They say a picture (or a video) is worth a thousand words. So, after two intense months to produce a second draft of my PhD, I could only cite Thelma and Louise to describe the change in productivity.
Category Archives: Anecdotes
Well, we’ve come round full circle to where we were this time last year: 31 December, the last day of the year. So, mainly because everyone else is doing it, this post is my review of the year from the point of view of my blog. (There is an ancient Tamil proverb apparently: if you see one man running down the road, ask why; if you see a whole crowd of people running down the street, don’t ask questions, just run.) However, unexpectedly, those nice people at WordPress have done the hard work and produced an ‘Annual Report‘ for me. (Another ancient Tamil proverb: Great people do things without asking.) The report itself is probably not the most interesting thing in the world unless you are me, which you are probably not, so I’ll let you indulge in the detail at your pleasure, and I’ll just focus on my most popular posts.
In the year of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, my post on the interesting “history” of the Dutchy of Cambridge is the fourth most popular post. Indeed, since it was written in the aftermath of the Royal Wedding in 2011, it has been in the top two for much of the time. Pretty impressive for something that based on a Wikipedia entry and perhaps one of the few posts which started with a bit of journalistic curiosity. It has lost its top position to that curious mix of God and sex; triggered by an article I came across in the New Scientist on what happens in the brain during sex and orgasm, I argued that there is a lot of truth in that “Yes, Yes, Oh God, Yes” moment. In essence, sex was created by God to give us a momentary glimpse of what it will be like to be in relationship with him in Heaven. This post was one of the first of 2012.
One of the most surprisingly successful posts, again written in 2011, came out of a conversation I had with my dad following the conviction of a gang of Asian men for grooming white girls. Somehow, the conversation got onto the bizarre subject of the traditional ‘coming of age’ or ‘age attainment‘ ceremony that Tamil parents arrange for their daughters following the first period. (I don’t know if other Asian cultures have something familiar.) I have always felt a bit uneasy about the ceremony for what is essentially a natural bodily function. I was quite shocked as to the original reason for the ceremony, back in the day, but was shocked even more that the tradition of the ceremony is still followed even when it is no longer relevant. What is interesting is that ‘age attainment’ was one of the most popular keyword searches of visitors to the site. It might also explain why I have had quite a lot of visitors (to the site) from India.
Of course, 2012 was the year that many people thought the world would come to an end, on 21 December. Of course, this New Age belief was a a very bad interpretation of the Ancient Mayan Calendar. A co-written post with @everythingreal, who I follow on Twitter, on what western astrology has to say about the day scraped in at number five. I have to be honest, I don’t know to what extent this post’s popularity was as a result of the topicality and to what extent it was down to heavy promotion on Twitter. I can be certain that this post brought a whole load of readers from United Arab Emirates, mainly friends and followers of @everythingreal who is based in Dubai.
Finally, perhaps the biggest moment of the year and of my life – my sister’s wedding – was the reason for my favourite post. In keeping with Tamil Hindu tradition, I was the Best Man (or Maapila Tholan), so of course I had to give the Best Man’s speech. And it went down really well, with people laughing in the right places; I received good feedback on the day too. I have recently seen myself speaking in the wedding video: I was amazing, if I do say so myself. This post has been constantly in second place since the wedding. Of course, at the back of my mind, I thought that guests might be telling me what I want to hear. But, in the last weekend of 2012, at a birthday party, someone who was a guest at the wedding told someone else completely unprompted that my speech was spot-on and well-delivered.
So, I have had an enjoyable year blogging even if my best ones had nothing to do with my PhD, Hegel, or environmental law. I have learnt that God, sex and the Royal Family sell, so to speak. (In that respect, I am really looking forward to the birth of the Royal Baby to William and Kate.) I have also learnt that it pays to be on Twitter, from a blogging point of view, as more people came to the site from there than from WordPress itself. Good writing and originality are important and I need to work on my presentation of Hegel.
So apart from the Royal Baby, what has 2013 in store? Most importantly, my PhD will be submitted and Not A PhD Thesis becomes Got A PhD Thesis. ( I don’t know whether and how I will change it on Twitter as well.) God willing, I will be able upload another wedding speech, but this time as the groom (I’m open to any offers). I will be back on the job market again, hopefully not too long (Again, I’m open to offers). I would like to take more contributions, so if you are interested in writing something, please contact me. And who know what will happen in the news?
