Becoming an expert

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Sometimes I wish my PhD course was a little more flexible. Just a minor thing. Like the option to weasel out of doing a literature review. I’d do terrible things to get out of it. Bad things. Not that sort of bad, you perv. Like I’ll take out the rubbish when the bag has split and then clean up the trail of garbage juice. I’ll go to the dentist. I’ll babysit the shrieking hellspawn kids next door. I’ll watch that James Franco movie about North Korea. Just don’t make me review the literature. Don’t make me talk about situating my research. Don’t make me present myself as someone with the authority to make a critical assessment of the relevant literature in my field. Do you know how crazy that is? I’ve only just found my field and cleared away some of the rocks so I can set up camp! I can’t review it yet, I’ve only just started looking around!

I’ve read more this year than I have in my entire life accumulatively. Far from feeling enriched and learn-ed (said with two syllables, while swirling a glass of cognac), I feel a looming sense of panic about everything I don’t know. Every reference suggests ten more that I probably should have read already. They say you should stop reading when you stop learning something new. What if that doesn’t happen? What if, at my completion seminar, I stand up and tell them I can’t present my data because I’m still reading? It’s a real possibility, or it seems like it at this point.

As a kind-of-external student, my isolation is a blessing and a curse. I can smash out 1000 words before breakfast but by lunchtime I may be still in my pyjamas and telling my cat that she’ll get a doctorate before I will. The cathartic, self-deprecating exchanges with fellow students over coffee are something I really miss about the studying experience. Sure, at the library I’ll share a mildly hysterical look with someone else who has a stack of books and an aura of drowning, but it’s just not the same. For now I’ll have to settle for online rants and the biannual trip home.

My last trip back did reassure me somewhat. I know this won’t last forever. I’m the post-grad equivalent of an undergrad who is fresh out of high school. The panic will pass and I’ll find my feet. By the end of my PhD, I’ll be completely self-assured, an expert in my field. Grad students and UN reps will ask me if I’ve read this insightful new book that has pretty much come up with a flawless new development paradigm. I’ll sigh indulgently, “Oh darling, I wrote the book”, and point a meticulously-filed finger at my byline on the cover. Because future me has a book and a manicure.  I suppose she doesn’t chew the sides of her fingernails so they aren’t torn and ragged and I bet she doesn’t worry about getting hepatitis from taking her open wounds to a nail salon. I bet she can write concluding sentences for paragraphs too. Sigh.

For now though, this novice will make a coffee and shamefully get the packet of cooking chocolate out of the fridge. Times are tough when you turn to cooking chocolate. I’ll make a coffee and go back to the last sentence of that paragraph. Ok, the last sentences of those three paragraphs.

“You’ll understand when you’re older.”

If I have a spirit animal, it’s this dog:

Somehow, I was under the impression that legally being an adult meant you suddenly were in possession of a wealth of knowledge and experience. Yet here I am, verging on my quarter-century birthday, thinking of this dog on daily basis. “What did you do next, science dog?” I ponder. “And how did you get your protective goggles on?”

Like many an amateur psychologist, I’ll blame my upbringing. There seems to be an evil underground culture of parents lying to their children about life.

“Hey kids! On December 25th a fat, bearded man from the North Pole will break into our house and bring your presents!”

A timely, classic tale of betrayal. A global conspiracy between parents and shopping malls. But do you know what the biggest lie is? It’s not the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. It’s far more sinister. It’s the endlessly repeated catch-cry of:

“You’ll understand when you’re older!”

When? I’m older, much older. When exactly will this understanding be taking place? A precise time and date if you could.

Nothing yet. Just older, no wiser.

One could argue, if absolutely necessary, that perhaps I put myself in situations like the one science dog has found herself in. A challenging career, moving overseas, enrolling for a PhD.

Oh, that’s what this post was about. I’ve been accepted to study for a PhD.

It’s just you and me, science dog. For the next four years.

