is a formal (yet informal) review meeting held around 12-18 months into the PhD process. It’s the only external review of my work until the very end after I’ve submitted the whole thesis when there is a viva with an external examiner. (It’s called an Upgrade as technically students enrol for an MPhil before being ‘upgraded’ to PhD student status after this meeting)

The Upgrade meeting included one of my supervisors (my secondary supervisor on paper, though actually they have both had a pretty equal role so far), an academic from another department to lead the discussion, and an academic to oversee the meeting (though in the event he also participated). So, three people talking about my research plans and work so far. Potentially a bit intense.

Everything I was told beforehand was true: most of the preparation was in writing the upgrade portfolio of work itself (submitted just before Christmas) so there was very little I could do in advance of the meeting except be familiar with what I’d written. The meeting was friendly and natural, and I received insight from new perspectives and useful things to mull over. In fact, it’s such a privilege, two academics from different yet related fields, reading my words and giving me some positive feedback and new ideas. Everyone I spoke to told me this would be the case, but until you actually get through it, there are still some nerves – after all, it’s the great unknown! I googled for top tips for getting through the Upgrade but in the event, the pointers from websites and friends were absolutely right – relax and be ready to talk about your research, you’ve already done the preparation.

Now the hard bit is keeping up the momentum and not letting it be too much of an anticlimax! I’ve passed, now I actually have to do some of that work I said I’d be doing…

How I’m getting on, 15 months in

The final third of 2014 was rather intense in comparison with earlier months of my PhD. As well as chairing a meeting in Copenhagen for the translators’ network, I was preparing a portfolio of my research and project so far, and what I intend to do next. So now I have submitted two sample chapters (approx 20,000 words in total, ack!), chapter titles and abstracts for the remainder of the project, a proposed timeline of research for the next two years, and a bibliography.

The sample chapters were especially fascinating and challenging to write – it all seemed to tumble out of my brain from nowhere after months of reading. Meetings with my supervisors were extremely helpful and motivating – I gather from reading about the average PhD student experience this is not a given so I am cheered by my experience so far! I started writing the chapters in earnest in August and they were completed by mid December (although I’m still not one hundred percent happy with them, natch). All the while fitting in time for my partner to study when he wasn’t at work, playgroups and playdates (I hate that word… but what’s a good alternative?) with the toddler, being administrator for a local parenting website, and getting into my weight training at the gym. Looking back now, around fifteen months in, the first year of my PhD was used for important reading and to provide a foundation for my research, but also for finding my feet and our pattern as a family to enable me to do my work and still have someone looking after the child!

I can't always work like this!

I can’t always work like this!

A small change in 2015 which I hope will have a big impact is that we are upping our monthly hours at the nursery/workhub to give me more study time generally and also more flexibility. I still prefer to use it like a short workday (9.30-2.30, meaning the toddler gets lunch and a nap!), but occasionally need to extend the day so I can pop to uni, or have a few short ‘morning only’ bursts if working regularly rather than in longer stretches suits our plans that week.

Now for the upgrade meeting/viva in January (fingers crossed) and onto the next concrete stage of research!

To brand or be branded? Some insights into Brand Denmark

Can a nation ‘brand’ itself? The imagery and stereotypes we, as Brits, think of when we talk about Scandinavia or, more specifically, Denmark have been built up over a long, slow stretch of time, interspersed with bursts of activity – for instance, the recent success of Danish TV programmes on BBC4 in the last few years.

I’ve enjoyed learning about the theory of Place Branding. Since coining the term nation brand and the Nation Brands Index, Simon Anholt (Places – Identity, Image and Reputation, 2010) has conceded that ‘competitive identity’ is probably a better term for the metaphor. In any case, unlike branding in a typical corporate marketing communications context, you cannot ‘do branding’ of a nation or change its perception via a snappy marketing campaign, a nation’s brand is earned rather than constructed (according to Anholt).

The Danish pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo 2010 is an interesting case study of Denmark’s self-branding when attempting to project and protect its image abroad. The Welfairytales theme of the Expo pavilion used two Danish icons: bicycles and the Little Mermaid statue (which was relocated from Copenhagen to China for the occasion). Ren & Gyimóthy (in their article Transforming and contesting nation branding strategies: Denmark at the Expo 2010, 2013) have written about some of the minor cultural misunderstandings which resulted. The pavilion’s imagery and activities may have been an exercise in ‘auto-communication’, Danes communicating the brand values they would like to project about themselves and not adequately allowing for cultural misinterpretations – for instance this is one of the phrases by everyday Danes used to decorate the pavilion:

‘Denmark is a little country where you can enjoy a cup of coffee while your child sleeps in the baby carriage outside the café’

Ren & Gyimóthy astutely remark (p27): “This well-known Danish idea of safety reflected in letting your child sleeping outside in public space is perhaps not easily grasped by middle-class people from a country with massive urban air pollution and a hot and humid climate”!

