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: phd
If you reading this post, you’re probably expecting something on Frank Sinatra. I am sorry to disappoint. As I write, I have just finished the second draft of my PhD thesis (although it feels like a new first draft). Technically its not quite finished. I still have to put into the right format, tidy footnotes and get ok from my superviser but the hard bit is done. Of course I am way behind my own schedule. When I started, I was aiming for the end of my 3rd year in August 2012. This has kept being pushed back. First December 2012, then January, Easter, then i gave up on schedules.
I feel a lot happier about this draft than I did the previous one, which was more about getting it done. The irony is that I could have had a first draft sooner if I listened to orthodoxy.
Originally I had chapters of 15000-20000 words, which was normal. Then one of my contacts, whose area of research is the nature of doctorateness, suggested that I split my chapters into smaller chunks of 5000-8000 words to make them more readable to the examiner. This made sense to me. I spoke to my superviser, who did not object. So I could have had a first full draft in November. I decided to make smaller chapters. However I realised that splitting was not as simple as it sounded; each chapter needed its own introduction and conclusion something which I had already done before. So I ended up spending 2 months on restructuring before submitting to my superviser.
After receiving comments back, I ended up rewriting whole Phd and ended up back at the more orthodox-sized chapters I had originally. And I realised that, whilst there is nothing wrong with questioning tradition, it’s worth remembering that traditions don’t survive because they are inherently irrational. Indeed, following Hegel, one could argue that the negation of an orthodoxy that seems irrational is necessary in order to realise its rationlity.
So what’s my point? That there’s a time and place for doing it “my way” and its not when I am near the end.
Finally, for those of you who came to this blog post looking for Old Blue Eyes, here’s Frank Sinitra “My Way”
It’s the evening of Christmas Day – presents unwrapped, stomach full and I am so tired. Personally I am content with this year’s haul. However I was disturbed to see loads of tweets in my timeline this morning from people moaning they didn’t get this or that. (Apparently iphones and ugg boots were particularly desirable.)
It does not matter what present or gift you receive or how much it costs. In a Hegelian dialectic, we exist when we recognise or acknowledge others as capable of recognising us. Whilst there is mutuality to the relationslip, there is an element of co-dependence. We desire recognition from the other through something the other can provide, and vice versa. The relationship is abstract when the self becomes aware or conscious of the other as someone/thing that is not the self, but it is realised when we not only act on that thought through our body but the other accepts our action. A relationship is therefore not just something intellectual or emotional but there is materiality. Giving presents is an expression of that materiality but when we prioritise the present over the act of giving or receiving, the relationship takes on a master/slave quality. When we receive a present, we can see that the donor thought about us. The present could be rubbish for all intents and purposes, it does not matter. However, if we think it is rubbish, it is perhaps an indication that we do not properly recognise the donor. On the other hand, the same applies if we put no thought into the present and give rubbish for the sake of giving.
Christmas of course is about a gift that God gave us. He thought of us and loved us that he gave himself in human form. The gift was about as expensive as it could get: it cost him his place in Heaven and it cost him his life in,the most painful way possible at the time. By comparison, any present we give to or receive from others is always going to be rubbish and fall short of our expectations. Hegel argued that the only way we can be content is to recognise ourselves or, as Slavoj Zizek says, to change our perspective.
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 I write, the town of Newtown, Connecticut, is dealing with the aftermath of an elementary school shooting, in which the shooter Adam Lanza killed 27 children. If that was not tragic enough, there has been one more victim, but this time at the hands of the media: Ryan Lanza, simply because he happens to have the same surname as the shooter.
According to Wired, various big name media outlets, such as CNN, Huffington Post and Slade, somehow identified Ryan Lanza’s Facebook page as the page of or for the shooter. This was picked up by social media and soon Ryan and even his Facebook friends were receiving, euphemistically, not very nice comments. Wired’s assessment was that in 24/7 news environment and a fast-changing story, media organisations were so hungry for information that they were not carrying out basic journalistic checks. But this is not a unique to the US. There have been plenty of incidents in Britain where the media have ignored or bent the law, in this case principles of journalism, for the sake of a story. The most obvious, recent, examples came out in the recent Leveson Inquiry, such hacking into people’s voicemails and taking personal, often intimate, information, without permission.
To me, these are clear manifestations of a Hegelian master/slave dialectic. A master entity, or entities, is only interested in its other – the slave – for what the slave can produce for it. The master’s life depends on the work of the slave. In this case, the slave is anyone from whom media organisations want information. The slave is valued according to how much information can be provided; the more open it is, the higher its media currency. And, media organisations then value themselves against each other based on the quality of the information they provide. The problem is that they are not so much concerned with their relationship with the slave beyond its nature as an object of a story or provider of information. If the slave suffers adversely – or even refuses to work – it is considered a minor inconvenience at best, because there are others to take its place.
