2015 and all that

Doctor, doctor…

New_1_thesis

Finally on the ‘write’ lines… (picture source: author’s photograph)

 

In an earlier post many months ago, I noted how I’d passed my PhD viva, although it didn’t feel like it at the time, and was given 12 months to attend to corrections that the examiners felt my thesis needed.

It’s been a while since I posted here (I will try to post more often in future). Since my viva in January, my 2015 has mainly been about working on corrections to my thesis while working part-time in a betting shop, with a brief respite while presenting at the Royal Geographical Society annual conference at Exeter University in early September.

I’ve had a little foray into politics too this year. I stood as a ‘paper’ candidate for the Green Party in my local ward of Castleton in the Rochdale council elections in May. Admittedly, I came 5th of 5 with 166 votes, but only 174 votes behind the 4th-placed Liberal Democrat candidate – not bad, considering Castleton has never had a Green candidate before, and that I don’t have 166 relatives!

I finally submitted the corrections to my thesis on October 27th and, on December 11th, I received an email from Coventry University saying that the examiners were satisfied with my corrections, and recommending the award of PhD.

So it’s official – I’m now Dr Jonathan Kershaw. I’VE GOT MY PHD!!!!!!

It was fantastic news with which to end the year – I now correspond with my nickname ‘Doc’, which I’ve had for over 20 years! Hopefully, I’ll find a suitable position in which to make my PhD work; the future starts here. Exciting times lie ahead. It’s time to update my LinkedIn profile!

Here’s to a happy, prosperous, and sustainable new year. Here’s to 2016!

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Viva survivor

Well, I’ve done it. I’ve passed my PhD viva voce exam. Go me!

No, not that kind of Viva... (Picture source: Wikimedia Commons)

No, not that kind of Viva… (Picture source: Wikimedia Commons)

Doctor Jeckythump, I presume?

Er, not quite (at least, I don’t think so). My PhD has been awarded a pass, albeit with ‘major corrections’. This means that while my thesis was deemed original enough to warrant a PhD, there’s still some work to do on it. So I’ve passed, but somehow it doesn’t feel like it.

I noted earlier this week that I was nervous about my viva. I couldn’t help thinking that despite positive comments and feedback I’d received over the last four years or so – from the quality of my writing, to faculty- and university-prizewinning posters, to presentations at conferences held under the auspices of the Tyndall Centre and the Royal Geographical Society (both Postgrad and Annual RGS conferences), to other ‘impacts’ outside of academia such as a post for The Green Car Website and an interview for Road & Track magazine – it could go wrong here.

It was a gruelling experience, and I did rather tie myself up in knots on a couple of occasions. My Director of Studies was present (at my request) though wasn’t permitted to say anything throughout and, as we left the room for the examiners to begin their deliberations, all I could think was “Crap”. Speaking with him after the final verdict, he said I’d had quite a grilling and was pleased with how I’d handled it.

The upshot was that the examiners felt that while my thesis was an engaging read, I could have made more of my data and some aspects of my epistemology needed polishing, though more details about the exact corrections needed will follow in due course.

So my thesis is still a work in progress – at least I won’t have to do the viva again!

It’s been a while…

My PhD was duly submitted – now it’s crunch time.

On the 'write' lines? My PhD thesis manuscript (Picture source: author's photograph).

On the ‘write’ lines? My PhD thesis manuscript (Picture source: author’s photograph).

It’s been some time since I last blogged – in May last year, in fact. Back then, as I embarked upon finalising draft(s) of my PhD, I blogged about ‘geographical inspiration’, about the practical, philosophical and analytical walls and subsequent doubts pertaining to my PhD and how, despite this, I might actually know what I’m on about after all.

Much of my blogging silence was due to finalising my PhD manuscript, which was submitted in September, with other various bits and bobs, such as my part-time job in a bookies, also providing a distraction from blogging since then. Now it’s crunch time as I head down to Coventry later this week for my viva voce, the formal ‘defence’ of my thesis.

Preparation for my viva has included reading – and re-reading – my thesis, and gleaning tips from websites like Medium.com and also from other viva survivors (thanks Mark Horton & Sue Challis); reading about the viva in Patrick Dunleavey’s ‘Authoring a PhD’ has assuaged some viva worries (for now, at least). Even so, I’m nervous about the questions I’ll be facing.

