Film Focus: Le Hérisson (Achache, 2011)

A return after a small, unplanned hiatus due largely to, well, time running away very quickly and not being able to fill said time productively (must try to remember my own advice in the future!). However, I am back now (I hope) for a lengthier period of time.

One of the best things about doing a PhD in film studies is that I have the opportunity to discover all sorts of new and exciting films to add to my collection. This week, I would like to introduce one of my favourite film discoveries: Mona Achache’s Le Hérisson.

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Image credit: Première

Set in an upmarket apartment block in a wealthy arrondissement of Paris, the film tells the story of Paloma (Garance le Guillermic), an intelligent and exceptionally observant eleven-year-old who, bored and slightly outraged by her middle-class lifestyle, decides to end it all by committing suicide on her twelfth birthday. She begins to document her life and the lives of those around her, exposing the idiosyncrasies and mundane chaos that exists behind closed doors. During this time, she meets the solitary concierge, Madame Michel (Josiane Balasko), and their two stories collide in a beautiful mélange of literature, philosophy, and stubborn documentary-making. It’s a lovely film, and completely captivating in a very simple, elegant way; as the English-language DVD box states: “No car chases, no explosions, no convoluted plot twists – yet it’s utterly captivating simply because the characters are so well drawn and full of humanity.”

However, while the film is worth watching regardless, one of the reasons (unsurprisingly) that it is one of my case studies at the moment is because of its soundtrack, composed by Gabriel Yared. The reason the film’s soundtrack is so interesting for my research links to my earlier blog post on gendered music and the way musical conventions and stereotypes are passed down through generations of composers, often subconsciously. What I set out to do, when I began looking at this film, was explore whether or not the gendered musical stereotypes that developed during the nineteenth century could be found in modern film scores, and how those stereotypes shaped our perceptions of the music and characters in the film.

What I found was that, while the stereotypes may not appear in their purest form, there are still plenty of conventions that crop up in this score. For example, we hear a “feminine cadence” at the end of the “Mademoiselle Paloma” theme, and also at the end of many of the phrases in the piece “Madame Michel.” Both of these main themes are in triple time (meaning it is split into bars of three beats), which increases the opportunity for feminine rhythms and cadences: in bars of four or two (the most common time signatures), every other beat is a “strong” beat, where as only the first beat of a bar in three is “strong.” The pieces are lilting, lyrical, and smooth, and could, I think, generally be considered as “feminine” in sound.

While the score is quite conventionally “feminine”, though, what is particularly interesting are the differences between the two main pieces associated with the protagonists. Where “Madame Michel” has a rich, smooth cello line that moves up and down in a regular pattern, “Mademoiselle Paloma” is much simpler, played on the piano, with a melody that stays largely in the same register – it doesn’t move up and down like the other track. The other piece associated with Paloma as a character, “Dans 165 jours,” is even more contrasting with “Madame Michel:” it is erratic and percussive, with no clear melody line. Additionally, where the melody to “Madame Michel” is low in pitch, the tunes in “Mademoiselle Paloma” and “Dans 165 jours” are much higher. What these differences do, though it may seem obvious when written down, is make Paloma’s themes sound much more youthful than Madame Michel’s themes. The maturity achieved by the rich cello sound is countered by the percussive sounds of the piano and marimba, which have a much younger, more erratic sound.

While all of the music is quite conventionally “feminine,” therefore, these conventions are developed and changed in order to make music that is not only “feminine,” but also “youthful.” What the score does, then, is not only reflect femininity, but the specific experiences of femininity on screen: we hear two different musical motifs for the two different female experiences on screen.

Now, while this may not sound particularly groundbreaking (music reflecting character differences is hardly new), what is interesting, especially for my PhD research, is the fact that the feminine conventions remain, and are simply developed. The music takes old stereotypes and traditions (though whether this is a conscious decision could be debated), and then changes them to create a specific “girl” sound. This method of making traditionally “feminine” music sound youthful by making melodies more percussive and sounds higher can in fact be seen in lots of the films I look at, and suggests that there are techniques developing in score composition for the creation of a specifically “girl” sound. Could it be that in the future, musicologists will write not only of “feminine” and “masculine” modes of composition, but also of “girl,” “boy,” “man,” and “woman” modes? I’ll get back to you on that one!

The soundtrack to Le Hérisson is available on Spotify here.

On Motivation

After my last post on the beginning of year 3, I have had a lot of comments from friends and colleagues, mainly about my planning techniques, and in particular the Gantt chart I previewed in the post. Lots of “you must be so organised,” and “you must love planning,” but also questions like “what happens if you don’t make your target?” or “how do you stay on track?” or “how do you stay motivated?” So I thought I would use this week’s blog post to answer some of these questions.

