Navigating a Research Project

 

source: https://vlhval.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/aeneid12.gifIn a lot of ways, this project has made me rethink the way I go about writing an academic essay. Since I’ve been at university, my routine for each piece of coursework has been pretty much the same: I spend one week, maybe two, reading as much secondary literature as I can, I make a stack of notes, mull it all over for a while (usually with a large cup of coffee in Costa), and only then, once I have the structure laid out in my head, will I put something down on paper. For a two thousand-word essay, that works pretty well. Fast-forward to this summer, however, and faced with having to submit something to my supervisor only a few weeks into the project, I realised I had never actually been in the position of needing to write before I knew what I was going to say.

During this internship, I have been studying the Aeneid, a poem which has much less cultural resonance now than it once did (cue many a conversation with my friends: “it’s the one that’s not the Iliad, not the Odyssey, and not in Greek”). At one point, however, the Aeneid was quite literally bigger than the Bible. It was the text by which the Romans defined themselves after the collapse of the Republic, and by which scholars of the Romans at times defined them too. What that means is that the amount of writing on the subject is huge. Too much to read in a lifetime. And so pretty early on, I realised that my usual tactic of ploughing through everything I could get my hands on about the text just wasn’t going to work. I had to get selective.

My project is all about journeys, and the difficulties of carrying on with a mission when the end seems out of reach. After Vergil’s hero, Aeneas, witnesses the destruction of his birthplace, he is told that his destiny is to found a great city—a city that will ultimately become Rome, the seat of an empire that will last forever (imperium sine fine, as Vergil’s Jupiter says). The challenge that Aeneas faces is that he does not know where this place will be. His directions tell him to go west, but how far west, he doesn’t know. The third book of the poem depicts his struggles as he is forced to use trial and error in order to determine if each land he reaches is the right one. The text is as much about a psychological journey as it is a physical one: Vergil’s gods will not just pick Aeneas up and take him to Italy— he has to navigate his people there by means of his own determination, keeping the big picture in mind in order to achieve his potential.

Now, I’m not saying that undergoing a research internship is like sailing a fleet of ships into the unknown, having just lost your wife and your main man Hector, and with an angry goddess on your back. But there have been times when I have faced setbacks. I’ve been working on an argument only to realise that I had mistranslated a word, meaning that everything I had written on that point was suddenly invalidated. Likewise, the elements that I had expected to find in the text quite often simply weren’t there, and so I have had to go back and consider how to rework my theory as a whole. This project has been more about reviewing and rewriting than I had ever thought possible. I am glad, though. I think that I have learnt just as much about myself and the way I work as I have about Aeneas and Vergil. I am so grateful to have had this opportunity to really test myself. I am especially thankful to Dr Nikoletta Manioti for all of her help and support (especially though some of those early drafts), to the CAPOD team for bringing the leadership weekends together, and to Lord Laidlaw for making the internship possible.

Freedom can be scary

One of the neatest things I think this internship scheme offers is freedom. Freedom to explore the topic we have developed interest in ourselves, and the freedom to do so in whatever way we choose to.

For me, this freedom was both a wonderful privilege and terrifying too. With [great] freedom comes [great] accountability, accountability for the decisions and directions I decided to take. I was fortunate enough to have some insightful and comprehensive guidance from my supervisor, who became like a lifebuoy to help me stay afloat whenever I was drowning in waters of knowledge too deep to understand. Dodgy metaphors aside, I’m truly grateful to Kate for taking the time every week to meet and help me stay focused on the core questions of the project.

So, this project. Essentially I’ve been investigating gender differences (or lack thereof) in meeting participation and how this might link to the individual’s sensitivity to punishment and reward. I’ve measured the latter according to scores on the Behaviour Inhibition and Activation scales, already tried and tested for reliability. Measuring meeting participation attitudes was a little more interesting. We realised very quickly that a narrower focus was needed, as there was no way I could measure all aspects of meetings in the timeslot I had. We needed a concrete measurable aspect, which eventually boiled down to question-asking during meetings.  One of the most out-of-depth moments I had during the internship was trying to come up with a suitable scale for measuring participant’s attitudes towards asking questions, from what felt like thin air. Drawing inspiration from the conception of other psychological scales, such as Jostl’s imposter syndrome, a scale was eventually finalised and from this, my first ever questionnaire was born.

