This week I gave my PhD confirmation seminar, presented at the APECS Online Conference, and struck up conversations with several other people about my project (including with health professionals whilst en route to a sporting event, a visiting DJ, and with teachers at Friday night drinks).* There’s been plenty of talking on my part, but the dialogue that these encounters have allowed has been great too, in that I’ve had questions coming back at me as well. Answering questions is a great way of looking in on your project from a new angle, with a fresh perspective. It reveals the elements within specific disciplinary boundaries that we take for granted, and it can remove the trolls that lurk beneath the bridges to other disciplines.
One of the questions I was asked on Monday at the APECS session was “Is Antarctica being represented the way it should be?” That is, of course, a highly loaded question – depending on who is doing the asking, there will be different definitions of the way “should be” portrayed. An advertiser looking to draw on the heroic history of the continent will have a different agenda to an activist seeking to outline the fragile nature of the polar environment. To answer this question, we first need to ask: who are the stakeholders? And what is their desired outcome of creating a representation?
What I can say is that Antarctica has been represented in many different ways over the years, and these representations have changed to reflect the dominant cultural narratives about the place. These days the most dominant way of framing Antarctica is of the continent as a place for peace and science. Most of my colleagues I have spoken to who do scientific research on the Ice have expressed a desire to keep Antarctica the way it is, as a reserve for scientific enquiry. Of course, there is a complex web of international relations and political positioning that goes on behind the science programmes as well, and this context plays an important role in explaining why we think of the place in the terms we do at this point in time. Still, the dominant version is never the only one.
Questions are also good for helping you to define the scope of your project. A PhD can seem really big and scary when looking at it from the bottom of 3 ½ years, but defining what it does not do is actually quite helpful for finding focus and articulating what it is that it does do. I have also been asked “how can we use your findings to better portray Antarctica for our own purposes?” That’s outside the scope of my doctoral work (and, arguably, my literary studies field), but is the sort of project that could conceivably follow on from my findings. Still, in order to manipulate any kind of text and imagery, such as advertisements, you first need to have an understanding of what they have done in the past, and where the ideas that are associated with their different elements have come from. There’s still a long way to go yet, but that’s where I’m heading!
* Before we go any further, it’s worth pointing out that this kind of human interaction is very exciting for a PhD student, as we can spend days at a time tapping away at our computer screens, revising drafts, and forgetting what other people actually look like…