Research and Resistance: ‘No Picnic. Explorations in Art and Research’

When asked to respond to a new book produced by an interdisciplinary group of researchers at the University of Sheffield I initially found myself shocked by the apparent proposition that a clear research remit might be something to be avoided or disregarded. However, closer inspection uncovered an inspiring message about fluid and opened approaches to research, which not only reminded me of good practice in my own research but has surprisingly also resonated with my previous experiences of teaching the literature of the eighteenth century.  

The book in question is a fascinating artefact, produced by an even more imaginative and outlandish undertaking. The project, which was originally called ‘Sandpit’ but became ‘No Picnic’, saw a group of artists and researchers explore each other’s work over a ten month period. This manifested itself in their mutual exploration of a wasteland in Sheffield. The wasteland was named ‘Furnace Park’ after the 19th-Century cementation furnace that looks over it (and has subsequently become the site of the 18th- and 19th Century Garden Project which you can read about elsewhere on this blog). The book, which describes itself as an ‘art publication’, resists the generic tropes and constraints of academic writing to attempt to become a more indicative, immersive, and perhaps even “authentic” representation of the experience shared by the project’s participants.

It opens with a series of glossy photographs of the wasteland (some of which are compellingly abstract and wilfully left with annotative explanation). The photos provide the canvas for a progression of pithy sound bites, similarly left unexplained and unattributed. On first reading I actually found some of these quotes quite shocking:

‘I don’t think we came up with any deep questions at the end of the day.’

‘There have been moments of conversation that have had huge resonance. And I don’t know – I don’t care – how I’ve applied them.’

‘I don’t think this project has actually helped me.’

Furthermore, this is apparently a project which brazenly didn’t do what it was supposed to do, and then celebrates this resistance.

When explaining, upfront, that the project didn’t do what it was going to do the anonymous author of one quote confesses that ‘I don’t think we’ve solved a problem for liminal spaces in the city. But there’s something quite radical about that.’ Both as someone who regularly chases research funding and as someone who has always considered the impulse to constantly assert the value and significance of my research to be an expectation of university research, I at first found some of these statements physically painful to read.

nopicnic

The book troubles notions of what research is, how it is carried out, and how its ‘productivity’ is determined. It suggests that regimented goals and the markers of ‘value and success’ propagated in academia today can suffocate research – or at the very least, contort it. Most of the book’s authors speak to an over-emphasis on goals, frameworks, methodology and a frantic impulse to find ‘something’; to somehow fashion an answer. All of these impulses, the book suggests, actually serve to distance the researcher from the topic or object of their study.

On first reading this can come across as a frustrated response to an all pervasive and ever expanding bureaucracy, but on closer inspection this book actually enacts a resistance to something far greater: a more internalised pressure to discover something worthwhile. And this pressure can get in the way of a researcher’s primary engagement with the material under analysis. By the end of No Picnic it seems that the most powerful outcome of this project is that the researchers involved managed to transcend this initial pressure and experience something new and exciting.

In the book we are told that after the project’s enforced blogging came to an end its participants began to ‘hang out together in coffee shops and pubs’ and through ‘vague and inconsequential talking’ became ‘exposed to the novel ideas and concepts which opened their minds.’ The truly interdisciplinary discussion happened in the pub after the ‘the blog had come to an official end’ – when the pressure was off. This, for me, is the crucial point that this book endeavours to make. After the proposals and the funding and the goals comes the ‘time [to] develop a personal relationship, sit back and let ideas grow and mature, instead of rushing and doing something just for the sake of doing it.’ You can’t force results to happen, and in doing so you can run the risk of missing the whole point of what you’re doing.

It is a classic trap: accidentally trying to force research to fit a hypothesis.

At this point in the text it struck me that I’ve seen this happen before. In fact, it has happened to me before: in undergraduate seminars. Oftentimes, if you present a student with a poem they will subject it to every form of stylistic, contextual or critical analysis you can think of before they actually read it. I’ve been there, I’ve done it myself. It is incredibly hard to just read a poem, and then look for clues. My advice in seminars, (which I give all of the time) is, in the first instance, to take a step back, breath out, relax, and then just read the poem.

This isn’t something restricted to undergraduate students either. A couple of years ago I was involved in the running of an Eighteenth-Century Reading weekend for post-graduates at the University of Sheffield. The text we were discussing was Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759). The book is hilarious. It is gold. It never gets old. But it is incredibly difficult to get a reader encountering it for the first time, with all of the expectations which come bundled up with the idea of approaching a ‘historical’ novel, to see the jokes. They’re there – in every single line, but if I had a penny for every time a student gives me an overly earnest reading of the excessively pardoic opening paragraph I’d have about 10p by now.  

However, on this reading weekend, when we took everyone to a barn in the middle of the peak district and plied them with wine and beer and food, suddenly everyone had thought it was hilarious. Away from the class room – away from the trappings of academia and the ivory tower – away from the pressures of having to say something clever –  suddenly people who had read Tristram Shandy countless times were really reading it for the first time. I was one of them.

I think this is analogous for what it is that No Picnic is trying to say. Funding, structure, aims, methodology are all vitally important – of course they are, but your primary relationship with the topic of study has to come first. Good ideas work. Good ideas attract support and attention. To try and tailor an idea to speak to the infrastructures that sustain support and attention is a tempting but potentially unfruitful route into research. The point of No Picnic is to remember not to become fixated with those very infrastructures.

As one anonymous commentator poignantly observes, you can find yourself asserting that ‘“[t]his is a jewel, this is a jewel,” but people don’t want to see the jewel; they want to see the museum case and the little brass thing that says, you know: “this is a jewel.”’

No Picnic has reminded me not to lose sight of the jewel.

