The Path to the Summit

Diary of a Viva Ninja: Day 23


In the last few days before the big day it is good to take stock, to look back at what has achieved over the course of the PhD. This will, on one level, make the final summit more within reach – for one has built up to it throughout one’s research. Each research output creates a foothold, a handgrip, a clipping point. This is perhaps akin to mountaineering, using a belay system of ropes, hoops and harnesses. Knowing one has made this progress is reassuring – this cannot be taken away from you, whether you make the summit or not. And the chances are you will: whether that will be with or without revisions, major or minor, is well, academic. The hard-earned view will be yours.

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Playing the Role

Diary of a Viva Ninja: Day 22


‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.’ Photo by K. Manwaring

In a Viva a candidate has to play a certain role. It is important to ‘look the part’, and to know when one’s ‘cues’ are… In many ways the Viva is a performance – one that requires focused preparation. Yesterday’s Mock was in many ways a dress-rehearsal. And very useful it was too. It was like rehearsing a play where one cannot remember ‘lines’ verbatim, but nonetheless has to be able to deliver perfectly-crafted responses to the examiners’ variable set of questions. It is a high-wire act, and leaves one rather exhausted afterwards.

Not a great deal to add today as, a. I’ve had to look after my Open University students, and b. I’ve been wiped out after yesterday’s Mock Viva and 5-6 hours on the bike (arriving home 10.40pm after a diversion on the Fosseway…). Still I came back with the experience of the mock under my belt (plus the list of questions asked – very useful), a couple of books on SF and Fantasy criticism, a poetry collection (from a book launch I attended last night) and some photos from the exhibition I visited in the basement of the David Wilson Library on Fairy Tales and Folklore. So, not a bad haul – well worth going up for (not least to connect with my supervisor and internal examiner).

Kevan Manwaring, bardic academic
First impressions count… Presenting at a conference during the PhD. 

And today, on a trivial note, I went for a haircut – for its important to look sharp (and thus feel confident) in the viva. It may seem inconsequential, but choosing what to wear (and how that will make you feel) is all part of stepping through that door on the day of the viva with the right attitude. You need to feel comfortable, and confident. Dressing the part is all part of inhabiting the paradigm you’re entering into. First impressions count too – it is akin to an interview, so dress accordingly. Clothes maketh the man (or woman).

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Swimming with Sharks

Diary of a Viva-Ninja: Day 21

The Mock-Viva

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Come on in. The water’s fine… 

Today I travelled up to the University of Leicester to have a ‘mock-viva’ with my supervisor, Dr Harry Whitehead. This took place in his office and was conducted by Harry himself. Although it was only an hour, it felt like twice as long, and Harry managed to grill me thoroughly – playing both good cop (and mainly) bad cop simultaneously. Having worked with him for the last four years I have got used to his ‘cut the crap’ approach, indeed I welcome it. He doesn’t hold back, but at the same time somehow manages to make me feel positive about the whole thing. His questioning was rigorous and unrelenting – he went for the jugular with a string of ‘nightmare’ questions, in the hope they will prepare me for the ‘worst case scenarios’ of the viva proper. It was intense and I felt pretty wiped out afterwards – as I will on the day, no doubt. But it felt manageable and apparently I acquitted myself well – after a clunky start when I turned a request for a pithy pitch into a flabby answer (!), I warmed up and began to defend myself well. As a rule of thumb the 95/5% rule is a good one – defend your thesis 95% of the time but be willing to accept the odd concession. Wilfully ignoring or refuting these may just result in increasingly vexated examiners. Bear in mind each concession will result in a minor revision, but that’s okay. It would still mean achieving a doctorate, with just an additional couple of months of final tweaking (best case scenario). It’s no different from submitting an article to a peer-reviewed journal and getting thorough, critical feedback; or a manuscript to a publisher and getting back a list of ‘corrections’.  It is the inevitably hurdle of quality control you must be willing to leap if you wish to be validated in that way. We concluded the mock by reflecting upon my performance, and clarifying final details for the day itself. Now I know the particular room and the precise identity of those present (including the chair), it all feels far more real. It is now only less than a fortnight away, but I feel like I have done all the necessary preparations, and with these two live practice sessions (Saturday’s ‘mock-mock’ and today’s ‘mock-viva’) I feel ready to defend my thesis. The main thing to bear in mind is that it is a critical dialogue with two experienced people who have taken the time to read your work closely.  Their objective response to your work (as detached outsiders) could be seen as the first professional review of your work. It may feel like swimming with sharks – but keep your head above water, hold your nerve, and don’t let them draw blood!

