How was your Christmas Day?

Perhaps this is a question you’ve already been asked in the post-Christmas, pre-New Year lull. What was your answer? Or maybe it’s something to look forward to when you go back to work or school. How would you answer? For me, it was exciting.

Christmas Day was not exciting because of the presents I received. That’s not to say they were not good presents and I am not thankful for them. But the last time I would describing receiving presents from other people as exciting is when I was a kid.

It was not exciting because I spent it with family. Again,that is not to say it was not good time but, as I live with my parents and see my sister and brother-in-law regularly, Christmas Day was arguably in many ways just like any other day of the year.

Indeed, for 13 years, I increasingly found myself asking what’s the point of Christmas? If Christmas Day is not special because of presents and family, why bother celebrating it? 

I became excited about Christmas seven years ago, when I became a Christian.

Presents and family are precisely what Christmas is about, not in themselves but as symbols of God’s gift to humankind to welcome us back into his family. His son, Jesus Christ, was born as a human to live as one of us, be executed for all of us and come back to life so that each of us could be forgiven of our sins and be with God for eternity.  
 
Why do you find Christmas exciting or not? Please leave your answer below.

Everything changes but you

Dear Green PhD,

Two months a ago, I wrote to you to break up you.

I’d been so busy worrying about and trying to finish my PhD (still am by the way) that I did not have time to think of you. I thought that my lack of continual lack of inspiration was a sign that our relationship had run its course.

I thought that you had been a fun distraction from the serious relationship with my PhD.

But I was wrong.

I’ve realised that you are as much an important part of my life as my PhD. Indeed, my PhD is the one whom I’ll be with for a short period of time – just nine months to go to now. But I can be with you for as long as I like.

In fact, you’re the one whose been creatively supporting me during my research and enabling me to play with ideas that won’t make it into the final cut. Just because I was having trouble communicating with you, it didn’t mean that we were finished. Perhaps I just needed a break, which I have had.

Once my PhD is finished, all I will have with you. To quote the ancient wisdom of Take That:

Everything changes but you,

We’re a thousand miles apart but you know I love you.

Everything changes but you.

You know, every single day I’ve been thinking about you.”

Please take me back.

Pravin

Change: the universal constant

Dear Green PhD,

I’m sorry. I’ve not really paid you much attention in the last six months and I’ve totally neglected you in the last two.

I’ve been so busy worrying about and trying to finish my PhD that I really didn’t know what to say to you. I thought better to ignore you than suffer the uncomfortable silences of two months of posts.

But I know what the problem is.

We came together a year after I started my PhD. Researching and writing my thesis has been hard work, though enjoyable, and you offered me moments of light distraction to reflect. However, the deeper my relationship with my PhD became, the longer the distance between our moments together.

It wasn’t you.

It wasn’t me either.

With my PhD now close to completion, it’s just that “you and me” has run its course.

Yes, I am breaking up with you.

It’s time for me to move on and make a fresh start.

All the best,

Pravin

After the viva…Can’t stop falling in love with you

“Wise men say, ‘only fools rush in’,

But I can’t help falling in love with you”

- UB40

In the first year of my PhD, my supervisor made an interesting comment about my theoretical reading. He said that I fall in love easily. He was referring to my tendency to want to jump from one theory to another whenever I came across a new one. When I submitted my registration document, three months after initial enrolment, I was proposing to use a theoretical framework that somehow brought together the work of Hegel, Luhmann and Sloterdijk. I soon realised that it was going to be way to unmanageable and I decided to stick with Hegel. After attending a conference, I almost dumped Hegel in favour of Foucault; fortunately my supervisor emphasised the importance of committing to a particular theory. I remember making the decision that I was going to stick with Hegel as the basis for my theoretical framework come what may.

Yet somehow I managed to come away from my PhD viva with the overarching comment that there were too many theories in my thesis  – and as a result they were superficially connected by the use of metaphor rather than exposition from the literature. The irony is that I thought I was being restrained. I started with Hegel and moved to readings of his work by Jessica Benjamin’s psychoanalysis and Catherine Malabou. As far as I could see it was Hegelian. The problem is that having set a boundary, I inadvertently crossed it by looking at psychoanalysis and other work by Malabou. For some reason, I also felt inspired by my supervisor’s work and included that as well, not too mention the more minor interventions. I somehow justified it my head by saying that Hegelian dialectical philosophy allowed for it.  I ended up with a Hegel as my first wife and a philosophical harem.

So the last month or so, I have been trying to figure out which theoretical intervention are essential to my thesis, and which are just fluff. The examiners’ report has been very helpful in that regard. The problem with it is that the examiners themselves have made a number of alternative recommendations as to how I could proceed with my thesis. Perhaps too many recommendations, because I have been having trouble deciding which recommendation I should take.  So then I have to ask myself, what is the primary purpose of my research and what is the dominant idea I want to get across. I have been bouncing from one thing to the other this last month, unable to make a decision, worried that any decision will be the wrong decision. I am also seeing how much my thesis is like a ball of wall; if I try to pull on one particular strand, the whole ball comes apart. I think I am slowly figuring out my favourite theme. Oh where is my supervisor when I need him the most? More importantly, why did I decide that I wanted to have my viva the day before he goes on holiday for two months?

I said in a previous post that my PhD has been an opportunity to learn things about myself as well as my research topic. Well, I have learnt that this tendency to fall in love easily and difficulty with decision making has been an ongoing problem for me, to various degrees. I could write more on that, but I won’t out of respect for others affected. If past experience is anything to go by, I needed the shock of the viva to force me to make a decision (though I wish that the examiners had just made one or two recommendations). Once again,  as with the preparation for the viva, I think the most useful advice  comes from my dad, whom I paraphrase: “Right or wrong, the important thing is to make a decision; if it is the wrong decision, I have to work to make it right.” He said that in a different context. As i understand it though, it doesn’t matter how I decide to deal with the problem of having too many theories in my thesis; I have to be able to justify it with proper evidence.

I give the final words to UB40…

It’s been a long road…After the Viva

If you follow me on Twitter, you will probably know by now that I had my PhD viva on Tuesday 30 July. You will also probably know that it did not go exactly as I hoped. Instead of walking out with a doctorate, the examiners asked me to make amendments to my thesis, gave me up to 12 months and said that they expected the final version to be substantially different enough to require a second viva. I believe this is what is commonly known as major amendments, although the university regulations do not explicitly mention “minor” or “major”.

As I expected, the first question was “Tell us about your thesis”. My supervisor had previously advised me about drawing up a metaphorical roadmap in order to answer this question. Oddly, though, I found the most helpful tip came from my dad. As an incredibly practical, qualified engineer, who had always worked in industry rather than academia, he suggested using headings of aims, objectives, methodology, findings and conclusions. As my research is in a humanities subject, I was initially skeptical but I tried it out. With some amendments to make it appropriate to my thesis, I found it worked. As a result, it turned out to be my best question. It was downhill from there.

I can’t remember exactly the order in which each examiner spoke. I can’t even remember the specific questions asked. Indeed, I found that I only became aware that there was even a clock in the room towards the end, when the examiners had clearly stopped asking questions and started providing some feedback. (It was to my left, just out of vision.)  But what I do remember is that every question, whilst focusing on specific aspects, dealt with the same apparent problem: that I superficially connected concepts from different theories through the use of metaphor rather than a step-by-step exposition from the literature. The use of metaphor was appropriate in the context of my thesis, which was interested in the logical conclusion of the ongoing privatisation of regulation and general decentering. The problem was that I had not written that in my thesis and had not even realised that that was what I was doing until after the viva. Thus, I could not justify the metaphors. That probably sounds like I had not carried out proper research. Alarm bells started ringing in the viva itself when references were made to omissions of relevant critiques in the literature. For example, my theoretical framework is a large part on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right but I had not considered Marx’s critique. I also suspect now that I may have used one of the examiner’s own work out of context. Then, immediately after the viva, my supervisor and I were walking to a local cafe to conduct a post-mortem, and he mentioned his disappointment that the examiners did not realise what I had been trying to do. When he said that, a question came into my head: ‘What had I been trying to do?’ I suddenly realised that I did not know what I was trying to do – how, therefore could I expect the examiners to know? I did receive the blessing of my director of studies to submit, but I think that, under various pressures and due to poor time management, I may have induced labour before my thesis was ready. Liz Thackray and Jane Davis   perhaps put it best in responses on Twitter:

  • I delivered prematurely and the baby needed to stay in the neonatal unit before I could take it home;
  • The baby was fine but it needs cleaning and feeding before it can walk and talk; or
  • The baby needed major surgery.

I think that I might have had the wrong view of the viva to begin with. Beforehand, I was so keen on getting through without having to make any amendments. This was partly due to a focus on the end goal of a qualification, the doctorate, and the change in status from Mr to Dr. It was also partly due to the presence of “examiners”. I had likened the viva in my mind to a form of exam. So, when I did not walk out with a PhD, without having to make any amendments or only minor amendments, I was shocked and felt like a failure. But slowly, thanks to my supervisors, my PhD colleagues and the PhD community on Twitter,  I changed my perspective. Whilst the PhD is a qualification, it is also a piece of original research. It is perhaps misleading to refer to assessors or examiners; in reality, they are peer reviewers, in much the same way that I have peer-reviewed others’ work for publication. Given that the vast majority of PhD students are always asked to make amendments, with less than 5% getting through first time, I would perhaps argue that the viva is not an exam. Instead, the viva, the transfer/upgrade and registration are opportunities for your research to be independently reviewed by people who are not intimately involved in its development (that is, yourself or your supervisors). Of course, at the same time, the viva is also an exam, because of the possibility of failure. But, my supervisor gave the ok for me to submit my thesis and go through the viva because, despite its weaknesses, it was ready. It could have been readier but it was ready. So going through the viva and not failing or not being awarded an MPhil shows that I really am almost there.

At any rate, as my supervisor told me before the night before the viva, whatever happens, it is still an achievement to have made the journey from journalistic and policy-orientated writing to deep Hegelian philosophy.

So, I leave the final words to Russell Watson…

Reflections on my PhD

Almost a month has passed since I submitted my PhD thesis. I am this strange period of limbo: I am technically still a PhD student but I have nothing to study until just before the viva. There is a sense of plasticity; half of me is excited at having completed the text and being only one small step away from a doctorate and being called ‘Dr'; the other half resists as I restrain myself from becoming too excited until I pass the viva. Out of all my jobs and post-18 education, doing a PhD has been the longest project I have ever worked on; what’s more I came to an end of my own accord. There is also an element of sadness as I realise that the journey is almost at an end and I will have to move on. So I thought I’d write about some personal lessons from doing a PhD.

Firstly, there are some things I would do differently if I were doing my PhD again.

Get funding

I was fortunate in that my parents had said they would always pay for education, so when I found an idea I only had to find a supervisor and apply for a place. Certainly it meant I had no obligations to the university. However, I was continually aware that my parents were getting on years and the PhD is a big expense. Furthermore, I am aware that I do not have the experience of obtaining funding that my colleagues on studentships. Finally, if I had been on studentship, it would have probably been a lot easier to find teaching opportunities than it was through my own networking.

Set more deadlines

When people ask me how long it has taken me to do a PhD, I say three and a half years. Surprise, surprise, that is not completely true. It is not as if I have been working 5 days a week, 40 hours a day either researching or writing. In the last three and a half years, I have also organised events such as this, attended events and seminars, wrote articles and papers, invigilated exams and co-founded an academic journal and procrastinated. My productivity in relation to my PhD itself was like a sine wave, with peaks and troughs. What I discovered was that I was most productive whenever a deadline loomed. Without someone external implying a deadline, my brain thought I had all the time in the world. This is of course the big pitfall with the structure of the PhD. Now, one might argue that all that time gave me the opportunity to do all the other academic things. That may be true. However, I found that deadlines do not mean that everything else goes out the window, even when close to submission. Deadlines emphasise the need to manage one’s time and prioritise. Could I have completed my PhD in three years as I originally intended? On hindsight, probably yes. But I’ll deny it if asked.