I have always been in favour of plastic Christmas trees over real, fresh ones. My parents bought one when my sister and I were really small – I don’t remember not having it – and we are still using it 30-odd years later. That means we contribute a bit less to climate change than those who opt for a fresh tree every year and we save money by being able to reuse the same tree (although, technically, fresh Christmas trees tend to be of the evergreen variety so could be reused if cared for). As the short film, Gloop, points out below, plastic is a fantastic material because it can be formed into any shape and, once shaped, resist deformation. French philosopher Catherine Malabou adopts the metaphor of plasticity to describe the dialectic or relationship between different entities.
Byproduct of oil production notwithstanding, plastic’s adaptability has led to somewhat of an environmental revolution in that products could be made without extracting finite natural resources. However, in an economy driven by capital, the resistability of plastic has had the unfortunate, unenvironmental effect of plastic mountains on land and sea. Furthermore, in the long term, it does break down, with smaller pieces ending up as part of the food chain. The irony is that this contradiction in plasticity fits with Malabou’s description of an underlying relationship between entities that influence each other who also resist the influence.
This Christmas, I am probably entering what will be the end-game for my PhD. (I know, I have said that before, but I think I mean it this time.) By the New Year, I should have a full draft for submission to my supervisors and by March I will be ready to officially submit to the university. Actually, that deadline is as much externally imposed, because that’s when my funding runs out. You could say I am cutting it fine.
To be honest, that is pretty much my own fault. I had planned to submit by July 2012, then somehow it kept slipping back and back. I would love to say it is all because of the depth of my research. Unfortunately, that is not the case. For in the last three to four years, there were quite a few periods where I was not working directly on my PhD. Like all PhD students, I became particularly susceptible to procrastination. I was sent the following graphic recently and, in my opinion, it captures the struggle of the procrastinating student: the stress during procrastination, the rush once one is sufficiently close to a deadline, the ease with which technology facilitates procrastination and even the steps for tackling it.
Picture provided by OnlineClasses.org
As a fourth year PhD student, I am supposed to be in the position when I am ready to present my research to the department. If I were pregnant, I’d have a clearly visible bump, I’d be waddling and people would give up their seats for me on the bus. I’d also want to get the damn thing inside out of me. In a sense, I am ready to pop.
But when I gave a talk on my PhD research this week, it was as if I had only just done a pregnancy test. In fact, I was wearing so many extra layers that people could see I had put on weight but they did not know why. PhD research, like pregnancy and childbirth, suppose to be a beautiful process, but I had simplified it so much that I turned a baby, not even into a foetus but into a clump of cells.
In a former career, I was a journalist, and I now I blog and still do the occasional bit of copywriting. Like every other experience, it had shaped me in way that I was able to take useful life lessons. One of these lesson was: when communicating information, don’t assume that my reader or listener knows what I am talking about; indeed, it is generally a good idea to assume they know nothing. (Incidentally, I heard a similar version of this lesson in relation to driving: just assume everyone is an idiot.) Of course, I don’t take this lesson to the extreme but I have always found it to be a helpful guide. I do not find it easy, it does require being extra-vigilant but generally others have complimented me on my comprehensive writing.
When I started my PhD, I continued to adopt this approach. It is possible that I have assessed academic books and papers based on how easy they were to understand and I generally prefer writing journalistically than in academese or in a managerial style. Indeed, I would argue that all writing should be journalistic. Indeed, I have noticed that, in terms of structure, a news story, a journal article, a first class dissertation and a PhD thesis chapter are very similar. (Of course, a news story is more condensed.) My supervisor has now and again made references to my journalistic style of writing and to my alter ego as a blogger, then at our last meeting he said that I am writing more like an academic. To be honest, I had no idea what he was talking about. My undergraduate degree was in Mathematics and Computing Science, did not have to the three years experience of writing academic essays, and then I went straight into journalism for three or four years. So when it went back to university to study law, I did not consciously write any different. I applied the skills I learnt as a journalist. A good essay was about research and analysis, as far as I could tell. So when it came to my PhD, I did not consciously think that I had to write as an academic. I simply applied the skills and lessons that served me well, like a habit.