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The Strange Worlds of Academe

Diary of a Viva Ninja: Day 21


Walking the King’s Road… Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell  (BBC TV, 2015)

It shall be called “Bottom’s Dream” because it hath no bottom.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare

Undertaking a PhD (and by default, preparing for a Viva) can feel sometimes like one of those impossible tasks set unfortunate protagonists in fairy tales – spinning straw from gold, sorting grains of wheat from a threshing floor, or guessing a secret name. One can never read every book, every article, or attend every lecture, every conference. You have to give it your best shot, of course, but it is an endless task. There is something bottomless about, like Bottom’s Dream. This can easily lead to panic or despair – especially as the Viva approaches. One simply cannot reread everything that has taken four to seven years to sift through. There are strategies – speed-reading, prioritization, etc – but concomitant to that I suggest a folkloric ‘reframing’ of the experience. The fathomless quality of academic research reminds me of the illimitable quality of Faerie – which many people have tried to ‘map’ (through novels, stories, poems, music, articles, critical works, etc) but no-one can claim, in all honesty, to have comprehensively chartered. When a character falls into it, they can fall forever. Entering into the ‘special world’ of Academe (to use the motif of the Hero’s Journey) feels like that – it is a Perilous Realm of unusual potentialities. The unwary scholar may meet allies or enemies (hard to tell one from the other in this topsy-turvy Carrollian universe), behold wonders and terrors, and find oneself returning years later, out-of-synch with one’s friends and family, alone and palely loitering after being cast out by La Belle Académie Sans Merci. In PhD research each article or book or lecture is a potential portal that can devour (a cursory browse and before you know it … hours or days have passed); and each theory a fairy distracting, seducing, leading one astray … each jealously demanding of your attention. If you don’t honour these Theory-Fairies, paying them due tribute in your work, they can become very cross and cast terrible curses upon you. They love to be talked about, appreciated, cited and placated. Leave a saucer of cream for them in your text or pay the price! All those voices clamouring for attention (‘Don’t forget me! Or me! Or me!’) – it’s enough to drive you mad. One simply has to hold one’s nerve. Trust in your thesis. In your original version. Don’t let yourself be drowned out by those giants (or dwarves-on-giants) whose shoulders you stand upon. Academe is a Narcissistic echo-chamber, in love with its own voice. It wants to feel that only it has something important to say – and that anyone outside it is impertinent to have an opinion. Those with the most ‘complete’ mastery of the sources and debates are validated the most, even if they don’t really have anything new to add. While the truly original voices are discredited by simply being ignored, unless they can be critically ‘framed’ and thus assimilated and neutralised in some way. It is very easy to get lost in this hall of mirrors – like the characters of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell walking the King’s Road. You can wander for years if you’re not careful. Lose your sense of identity (or ‘voice’) as a writer. Luckily, my long-time fascination with the Fairy Tradition and delight in paradigmatic transmigration – walking between worlds of different kinds – has equipped me with a workable compass and solid sense of my own mutable, resilient self: a restless constancy that thrives on wildly diverse worlds.