First things first: I actually find it really hard to stay motivated. Even though there is nothing I would want to do more than this PhD, I don’t always feel like writing/planning/working, and I find it really difficult to motivate myself to continue with the same speed each day.

Secondly: The thing about the PhD is, although it might seem just like a really long time spent doing one thing, there is no way that it ends up being one thing. There’s teaching, workshops, conferences, papers, work, home, PLUS the thesis (maybe that’s in the wrong order…). It can be really difficult to find the motivation to write a chapter section when you’ve already written half a conference paper, taught a seminar, marked some assessments, and sent 30 emails. And then, if you don’t manage to make a target, it can be really easy to just fall further behind, and lack the motivation needed to catch up. I suffer with this problem A LOT. But I do have some methods for combatting it, and staying motivated in my work. So, without any further delay, here they are:

1. Find a work environment that works for you

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I mentioned in my previous post how I actually looked forward to getting started in my new office. This was a great way to kick off the year. I enjoy working in a shared office where I am surrounded by other people working at the same time, where I can benefit from the quiet buzz of productivity, but also occasionally moan to other people if I’m having a bad day. However, I also need to change environment every so often, which is why working from home once a week works for me. Recently I have found it hard to focus in my draughty lounge, so today I have tried moving to the town library where I live: I still save money, but it gives me the drive to get out of the house and get some work done. Forcing yourself to work in an environment you don’t like isn’t going to help your productivity, so try and find somewhere you actually enjoy going every day.

2. Set realistic goalshigh_mountain_4000_pass

The main reason I felt like I needed to make a plan was because everything felt very scary and I didn’t know where to begin at the beginning of the year. By splitting up my tasks and creating realistic and achievable targets, I felt much more in control. Now, rather than saying I will “work on Chapter X,” I tell myself to “write 500 words on Chapter X” for example. Obviously it takes a little bit of forward planning, but I have found it so much more helpful than having a big, open-ended deadline looming over me. The other benefit to setting realistic goals is that the is definitely far less chance of failing!

3. Factor in catch-up time

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Sometimes, things happen. You get sick, something takes longer than you expected, life gets in the way… This is why factoring in time to catch up on anything you haven’t been able to do is important. My catch-up time is at the weekend – anything I haven’t managed to do between Monday and Friday I try catch up on at the weekend. Although sometimes I feel like all PhD students are expected to work seven days a week, I really try not to. And there is nothing better for motivation than the prospect of a work-free weekend! Regardless of when your catch-up time is, it can dramatically reduce stress just by being there.

4. Do something else! (But stay productive)

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Sometimes I find it really helpful to just do something else for a while, but I also find it very hard to start working again once I stop and do something unproductive like browsing the internet or watching TV. This is why, on my big master plan, I include things like seminar preparation, blog writing, weekly planning, etc. That way, I can get away from my main work tasks for a while, but still feel productive and motivated to continue. I also like to keep a list of “break-time tasks” on the go: things like going to the library, doing the laundry, or buying a birthday card for a friend; the things that definitely need doing, but aren’t vital. Then I can still tick things off, even when I’m having a “break.”

5. Listen to your body (and mind!)

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Note: I am NOT very good at this.

Sometimes, you have to listen to your body when it tells you something. If you’re so tired that you’re falling asleep at your desk, it might be worth taking a break and having a nap, rather than trying to force yourself to finish working in a coffee-fuelled stupor. If you’re trying to work but you just can’t concentrate on anything, try and find a reason why: maybe you’re hungry, or thirsty, or need some fresh air. Look after yourself and your work will thank you in the long run (it’s not just a happy coincidence that working from home once a week also gives me extra time in bed).

 

If you have any tips or tricks for staying motivated, let me know in the comments!

 

 

“So What’s Your Plan?” or, Year 3: The Beginning of the End

September 19th marked the beginning of the new academic year here in Exeter, which really only meant one thing: I have officially started the 3rd year of my PhD.

The thing I have found, is that the mystical “third year” (and all that comes with it) seemed like such a far-away milestone that it kind of snuck up and pounced on me when I least expected it. Which kind of meant I began the year like this:

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Everything is immediately more intense: the “what are you doing when you’re finished” questions have already started; the people I started with have all started arriving earlier and staying later in the office; and my first supervision of the year involved giving a verbal account of where I was “going to be” in a month, a term, by Easter, by Summer…

To be honest, it’s all a bit overwhelming. The ability to finish on time is one of those things that I, with my stubborn “I can definitely do this PhD full-time” attitude, am determined to prove to myself, and everyone else too (and let’s not forget that extra time = extra fees), but there are an awful lot of things that can get in the way.