source: theclassroomkey.com

source: theclassroomkey.com

The rest of the internship essentially consisted of: (i) obtaining ethical approval, in order to ensure the project could go ahead; (ii) the distribution of the survey via an online platform and collection of as much data as possible; and (iii) the analysis of the data and reporting of results. As many would probably sympathise with, I found the stats a struggle to begin with. I was mostly relying on textbooks and internet guides to understand analyses and sometimes found myself utterly perplexed. Then, I started to get brief flashes of insight where I think I got it, and supervisor Kate would either confirm or look at the analyses herself and draw other conclusions that I could only nod and smile at. After many hours staring blank-faced at my computer screen and semi-fruitful internet searched such as “what is the heck is a Wald statistic”, I eventually built up a reasonable understanding of the precious data I had collected and what insights they could suggest.

Here are some of low and high points I experienced.

Lows:

  • Some mixed and muggy results from the data, which has given an interesting but difficult-to-draw-conclusions-from picture, like a cubism painting.
  • A series of misunderstandings causing a few stressful situations with the online survey being weirdly altered, resulting in some panicked emails from my end because the survey felt like my child and it had been modified,

Highs:

  • Maintaining my position as the top item in the St Andrews Undergraduate student memos for 3 weeks running
  • A newfound appreciation of the psychology building computer labs and the tranquillity it offers to easily distracted pseudo- workers like me
  • More participants than expected! Mostly because I had pretty pessimistic expectations.

The eight weeks of the project felt simultaneously long (mostly during the Statistics Slog), and also much too short. By the end of it, I had mapped out my own journey into this little field of knowledge I had chosen to explore, and learnt skills and new ways of thinking along the way. A huge thank you to Lord Laidlaw and everyone involved in this internship scheme for giving me and others the freedom to do so.

Finding the “Internal Other”

Have you ever felt stuck because of all the different choices that you have? Or felt that freedom can create more pressure as you worked?

I am sure that many of us have felt at some point in our university career that freedom we get as students to formulate our own topic and conduct our research can be gratifying but also challenging. We have to negotiate a sea of diverse sources (not limited to print or online articles), determining what sources are most useful, and narrow down the topic to the point that interests us. It is a process that is not just academic but also personal, as you learn about yourself and your value systems, which shape your work and even the sources that you find.

Laidlaw research also became a journey of discovering myself, as I narrowed down my topic and tried to think critically about my sources, which included presidential speeches by the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and official files produced under his regime, all heavily leaden with ideology. I realized that there were many approaches I could take to my research (analyzing how media representations can impact North-South Korea relationships), but I wanted to look beyond their hostility and attempt to understand how their rhetoric about one another originated and impacted not only intergovernmental relationships but also the government’s relationships to their people. The most difficult part about my research was that both “media representations” and “impact” were hard to measure, and I did not want my own pre-conceptions and ideologies to influence my findings.

To minimize the confusion between what media claimed and how much actual impact it had, I divided my sources into two: one that analyzed the representation of the “internal Other” from the top (such as presidential speeches and their autobiographies), and another from the bottom, mostly stories written by the people. By “internal Other”, I was referring to South Koreans in South Korea who bore characteristics associated with North Koreans such as communism, or farming work, while in North Korea the term would indicate North Koreans who would be associated with South Koreans by the government for their bureaucratic status or family history. My original hypothesis was that having this group of “internal Other” was important for both Korean regimes after the Korean War to the end of dictatorial regimes in the 70s by enabling them to purge anti-governmental factions and thus maintain their power. Although it was tricky to separate what people have written from the stories that was expected at the time, I found some stories in North Korean archive written by elementary school students and professional authors at the fifth floor of the National Library in Banpo, Seoul, as well as some on their “RG 242” collection online. For South Korean case, I read papers published by university students in their protests, and while reading them identified some of the common terms they used repeatedly, which showed me how important finding their “juche (autonomy)” was for both South and North Korean people.