This piece was adapted into a short essay published here in the following book:

No Picnic: Explorations in Art and Research, ed. by Matt Chesseman (Sheffield and London: NATCECT & AND Publishing, 2014)

 

Literature of the Country House

The School of English at the University of Sheffield will soon be launching its very first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), and it will feature weeks dedicated to the eighteenth century! This free online course is titled ‘Literature and the Country House’, and it promises to take students on a journey through the literature of the country house from the time of Thomas More to Oscar Wilde.

This online course (which is open to absolutely anyone!) is powered by Futurelearn and will feature video content written and delivered by specialist researchers at the University of Sheffield and  filmed on location at such glorious properties as Chatsworth House, Nostell Priory, Bolsover Castle and Brodsworth Hall. Futurelearn have even prepared an interactive map, to give prospective students a sense of where these country houses are and how they will tie into the course: http://t.co/SkrWWREIei

chatsworth1-7x3

In addition to this video content there will be a range of downloadable materials available and an opportunity to engage in live discussion online.

I am fortunate enough to be one of the mentors on the course and I will be participating in and helping to moderate these discussion (I’m very excited about the whole project, but am especially looking forward to one week which discuses eighteenth-century politeness and The Spectator; both of which speak to my own research).

The course is already being heralded in the press as the perfect outlet for fans of costume drama, with the Yorkshire Post suggesting that it is an opportunity to discover  ‘the truths of the real Downton Abbey.’

It will also be a lot of fun for anyone interested in literature written any time between the early modern period and the late nineteenth century.

Something that becomes clear quite quickly in the course is that the country house is afforded a constant position throughout the history of English Literature, and as such provides a perfect perspective from which to explore a rich and diverse range of fascinating and entertaining texts.

To find out more visit the official site: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/country-house-literature/

I look forward to (virtually) seeing you there!

#FLHouseLit

Thoughts on Feminism and 18th-century Print: ‘We Are Feminists’ One Year On

Earlier this week someone reminded me that it is now a year since I was filmed explaining how feminism helps to inform my approach to the study of early eighteenth-century print culture.

I remember there being some speculation among my close friends as to how exactly I was going to do this, given that my research is on eighteenth-century periodicals written for men, about men, to be circulated in a predominantly male coffee house culture (‘You’re off to a good start’, one of my friends quipped upon watching my introduction to the finished video).

The video I was preparing, this week last year, was to be part of the University of Sheffield’s ‘We Are Feminists’ project, produced by the School of English.

As the story goes, the project started when Amber Regis decided to film colleagues and peers discussing what feminism meant to them with a view to using the collected footage in a lecture on feminism. This was intended as a demonstration of the versatility and diversity of feminism both as a critical approach and a subject with everyday implications.

In this, it was highly successful. But, as the last 12 months have demonstrated, the story doesn’t stop there…

So, I had a weekend to decide what to say in my video.

I think it is fair to say I found the prospect fairly daunting. This wasn’t because I didn’t know what to say about feminism in my own research. I knew exactly how feminism influences my thinking. As I (now famously) say in my video, I think of feminism every time I pick up my pen. No, I was daunted because there was going to be dozens of these videos being filmed and I had no idea what everybody else would be saying. I was worried about repetition. I was nervous that my video, which seemed to me to be fairly obvious, would replicate exactly what everybody else would be saying, but possibly less eloquently…

Monday came around, and my video was recorded:

Feminism, as an approach, helps me ideologically and methodologically in my research as I attempt to uncover silenced and maligned voices, to undo canonical damage and to sensitively reconstruct a complete picture of a past literary culture.

As the webcam blinked at me and I began to speak I became increasingly concerned that everybody would be saying something similar…

As it happened I need not have worried.

The diversity and richness of the videos collected really has to be seen to be believed, as everybody did something different with the remit. I don’t have enough room here to commend and comment on all of the videos, but if you haven’t done so already I do implore you to check out the entire playlist. It is astonishing.

There were others who, like me, raised the issue of canon formation and the violence and silencing that can be implicit in this. Both Jane Hodson and Amber Regis discuss this theme, but with reference to different texts and different literary periods (and the project later produced a dedicated post upon the subject of canonical forces).

Some offered a detailed and concise introduction to feminism as a critical approach, with both Fabienne Colignon and John Miller encouraging viewers to interrogate any and all notions of the ‘natural’ that they encounter.

And then there were those who talked very personally and openly about how feminism had effected not only their research, but their own everyday lives and experiences. Dave Forrest talked movingly about his childhood, and his relationship with his mother. Angela Wright revealed that as a female academic she feels indebted to the pioneering women writers and scholars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And Janine Bradbury talked candidly about the influence of Black Feminism upon her life and research, revealing that the two have become one and the same and have played an enormous role in making her the person that she is today.

The lecture that these videos was produced for came and went, but the catalogue of videos kept on growing. More staff and students continued to come forward, whilst the blog on which the videos first appeared proceeded to illicit further responses from universities around the world.

In recent months the videos have even been made available to download on iTunesU, where they are enjoying a healthy second life.

On a smaller scale I have found myself referring to and using the videos in my own teaching time and again. When teaching I frequently find myself encountering a scepticism, wariness or outright antagonism towards feminism, which is usually revealed almost immediately to stem from a lack of awareness or consideration for what feminism actually is.

Where once I would have to try and dispute the misconceptions that surround feminism all by myself I can now redirect them to the ‘We Are Feminists’ playlist and they can see dozens of people explain what it means to them.

And on an even smaller scale than that, the project has had a huge impact upon my own life, thinking and research. It led me to reconsider and clarify my own relationship with feminism, and thanks to this playlist it is something I have continued to think about and engage with.

So, thank you ‘We Are Feminists’ – may the project continue to grow for many more years yet.