Work from home or a library

I live in South London. My university is in Central London, (Oxford Circus to be precise), a one-hour commute. I somehow convinced myself that I would be more productive if I created the illusion of ‘going to the office’ every day. I stuck doggedly to this belief even though procrastination proved it to be wrong. Truth is, relatively speaking, very little of the time I spent in the office was actually spent on the PhD. Sometimes, as indicated above, there were other academic activities, but I think a good part was spent on simply web surfing. Perhaps, as well as setting myself more deadlines or targets, I should have taken a leaf from many of my colleagues’ books and also worked from home or from the library; really I only needed to go into uni to see my supervisor or if there were planned seminars and the like. I thought there would be more distractions at home but, in the office, there were just as many distractions. I did work from home in the closing months of writing up. I also found that my parents were possibly the most effective “motivator”.

 So that’s what I would do again. That”s not to say I haven’t gained enormously (and I don’t mean a doctorate – obviously I am anticipating passing my viva here). I have found that the doing a PhD is not just about undertaking objective research. It is also about doing subjective research, in the sense that it is a process of discovery about yourself. Yes, I have learned about environmental law, waste policy, Hegel, Catherine Malabou, psychoanalysis, posthumanism, feminism, etc. I have also learnt about myself. I have discovered I am a lot more conservative than I like to think. This is because I am a walking bundle of contradiction (or internal dialectic) as well as attached to people and things outside of myself (external dialectic).  In a sense, there is a dialectic between the research and the researcher. As I wrote in the ‘final word’ section of my conclusion, I projected myself onto Hegel and then Hegel projected himself (from beyond the grave, posthumously, through his text) onto me [Jeyaraj, 2013, 154-155]:

It is arguable that it is beneath the status of a philosopher like Hegel to apply his work to something as mundane and everyday as a household waste collection service. After all, he is the pivot around which the Left and the Right turn. However, if we are to stay true to his master/slave dialectic, then we must accept that, through a dialectical reversal, even a master like Hegel must humble himself and make himself a slave if there is to be a future for his mastery; otherwise, idealising him and putting him on a pedestal, away from the detritus, means that he quickly becomes irrelevant and is toppled. At any rate…Hegel’s whole philosophy was about turning humility and apparent defeat into victory. We are the masters now who depend on the labour of Hegel but, as we cannot see the body of his work, we must attach a prosthetic through our own plastic reading. In the beginning, we hover like a spirit over his text which appears to somewhat formless and empty. Through plastic psychoanalysis, we listen in to the dialectic, symbolising its operation with images stored in our own minds; as we read, we thus form the text, which then resists deformation. We say, ‘Let there be light’ and there is light. At the same time, Hegel, through his text and others’ reading of his text, projects himself onto us and reforms us in his image; we become Hegelian, with the ability to listen into the dialectic in his text but also see the dialectic outside his text. We therefore recognise Hegel and Hegel recognises us.”

Perhaps the most significant way that my PhD has changed me is that it has made my faith in Jesus Christ stronger. When I started my PhD, I had only been a Christian for 2 years, still very much a baby believer. Though I accepted them, I very much struggled with the various apparent paradoxes within the Christian faith. I was also frustrated by the way that other Christians were able to simply utter “it’s a divine mystery”. But as I learnt more about the dialectic – and no doubt through the work Jesus himself – I saw how it was possible for the co-existence of contradictions. What’s more, I saw a complexity and richness to Christianity and God that I wanted to dive into and bathe. And most recently I discovered that I did not have to choose between Jesus and my roots in Hindu culture. I am a dialectic between the two. So from a Christian from a Hindu family, I am now a Hindu believer in Christ.

Submission

My PhD thesis
My PhD thesis

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll know that I have finally submitted my PhD thesis on Tuesday 28th May at 2:30 pm. I wanted to wait a few days before I posted and reflect and the only thing I could think off was an account of submission day.

In a sense I have been working towards submission since my transfer (or upgrade). The consensus at the time was that I should be able to submit by April so only one month later than expected, although in theory I did have until September.

The week before, the Research Office had clearly been chasing my supervisor because he emailed me saying that I needed to give a final date for submission. (I had originally said I was going to submit at the end of March, which was the Easter bank holiday.) As I was only proofreading the text and had some “minor” technical issues to take care off such as the abstract, page numbers, tidying up footnotes, etc, I felt confident that I could submit by Tuesday 28th May. On hindsight, I probably could have taken the whole month, but knowing me, I would have let the final tasks spread out to fill the time. Anyway, there was a conference on 29th May that I wanted to attend and a podcast for the Westminster Law Review that I wanted to take part in. Furthermore, I had a whole bank holiday so, psychologically, I felt there was really no reason why I needed that extra time. I told my supervisor and he felt that my chances of submitting by 28th May were ‘favourable’.

I sent the final-ish draft to my supervisor by Sunday, 26th September, with a list of the key changes I had made and the things I still needed to do. There was a period where I wondered whether he would come back with more changes but, by Monday morning, he said I was good to go. The only part of my thesis he did not see was the abstract, which was the final thing I wrote. But anyway, by the end of the Spring or Whitsun Bank Holiday, I had  a full PhD thesis from cover to cover including appendices. It was 1 am. I went to bed, happy in the knowledge that all I had to do the next day was to print, bind and submit. I had planned in my head my schedule and felt that the last day should go smoothly. Of course, things never go quite as planned.

I had to oversleep, and woke up later than I intended. Immediately, I brushed my teeth, shaved (obviously), a quick shower and got dressed. There was no time for breakfast or to make my lunch, so I grabbed an apple, banana, a couple of satsumas and a couple of cereal bars. When I arrived at the train station, there was time for me to buy a coffee, which would effectively be my breakfast. Public transport was running fine, I think, and I arrived at the Law School Phd Office by 9 am. So timing not too bad.

Before I printed the thesis out, I decided to do a final scroll through of the table of contents and appendices. And I noticed that there was something odd about them. The text seemed a bit cramped, compared to the rest of the thesis. I realised that I had not used double spacing as per the regulations. Of course, once I rectified this, I then had to make sure that the page numbers in the table of contents matched up. This was made slightly more complicated by the necessity leaving a gap in the page numbers: I had to separately print off emails and other documents that I had obtained by Freedom of Information (FOI) requests in order to redact the personal details of the sender as per Data Protection legislation. The actual printing of the thesis went smoothly – in the previous week, I had made sure that there was sufficient paper and a spare printer cartridge.

So, by 12:40 pm, I went down to Rymans with three copies of my thesis and a copy of the redacted FOI documents. I first asked the guy at the print desk to photocopy the redacted emails. I put the photocopies into my copies of the thesis. I was ready for them to be bound by 12:50 pm. Then I realised that I had forgotten to check what the actual requirements for binding were. My first thought was, do I need to carry these three PhD theses all the way back to the office? So I took a risk and askedthe Rymans guy if he would keep them to one side behind the counter while I went to look up the binding requirements. By just after 1 pm, I came back to Rymans; but it must have been everyone’s lunch hour because there was a queue of people and the guy who I dealt with previously was serving other customers. So I ended up queuing while I tried to catch his attention.

I eventually arrived at the front of the queue. Rymans guy took my copies from behind the counter and gave it back to me. When I separated the bundle into what needed to be bound (roughly 220 pages per copy), Rymans guy took one look and I swear he went pale. His immediate response was “That’s too thick for comb binding.” I started panicking and was that close to shouting WTF. To be honest, I had no idea of the different types of the binding and the university regulations simply stated that it had to be fixed binding so that pages could not be removed. Somehow, he found some hardback binding and, through a struggle, he managed to get the three copies bound.  I ended up paying more than I should have done (£25 per copy) – I found out later from a colleague and the Research office that Rymans guy did not know what he was talking about – but by that time I just wanted to get it done and did not have time to argue.

So by 2:15 pm, I was ready to go to the Research Office to submit. Oe f course, I had to carry three heavy, in essence, books, walking a good ten minutes. As it was raining, I also had to balance an umbrella in one hand. I finally arrived at the reception and told the receptionist that I had an appointment for 2:30 pm with the named person in the Research Office, before going to sit down. For the first time, it really started to hit me that I was about to submit my PhD thesis, after three and a half years. Then I started panicking that the Research Office would reject it because I might not have complied with the regulations. But it was fine. I handed them the three copies and had to sign a form to say it was my own work and that I did not object to my supervisors attending the viva (they won’t though) and that was it. I stepped out of the building, into the rain with my umbrella, and started walking back to the PhD office. I started smiling. And I treated myself to something from Pret a Manger. I am just the second person in my year’s intake to submit.

15 Signs You’re An Adult

I am 35 years old. That means I am an adult. Big deal, you’re probably thinking, that happened 17 years ago when the law told me that I was an adult. Well, yes, but the realisation has been more of a slowburn.

This post has been inspired by Taryn Southern’s video of the same name, included below. So here are the 15 moments I gradually realised I wasn’t in high school any more, in no particular order.

1. Finding the women in furniture adverts are actually quite sexy.

2. Finding fhe furniture in furniture ads are also quite sexy.

3. Start to get drunk after only two pints.

4. Hungover the next day after only two pints.

5. Partly dreading your sister’s wedding because you know evergone will ask when you are getting married.

6. The ages of people getting married are not only the same as yours but have also carried on falling.

7. Internet dating and arranged marriage make sense.

8. Realising you haven’t watched much TV lately and not caring.

9. Having civilised conversations with your parents and, shock horror, laughing at their jokes.

10. The world did not end aged 29.

11. Sometimes agreeing with the Conservatives. Sometimes.

12. Realising you are more conservative and that revolution is not necessarily the best option.

13. Sexual fantasies end up in marriage; white wedding dress replaces black leather outfit, but you still say “I do” to the dominatrix.

14. Getting turned on by a hot property opportunity.

15. Finding that the best feeling in the world is being able to pass on what you have learnt to the younger generation, e.g. teaching.

So, on the whole, becoming an adult is not a bad thing. But I still have some way to go.

Not A PhD Thesis’s Review of 2012

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?

 

 

 

 

 

The Irony of Plasticity

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.

The Procrastination Natio

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.

Internships Infographic

Picture provided by OnlineClasses.org 

From Journalist to Academic: A 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?

Being accountable for my PhD

My summer was, on the whole, very busy. Aside from two weeks off to watch the Olympics and two weeks over the period of my sister’s wedding, I have been holed up in the PhD office since June writing the final chapter of new material. My goal was to send my superviser the three main chapters for review by the time he comes back at end of September, and I did it.

I felt pretty good and can actually see the end of my PhD in sight. So, with my conclusion and introduction remaining, I formally started the writing up year. My superviser and I have previously discussed having a full first draft by Christmas – I said before, he suggested to use the holiday time. So not much longer to go. The trouble is, so far this month, I seem to have backslidden back into procrastination.

So today, with this blog post, I reaffirm my commitment to have a full first draft by Christmas (whatever that means). I will also be making this commitment on #phdchat and to my church homegroup. 

Being accountable for our time I have found is important. Otherwise, it is quite easy to waste time. Social pressure gets a bad wrap these days, but we cannot avoid it or eliminate it. Trust me, I’ve tried! Even Hegel – yes, him – says that true existence depends on (mutual) recognition by another person we see as equal. We care about what others think. Can you imagine what this world would be like if we didn’t?

A Best Man’s Speech for Hindu wedding

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. 

Who is your PhD for?