What is the PhD about? How was it done? Why was it done? Why was it not done another way? What was the point? What is it’s contribution to knowledge? Where next? Another question to ponder is whether or not I’ll be a gibbering wreck at the end of it.

I’ve no idea if my viva be a forensic, in-depth grilling or a huge expansion of the presentations of I’ve given at various conferences during my academic ‘career’ so far. Either way, I’ve been assured by several people – my PhD supervisors, family, colleagues (both PhD and in the bookies) – that I’ll be okay. We’ll see.

Wish me luck – I’ll no doubt be posting the outcome on here later this week.

Oh, and a belated Happy New Year!

A geographical inspiration

A PhD is very much a marathon and, no matter how interesting or ground-breaking your research may be, maintaining momentum over three, or even four, years can be difficult.

Geographical inspiration - a Santorini sunset (Picture source: author's photograph).

Geographical inspiration – a Santorini sunset (Picture source: author’s photograph).

I began my university ‘career’ as a mature student, only embarking upon a BSc geography degree in my early/mid thirties, going straight onto an MSc in Environmental Management and Sustainable Development and, after a slight hiatus, embarking upon my PhD.

I recall one lecturer imploring us callow 1st–year Bachelors during one of those group lectures attended by the entire year’s intake – BSc physical geographers, BA human geographers, BSc geographers, BSc environmental scientists, BSc GIS-ers – that, during the course of our degrees, ‘you’ve got to do what you’re interested in, otherwise you’re wasting everybody’s time, especially yours’. Or something along those lines, anyway.

So I did. I managed to pursue several interests during the course of my geography degree, covering everything from cultural geography to post-socialism to vulcanology to quaternary environmental change. My dissertation was about the semiotics of the car.

It was during my MSc that I became further interested in, and pursued subjects on, the environment, climate change and low carbon mobility, with my thesis concerning the environmental impacts of football supporter transport.

I am currently in the final throes of writing up my PhD on socio-cultural regard for the car and the potential impacts of this upon an uptake of low carbon vehicles. Writing about cars and the environment, washed down with a large slug of philosophy – marvellous. At least, in theory.

Actually, it is marvellous – I wouldn’t swap it at all. I’ve spent the last three-and-a-bit years thinking, reading, writing on and around subjects I’m passionate about and, looking back, it’s been brilliant; throw in all the conferences and the contacts with other academics and postgraduates – in person and via the twittersphere – and it’s been a cracking experience. It hasn’t all been plain sailing though.

All postgraduate researchers struggle at some point, hitting practical, philosophical and analytical walls. These walls can take some climbing, and no matter how capable we are, or how immersed or interested in our research we may be, doubts can rise, morale can flag and confidence can wane.

I’ve suffered bouts of that recently, feeling a bit thick at times. I’m sure I’m not the only one. When you live 120 miles away from uni, it can all feel a bit solitary too.

Anyway, a week or so back, a picture appeared in my twitter timeline. It was a retweet by Bangor University’s geography department (@BUGeography) of a tweet posted by the geography department at St. Edmund’s School in Salisbury (@Stedsgeography).

And repeat... (Picture source: @BUGeography @Stedsgeography)

And repeat… (Picture source: @BUGeography; @Stedsgeography)

I retweeted it too. I don’t know where St. Edmund’s got the picture from, whether it was sourced or created, but thanks anyway guys. For some reason, @BUGeography’s retweeting of it woke me up a bit. Just in time for a run of colloquia and conferences, I’m adopting it as a mantra during my writing up – ‘this is my new jam’, as some would say.

So begone, doubt! I am a geographer. I am encouraging others to think a bit differently. I do know my stuff.

And, despite what you may feel sometimes, so do you.

I’m getting on with it – first full draft here we come!

Best of British?

Autocar magazine has released a list of the top 100 British cars, as voted for by its readers. But how exhaustive and/or authoritative is it, and what is a British car anyway?

Original and best - the BMC Mini (Picture source: Wikipedia)

Original and best – the BMC Mini (Picture source: Wikipedia)

The original BMC Mini has topped a poll of the 100 best-ever British cars, as voted by Autocar readers. This isn’t really much of a surprise. After all, Issigonis’s baby was a truly revolutionary car that transcended class, becoming a much loved icon and as much of an emblem of national automobility as the Citroën 2CV, Volkswagen Beetle, Fiat Nuova 500 and Ford Mustang.