Nevertheless, I have tried my very best to make this very scary rentrée as stress-free as possible, in various ways. So, without further ado, here is a run-down of my last few weeks:

  1. The desk move

I started this year with a change of location as they are refurbishing the area where our old offices were to make the very exciting and shiny Digital Humanities Lab. This means that the contemplations in this blog no longer come from a basement! (The title, however, will remain unchanged). While it seemed, at the time, like a bit of a stress, having to pack up my belongings and then set everything up in a new place, it really has given the sense of a nice, new, fresh start to the year. Plus, the new office is beautiful:

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Just look at the size of that screen!

Having a space to set up really helped me get into the swing of things this year: I was having a bit of a post-summer slump and being able to buy new things (hello, ergonomic mouse and keyboard!) and set up my new digs was a great motivator.

2.  The Big Plan

While I was having my aforementioned post-summer slump, it occurred to me that maybe I needed a plan. I’ll let you in on a secret: I am a BIG planner. I like to be prepared and planned for everything, and I like to have GOALS. That’s why the PhD has been such a challenge. “What are you doing today?” “Oh, you know…writing some stuff.” I like word counts and charts and PLANS. And so, I did that thing I said I would never do, and I made a Gantt chart: Screen Shot 2016-10-12 at 15.07.20.png

I know, I know. It tracks my targets and tasks I know about up until next September (my full-draft goal). I know. But you know what? Ever since I made this monster, I have not had one day off-track. By setting clear, achievable (that’s the important thing) targets, I have created a system that makes me feel much more relaxed. If I have a super productive morning where I meet my target, I then have the afternoon to get ahead (or do something fun *gasp*), or if I feel a bit tired or unproductive in the morning, I know I need to kick myself into gear in the afternoon. It might seem a little over-board but so far, it’s working for me. Plus, as I did this before my first supervision, it meant that when the “where do you want to be in a month/term/two terms” question came, I actually had an answer, and will hopefully be able to actually stick to the plans…!

3. The New Timetable

For the last year and a half, I have been liftsharing with some wonderful people who drove me to Exeter every morning and drove me home at the end of the day. They were amazingly flexible, and it really helped keep the absolutely unbelievable prices of train commuting down. However, the problem with sharing with normal, real people who have normal, real jobs, is that if you arrive at 8am, they would like to leave at 4. This is perfectly understandable when you have a job that pays you for a certain amount of time. But the problem for me was, well, that there simply were not enough hours in the day. Maybe this makes me inefficient. Regardless, I needed more time on campus. So now, I have gone back to getting the train every day. I book in advance to reduce the train fare (and to force me to actually keep to a timetable), and work from home every Wednesday to keep the cost as low as possible (and to allow me half an hour extra sleep each week). It means I have to be super organised with my plans, because my tickets are purchased 12 weeks in advance, but also means that I have very little inclination to leave early, given that they are already paid for.

 

All of this, while a little scary (OK, a lot scary), has made the transition into intense-writing-must-submit-on-time mode a lot easier. Coupled with the excellent company of my office mates who continue to provide laughs, encouragement, and refreshments, I feel good about this year. But maybe don’t ask me how it’s going too often.

If you have any tips for staying sane during the last year, or any stage of your PhD, let me know in the comments!

 

Can Music Be Gendered?

A lot of my research until now has focused on popular music and songs, but recently I moved on to thinking about original composition and how scores can contribute to character identity, and how music can suggest certain traits or identities to the spectator. We all know that music can evoke different things for listeners, and when we listen to music we often create images in our head to go with it, but what I’m particularly interested in, is whether there are some associations or conventions that are so engrained, that we can’t escape them.

Psychoanalysts have long equated music with a particularly feminine mode of communication, drawing comparisons between music and the sounds we hear when in the womb. Within music itself, though, there are other features that are identified as either “masculine” or “feminine.” For example, low, loud, and harsh sounds (such as brass instruments) are more “masculine,” and quiet, fluid and high sounds (such as flutes and harps) are more “feminine.” [1] These sonic markers play into existing gender differences and stereotypes (such as differences in voice pitch), in order to communicate better with the listener, to signify certain characters or feelings. So far, this all seems quite basic: different musical sounds = different characters, feelings, and traits. What, however, about the actual structure of the music?

In the nineteenth century, at the height of the Romantic period, the BNIMs (Big Names in Music) of the time were predominantly white, male, and German (think Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Bruch, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Strauss…).* These were big, burly men, writing big, burly music that asserted their masculinity and was in no way like those effeminate, boyish Classical composers of the previous century.** You could say that these guys were the OG machismos. Or you could not.

