Thursday, 6 December 2012

Interpretations and literature: Unrealistic Expectations?

There’s always some stories from our childhood which stay with us for life. Perhaps it’s to do with the time that you read them, a particular character who you empathise with, or the profound nature of the author’s story-telling skills and biography (or a combination of these things, and more). Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is one which particularly sticks in my mind.  Even now, I can recall the terrible shock and horror I felt as a na├»ve teenage girl, re-reading a certain passage over and over. I was trying to imagine an emotional need to physically be with a lover so intense, that it manifested in the action of digging up their decaying, dead body. How could something be so inspiring and revolting at the same time? When I later visited the famous Parsonage where the Bronte sisters lived all those years ago, I was struck by the thought that perhaps Emily had witnessed this act herself, and had ‘grown’ the story of Heathcliff around it. 

So maybe it’s the emotional aspects that evolve from our imagination that make the best stories, and that’s what authors like the Brontes and Dickens did so well. Indeed, perhaps that's why their stories, 150+ years after they were written, still hold so much relevance for many of us today. 

There’s been so many interpretations of Great Expectations over the decades, it seems like it’s almost become a staple of the annual cinema and TV Christmas outputs. I’ve seen a few stage productions too and each has its own merits, its own specific reading. The fact that the novel is such a longitudinal, generational web of complexity must make it a nightmare for any potential director to even begin to create. There are so many choices, so may interweaving connections that hold implications for intricate parts of each thread of the story, it’s a wonder that there aren’t even more versions of the story than there already are! 

But this latest version, directed by Mike Newell, may have perhaps benefited from someone with a bit more experience with these kinds of complex plots. After all, any of Dickens’ epic novels are more than a galaxy away from the contrived children’s menu delivered by J K Rowling (his previous offering).  But there was something special in this adaptation. There was a depth of emotion in the relationship between the two protagonists that perhaps make it profoundly different. Whether this came from the actors themselves, I’m not sure, but certainly Jeremy Irvine and Holliday Grainger performed an unusually profound, unarticulated chemistry. Estella looked more approachable than many of the previous castings, and there was an emphasis (with flashbacks) to her childish beauty, which made Pip’s attractiveness to her perhaps more believable. The atmospheric contrast of the location settings – especially between the disgusting London streets and the spiritual timelessness of the marshes symbolically captured the impact of their social differences.

As usual, Helena Bonham-Carter stole the show for her eccentricity – this time in terms of her totally believable personification of Dickens’ bitter, twisted, rotting resentment in Ms Haversham. The scenes of the manor house, decaying wedding banquet; complete with rat-invested, tiered-cake and the presence of the black-clothed ‘vultures’ (her poor relations) have been repeated many times before. Sadly the only new thing here was in Bonham-Carter's uniqueness.

Ralph Fiennes appeared at first to be an excellent casting as Magwitch, his blue eyes pursuing some sense of sympathy from the audience, alongside the fear. But there was too much missing in his performance for me. And it wasn’t what was said, so much as what was NOT. This, together with the lack of any real humour in the film were to the two aspects which I was disappointed in. 

At the beginning of the film, when Magwitch grips Pip by his ear asking where his mother is, and Pip truthfully answers “There, sir!” the convict instinctively starts before realising that the boy has pointed to the grave where his family lay. But along with many of these subtle exchanges between Pip and Magwitch, I felt it was rushed. In the book, the convict runs away for a short distance, before realising what the boy meant. Although thoroughly looking and sounding the part, Fiennes didn’t really deliver this character for me, he was almost amateurish in his unresponsiveness. This was perhaps more acutely obviously having watched him in the adaptation of Schlink's The Reader - one of the best films for portraying a book in which so much was left unsaid.

Just because it’s Dickens’ script, doesn’t mean Newell (or even Fiennes) couldn’t have been braver! He should perhaps listen to Morgan Freeman when he described how the first thing he does when looking at a script is delete most of it. Less is more. In this case especially, a facial expression and a moment of suspension is almost always more effective than following a (very) well-trodden narrative (as Helena Bonham-Carter demonstrates marvellously).

My other point about the lack of humour was perhaps predicable bearing in mind the fact that Newell obviously felt obliged to stick carefully to the intricate details of the long storyline. Biddy and Joe are two adorable characters, who come close in the film to delivering some of the tragic comedy of everyday life. But where were Joe's brilliantly observant jokes? and ‘matronly’ Biddy’s children?

