29 Oct
Wordle from the final text of my dissertation.

Wordle from the final text of my dissertation.

I finished my Masters. Completed my dissertation on a laptop trembling on the verge of implosion, handed it in and…. even the expected anticlimax (no mark or overall grade for several months) was anticlimactic. In a few days my library card runs out and I’m back to being a pleb, begging for articles on #ICanHazPDF. In lieu of any tangible sense of achievement, I only have reflections on the experience.

I think I made the right choice of course. Not only because studying bang on the doorstep of work makes it easier to get to the library in the lunch break; I’m glad I didn’t choose  distance learning. There’s something about the immanent presence of other people that makes learning easier for me. People to bounce ideas off, to contradict , to find out more about, with different backgrounds and opinions, make all the difference. There were only a couple of places this didn’t work. The core course was taught by ten tutors in rotation, so none ever really got as far as getting the hang of the classroom dynamic; one other course was taught lecture-style rather than seminars. Facing front, we could hardly see each others’ faces, let alone start conversations.

I’m also glad that I chose an interdisciplinary course rather than a ‘museum studies’ course. The genesis of the Birkbeck course seems to have been a shared interest in something like ‘the problem of museums’ across several departments, rather then being rooted in archaeology or curation (although a lot of it was broadly in the area of art history). It didn’t feel like a museum career course as much as some others I looked at. Nevertheless, as part of the core course we did have to sit through a couple of slightly painful practical sessions on ‘how to get a job in a museum’. If I wanted to ‘get a job in a museum’ I wouldn’t start by doing any kind of museum course – I’d start by learning to do something useful that a museum needs, like being a press officer, a marketer, an educator, a conservationist, or even a website editor.

I was lucky enough to be able to do a module at UEL; Birkbeck organised the exchange of students with another new kid on the MAs-in-cultural-heritage block. How different two London universities can be. From the 19th century cosiness of Bloomsbury to new buildings on freezing docksides, rattled by planes landing at City Airport every few minutes. UEL felt part of a different London: less affluent, less white, less secure. But classes were twice as long, discussions longer and more divergent; sometimes watching entire films. Tutors who were more politically committed, practicing artists. Even the idea of ‘visual culture’ seemed to mean something different, more steeped in an explicitly political legacy of cultural studies, than it did at Birkbeck.

There were some crossovers with my day job – I wrote module essays on the Wellcome Library’s collection of AIDS posters, and on video games. A few colleagues very kindly read chapters of my dissertation. But in most ways, my professional and academic worlds remained separate. Something about being a student made me keen to present at academic conferences, and to extend my thinking about my work into areas closer to my study. In other ways the situation that Suse Cairns describes herself in, the critically engaged museum outsider, was reversed for me – attached to an institution I have a solid but non-academic authority to speak or write about my professional practice; being a postgraduate student changed a lot of my feelings and motivations, but added little to any authority I have to talk even about my own work.

On a mundane level the technology of study had changed immensely since I was last writing academic essays; and yet a lot hadn’t. Literature scrobblers like Mendeley and bibliographic management tools like Zotero make a huge difference to discovering and managing sources, but when it comes to spitting those sources out into footnotes and bibliographies, the limitations of referencing seemed painful. Such fine distinction between different types of printed journal and so little between vastly varying types of online sources (and a feeling, somehow hammered in an academic induction, that tutors would regard too many URLs-as-references as a sign of laziness). I spent a lot of time wishing I could just add hyperlinks to the text.

Writing the dissertation was a lonely business. Weeknights reading until my coffee-bulging eyes defocused; Saturdays spent spreading my papers out across a meeting room at work instead of playing with my son. (Protip for Bloomsbury-based students: work in the Wellcome Library. It’s spacious, peaceful, quiet and free to join.) Academic writing itself has both pleasures and pains. Precision requires discipline: you can’t afford to gloss over fuzzy thought with clever language; but few kinds of writing are worse than essays that have never been read aloud to hear how they sound. One of the biggest pains is that the writing you try so hard at is ultimately read by so few people.

Given the tedious way in which some quarters  of academia never stop banging on about it, it pains me slightly to say this, but twitter was really useful. People answered questions, responded to provocations, lecturers shared reading lists, artists put me in touch with curators, and researchers shared articles I didn’t have access to. An academic I have still never met in person gave me the most useful and detailed feedback on a chapter I had. Sometime I should make a separate list of people that I follow just because I quoted them in essays (based on what they actually tweet, it would be a very odd list).

I find myself asking what difference it’s all has made. I’ve learned a lot, including how to study; but study is really only its own end. Though it wasn’t really intended to, it might have opened up new career possibilities, even if I’m not sure exactly what. I met many interesting people, both students and tutors, and got a chance to put on a film show, which is always fun. Now, after nearly two years, I can read novels again without either guilt or impatience. In the first week after I submitted, I found myself wandering around bookshops and libraries, looking for things to be interested in next. Processing, insects, microbiological images all suggest themselves. But no more essays just yet.


2 Responses to “Finished!”

  1. Suse Cairns October 30, 2012 at 11:09 am #

    Congrats on completion, Danny! I cannot even really imagine life post-PhD yet (bookshops! Novels!); but you do make it sound enticing. There is so much in here I respond to (I too follow people on Twitter just because I have quoted them in essays). But I am most interested in the fact that you don’t feel that your study has given you more authority to talk, even about your own work as museum insider. It makes me wonder whether authority is a myth?

    • Danny Birchall (@dannybirchall) October 30, 2012 at 11:26 am #

      Thank you! Post-studying life is indeed strange, and not altogether light….

      On reflection, I think there might be two kinds of authority. I think the MA has given me an authority of confidence — there are a few areas in which I know what I’m talking about and can back myself up; but this could extend to an understanding of my own role as a museum ‘insider’. The other kind of authority is a more formal and institutional one — the badge that you wear at a conference that says where you’re from, and on whose behalf you speak. Here, I think the MA is a mostly invisible; when you’re moving among professional academics and doctoral candidates, you’re not really on their level academically; but you do still have a countervailing authority to speak on behalf of the ‘real thing’.

      Both of course are indeed myths (constructions, conventions, what have you) — but like all such things we experience them as real, whether as constraints or empowerments.

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