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"Being-in-Print": Manufacturing Identities in the House of Cassell

PhD spotlight | Annisa Suliman, PhD 

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Annisa Sullman

Annisa Suliman is currently an independent researcher. Formerly a principal lecturer at Leeds Beckett University in the field of public relations and journalism, she previously taught at the universities of Teesside and York St. John. Before entering higher education, she spent 20 years as a media professional. She holds a first-class English degree and an MA in Victorian Literature from the University of Leeds and successfully defended her PhD thesis in March.

PhD Title: "Being-in-Print": Manufacturing Identities in the House of Cassell

Supervisors: Professor Ruth Robbins and Professor Robert Burroughs

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to study for this particular programme.

Whilst studying my MA I was struck by the repeated assertion that Dickens was the literature of choice for the masses. As an 11 year-old, I’d found him difficult and given that research suggests that the average age of tabloid readers today is 10, it didn’t make sense to me. That set me on a journey to find out what ordinary readers in Dickens’s time actually read.

Through Richard Altick’s work I learned that Cassell’s Illustrated Family Paper (1853-1867) - a publication aimed at the working classes that I’d never heard of - had up to a million readers a week during the mid-1800s. My Masters research concerned regionalism and identity construction in the media and though I used Cassell’s Paper I didn’t have the scope to fully explore reasons for its popularity and why I hadn’t heard of it.

My PhD topic was inspired by a desire to better understand the importance of readers in the construction and sustainability of a publication. Margaret Beetham’s post-2000 work, which strives to find traces of historic readers in periodical texts by exploring engagement practices by analysing textual material in light of its socio-historical and production contexts, provided further inspiration.

Why did you choose Leeds Beckett?

Leeds Beckett was the obvious choice, not only because I was an academic at the institution but because the research specialisms of my supervisors were a great fit with my subject matter and approach. In addition, The School of Cultural Studies and Humanities has a rich history of supporting interdisciplinary approaches to research and a varied programme of workshops, conferences, seminar and publishing opportunities.

What is your research about and what makes you passionate about it?

My thesis is about an emergent modernity in which the identity of Victorian producers and consumers is constructed by the process of engagement with House of Cassell publications. It explores the complex relationship between the mass audience and their chosen periodical and its relevance to identity and cultural formation. Focusing on the work of nonconformist publisher John Cassell, it argues that his success in an over-crowded market place was driven by adept negotiation with consumers who recognised themselves as members of a powerful emergent social group. In seeking to find traces of actual readers, emphasis is placed upon reader-writer interactions on the letters pages of the company’s most successful publication, Cassell’s Illustrated Family Paper. These are explored within the context of other House of Cassell products and influences wider afield.

My thesis shows how reader engagement was driven by a variety of gratifications from pleasure to resource-gathering, experimentation to identity formation and that correspondence pages provide a place of intersection where individuals come into contact with the social structure, are influenced by it and in turn influence it. Crucially, through such engagement consumers come into being as readers, critics, co-creators, negotiators and performers who had more impact on cultural formation than previously thought.

What have been the rewards and challenges of your time here?

Archival research into Victorian periodicals is especially challenging. They are fragile, often produced in multiple formats, and bound according to consumer whim. Researching a non-elite publication adds a layer of difficulty because the majority are not digitised. Considered of low value, they are rarely catalogued or held in coherent runs.

Originally, I intended to record topics, speech-acts between readers and writers, as well as letter signatures and unusual content and map against periodical content but faced with incredibly rich data I had to scale back my ambition.

In my second year, I was diagnosed with dyslexia. The support from my supervisors and disability services was invaluable enabling me to utilise a range of tools and strategies to complete my studies.

Earning my PhD is the hardest thing I have ever done. Sustaining interest and remaining committed over quite a long period when faced with competing demands such as full-time work, and important life events are terribly hard. However, it has been supremely rewarding and life-affirming. I went to an awful secondary school where their highest ambition for us was factory work or childcare, so getting this far has been a tremendous achievement.

What will your story be?

Studying with us is a great choice, check out some of our courses and see for yourself!

In Clearing
BA (Hons)

History

Two women reading history artefacts

Annisa Suliman

Annisa Suliman is currently an independent researcher. Formerly a principal lecturer at Leeds Beckett University in the field of public relations and journalism, she previously taught at the universities of Teesside and York St. John. Before entering higher education, she spent 20 years as a media professional. She holds a first-class English degree and an MA in Victorian Literature from the University of Leeds and successfully defended her PhD thesis in March.

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