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Chris Griffiths is from Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. He joined Oxford Brookes in February 2016 and his PhD thesis title is ‘Authenticity in the work of W.G.Sebald and Bruce Chatwin’.
I knew about Oxford Brookes from previous studies here (PGCE in Post-Compulsory Education), so I mostly knew what to expect! My first impression of the new Gipsy Lane campus was very positive - especially all the open spaces.
My decision to research at Oxford Brookes was partly because I had studied here before, partly because of the proximity to where I live, but mostly because of the research status of the University and the similar research interests of my supervisors.
I was working in the NHS. I undertook my BA and MA quite a few years ago, but was always keen to continue studying.
With juggling other commitments such as work and family, making time to do research is still the hardest thing for me. The support from the University is great though, and there are good resources and plenty of chances to network. I do not feel that I have made the most of this yet, but I intend to as my research progresses.
My research is a work of literary criticism, but is also rooted in philosophy, and I think the two complement each other well. It follows on from the MA I undertook a few years ago on the work of the German author W.G.Sebald, which looked at various aspects of the uncanny in his prose narratives. Sebald’s voice is certainly amongst the most interesting in contemporary literature, and as such he continues to be studied widely in academia. Alongside Sebald, my research also includes the work of the writer Bruce Chatwin, a far less common figure to be seen studied in universities but arguably one who left a body of work similarly important and difficult to categorise.
Chatwin was something of a self-mythologist who blurred the boundary between fact and fiction in his own life. He travelled widely because he was naturally peripatetic, but also because his concept of self was ‘nomadic’. Sebald used themes of physical movement and displacement as a means to examine the construction of a stable sense of identity in the face of unreliable memory and the questionable legitimacy of truth. It is now open to debate whether such thing as a single, constant self even exists in contemporary Western society – and, if it does, how do we discover it? The narrators of Sebald and Chatwin attempt various means to locate the authentic, from collecting Meissen porcelain to analysing photographs and films. But their journeys rarely provide a straightforward answer.
As part of my research, I hope to analyse not only the published work of Sebald and Chatwin but also the holdings of the Chatwin collection at the Bodleian Library. His extensive notes for a book-length project called The Nomadic Alternative are housed here. My goal in undertaking a detailed analysis of identity and authenticity through the lens of the travel narrative in these authors is to add something new to the fascinating debate on authenticity in contemporary culture, and to uncover comparisons and textual interpretations previously unexamined in their work.
The thing I enjoy most about being a research student is the opportunity to focus on a single subject in depth. Sebald and Chatwin are in many ways unique in contemporary literature, and their writing says a huge amount subtextually. The pleasure is in attempting to draw that hidden meaning out and express (or defend!) a position. Again, the biggest challenge for me is time. Being self-directed means setting your own internal deadlines. I’m not sure I have got this balance right just yet.
The research training is free, comprehensive and readily available. There are a whole range of sessions, from library and database training to intellectual property issues and thesis writing. There are also sessions on time management which I will definitely benefit from. There is also a great deal of support from the supervisors, which is a safety net.
I’m not really looking further than hopefully finishing the PhD in a few years’ time. I’m working part-time as well as studying, and as a mature student the research is something I am doing more for its own sake than as a career move. Having said that, there is always the possibility of academic opportunities arising further down the line, and there is a whole range of literature that I am interested in, so further research might even be on the cards.