Dear thesis

Dear thesis,

It’s time for us to say goodbye. Not forever, just for now. It’s time for you to go out into the world, strike a path of your own, leave the nest and learn to fly. *Sniff*

You’ve grown up so much over the course of a year. You started as a vague little idea, a direct product of my musings and research. You grew into something polished and considered. Something grown-up, in my opinion anyway. And now it’s time for you to go out into the big wide world. I’ve done everything I can to prepare you for the big, mean world and the scary examination panel that dwells within it. But your paragraphs are clear, your literature review is comprehensive, and your references are immaculate. You’re ready. I’m not sure I am though.

We’ve had our rough periods, especially during those rough teenage months. I didn’t know what you’d become, you thought I was old-fashioned and stuck in my old ideals. It got so bad I couldn’t look at you, and you crashed. A result of a binge, an overdose: too many tabs open, too many pending actions. But we got through it with a little help from some friends. They say it takes a village to raise a child. It definitely takes at least a suburb to make an honours thesis.

Now it’s time, armed with your lodgement forms and statements of originality, you’ll travel back to Australia to learn your fate. Our fate.

I won’t be congratulating myself or celebrating just yet though. You’re the academic equivalent of getting a puppy to see if you’re ready to have a baby. The practice run. But we made it and that sure as hell counts for something.

So good luck, little thesis puppy! May your arguments be strong and your word count be overlooked.

Love,

Bridget

What I learned from Anna Karenina

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I have been lacking in my posts once again. My only excuse is that my thesis is in its death throes and I’m trying to deliver the final blow. Die! Die! Nearly there.

When I haven’t been contemplating my life choices and cursing word counts, I finished reading Tolstoy’s classic Anna Karenina.

It’s a nice, impressive one at add to the bookshelf; nothing like a bit of classic Russian literature to impress visitors. It was a surprisingly easy read though, particularly compared to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. While Anna is still sitting on my bedside table, Crime and Punishment is gathering dust very impressively in the corner of the bookshelf.

Anna taught me a lot about writing. The subject matter was dense and foreign to me, the language was littered with French and Russian phrases which required translation, and all the characters are pretty unlikeable, yet I had to keep reading.

Levin was an insecure, overly intellectual snob, Vronksy was vain, Anna was her own worst enemy (spoiler alert: other than the train), and Oblonsky was an irresponsible philanderer. But I wanted to know more. I wanted Anna to get her divorce and go to the country. I wanted Oblonsky to go home to Dolly and look after his thousand kids, and Levin… Levin, smile you miserable bastard! How did Tolstoy make me care so much about these flawed, desperate characters?

They say a writer must write what they know. It is so much more than that though, everyone knows something but not everyone is a writer. My theory is that it comes down to observation and words. The minute details of every scene, every conversation and every description in Anna Karenina make it easy to picture and imagine that you too are sitting in a box at the Petersburg opera, or sipping vodka with peasants after a tough day’s harvesting. Tolstoy must have been a perceptive observer of the world around him. But he also must have been a great sculptor of words. I think sculptor is the most appropriate word because crafting meaningful sentences is about more than stringing words together. It’s foraging for the perfect word, the right medium to convey your message, and melding it with others to create something bigger than the words along. Finished sculptures seldom resemble the clay they started as. You could be the best observer but if you can’t find the words to describe what you see, you may as well not have seen anything.

I think that’s probably my take-away from Anna Karenina. Along with some other stuff about cheating on your husband, wheat prices, and train platform safety. It’s probably a little lofty to aspire to write like Tolstoy but his descriptions are something I’d like to incorporate more into my own writing. Elaborate descriptions are a bit of a weak point for me. A background in journalism has left me equipped with short sentences and scenes heavy in dialogue. But as soon as this thesis is laid to rest, I’ll turn my attention back to basics and back to describing.

As for reading, War and Peace is up there on the list, but everything in moderation. I’m cleansing my palate of Russian Society with a biography of Hunter S. Thompson.

Talking points

My head is deeply buried in thesis sand today and it got me thinking. Much of my initial discussion is about conversation. Greek political nerd (because I am NOT using the word ‘rhetorician’ again in my life) Cicero reckons that conversation is the soul of democracy. This, to me, is probably a bit vague. I really fail to see how my Mum and I talking about what to do with my mail advances democracy in anyway. Others, myself included, argue that there needs to be a bit more structure around conversation for it to have any worth in a democratic context. America academic Michael Schudson shared this view. One of his arguments is the reason I’m writing this. He believes, and this is heavily paraphrased, that in order for political conversation to be meaningful, it needs to be uncomfortable, civil and participants need to be able to change their mind.

