by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Writing”

What Happens When I Become Bored: An Almost-Monologue Over Instant Messaging

Posted 12 May 2009 in by Catriona

ME: Honey, why aren’t you at lunch?
(Pause)
ME: Or perhaps the question is “Why haven’t you changed your status to ‘away,’ so I don’t get my hopes up and then start talking to no one and then get sad and confused?” That’s a much longer question, obviously.
(Pause)
ME: Now I’m wondering whether I should just keep writing here. Is the illusion of conversation sufficient at this point, even without a response? Or is this just really weird? I’ll get back to myself with the answer shortly.
(Pause)
ME: Actually, I’m wondering whether this is pathological behaviour. Maybe we should get a pet. I could talk to the pet.
(Pause)
ME: Hmm. The more I write here, the more you’re going to be freaked out when you get back from lunch. Though that might be rather fun.
(Pause)
ME: I’m just not committed to this monologue any more. And is “anymore” really one word? I see it as one word everywhere, and it doesn’t trigger the spell-checker. But it looks so odd. Do I look stupid writing it as two words? Or am I just archaic? Or both?
(Pause)
ME: I’m drinking tea now.
(Pause)
ME: Shouldn’t you be back from lunch by now? And if you went to lunch late, does that mean I’m committed to a longer monologue? Or is this a soliloquy?
(Pause)
ME: I wonder what ideological or financial value there is to advertising a penny weekly as an inexpensive monthly journal, instead? The content is still the same.
NICK: Hello!
ME: Honey, you’re kind of extraneous to this conversation now.

Proof of Productivity

Posted 7 May 2009 in by Catriona

I can see why uploading a series of photographs of a mysterious fungus that I found in the garden doesn’t quite look like I’ve had a productive day, but I have.

This morning, I mapped out the basic structure for a projected journal article on advertising and Victorian periodicals.

See?

(I realise the fact that the outline is pinned to my bookcase with a cocktail umbrella doesn’t really make it look professional, but I’ve yet to find a decent cork-board. For that matter, I don’t really have room for a cork-board. The cocktail umbrellas allow me to pin things against the bookcase without damaging the books themselves.)

(And they look festive.)

It may not look like much, this outline. But it’s the culmination of a fruitful morning’s thinking, shaping, and re-shaping—and a sign of good things to come.

When I started my Ph.D., I found that my writing process had leaped up a step while I wasn’t looking, so that some of my old writing habits were no longer apparent: I was producing fewer drafts, writing much better first drafts, composing more smoothly at the sentence level.

Of course, this just revealed more flaws in my writing, which had been hidden under the more obvious problems, but that’s the nature of writing.

One thing I did notice with the Ph.D., though, was that I’d developed a much better sense of when I was ready to write. I was no longer pushing myself to write early and become frustrated by and disgusted with the results. Instead, I’d read around my sources, write extensive notes, and obsessively cross-reference everything on index cards until a switch flipped somewhere in my head, and I sat down to write a chapter.

This unexpected shifting of my writing process—a legacy of, among other things, an earlier, much less pleasant degree—was one of the things that made my Ph.D. such a dream from beginning to end.

And I’m pleased to see that it’s hanging on. I’ve been letting the idea for an article on advertising and Victorian periodicals simmer in the back of my brain for some months now, while finishing another article (on mid-Victorian suburban theatre) and (slowly and painfully) writing a conference paper. And now it feels as though this paper is ready to be taken seriously.

It’s not yet ready to be written. I still need to complete a great deal of research, not least among the advertisements themselves. But I can see the shape of the article in my head, now. And that gives me a focus for my reading.

Random photography of fungus aside, it’s been a productive day indeed.

How Short Can A Story Be?

Posted 17 April 2009 in by Catriona

My best friend first brought the idea of a six-word memoir to my attention back in April last year. I glanced at them then, but didn’t really think about them further.

