5. Supervision Purgatory

Reading the previous blog entries, I feel like mine is going to be somewhat dull. I have not spent any time in Parliament like our esteemed chair, and nor have I been anywhere near any exciting conferences like our equally esteemed secretary. Instead, my week has mostly been spent in what I like to call ‘Supervision Purgatory.’ This is the amount of time between submitting some work to your supervisors for a supervision meeting, and actually having the supervision meeting itself. Typically, my supervisors ask for work a week in advance to give them time to read it and – presumably – work out exactly what needs changed, challenged, or outright binned. So, the week in between becomes almost like sitting in the foyer outside Lord Sugar’s boardroom in The Apprentice, twiddling your thumbs uncomfortably while you await the ultimate judgement to rain down on you. Hence why I’ve started referring to it as Purgatory. It hasn’t yet caught on here at Newcastle, but I’m hopeful that it might.

Before we go any further though, some context. My name is Matthew Scott, and I’m currently moving into the 3rd year of my project at Newcastle University, which is (broadly) focusing on the connections between technology and geopolitics in the period Eric Hobsbawm defined as the Age of Empire (1875-1914). My research is therefore at the confluence of political and historical geography. Having spent a year sitting in various archives, some more dingy and dusty than others, most of the last six weeks have been spent writing the first chapter of my actual thesis, which has been exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure. Last Friday though, I read through all fifteen odd thousand words of it one last time before sending it off to my supervisors, instantly entering Supervision Purgatory as I did so. With it being 3pm on a Friday, Supervision Purgatory was swiftly abandoned in favour of the pub. But now, sitting at my desk on Monday morning, I feel well and truly back in Lord Sugar’s boardroom, already counting down the minutes until 10am on Thursday when the meeting will take place.

Of course though, I am mostly joking. For one, supervision meetings are genuinely one of the most enjoyable parts of my PhD. My supervision meetings tend to be more like discussion forums, with the debates I have with my supervisors sometimes intense and argumentative but always friendly and constructive. Before I started my PhD, I thought they would be a bit more – I don’t know – hierarchical? Where my supervisors would simply feedback on my work, tell me what was right or wrong, and then move me on my way with some suggestions and my next task. But quickly I learned that they are so much more about working through ideas in a very dialogical and unstructured way, as I’ll talk about a bit further down. And for two, there are always more things to be getting on with. Supervision Purgatory is in reality then a chance to catch up on all the little things you put to one side while you are finishing off a piece of work. Monday begins, then, with a cup of tea, as always. But then it’s quickly onto the first task.

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Cake

Which, weirdly enough, is taking some cake and brownies to various strategic locations across the department. A friend of mine in the PGR office has started doing bake sales to raise money for charity, and as the longstanding office baker I decided to get on board and help. We scurry between the coffee rooms dropping off our treats and their accompanying ‘Honesty Jars’, and then it’s back to the office for a bit of procrastination before the PGF meet over Skype at 11am. I update the committee on the organising of the 2016 Mid-Term Conference in Newcastle next March – which you all need to come to – and before you know it it’s time for lunch. The afternoon passes in a haze of happenings which sums up the varied and often prosaic nature of Supervision Purgatory: making a dent in the ‘to read’ pile (mostly annoying articles on Critical Realism and Discourse Analysis); writing up my minutes from the PGF meeting for my fellow conference organising team; and taking a few books on critical geopolitics back to the library: partly because I’m sick of them after having them erratically strewn across my desk whilst writing my chapter, and partly because some of 3rd year undergraduates on the Geopolitical Thought and Practice module will no doubt be wondering why all of their key course texts seem to be checked out at the same time. By the time all this is done, it’s pretty much time to go home.