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.

What does a PhD and an Olympic medal have in common?

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.

What’s the story of your PhD?

In writing up my PhD, the question my brain seems to ask the most is not “where do I go from here?” but “how do I get to where I want to go?” It seems to want to create the narrative or story first, before I have done the reading or research. Having come up with what it thinks is the story of my thesis does it then ask “well, is there research to make this story believable or viable?”

Of course, if there wasn’t, then the story would be rewritten accordingly. Nevertheless, my biggest worry was that I was being self-selective in the data collection. But I think the anxiety made me more vigilant and thus more willing to explore alternate storylines. Indeed, I often find myself becoming surprised at the direction that the research took me. When I transferred from PhD candidate to student status, me assessor noted that my surprise was evident in my writing, which I hope indicates that I have been prepared to change the narrative when the data changed. I guess that if my brain was expecting one answer, and the data pointed somewhere else, surprise is a natural response.

According to neuroscience research, the brain is designed to look for the most plausible story based on the subjectively known evidence. it is apparently the most conducive to survival if one considers something that looks like a lion and sounds like a lion to actually be a lion, unless proven otherwise. This of course emphasises the importance of doing research, because red berries appear to the caveman to be nice to eat unless they know that the neanderthal next door has died as a result. Nevertheless, there is clearly an inherent conservatism in the brain that is about the conservation of the body and progression or radicalism is a consequence of necessity rather than a default setting. This tension between conservation and progression is highlighted in the philosophy of Hegel, particularly in the reading by Catherine Malabou, that is characterised by plasticity, a capacity to be formed and to resist deformation. When I write, it is like a moment of le voirvenir, to see what is coming, that exists between what went before and what comes after.

I wonder whether the need for a story is why I have always resorted to the narratives of other stories – Oedipus, Thelma and Louise, star trek, Hamlet – and to a phenomological method. After all, narratives are a way of simplifying and ordering a mass complexity. After all, the creativity of the brain is limited only by the information stored. There is nothing in a story that is extraneous and my superviser and anyone who has reviewed my work have always asked “why is this sentence/paragraph here?”.

I also believe that my PhD is a way of ordering experiences that went before.

Dream account: from beetle to butterfly

Ok Freud, figure this out. I just had another weird dream. I am in my room tidying up. I lift up something, forgetting that there is a beetle which I caught earlier. It starts scurrying all over the place until it comes to my  bedside lamp. It stops on the vertical neck and opens up its shell. what then happens is a conversion into a rainbow coloured butterfly gradually but in a compressed timeframe. I rush to open the window. Then I grab to pieces of card. I gently toss the beetle-butterfly towards open window. But I am a bad shot and it gets caught on window frame and slices in two. Top half goes out, bottom half needs my help to do so.

if u know anything about psychoanalysis, what does this dream mean? Answers in comments please.

My conscious mind is already seeing the life and death instinct, with a final breakdown. Perhaps its the writing, cutting, rewriting of my PhD thesis. But it also reflects how I am shaping the plasticity and it is shaping me. it started of as something small, insignificant yet fascinating. Then one day it starts opening up to reveal something beautiful. I am in a rush now to finish and submit, but the thesis will always need me to develop it.

NCIS and the Oedipus Complex

Picture of someone dreaming

I woke up this morning with the strangest dream in my head. Somehow, I developed a final ever episode to the TV series, NCIS. Sort of. This episode, which involved Jethro Gibbs leading his final investigation, “answered” the key “question” that has persisted throughout the series: Why does Gibbs have a particularly special relationship with Abby, the forensic specialist, the most un-Gibbs person ever?

I have always thought that Gibbs saw Abby as a substitute for his daughter Kelly, who was killed as a child. Well, in my mind’s final episode of NCIS, it turns out that Abby actually is Kelly. In my head, obviously, Gibbs’ wife  got a divorce and moved with Kelly to Wiltshire, England. (Why Wiltshire, I don’t know – the only reason is that it came up in a conversation with someone else about something else a few days ago.). Gibbs is so distraught that he feels as if he has lost his wife and daughter for good, as if they have been killed. He obviously tried to fill the whole by continually remarrying and divorcing but it was never quite right. [It is interesting that in one particular case, he says to the murderer who killed his wife for cheating that if there's problem with your wife, you divorce her, don't kill her.] Somehow, Kelly, as a child, saw some pictures of a crime scene and decided that she wanted to work in forensics. Along the way, she changed her name to Abby and became a goth and, completely by coincidence, ended up working at NCIS.

Which begs the question, if Gibbs’ wife and daughter were never actually killed, then who did Gibbs’ kill? The back story to the series, mainly seen through Gibbs’ flashbacks, is that they were killed by a major drugs cartel based in Mexico in revenge for the younger marine Gibbs taking out someone in the cartel. Unfortunately, I woke up before my mind could reconcile my fantasy version of NCIS with the actually script. I do like the notion of Abby as Gibbs’ daughter but I think its more likely that she is a substitute for his daughter.

I have always believed, and neuroscience supports this, that the subconscious processes data after the conscious has given up on it. But the last time I saw NCIS was Wednesday night, I had the dream on Friday night/Saturday morning. I have noticed in the last few weeks of episodes that there seems to be a progression towards a points of moving on, as if we are coming towards the end of the series for good. Or maybe it is just the thoughts of coming to the end of my thesis that are predominant in my conscious mind and trying to tie all the loose ends together and answer the questions. In the process, it tried to answer the ‘Gibbs/Abby’ question in NCIS.

The connection with my phd is that my theoretical framework is based on a psychoanalytic reading of Hegel, where Freud’s Oedipus Complex – or at least my critique on it – plays an important part. In the Oedipus story, Oedipus fulfilled a prophesy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Freud takes the Oedipus story as a metaphor for the development of a child, in Freud’s case the boy. When the boy is born, its closest relationship is with the mother. It has to separate itself from the mother – be abandoned – in order for it to grow independently. After disidentifying with the mother, it makes up for the loss eventually by identifying with the father. In Freud’s theory, the boy desires to replace the father but it can only do so by killing him, something which, like Oedipus, it shies away from (the incest taboo). Because the mother is inaccessible, the male seeks a relationship with another female. Freud deals with the development of the male but the feminist critique of his theory is that it applies the female as well. In my NCIS dream, Kelly is separated from her father and Gibbs desires another female to fill the hole left by his wife. Of course, none of the women he subsequently marries can match up to his wife – they don’t even have the same hair colour as her. Well, except perhaps Colonel Mann. Is they only person who can fill it a substitute daughter? Perhaps, in the process of pulling the threads together, my brain was remaking the Oedipus Complex with modern-day TV characters.

How much do you love your phone?

Girl playing with mobile phone
How do you relate your mobile phone?

I’ve just come out of a 13-year relationship…with a mobile phone operator. We had good times together but in the end she just couldn’t satisfy me completely.

I’m not quite sure how it started. There I was, just living my life. I wasn’t really looking for a mobile phone, when my parents introduced me to one in 1999. Everyone else was pairing off with mobile phones and asking me why I didn’t have one. I kept saying that I was happy as I was, I couldn’t really see the point, telephone boxes on the street were enough for my needs. Really, I just didn’t think I could afford to keep one, they seemed pretty high-maintenance. But, yeah, I did look on lustfully whenever I saw someone with a mobile phone.  So when I was offered one on a plate, I couldn’t say no.

Our relationship was pretty casual for a long time. We went when on dates on a pay-as-you-go basis and I used the phone sparingly, mainly just to ring to say I’ll be late or to confirm meeting or text. I remember that she was pretty in the beginning – not ugly, but not totally hot, but she looked fine to me. She had a number of plastic surgeries for my sake and I was always happy with the result. After a while, others started commenting that she was a bit chunky but I didn’t care.

It was only perhaps in the last couple of years that our relationship became more serious. We went from simply dating on a pay-as-you-go basis to a more long term contract that required regular investment. It was then that she really began to satisfy me with mobile internet access. We spent a lot of time together. I no longer had to wait to get a desktop PC to check my emails or tweet, she let me do it any time, any place.

But it was in the last couple of years that I noticed how chunky she was. It was so embarrassing being with her, when everyone else had slimmer, younger smarter models. Plus, she ran out of energy pretty quickly. So my eye started to wonder. I wanted a slimmer, younger, smarter model too. Unfortunately, I could not find one that was within my budget. So I reluctantly stuck with my existing phone, although of course I told everyone else that we were very happy.

Until last week. I finally found a slimmer, younger, smarter model that I could afford. It was love (or lust) at first sight. I reckon she could satisfy me more than my existing phone and she’s within my budget. I’m just worried that I will not be able to live up to her expectations. But after 13 years, it was not easy breaking up with who is now my previous network operator. I told her I wanted to go. She begged me to stay. She asked me what I wanted. She said she could change. We had a long conversation. But it was already too late, I had made up my mind to go and I was no longer in love with her. But it was still a bit painful.

Anyway, she is my ex-mobile phone operator now. We no longer have a relationship. Sort of. I still need to shift my contacts but keep putting it off.

Long she may reign over us

My name is Pravin and I am a recovering ” republican. I used  to believe that only democracy could  produce good  leaders. But this quality is not unique to elected leaders. According to Hegel, a good leader recognises their limit and capacity of people to be responsible. Indeed if the west is anything to go by, people are still denied their responsibility through economic factors. At same time, people in a dictatorship can recognise their power, as in Arab Spring. A good leader therefore is made by something other than his  course to power.

Responsibility to defend my thesis

The Good Samaritan by George Frederic Watts [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
What does it mean to be responsible?
I found out this weekend that trying to explain/defend my thesis to a lay person is far more challenging than defending it to an academic. But I strongly recommend it.

My thesis is: “The purpose of law is just to remind people of their responsibility and not specifically to change their behaviour.”

When I stated this thesis to a couple of guys from church, practitioners in engineering and software development respectively, it led to the following paraphrased questions which, for whatever reason, I have not been asked in an academic setting.

(1) Surely law is suppose to change behaviour from undesirable to desirable otherwise what’s the point?

Yes, one of the consequences of law could be a change in behaviour. But I would argue that it is a question of causality. Behavioural change is a potential consequence of a law but that is only because the law has reminded the person of their responsibility. In other words, the influence of an external force such as law triggers something inside about  what someone should do. But, just because someone is being “told” what to do, it does not automatically follow that they will do it. There can be other factors, both internal and external, that can either make it easier or more difficult or more or less preferable to behave in a certain way. So, what one does is usually the result of an internal discussion. Of course, the longevity of the law points to its success at leading to changed behaviour but that is not the same as directly causing it.”

(2) So law is about making people feel guilty?

No, the idea of generating guilt stems from a misconception of responsability. The law reminds people of their ‘response’ ‘ability’, that is their ability to respond to the needs of others, the environment, etc.  In other words, one has responsibility to others to the extent that one is able to respond. So, in the hypothetical example that was posed to me, if I am standing on the bank of a river or lake and I see someone drowning, in principle I would have a responsibility to jump in and save them. But, of course, if I cannot swim, I cannot be held responsible for that. If a phone, I could be responsible for calling the emergency services (perhaps). But if the battery is down or there is no signal or I am out of money, I cannot be held responsible for that. And so on. the point is, I am only responsible to do whatever I can do in the circumstances of the time. This is a version of the Good Samaritan law (love your neighbour as yourself).”

My particular area of specialism is environmental law, in particular household recycling. If the authorities want me to behave in a certain way – be responsible by recycling – in a specific situation, then the onus is on them to make it easier for me to do so. Yes, they need to provide an appropriate number of receptacles which are emptied at an appropriate frequency. But does the physical environment in which I live make it more difficult for me to  recycle or put the bins out? What can I do to make it easier and what can they do? Am I able to buy enough products in recycled packaging and how do I know it can be recycled? This is  an extension of the political philosophy known as libertarian paternalism. But, the state’s role is not just about influencing behaviour or nudging  whilst enabling freedom of choice, it is about empowering the individual to be a responsible or moral being.

