Reflections on a busy summer

NB: I should point out that there’s not much about motorcycles in the first bit of this blog – look for the intro to bike stuff further down this page!

It’s been a busy time over the last 3 months. Since the academic year drew to a close I’ve been involved in presenting various aspects of my work at three conferences, one at an internal college event for all first year PhD students and two proper grown up academic conferences in London and Turku, Finland.

First, the internal event at UAL, the university of which my college is a part. The UAL network has three internal, mandatory week long events in the first year that must be attended in their entirety by all students, part timers and full timers alike. The first is an induction to the PhD and this is valuable  – though I’m not including the session “mood modelling” with Lego, that was just weird. The 2nd mandatory week in February is where the 2nd year students present their work. This is extremely diverse and a bit intense, so by Monday afternoon about two thirds of the 1st years in the audience audience were hammering their laptops, ipads and phones rather than listening to the lectures. Bear in mind that by this point I’m guessing that less than half of the first years have submitted their own research proposal and even fewer have had it accepted, so they’re really only in the opening stages of the PhD.

The third event is a mandatory week long series of presentations for everyone at a University of the Arts London college –  not just my place, the London College of Fashion – as part of RNUAL, the Research Network of UAL. A delightful acronym that strikes fear into the hearts of many a PhD student! There are about 50 of us across  the various establishments: Camberwell, St Martins, Chelsea, LCC and Wimbledon (if you’re interested you can find the info on each one from this link). Each college has different specialties and the nature of PhDs is such that people carry out highly specific research projects, some of which are practice based, others theory based. Those terms don’t accurately describe the entirety of a PhD in our fields, more the emphasis on a particular project’s methodology – practice implies making or creating, theory implies researching and writing, although all PhDs are different and all incorporate some element of theory to contextualise the research. My PhD is broadly theory based, but it could be argued that the idea of “practice” could be extended to the embedded research I carry out as a member of a motorcycle club and the importance of being a regular rider of motorcycles to my interviewing – and the credibility this potentially conveys to interviewees. So imagine the scene: 50 odd 1st year PhD students, all from different colleges, some resident overseas (e.g. USA, UAE and Taiwan) and all doing work of immense variety that is at very different stages of progress. I’ve got an MA in my field and my Masters dissertation formed the framework of my PhD proposal, hence I was fairly set on the direction of my research within a few weeks of starting.  Others have been researching their own area of study for almost a year and some have yet to decide on the final direction of their research project. Neither one is better than the other; both are valid ways to go about one’s work, but it does mean that a compulsory event leads to a lot of sitting around listening to people give presentations about work which isn’t finalised in areas a lot of people don’t necessarily understand. It doesn’t work. These events should be split into college sessions, one on each day. Students’ attendance at their college’s day should be mandatory and all other sessions optional, with individual students able to decide for themselves what sessions or presentations might be interesting or valuable. This structure is a comfortable middle ground that ensures each person presenting from a particular college has an audience in the room. In previous years the RNUAL events were organised in such a way that attendance wasn’t mandatory and people were presenting to tiny groups in the audience. Whilst this is not ideal, one has to remember that such an audience will include the head of research in the University, a student’s supervisors and the other supervisors of anyone else presenting in the session, so by no means an easy crowd to please. I don’t expect my contemporaries at UAL to understand or be interested in my work – flattering though it would be if they were the latter – but my supervisors and their contemporaries will know the theoretical context of my work backwards, and I expect them to pull me up on stuff that’s wrong. This certainly isn’t the easy option…. But still UAL insist on these weeks being mandatory, and the ipads, laptops and phones all get logged onto facebook at the beginning of the sessions and the eyes go down for the day. I hope they find an alternative, especially one that doesn’t mean me leaving Kent at 7:00am each morning and riding up to town each day, then trying to catch up on a day’s work when I get home, working late into the night and leaving me increasingly tired as each day passes. At this point I was still a part time student and yet to convert to full time study; it’s a real struggle to maintain work and college obligations and frustrating to have to sit through presentations that, whilst perfectly competent have no impact or relevance to my own study. Time is precious, and mandatory is a word I detest with a passion usually reserved for car drivers using mobiles, those vile little letters from Camden Council saying you rode down the wrong flavour of bus lane or TV shows that encourage the ritual humiliation of people deluded enough to think that Simon Cowell will make them superstars.

BIKERS CAN DROP BACK IN NOW!

The second event was the IJMS Conference at Chelsea College of Art & Design.  The International Journal of Motorcycle Studies was a real find when I started researching motorcycle history. Realising that there is a connected group of academics around the world focusing on motorcycle culture, history and practice was a real encouragement to me during my MA and I found the freely accessible journal articles very interesting. As you’d expect, most people involved with IJMS ride motorcycles and the conference also attracted a wide variety of other specialists including motorcycle journalists, writers, historians, designers, artists and academics with a peripheral interest in broader aspects of cultural studies.  It also makes it a terrifying event for a 1st year, part time PhD student to present at, given the audience is a bunch of people pretty much at the top of their field. I presented a paper on the influence of motorcycle sport in motorcycle clothing. I’ll try to find a way to upload it to here as I found some great images from racing and also military history that all interrelate. I discussed the influence of sport on regular motorcyclists and will post something about this soon. They had a great party on the opening night with a load of classic bikes on display in the parade ground at Chelsea College, next to the Tate. Notable attendees included Dave Gurman who publishes The Riders Digest (if you haven’t read it and you ride bikes, do so, it’s very very good) and also wrote this book, which I also enjoyed very much. Paul Blezard was there too, a motorcycle journalist with a fascinating knowledge of Feet Forward motorcycles and the growing field of electric motorcycles. Also present were Sheonagh Ravensdale and Pat Thomson, helping run the event that was coordinated by Caryn Simonson of Chelsea College. I was sure I’d seen Sheonagh and Pat before somewhere, and as they were dishing out the conference packs of the first day I had to ask where from. “Horizons?” came the reply, and immediately things fell into place. I’d bought this DVD for my wife a year ago and they’re in it, along with conference keynote speaker Lois Pryce.  Sheonagh, Pat and Lois are the perfect inspiration for anyone that dreams of hitting the road on two wheels and having an adventure.  I was to bump into a few of these great people at the Adventure Travel Film Festival in Sherborne, Dorset a few weeks later and I’ll try to post some info on that soon.

Third up was the EU Popular Culture conference at Turku University in Finland. My Director of Studies at LCF is President of the European Popular Culture Association and she was part of the organising committee for this event. I presented again on sport and motorcycle clothing.  My wife Anna also presented a paper on her PhD research titled Reappraising the Male Gaze, in which she discussed men’s understandings of female beauty and power as portrayed in this Beyonce video:

FInland was a lovely place and was a great place to hang out for three days, despite being ridiculously expensive. Fortunately Anna and I were both awarded some funding by our Universities that helped with the cost, for which we were very grateful. We had bright sunshine, temperatures in the mid 20s and saw some great presentations. If presenting to a group of motorcycle academics was daunting, presenting to an audience that included my wife was equally terrifying, but she was quite nice about my work afterwards. She’d picked up bits of my research over the last 3 years but my conference presentation put it in context for her.

After presenting at three conferences in rapid succession it was really nice to find a cheap, last minute deal for a week’s holiday in Madeira to relax and as soon as I got back I got stuck into the interviewing phase of my research. More on that soon.

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