In this series we interview PhD researchers across the arts and humanities in Scotland, and throughout the month of March we’re putting a special focus on women-identifying researchers. In this post, we hear from Jordanna Conn, who is a PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow.
What year are you in, and at what school?
3rd Year PhD candidate in the Text & Image Department at the University of Glasgow
What’s the working title of your thesis?
Currently? ‘A Picture Spans a Thousand Years: Jewish Graphic Narratives as “Proto-Comics” in Pre-Industrial Times’.
How would you describe your thesis to someone you just met?
To all the illustrations I’ll never manage to draw myself. In all seriousness, though, I’ve gone from ‘it’s about comics and superheroes and whether or not they translate to text-and-image examples from the medieval period and is that an example of an antecedent to comic books’ to considering complicated questions, such as: What can Jewishness mean in visual narratives? What does it mean for their creators? The readers? Is there anything connecting thematic and visual influences? How do sacred texts and narratives translate in visual examples from illustrated manuscripts or modern graphic novels? And how do I make these thoughts coherent?
What do you like best about your PhD/research/experience thus far? Least?
I absolutely love the manuscripts and visuals that I’ve been introduced to because of the research. The ability to look at a manuscript and see the artwork from centuries before was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I spent about fifty percent of my time studying a fourteenth-century manuscript wondering if I was getting smudge marks anywhere, and the other fifty going ‘this is amazing, look at the detailing on that figure’ while turning the pages with the type of delicacy necessary to pipe frosting on a ginger biscuit if I ever apply for The Great British Bake Off. Being able to research visual narratives on themes which are constantly retold through new lenses is extremely rewarding, whether that’s looking at graphic representations of extremely old books or the rewards and pitfalls of retconning in comic books.
What I like least is the feeling of ‘why am I doing this?’ that pops up when I’ve hit a small block that feels like a large block, whether that’s because my current avenue of research feels like I’ve careened into a wall with a giant flashing sign that says, ‘This isn’t going to work!’ or because of the imposter syndrome that seems to be present when I can’t manage to find the words I want to express on the first, second, or sometimes even third try. Since research is such an inwards activity, and since a lot of it is within my own head as I try to make sense of all my thoughts and what I’ve looked at, these thoughts can be jumbled, and trying to work with my own doubts takes time and patience.
What do you wish you’d known going into your PhD program?
I went straight into a PhD from an MLitt, so I knew that this project would be not only bigger than my previous two degrees, but also more involved. In the abstract, I saw that at least the next three years of my life would be focused on my research, but since it was a topic I loved, I didn’t really consider burnout. I forgot that even though, for my undergraduate degree, I wrote about a topic I loved, once it was turned in and I graduated, I watched Captain America: Civil War in theatres, analysed it like I was going to present primary source quotes from the film to retcon into my thesis, and then didn’t pick up a comic for about four months. Burnout happens. When the pandemic hit, and resources and the library became harder to access, I had to confront a bit of the burnout between research and my own personal worries. I’m not sure I’ve really integrated all these aspects of my life alongside my thesis, but like my thesis, it’s something I’m still working on.
What do you do for fun outside of academia?
In the ‘before’ times, it was traveling and hiking, and I can’t wait till I am able to safely go out and explore the world again. Right now, it’s watching television and baking. I’ve caught up on a lot of television I’d fallen behind in and taken a lot of pictures of baby Highland Cows at Pollock Country Park. In terms of baking, I started (and promptly killed like an un-watered plant) a sourdough starter, to my shame. However, my bagel-making skills have markedly improved, and it almost makes me stop longing for the ones from back home in the States. Almost.
If you’d like to be featured in our ‘5 Minutes With’ series, email Danielle.Schwertner@glasgow.ac.uk