Then a student submitted a piece of assessment around the idea of six-word stories, drawing my attention to this post with six-word stories, including some lovely ones from Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Charles Stross. (Many, many ones from Charles Stross.)

And I was wondering what I could do in six words.

Chances are not a great deal. But I’ve been thinking more about restricted writing challenges lately, so it would be remiss of me not to at least try.

I’m settling on this:

“Our home planet’s gone? Well, bugger.”

My Day On Twitter; Or, How I Blatantly Recycle My Own Material

Posted 26 March 2009 in by Catriona

I’m very new to Twitter: I’ve not been using it for much more than a week. And, like many people, I was driven to it by Facebook.

Not by the new Twitterised Facebook design that so many Facebook users are denigrating, but by the fact that I really enjoy writing my Facebook status update. I started worrying that I was changing my status too often, and that this wasn’t giving people a chance to comment—and the ability to comment on status updates is one of the better changes Facebook has made in the time I’ve been using it.

Twitter seemed like a useful alternative: I could minimise my rewriting of my status update and yet still indulge my desire to frequently describe what I was doing in 140 characters or fewer.

That’s what delights me about both Facebook status updates and Twitter: that severe restriction of the word limit. I’ve worked with restricted word limits before—almost everything I write has some kind of word limit. But never, ever as restricted as this.

And I love the challenge. I love the way it forces me to sharpen my syntax, to think of synonyms that are equally effective but shorter, to make my point clear while removing all the pronouns from a sentence.

Oh, I’ve seen the arguments against Twitter, but that challenge is why I’m enjoying it—like my live-blogging over the last year, it’s a form of writing like no other I’ve ever done. With live-blogging, I have to be able to write quickly but succinctly, to be accurate and descriptive but also to provide commentary, to be able to keep the shape of the plot in place, to decide immediately what can be omitted without losing the reader. With Twitter, I’m forced to think constantly about the shape of what I’m writing, to compress it to a smaller, neater form.

But what’s an argument without examples? Since I’ve been writing on Twitter more often today than usual, here are today’s tweets in chronological order, earliest first:

Wondering what the “remember me” button on Twitter log-in page does? (Except for reminding me of Futurama episode.) It’s not remembering me.

Forced by presence of giant moth in garage to climb into car through passenger side. Hand brake really inconveniently placed, in my opinion.

Then nearly hit garage door on way out, because was for some reason obsessively checking whether moth moved, even though was secure in car.

Couldn’t get parked at uni, and had to drive home frantically and try to catch a bus that would get me in for my AFS hours. Success!

But had to leave car in driveway because of running late. If anyone drives though fence, may implode like Jagoroth ship in “City of Death.”

Then sat on bus behind teenage boy who had exactly the same haircut as I do—only it may have looked better on him. Strange day.

No students have come to see me. Such odd work, this: hours of frantic marking activity followed by stretches of silence and self-doubt.

But at least I’m not pursuing either a real or metaphorical Minotaur through stretches of labyrinthine programming code beyond my ken.

Nearly sideswiped by red Mazda with “That’s so sexual!” decal. Feel presence of such a decal cannot but cheapen my tragic, untimely death.

None of this is great literature, of course. No immortal thoughts. No “Eureka!” moments. Just anecdotes about my day in 140 characters or fewer, each one a tiny, unique writing challenge.

But How Do You Work That Into The Narrative?

Posted 20 March 2009 in by Catriona

I shall start with a disclaimer: I am actually really enjoying what I’ve read (some three chapters) of P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job For A Woman, which I’ve never read before, despite the fact that it was published in 1972 and I’m a big fan of certain sorts of detective fiction.

(I’ll be honest: I think part of what I like about it is that Cordelia dislikes Adam Dalgliesh as much as I do. Of course, she hasn’t met him, so that might change, but I do hope not.)

But what really fascinated me about the character so far is that when Cordelia is asked what her father did, she replies, “He was an itinerant Marxist poet and an amateur revolutionary.”

