Post-conference update

I am about three weeks later than promised with this post! I can only apologise and blame it on the busyness of the height of Burns season (lesson learned – promise nothing in January!)

Anyway, following on from my last post, the team were delighted by the pick-up of our Sunday Herald article printed on the 8th January (link goes to a PDF copy for those who can’t access the Herald online). The article was further picked up and re-printed online by The Scotsman, The Scottish Sun and the Evening Times newspapers, as well as websites in India and the USA. As a result, we received letters, emails and tweets from around the world. In a surprise turn of events, Monday afternoon saw me heading over to the BBC Radio Scotland studios at Pacific Quay for a live interview with Mhairi Stuart on that day’s NewsDrive show. (I’m waiting on a copy of the sound file but I will post it once it’s available).

Danny Smith then recorded a follow-up interview with Ricky Ross which was broadcast on Ricky’s Sunday morning show on the 15th January. You can listen to Danny talking about the project, mental health and creativity, and mental health awareness here.

The main event though, was the delivery of the full paper at the annual Centre for Robert Burns Studies conference on the 14th January. Again, the conference was wonderfully hosted by the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, although no snow this year!

I will admit to having been anxious about speaking. I was worried about getting my message across clearly, about the hype the media coverage may have generated, about the potential upset that may have arisen around tackling such a controversial aspect of the bard’s life.

CRBS Annual Conference 2017. The sun was glorious but right in my eyes for the first 10 minutes!
CRBS Annual Conference 2017.
The sun was glorious but right in my eyes for the first 10 minutes!

But I shouldn’t have been. The paper was incredibly well received. I had some lovely comments from colleagues and delegates about my delivery and the clarity of the story I told. I had some powerful messages of support from people who are affected in some way by mental health issues, both in the resonance that Burns’s experiences have for their own lives and in talking openly about such issues in relation to such a public (and successful) figure. Colleagues spoke to me later of the many lunchtime conversations they overheard around the paper and, more importantly, around mental health issues.

There were intriguing questions, both in the panel discussion, and during lunch and coffee breaks, about Burns’s posturing within his letters, the clues that his poetry might hold and about the nature of the ‘Irvine episode’* These were particularly valuable as these are all aspects which later stages of the project will be exploring; thus, questions on these justify us including them in project plan and confirm that there is, and will be, ongoing interest in the project’s progress and findings.

And I’m reliably informed by Gerry and Danny that, as a result of the paper, they’re not going to get rid of me just yet. Everyone’s a winner!

I hope to be able to share some of the actual detail of the paper with you soon but we have to work within the rules for academic publishing which means getting it into a journal first.

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And so, it was from one conference to another, and to a very different audience. Every year, the British Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nitrition (BSPGHAN) hold their annual meeting in a different location. This year, it was being hosted in Glasgow between the 25th and 27th January. Given the timing, having a Burns Supper for their Gala Dinner on the Thursday evening was the obvious option. I was delighted to have been asked by the organising team to deliver the Immortal Memory.

It was only after I had said ‘Yes’ that I actually thought about what my focus should be. 250 paediatricians, nurses, nutritionists, dieticians, pharmacists and scientists – not my usual audience and not likely to feel much of a connection if I stood up and talked about Burns’s mental health. Nevertheless, inspiration struck as I was reading the poet’s letters to and from George Thomson; I realised this in collecting, editing and preparing for publication songs and poems, Burns was undertaking a project in a fashion which would be recognisable by any researching academic.

And so, through the life of Burns, we shared the journey, the challenges and the pitfalls of collecting data, preparing for publication and seeking an outlet, of giving time and effort freely for a cause we believe in and, in the words of Burns, seeking ‘to wipe all tears from all eyes’. I’m told there were tears in the eyes of several people by the end, some of whom I’ve known for many years and are definitely NOT the crying type, so I think I hit the right note.

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And finally, two more exciting bits of news.

I was delighted to be asked to attend the Hunterian’s Burns Night at the Museum on the 27th January. These nights are great fun, with atmospheric lighting, special exhibits and a non-stop whirlwind of pop-up talks and performances over the course of the 3 hours of the event. I was manning the CRBS stand so I had plenty of opportunity to chat with the public about the work of the centre, the new online courses being offered, and a little about my own work. A particular highlight was the event being opened by Fiona Hyslop, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs; afterwards, she spent considerable time chatting with the team about various aspects of the Centre, including 20 minutes with me discussing the Blue Devilism project and the wider issues of mental health awareness. As an Ayrshire lass, she knows her Burns!