During this time, composers’ approaches to writing music changed. The sonata form (the “purest form of music”) is often used by musicologists as a guide for tracking changes in composition style, and reveals certain things about the nineteenth-century approaches. For readers who may not be familiar with “sonata form,” I can highly recommend the BBC GCSE Bitesize page for a quick explanation. While, in the Classical period that came beforehand, the focus in sonata form was on tonality, in the Romantic period more emphasis was given to the musical themes present in each section: rather than adhering to strict rules about the cadences and chords used, Romantic sonatas instead emphasise character. Thus, the focus moved from tonality to two oppositional themes. And what do you get when you have binary oppositions? You got it. It became common to refer to the first theme (usually rhythmic, fast, and more dissonant) as “masculine” and the second (more lyrical and slower) as “feminine.”

Not only were the themes gendered, however, but this was also the time of the birth of the “masculine” and “feminine” cadence, essentially describing the difference between a phrase than ends on a strong beat (masculine) or a weak beat (feminine). What these labels do, is perpetuate the stereotype that masculine = strong (and ‘normal’), and feminine = weak (and ‘abnormal’). Handily, these labels aren’t used so much nowadays (thanks to critics like Susan McClary who has written extensively on gendered musical discourse [2]), but for a long time they were the normal way of distinguishing different rhythmical cadences.

However, what does this have to do with how we perceive music when we listen to it? It would be ridiculous to suggest that all music listeners have this level of knowledge about musical form, and can therefore identify certain cadences or other musical features. However, we have already mentioned how certain sounds and instruments do carry certain associations and qualities, and this isn’t limited to the (perhaps obvious) high = feminine, low = masculine associations that I talked about at the beginning of this post. In fact, according to a study by Paul R. Farnsworth, J.C. Trembley and C.E Dutton of non-musically trained subjects, musical conventions and traditions regarding gender are often identified on a subconscious level by music listeners. [3]

Film music is well known for taking inspiration from the nineteenth century tradition, and it is through these traditions, however subconscious, that conventions become standards. A film composer might take inspiration from Romantic opera, therefore using their gendered codes of composition for a female character’s theme. This is then familiar to the listener, who has heard that type of music refer to female characters before. But what this also does is reinforce that associational link: the music both plays into tradition, and perpetuates it. Thus we have a specifically gendered musical language that, while we may not agree with it or consciously subscribe to it, is nevertheless present in modern compositions.

What I am trying to find out, currently, is how film composers play into these conventions, and also how they are adapted for different character types, specifically younger girls as opposed to older women. I’ll let you know if I come to any conclusions!


*There are an awful lot of other, non-German, Romantic composers who could very easily be thought of as BNIMs, but there simply would not be time to list them all.

**This in no way reflects my own opinions about the Classical composers. It should also be added that quite a lot of these Romantic composers went on to write particularly effeminate music. Except Beethoven. He was always manly.

 

[1] See Leo Treitler, “Gender and Other Dualities of Music History.” Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality  in Music Scholarship. Ed. Ruth A, Solie, Berkeley and London: California UP, 1993, 23-45.

[3] Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality. Minnesota and Oxford: Minnesota UP, 1991; “Reshaping a Discipline: Musicology and Feminism in the 1990s.” Feminist Studies 19.2 (1993): 399-423; “Constructions of Subjectivity in Schubert’s Music.” Queering the Pitch. Ed. Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood and Gary C. Thomas. New York and London: Rutledge, 1994. 205-234.

[3] Paul R. Farnsworth, J.C. Trembley and C.E. Dutton, “Masculinity and Femininity of Musical Phenomena.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 9.3 (1951): 257-262.

 

Conference Season 2016: 3 – Femmes Créa(c)tives

A very overdue post, this one, finishing my conference season trilogy! This post is a little different, as I was very fortunate to not only participate in the conference, but to co-organise it too. This was my first attempt at organising a conference, and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone starting out on the academic road.

The Conference: “Femmes Créa(c)tives: The Life and Work of Francophone Women in the Arts and Media,” 13-14 June 2016, University of Exeter, UK. Organised by yours truly (!) along with my wonderful colleague, also a PhD student at Exeter. The conference started as a very low-key idea that gradually became larger until it was actually reality, and we were very fortunate to be able to organise such a successful event. The conference aimed to bring together scholars from a variety of disciplines to explore and celebrate the role of women in the arts and media from around the French-speaking world.

The Challenges: There are far too many to list here! Obviously the challenges that come from organising an event are different from those that come from participating in one, and I think the main challenges are always caused by other people! You can be as organised as you like, but in the end you can never be prepared for everything. Budgets constantly change, funding options vary, logistics and room bookings are always tricky (especially in a University!), and after all the organising you can’t guarantee even how many people are going to come. One of the most difficult thing for this conference was the size: it was quite a small, intimate event, but included some very well-established academics from all over the world, which made for animated, passionate discussion, as well as extra pressure, both for presenters and for us as organisers. Plus money-matters, of course. The conference was now over three months ago and we are still waiting for some financial elements to be finalised!