Really? Because that’s a complicated back story for a character who is dead before the book starts. It’s not that implausible: Cordelia’s twenty-two in 1971, so while her father may be too young to remember the rise to influence of the Fabian Society in the Edwardian period, he is certainly old enough to have been permanently inspired by the participation of some English left-wing sympathisers in the Spanish Civil War.

Or, you know, he could just have strong left-wing sympathies because he read Das Kapital at an impressionable age.

There’s just something about this that made me think, “Well, what a complex back story for a character who, as far as I can tell, is never going to appear in the book.” (If this is P. D. James’s foray into zombie fiction, don’t tell me. I want to be surprised.)

So, just in case I ever write a novel, I’ve come up with some pick-and-mix sentences that I can drop in to the narrative when someone asks my protagonist what her father does for a living.

  • He was a chiropodist, but it was really just a way for him to get paid for being a foot fetishist.
  • He provided freelance flower illustrations for amateur gardening magazines and on weekends scoured antique shops to try and improve his collection of Victorian apostle spoons.
  • He tried working as a waiter once, but apparently he had some kind of phobic response to damask.
  • He was a turtle fancier by inclination, but my mother talked him into becoming a chartered accountant on the grounds that the work was less seasonal.
  • He mostly subsisted on the loose change he found down the back of friends’ sofa cushions.
  • He shouted at the managers of struggling suburban theatre companies until they agreed to stage one of his series of five-act tragedies about Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine.
  • He had a shoe-shine stand near the station until he developed an unshakeable conviction that it was possible to buff suede. Actually, we don’t really like to talk about it.
  • He’s actually a highly paid mercenary in a war as old as time itself, fought across the dimensions and in the shadows of planets, bringing humanity and every other species in the universe to the brink of destruction without their knowledge or understanding—but we used to tell people that he managed a strip-club so they wouldn’t ask too many questions.
  • He claims he’s a steward on the Titanic, so we’re not actually quite sure what he’s been doing for a living since 1912. Really? It’s never seemed that implausible to us.

Work, Work, Work

Posted 20 January 2009 in by Catriona

I’ve spent the day writing “cliche,” “fatuous,” “vague transition,” and the like on my own article (I’m much harder on myself than on my students, if anyone’s worrying about that. I’ve written “cliche” on students’ work before, but never “fatuous.”) and it has, oddly, put me out of the mood for updating the blog, especially since I’m only on page sixteen and it’s already after 6 p.m.

So, in the interim, here are some photographs of my dogs:

Well, technically, General Montgomery—the Elvis-fancying terrier of an earlier post—isn’t mine: my brother got him after our old dog, Scampy the Hell Hound, died, long after I moved out of home.

Petey the poodle is an old dog now, at least sixteen, and Monty only a youngster, but they’re both good boys, and Terry Pratchett tells us that that’s the highest praise we can give a dog.

Wondering Why I Haven't Been Blogging Much Lately?

Posted 16 January 2009 in by Catriona

And by lately, I mean in the last two days.

Well, admittedly, last night we just went out, which was terribly selfish of me, I know. But leaving that aside, this is essentially the reason:

Really, it shouldn’t be this hard. It certainly shouldn’t look like that. Considering this article comes from a thesis that I polished until it shone, and, in fact, comes from what was generally considered the best chapter of this thesis, the draft really shouldn’t look like that.

But, then, this is a steep learning curve. I’ve never before had to take a large piece of work (the chapter is some 17,000 words) which is itself part of a much larger piece (the overall thesis clocked in at over 90,000 words) and craft from it a much shorter piece (just over 7,000 words, at this point) that has its own complete and coherent argument.

I’m sure it will be fun.

Retrospectively.

But at the moment, it’s a little hairy. I was telling Nick the other day that I haven’t written this independently since I was an undergraduate: for both the Masters and the Ph.D., there were supervisors willing and able to keep an eye on my drafts. But here, despite supportive and thorough reports from readers and from the journal editor, I feel like I’m working independently.