Not a lot of conversations are like this.

Uncomfortable conversations. The reason why they say you should never discuss religion, politics or sex at the dinner table. It’s uncomfortable. You don’t go to a dinner party, hand over the bottle of wine you politely brought along and open with “Abortion reform in New South Wales? Come on, guys! Pros and cons! Or euthanasia? Anyone?” This is a pretty good way not to get invited back to another dinner party. Really though, it should be at the heart of political discussion. Political issues and conversations should be uncomfortable. First of all, not everyone is going to agree on every single thing, it’s about consensus. This means discussing your viewpoint with someone who holds an opposing one. Socially, we tend to mix with people who share our values so getting out of the comfort zone to speak to someone who fundamentally disagrees with you is not necessarily fun. But necessary all the same. An example I can think of is the Murray-Darling water management. As an ex-Brisbane girl, this was never an issue I hugely engaged with, more of a vague “save the river for the fish and like, the environment, man” kind of sentiment. I’m sure though, that if I had a discussion with a  farmer in south-west Queensland or rural New South Wales or Victoria, I could very easily be swayed. It would be uncomfortable because really, what right does a city girl have to voice an opinion on water management in the country? The answer: every right, but with that comes a responsibility to be informed..

Civility often goes out the window when there are differing views. I have escalated many a political argument with my partner by telling him that he sucks, or that his opinion is invalid because he has food on his face. Neither of those are true: he doesn’t suck and one should be entitled to an opinion even if one’s face is encrusted in food. The point here is that meaningful debate is difficult. It’s hard to dispute logic, it’s far simpler to disregard civility and attack the person not the argument. Ad hominem attacks are something we see all too frequently in everyday politics, mud-slinging and smear campaigns also have the added advantage of selling more newspapers than policy debate. So meaningful conversation requires an environment where civility is assured. So not at Parliament House and probably not my house either…

Finally, changing your mind. Political choices are often not so much of a choice. You vote based on who your parents vote for, or where you live, or based on how much money you earn. It is as much, if not more, of an emotional decision as a logical one. That’s what makes it especially hard to change your stance on an issue or to persuade other people. My partner and I have been together for five years and, while I think I’ve managed to sway him on maybe two talking points, he remains *shudder* a conservative voter.

It can be hard to change your mind, pollies cop a lot of flak when they do. Back flipping. But if those back flips are the result of reasonable, meaningful debate, they should probably be encouraged. The example I think of the medicinal marijuana argument. There was a story on Hack a few months back about a young man with terminal bowel cancer, marijuana was the only thing that helped him. Dan’s story prompted MP Kevin Anderson and former federal police commissioner Mick Palmer to change their stance. That’s not back flipping, that’s changing your mind based on new information and experiences. It’s being informed and compassionate, two things all politicians should be encouraged to do, even if it means deviating from party lines and, heaven forbid, ‘back flipping’. 

I suppose the point of this is to point out a few things to remember when thinking, or talking, about politics. Get uncomfortable – put yourself in someone else’s shoes, keep it civil and don’t be afraid to change your mind. 

Now, to somehow put this in academic-speak and multiply the word count by ten…

July is going to be busy.

Yikes. So marks are out for uni. Somewhat surprisingly, moving overseas at the start of exams didn’t impact my marks as badly as I thought it would. Little bit disappointed but probably shouldn’t be, all things considered.

Now that marking is finishing and I’m “settled”, my supervisor and I finally had a chat over Skype about how things are shaping up. He was happy but had a few pointers. And by pointers I mean massive overhauls to the entire focus of my thesis. There was much talk of INCLUSIVE DEMOCRACY.

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What started as a little radio project has snowballed to something much bigger, but still (hopefully) focussed and within scope. Writing about how to improve democracy is great for the old ego. *Climbs on to soapbox.* But it presents the challenge of a near-complete re-write of my two-thirds complete thesis. While trying to write a novella. While writing pitches for articles to earn money. *Gets off soapbox and hides under table.* Hmm. July is going to be busy.