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My Paper: I should start by saying that I was not, originally, supposed to be giving a paper at this conference; as organisers, we thought that we should probably not give ourselves too much to do in one go. However, as always, things change: attendees’ plans change, people get ill, get pulled into last-minute departmental panels, decide to go elsewhere, I could go on forever. We were particularly unlucky, with around half of our original attendees dropping out before the conference, and so we had to step up and present in order to avoid not filling the panels…! Therefore it was ever-so-slightly rushed and last minute. However, I did an adapted version of a paper I delivered last year, so it wasn’t too bad. My paper was entitled “Shine Bright Like a Diamond: Rihanna and the Transnational Experience of Girlhood in Sciamma’s Bande de filles (2014),” and discussed how artists included on soundtracks (in this case, Rihanna) can trigger memories or associations in a film spectator, thus inflecting meaning onto a film scene.

Responses: Again I had some good responses to my paper, with some nice comments and some suggestions for improvement, but we also had an incredible amount of good feedback about the organisation of the conference too. It really was so amazing to have well-established academics from Europe, America, Australia, and the UK praising our skills, especially as we had not done this before.

What I Learned: That advertising a conference is hard, even when you mass-post to lots of lists and websites; that sometimes, even when your budget and your receipts suggest that you have underspent by £60, you can actually have overspent by £100; that the Exeter Humanities Grad School team is incredible and offers the most amazing support; that saving a good amount of money for the wine reception is a very good idea; and that it will be a long time before I ever organise my own conference again.

 

 

 

Conference Season 2016: 2 – Songs in Cinema 2016

I’ve recently come back from a research trip in Europe (more on that later), part of which I spent at my first ever international conference in Belgium. Here’s a round up of my experience.

The Conference: “La Chanson dans les cinémas d’Europe et d’Amérique Latine, 1960-2010” (Songs in European and Latin American Cinema, 1960-2010), 28-30 April 2016, Belgium. The trilingual (French, Spanish, and English) conference was organised jointly by the Université Libre de Bruxelles, the Université Catholique de Louvain, the Universidad de Buenos Aires and the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique, and took place over three days at all three Belgian institutions.

The Challenges: The conference was, as I’ve said, the first international conference I have ever attended. It was tri-lingual, but with the majority of speakers giving presentations in French (which I speak), and Spanish (which I definitely do not), which obviously posed its own challenges. During the first and last days, there was an interpretation booth, but only to translate from French to Spanish and vice versa. As well as the obvious language barriers, there were some very well-established academics from across Europe attending, which was…intimidating.

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My Paper: A lot of the papers at the conference were very serious, or at least they seemed serious to me, because my paper was about LOL, a very recent, very teen film (I talk a little bit about it in this post). The paper was adapted from a section of my thesis which, unlike my experience at the PGR Conference a few weeks earlier, meant that I felt like I knew what I was talking about (sort of). My paper discussed the use of pop music in LOL from two angles: firstly, the music is English-language, which means it appeals to (and even comes to represent) young people and youth listening practices; and secondly, the music is not actually that contemporary, which links these young people to older listeners, such as adult audience members or the parents represented on screen. The music elicits nostalgia, which reminds older listeners (both on and off screen) of their own adolescence, helping to create links between the two generations.

Responses: I had a lot of positive responses to my paper, which was both a relief and very nice, although some of the questions were difficult to answer. This was definitely not helped by the language differences (I gave my paper in English). I had some very nice responses though, especially over coffee afterwards, and someone even asked for a copy of my paper so that they could cite me.

What I Learned: That it is important to talk to people and make the effort to chat when you are in a big room full of people; that understanding Spanish is difficult and nearly impossible to follow; that listening to French and looking at Spanish slides is tiring and hard; and that three days is a long time, but also a good amount of time to discuss lots of different ideas.

Let me know your experiences of international conferences in the comments!

Conference Season 2016: 1 – Exeter Humanities PGR Conference 2016

It seems that Spring is finally upon us: the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and conference season has begun. While there are conferences throughout the year, there are always more in the spring and summer months (fewer teaching commitments, fewer students on campus, better weather…). This year, I’m taking part in a few different events across the season, so I thought I would do a series of blog posts about the conferences and my experiences. First up, the annual College of Humanities PGR Conference at Exeter.

The Conference: Exeter Humanities PGR Conference, 18-19 April 2016, University of Exeter. The (free!) conference is organised annually by a committee of students with support from the excellent Humanities Graduate School Office team, in order to allow Postgrad Research students the opportunity to share their research in a rigorous, but also more friendly, academic environment.