That the Mini should be followed in the poll by the McLaren F1, Jaguar E-type and Range Rover (surely the original Rangie, rather than it’s current, somewhat bling, iteration?) is also unsurprising, as they too are all automotive icons in their own way. After that, things get a bit muddier.

Nissan Qashqai. Subaru Impreza. Honda Jazz. Renault Megane. All make the list, but are hardly ‘British’ nameplates, although the Qashqai and the Jazz are built in Sunderland and Swindon respectively. On that basis, surely the iconic Citroën DS qualifies, built as it was in Slough for a time in the 1950s/60s.

Number 5 in the list is the Yamaha MOTIV.e. The ‘what’, you ask? Well, the Yamaha MOTIV.e is only a concept at the moment, developed by Gordon Murray Design in Surrey, though one which promises to revolutionise the car manufacturing process. A great British car? It could certainly be a great British engineering success story. But it isn’t just yet.

So what constitutes a British car? One that’s built here? Designed here? Engineered here? Maybe it’s wood and leather interiors, or some intangible ‘other’ – an underdog-ness perhaps, or a stiff-upper-lip-ness?

I think that two quotes can help provide the answer to this question. Noted academic John Urry from Lancaster University has previously described the car as “the quintessential manufactured object”, while writer and former Design Museum director Stephen Bayley noted in his 1986 book Sex, Drink and Fast Cars that “more than any other manufactured product, the car enshrines and projects the values of the culture that created it”.

Storming the poll at number 80 - Triumph 1300 (Picture source: author's photograph).

Storming the poll at number 80 – the Triumph 1300 (Picture source: author’s photograph).

This would suggest that what makes ‘a car’ is the time, the outlook, the prevailing zeitgeist of where and by whom it was created, whether this pertains to a car’s inspiration, engineering or manufacture – all qualities exemplified by national automotive icons like the Beetle, Fiat 500, Ford Mustang and, yes, the Mini.

A globalised and interconnected world, however, aided and abetted by car manufacturers’ predilections for platform-sharing and badge engineering, necessarily makes it harder to define the national identity of a car, as the ‘time’ and the ‘place’ of a car become less distinct. Would a BMW Mini be any less British if it was manufactured abroad? Is the Citroën C3 Picasso any less French for being manufactured in Slovakia? Was the last generation Fiat Panda any less Italian for being made in Poland or, for that matter, any less ‘Panda’ for sharing a platform, its underpinnings, with the current Fiat 500 and Ford Ka? Does any of this matter?

My PhD concerns how we ‘consume’ the car as avatar, artefact, icon and experience, and I would contend that only we can answer the question of what a car ‘is’, and decide how a car answers back to us (or not, as the case may be), based on our own nature, our own essence, our own affect. Whether a particular car is attractive, desirable, offensive, or even nothing at all, only we know.

This means that, in addition to the observations above, what also makes ‘a car’ is the time, the outlook, the prevailing zeitgeist in which a car is regarded and consumed, and by whom. How we answer the question of what a car is can be manifest in surveys such as the Autocar best of British poll. Yet there are some who claim that the meaning of such ballots can be baseless or even arbitrary.

They may have a point. After all, the meaning of a car is very much negotiated and contested, and can change over time; memories and reputations of cars can be both trashed and rehabilitated. However, it is because of this negotiation and contestation that these polls can also provide a snapshot of the national automotive psyche.

As for the Autocar top 100 itself, I’m just rather chuffed that the Triumph 1300 made the list, beating the Triumph Dolomite Sprint in the process. Although I would like to know what happened to the Austin Metro…

Oh Metro, where art thou...? (Picture source; Wikipedia)

Oh Metro, where art thou…? (Picture source; Wikipedia)

2013 – that was the year that was

So how was 2013 for you? As the year comes to an end, and a new one begins, here’s a quick academic and automotive review.

For me, 2013 began where 2012 left off as my data collection for my PhD continued with a couple of focus group sessions and further interviews. As such, much of the year has been spent transcribing and analysing interviews and other data, which can be an onerous task although the rewards upon analysing the gems therein more than make up for it! In addition, there have been little extra-curricular academic successes on the way.