And so, knowing that there would be people who were not familiar with my particular theoretical framework, I decided to dumb down so to speak. I did not think of it like that, I simply wanted to make my research easy to understand. But there is a difference between simplifying in writing, where the reader has something to refer on paper, and orally, where all explanation has to come out of the speaker’s mouth, with or without the help of Powerpoint slides. Unfortunately, I found that I could not do justice to Hegel in a few slides, so I decided to speak only. Furthermore, like a journalist, I focused on one particular thread in my research. Unfortunately, this was the most unHegelian thing I could do. I ignored the dialectic between the different aspects of my research except the most basic of original Hegel and household recycling.
Throughout my PhD, there has been an underlying creative tension of the Hegelian dialectic between myself as a journalist and myself as a (potential) academic. In a sense, my PhD is a synthesis between what I knew as a journalist and what I am supposed to be learning as an academic. But, according to Catherine Malabou, that means that I was relying on a habit of journalism (what I know) and at least consciously resisting an aspect of academia. However, I was also submitting to academia as well, because I found that – by surprise – I was able to understand books in my third year that I could not understand in my first year. The dialectics between resistance and submission is plastic, in that both clearly were shaping it and it was resisting deformation . But then, there is an explosive quality to plastic as well. In my talk, I entered a situation where the need to submit was as strong as the desire to resist and I think I had a major explosion (or implosion). Perhaps I was have been applying the paradigm of journalism to situations where I should have been applying the paradigm of academia (whatever that is). Sometimes it worked and where it had not, I had put the failure down to something else. so, Thomas Kuhn argues, it was only when the conflict between two paradigms were sufficiently great that I reached a point of what Malabou calls le voir venir (To see what is coming). It was like a prophecy given by the Ancient Greek gods warning what might happen if I did not change course. The problem is how? What does say with regard to journalism and academia?
Yesterday my sister got married and, in accordance with Hindu tradition, I was the best man. This speech was probably the most important and difficult task I have ever done and will probably never have to do it again. And it was a success in that I received the laughs where I wanted them and everyone said how good it was. Even my Dad said so, without his added criticism. As far as I could tell, everyone loved it. I would therefore like to share it you, with the bride and groom’s deleted for their privacy. Hopefully it could inspire future best men’s speeches, just as I was helped by listening to others.
Ladies and gentleman, family and friends, thank you for being patient as you waited for the highlight of the evening: the best man speech.
For the benefit of those who don’t know me, I am Pravin. As the (bride)’s brother I have the traditional Hindu honour of being the best man. I have no other qualification for the role but 30-odd years of brotherly love. So at this point I would like to thank our parents for not having any more daughters.
Anyway, if tradition says that I am the BEST mane, who am I to argue with tradition?
What is the purpose of the best man’s speech?
Having listened to my fair share of best man speeches in my life, I was certain of what it was not. That meant it had to be mildly humourous, if possible, without embarrassing the bride and groom, while distilling some wisdom which hopefully and could use. Then I remembered that, being single, I was perhaps not the most suitable person to give advice on marriage.
I would like to thank the number of philosophers in this room who have provided advice on what makes a good marriage. The consensus is that a good marriage is about give and take, understanding each other and a fair share of allowing things to go in one ear and out the other.
After 30 odd years, I could probably tell a thing or two about living with (bride). However, the French philosopher Voltaire describes marriage as an adventure, so why would I want to spoil that?
Anyway, according to the German philosopher Nietzsche, what is most important is someone to talk to along the way. Since and both like the x factor, sport, similar type of movies and going to the temple, and from my own observation, I doubt talking will be a problem but, (groom), if you want to take a break, (bride) can make up the difference.
Socrates has some advice for (bride). If a man finds a good wife, he’ll be happy; if he finds a bad one, he’ll be a philosopher. I am not entirely sure what Socrates meant but his wife is recorded as being a bit of anag. However, I am not suggesting that (bride) is like that.
To toast my sister and brother-in-law, I turn to this famous, slightly-amended poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, that one day they can look back and see it as reflection of their marriage.
How do I love you? Let me count the ways
I love you to the depth and the breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love you to the level of every day’s most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love you freely, as men strive for right.
I love you purely, as they turn from praise.
I love you with the passion put to use in my old griefs, with my childhood’s faith.
