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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Postgraduate Diary: The Benefits of Blogging

Friday, September 22, 2006

Friday 22nd September is OneWebDay, a celebration of the way the internet has changed peoples' lives. One of the things that never ceases to amaze me are the strangely meandering routes by which one aspect can link to another. I saw on my webstats that some visitors were coming to my site searching for "Dr. Depressed" about which I blogged last week. So I followed the backlink to Google, and realised that I was appearing number 2 in the rankings for the keywords. The site below mine was called, intriguingly, Gooseania, so I followed it and turned up the weblog for a Manchester-based PhD student, Craig Laughton. Like The Pequod blog, he uses his site to voice his anxieties and pass on experiences about doing doctoral research (in his case, in mathematics). He also wrote an article, published in Mathematics Today, entitled Exploring the Blogosphere, which I very much recommend. I was particularly struck by this comment:
Perhaps the least obvious but most beneficial aspect of blogging (from a maths student’s perspective) is that you are dragged away from scribbling sums and equations to having to write some actual English. Composing a short article every few days massively improves your writing skills, which is going to be crucial when it comes to typing reports and finally, your thesis.
The biggest change in perspective I have undergone this year is that I see my research work in a really holistic way, unlike when I was doing my taught courses. What I mean by this is that rather than simply viewing my thesis as an extended essay with a single question to be answered and handed in, I have learnt to be happy to explore routes and ideas that seem - at first glance - tangential to my research. I do not feel guilty if I listen to Radio 4 for half an hour (especially on an issue as topical as The Idea of a University). I am happy to read the London Review of Books as a part of, rather than escape from, my denser "work" reading. Occasionally I come across an article that is "outside the box" of my research but, playing into it, I receive an unexpected boost and novel insight. And I now see it as important that I write a blog entry a couple of times a week, as it is that I get 500 words written on my thesis.

For Craig Laughton, his blog protects and maintains his general writing skills when he might otherwise be in danger of becoming a stammering solipsist with his specialist equations. Although writing is the foundation of my work, and my basic literary skills do not lack exercise, nevertheless this blog does benefit and broaden my style. When I write for research, I do so fully conscious that I must be technically perfect, with the complex and argumentative style my specialist audience anticipates. But I hope that I maintain an eloquence that reaches to a broader audience than the small company of Lit. Crit. PLC and, as the best form of this writing can do (see "A Critical High Light"), that I write with a kind of creativity immanent in my critical discourse. But it is difficult to force this mode, and I cannot predict when it will flow freely. Creativity comes when I least expect it and, a fragile glass through which I seem to see so clearly the text in question, it can be broken by the shrill of a phone call. Even then, these bursts of my best work are swallowed in the gaping hole/whole of the 100,000 total.

My blog entries, however, are self-contained and must be written quickly, in response to recent events (the political situation in Lebanon, the discovery of a strange link) rather than in response to a piece of literature considered and dissected over weeks. (I have been reading A.S. Byatt, so perhaps a better metaphor, in a Byattian parody, might be: a novel whose choicest elements I excise and leave to grow on the petri-dish of my brain, so that I end up with a mouldy critical terminology which grows and spreads parasitical over the original organic text). You see, I would not have come up with this image without having embarked on this blog; certainly it would never be allowed to sneak itself into my objective and dispassionate critical prose.

Blogs can benefit all research students, whether mathematicians or literary critics, and if you are yourself a postgraduate who has followed the strange web of links to this page, I urge you to continue that journey: start at PhD Weblogs, and I hope you will find your way to Blogger.


Posted by Alistair at 12:02 pm


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I find your comments and the comments from the mathematician most enlightening. I am, by trade, a computer programmer, and have been out of the process of having to “write some actual English” myself for a number of years. Now that I am taking an English class, I find that my skills have, indeed, deteriorated greatly.

I did try to post on a few blogs for awhile, but sooner or later most sites just turn into political name calling rants - not very productive. Therefore, I enjoy the literary aspect of your blog.

I don’t think you should feel guilty for listening to the radio or following sports-as you mentioned in another post. I just recently read a Play of Double Senses – Spenser’s Faerie Queene by A. Bartlett Giamatti. If you are not familiar with Mr. Giamatti, he was a former professor of English and President of Yale University. He also was the Commissioner of Baseball here in the states!

I read your review of An Introduction to English Poetry by James Fenton. It sounds interesting. Have you read the book The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry? I have always enjoyed his acting, and I’ve read a couple of good things about this book – I just haven’t gotten around to buying it yet…

3:14 am  
Blogger Ishmael said...