Actually, I probably wouldn’t be quite so nervous if they hadn’t expressed a provisional interest in it already. Because now I’m worried—and worrying is my primary skill—that I might just be screwing it up instead of improving it.

So this is a small test for the blog.

I don’t have any intention of abandoning the blog, of course—but I started it a fortnight before I submitted the Ph.D., so this is the first time, really, that I’ve dealt with writing frantically all day and then coming here to write a post in the evening.

Still, there are always strange conversations, of course. And it’s the January Lifeline Bookfest tomorrow, so look forward to more pictures of my books. New books, this time.

In the interim, I’ll finish with a lithograph of Eliza Winstanley, the woman about whom I am writing for this article:

She doesn’t look as though she’d put up with any of this introspective nonsense.

A Quote I Really Need To Remember For Lectures

Posted 17 December 2008 in by Catriona

Yes, it does seem as though I’m using my blog as a giant, electronic Post-it note, but it’s an interesting quote, either way.

Reginald Hill’s version of the “so what?” test:

During her previous existence as a lecturer, a colleague who ran a Creative Writing course had moaned to her that he spent far too much time dealing with the hang-ups of students who clearly regarded narrative fiction as a branch of therapy rather than a branch of art. Now she knew what he meant. Therapy you kept to yourself. Art took you, trembling, in front of the footlights.

She brought this perspective to bear on her rejected third novel. Suddenly she found herself asking paragraph by paragraph the two essential questions: Is this really so important to me I’ve got to say it? Is this potentially so interesting to readers, they’ll have to read it?

From Reginald Hill’s Arms and the Women, 2000. HarperCollins paperback, 2001. 65.

At Last, A Meeting Of My Two Interests

Posted 19 November 2008 in by Catriona

And by two interests, I mean Doctor Who and archival research.

The BBC, it seems, is opening its Doctor Who archives and making them available on the web.

Nick, it need not be said, is neither to hold nor bind after discovering this.

The archive begins, chronologically, with an exploratory document outlining the practicality of developing a science-fiction programme for television—and the document is awesome: at one point, it suggests that “More pretentiously, far less ably, the novels of CS Lewis likewise use the apparatus of SF in the service of metaphysical ideas” (see here for that document, written in 1962).

I guess nobody in the BBC was a big fan of Lewis’s work?

That document also outlines the fact that science fiction is overwhelmingly an American genre, which I find fascinating: no-one would argue, now, that there’s a distinctly British flavour of sci-fi, but this document largely predates that time.

And the archive ends with the announcement of the new series in Radio Times.

Surely no more incentive is needed to go and rummage through this? Everyone loves archives, yes?

Well, how about this audience report on “An Unearthly Child,” the pilot episode? According to page two, “The acting throughout was considered satisfactory.”

Or this concept report from 1963, which talks about the “unsexual” nature of science fiction and emphasises the need to avoid the generic tendency against in-depth character development.

Or the image gallery, including this image of William Hartnell from the pilot episode. (What a silly hat!)

Or . . .

I’m talking to myself here, aren’t I? You all disappeared at the first link and are now happily rummaging through the archives, aren’t you?

Thought so.

Ack! It's Everywhere!

Posted 4 November 2008 in by Catriona

Okay, this rant is a clash between two of my current obsessions: Bones and sentence-level punctuation and grammar errors.

I’m not concerned about my obsession with Bones: it’s one of the few shows that we actually watch on telly, rather than waiting for the DVDs to come out, so it’s not much of an obsession. But the show is simultaneously grotesque and frequently hilarious, and I’ve always enjoyed David Boreanaz much more in comic roles.

(Angelus, for example, was much more fun than Angel—not that Angelus was funny. Well, in an incredibly dark sense, he was.)

The obsession with punctuation is not something I’ve kept secret.