Sometimes the media justify their actions by pointing to us as readers, that we want to know. Perhaps to an extent that is true, but the question is whether we are interested in wrong information (what’s the point) or information that has been obtained at the expense of someone else’s suffering (if we are, then why have not used any of the Nazis’ research on eugenics? Just saying) Furthermore, one could question how much of the information that comes through media organisations is important, perhaps it is just another consumable. A further justification is that people who provide information have their own agenda for using the media and so it makes them fair game. We tend to call them celebrities, i.e. famous people. But the word ‘celebrity’ or ‘famous’ is becoming a broader and broader category. But, just as men (and probably still) would idealise women and put them on a pedestal, only to exploit them, so perhaps the media idealises celebrities.
The media acts as a master over people because it needs their information. The irony is that, as Hegel argued in his dialectic, the media is also a slave to people, because it not only depends on us for information, it also determines its value by how much we want its information. If we were to stop producing for it and then consuming what it produces, a media outlet or organisation would die. Or would it? On the one hand, a media organisation, by definition, mediates information between those who provide it and those who consume it. However, there is third party: those who fund that mediation of information, the advertisers and business owners. As long as media organisations can depend on the money – and PR – provided by commercial organisations, it almost does not matter that they do not think about their relationship with the public. As long as they have the funds to exist, they do not need our information or our trust or love.
But I say almost. Just as there is a dialectic between the public and the media and the media and business, there is a dialectic between business and the public. After all, the business need the public to buy their products and/or to trust them. In this sadomasochistic love triangle, between the public, media and business, Hegel would argue that there is always a risk of dialectical breakdown somewhere. But it is that fear of breakdown – and the potential consequences – that prevents for the most part any one entity from pushing its luck too far. Sometimes breakdown does occur, but it is never so catastrophic that the system cannot repair it. There is also something posthuman about it in that now the public can be the media, those who work for media organisations or businesses can be people, media organisations are businesses, people have interests in businesses as employees, shareholders and future entrepreneurs, and so on. But it is the creative tension in the system that actually ensures that – whatever else happens – everyone eventually recognises the right value of each other. If things went so smoothly, where would be the fun in (blogging or writing) about that?
The problem highlighted by Leveson and Wired is that media organisations ignore the law for sake of more and more information. However the media is regulated, the role of the law is to remind media organisations and journalists that they are in relationship to other entities and they have a responsibility to them. Whilst information is important, it is not more important than the underlying dialectic.
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?
Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime minister, is actually quite radical in apologising for breaking the liberal democrats’ key 2010 manifesto pledge of not increasing tuition fees.
On hindsight, the pledge seems like just another crazy election promise that a governing party cannot keep. Yet, at the time, it was also something that was so easy to believe. Furthermore, the Libdems were neither the Tories nor Labour, so it was easy to believe that they could be different. So there was a lot of disappointment when they turned out to be more of the same. (I don’t think that’s a fair assessment.)
Clegg’s apology shows an awareness of a dialectic between resistance and change that is characteristic of Hegelian philosophy. in the opening chapter to my PhD thesis, I make the point that the only effective liberalism is conservative or incremental. It always looks to the future but lives from moment to moment. It would therefore take a brave politician to promise just a little bit of change. I disagree that the LibDems would have had to be “absolutely sure” that it could meet a manifesto commitment but a dose of realism regarding what’s possible would have been nice.
There is nothing wrong with aiming high. As my mum always said, if you aim for the sun, you’ll at least hit the moon. The problem is that sometimes if you only tell people you’ll hit sun, the moon can seem a bit of a disappointment.
Anyway, according to Hegel, we never actually know that we have reached our goal until we have. History is always written and rewritten after the event. Given this uncertainty, the most sensible option is to go in that direction one step at time. I would argue that many of our economic, social and environmental problems are perhaps a consequence of going too fast. Perhaps the reason why our economy isn’t growing is because the rest of the system is trying to catch up.
A loss of realism could be seen in other government policies too. For example, in the referendum campaigns for the Alternative Vote, both sides justified their positions with wild claims, when in reality the change was a small increment to greater representation. Discussions over the Royal Family also get a bit strange when they go beyond one of values to one of economic benefits. No doubt the same will happen with the referendum on Scottish independence. But at the end of the day, History does show and will show that we have always gradually been moving to a point where every individual will be mutually recognised and acknowledged by other individuals and no aspect of a person will be suppressed.
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.