The Challenges: The conference is interdisciplinary: a word that always makes me think “great!” but also feel like this:

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The biggest fear I have with an interdisciplinary conference is that I’ll either look stupid, or overly pretentious (and I’m not sure which one is worse). This conference also comes with the challenge of presenting to your friends and peers, as well as to other people you don’t know: this might sound like a good thing, but I would much rather stand up in front of a crowd of people I don’t know, than try to validate myself in front of my very intelligent friends who I have to see again tomorrow.*

My Paper: I took a risk for this conference and presented on something entirely unrelated to my PhD research (much to the chagrin of my supervisor, I think…). Instead, I decided to spend a little bit of time exploring a secondary interest of mine, which is online digital communities, particularly the YouTube community. My paper introduced the concept of the YouTuber and the networks that make up the YouTube community, and approached the content of these YouTubers from a gendered perspective, asking whether or not we can read the content produced by female YouTubers as feminist or empowered. I also took this opportunity to try a more informal, but more engaging (at least I hoped it would be) conference style: I didn’t write out my paper in full, and relied much more on my PowerPoint slides to get my meaning across.

Responses: The risk with Work in Progress papers (I really haven’t worked on this topic for long) is that there are fewer concrete conclusions, which opens up a lot of gaps for people to take issue with. Luckily, none of my questioners were too forceful! I had some tough questions, but they led to interesting discussion and opened further avenues, rather than making me feel inadequate. Overall, I was overwhelmed by the great responses I had, both in the questions and after the panel, to the paper, the potential project, and also to me and my presentation style. I had some really lovely comments from friends, other members of the PGR community, and from academic staff, and it was great to be able to spark conversations and discussions.

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What I Learned: That it’s good to have other interests, and it’s OK to talk about something that’s not from the PhD every once in a while; that works in progress are good, and conferences (particularly to other students) offer the chance to explore avenues and possible conclusions that you might not have thought of before; that it’s OK to say “I’ve never thought about that before – I will definitely look into it” if you don’t have a concrete answer yet. I also learned, however, that it is probably a good idea to not launch into a secondary project and present it as a paper a) just before lots of other conferences where you’re presenting different research, and b) on the same day as your upgrade panel. But that’s a story for another blog post.

If you have any similar experiences of conferences, do share in the comments below!

 

*I should point out that my friends are all brilliant and very supportive. But the fear still remains.

 

How do you solve a problem like attendance?*

*You’re welcome for the ear worm.

This term, I have had the excellent opportunity to teach on a first year French film module. I have led all three seminar groups, and even had the chance to do some lectures, which is a great opportunity in itself for a PhD student. I have absolutely loved leading seminars, and I have witnessed some really great discussions in response to the module material; however, attendance has consistently been an issue. It’s something that affects a lot of the other teaching staff I know, and so I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect a little on the issue and what I’ve learned.

At the end of the day, you cannot force grown adults to turn up to seminars or lectures if they don’t want to attend, and that is, after all, what university students are (however much we may like to believe otherwise). But that doesn’t mean it feels like less of a kick in the teeth after you’ve spent hours preparing presentations, resources, seminar activities etc., and only half of your students turn up. There are 53 students registered on the module I teach, and each week I have only printed 30 seminar handouts. I always have spares left over. By the same token, why, when you’ve spent those hours preparing, should you then spend yet more time chasing the students who didn’t turn up? It can be just as disheartening to receive no reply (or worse, an “oh sorry, I forgot” email).

I can’t claim to have attended every single lecture or seminar in the time I was an undergrad, and if I did I would be lying. But something I can claim is that any time I missed a seminar, I would email the seminar leader to give my apologies in advance. And if it wasn’t possible to do in advance, I would always email as soon as I could afterwards. This seems like common courtesy to me, but sometimes I think students feel that if they don’t email in advance, maybe we won’t notice that they’re not there.

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Note: we do notice, and we do care.

In a time when the “value” of teaching is being constantly monitored (here’s looking at you, TEF), when universities are under more and more pressure to prove what that £9000 is paying for, and when students, especially in the humanities, bemoan how few teaching hours they receive each week, but still don’t turn up to seminars, it can seem a bit like fighting a losing battle.

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But, for all the frustration that comes from half-empty seminars (especially when you’re in a room that seats 30), it’s not all bad. I’ve learnt a lot of things during my time teaching, and have learned to reflect on how to overcome the difficulties presented by a lack of attendance, rather than let myself get too disheartened. So, without any further delay, here is my list of things I’ve learned about attendance:

  1. Don’t take it personally.

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The first time only 1/3 of my students turned up to a seminar, I immediately thought it must be my fault for being such a crappy teacher. As such, I was so worried about making the seminar the best it could be for the students that did turn up, I’m pretty sure I just garbled about nothing for the majority of the hour and convinced them all that I was insane. Once I’d talked to other teaching staff and graduate teachers about it, I realised that it wasn’t just me; students don’t turn up for anybody. That might not actually be better, but at least it’s a college-wide problem, and not an individual one.