This week has also seen another project abstract be accepted, so in April, I’ll be heading down to Nottingham for ‘Reading Bodies, Writing Minds’, a one-day conference exploring various aspects of mental health within the field of medical humanities. I’ll be presenting a paper entitled “‘O wad some pow’r the gift tae gie us’: redefining the melancholy of Robert Burns’.

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*This refers to the period in Burns’s life when, at the age of 22 Burns had moved to Irvine to learn the trade of flax dressing. He invested in a flax dressing business there but lost everything when the the business premises and everything in them burned down. This may have been one precipitating factor in a significant episode of illness, severe enough that Burns was attended five times over eight days by Dr Charles Fleeming, and that his father, William Burnes, should make the 10-mile journey from Lochlie to Irvine to visit his son. Burns writes about this episode in a letter to his father, dated 27 December 1781, and in the famous autobiographical letter to Dr John Moore, now held in the British Library. It is variously suggested that the episode was a bout of the rheumatic fever which would damage his heart and lead to his early death, or a severe episode of mental disturbance resulting from the stress and shock of the loss of his investment. Of course, it may also have been neither or both of these….

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Pre-conference publicity

Ahead of Saturday’s annual CRBS conference where I’m presenting the initial findings of the project, today’s Sunday Herald have run a great article on the project’s work so far.

Of course, I’m pleased to see coverage of what makes our project novel and interesting but I’m particularly delighted by the emphasis within the article about the bigger picture – raising awareness of and reducing stigma related to mental health issues.

Please do consider coming along to next week’s conference to hear the full story behind the article. I can also vouch for the excellent scones that the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum serves.

I’ll blog again next week, about the conference generally but particularly about the reception and reaction to today’s article and the full paper.

First publication!

A little bit of excitement today with the publication of my first piece of project-related writing here.

Following my trip to South Carolina, I was delighted to be asked to write an article for Robert Burns Lives! to introduce the project to the website’s US readership. 

Curated by Frank Shaw, a passionate Burnsian and enthusiastic supporter of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies, the RBL! pages are a mine of information on many aspects of the poet’s life and contain contributions from lay and academic experts from around the world – well worth a little exploration. 

It’s truly a special moment for me to be given a small space among them. Hopefully, it also marks the first of many project-related publications!
(Thanks go to Prof. Patrick Scott of University of South Carolina for his editorial support.)

Homeward Bound

Last week I posted from Glasgow Airport as I waited to head out to South Carolina, so it seems only right that I write again while I wait on the return flight.

It’s been a fantastic week, for me and for the project. I’ve been able to spend hours of really focused time working with resources not available in Scotland, such as Burns’s (allegedly) tear-stained letter to Clarinda and a range of pamphlets from the 19th century when phrenology (the study of the lumps and bumps of the skull to determine a person’s character and temperament) really was considered a science.

I’ve also had the chance to make new contacts with various people within the USC community, particularly Professor Patrick Scott (hugely knowledgeable on Burns, Scottish Literature and the wider literary field) and Dr. Elizabeth Sudduth (Director of the Irvin Rare Books and Special Collections, and passionate about all things bookish).

A particular highlight was finishing up yesterday with an impromptu tour of the Rare Books vault with Elizabeth, where they keep their most precious holdings. Shelves and shelves of Burns, Milton, Darwin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway; bindings that are hundreds of years old, medieval illuminated manuscripts that have colours as fresh as the day they were added; an insight into the wonderful work that Elizabeth and her team undertake with students, particularly Honours students, to explore the collection and have them involved with valuable research on the texts; and some surprising items such as Fitzgerald’s walking cane and a cast of Burns’s skull. It really was a treasure trove, and I’m already looking forward to my next visit(s) where I can explore more of it.

Travelling solo has also meant lots of time to work without the day-to-day distractions/commitments of campus life in Glasgow. As a result, I’ve managed to finish a fairly major data-crunching task which seems to be showing some interesting results in relation to the mapping of Burns’s moods. This still needs a full analysis so more on this another time. I’ve also been able to work on a couple of side projects and write the first draft of a conference abstract which I hope to submit for next year’s World Congress in Vancouver.