PhD, blogging and procrastination

It’s been a month since my last blog post, but it feels like an eternity. Furthermore, tweeting has gone way down too.  But I guess that’s what happens when real life takes over. Truth is, as useful and creative as social media can be, it can also be a major source of procrastination. A bit like talking on the phone with friends.

I knew that when I started the ‘Not a PhD Thesis’ blog, I was not going to put myself under the pressure of updating it every day. But I still managed to write something at least once a week, often more. Often, it was a way of taking a break from my PhD. And often it was a way of exploring ideas within my PhD and the application of theory to practice. So I never expected to go so long from the field. It’s been a month, but in internet time, that’s forever.

As I said, real life (well, offline life) took over. Soon after the start of 2012, it hit me that I in my third year and into the end game of my PhD. My plan, when I started, was to submit this July. As I’ve progressed, that date has slowly slipped back, to August, then September. In my fourth year, I enter the official writing up stage. For the first six months of the fourth year, I don’t need pay any fees. Given that I don’t pay my own fees but someone else is paying them, it made sense therefore that I effectively have until April 2013 to submit my thesis. (Otherwise, what they expected to pay goes up.) I am pretty sure that I don’t need to wait until next April and I’m not sure that I want to wait that long, so I am resolved to submit by December/January, which I think is doable. The only thing is that I have not even transferred/upgraded to PhD status yet, which I should have done last September. (Most of my colleagues have not transferred either but that’s besides the point.) Once I transfer, then I am can go for the PhD, otherwise I might have to settle for the MPhil – frankly, after three years, that would feel like such a waste of my time, not to mention a waste of my sponsor’s money. So the last two months, my only goal has been to complete all the documentation for this deadline, including writing and finalising two chapters. I finally got this done last Friday and I should be able to submit the documents within two weeks. Just need supervisers’ signatures.

I am now ready to move onto chapters three and four. The great thing is that I’ve effectively written half my thesis (not including introduction and finetuning). All of sudden, an 80,000 word thesis is no longer on the other side of a canyon. I feel like Thelma and Louise mid-air over the top. Yes, I know that we don’t if they made it across but that’s what faith is for.

According to the Procrastination Equation, I am an impulsive being. Blogging and tweeting did become forms of procrastination. They had more immediately fulfillable rewards plus, while it was important that I succeed, the expectancy that I would be able write 80,000 words was low. Indeed, the only way I’ve been able to force myself to write was by reducing the ‘delay to reward’ and ‘expectancy of success’ to 1,000 words a day. That worked to an extent. But, the last two months, not only was I focusing on 1,000 words a day, I also added an extra deadline of the end of March and just put loads of pressure on myself so that no meeting that deadline would feel like the end of the world. It also helped that at the time when I wanted as much time as possible to work on my PhD, I also got a number of opportunities to engage in teaching and this reduced the time available and added to the pressure. It was a both good and bad timing, because it forced to me to focus. So, having achieved my goal within my deadline, more or less, my expectancy of success has gone way up on two counts: word count and duration.

I can relax a little a bit now but not too much. I am still an impulsive being. So I have to find ways of overcoming it either. Fortunately, my most immediate research tasks is more reading and, since the weather is expected to be good for the next few days, I can decamp to the park. (Yes, I know, it’s hard life doing a PhD sometimes.) But that’s not always going to work, when I am writing up or researching online. In those times, I find that I have to schedule blocks of procrastination to get it out my system before I start work for the day, at lunch time or at the end of the working day, or sometimes I just have to resist.

The Procrastination Equation, as developed by Dr Piers Steel, is a formulaic and psychological way of understanding our dialectic nature as individuals, and the dialectic nature of the world. Catherine Malabou says that we are plastic – we can be formed by others as well as resist deformation. In other words, our plasticity (developed from the philosophy of Hegel) as individuals is our susceptability to change and our capacity to resist- or our propensity to procrastinate. It’s not just PhDs we procrastinate on but on everything we do or have to do – from paying our bills to tackling climate change.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I will stop blogging, but it might be I don’t blog as often I used to. After all, I can’t stop my propensity to procrastinate, but I can make it work for me instead of against me.

For more on the above and other ideas to tackle procrastination, I strongly recomment ‘The Procrastination Equation’ by Dr Piers Steel.

The Devil Wears Prada: Le Voir Venir

Anne Hathaway
Anne Hathaway shooting on 'The Devil Wears Prada'

I’ve just watched ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ for the umpteenth time tonight. I love it when I find films or TV series that I just want to watch over and over again. What I find fascinating is that every time I watch I pick up on something I didn’t notice the first time or something that didn’t seem significant before stands out. I also find that the first time I watch something I tend to focus more on the plot because I don’t know the story. But afterwards, because I know the story and what’s going to happen, I can actually appreciate more the writing and the characters and the backgrounds and so on.

For those of you who haven’t seen the Devil Wears Prada (why not?), Andrea (played by Anne Hathaway, the best thing about the film) has recently graduated from journalism school. Her dream is to write serious journalism like the New Yorker or for a newspaper. But she decides to apply for and take a job at Runway magazine, the top fashion magazine, even though she has no interest or knowledge in fashion because it would look good on her CV. Apparently both Runway and the editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly (played by Meryl Streep) have a fair amount of kudos not only in fashion but also journalism.  After a shaky start, she actually begins to succeed to the point that she is invited to join Miranda at Paris Fashion Week. The problem is that her success seems to be at the expense of who she is.

There are many themes that come up in this film but what I saw tonight was – appropriately for a film about a fashion magazine – what the French philosopher Catherine Malabou called le voir venir. Malabou translates it as ‘To see (what is) coming’, that moment where you stop, look back from where you have come and look forward and anticipate where you are going and decide what to do. It reflects, again appropriately for a fashion magazine, the plasticity of the Hegelian dialectic between resistance and change. (Plastic being something that can be moulded and then, once moulded, resists deformation, with an explosive element).

When Andrea first starts at Runway, she makes it pretty clear she is just there to get the experience before moving on, that it’s not what she’s into and so on. But she works hard. She holds onto her sense of fashion and she pokes fun at the ‘Runway girls’ with her friends. Then, after a particularly harsh telling off, she thinks it so unfair. It is brought to her attention that actually she hasn’t trying that hard at all…she’s not really adapting to the work environment, so why should the work environment adapt to her. At that moment, she experiences le voir venir. She decides to drop her sense of fashion and seeks help. She looks back and looks forward and decides to jump. However, that moment of le voir venir was like an explosion, it didn’t just push her a little forward, it pushed a lot. And continually there is tension between the ‘old Andrea’ and ‘new Andrea’. Indeed, there were lots of moments of le voir venir.

But as she seems to be leaving her old friends behind and making new ones, she still resists losing her values. As Miranda shows more and more faith in her, she shows loyalty to Miranda. So, when she finds out from Christian Thomson, her favourite writer with whom she has just slept with, about a move to push Miranda out of Runway, she is frantically trying to warn her of what’s happening. She is then absolutely devastated when Miranda resolves the situation and protects Miranda’s career by what she considers an act of disloyalty to the creative director of Runway, Nigel. But this is what succeeding in fashion and fashion journalism is all about…continually adapting and moving forward even if it means leaving behind those to whom you are connected. (Indeed, the whole fashion industry is about what’s new not what’s old hat, so to speak.) And that is Andrea’s final moment of le voir venir in the film. But this time, Andrea resists the forward momentum in her career and turns her back on a career at Runway. In essence, she turns back from becoming more like Miranda.

At the end of the film, it appears as if Andrea has gone back completely to how she was at the start of the film. But I think that the reason why she was able to go as far as she did at Runway was because she was interested in a career in serious journalism; she was ambitious. Miranda makes the point early on that girls who knew a lot more about fashion, thinner and better dressed, gave up a lot sooner. I think this was, for those girls, about fashion rather than about publishing. For Andrea, where she came from provided the reason for going forward. She had her resume of student journalism and was heading to serious journalism. Runway was not just a blip as the editor at the New York Mirror suggested at the end, even though Andrea tried to play down her time there. It was always part of her plan. She did what she needed to do to get the experience and when she felt she had gone far enough, she left. I think this was why Miranda took her on in the first place: because she saw someone with a sense of ambition who she knew would try hard, as opposed to the usual assistants who were just about the fashion. This is why Miranda says she sees much of herself in Andrea. Of course Andrea disagrees, but Miranda was talking about her ambition and she was right; Andrea was ambitious enough to get ahead at the expense of Emily who was far more into Paris Fashion Week. So yes, on the one hand, Andrea did change and move forward at Runway; On the other hand, she resisted change and held onto her dreams and her ambition.

What’s in a Name? (Leader of the Wise Men)

US birth certificate
Our names are recorded on our birth certificates

Names are amazing and beautiful. They are relatively small, just a handful of letters, but they are our very first label. They form the basis of our identity and yet are probably the only part of our identity that we do not have any control over. Well, that and our genes, but people won’t generally be asking for a blood test as a matter of course.

This post was inspired by a conversation on Twitter with @rellypops, otherwise known as Narelle. I hope I don’t embarrass her by saying that I thought her name was very beautiful. The funny thing is that if she had not contributed a post to my other blog, I would be thinking she was a guy, based on our earlier conversations. Although on hindsight, Narelle doesn’t sound like a guy’s name.

So, as I was saying, I generally find names to be amazing. In my view, they are the second gift to us from our parents (the first being life). But whatever the reason our parents chose our names, I think God was inspiring them somehow because our names are an indication of our destiny. Of course, with a name like Pravin, I might be a bit biased.

The story of how my parents decided on my name is, er, interesting. Actually, it’s quite mundane. My mum was flicking through some of my dad’s professional membership magazines (he was an engineer). Apparently, she saw the name Pravin in one of the magazines. The story became more interesting when I asked what my name meant. (Actually, I’m not sure whether I asked or whether they just told me.) Apparently, according to them, my name means ‘Leader of the Wise Men’. Talk about ego booster.  Of course, this may have been a little poetic licence, because when I googled my name years later, all I could find for a meaning was ‘expert’, although it could be argued that an expert is a leader of wise men in a way. (Ok, yes, I am biased.)

I have to be honest the meaning of my name did have an influence on me. I did focus more time on academic study, as opposed to social relations, because I wanted to live up to my name. (My academics at school and degree level perhaps didn’t make me leader.) But I also started creating my own narrative. I remembered how, when I was younger, whenever I played a role in the nativity at school, I was always one the wise men (usually the one who brought myrrh). In a another school play, I was a grand vizier. When I played Vashistha in the Ramayana for a tamil community association play, it was not lost of me that Vashistha was the leader of the wise men. Then, from my shortlived career as a journalist to my current role as a PhD student and blogger, perhaps that thought of being some kind of an expert is there, subconsciously.

Hegel
Hegel - Leader of the Wise Men?

Perhaps its partly why I am drawn to the dialectical philosophy of Hegel. In The End of Human Rights, Costas Douzinas describes as a totalising philosophy that is meant to encompass all philosophies, a sort of theory of everything or logos. Hegel himself was very much an interdiscplinary scholar. In the introduction to J B Baillie’s’s of The Phenomenology of Spirit, Baillie said that Hegel sought to incorporate all the philosophical theories of the past by “giving logical continuity to what in appearance was mere historical sequence, and by showing that his own distinctive principle of synthesis was at once the presuppositions, the outcomes and the completion of his predecessors”. He saw that his principle of synthesis could only be vindicated completely if it contained “every fundamental type of experience in which mind had been historically realised”. In a sense, one could argue that Hegel sought to be a ‘leader of wise men’, although it is up to us to decide whether he was or not. But what’s interesting is that being the leader didn’t mean coming up with his own thing from scratch but humbly recognising the work of others and building on that. The leader is, not the first in line but the last or the follower and is no-one without those who have gone before or standing underneath. It’s like Isaac Newton saying that he was standing on the shoulder of giants.