2. Focus on the ones that do turn up

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This links to point 1. I have some students that have turned up to every single seminar, some even when they’re unwell. This could be because they think their attendance is reported, or it could be because I’m doing something right. I like to think it’s the latter.

3. Don’t waste money on resources

The first week of the module, I printed enough handouts for every single registered student to have one, plus a couple of extras because, you know, it never hurts to be prepared. Imagine my disappointment when I then had to throw nearly half of them in the recycling. It’s better for morale, and the environment, to be realistic about attendance figures.

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4. Adapt to group size (and dynamic)

The most important thing I’ve learned is to be flexible. There might be times you’ve planned an excellent, all-singing, all-dancing group work activity, but then when you get to the seminar, only the six quietest students have turned up. Adapting to different group environments is an excellent skill, and while I’ve definitely not mastered it yet, I have got much, much better. If an activity isn’t working, don’t force it: there is nothing more awkward, and if there’s one thing I hate, it’s awkwardness in the classroom. The students that have turned up are there to learn, so adapt to their learning styles and make sure everyone gets something out of it. That way, you can’t lose.

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Anyone else out there have any attendance-related tips (or trials)? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

 

 

Genre Trouble

I’ve been thinking a lot about film genre recently. I’m quite interested in general in genre, and genre hybridity, thinking about the ways we classify films and literature and the criteria for inclusion within specific categories, but the main reason for my recent preoccupation with genre classification comes from the problems I have encountered with my corpus deciding which exact genre some of these films actually fit into.

All of the films I write about are linked through their subject matter: adolescent girls and their experience. Therefore, I spend a lot of my time reading about “youth film,” and, subsequently, “teen film.” But, the problem is, are these films really “teen”?

Catherine Driscoll writes that there are “narrative conventions that help to define teen film,” including “youthfulness of central characters,” “intense age-based peer relationships,” “conflict […] with an older generation,” and “coming-of-age plots”(Teen Film: A Critical Introduction 2). So far, so good. Driscoll also highlights that teen films are usually “for adolescents” as well as about them (3). Here is where I start to encounter some barriers when trying to define my corpus of films as “teen:” all of these films probably have been watched by adolescents, but are they specifically aimed at them? With films like Lisa Azuelos’s LOL (Laughing Out Loud) (2008), the answer is undoubtably yes: this film feels like a teen film (they even made an American remake in 2012 starring Miley Cyrus).

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With others, though, it becomes more difficult. Take Rebecca Zlotowski’s Belle Epine (2010), for example, or Katell Quillévéré’s Suzanne (2013): both of these films revolve around the lives and experiences of adolescent girls, but are they aimed at an audience of a similar demographic? The immediate answer would be no: there’s none of the colour, the off-beat font, the teen fan forums, like there is with LOL. Just look at the posters, and the difference is clear:

As well as narrative conventions and audiences, though, I think there is also a particular “feel” to what we identify as a “teen” film. Think about films like Legally Blonde, or the numerous sequels to American Pie – these are not actually about teenagers, and yet they are almost definitely “teen films.” LOL, and others like Une semaine sur deux (Calbérac, 2009), definitely have this ‘feel.’ Others, though, like Suzanne or Belle Epine, don’t have this: they do not ‘feel’ like teen films. Maybe it is the explicit joy we expect to come with a coming-of-age narrative, or maybe it’s something else; regardless, these films do not have the ‘teen’ feel we expect.

The films I study predominantly fit into these two categories: those that we would immediately classify as “teen,” and those we wouldn’t, which usually have a more auteurist, debutant-style aesthetic and feel. However, of course, the lines are blurred. Take Céline Sciamma’s La Naissance des pieuvres, for example: it feels everything like a French auteurist film (and indeed, it was Sciamma’s directorial debut, and started out life as her final project from FEMIS, the prestigious French film school); but it was marketed with a distinctly ‘teen’ audience in mind: the film had its own MySpace page, and was aimed at the youth market prior to its release.

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So, the question, really, is how do we begin to classify these films? What happens when a film is marketed at a teen audience, but either a) doesn’t fit into the narrative definition of a ‘teen film’, or b) doesn’t itself ‘feel’ like a teen film? Maybe the easiest answer is simply, we don’t. We classify these films instead as “comedies,” “dramas,” “romance” etc. Or, maybe, we can start to open up a new understanding of these youth films. Perhaps these films represent a changing landscape in film to discuss youth issues not exclusive to a youth audience. Part of my research aims is to prove that these films in fact function in very similar ways, specifically with their use of music: regardless of the ‘intended audience’ or genre classification of these films, they all present similar representations of adolescence and its navigation. Perhaps this is more a question that should be directed at the Academy as a whole, and its reluctance to critically evaluate anything deemed “popular.”