I wrote a post about two postgraduate conferences I attended and presented at, namely the Royal Geographical Society Postgraduate Forum Mid-term conference at Birmingham University in late March and the Tyndall Centre Climate Transitions PhD Conference held at Cardiff University in early April. Cracking conferences both, the latter hosted a blogging competition pertaining to delegates’ interests, with the winner afforded the chance of their entry being published in The Guardian. I was pleasantly surprised that my blog post won and, although the Guardian didn’t run with it, you can read it on the Tyndall Centre website.

The Tyndall Centre PhD Conference was swiftly followed by Coventry University’s Business, Environment and Society (BES) faculty poster symposium, in which my entry secured not only 3rd place but also garnered the ‘student vote’ too, both resulting in prizes of Waterstones vouchers. By coming 3rd, my poster went forward to the main university poster competition in July, whereupon it was awarded a joint-3rd place as part of a clean sweep for the BES faculty.

Another academic event I attended in 2013 was a reading and writing weekend held at Gregynog Hall in mid-Wales under the auspices of the Royal Geographical Society’s Social and Cultural Geography Research Group and, like the earlier conferences, was a thoroughly enjoyable and uplifting event where it was great to meet other postgrads and academics, and to chew the academic fat.

Look carefully - that's me blatting the Toyota GT86 around the Milbrook Alpine course (Picture Source: Newspress).

Look carefully – that’s me blatting the Toyota GT86 around the Milbrook Alpine course (Picture Source: Newspress).

Automotive-wise, an obvious highlight was being invited to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) test day at the Milbrook Proving Ground in early May (thank you again, MajorGav!). I spent a great day meeting up with automotive twitterati and driving cars I wouldn’t normally get the chance to, such as the Porsche 911 and Toyota GT86, and I also drove the electric Renault Zoe for the first time; being taken on a brief ride around the Bedfordshire countryside in a vintage Vauxhall 30/98 on a hot sunny day was fun too.

I attended the launch of the Greater Manchester Electric Vehicle (GMEV) scheme in July, prompting another spin in a Renault Zoe and a closer look at, but not a drive in (boo), the impressive-looking Tesla Model S. It’d be intriguing to find out how the 250 chargers throughout Greater Manchester are used, particularly the ones in Rochdale.

November brought the Classic Motor Show at the NEC which was strikingly busier than last year’s event. Though at times photographically frustrating, this increased interest can only be a good thing as people engage with the social, cultural and industrial artefact that is the car, and maybe even contemplate how the car is, and has been, consumed.

The final automotive event I attended was the December AutoTweetUp at the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon. I haven’t been to Gaydon for almost 20 years, so it was nice to look around the museum exhibits again and, as at the SMMT test day, it was a great opportunity to meet automotive twitterati old and new. Strangely, I haven’t blogged about it; perhaps I should.

Apart from my Tyndall PhD Conference blog entry, I’ve had one or two other things published online. An article I wrote about low carbon vehicles was published on The Green Car Website and, in a lighter vein, the PetrolBlog Real World Dream Barn I compiled late last year was complemented by the very first PetrolBlog Real World Dream Shed (well, it was my idea), and it’s great to see that one or two more Sheds being have put together since; more to come in 2014?

In addition, I was interviewed in October about my study by Coventry University MA Automotive Journalism alumni Max Prince for US car magazine Road & Track which attracted some comments, tweets and Facebook ‘likes’ and may (?) potentially lead to other writing opportunities.

So, looking back, it seems 2013 hasn’t been a bad year. I’ve driven a variety of cars (if only for one day), had some posts published and been interviewed for a car magazine. I’ve attended some great academic events and had some minor academic results. In both academic and automotive spheres, I’ve met and been reacquainted with some cracking folk – thank you all; it has been, and will continue to be, a pleasure.

Insofar as my thesis goes, I began the year continuing collecting data and end the year assessing and reassessing it all; there are still walls to scale, academic mountains to climb and chapters to rewrite, but things are perhaps slowly coming together. As to when I submit my thesis, I can’t exactly say, but hopefully late spring/early summer 2014.

To round off the year, as I write, views to this blog have just hit the 2000 mark since I started it in October last year. Thanks everyone for looking; I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading my posts and I’ll try to blog more often in the coming year (I think I said this last year too…!).

All the very best wishes for the coming year to you all, and here’s to 2014 – Happy New Year!