As I began writing my paper, I realized I had been conflating a lot of terms together. From reading many speeches, stories, and protest papers I saw a pattern emerging in their shared rhetoric of a necessity to recover people’s autonomy in order to forge a new nation after the Japanese Occupation. The discourse of autonomy, ironically, had been an oppressive one, one leading to educational propaganda, political purging, and economic censorship in both North and South Koreas. I had been developing two projects: one on the internal Other and another one on discourses of autonomy. They connect, as “internal Other” in both Koreas are often linked to a means to achieve unified Korea. Thus, a rhetoric of unification is simultaneously a way for the government to argue that strengthening one’s nation and reaching autonomy is by destroying the “internal Other”. In order to pursue this line of argument, however, I had also been facing squarely some of the limitations of the sources I had been using (mostly presidential speeches) and a need to gather some empirical evidences now (such as historical facts and data on social changes).

What had been particularly interesting about my research were the ways my interviews seemed to corroborate my findings on papers. I had been interviewing diverse group of people (women and men in their 50s as well as some youths), and one of the interviewees (a man in his late 20s) talked about his compulsory military experience and how his bosses often talked about the illegitimacy of North Korean government, as if this confirmed that the South Korean government, as its opposition, was following a “correct way”. Despite some of the limitations in my interviews conducted so far as all of my interviewees in their 50s are well-educated men and women, belonging to the upper strata of Korean society, most seemed to share curiosity and longing for the North and acknowledged that the presence of North as the Other was important for the government to justify some of its policies even today. Acknowledging the presence of the Other in Korean politics, however, people were also indifferent and seemed to think that the division was something that would last a long time as North Koreans had almost irrevocably became a minjok (race) different from the South. In the interviews, similar to my findings from official documents and stories, I found a curious discrepancy in their shared longing for unification but also a conviction that unification can only happen by taking over the Other.

My research had been extremely rewarding for me as I realized that freedom of research and my topic, instead of narrowing down, was just opening wider and wider, and there are still many paths that I can tread. Perhaps that is just the beauty of research: more you delve into your subject, more you understand how interconnected different issues are, and there is so much you can learn about the topic. I had also been becoming more passionate about my topic as I realized just how important the rhetoric of the Other (North and South) was in North and South Korean politics to this day. The impact this rhetoric has upon society and people, although hard to prove, is a worthy subject of study.

I want to thank my ever supportive supervisor Professor Konrad Lawson for his emails and Skypes, addressing all my concerns and difficulties. Thank you for always helping me to achieve above and beyond! I want to thank the staff of the Yonsei University library and the National Library of Korea for their support, as well as wonderful CAPOD for helping us with our research.

 

Unraveling the mysteries behind children in wars: beyond archives

My project investigates the participation of children in the Vietnam war and, in many ways, conducting it resembled solving a very vague puzzle. ‘Vague’, because there is so little information on it, that I had absolutely no idea of what I would find.

$_32

So I first attempted to solve this puzzle by walking into an archive centre to look at some primary documents. The ones that I found could be broadly categorised in two groups: those relating to schools and educational environment and those relating to student resistance and activism. They were quite helpful in helping me to imagine the general environment children faced. What kind of subjects were taught? What kind of teachers were recruited? Even little details, such as school admission notes which recorded the amount of children whose parents were lost in the Vietnam war, helped me to understand what it was like to be a child during those years.

While this was very useful, it wasn’t quite hitting the nail on the head. Except for one children’s camp notebook which contained a list of children who volunteered to join military service, there was almost nothing that could serve as direct evidence for my research.

It was the second part that really helped the project come alive. I met with 11 people – 5 men and 6 women – who participated in the war when they were under 18 years old. They performed many tasks: fighting with the guerrillas, nursing, aiding the army, spreading information about the war to civilians, paving secret roads and tunnels, delivering secret messages, etc. Every interview was an emotional roller-coaster – there were laughs, tears, whispers, screams… However, every participant was incredibly open and sincere about their story. Participants’ stories filled in the gaps in the puzzle and answered the questions that archives could not. The two parts complemented each other, bringing everything together into one coherent picture.

Here are other little things I learnt during my project:

  • Snowball sampling – when participants introduce you to other potential participants – can be very, very helpful. [This is how I met half of my sample].
  • Transcribing interviews takes way longer than you’d think, so it might be useful to allocate extra time for it. [Personally, I felt that it is definitely worth every minute of the effort – transcriptions helped me a lot in analysing the interviews. However, I did have to push it a bit].
  • Information on one topic can tell you something, but its absence can tell you something more. [I was reminded of this by my supervisor when I told her about the lack of documents in the archival centre. These words became almost a mantra which I kept repeating while learning how to navigate, interpret, and work with this absence].
  • It’s okay if it turns out that interviews are taking you somewhere completely unexpected. [As my supervisor pointed out, for some reason it doesn’t seem as scary when it happens in book research; however, it shouldn’t be scary when the same thing happens with people]. 