I think that sometimes, the act of classifying films into a particular generic box limits their scope: perhaps what we really need to do is move beyond this mode of classification, thinking  about how these films articulate the experience of their characters and alter the subjectivity of their spectators, rather than their aesthetics or narrative form.

 

The Self-Funded PhD: Is it Really Worth it?

One of the questions I often get asked, but really hate answering, is “who are you funded by?” The vast majority of PhD students I know are funded by various institutions, research councils, or organisations, so I understand the assumption. However, with bigger and bigger cuts to funding, and the re-organisation of how funds are allocated (from last academic year, AHRC funding was largely given to groups of universities, or consortia, for allocation to new starters only, thus removing the opportunity for second-year students or above to obtain it), the numbers of self-funded students is rising.

It doesn’t stop the questions, though, or indeed the looks of shock/horror/awe when I tell people I’m self-funded.

“How do you do it?” they ask. “Why didn’t you get funding?” “How do you time manage?” “Is it really worth it?” So I thought I would write a blog post about my experiences, and what consequences my status as self-funded has had.

When I was first applying for my PhD, I read article after article, forum after forum, that essentially said “no funding, no point.” What is the point in doing a PhD if you’re not being paid for it? If a university doesn’t believe in your project enough to fund it, why bother doing it? And so I went through the application process thinking that if I didn’t get funding, I wouldn’t do the PhD. I would stop, work for a bit, and try again. Sounds simple enough.

The thing is, is that by the time I had gone through the arduous and at times frantic application process, I was so invested in my ideas that there was nothing else I wanted to do. I had no interest in spending time on anything except this project. I was so confident in my ideas, that I felt sure the funders would be too.

Unfortunately for me, that wasn’t the case. I was devastated when the rejection came through. I had put every bit of effort I had into refining my proposal and was all but ready to start, and then suddenly it was all taken away from me in one, small paragraph.

So, I had three options: 1) try again a year later, 2) do it anyway, or 3) throw in the towel and give up. For a while, the third option seemed favourable. But then I realised that there was nothing I would rather do, so I decided to start the course.

I am in an incredibly privileged position: thanks to the wonderful support of my family I was able to start as a full-time student, rather than part-time. I understand that this is not a privilege that most people get, as the costs are just too high, but being able to go into a full-time course, with the added benefits of council tax exemption, desk space provision, a full-year’s quota of printing credits, and the generally, in my personal experience, greater feelings of community that come from being full-time, has made all the difference to my experience as a student.

But, it is still hard. I work a part-time job whilst studying, fortunately at the university with incredibly flexible working hours, but when, as one member of staff so lovingly reminded me, you should spend “90% of your time on the thesis. Everything else can wait,” time management can sometimes be difficult, as can the feeling when you’re having a productive half-hour but have to go to work, subsequently breaking up the day and sometimes losing track. Aside from tuition fees and general living costs, research is expensive. Conference registration, travel, printing, books (and, in my case, French films that aren’t available in the library), stationery, it all adds up. I’ve become very good at living on a budget, but it’s tiring sometimes having to turn down invitations from friends who have long since graduated and entered the “real world,” or having to meticulously manage my spending.

Sometimes people ask me if being self-funded will make it harder for me to get employed: if the funders didn’t believe in my PhD, why would they believe in me as an employee? First of all, there is no obligation to state whether or not your PhD was funded on your CV; I attended some departmental interviews here at Exeter two years ago, and only one of the applicants stated their funding on their application. Secondly, I genuinely believe that a lack of funding does not reflect the quality of the research; it simply reflects that, at the time of interview, you were not as strong as the other [insert small number of available studentships here] candidates. Getting a job is hard for everyone at the end of the PhD; I don’t think a self-funded PhD is a deciding factor in an application.

So yes, it is difficult, frustrating, and sometimes downright miserable. But at the end of the day, what research degree isn’t? There is still nothing else I would rather be doing (except maybe sitting on a beach somewhere sipping margaritas… but that’s not a viable career choice), and as long as that is true, then it is worth it. My advice to anyone considering self-funding would be to think about practicalities: if you are in a position to start, be it full-time or part-time, (and also realistically still going to be in a position to continue in a few years’ time), and you are passionate about your project, then do consider the self-funded option. If you’re not so sure it’s viable, then there is no shame in taking some time out and re-applying at a later date when you have more savings.

In short: yes, my PhD is definitely worth it. I just might pass on that fancy conference dinner or cocktails after work…

If you have any experiences of self-funding, part-time study, or anything else relating to this, let me know in the comments!