I don’t claim for an instant that my writing is perfect at the sentence level. In fact, I know it’s not. Sometimes, when I look back over the past entries on the blog, I have to silently correct embarrassing mistakes that I should have spotted the first time around—especially in the live-blogging, though I tend to leave anything that’s not a factual error, to maintain the authenticity of the process.

But I maintain that it is at least competent.

And for five years or more, I’ve been teaching writing courses that rarely extend beyond the paragraph level, so I’ve become more and more attuned to spotting sentence-level errors—largely, of course, the more common errors.

And today those two obsessions clashed horribly, when I was looking up the details on a forthcoming episode of Bones on Your TV:

Bones
The Pain in the Heart
9.30pm – 10.30pm Seven
Monday 10 November 2008
In an episode that will rock the lab to it’s core, a well known serial killer strikes again and when crutial evidence mysteriously goes missing, every Jeffersonian employee becomes a suspect.

The odd thing is that I’ve never noticed this quantity of errors on the site before.

I could let the absence of a hyphen in the compound adjective slide.

But that mistake with “its”? That’s basic—and it’s not that difficult to distinguish between the two uses. Though we all type the wrong one occasionally, it’s not too tricky to correct any errors on a read-through.

And the misspelling of “crucial”? Oh, lord.

In the courses that I teach, we have a draconian attitude towards spelling errors because, as we emphasise each semester, nothing will ruin your credibility with a reader faster than a spelling error.

That’s certainly true here—especially since any computer-based spell checker would have picked that one up.

The Television Without Pity Malaise

Posted 2 November 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve been putting off writing about my current discomfort with the way in which Television Without Pity has been reshaped recently.

But I’m cranky today.

Partly it’s general end-of-semester tiredness.

Partly it’s because I just made it to the end of a Lego Batman level, realised my computer-controlled companion—needed to help me operate a two-handed switch—had disappeared, and had to run all the way to the beginning of the level, where I found him hiding under a set of stairs. Why? Who knows. He wasn’t stuck; he was just standing there.

Partly it’s because I’ve finally begun reading a Margery Allingham novel—the only one of the four great female writers of Golden Age detective fiction whom I haven’t read—and, only twenty-two pages in, Albert Campion is irritating me.

But partly it’s because I read a Television Without Pity recap this morning, for the first time in some time, and it reminded me of why I don’t bother with the site much.

Now, I never was an indiscriminate reader of the site. The recaps are enormously long, which pleased me when it was a show I enjoyed—I adored the Deadwood recaps, for example—but bored me when I wasn’t interested in the show in question.

Fair enough: I didn’t read those ones, and everyone was happy.

But the recappers were variable, as well. Generally, the standard was high, but sometimes the general attitude towards the show, the recapper’s tone, or the framework for their recaps began to frustrate me after a while.

One recapper, in particular, I had to give up on, despite the fact that they recapped shows in which I was interested, because something about their writing brought the teacher out in me. It wasn’t to do with the quality of the writing, per se. I don’t quite know what it was, except it brought out in me an overwhelming urge to write “so what?” in the margins.

(I do not, by the way, write “so what?” in the margins of my students’ work. But we do tell them to apply what we call the “so what?” test, to make sure that every sentence and every paragraph in their writing advances their central argument. That was the problem, for me, with this recapper. When it reached the point where they declared that the episode they were recapping that week would be read through Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” despite the fact that there was no real or concrete connection between the two texts, I decided I was out.)

But that’s the nature of a large site such as Television Without Pity: you read the bits you enjoy and ignore the rest.

Then it all started going rather odd.

The first thing that annoyed us was the cancelling of the Doctor Who recaps: I’d stopped reading them, but Nick still enjoyed them.

Recaps are cancelled fairly frequently, if the reader figures are low or the show turns out to be either less successful or less interesting than anticipated.