I love you with a love I seemed to lose with my lost saints!
I love you with the breadth,
Smiles, tears, of all my life;
and, if Destiny chooses, I shall but love you better after death.
Ladies and Gentlemen, please stand and raise your glasses to Mr and Mrs …, for the rest of your lives together and for eternity.
It may sound like an odd question, even presumptuous to ask who my PhD is for. I’ve always justified my choice to do one on the grounds that I love research and I found a subject I wanted to explore. (Why do people act environmentally friendly – answer, we always do.) In other words it was all about me. But if that were true, then I know from my own experience that I probably would have got bored. I have only been able to sustain interest in the most mundane of activities by looking beyond myself.
My experience is supported by a number of philosophers and scientists. Hegel’s philosophy in a nutshell is that a person can have a full existence not only if it lives for itself but also lives for another. Freud says that while pleasure comes from the release of tension, ultimately ending in the final release and death, our instinct for life goes beyond the pleasure principle. According to neuroscience research, neurons survive when connections are made to other neurons.
The question is, who else is my PhD for?
The immediate and obvious answer is that my PhD is created for my supervisers and viva examiners. After all, at the end of the day, I don’t want to have nothing to show for the time and money (especially as its not my money). So even though it is my research, I don’t think I have ever rejected any of the guidance or recommendations provided by my superviser. And I do have one eye to what the examiners will read and how I might justify what I have written, to the extent that I have cited my intended examiners’ work.
But if that’s all my PhD is for, it would probably be pulped after viva instead of being available in the library. instead, it becomes another brick in the wall of knowledge, waiting for others to build on it. So my PhD is for other researchers.
But I don’t intend that my PhD collects dust in an academic library, hoping that someone finds it. After all, if a tree falls in a forest and there’s no-one around, does it make a sound? Similarly, as Hegel argued, does my research exist if there is no one to at least acknowledge or recognise it. One of my favourite metaphors for doing a PhD is pregnancy and childbirth, complete with labour pains; why would I not want to show off my baby? not just at conferences and in articles, but a book,this blog and other social media channels. My PhD started life as an environmental problem. Well, I do think it may or may not suggest particular policy actions. I hope its not presumptuous of me to think that my PhD is for society.
Finally, before I started, I prayed that whatever I produced from my research would not contradict the Bible. As far as I can see, God has answered my prayer. Indeed, my research has given me a greater understanding of many of the paradoxes in christianity. Furthermore, Hegel’s philosophy is obviously influenced by christianity and one cannot deal with him without dealing with the spirituality, which is heavily interwoven in it. So in the end my PhD is for God.
I have been distracted by the Olympics the last week or so and, as I watched Team GB scoop up medals, I noticed certain similarities between a PhD student and an Olympic athlete. (Of course, in its totality, doing a PhD is nothing like an Olympic sport.)
One could argue that it takes 3-4 years of intellectual training and gymnastics to produce a thesis. But it all comes down to your performance in the viva, which I understand to be a stressful and nervewracking experience. Of course, there has to be something to defend, so the time and commitment to research and write and learning to be a researcher are one’s training for the viva. Indeed, Professor Vernon Trafford argues in his book “Stepping stones to achieving your doctorate” that preparation for viva begins on day one of the PhD programme, just as training for London 2012 arguably started when Beijing 2008 ended.
Submission is therefore qualification to take part in viva, which is where the real testing begins. Our thesis is subjected to real examination and only those that are strong enough get the medal of a PhD. As in the race between Victoria Pendleton and Anna Mears or in the individual showjumping, it comes down to discussions between the examiners and we’ll get either gold (no amendments), silver (minor amendments) or bronze (major amendments). Of course, we’ll train and hone our skill through conferences, articles, teaching and so on but without the PhD, nothing else really matters.
At the end of the day, we have to have confidence in our thesis as the athletes do in their ability. our success depends on our own entourage too. Unfortunately, we can’t look to the atmosphere of the crowd in the viva, but I guess we could simulate it beforehand using social media.
There are probably other parallels I could draw. But there are two key differences: an Oympic career is usually over by the age of 40 (unless you are a showjumper) but a PhD can be done at any age and it can often mean the start of something new. Also we get to wear funny costumes (again, like a showjumper).
If you can think of any other parallels between a PhD and an Olympic medal, please comment.