However, more than the sheer pleasure of being able to immerse myself completely in research, the best thing about this week has been the welcome. The people of USC have been wonderful, more than willing to go for a coffee or a beer to chat about my work and start building new relationships. I’ve been overwhelmed by their enthusiasm and offers of support, and I look forward to seeing some of them in Glasgow in coming months. For a new researcher, building these contacts is an important stepping stone to becoming established in a field and I feel I’ve made real progress this week.

I’m sad to be leaving it all behind, even though I know I’ll be back. As my first proper research trip, I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to academic travel. These trips are what you make of them but the people of USC have made it so much easier.

But I am looking forward to being home again.

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Burns’s letter to Clarinda (‘scuse the shadows)

Blue Devilism goes international

I’m writing this while I sit in the lounge at Glasgow airport, waiting for a gate for the flight that will take the project on its first international foray.

This week, I’m off to visit the University of South Carolina’s Thomas Cooper Library, home to the largest collection of Burns related materials outside Scotland.

The trip is to be an exciting mix of establishing my own working relationships with people who are already good friends of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies, and various tasks relating to different aspects of the project – some work with manuscripts, texts dealing with Burns’s personality and biographies which shaped the way the poet was viewed after his death. There should be time for some sight-seeing too.

It’s an exciting prospect but a little daunting too. It’s going to be the longest and furthest I’ve travelled on my own, so there has been much girding of the loins in recent weeks. First impressions are always important, so I’m keen to give a good account of myself and the project, and show that it’s of the same high standard of anything from my Burns colleagues.

On the whole though, it’s a great opportunity that’s only come about through the project, so it’s something else I’m hugely thankful for, and I look forward to sharing it with you all next week.

One year on

On Monday, I received an email telling me it was time to register for the 2016-17 academic session. Which means it’s almost a whole year since the project officially started. This got me thinking about what this year has been – the progress, the achievements, the hurdles – and what the next year will bring.

First and foremost, this year has been fun. Whether it’s been getting to know Burns better or getting to know new colleagues, other PhD students or new contacts within the Burns community, I’ve loved being immersed in academia and in my subject.

All this means it’s also been a busy year – reading, writing, meetings, conferences, talks, workshops and seminars – the past 12 months have been pretty jam-packed with activity. And it’s all been juggled with the demands of family life (not to mention an house move this summer.)

However, it’s been a draining year – physically, mentally and emotionally tiring. Keeping the brain switched on to read an article or book chapter (usually several), ploughing on until a conference paper or talk is written, standing in front of an audience asking very helpful-but-challenging questions, laying the foundations of an academic profile, coming to terms with the demands of the academic role and the shift in how that fits in with the rest of my life (that’s been the really tricky one for me) – they all take their toll. It’s been important to have other things in life to provide a change of pace and focus, and accepting that taking time out can be more beneficial than just trying to push on.

But more than anything, it’s been a year of success! The project is well and truly off the ground, with a pile of work having gone into generating the first data relating to evidence of mood disorder in Burns’s letters. Thousands of words have been written, drawing together background reading, methodology, results analysis and forward planning. Important contacts have been made at various conferences and events. Exciting collaborations and side projects are being discussed and explored. And everyone seems happy with how things are going.

So here’s to the next year. Tomorrow will see me get my hands on some real Burns manuscripts for the first time (I am SUPER excited about this!). September is my first major research trip, taking me to visit colleagues at the University of South Carolina. Hopefully, we’ll see the first publication of work from the project and maybe another conference paper or two. And who knows what else….but I can’t wait!

Games and grinding, research and RPGs

As a literature specialist who spent her teenage years negotiating the 1990s, it’s perhaps no surprise that I’m a fan of computer consoles and that I particularly love role-playing games (RPGs). I’ve spent countless hours immersed in a narrative, guiding my character through missions and tasks. My absolute favourite still has to be Final Fantasy VII (FFVII) – playing as Cloud, leading his band of rebels against the might of the Shinra Corporation and the ultimate power of Sephiroth. The narrative running through this massive 4-disc epic (hey, in 1997, that was huge!) was utterly compelling, with characters provoking genuine emotional responses as you played, hooking you for the full 100+ hours required to complete the game (I wish I still had that kind of time!) This was the first time the storyline in a computer game made me cry. (I won’t spoil it for you, especially if you’re waiting on the re-vamped update due in 2017.)