Now I haven’t really had any wider discussions with many other people about their names, usually because they don’t know. But my dad’s name, which in Tamil culture is my surname, means ‘King of Victory’. Out of respect, I don’t want to go into to many details but I can see how that is an appropriate name for him. Indeed, names must mean something when even God places a value on the names we are given. The first woman was called Eve because ‘she would be become the mother of all life’ and it is our mothers who give us life by carrying us in the womb, giving birth, breastfeeding and nurturing us. (If we think about the use of ‘eve’ now, it refers to the day before, just as our mothers came before us.) God renamed Abram as Abraham (Hebrew for father of many) because he would be ‘a father of many nations’. And then of course, there is Joshua and Jesus, Hebrew and Greek respectively for ‘God saves’, and both them did end up saving people. The irony is that, at the time of the Roman Empire, Jesus was a pretty popular name in Palestine (understandably) – the man who was freed by Pontius Pilate in place of Jesus – was Jesus Barabbas, a convicted murderer. This suggests that a lot of people perhaps do not live up to their (God-given) names.

So what would it mean for me to live up to my name of ‘expert’ or ‘leader of the wise men’. From Hegel’s example, to be a leader means to be a follower and to recognise that you cannot do things on your own, that you need other people.  Certainly, this is what Jesus told his disciples – the first shall be last and the last shall be first. But what does it mean to be wise. Was Hegel a ‘leader of wise men’ or just a very knowledgeable one? After all, a philosopher is Greek for wise man. Is it presumptuous of me to think that it is God’s will for me to be a the leader/follower of philosophers? This is a really difficult. This is the first time I’ve really sat down and thought about the meaning of my name and what it means. Perhaps God told me right from the very beginning what he wanted me to do. I remember being asked at the age of six what I wanted to be  when I grew up and I said that I wanted to be scientist that invents a machine that converts grass to spaghetti (hey, I was six). However, since my degree, I have not gone down the science route. Or have I? If one thinks of the original meaning of science as ‘knowledge’, then surely a student and journalist are both seekers of knowledge, i.e. scientists. And, according to the Book of Proverbs (in the Bible), the beginning of knowledge is the fear/reverence of the Lord. In other words, taking my name in full, my destiny is to be ‘a follower of God’ and ‘Jesus’ (who is the King of Victory). It was never my intention that this post would end like this but I think I can actually say ‘I found my destiny’. Now, I just need to see it through to the end.

Did I not say that names are amazing?

Ring in the new, keep up the old

Well, it’s 2012. I’ve just realised how ironic it is that I always mark the start of a new year by looking to the past. For some reason, my family have developed our new year traditions.

On the days between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, we start clearing out the rubbish and tidying up the house. The idea is that everything is tidy by New Years Eve. After dinner, we’ll have a shower and change into some fresh clothes and wait, probably watching TV. When the New Years Eve programme on BBC1 starts on, we have our respective drinks balanced on our knee (metaphorically speaking). Then, when Big Ben starts striking, we’ll stand up with our drinks. When it strikes 12 and the fireworks go off on the TV, we’ll raise our glasses and do the hug and kiss thing. Then we watch the rest of the fireworks and start going to bed.

Om Tamil
'Om', the basic symbol of Hinduism, in Tamil

On New Years Day, my mum and I will be the first to wake up, as we will go for an early communion service. (On a normal Sunday, I usually go to a different church, which is less traditional and younger age range.) When we get home, we all go to Hindu temple (as the rest of the family is Hindu). You’re probably wondering why, as a professing Christian, I would go to temple. I don’t believe in the Hindu gods as such, but I go for the family and for cultural reason. It doesn’t feel like a good idea to be divided at the start of the year (call me sentimental). I don’t pray there but I hope I act respectfully. After all, it’s what in your heart that counts. God can see my motivations. Anyway, I personally believe that the various Hindu gods a representations of the one true God. For example, Amman, the goddess of justice, represents the aspect of a single God who loves justice.

When we get back home, we carry out a ceremony called ‘Kai Viyalum’, which involves the exchange of money between us – we have to give something that is goldish (pound coin), silverish (50p, 20p, etc) and bronzeish (1p or 2p) and, if feasible, a note. The tradition is this exchange of money must be first time we touch money in the New Year and before exchanging, we pray to God to bless it. The key thing is that this money is not meant for just spending, but for saving for a while. It’s probably pretty obvious why I participate in this tradition. After ‘Kai Viyalum’, we have a lunch of milk rice (essentially rice cooked with coconut milk) with various curries. I think milk – as it comes from the cow – is considered in Hinduism to be a life-giving substance, but milk rice is also quite nice with certain curries.

Whilst I don’t call myself a Hindu and don’t believe in it, it is a part of my roots and culture and, to be honest, there is vibrancy in Asian and Hindu culture that is absent from European culture and Christian worship. Don’t get me wrong, I attend a conservative evangelical church and the atmosphere is vibrant and it is a community but not like Asian communities. Anyway, as a British Tamil,  I am constantly straddling two cultures which do at times clash. They key is to reconcile the two. I think Christians certainly can learn a thing or two from the way Hindus worship and vice versa.

If I was to think about this in a Hegelian sense, I guess there is a dialectic between my Christian faith and Hindu roots. The two are contradictory like thesis and antithesis but they can shape and be shaped by each other in synthesis. I can’t cut off my Hindu roots because it is a part of me, so I might as well adapt it to worship Jesus. Catherine Malabou would probably call this le voir venir, that she translates as ‘to see (what is) coming’. I interpret that to mean pausing to reflect, looking back at what went before and thinking how to proceed to deal with what’s coming. In a sense, New Year’s Day is a moment of  le voir venir and certainly I look to tradition to celebrate the new. But actually my whole life has been like that, both looking at tradition and looking forward and thinking whether the two can be combined. I can’t cut off my Hindu roots but I can’t go back to being Hindu having discovered Christ. I am in 2012, so I can’t go back to 2011 or before but I can’t forget what’s happened because that’s how I got here.

Not A PhD Thesis Review of 2011 – Part 1

It’s that time of year when the media is full of reviews of the year, looking back at what made the news in 2011. It certainly cannot be disputed that 2011 was definitely a very interesting year. So, in the current zeitgeist, I have decided to offer my own review, the first part of which is a run down of my ten most popular blog posts.

The Arab Spring makes an appearance at number 10, with Revolting Arabs good for the environment, commenting on government ministerial suggestions that the protests in the Middle East could help to tackle climate change.

One of the things I have enjoyed about this year is procrastinating on YouTube. Bizarrely, at number 9, is a post on my favourite and most inspirational YouTube video, of a Coca Cola ad to the theme tune of “Whatever” by Oasis showing how for all the bad in the world, there is much to be hopeful for.

At number 8, ‘Just because it’s traditional, doesn’t mean you have to follow it‘, a post on irrationality of ritual, with specific reference to the Tamil coming of age ceremony for girls. In essence I argued that maybe some of the traditional ideas about women and sex in Asian culture was a factor in a large number of Asian men being arrested and prosecuted for grooming and abusing white girls.

At number 7 is a compilation post featuring a number of sites of interest to single people on Valentine’s Day.

I have been influenced quite a bit by conversations with people on Twitter and the post at number 6, From Tweet to Thesis, was, if you like, a crowdsourcing for feedback on a conference that brought together academia and Twitter. While the feedback was positive, I have gone down a different route by starting a blog for own personal research project into the origins of phd topics from a tweet in the imagination.

At number 5, my redefinition of ‘ecoterrorism’, based on a summary of my reading of German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and in particular his essay ‘Airquakes’ on how an attack against the environment hurts us.

And so, what were my top four most popular blog posts?

One of the most popular keyword searches was ‘real life incest’, which perhaps gives an indication as to the sort of people who visit my blog. As a result, at number four, is ‘From adoption to incest‘, triggered by a chat show episode on real life incest, which made wonder about the legitimacy of adoption as a child protection measure.

At number 3, I was surprised to see a lot of people interested in Chinese Walls.  It was not about China but about the fear of a conflict of interests resulting from proposed NHS reforms.

At number 2, Bin Laden proved to be very popular this year, with a lot of people interested in my blog post on his death at the hands of US special forces. I question whether it was such a good idea to kill him instead of putting him on trial.

Which brings me to my most popular blog post? Maybe it was the ‘Royal Wedding’ effect but I found that a link to the Royal Family is always a good way to drive traffic to your site. At number 1, I wrote about the title of the Duchy of Cambridge and why this might not have been the best wedding present for the Queen to give to William and Kate.

The second part of my Review of 2011, focusing on what I saw as the most important moments of the year, will be posted tomorrow.

Boxing Day: A Day of Rememberance

I was surprised yesterday by how many people continued to tweet. I thought that like many things in the UK, Twitter might come to a standstill for the day as well. But, everyone – or at least all of my followers – was live tweeting about their own Christmas Day celebrations. I woke up this morning and Twitter and pretty much got back to normal, which was a shame. But I couldn’t help thinking that everyone, everywhere, no matter their spiritual persuasion, was celebrating and remembering (or not) the day that God’s Saviour Jesus Christ came into the world. For a day,  Twitter provided a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.

Then, it was back to today, Boxing Day, the day when the Christmas sales start (although with the internet and the recession, this seems to have got earlier).  It is believed that Christmas Day represents the positive message of Christmas, while Boxing Day is now a manifestation of the dark side, commercialism. The truth is more complicated. On the one hand, Boxing Day was traditionally a day that involved giving to the poor and those who served us (public sector and the low-paid service sector). On the other hand, the name ‘Boxing Day’ came from a tradition of tradesmen to collect Christmas boxes as a thanks for the good service they provided. So, the commercialism of the Boxing Day sales may seem crass but actually it is about helping those companies and employees and saying thank you for giving us what we want. And one could argue, particularly in the current economic crisis, public sector workers, service workers and retailers need all the help and thanks we can give.

But, of course, there is another group of people we need to remember – people who are persecuted for the faith all over the world. Yesterday, for example, churches were bombed in Nigeria. On Christmas Day, we remember the birth of Jesus Christ. One thing that Jesus said was that it won’t be easy being a Christian, that often we will face hostility. Of course, unfortunately, Christians have also been the source of persecution. Furthermore, other faith groups have been the giver and/or receiver of persecution for their faith. Why should we particularly remember them on 26th December? It is the Day of the Feast of St Stephen (St Stephen’s Day), who has become known as the first Christian ever Christian martyr and whose stoning triggered a mass persecution of Christians by Saul before he became the Apostle Paul.

But you don’t need to be Christian or religious to feel sad or outraged that people are persecuted for their faith. That’s why I  feel it is appropriate we should remember the words of Martin Niemoller famous words, which I first read at the age of 12 and it had a profound impact on my thinking:

First they came for the Communists but I did not speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews but I did not speak up because I wasn’t a Jew

Then they came for the trade unionists but I did not speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Catholics but I did not speak up because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me but by that time no one was left to speak up.”

It is interesting that Martin Niemoller talks about persecution across the board, whether religious, political, racial and socioeconomic.

So today what are you doing today? If you are fortunate like me to live in the West, be thankful that we are not persecuted for our beliefs, then spare a thought for those who are, maybe do some research on the internet to see what you can do. Give some money to charity. Then go out and shop, shop, shop, giving thanks for all those people who are working today and throughout the year so that you can live and do as you want.