Black and white and read all over

Last weekend, I joined 27 postgraduates and academics for the Royal Geographical Society Social and Cultural Geography Research Group’s ‘Reading and Writing Weekend’, held at Gregynog Hall, approximately 6 miles north of Newtown, in Powys.

Gregynog Hall - a place to read and a place to be read (Pictue source: author's photograph).

Gregynog Hall – a place to read and a place to be read (Pictue source: author’s photograph).

Having booked my place late, I would also arrive after most of the attendees on the Friday, due to my presenting at the Regional Studies Association Early Careers Conference in Manchester that afternoon. No matter; with Manchester Piccadilly station only two minutes walk away from the conference venue, I could easily pop onto a train down to Newtown (and grab some reading time too!) before then getting a taxi to Gregynog Hall itself. However, somewhere between Welshpool and Newtown, a huge bang followed by a massive shuddering of the carriage and the sound of cracking brought the train to a halt, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

Blimey. What the hell was that!??!!?

It transpired that we’d hit some cattle on the line, ultimately stranding the train for over an hour and a half. While obviously a far from ideal situation (livestock and rolling stock aren’t a good mix), it must be said that the Arriva Trains Wales staff were tremendous, doing all they could to both keep us informed and get the train moving again. Having tweeted about the accident so as to let others already at Gregynog know that I’d be later than planned, I was also able to provide updates to our progress via twitter – despite an intermittent phone signal – to a stranger who was meant to collect someone on the train from a station further down the line and who’d picked up on my tweet. Alighting at Newtown just after 10pm, I tweeted a final update when the train departed and, with my good deed for the day done courtesy of the wonders of the twittersphere, I finally managed to reach Gregynog Hall where supper had been kept warm for me. And the bar was still open too!

I recommend the Blayney’s Ale, by the way.

A civilised reading space (Picture source: author's photograph).

All very civilised (Picture source: author’s photograph).

The reading on this weekend wasn’t just limited to academic texts. With acres of dark wood panelling, big leather sofas, stone-walled spiral staircases and a brilliant library, Gregynog Hall is a marvellously evocative building, invoking a real ‘affect’ that can be perhaps best described as somewhat ‘Agatha Christie’ – a cue for lots of references to candlesticks and lead piping over the weekend.

Having ascended said stone spiral staircases for the introductory seminar after breakfast, we were placed into four groups to discuss the sets of journal papers we’d all been assigned to read, before reconvening to discuss them more widely; fittingly, my group – led by Peter Adey from Royal Holloway University – was despatched to the library for the Saturday reading sessions pertaining to ‘Identity & Interaction’ and ‘Mobility & Migration’. These sessions were interspersed by lunch, afternoon tea (and cake!) and seminar sessions on academic writing and on the philosophy and rationale of the Social and Cultural Geography Research Group itself, entitled Why Social and Cultural Geography?

It was during this session that the clock on the wall of the seminar room sprang a surprise as we all noticed that the hands had begun to rapidly spin around the clock face of their own accord. Was this a corollary of a long day’s reading and thinking or, as had been earlier mentioned by some, Gregynog’s apparently haunted reputation? Either way, Saturday evening was a thoroughly civilised round of supper, academic natter, some drinks and a large Jenga.

Gregynog Hall library (Picture source: author's photograph).

Gregynog Hall library (Picture source: author’s photograph).

After a bleary (for some) Sunday breakfast, the rounds of reading discussions continued, this firstly on ‘Pedagogy & Place’ and then on ‘Sustainability & Food’, with another seminar on academic writing in between; however, the logistics of Sunday taxi availability coupled with one train every two hours meant that the latter reading session was missed by some (including myself) who left Gregynog just after lunch, musing on the weekend’s events and encounters as we went.

PhD research can be a lonely furrow to plough, and one of the reasons I (belatedly) decided to attend this reading and writing event at Gregynog was to somehow try and rediscover my academic ‘mojo’ after a recent creative lull. Events like postgraduate conferences and this weekend’s reading and writing session are always uplifting and reaffirming, and are a great way to meet with other postgraduates and learn about their research. Many thanks must go to Sarah Mills from Loughborough University and Rhys Dafydd Jones from Aberystwyth University for organising a great weekend, and also to everyone who attended for making a great weekend.

We must do this again sometime.

Gregynog Hall front elevation (Picture source: author's photograph).

Until next time…? (Picture source: author’s photograph).