Tuesday and Wednesday are similarly uneventful. In fact, the highlight of Tuesday is yet more baked goods. We have an ingenious reciprocal system amongst the Geography postgrads here, where the person whose birthday it’s just been sorts out a cake and card for the next person. This time, it’s an enormous Lemon Drizzle Cake, encased in buttercream, and which looks more like a wheel of cheese than it does a cake. Even the thinnest slice is enough to make most of us full, and the birthday girl seems astounded and appreciative in equal measure. It’s indicative, now I think about it, of the spirit we have here; despite all working on wildly different PhD topics we’re all friends first and colleagues second. Most of Wednesday is spent preparing a presentation. As part of their course, the MA students in Geography at Newcastle do a module called Geographical Imaginations, and as part of that the module leader asks four of the latter PhD students to prepare presentations for a half-day in mid-December that explore and discuss some part of the research process. I’d originally imagined I would do this a few days before the event itself, but the benefits of Supervision Purgatory mean it’s one of those tasks I can do to waste time but which still feels like doing work. Animations, timings, random (but appropriate) quotes from Doctor Who, and even choosing the correct shade of the correct colour for the correct background become more important than oxygen itself during Supervision Purgatory. So important, actually, that I end up staying in the office quite late: tinkering around with the timings on one of the final slides. It’s bitterly cold in Newcastle now, and waiting for buses that don’t seem to exist do nothing to help that fact.

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More cake

Given the late finish the day before, and also that Thursday is the day I get called into Lord Sugar’s boardroom for my supervision meeting, I allow myself a short lie in and arrive at the office at around 9.30am. That leaves enough time to go through the agenda and quickly get a cup of tea before heading down the corridor for the meeting at 10am. If I’m honest, it is a remarkably successful meeting: my chapter is spot on, and is apparently good enough to put to one side until I’ve written my empirical chapters. My supervisor who is an expert on Halford Mackinder tells me my substantial section on Halford Mackinder is a genuine contribution to understanding his corpus and legacy, which is a bit like Lord Sugar praising you on your ability to start and run a computer business. The meeting quickly morphs into a broader discussion of my ideas: always anchored in what I’ve written but perpetually spilling over into different things too. This, for me at least, is what makes supervision meetings so enjoyable. While the practical feedback on my writing is invaluable, the tangents that we go off on along the way always prompt new ideas, different ways of thinking about things, alternative possibilities, and potential new directions to take my work. As 11am comes and goes, we bring things to a close, my head abuzz with ideas. We agree that my next task is to start work on my next chapter; an intriguing piece of my thesis which will chart the hopes and fears of technologically mediated transcontinental connectivity (try saying that after a few drinks) through the life and work of Cecil Rhodes, dreamer and financier of the Cape to Cairo telegraph and railway projects.

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Every book on Cecil Rhodes within a 5 mile radius of my office

One of the first things to do on Friday, therefore, is to head back to the library to pick up the various biographies of Rhodes that are held there. While it’s true the Geopolitical Thought and Practice students are OK now, if any students in History are planning on writing their dissertations on Cecil Rhodes then I apologise in advance. Books haphazardly transported back to the office, the second thing to do is collate together my various notes from Rhodes’ personal archives and begin ordering them a) chronologically and b) by theme in NVIVO. I’ve only just started using this nifty bit of software to do qualitative analysis – I’d previously always coded by hand – but having attended a couple of workshops and chatted to a couple of colleagues who use it I decided to make the switch. It’s been immediately helpful, but it makes me wonder at the same time. Alongside all of this week’s happenings, my ‘bus-reading’ material has been John Law’s After Method: Mess in Social Science Research, where among other things Law argues that our traditional research methods are ill-equipped to analyse the messiness of the world, and that we also actively create, or enact, the ‘out-thereness’ of the realities that our methods purportedly seek to (more or less) objectively describe. How does NVIVO enact particular historical realities in ways different to analysing by hand with pencil and paper? It’s an important question, but one too deep to think about at 4pm on a Friday. On the whole, the week’s been a good one: cake, Skype, more cake, timings and animations, productive supervision meeting, and making a start on my first empirical chapter. Next week will be continuing with that chapter. But until then, the week ends where every week should end. The pub.

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The Crow’s Nest – a fine Newcastle watering hole