The only other time the audience laughed was when Herbert Pocket (brilliantly played by Ollie Alexander) put his fists up for the second time to Pip to imitate his childish fighting. The Pumblechook, the nodding Aged and many other deliberately light-heartedly named characters were missing that certain something, or were missed altogether, in order for us to be whizzed-through the story to get it all in within the time-frame (which nonetheless was quite long). Overall, it was a wonderful effort and included some inspired casting and scenery. The emotional aspects of the social prejudices and the inequalities were dealt with sensitively and as I said, there were subtle nuances between Pip and Estella that I loved. But overall a little disappointing.

Perhaps Great Expectations is in some ways a product of its own success? Has this Dickens been ‘done to death’? Do I myself have unrealistic Great Expectations in expecting the Director to have some imagination in his interpretation? Are the characters just too numerous and the storyline just too complex for all the (in my view) essential elements to come together on the Big Screen? Well, I’ll wait to hear your views….

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

BSA MedSoc - 'Early Career' researchers' event

It was the first time for an ‘Early Career Researcher’ event at the BSA MedSoc annual conference. The theme was (perhaps predictably) ‘Careers in Medical Sociology’ – although fortunately the day was broad enough to still be very interesting to those of us who may feel we are slightly ‘outside’ that particular area… 

Being a co-convenor myself for the BSA PG Forum, I know just how challenging it can be to arrange appropriate speakers, at the correct time, in the ‘right’ space. Here at the University of Leicester I think the committee deserve lots of congratulations – they got the balance just right, in that the content of the sessions seemed to appeal to the inevitably broad audience on the day. The sun was shining and the audience were enthusiastic!

The highlight for me was the chance to meet Kathy Charmaz again, who I last spoke to at the Qualitative Inquiry Congress at the University of Illinois in May (blogged below). Yesterday she spoke at length about her personal journey, and the intertwining of the personal with the academic. This held resonances for me, having just finished reading a chapter by Gayle Letherby in a new book about ‘Theorised Subjectivity’.  In her talk, Kathy recalled the impact of seeing the gathering of Ku Klux Klan in a farm near to her childhood home, her own close calls with death and the effects of chronic illness and sudden death on family members. “When we witness something, it becomes part of our being” she told us and as Letherby (2012) argues, it is crucial that this ‘being’ is articulated in our research. Indeed, I argue in my own research that it is through qualitative research and listening to others’ story-telling  that I can begin to calibrate and reflect on my own biography…

Kathy also talked about the importance of social context and mentors and how significant figures such as Mead, Wright-Mills and Strauss had played a part in helping her in her journey. However, she warned against taking all advice from potential mentors on board: “we must put all suggestions into our own context” She explained “decide what works for you”.
In terms of her own suggestions, and bearing in mind the current difficult climate, she had two main pieces of advice for us ‘early-career’ researchers:

1. Keep publishing! Even if you are not in a permanent, academic job, remain as active as possible and maintain a presence in publications in your area – even if it is informally in Blogs/papers etc.
2. Choose (at least) TWO professional bodies to become/stay a member of. (Hopefully one of these will be the BSA)! This way, you have lots of opportunities to interact with others who share your research interests and could potentially assist with (co)writing or providing feedback on papers etc. Not least this helps retains some passion for your subject too!
In finishing, Kathy reminded us that there is hard work involved in the two suggestions raised above, and that success almost always leads to…. MORE WORK!

Amongst other sessions, Jude Robinson, reader in the Anthropology of Health and Illness in the Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology at the University of Liverpool delivered a talk on ‘Applying for Grants in (Medical) Sociology. I found this very useful so I’ve bullet-pointed the main pieces of advice below:

1. Do not dismiss the ‘smaller’ grants. These maybe unfeasible and/or unattractive to other academics and hence the competition may be less. It may be possible (although Jude didn’t recommend this herself) to fund your/a full time salary from several smaller projects running simultaneously.

2. When writing a funding application be as clear and consistent as possible. Always put the research objectives in bullet points. Link these to the needs of the funding body (and your own). Link them also to the methods. Use a diagram to illustrate your points – even if this is not explicitly asked-for.

3. Bear in mind that you can ALWAYS get something out of a research project for yourself (e.g. a publication). Think carefully about every aspect of the project and what you could potentially get out of it - either now or in the future.

4. Choose your team-members carefully. Those who have a track-record and those you can work with and will bring value to the project – even if it’s as a ‘reviewer’ for the project meetings and outcomes. You may also be able to suggest reviewers for the application (this depends on the situation).

5. It is crucial that you spend some time on explaining the specifics of how the dissemination of the results will take place.