Last week I attended a fascinating meeting with the Danish cultural attaché in the USA who gave me some further insight into Brand Denmark. Denmark does not have a cultural institute as such (nothing comparable with Germany’s Goethe Institut, for instance), but the cultural attaché at the Consulate General in New York still advises on 125 cultural project per month! They have had a radical rethink in the last ten to fifteen years. Following the Danish Wave events in 1999 – a two-month cultural festival initiated by the Consulate and Embassy, where Danish authors and artists were brought over to the US with negligible impact – they have become reactive, taking their lead from looking at an artist’s reception in Denmark and their focus on new and modern brand values, rather than the traditional ‘old’ icons (Hans Christian Andersen!). The Consulate General of Denmark in the USA now ensures all cultural events they support fit within four core brand values:

art – sustainability – children’s culture – film

An initiative by Scandinavian arts councils has been established to promote Nordic literature abroad as one brand. The ‘Nordlit’ collaboration presented a unified Nordic presence at the London Book Fair and Book Expo America – rather than each nation having its own stand, the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and even smaller related countries e.g. Faroe Islands) shared a single stand. As wee and similar nations, they believe it’s beneficial to merge so they can cross-promote, utilising to their advantage the (probably correct!) presumption that many English-speaking readers and publishers cannot readily distinguish between the Nordic countries anyway, so why not cross-promote authors from the same region (“you liked this author, you might also like this author from more-or-less nearby”).

I look forward to investigating further how Brand Denmark is being created nationally and internationally by Danish cultural bodies, and how much impact this has had on the everyday British public’s perception of Denmark and Danishness. I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts, dear reader!

Organising your thoughts – a topic map!

I attended a surprisingly motivating and useful “starting your PhD” type course a couple of weeks ago, one of the optional courses at uni available to any graduate student who signs up on time.

I was excited by the idea of “topic maps” – writing out key words, as back-to-basics as possible, starting off from my core PhD topic in the centre and then branching off into sub-categories. This method can apparently help develop good search terms for databases (such as journals, library catalogues, thesis collections), as well as primarily being useful to organise your thoughts. Currently my topics are “mapped” only by my reading list, and what I occasionally write up as literature reviews of sorts.

So, keen to organise the many interconnected yet still disparate strands of my research I started by writing as many topics as I could think of on post-it notes, so I could shuffle them around into a “map” and connect the dots.

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Oh dear…

Then I took a deep breath and thought it’d help to “write up” this, uh, “map”.

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But writing it up made it worse, I felt like I’d put everything in the wrong place. When I went to connect each topic by line I found EVERY topic connected with (almost) every other topic!

I think at this stage – when I’ve done a bit of reading, but not enough – I am not ready to sketch out a topic map. There are probably still areas I haven’t considered. There are too many overlapping, interconnecting jumbles of wires that I haven’t unpicked.

Or maybe a topic map is not for me?!

Is anyone reading beyond Nordic Noir?

On the one hand:

1/4 of crime fiction readers had read a translated literary novel after reading a crime fiction novel from that language and 30% of those who hadn’t yet said they might in future: “One publisher supplied the metaphor of readers being ‘contaminated’ by their exposure to foreign crime novels and going on to explore foreign fiction in general as a result”.

(Engles, Paul. “Selling Ice to the Eskimos” Swedish Book Review, Issue 1 (2010), p38)

But on the other hand:

“The popular audience is not crossing over to elite foreign literature, where, it might be argued, a more incisive representation of foreign cultures is likely to be found, unconstrained by the generic demands made by crime writing”

(Venuti, L. The Translator’s Invisibility – a history of translation. London: Routledge, 2008 (2nd edition), p155)

So what’s it gonna be? Do readers of Scandi crime read any other genres in translation?

First forays into publishing and fandom

I submitted my first written work to my supervisors in mid December and have already discussed their feedback, which was really positive and productive. That was a real boost and assures me I’m on the right track! Now I feel like I have many, many more strands of research and ideas to follow, which is exciting but also has the potential to be overwhelming, so I am trying to write up a few “to do” lists this weekend. I’ve reassured myself that my method of combining study and childcare seems to be working so far (see previous post), but looking ahead I would really benefit from some longer stretches surrounded by books so I will look into that!

The objective of my first literature review was to gain insight into the UK book market to put into context my corpus of texts (Danish literature published in the UK since 1990). An understanding of the publishing business and marketplace will provide a crucial foundation for my research project. It was also important to define terminology (e.g. “marketing”, “literature”, “success”) and find out which areas would be valuable to research in more depth (i.e. what’s next?).

So in my first period of study I found out a lot more about publishing (looking at the industry itself as well as the marketplace for selling books) – very interesting for someone who has studied marketing before (the Chartered Institute of Marketing’s Diploma in Marketing Communications), but knew very little about publishing specifically.

I also got very keen on investigating taste and cultural value, the “sociology of genres”, if you like – put simply, where does the British reader place, for example, crime thrillers, Mills and Boon, a translated foreign novella, and celebrity autobiographies, on a scale of ‘high’ to ‘low’ culture?

Danish telly – including The Killing and Borgen – is very cool right now, and a certain fandom has been created around them, particularly via social media. It’s like a quirky “in club” of Scandi-drama lovers (no value judgment, I’m essentially one of the crowd, after all!), who have the potential to build a relationship based on their interest. I’m keen to look into how far people’s interest in certain cultural products becomes part of their identity (self-defined and defined by others). Taste is very subjective and insightful. Admitting you’re a fan of DR/BBC4’s Borgen and admitting you’re a fan of ITV2’s Peter Andre – My Life is likely to garner a different response depending on who you are and who is judging you, but why’s that then?