Oh, and if you like this blog post and you are on Twitter, please retweet using #ststephensday and #boxingday hashtags.

Military Wives: Great Song, Great Cause and Sexist Drivel

I don’t listen much to the radio these days and I don’t watch X-factor so my awareness of the UK music scene is virtually non-existent. Occasionally it will rise up to let me know something but otherwise it’s as if we are in completely different universes. So, until two days ago, I had never heard of ‘Military Wives'; through some news item I learned that they were number 1. Anyway, after watching another news item on Channel 4 about them and hearing snippets of the song, I thought I better go onto YouTube to check it out.

Would it be cheesy to say I like it? Because, actually, I kinda do. I can imagine it growing on me too. Plus the lyrics are flexible enough to mean something both specifically to military wives and to more generally to all of us. And it is a perfect single for Christmas, even if it’s not a Christmas song.

However, whilst I  think the song is great and the charities for which it raises funds worthy, I sort of object to the notion of ‘Military Wives’ because it is a bit sexist. It does pander to a traditional image of the soldiers and their spouses and of the family – man goes of to war/work, woman stays at home. ‘Military Wives’ might be visually appealing and it’s great that those who have been in the background have found their voice (although maybe they always had it and no one was listening). But as I watched the video, the big elephant in the recording studio were the ‘Military Husbands’.

There is no definitive image of what a military husband is; we all know what the image of the military wife is. And, the support groups for spouses are dominated by civilian women, so the activities and functions are going to be geared toward this demographic. Husbands of female soldiers have minimal social outlets, and so it becomes difficult for some of them to truly understand their wives’ duties and responsibilities.” (Pamela Stokes Eggleston, ‘Are Military Divorce Rates Really Rising?‘, Blogger News Network, 16 June 2008)

I don’t know how many ‘Military Husbands’ there are but we know they exist, such as Carl Bryant, the widower of Corporal Sarah Bryant, the first British female soldier to die in Afghanistan. Now maybe women in general have been particularly oppressed compared to men. I was horrified to hear one of the women in ‘Military Wives’ refer to a joke about Army babymakers. But one only has to read Carl’s funeral speech to know that being a Military Spouse is an experience that is not about gender.

I also noted in from the music video that it was very much about heterosexual spousal relationships. There didn’t appear to be any reference to civil partnerships. Furthermore, what about all the unmarried officers? Surely their parents and siblings, or long term partners, must be like Military Spouses in a sense.

Now I get that this song is the result of a BBC TV programme and that brings its own limitations. However, I would think that British state television, funded by the taxpayer, would seek to be more representative in its output.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that the above criticism should be a disincentive to buying the single. It is a good song and it does raise money for a worthwhile cause. But it perhaps raises questions about how we treat the military and their families and also how far we’ve really come in terms of sexual equality.

Are you addicted to Twitter?

Has tweeting ever led to you missing your stop? Do you keep one eye on the book you are reading and the other on your Twitter timeline? Do you find that you have to tweet after every little task you do, whether it’s opening Word, typing a sentence or saving a file? If so, is it possible that you’re a Twitterholic or a tweetaholic (i.e. Twitter addict)?
Yes, I know, that’s a ridiculous thing to say. Twitter is an amazing tool, that broadens your network, keeps you informed (kind of), provides you with a soapbox and is generally good fun.  So don’t take this post as anything but a joke.
So, just for a laugh, why not ask yourself the following questions (with apologies to Sexaholics Anonymous UK)?
  1. Have you ever thought you might be addicted to Twitter?
  2. Have you ever thought that you’d be better off if you didn’t keep checking your timeline?
  3. Have you ever thought that Twitter was messing with your mind – you know, like, randomly adding and deleting followers?
  4. Have you ever tried to stop or limit the amount of time you spent on Twitter?
  5. Do you tweet to escape (the commute or your job), relieve anxiety (from unanswered mentions), or because your followers are nicer than people you know in real life?
  6. Do you feel guilt, remorse or depression afterwards?
  7. Has your pursuit of followers become more compulsive?
  8. Do you tweet during (as well as before or after) having sex?
  9. In fact, do you prefer your partner to go down on you so you can continue tweeting?
  10. Do you have to resort to tweeting what you had for breakfast, because you can’t think what else to say but have to say something?
  11. Does an irresistible impulse arise when someone mentions you or responds to your tweet or retweets?
  12. Do you keep flicking from one profile  to another?
  13. Do you feel that “just one more follower” would be enough?
  14. Do you have a destructive need – a desperate need to keep tweeting someone?
  15. Does tweeting make you careless for yourself or the welfare of your family or others (like, for example, you haven’t shaved for two days)?
  16. Has your effectiveness or concentration decreased as tweeting has become more compulsive?
  17. Do you lose time from work to Twitter?
  18. Do you lower the tone of your tweets for followers?
  19. Do you want to get away from your real contacts as soon as possible so you can tweet about it?
  20. Do you prefer to tweet your friends rather than hang out with them?
  21. Have you ever been arrested for a tweet-related offence, like jokingly threaten to blow up an airport or something?

Right, now that you done that, just go back to living in the land of denial, which is a hot, sunny place called Egypt. Because Twitter is not addictive. Not at all.

Being 99% Vegetarian

One of the great things about Christianity is that no food or drink is forbidden by God, because he created it all for our sustenance and enjoyment. We can eat pork, beef, genetically-modified corn and products containing palm oil. However, this freedom that God has given us is to be used responsibly. After all, as anyone in the capitalist West knows, there is such a thing as too much freedom of choice.

So, I became 99% vegetarian six years ago this month. Writing out the last sentence, I’ve just realised how long that’s been. I was a voracious meat eater. My nickname at home was ‘Mr Mutton’. I didn’t hate vegetarian food; after all, coming from Hindu background, I was accustomed to having to refrain from meat on occasion. But, in my experience, vegetables, for the most part, just weren’t that tasty.

Then I interned for the Environmental Law Foundation, both to build up some legal experience and contribute to the protection of the environment, something that I have always been passionate about. For once, I was working with people who had even more passion than I did and I think one or two of the members of staff was vegetarian. I was also taking phone calls from people looking for legal redress for environmental problems and being exposed to a lot of environmental literature.

Clearly, it all rubbed off on me because one Saturday I woke up and decided that I should be vegetarian – somehow I had absorbed the idea that the meat industry, through the chopping down of forests for grazing land and the process in general, released a large amount of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. So, it looked like one massive boil on my ecological foot(print) that needed lancing.

After a lifetime of eating meat, I found it surprisingly easy to give it up (more or less). There was no gradual weaning off, I just went ‘cold turkey’ (pun intended), indeed a lot easier than other things I have tried to give up.  On the one hand, this was because I not only believed that it was the right thing to do but also that I could clearly rationalise it. But there was more to it than that. I loved meat and I do still miss it, especially when I smell it. The rational belief was enough to make me give it up but the existence of decent vegetarian alternatives – soya, quorn, tofu, mushroom – minimised the cost of doing so. Interestingly, I found that vegetables were tastier than I remembered. But again, coming from an Asian background, vegetable dishes were always an essential part of every meal. Even without the meat-free alternatives, being vegetarian  was not that much of a difference to my diet.

Unfortunately, being 100% Vegetarian isn’t possible. There are a number of times where I have found myself the only vegetarian among a group of people. In the context of a dinner party, it is perhaps not always convenient to cook especially for just one person. Even in Asian cooking, stock can be meat-based. And, of course, I don’t believe it is morally wrong to kill animals, just that we should eat less meat to protect the environment. So, for the sake of not causing too much inconvenience to others’, there have been times where I have been prepared to eat meat. A meat intake of zero offers a more room for maneuvre than a near-maximum meat intake.

Poem: Jesus is my caffeine fix

Mug
Jesus: Living Water of Caffeine Fix

I have been writing poetry on and off for the last 15 years. A lot of what I’ve written has been recycled – I only keep the good stuff. Some of it has been published, some of it not yet.

A few years ago, by way of a birthday present, I gave my mum a mug with a poem on it that I had written.  She seems to drink in this mug all the time.

Yesterday morning (Thursday), Premier Radio’s Breakfast Show ran a poetry competition, with the prize being a book of poems by Christian pastor Jill Briscoe. My mum decided to read out the poem that I had written and had printed on her mug.

It probably doesn’t take a PhD to work out that I wouldn’t be posting about this if she hadn’t won.

So, I post that poem here for your (hopeful) enjoyment and it should be clear why it was an appropriate text for a mug.

Caffeine Fix

When I wake up in the morning,

You give me a kick for the day.

You are there on my way to work,

And I don’t even have to pay.

It’s my need for you that gets me

From my overwhelming desk.

But you give me the energy

To get through more, not less.

Where two or three have gathered,

It’s your aroma that’s in the air.

As I catch up with my friends,

Your refreshing power is what we share.

When I get home to the TV,

It is on you I like to sup.

Move over, Starbucks, Kenco, Nescafe,

Jesus Christ is my coffee cup.

(C)2011 Pravin Jeya

If a blog is a baby, am I a neglectful parent?

Baby‘Not a PhD Thesis’ is not my first blog, but it is certainly the one that has lasted the longest. Actually, my first blog was born in 1998/9. At that point, I don’t think there was anything like the web tools like WordPress or Blogger (or at least I wasn’t aware of any). No, I had to get down and dirty with basic HTML, a skill which has proved valuable since but of which I am a bit rusty. Anyway, that first blog, my eldest, was simply an online diary focusing on the last few months of my Bachelor’s degree. It was called ‘Pravin Jeya’s Corner of Cyberspace’. But after I graduated and once I got into the lazy summer, I just lost interest in it. So, I killed, I mean, deleted it.

For a while, I didn’t do any serious blogging, but that didn’t matter, because I was working as a journalist or copywriter, i.e. taking care of someone else’s editorial requirements. I think there have been a few aborted attempts using various other tools, but – to be honest – I just couldn’t see myself getting excited about them. And then I discovered WordPress. I think it might have been top of the Google search result. And I was impressed.

My second blog was not born until 2009. It was called Low Salt Foods. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, that’s an even worse name than Corner of Cyberspace. Possibly. Truth is, I probably could have been a pushy parent, because I saw Low Salt Foods as part of my plan to start an information service for people with low salt requirements. But once the blog was born, I realised that there was more to it than that. Anyway, it ended up helping me through a period of unemployment. Then I started my PhD and I got bored with Low Salt Foods. I kinda ignored it for a while but eventually got round to killing it shortly after Not a PhD Thesis was born.

I have to be honest, I think Not a PhD Thesis is probably the first blog for which I have felt any real emotions. And, it’s strange, but it has had a real impact on me as a person. I can see that I have changed in the 10 months since it was born. Perhaps it was the advice I received from an old school friend not to be neurotic about blogging, just allow it to grow at its own pace. The irony is, in doing so, I have felt a real desire and interest in its development.

Indeed, I have become more confident has a blogger as a result and I finally decided to create a second blog, From Tweet to Thesis. They say that the oldest child is usually a guinea pig, the one on whom stuff is tried, so that parents have a much better idea what to do if more children are born. But the amazing thing is that I don’t love one blog more than the other. Indeed, I even use Not A PhD Thesis (the oldest blog) to help look after From Tweet to Thesis (the youngest).

Now, I have to admit, I perhaps haven’t paid as much attention to Not a PhD Thesis since the second one was born. I have found myself worrying about the second one. But, contrary to before, I have not felt any desire to delete the first. That thought would be kinda disturbing.  In fact, the first blog has helped to promote the second blog.