This internship provided me with an opportunity to engage in research practices I’ve never engaged in before – archival research and taking interviews, both very different from the usual literature/experimental research I was used to. It was challenging, new, frustrating, emotional, and I loved it.

I would like to express my gratitude to the following people: my supervisor Ali Watson, for her invaluable feedback; my family and friends (Josie, Lan Anh, Hiep, and Daria), for their endless support 24/7; Cat and Eilidh, for brilliantly organised Leadership weekends; and Lord Laidlaw for generously financing the internship and allowing me to undertake this research.

In search of purity and phosphorescence

My project is everything I considered chemistry to be before I started studying it at university… mixing chemicals to make things that glow. I have been working for the last 8 weeks on compounds which have the potential to be used in OLEDs (like LEDs but made with organic materials instead of inorganic materials such as silicon). 

I am two hours into purifying my final compound in a silica column (a test tube like piece of glassware around 80 cm long and packed with silica granules). This particular compound glows orange under UV light. I reach for the UV-lamp and shine it on the silica column, my product lights up a couple of centimetres below the surface  of the silica, its hardly moved since the last time I checked… its going to be along afternoon. This process is widely used in synthetic chemistry to purify samples of a desired molecule. The idea is that different molecules will move through the column at different rates allowing the one that I want to separate from the ones I don’t want, such as by-products and unreacted starting materials. The movement of my molecule is tracked using a UV-vis lamp which induces the emission of bright orange light when shone on my compound, allowing me to gauge where it is in the column. When the orange glow reaches the base of the column I know it is time to start collecting the solvent and my product in test tubes. This process requires careful choice of solvent and patience to allow the various chemical to slowly separate into bands moving through the column at different paces.  

Watching the orange light slowly separate from the other darker patches on the column Im baffled that seemingly simple three component reactions inexplicably expel a multitude of different products all but one of them completely useless. This has been among the most trying aspects of my project, as any further investigatory experiments I do require this orange emitter to be as pure as possible. The column is just the start of what I think of as a selection process. I collect the solvent in test tubes, in this case 55 of them, these in turn will be individually scrutinised for impurities. Often the first and last ten are discarded, its always painful flushing away test tubes full of a substance I have been carefully piecing together for a week but I am now left with 35 test tubes of pure orange emitter ready to be investigated.

This project has opened my eyes to the process of assembling a complex molecule from its smaller components. Each step requires careful analysis to ensure I have the molecule I think I have and more often than not a column to purify it, but its worth all the mixing, heating, columning and waiting when under UV light the compounds come to life.

0.75 equive of green

Green light emitting iridium complex under UV light

red only

Orange light emitting iridium complex under UV light

 

 

A Foray Into The Tropics

What springs to mind when you think about the tropics? A likely answer, and one that I certainly leap to, is an idyllic image of a remote tropical island with chalk-white sands, turquoise waters, and lean swaying palm trees. Alternatively, some might paint a picture of equatorial rainforest, home to ornately dressed indigenous peoples and an abundance of exotic flora and fauna. Perhaps others may recall a vivid scene of scorched red earth, nomadic farmers, and stark rural poverty. This snapshot of the variety of ways in which people may begin to imagine and conceptualise the tropics provides an entry point into my project: namely, an exploration of how the tropics are represented in cultural media from the 1970s onwards.

I first approached my tutor about the Laidlaw internship programme with (in hindsight) the very vague brief that I would like to combine my love of reading novels with a newfound interest in ‘imaginative geographies’, a concept that we’d only recently been introduced to in lectures. I also hoped to study something related to the environment or environmental politics, which was perhaps a slightly guilty result of having dropped Sustainable Development at Honours. Miraculously, out of this seemingly incompatible set of ingredients, he suggested reading about ‘tropicality’; a discourse, or suite of representations, that positions the tropics as the West’s environmental Other. It was from this initial starting point that an exciting research idea began to take shape, enabling me to read novels, watch films, examine environmental policy, and explore travel journalism.