6. When budgeting costs, be aware that work with charities may subsidised, therefore some institutions may waive fees that would normally be associated with running a project. “If you don’t ask you don’t get!”

Jude and Kathy, together with other speakers, including Elizabeth Murray, Professor of Sociology at the University of Leicester, provided an insight into their own interpretations of the informal side of academic life and how (as Bourdieu would say) they have learned to ‘play the game’. 

But now it’s time to crack-on with some work as the conference ‘proper’ will start shortly. Let’s hope it a bit cooler today!

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Qualitative Inquiry: Illinois 2012

It was great that my Supervisor  - Liz Hoult - suggested that I attend the QI conference. Without her enthusiasm for it, I simply wouldn't have thought it was possible to have had an academic conference that was... well more like a religious retreat! It was definitely a very memorable four days.

It was genuinely a gathering of 1600+ academics (including a surprisingly high number of PhD students like me), who shared a 'faith' in a particular type of qualitative research. An holistic, anti-positivist approach. One which I'm still not entirely sure I wholly agree with, but which the philosophy of which I am absolutely behind. Of which more in a bit....
It was a bit of a marathon to get there - but I was very glad to have taken the flight option rather than the train or bus  - which would have put many hours onto the journey. Above is my little plane that only took 30 mins from Chicago O'Hare to Champagne. Can you imagine what it would be like for somewhere like the University of Warwick to have its own airport? There is money in academia out here - that's for sure.
This was the area directly outside the University of Illinois at Champagne. Just like any other soul-less - American town. But the Campus itself was lovely, very scenic and architectural. The only thing I couldn't get used to was that bloody constant whurring noise of the air-conditioning units everywhere - but it was hot. Very hot. About 28degrees on some it was nice to have the big, airy, cool conference rooms.
This was a central study area of the Illini Union Hotel on the central campus. It was used quite alot by the students. Brilliant as a conference centre. Lots of space to chill out inbetween sessions. There was so much going on. Some sessions started at 8am!

On the first and last evenings we had a 'traditional cook-out'. What the Americans mean by this is a 'BBQ' - although of course their paranoid health and safety social consciousness prevents them from actually authentically COOKING any of the food outside (! ) LOL! Sadly it was just cooked in some kitchen somewhere nearby and then brought-out in those horrible stainless-steel drums for people to pile their plates high with stuff. The food was good though. Mainly. Fried chicken and kale (did they cook it in vinegar?) and bread rolls that went stale between the table and when you sat down to eat. But the beer was cold. It is the same food every year apparently - so at least I'll know what to expect if I go again next year (mental note to bring my picnic blanket and mozzy spray).

However, of course it wasn't about the food - it was the people. The atmosphere was great and the music was brilliant too (a local student bank I think). It was a really useful informal getting to know each other opportunity. I met some wonderful people from all over the world who I definitely hope to keep in touch with. So many different 'disciplines' so many people who articulate how alienated they feel from their institutions. Coming together to agree with each other about how they feel about their research. Erm...yes. Exactly, and that's where my problem was. It was a bit too self-congratulatory. It was a bit too 'wonderful' and a bit...well, I hate to say this - American!?!

This was the fountain outside the main campus building.

This was the central corridor of the Illini Union Hotel. Lovely panelling!

The famous statues stating encouraging words for future students.
The Library building opposite the Illini Hotel Union Building.
Even the poster presentations were! Here was one of the more interesting ones about women in academia...

This was the area directly below where my bedroom was at the Illini Union.

But what about the conference itself I hear you ask? Well there were surprising things about it. Like we didn't have any technology in many of the rooms. I had a last minute panic to find a powerpoint projector to present my paper using the Prezi  programme. Luckily, one of the other presenters lived near-by and had a projector that we could set-up, otherwise I would have struggled to have shown people the visuals that were integral to my research (well, for me anyway).

But I felt particularly sorry for the people in the 'Technology' Stream. That the conference organisers didn't make provision for them - or even TELL them - about the lack of technology, was unforgivable. I can't imagine it would happen in any European conference....?

Having said that, and thankfully in stark contrast to the many other academic conference I'd attended over the years - there was a distinct lack of any kind of didactic talks. No boredom here. Absolutely none. People had really used their imaginations. We had researchers acting out a fictionalised script (sometimes using height to explore the inherent power relationships between players). We saw people using card-board cut-outs so that they could explain different perspectives, there were dance performances, symbolic structures like sculptures and even a music event from the (in)famous Ethnogs.

The 'Ethnogs' after their performance.