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The Place Beyond the Pain

Diary of a Viva Ninja: Day 20

Black Hole

Set the controls for the heart of the anti-sun…

With two weeks to go, it is wise to consider ‘life after the Viva’. So much effort has been put into preparing for the Big Day, it is easy to forget an ‘afterwards’. It is such a massive point of singularity (for the respective candidate) – I certainly have found it difficult to imagine or plan anything beyond its event horizon. It is a black hole that sucks everything in (though one hopes there will be light at the end of the tunnel ;0). Certainly one has to prepare for questions about future research activity. A good response is to discuss your plans for various articles and papers. In this sense I have been able to think beyond the day of the Viva. I’ve already ring-marked chapters in my thesis for article-material. Shamelessly cannibalising one’s critical commentary does not feel so painful when one has already embraced the disaggregation that is necessary for the Viva discussion. Everything that you slaved over to create a (hopefully) coherent whole has to be broken down and defended in its constituent parts. Sending edited chapters off to fend for themselves in the cruel academic world doesn’t feel so heartless after that. I have even identified potential journals, one of which I am already preparing a submission for (a piece of side-research that didn’t make it into the thesis). And even at this late stage I’ve come up with an idea for a new article – just from reviewing some of the key criticism. There is a sense of one entering the conversation. It takes a lot of effort to get up to speed, but once you’re there (as in training for a marathon until you’re ‘race fit’) it is a little easier to sustain. Certainly I have found over the last month of two, by reading current articles I feel habituated to that rarified climate which I deliberately depressurised from over the summer. When I returned to it, there was a grinding and groaning of rusty brain-cogs, but now everything feels like it is purring along.  As well as the 4 or 5 articles I have planned I have also submitted an abstract to a major conference (Great Writing, Imperial College, London, July 2019), and await the response from a couple of pieces I submitted over the summer. Meanwhile I work on a new novel, one that elaborates upon the ethical aesthetics that I call ‘Goldendark’ (an anthology of fiction or non-fiction of which I would love to edit…). Whatever the outcome of the Viva I don’t plan to stop being actively engaged in my field. In that sense, it feels like I have achieved ‘lift-off’ as a creative-critical writer. Don’t stop me now…

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The Dog Has Its Day

The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers

A Review by Kevan Manwaring

The Gallows Pole

This extraordinary novel exudes sense of place like a slab of gritstone and peat, oozing copper-coloured water. Myers, through his painstaking evocation of idiom and ecolect, brings alive his neck of the woods (Mytholmroyd) and its social history is loving detail. It is the kind of deep mapping that can only be achieved through a slow-burn relationship with a place and its people.

It is a feisty dramatisation of the Cragg Vale Coiners (AKA Turvin Clippers) – a band of desperate, disenfranchised and marginalised Yorkshiremen, who during the time of King George III, ‘clipped’ coins in the Calder Valley area, led by the charismatic and dangerous local tough, the self-styled ‘King David Hartley’, and his brothers. As a historical novel, this obscure fragment of British working class counter-history, might have had limited appeal (although the story of financial shenanigans has a topical resonance – the micro-scale of the Coiners’ fraud has ironic distance when compared to the global, institutionalised, and legitimized banking crisis that came to light in 2008 – when the crooks not only got away with it, but our governments forced us to pay for their Casino-like behaviour with the economy by propping up the morally- and financially bankrupt banking system and issuing in an Age of Austerity),  but the whole episode is not only grippingly-told, but rendered in exquisitely tough, localised prose.

The structure alternates between a vividly retold account of the rise and fall of the Coiners’ fortunes (the memento mori of the title means there are no spoilers here) and Hartley’s prison-based ‘memoir’, written in thick, phonetic dialect evoking his ‘ill-education’ but also the indeterminate nature of English, which had not yet been standardised through widely available dictionaries. Even language had been politicized and monetized, for only the ‘educated classes’ (from wealthy, privileged families) had control over it – through their legalese and use of the available media: the printed word on posters, newspapers, books and bibles. The oral tradition belonged to the poor, where a rich, alternative literacy flowed through the land.