Imaginative geographies capture how individuals imagine the world and represent it to others, and are defined as “representations of other places – of peoples and landscapes, cultures and ‘natures’ – that articulate the desires, fantasies and fears of their authors” (Gregory, 2009, p.369). The tropics can be considered an imaginative geography in that the region is both a conceptual as well as a physical space. Edward Said’s (1978) Orientalism acts as a theoretical prop for unpacking how the tropics have historically been, and continue to be, positioned as the temperate West’s tropical Other. Historically, the tropics have been represented in binary terms, as an exotic and paradisiacal Eden, or as a degenerate and pestilential space. Associations between the tropics, natural abundance, and discovery hark back to James Cook’s and Alexander Von Humboldt’s voyages to explore, measure, and document an unknown and distant land. Furthermore, the tropics are entangled in a long and complex history of empire, having been subject to colonial expansion and racial prejudice. My aim was to examine whether motifs, images, and tropes associated with ‘classical’ tropicality held true in contemporary representations of the tropics, and to identify any continuities, breaks, or departures in cultural representations post-1970.  

About to embark on my ninth week of the internship, this blog has provided an opportunity to reflect on the experience so far and I realise that it has been quite a journey. My first week was characterised by reading academic literature on tropicality and occasionally glancing out of a rain-soaked window half wishing that I’d proposed a field trip to my area of study! Whilst it was undeniably difficult to switch from ‘holiday’ to ‘student’ mode, I was relieved that I’d chosen a topic that immediately grabbed my interest and held the promise of exciting things to come. From there it has been a fantastic, if at times haphazard, voyage of discovery: from reading Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ and Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach’, to watching Coppola’s infamous ‘Apocalypse Now’; I’ve tuned in to geographer David Livingstone’s radio series ‘The Empire of Climate’ and listened to music from Brazil’s ‘Tropicalia’ artistic movement; the Weekend magazines have informed me that tropical patterns are ‘in’ this summer, as are some rather vibrant tropical wallpaper designs; Amazon online has proposed everything from anthologies of Caribbean poetry to geography textbooks on ‘Violent Environments’; and Google Scholar has highlighted a disparate selection of articles from tropical architecture in West Africa, to depictions of the natural world in Disney. Indeed, in no other internship could I have been learning about Ian Fleming’s experiences in Jamaica one week and scrolling through World Health Organisation policy the next.

It has been fascinating to explore how ideas and themes identified in my first week have been recycled, reinvented, and departed from in contemporary cultural media. The project has enabled me to dip my toe into a variety of subjects from health and disease to climate change and development, and whilst I may have only begun to scratch the surface, I feel that maintaining a broad scope has provided a great overview of the diversity of cultural engagements with the tropics. The internship has been both stimulating and challenging, but ultimately has given me a brilliant taste of what it is like to be a novice undergraduate researcher.

And I now receive regular advertisements from Thomas Cook extolling the merits of a tropical island getaway. What’s not to love.

–   A special thank you to Lord Laidlaw for making this opportunity possible   –

The past is like a foreign country

‘The past is like a foreign country: they do things differently there’. This L.P Hartley quote pretty succinctly sums up my attitude to the Victorian period during the first couple of weeks of my research.

I’m an English student, and so when I began my project my knowledge of the Victorian period was pretty general, and limited to what I’d learned through literature. Because my project is quite interdisciplinary, I realised that before I could start looking at any poems I would have to turn my pub quiz standard knowledge of history into something far more substantial. My project is focused on analysing the impact of Victorian poetry on social reform, and so I spent two weeks with my head down in the library learning about Victorian society and its politics. This turned out to be incredibly interesting, but it left me feeling slightly overwhelmed. An era which came to an end just over one hundred years ago seemed to me absolutely lightyears away. We’re talking about a time when people would rather leave their babies to die on the streets than face the stigma of being unwed mothers, poor sanitation lead to deadly epidemics, and children as young as nine worked ten hour days in factories. Even though my readings were telling me over and over again: ‘This is true! This happened! Here!’ I just couldn’t really believe it.

