Shooting the Victorians – Kate Colquhoun.
I want everyone to link to the blog operated by the Journal of Victorian Culture Online. The title directly above the YouTube video is a link to the article I want to discuss. Read my entry after you read Fern Riddell’s.
Fern Riddell, a PhD Candidate at King’s College, London. Posted an entry and an interview with social historian Kate Colquhoun. The basis of the interview is to promote a film adaptation of Colquhoun’s book called Murder on The Victorian Railway. While this program sounds fascinating and I will be hunting for it over here in North America, what I’m more interested in is the conversation these two share on the writing process.
Riddell claims that she is having a “writing crisis” as a graduate student and I can relate to that as a fellow grad student preparing my own dissertation project. I think what Riddell appreciates in Colquhoun’s writing, and what Colquhoun encourages in the interview, is the vital element in all academic writing: honesty.
There is much debate about the nature of academic writing and its exclusivity. I have had this debate with my own graduate colleagues here in Canada. However, whenever I speak with an experienced, well published, scholar in my field or in other fields, the advice I receive is to speak using my own words. To be concise. To be clear and to simplify my language. This is not to say I should dumb down what I say. Colquhoun is absolutely right and I think she offers Riddell advice similar to that of my own supervisor and second reader. There is no need to insincerely attach a theoretical language to one’s work if that language does not communicate what you are trying to say.
I have this habit of speaking in a very colloquial fashion. The way I speak always made me feel incredibly self-conscious in graduate seminars because I didn’t speak in the language of poststructural, semiotic deconstruction about the disembodied trancendence of some dialectic of blah, blah, blah….. I find myself rejecting books that try too hard to impress me with their theoretical vocabulary. I won’t name names but these books are just badly written. Remember that when you write.
Of course, my colleagues were practicing the language of criticism that we were learning. That is important. I also try to understand what these unfamiliar terms mean. How would I communicate these complex ideas to the nonprofessional, to the undergraduates I am teaching in first year surveys, to my partner and my non-academic friends. I have also realised over time that each academic field, period, theory, has its own language and terminology. As we progress in our fields we must learn the language of our field; however, an important part of that process is to forget much of that terminology. What I love about Victorianist scholarship is that it places history, literature, and culture in the forefront and theory is placed in conversation with these fields. A conversation happens where theory is not front-and-centre but available for the sake of clarity. Theory and its complexity can have the power to simplify one’s writing if we make economical use of its terminology. In other words, a little goes a long way.
The academy is changing. I have heard the digital revolution referred to as equivalent to the theory revolution of the 70s and 80s. How we do what we do must continually change in order to be culturally valuable and viable. The basis of what a Victorianist scholar does, I believe, is to keep the archive of knowledge alive. No, I’m not referencing Foucault or Derrida’s vision of the archive (they are both still waiting to be read), I am referring to an archive in the sense of a library’s archive. A store of knowledge available to be read but, more often than not, is allowed to be forgotten. I see my job as bringing this archive out of its dusty box from an obscure shelf where it has been locked away from contemporary society: forgotten, but saved in case someone may be interested in it once again. As a Victorianist, my job is to bring these boxes into the open, to show their contents to students, to critically analyse these contents for my colleaugues in articles and books, to write those articles and books in a way that will allow for both scholarly rigour and encourage wide-spread interest in the past.
I think everyone should know what we do as academics. We are specialists in our various fields and if we want the wider world to care we have to find a way to teach our archive of the nineteenth century to as many people as possible.
Accessibility = simplicity. We (i.e. Grad Students) need to stop writing with the intention of impressing our professors. We are graduate students and mimicry is not flattering; usually, it is painfully awkward. Let’s try something new and remember why we began this journey into Graduate School and further into the academy. We are passionate about the history, politics, art, or literature of the Victorians and the language of our writing must convey that passion.
I want to thank both Fern Riddell and Kate Colquhoun for this interview and article. You’ve inspired me as I face a day of dissertation editing. Honesty, passion, simplicity. These are the keys to writing that is powerful, scholarly rigorous, and accessible.