Hartley is depicted in a visceral, unvarnished way – there is nothing civilised about him. He is no Romantic anti-hero (ironically it is one of the chief protagonists, the solicitor Robert Parker, who apparently was a possible inspiration for Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff). Hartley is a brutish Alpha Male who bullies his way into power and through his pack-like influence on his followers, controls his empire through thuggish proto-gangster violence, while at the same time bringing a reversal of fortune to the lives of the Valley folk. As the Coiners prosper they ‘look after their own’, and Hartley is, to local eyes at least, a Robin Hood figure, one who sticks it to the man (‘Clip a Coin and Fuck the Crown’). One can imagine the actor Tom Hardy doing a turn, playing him (as he once did play Heathcliff in full mumblecore mode), but before the film rights are sold (the book has been critically-acclaimed, winning prizes, and providing a breakout hit for the small press, Blue Moose) savour the prose of Myers dark tour-de-force. This is strong beer that is challenging to read at times – for it does not pull back from the ugly struggle of life – while simultaneously being a remarkable paean to the local universe of the Yorkshire moors, which are lifted to almost mythic heights, having a presence and power which bestows upon them a tangible (non-human) character and agency.

Night of the Mock-Mock

Diary of a Viva Ninja – Day 19


Suck up the pain. It’ll be good for you in the long run…

Last night I had what I call (with academic tongue-in-cheek) a ‘Mock-Mock’ with friends. This was in essence a warm-up for the Mock-Viva next week with my supervisor at the University of Leicester, but it was an invaluable experience in its own right. Until that point I had been practising answering Viva questions by myself, but that’s not quite the same thing. I found the process hard to engage with and I must admit doing it in a half-hearted way. It was on my daily ‘to do’ Prep-list but often got pushed to the bottom or left out entirely (I have found the writing of this blog more effective as a way of reflecting upon my Viva journey and, in some cases, articulating responses to possible questions that may come up). Lacking genuine schizophrenic (or actorly) tendencies, it was hard to roleplay both examiner and candidate by myself. I can picture a scenario, leaping between two chairs, pipe and frown in one, nervously sipping a bottle of water in the other … Then, of course, there would be the differences between the internal and external – involving a bifurcation of that role, and let’s not forget the Chair (played by a chair?). Although there is a comic potential there (‘Monty PhDthon’ anyone?) it’s not really effective as a practise session.  Nothing can replace the complex social dynamic and noetic field created by an erudite discussion between peers. And so I asked my dear writer friends to help out. They agreed and I sent them a list of possible questions, inviting them to customize them as they saw fit. A couple had read an early version of the novel, and one, my critical commentary. I didn’t expect them to re/read the whole thing (which weighs in at approx.155,000 words – an 80,000 word Thesis (20K of critical commentary; 60K of the novel) then the rest of the novel in the Appendices. The main thing for me was a chance to practise answering questions in a live situation. Not knowing the order of the questions, or their exact wording, kept me thinking on my feet. To thank them for giving up their Saturday night for me, I cooked them a meal. After we had broken bread, we settled down to business. They started with a couple of icebreakers, which eased me into the process; and then we were off. I consciously made an effort to pause before answering, making some brief notes to help remind me of the question’s focus, and to buy myself some cogitating time. It was tempting just to plunge in, but it paid off to Pause, Reflect, Analyse, Narrativize, and Acknowledge (my Viva acronym PRANA). I managed to do this often organically, but it was useful to have the mnemonic checklist at hand, when I phased out (it went on til 10pm). Other things I needed to bear in mind emerged in the useful feedback session afterwards. Overall, I it was very productive, positive experience. I feel a lot more confident about coping with the actual Viva now. Of course, the practise session was amongst friends, but they role-played extremely well, rarely ‘breaking character’—and the level of questioning was rigorous. They threw in a few ‘nightmare questions’ and interrogated my answers. I certainly didn’t get the soft soap. This ‘tough love’ will serve me well in the real thing. I cannot recommend the value and effectiveness of such live practise sessions highly enough. It made the whole thing far more tangible and achievable.

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