I hope my comments, and those of Craig Laughton, will get you back on the blogging bandwagon as well! I have just finished Possession, in which a budding Victorian writer is encouraged to keep a journal as a way to practice her craft. I guess blogging is an activity along the same lines and with a similar end result, although whether I will end up as a football manager (equivalent to Prof. Giamatti in the US) I am not sure!

I know what you mean about the "politicising" of blogs and newsgroups etc. Though I have fairly strong left-wing opinions, and though I am more than happy to shout at the television or radio news, I try to keep these at a low ebb on the web, for the reasons you give.

I'm glad you liked the James Fenton review - I find poets tend to be more sensitive and accessible critics of poetry than traditionally trained literary critics. Certainly I found that by writing poetry I came to understand and appreciate the poetry I studied for my course far more than I did simply by theorising about it in the classroom. And, oddly, since I have stopped reading so much poetry because I am not covering it in my PhD, my writing has stalled. I guess this shows writing and reading go hand in hand and benefit each other. Again, that's a benefit of web publishing that I think universities would do well to recognise.

I haven't read the Stephen Fry book, though now you have mentioned it I certainly will keep an eye out when I'm in the second-hand bookshops. Interestingly, Stephen Fry is appearing on the BBC tonight presenting a programme about manic depression (from which he suffers, believe it or not - and I didn't until I saw his documentary!). There are quite a few clips on the website.

Thanks for all your comments - it's great to know I have an audience, however small!

4:32 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the links to Mr. Fry/BBC. I don’t get the BBC channel, but sometimes the same shows are run at a later date on my public TV station. I will certainly keep watching the listings for the show. Psychological process and matters of the mind have always fascinated me.

I don’t mind “politicizing” if the comments are well thought out and reasonable, even if I sometimes do not agree. An example is your essay on the famous cartoons. I certainly do not have to tell you that authors/writers have always been at the vanguard of social change – costing some their lives or freedom – so maybe sometimes you should just “fire away” if something is bothering you.

3:47 am  
Blogger Sarah Stewart said...

Hi Ishmel, just getting into blogging (3 days)so just getting the hang of things. Have a way to go begore I get my blog looking how I want it to look. Anyway, what I dont understand is: I hate hand writing or even typing notes and keeping a journal, yet love the idea of doing it online in a blog? Whats with that? Really enjoyed reading your blog and seeing how it can be used as a reflective tool for your phd.
cheers Sarah

6:04 am  
Blogger Ishmael said...

I'm not sure I can answer your question either, Sarah! I guess it's something to do with the old cliche of "a problem shared" or "getting it off your chest." I wonder if there might be an interesting research project to be done on the modern preference for blogging rather than traditional journal-keeping.

From reading diaries in the Victorian period, one gets the sense that the diary is treated almost like another person, a friend, and there is a very intimate and conversational tone. Particularly for oppressed groups (women, the colonised), it provided an outlet for feelings that could not be expressed in public, because social circles were relatively small and immobile. Remaining as an adult in the same household, in the same local community, as one was born in (rather than moving away from home as we do today), I guess the diary was the only medium external to those relationships that one could "talk" to without being overheard.

Perhaps today, with our communities so much expanded and so much less intimate, the idea of keeping a private diary is a little alien. In a democracy when everyone's voice has (in theory at least) the equal right to be heard, the fact of keeping a diary suggests a failure to take advantage of the open system in which we live, whereas to keep a blog is precisely to embrace our modern values. Being an "introvert" is something looked down on today; being inward was something expected of women and other suppressed groups 100 years ago.

Sorry, that's turned into a bit of a lecture. Actually, I think there's more to be said, so I may post about the topic you have helpfully raised in a couple of days - thanks for that inspiration!

Good luck with your blog and project - e-mentoring looks to be quite a promising development, and one that is not valid only in the healthcare profession.

12:07 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess the diary was the only medium external to those relationships that one could "talk" to without being overheard.

I think you could, to a certain degree, also include personal letters in this group. Didn’t many of the Victorian women write letters among themselves also as a social outlet?

1:28 am  
Blogger Ishmael said...

Yes, I agree about the letters. It's remarkable how often Victorian scholars suddenly turn up old letters between correspondents that completely change their biographical and textual interpretations of the people involved (e.g. the Bronte letters). Also, having used the example of the Bronte's, the imaginary land the siblings constructed might fall into the category of a private discourse "not for publication."

10:47 am  

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