But RPGs are also about putting the hours in. You start off with a fairly steep curve of learning new skills, meeting new characters and completing straightforward tasks to introduce you to the controls and functions of the game. Afterwards though, comes the hard work. They don’t call it grinding for nothing! Hours spent completing a long thread of minimal tasks or trading with in-game characters or collecting a list of items, usually involving a LOT of wandering around the massive game map and all working towards a single, bigger achievement which is essential to continue your progress through the story line. It feels like everything slows down and it takes real commitment to stick with it. But once you finish that, what a rush! And you keep going.

And that, I have learned, is what research is like.

You’ve read the first few posts, where I’m pretty busy and everything is all new and shiny – meeting new people, attending workshops and seminars, discovering lots of new reading – but lately I’ve been very quiet.

I’m sorry for that but, quite simply, I’ve been grinding.

The first phase of the project has been to create a methodology for charting the signs and symptoms of abnormal mood in Robert Burns’s letters, to test it, tweak it and then apply it across the body of correspondence. At over 740 letters, this has been no mean feat!

It has taken a fair amount of time but, I’m delighted to say, it’s done now. It definitely feels like the first really big milestone of the project. A bit like when you have the first battle with a big boss, knowing that it’s going to unlock the next chapter of the story.

And what is the next chapter? Now I start analysing the results of the charting to look for any patterns that have emerged, as well as thinking about how I start incorporating the evidence from Burns’s friends and family into the analysis. And, of course, sharing the findings.

So onwards. As with FFVII, there’s plenty more grinding to come, but I also know there’s plenty more compelling moments in the storyline. There’s plenty more hours and probably plenty more tears.

Something tells me ‘Academia: A Researcher’s Tale’ wouldn’t sell as well as FFVII…

 

For one night only!

A Medievalist, a Romanticist, a Modernist and a photographer walk into a bar together.

It sounds like the start of some really bad academic joke. It could have been. But it wasn’t. Instead, it was the start of a surprising and exciting collaboration.

Imagine it – 11am in Aberdeen. It’s a cold, clear November morning. The sort that tells you winter is on the way. Twenty-two individuals from different institutions, all at different stages in their different projects which range across pretty much every field within the Arts and Humanities, are shut in cellar. No sunshine for them! They have less than 6 hours to get to know each other, form working groups and put together a 5-minute presentation for ‘research cabaret’ to be staged that evening as part of Aberdeen University’s contribution to the Being Human festival. And they have to eat too. And some of them have been awake since 5.30am (It was a lovely sunrise.)

After some introductory exercises and advice with the fabulous Helen Keen, we were left to create our own collaborative groups. In no time, I found myself in a group of four, all of us from different universities and complete strangers to each other. All we had was the gut instinct that our four projects could be worked together around a single theme.

Still not quite sure where that instinct came from though. Agnese from Aberdeen is working on visual representations of illness and disability in modern photography…thinking about this within the context of mental health isn’t a massive leap to make, so a fairly obvious link with the work of Blue Devilism. However, throw into that mix Sibyl from Edinburgh (exploring immigration through the travel writing and fiction of 20th century Muslim women) and Ioana from St Andrews (representations of gender fluidity, gender ambiguity and sexuality in medieval religious representations of the Crucifixion) and it becomes far less obvious!

Sometimes though, it just works. And this worked. There was a definitely a collective ‘Aaah!’ of a shared lightbulb moment when we realised that sharing stories and emotional experiences was our common thread, the theme that linked all our work together. From there, it all fell into place. I suspect the other groups went through a similar process.

By 4.30pm, those twenty-two researchers emerged blinking into the streetlights (the nights are fair drawing in, aren’t they?) exhausted but exhilarated. Five very different presentations have been crafted, refined and rehearsed. Academic alchemy in action!

That evening’s event, with Helen as host and opening act, was a resounding success. Feedback afterwards from the audience was incredibly positive, with a real appreciation for the work that had gone into the day, the enthusiasm and passion of the group, and the sheer genius evident in making it all fit together.

It’s only now, having had a weekend to process everything (as well as catch up on lost sleep and get over a horrible head cold) that I can really appreciate what we achieved. We came together, took the best of what we all had to offer and came up with something that made us all look at our work in a new way. That room was a microcosm of what academic research is all about– building on existing knowledge to create new understandings.

And surely coming together to work collaboratively in overcoming a challenge is a definitive aspect of being human? Even if it sounds like a bad joke at first.

 

*There may be a video emerges at some point….

The morning after...a few bleary eyes!
The morning after…a few bleary eyes!
(Photo courtesy of @RDUAberdeen)

 

What’s the point?