There was one element of criticality - in the keynote speach by Paul Atkinson from the University of Cardiff. Strange how a British person was chosen to speak to the crowd about how 'too sentimental' some of this research was, and how we all needed to be 'more robust' (whatever that means). As you can imagine, that didn't go down well in a hall full of nearly 2000 QI 'believers'. Even his formal style was a bit cringe-making when I looked around at everyone in their shorts and Birkenstock sandals.... And maybe it was a blessing in disguise that there was no time for discussion afterwards. It may have turned-out like the BSA conference last year when we had an (anti) 'Cosmopolitanisation' turn. There was an air of anger and defensiveness in the air - but it didn't last long -  out in the sunshine, the beer started flowing soon afterwards....

Part of the beautiful campus grounds where the conference took place.

All in all, it was a very inspiring, very exhausting, thoroughly confusing but above all FUN conference. Full of interesting characters (I got to meet Prof Denzin himself - amongst many others) and lots of radical stuff that went well beyond 'testing the boundaries' to actually trampling over them completely and starting again. It felt like a different planet at times - but in a really good way. A planet that I (almost) belonged on... Perhaps a slightly too charismatic, evangelical planet, but definitely one that I can enjoy having a holiday on. A 'holiday conference' once a year. I like that idea....

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Summer's here!

After a fabulous break in Turkey - two weeks of unadulterated sun, sea and fabulous food ;) - (I'm about to post some stuff about my trip on my personal blog) -anyway - I've finally caught-up a bit with my reading. Mostly it was fiction of course (well, I was on holiday), but EVEN (?) this was relevant stuff. (my personal favourite was David Lodge's "How far can you go?" - an hilariously funny account of young couples in the 60's struggling with the rules of Catholicism).

But perhaps the most relevant was Laurel Richardson's Fields of Play, which is kind of a retrospective look at an academic life that is constantly fighting against the bureaucratic hierarchies of the institutional madness that is Sociology in HE. It was thrilling to reading about the impact of Symbolic Interactionism on Richardson's thinking and inspiring to see how successful she'd made crossing the boundaries in such a radical way. A fabulous read and thanks to my supervisor, Liz Hoult for the tip:)

Now on with the transcribing and other stuff - like writing a proper methodology section and perhaps a proper paper which brings together some of this stuff.
The fiction-writer in me is secretly looking forward to the results of my latest 'Challenge' in my local writers' group.

Maybe there'll be some more inspiration there too?

Friday, 1 July 2011

There's something about having a clean and clutter-free room to work in. I can't stand mess. I had a light-bulb moment yesterday, whilst indulging in a (small) packet of licorice allsorts (delish) from my favourite Deal shop The Sugar Boy. It was about this Grounded theory business that has been sitting - unaddressed - at the back of my mind for a year. I've been meaning to look up and 'officially' claim it. But it wasn't until yesterday, whilst reading the brilliant Antony Bryant when I really grasped the connections between what I'm doing and how I'm going to get there (if you know what I mean)....

I've also often (vaguely) thought how relevant Symbolic Interactionism is to my research - for instance the fact that the teachers are 'labelled' with the term 'Grade 3' after they are observed (sometimes by their managers who do actually know them as a person)! There's also lots of other (perhaps more ambiguous) symbolic parallels between my research and these theories as a whole - like the agentic factor i.e. that teachers feel they are 'in control' sometimes and therefore perhaps are more resilient to the stresses of being observed. Also the importance of studying comes through in these theories as central - and of course reflexivity in teaching practice is a crucial point of the observation process - hopefully both for the observed and the teacher and finally the importance of the act of observing itself. The 'Data' and the context are an integral part of the process....

I might be a bit slow, but I've only just read about the connection between these two approaches (i.e. that Strauss came from the same place in Chicago etc. and it kind of adds some weight to what I THOUGHT I already knew (maybe subconsciously)!

Anyway, time to dash and get reading for this meeting. Thought I better add something here as so neglected for a few months. More later....much more to share.

Monday, 14 March 2011

busy month!

Wow - not a single day free in March and not much written on here for a while.
Geneva was a mixed experience - great city. Pictures of the place here . About four of the presentations contained possible relevance to my work...more stuff to follow-up (where do I get the time)?! Their theories of resilience, self-identity and emotions in learning all have lots of overlap with my interests... such as this work from Leeds Met (although focused on students rather than teachers)...

Next month should be a better time - less teaching and events to attend. I'm in London three times in five days next week - although at least being on the train is good reading time...

MMMMMmm onwards (and sidewards).

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

presenting our thoughts

Here's a short powerpoint that may or may not make sense - but it's a start. Enbedding this powerpoint has been a learning experience in itself!