When I felt sufficiently well versed in the general miserable goings on of the Victorian period, I swapped my history books for poetry books, and set about choosing which poems I would add to the annotated bibliography I was creating for my supervisor. Just like my secondary readings, these poems also painted a dire picture of life in the Victorian era. While reading words set down by people who were living in that time made everything seem slightly more real, I was still struggling to wrap my head around it.

Then, I began my archival work. I have been fortunate enough to visit two fantastic archives, the University of Dundee Archive and the Tyne and Wear Archive. It was in these places that everything began to come to life. In Dundee I found a copy of 2016-07-08Autobiography, Poems, and Songs of Ellen Johnston the ‘Factory Girl’ by Ellen Johnston, a young woman who experienced 19th Century factory life at first hand. This book led me on a fascinating and unexpected journey, tracking down the list of ‘subscribers’ who had funded its publication by pre-ordering copies. I managed to find biographical information on most of these individuals, and in doing so was able to draw direct connections between Victorian reform poetry and the people who were in charge of reform. Politicians were actually reading this stuff! My project actually made sense!The archival work was making me feel like a detective! I was having a wild time.

Later, I visited Newcastle to see the archives there; my online research had shown me that the Tyne and Wear Archives held some interesting information on two houses for ‘fallen women’: Wansbeck House and Brandling Place Home. They were intended to provide a place for penitent ‘sinful’ women to live once they had been disowned by their families; it was all done under the premise of Christian charity, but there were also definite undertones of ‘keep these strange sexualised beasts away from normal decent women lest we have a PLAGUE of SIN’. Here I found a diary, kept by a man who owned one of these homes. He wrote about visiting the ‘girls’ once a week and praying with them, and also kept track of the comings and goings of the house. It was this account which truly opened my eyes to the fact that all of the awful things I had been reading about had actually happened, to real ordinary people. The register of Brandling Place listed the names of its ‘penitents’: Polly, Annie, Eva, Mary, to list a few. Ordinary names of ordinary women who had suffered at the hands of their society in the city where I grew up.

I know that my project, which is now slowly drawing to a close, could still have been completed if I hadn’t had this realisation. I’m also aware that without it, no matter how many books I read, how many old newspapers I worked through or how many poems I analysed, I could not have really understood any of it.

Finally, I would like to thank my supervisor Dr Clare Gill for her ongoing and invaluable support, Susan Garrard for answering my many questions about archival research, and Lord Laidlaw for generously providing the funding for this project. I am also incredibly grateful to the staff at Dundee University Archives and the Tyne and Wear Archives for all of their help.

The Changing Face of Fear, or how I stopped being scared of research

 

When I started this project, I was a little nervous. I had eight, long weeks ahead of me with some of the weirdest and most wonderful gothic books as my companions. I had a few vague ideas about the popularity of the genre and a hunch that some digging might be needed. I just had no clue how to straighten all that out and, as a girl who loves a plan, that made me more than a little uncomfortable.

The Changing Face of Fear

Fast forward four weeks and things have changed. It’s 9:05 and I have staked my claim at the library. This is the earliest I have been to the library in the three years I have been at St Andrews, but today I woke up determined to make some progress on my research project. I fully intend to stay here until 5, or at least until my word count makes me a little happier. The only other people here are postgraduates but since most of my old study spaces have fallen victim to tourist season, I’ve suddenly found myself spending a lot of time here.

Sure, it has its stressful moments but for the most part I enjoy it. A big part of that is probably due to my research project – I love the gothic genre so spending eight weeks immersed in it is pretty ideal. I fell under Dracula’s spell a long time ago, though this is the first chance that I have had to nurture my own opinions on the infamous vampire. I actually care about The Changing Face of Fear and that, not coffee, is the secret to finding myself in my library seat so early in the morning.

 
It’s certainly making my choice about going into research a little easier now that I have had some experience of it. I’ve visited Special Collections and held 18th century texts (exciting!) but I’ve also lost entire days to 19th century periodical databases (not so much!). I’ve had days where I haven’t left my desk and then days where I decided that spending the afternoon in the sun with my friends was more important. There have been nights where I can’t sleep for trying to work out just what Brontë meant and have lost entire mornings to chasing an idea down a rabbit hole of research. I’m not living some romanticised montage of breakthroughs. The gritty bits are there and problematic but somehow worth it.The veil has been lifted on the shadowy world of academic research and I quite like what I see.