But these were cancelled with only a brief, bitter message: “If you want to know what Bit Torrent is, ask a Doctor Who fan.” When people queried this, they added an explanatory note: “(Translation: y’all have already seen the episodes by the time Sci Fi airs them anyway.)”

Well, yes. Because it’s a British show—and when you’re writing for the Internet, not all your readers are going to be American. And as Nick pointed out, people watch the show then read the recap. How does it matter when they watch it?

Still, that’s editorial policy. It annoyed us—and many other readers—but it’s their decision.

As was selling the website to Bravo Television, but that’s where they really lost me. And, indeed, the three creators of the site and some of their longest-serving recappers also left rapidly after the sale.

Which is when I noticed a noticeable drop in the quality of the writing.

It was evident even in some of the long-serving recappers, such as the one who, I noted above, brought out the blue pencil in me. It used to be, with their recaps, that I’d read them and think, “Wow, this recapper needs some rigorous editing.” Now I read them and think, “Wow, this recapper used to be edited rigorously, after all.”

But take, as a different example, this recap of a 30 Rock episode:

“Hey dummy I was just telling all these dummy’s that we used to go to the park and make fun of all the joggers,” says Duffy to Lemon. Lunch arrives and Lemon and Duffy double-team Toofer for having ordered a salad from a burger joint. The whole room yucks it up as Duffy casually puts his arm around Lemon who suddenly becomes aware of the moment. A single Cheeto stays dangling in her mouth.

That quote’s from the second page of the recap, but it’s not the only example. For example, there’s also this one, from the first page: “In walks Kenneth who looses it like he’s just seen Hannah Montana.”

No. I’m sorry, but this degree of poor sentence-level writing is sufficient to completely kill my interest in a professional website.

Even when the show or recapper held no interest for me, I could at least recognise that the entire site was rigorously edited. It was, in fact, one of the aspects that appealed to me the most.

To see this quantity of basic grammatical and punctuation errors on a site such as Television Without Pity is bad enough.

Throw in the new Flash-driven site, where it’s almost impossible to find the recaps among the advertisements, video files, and picture galleries, and I’m not interested any more.

It’s a shame, though. I know that certain groups of readers, such as the ones who run this site, have always been uncomfortable with the level of moderation in the TWoP forums and the perceived socio-cultural snobbery behind the site, but at least it was a site that recognised that since the Internet is a text-driven medium, it should be held to the same standards as we anticipate from print media.

Not any more.

And that is a shame.

Inappropriate Quotation Marks

Posted 26 October 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve become a little obsessed with odd punctuation over the last two semesters: in fact, I actively seek it out, to use as material in my lectures (due ascribed to the original source, of course).

Which led me directly to many happy hours at The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks.

But what’s bothering me at the moment—and I must keep a copy of this for one of the punctuation lectures next semester, if I give them—is the label to my current batch of coffee.

I’m intermittently eager to buy fair-trade coffee. I say intermittently, because sometimes the budget simply won’t allow it, and I have to stick to the regular, exploitative type.

This, of course, is straight hypocrisy. I know why fair-trade coffee is more expensive and that’s why I like buying it. So much coffee is grown in Third World countries (on a slightly unrelated note, a coffee shop at the university, which makes the best coffee on campus, sells Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee: according to their brilliant sign, the Blue Mountains are “generally” located past Kingston. I wonder where they go the rest of the time?). And coffee is a crop that can have a devastating effect on local ecology, especially as demand rises and farmers struggle to produce larger and larger crops.

I wonder sometimes whether my coffee-related guilt (and associated budget-related, exploitative-coffee guilt) arises partly out of the face that coffee is such a yuppie drink, evocative of the economic exploitation of poorer countries for the leisure and pleasure of richer ones, just as we used to do (perhaps still do) with tea.

I still drink it, though. And I make an effort to buy fair-trade coffee.

I have fair-trade coffee now, and that’s what’s worrying me. Because it’s slathered in inappropriate quotation marks in questionable places.