 

Don’t worry! The long gap since the last post isn’t because I’ve fallen into the depths of research despair. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s been a busy month for Blue Devilism but the best kind of busy.

A big chunk of the time has been spent on background reading, particularly people who have already written about Burns and his health. There’s lots out there, which is great as it helps build a really full picture of how our current views on Burns have been shaped, what’s been done well in the past and how this project can improve on that work. But it also presents the challenge of identifying the most relevant material and focusing time and energy on really pulling it apart without getting too distracted by other avenues. Not to say I might not wander down a tangent or two occasionally…

However, by far the highlight of the first few weeks has been speaking about the project with other people. I’ve done quite a few training workshops and attended seminars which has let me meet researchers working in a wide range of other fields. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of hearing what people are doing and looking for opportunities to build new links with other researchers.

Perhaps more exciting for me though has been speaking to non-researchers. We’ve probably all seen a story on the TV or in the newspaper about some research project which makes you think, “What a waste of money!” or “I could’ve told you that, it’s just common sense.” So whenever someone asks about my project, I wait to hear, “But why?”

And I’m still waiting!  I’ve been amazed by how positive people are when I talk about the work. They’re excited about the possibility of new insights into an already-intriguing life. They’re fascinated by the possibility that some of Burns’s brilliance (and notoriety) might be influenced by mental disorder, and they’re interested in the better understanding we’ll gain of Burns’s inspirations and creative processes.

Even more encouraging is the appreciation for the wider value of the project. They see the potential for a very positive impact on the wider understanding of mental health issues and the stigma which can been attached to that.

They see the point.

Getting Started

Starting a blog seems only marginally less terrifying than starting a PhD! Committing words to the screen for public consumption (and possibly comment)…is this the 21st century equivalent of standing on the street corner with a sandwich board?

In May 2014, I went along to a symposium on the theme of ‘Robert Burns and Medicine’ (some might see this as an odd choice for a day out, but there we go). The main aim of the symposium was to explore the interest and appetite for further work on Robert Burns and his health; although much has been done to examine the circumstances surrounding his death at only 37, almost nothing has been done to look at his mental health and the periods of depression he reported. Together, Gerry and Danny hoped to initiate a research project to explore this aspect of Burns’s life.

I’m not sure if the day was meant to be one big advert, but they certainly got my interest! A chat at coffee break, a few emails later and I was in. I found myself with a project, a supervisory team and a swathe of funding applications to write. Not a bad return for the 20 quid the symposium cost me!

So, 18 months on from that day out, officially starting my research (and this blog) is a huge milestone in what has already been a lengthy progress. So where am I going and why?

The original intention of the project still stands. I’m going to be looking at the mental health of Robert Burns, scouring his letters, journals and notebooks for evidence of signs and symptoms which supports the theory that, had he been alive today, he would be diagnosed as suffering from depression or bipolar disorder. From there, I’ll be looking at the impact his mental health had on his life and on his creativity.

That make is sound quite easy, doesn’t it? If only! It’s going to be a challenging process: we can’t speak to Burns or his friends and family the way a psychiatrist would today; some of his letters, especially from his late teens and early twenties, are lost; even where there are letters, there’s going to be a lot of interpretation, looking for clues in the language Burns used, his subject matter, his sentence structure and flow of ideas. It’s a bit like trying to assemble a jigsaw with no box – you’re not sure all the pieces are there and only a rough idea of what the picture might look like when you’re done.

So what? What’s the point? He’s been dead for over 200 years, after all.

That’s true, but in that 200 years, Rabbie has taken a bit of a pounding for his personal life. The results of this research might go some way to providing some explanation for his behaviour (not an excuse though!). It also provides another piece for another jigsaw – there is a fair amount of research published which makes strong links between bipolar disorder and creativity, and this research could add to that picture. By helping to improve our understanding of how these are connected, this project also goes towards helping the wider public understanding of the implications of mental health disorders, understanding that such a condition can bring advantages too.

But let’s not run before we can walk. The first stage for the project is to get a good understanding of what has already been written about Burns’s behaviour and mental health, and what kind of picture it paints of the Bard, then to use this understanding to help develop a strong method for exploring and analysing his personal writing for signs and symptoms. In short, what we’re doing before we start doing it.

So there it is! The project has made it out of the starting blocks, the team are all excited that we’re finally in the race. We just have to remember it’s going to be a marathon rather than a sprint.