I guess my confidence as a blogger has meant that I have ended up blogging for other people too. (If you want to see From Tweet to Thesis or the blogs I’ve contributed to, see the ‘My Writing’ photo album.)  Still, when I look at other people’s blogs, I realise I still have a lot to learn, but I guess that’s the best bit.

N.B. I am not actually a parent in real life, and is only based on what could be my single person’s prejudices of parenting.

9/11: How was it for you?

10 years ago (plus a few hours, given the time difference) was the day that supposedly changed the world. Two hijacked planes were flown into the towers of the World Trade Center on what has come to be known, in US date notation, as 9/11. But what struck me, on tonight’s Channel 4 News, was a report on how Afghanis saw the event that led to the invasion of their country. Apparently, the vast majority of people didn’t even know that happened, even when shown photographs.

Man Flu
Getting the flu: my 9/11

It got me thinking about the relationship between the universal and the particular, how something can both take on  such widespread significance (Headline from Le Monde on the day: ‘We’re all Americans now) and yet be of varying import in individual lives. 9/11 probably felt like the ‘end of the world’ for Americans, New Yorkers, for people who knew someone who died, for the emergency service workers. On the other hand, it was a day that never happened as far as many people in Afghanistan were concerned, even though they’ve probably been affected the most by it.

Obviously, 9/11 has become one of those days where people will always ask, ‘Where were you when you heard about the planes crashing into the Twin Towers?’ Well, I know exactly where I was.

I was working as a journalist for a business-to-business magazine in the West End (in London). It was my first job after graduation and I had worked there for just over a year. It was about 2pm on a Tuesday and I was sitting at my desk, trying to research and write up a feature article. I remember a group of colleagues crowding around a TV in the corner of the office and one girl came over and said about a plane flying into one of the Towers. And the only thought going through my head was, ‘I so don’t feel very well’ – not because of the news but because I really was feeling a bit flu-y.

I didn’t feel up to getting out of my chair and walking to the TV, so I tried to look at the BBC or CNN website at my desk. I just couldn’t get through – obviously because everyone else was trying to do the same. So, I just struggled for the whole afternoon with my work and feeling ill. Honestly, that afternoon was all about me. It felt like the longest three hours of my life. I do remember reading the front page of the Evening Standard on my way home, but when I got home, I just went straight to bed.

I found out the next day, when I went to see the doctor, that I probably had gastroenteritis (stomach flu). I was off work for about five days. Anyway, for me AT THE TIME, a terrorist attack in which 3,000 or so people were killed was not the most important thing to be happening in the world.

This blog post is not meant to minimise what happened on 11 September 2001; it is just a few thoughts of the tension between universal and particular that can reside in a major event that will no doubt have some historic value now. Of course, one could argue that the only reason why I remember being ill on that day is because that day was worth remembering in the first place.

Of course, even the question of memorability is subject to same tensions of universality and particularity. Because of the needless and great loss of life, the nihilism of the attack and the response of the US government, 9/11 appears to have immense significance to us in the present. But, with the power of hindsight, people such as Francis Fukuyama suggest the future will see 9/11 and al-Quaeda as a “blip” on the temporal landscape.

Social Media as a Research Tool

By Dr Sarah-Louise Quinnell

interview in the mud
Social media can make fieldwork easier...and cleaner

I seem to be becoming known as a bit of a social media expert, particularly in relation to its application within academic research and researcher development.

So how did this come to be? Aftr all, my PhD is in Human Geography; my thesis examined the role of capacity-development initiatives in the implementation of multi-lateral environmental agreements in Africa – not a subject which shouts out social media!

During my second year, I had a few problems. I went down with scarlet fever so I couldn’t do fieldwork. Then, when I was allowed to go, my placement fell through. Furthermore, I had a supervisor who didn’t appreciate the concept of overseas fieldwork so I was left trying to work out what to do. But by this time, I had realised that many international organisations, including UN bodies, were using message boards and forums to engage with their target audiences/participants. This set me off on a two year experiment. I worked with a web developer to build a website which became my field site or hub around which my research was centred. It hosted a range of open source and bespoke applications in order for me to engage with a range of globally-dispersed participants.

What I found was that by engaging pro-actively with digital technology, I could significantly increase the reach of my work. I managed to interview people I would not have been able to using traditional methods as it would have been both too time consuming and expensive to conduct the interviews. Using VoIP and Skype is significantly cheaper than traditional face to face or phone methods, and free if Skype-to-Skype. Digital technology also enabled me to significantly increase my response rate for my questionnaires. An initial paper version of my questionnaire generated a less than 20% response rate. When I later re-sent the same questionnaire using a web-based survey tool, the response rate increased by over 50%.

My original site was live for two years. By the time I completed my studies, there had been rapid developments in the types of digital technology/social media applications publicly and freely available, making it even easier to integrate digital technology into the research process. As a result, post-PhD, I have been involved in a number of resources that illustrate how social media can be used in all stages of the research process and in a researcher’s professional development. I am also developing training courses to promote and support the use of technology. In doing so, I am not calling for the abolition of traditional methods. In certain circumstances, digital techniques aren’t practical. However, I do believe researchers should investigate what these mediums can offer.

Dr Sarah-Louise Quinnell gained in her PhD in 2010. As well as continuing her research in geography,  she is involved in developing social media training programmes for research students and researchers at Kings College London. She is also managing editor of PhD2Published, the founder of the Networked Researcher blog and avidly tweets at @sarahthesheepu.

Not a student, not quite staff

Being a PhD student sometimes feels like being in limbo (or, purgatory, if you are Catholic). Technically, we are students, in the sense that we pay tuition fees (unless you are lucky enough to receive a studentship) and we come out with a qualification at the end of it. But there the similarity between PhD students and the rest of the student body ends.

Now, I am going by my own experience at University of Westminster and my conversations with my colleagues, so I apologise if I am assuming too much. Unless you are assisting with teaching, it is unlikely that we will interact with undergraduate or other postgraduate students. Indeed, we will interact mostly with other PhD students or academics or researchers, the latter being paid. We are not required to attend classes or lectures as such, except for perhaps a few methodology seminars in the first year which might help us decide on a theoretical framework.

We don’t get “personal tutors”, we get supervisors – but we are not employees. Of course, it is our responsibility to manage that relationship. We perhaps have one formal deadline a year – registration in the 1st year, transfer in ideally the second year and final submission – but these dates are as fluid as the writing of our thesis. That’s not to say that those deadlines aren’t important, not least because it helps to crystallise the research done so far and to shape your ideas.

The Research Office at Westminster has often emphasised how we are more than just students, we are in fact trainee researchers who may or may not work in academia afterwards. PhDs are regarded as academic qualifications, but perhaps they ought to be seen as professional qualifications because they are effectively the minimum criteria one needs to be an academic researcher or lecturer. In that case, there is an argument that doing a PhD is akin to a training contract that might be done  by someone hoping to qualify as a solicitor or barrister or accountant or a company trainee scheme.

Perhaps universities do subconsciously recognise that a PhD student is not quite a student by the provision of studentships in exchange for limited teaching work. This almost sounds like a contract of employment. Unfortunately, there are not available to everyone. But the payment is for teaching work, not for being a researcher.

An alternative, unstudentlike name for a PhD Student would be Doctoral Researcher and this sounds like a good job title. Or one could go for the more professional-sounding Trainee Researcher. Either way, there is a case for making PhD Students into university employees, with a salary (that is comparable to a trainee solicitors).

But there are disadvantages to PhD Students as employees. Employees are agents of their employer, so the university could hold any intellectual property rights to research, unless a clause was written into the contract. Why would they do that?

Furthermore, being an employee would increase the financial and legal obligations of the university. Studentships are already hard to come by and they are offered within a particular research area. Surely offering Trainee Researchships would simply narrow the sort of PhD research done to what the university is interested in. It would most likely lead to the exclusion of people who currently have a greater degree of freedom over their research.  After all, why should university pay people to do whatever they want?

Plus, as employees, we would probably come under all the usual targets and the bureaucracy that one could reasonably expect. And this would no doubt undermine the current freedom that PhD students do have.

As much as I would love to be paid trainee researcher, on balance, I realise that being a PhD Student is also completely different to being an employee.

 

 

 

Reflections on writing up (a chapter)

I always thought that my working style on my PhD was to write up as I go along. Since my superviser suggested a few weeks ago that I should put a temporary freeze on new reading and produce my first chapter, a theoretical framework, I have realised that making notes and playing around with ideas is not the same as writing up.

I know that writing a thesis is not about the number of words. But having 80,000 words cited in the university documents was overwhelming. Indeed, even having my supervisor mention 20,000 words or so for a chapter still seemed quite a lot. Then I read a blog post on how writing a thesis is a bit like losing weight – instead of kilograms counting, you are word counting. (I am sure it was The Thesis Whisperer but I can’t find the actual post. It’s possible it was tweeted.)

With losing weight, trying to go from, say, 87kg to 60kg is an unsurmountable task. But celebrating every time you lose 1kg makes losing weight so much more motivating. Instead of thinking “still got some way to go”, you think “I’ve done well”. But the important thing is not to think about losing weight, just live, get on with what you have to do and don’t eat too much.

So, with writing up, I didn’t think about trying to get to 20,000 words. I just wrote what I could. Before long, I got to almost 2,000 words. After that, I noticed that I was going over the 1,000 barrier every day – 2,000, then 3,000, then 4,000 and so on. So I made that my daily goal. That means that I can write 20,0000 in 20 days. That’s less than a month. All of sudden, it seems very doable.

Let’s just hope, by the end of the month, I will have lost enough weight to fit my first chapter under my belt.

Doe
Doe, a deer: the beginning according to Julie Andrews

I should add that the other challenge I found was knowing where to start. So I followed Julie Andrew

s’ advice that she gave to the Von Trapp children when teaching them to sing: “Let’s start at the very beginning, the very best place to start.”

I have also found that the act of writing isn’t necessarily linear. I have gone back and forth, fleshing out thoughts here and moving paragraphs around there. And, maybe this isn’t the right way to go about it, but while I have put a freeze on new reading in general, it doesn’t mean that I don’t actually do any new reading. In many ways, writing up gives a direction to my research that perhaps wasn’t there before.

Do we ever get the full picture?

I knew that what started as a weird week became ridiculous when Iran (through its state TV) called for the British police to show restraint and for there to be independent human rights investigations. Seriously! Maybe it was  a touch of shadenfreude that the shoe was on the other foot for a change. But I also think that how the media in other countries have reported on the riots here does raise questions over how British media deal with overseas events.

We all rely on the media to know what is going on in the rest of the world. And it’s how we find out about many of the good and bad things that other countries and human beings are doing. Of course, every media outlet does have its own angle on things – even broadcasters who are legally obligated to be impartial – which matches the demographic of its audience. But do we ever really get the full picture?

I recently spoke to a friend from the Ivory Coast and I was shocked to find out that my understanding of what happened there recently was so completely at odds to hers. Here, the media reported it as how the loser of the recent democratic presidential elections, Laurent Bagbo (sic), was refusing to stand down and preventing the real winner from taking office. This was resulting in a civil war. What she said, however, was that back in the day France had granted independence to many of its colonies, including Ivory Coast, on condition that they abided by certain trading agreements. The previous incumbant stood up  to the French and went against the French yoke. In her eyes, Bagbo (sic) was an anti-colonial hero and his successor came to power in a French-backed coup not a victory for democracy.

Now, I don’t know how true this version is. I have no reason to doubt what my friend is and every reason to believe her. She is fellow Christian after all and we have prayed together regularly. But, like me, she may not have all the facts either. That’s not really the issue. What I want to know is why none of the British media – even Channel 4, the BBC and the Guardian – hardly reported on this alternate version. The truth may be complicated, but both of us received versions that were pretty simple.