For example, the company tells me on one side of the packet that their commitment to their customers is “coupled with ‘state of the art’ roasting facilities.”

I don’t see why that would be ironic, but I can think of some horrifying ideas . . .

This coffee is also organic, though I don’t care one way or the other about organic production. Perhaps I should, but I’ve not given it any thought. Still, when I do, apparently “The Australian Certified Organic label is your ‘Guarantee of Integrity’,” so that’s nice.

But it’s the last section that’s worrying me:

By purchasing products marked with the Fairtrade label you are ensuring the poorest workers and farmers in the developing world are getting a ‘fair go’. The label guarantees that products have been ‘fairly traded.’ Funds generated support education, healthcare and improving work practices.

Now, granted, this isn’t the best-punctuated passage I’ve ever read. I’d have a comma after the introductory phrase in the first sentence and it looks as though the list at the end lacks parallel structure, though they may actually mean that the funds “support improving work practices,” clumsy though that phrasing might be.

(I’m also skipping over the implications of the “fair go,” which I’ve never cared for. It’s not only a cliche, but it’s also shorthand for something too complicated for any two-word phrase to express. Hence the shorthand. Yet, it seems to me that the shorthand version is increasingly used unthinkingly, divorced from any of the more complicated connotations: shorthand, like windmills, does not work that way. But that’s not the point here.)

But it’s the quotation marks that get me here.

Excluding, perhaps, the reference to the “poorest workers and farmers” and the information about where the funds are distributed, it seems that the terms “fair go” and “fairly traded” are actually the most important in the passage.

So why are they in inverted commas?

Are they ironic? Is the coffee not, in fact, fairly traded? If so, what on earth does that rather pretty badge on the front of the packet mean?

I imagine, of course, that this is an attempt to use quotation marks as a means of adding emphasis to a phrase. Naturally, that’s annoying, too.

But not as annoying as the fact that every time I open the pantry door I have to think, “But how is ‘fairly traded’ ironic? And why?”

Still, I suppose it’s not as bad as that sign I once found that read “Employees Must Wash ‘Hands’.”

For Your Consideration . . .

Posted 16 October 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve not received an official letter, as yet.

But the thesis is uploaded to the library site/digital theses project (and remind me to tell you about that debacle some day). Apparently, since it was uploaded yesterday, that should be the official date of award.

It’s printed and bound (and, yes, there was a debacle there, too, but not the printery’s fault: they’ve been awesome).

And it’s sitting on the shelf at home, next to the M.Phil.

This is the most self-aggrandising blog post I’ve ever written. And that’s saying something.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to put my education to good use (having a drink), by spending my evening in quiet, scholarly pursuits (having another drink), thus contributing to the overall state of knowledge in the world (maybe even having a third drink).

Bibliographical Practice and the Busy Academic

Posted 1 October 2008 in by Catriona

I don’t normally link the articles on this solipsistic little blog to discussions in the wider blogosphere (though it sometimes happens almost accidentally, as with the season finale of Doctor Who).

But this is causing a little stir at the moment (courtesy of Crooked Timber): the owners of EndNote are suing George Mason University for an enormous sum over a tool (based on open-source software) that they say violates EndNote’s license agreement.

I’ve never been an EndNote user. I did try it, back in the days of my early enrolment in the M.Phil. programme: the library used to make it freely available to research higher degree candidates, and I did install it.

But it never suited me. My preferred bibliographical practice is this:

Index cards don’t suddenly crash in the middle of a project, they can be physically manipulated as a diagram of your argument, and they don’t suffer the same disadvantages as my other favourite research tool: Post-it notes.

(Those are forever losing their adhesive and ending up scattered all over the study floor.)

And yet, my most recent work had a strong bibliographical component.

The Ph.D. thesis required the standard list of works cited (a rigorous enough task—the standard academic requirements for accuracy aside—since established criticism on penny weeklies includes a large quantity of scattered pieces across a wide range of sources).

In addition to that, though, the thesis also included a second volume of scholarly bibliographies: the Index to Fiction in Fiction for Family Reading (1865-1866) and the Index to Fiction in the Second Series of Bow Bells (1864-1881).

This is a slightly different kind of bibliographical practice, of course, and not one to which EndNote is ideally suited.

But it is the reason why I’m peculiarly interested in bibliographical practice.

And, conversely, it’s why I’m concerned about what Crooked Timber points out as the side effect of this action against George Mason University.

While Fiction for Family Reading is only six volumes, the Bow Bells bibliography covers eighteen years—or thirty-four volumes or 882 (25-page) issues, whichever gives a better sense of scale. The entire 250-page index is the eventual result of six months in which I spent at least half of each day sitting in front of a microfilm machine.

That doesn’t seem relevant?

My point is this: an enormous amount of academic practice takes place in isolation.

Yes, collaborative work is an increasingly important part of academic life. But collaborative work is largely collaborative in the writing stage, not the research stage—and even then, it’s frequently a matter of independent writing followed by a stage of meshing different areas of expertise together.

It’s an important aspect of academic life. When I began my M.Phil., one of the main points they stressed for us was the importance of creating networks among other postgraduate students, of not spending three or four years scurrying between your office and the library and feeling increasingly isolated.

And this is where the apparent rival—in EndNote’s eyes—to EndNote becomes valuable: it’s not just a bibliographical tool. It also has a social-networking aspect, in that it allows academics to share, in Crooked Timber’s words, “metadata and other interesting things.”

As Henry points out on Crooked Timber, “this battle is likely to have long term consequences in determining whether or not new forms of academic collaboration are likely to be controlled by academics themselves, or take place through some kind of commercially controlled intermediation.”

Given that academic practice is already strongly skewed towards isolating work practices, this is a more serious concern than whether or not Zotero contravenes EndNote’s license agreement.

I’m rather pleased now that EndNote never suited me, although it would be satisfying to boycott it.

But that’s the point that concerns me here: I’ll leave the intellectual-property issues and the concerns about whether such a lawsuit is viable to those who better understand such issues.

Perhaps many years ago, when universities, at least on the European model, were largely staffed by academics who also lived on campus and therefore shared, to a large extent, a common social life in the common room, the isolating nature of academic practice wasn’t such a concern.

But that’s no longer the case.

And in the case of EndNote as opposed to Zotero, it’s dangerous to allow a commercially driven company to determine not only what type of bibliographical tool suits academics but also whether or not those tools should be used to foster collegiality.

There's Always a Silver Lining

Posted 13 August 2008 in by Catriona

Just to balance the frustration of the last post.

At least having to go through Appendix C—the index to fiction in one of the Victorian periodicals my work addresses—has reminded me of some of the fabulous titles of these serials and single-episode tales.

I never read most of them: the index covers the journal between 1864 and 1881, so I was hard-pressed just to read the hundred-odd works by my core author. But I regret not reading some more than I regret others.

I do regret not reading “She Scorned His Love—And Yet She Loved Him.” I’m sure it’s fairly awful—but it’s a brilliant title. No room there for thinking, “Ooh, I wonder what that one’s about?”

I’m also partial to “Foiled by His Own Features,” a single-episode tale, for the opposite reason: I have no idea what this could be about. Foiled how? Doing what? And what is it about his features? Is he scarred or just really familiar? I’m sure it’s the usual girl-loves-boy, girl-pretends-she-doesn’t, girl-and-boy-get-married-anyway narrative, but the title makes it much more exciting.

But my favourite?

“How Daisy and Violet Paid The Rent.”

I haven’t read the story—but Nick and I have our own, thoroughly libelous opinions about how Daisy and Violet paid the rent.

Sometimes, when you’re indexing the fiction content for seventeen years of a Victorian penny weekly, you have to make your own fun.

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