The Evanescence of Philosophy

It’s been a while since I last found literary treasures in philosophy, which is ironic given that I waxed lyrical about the beauty of specific words that philosophers, including Hegel, use in their treatise. Maybe, something does get lost in translation from German to English, which turns out not to be quite a narrow-minded language. After all, you have one word ‘love’ which describes a plethora of emotions, where, for example, in Greek, there would be four words.

Anyway, in finally getting to grips with Hegel’s master/slave dialectic in The Phenomenology of Mind – which was surprisingly easy to understand considering the author – I came across the word ‘evanescence‘. It means “an event of fading and gradually vanishing from sight”. That’s how Hegel describes the satisfaction of ego’s desire. Sounding like ‘effervescence’ and its hissy sound, the very word captures the very wispy nature of that satisfaction. Anyone who has struggled with any addiction will know what I am talking about.

Indeed, one could argue that translating texts from the original language leads to an evanescing of the literary gems. It’s not really a grave robbing, more of a well-intentioned opening up that exposes the precious stones to the elements.

So, Evanescence is a perfect name for a rock band, in an industry known for fast rises and slow, painful deaths. Let’s hope they don’t live up to their name.

Have you come across any interesting words in your theoretical reading? Why not comment…

Imagining my PhD

Well, ok, sometimes I do sit and wonder what it would be like to actually complete my thesis, submit it, get my doctorate and get it published. I do imagine what it would be like to be a bona fide, published academic. But that’s not what I mean by imagining my PhD.

To be honest, it has become plainly obvious to me how much doing research is not just about actually reading books and reports, collecting empirical data and doing experiments. There have been so many times where making the connections and developing a theoretical framework has come out of doing nothing, or at least doing something seemingly unproductive and totally unrelated to my PhD.

I can remember instances where I am going home on the train, after a day of really struggling with something theoretical. I am thinking, staring into thin air – not the pretty girl in front of me with the low cut top and nice legs, stop it – or reading some novel and all of sudden I have an ‘Archimedes’ moment. No, it doesn’t mean that I run naked down the aisle of the train, shouting ‘Eureka'; I just found inspiration for my research in something as unconnected to it as a bath or playing with toys.

On another occasion, I came to grips with Hegel’s master/slave dialectic because I was able to make connections with a random news story about addictions that I read in the London Metro that morning. Sometimes, I have even been sitting in a sermon on Sunday, listening to the pastor teach, and instead of feeling convicted or encouraged about my walk of faith, I’ve thought ‘Of course, that’s what Hegel [or Catherine Malabou or Judith Butler] was talking about’.

In fact, I have become very much aware that my reading of philosophy has just as much been influenced by own subjective experiences and the enotional baggage I acquired before my PhD.

Maybe this should be a question, but I think these moments of non-research are an essential part of the research process. But, then it becomes difficult to say what research methodology I am using. In a sense, one could argue that I am using a dialectical method based on the synthesis of research and non-research. But then surely all research must be dialectical. I guess this is to be expected. After all, our brain doesn’t turn off, when we finish working for the day. Much like a broadband connection, it is always on. So, it can be argued that we researchers are always working. And, often, it feels like we are.

And that’s the danger. It is quite easy, because I am doing something I love, to overdo it. If we are doing too much active research, pretty soon I suffer from information overload. My brain can be like a call centre. At some point, all the incoming calls just keep getting added to the queue and no matter how hard the brain works, it can’t deal with the backlog. A good call centre, I have noticed, will from time to time post a message telling customers that there is a backlog and they can’t take any more calls and to try again later. This is why those periods of non-research are so important…it allows me to actually process the information I have received and to action it. This is the imagination.

1st Subscriber: Dr Sarah-Louise Quinnell

Yes, after nine months or so of writing this blog, I have finally got my first subscriber. And so the lucky winner of the ‘Not a PhD Thesis’ First Subscriber prize is Dr Sarah-Louise Quinnell. (Yeah, I was going to make the usual joke about being my first but, since she’s a bona fide academic – as opposed to a wannabe like me – I figured it might come out the wrong way.)

And so, her prize is the opportunity to massage my ego. When I asked her what it was that drew her to Not A PhD Thesis and why she subscribed, she replied:

I like to read a range of PhD students blogs. I am interested in what people do and do not share. It also provides a record of how peoples thoughts change and how, like yours shows, you start writing about one thing and then move on to another. Its fascinating to see how people’s work evolves and how they present it. I’ve become a lot more productive reading and writing blogs.

I like the mix of philosophy and religious based critique in your blog, even though i am not at all religious. They are very thoughtful and well connected. The one I most liked recently was ‘Doing a PhD: Labour of Love‘ as I can certainly identify with that idea!

The grat thing about PhD student blogs and tweets is they bring together such a diverse group of people who may not have met in real life and allow them to exchange ideas and thoughts which is fantastically enriching.”

Of course, it would be remiss me of tell you something about Dr Quinnell. She has just graduated with a PhD from Kings College London for her thesis, ‘Building Capacity for Bio-safety in Africa: Networks of Science, Aid and Development in the Implementation of Multi-Lateral Environmental Agreements’. She blogged about at The Life and Times of an Aspiring Academic. However, in the course of doing her PhD, she developed an interest in the use of social media for academic research. She is the Managing Editor of PhD2Published, a online resource of PhD graduates looking to publish their thesis, and she had just launched a new blog, Networked Researcher for the purpose of supporting and promoting the use of social media in academic research.

Dr Quinnell can be contacted on Twitter on @sarahthesheepu and @phd2published.

The freedom of the open (academic) waves

One of the best aspects about doing a PhD is the immense amount of freedom – freedom to plan my own time, to plan my research as I see fit, to decide (more or less) on what I read and what workshops and conferences I attend and so on. I have certainly never experienced such freedom in my own life before – even unemployment can seem like a prison – and, from what I hear from academics, I will never experience such freedom ever again. Also, as someone who is completely self-funded and not reliant on a studentship, I don’t have any obligations to the university. So what I get involved in is totally up to me.

And yet, there is such a thing as too much freedom. With my time stretching out in from of me like a boundless ocean, everything I do to traverse it seems so miniscule. Yes, there are days when the winds of motivation and inspiration have been pretty strong and, by the end of the day, I feel like I have covered a vast distance. When those days come along, I unfurl the sail and let the wind carry me and I get on with all those tasks that I have been putting off, with the occasional nudge of the rudder to stay on course. But, the truth is, I never know when those days are going to come along. More often than not, there is nothing more than a light breeze – or I am in the middle of the Doldrums. So, all my energy is spent rowing forward, and praying for the winds of change.

When there is no wind, then the sight of the endless ocean itself almost feels like it’s blowing me backwards. Now and again, I’ll see a coastline of some island – the impending deadline of a paper or university admin report or an interesting workshop or conference – and I’ll set my sights on that, because then the distance doesn’t seem so vast. I push back any thought that after the island, it will be back to endless waters.

But, you know what, I wouldn’t give up this adventure for anything – not money, not sex, not power, not even the opportunity to meet a real extra-terrestrial. Because, ultimately, I am like Christopher Columbus crossing the Atlantic. Every centimetre I move, every word I write, is a centimetre, a word, closer towards an undiscovered continent (or, more likely, island). I may still be within the geographic area of the map, but at some point I will get to where there be dragons. Then, I’ll place my flag in the ground.

Atlantis
Atlantis, the undiscovered continent? - sometimes it feels as if I'll never get to the end

Culture of one

I am thinking a lot about the meaning of culture at the moment. Currently, I am writing a paper for a conference on the cultural legitimacy of internationl climate change laws and policies. At the same time, as an Asian person who was born and has always lived in the UK, I am continually balancing and negotiating the so-called intricacies of Asian and ‘Western’ culture. The problem is that where the line blurs for me – and no doubt for my contempories – is not quite the same place where it may blur for people of my parents’ generation. And even then, generational identity is not always clear cut.

Culture is something that has amassed over time. From my observations of the way the word ‘culture’ is used, it seems to be a euphemism or PR spin for ‘tradition’. Something is not considered to be in keeping with the culture, if it goes against the traditional way of doing things. In The Future of Hegel, the French philosopher, Catherine Malabou, says that culture is formed out of the power of habit (Malabou, p68), which is essentially the repetition of a certain activity. What habit ends up creating is a “virtual being” that mediates the opposition between the universal and the particular and reduces the distances between them (Malabou, p71). One could argue therefore that culture or tradition is this virtual being, this imaginary concept, that people try and hold on to for fear of losing it.

But habits can be changed, which means that culture, is not a fixed concept. This raises the question of whether a culture can ever really come to an end or die. What may start of as potential separation between universal and particular will result in a new direction (a new form of the culture) as the present particular becomes more universal and a new particular or universal emerges. “What in the beginning was merely an accidental fact…is changed through continual repetition of the same gestures, through practice, achieving the integrity of a form.” (Malabou, p73-4)

This doesn’t mean that the old form of the culture cannot be continued. But it does mean that the potential for particularity suggests that a culture can be or is of one person. If culture is about the things that we do over and over again, then if we do something different, not in keeping with the culture, there is the potential to change the culture or form an individual culture of one. Or a culture can be a unifying virtual being for all the different habits. In other words, there is only one culture; it just has an infinite number of strands.

Sources

Malabou, Catherine (2005). The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporal and Dialectic. (Translated by Lisabeth During). Routledge, London & New York.

Baptism: it’s all about the experience

So, after four years, I finally got round to being baptised. Full immersion was not as scary as I imagined it. To be honest, I had never expected it to be of any specific spiritual significance, which is one of the reasons why I hadn’t been too fussed about going through it before. I wasn’t too keen to indulge what I had previously seen as some ritual. (I come from a Hindu background where people perform rituals left, right and centre without knowing why they are doing it, other than that it is traditional.)

Anyway, regardless of what I thought, Jesus does command that one be baptised if they accept the gospel, as a public declaration of faith, and it go to the point where I could no longer go against that.

Now the actual act of immersion is pretty quick. It was over before I knew it and I was slightly in shock, particularly when the rest of the congregation started applauding. But, after I had changed into some dry clothes, I couldn’t help but feel as if I had been cleansed. I couldn’t explain it. After all, baptism is a symbolic act and is not essential, as such, to salvation. There was nothing special about the water in which I was baptised – ordinary tap water – or the hands or words of the pastor.  Plus, I was convinced that it’s only significance was symbolic.  Yet, even with that mindset, I still feel different. When I accepted Christ four years ago, I knew that my sins had been forgiven but I was still aware that I had committed them and they still hung around me like a bad smell. (God would just choose to ignore them.) But now I can’t smell anything, or at least, the smell has vastly improved. It doesn’t make sense. Rationally, I should not be feeling this, but I do.

All I can think is that baptism is, on the one hand, a symbolic act, but, on the other hand, it is more than a symbol. Is it possible that baptism, in fact, completes the (initial) process of salvation? Yes, I was saved when I accepted it intellectually. But, Jesus had to die and then be resurrected. As a result, we don’t have to die. But, baptism simulates the the death, burial and resurrection experience of Jesus, and without it faith is only intellectual. Baptism makes faith experiential. (Caveat: these are just thoughts, I will need to consult with the minister on this.)

It’s a long time since I have written about Hegel and the dialectic. But a key part of his philosopy is that universals, ideas, thoughts are initially abstract and they only become concrete when they are manifested in something particular, such as experience or relationship. I wonder therefore whether, until yesterday, my faith was abstract, not yet real. This explains why new believers are encouraged to be baptised as soon as possible after being saved and why Jesus commanded it in the first place.

Education and exams

So we are into exam time again and there will no doubt be complaints of how standards have fallen when results come out in August. I can remember that that was the narrative when I received my A-level results 15 years ago. But Rosamund Urwin makes the point that falling standards – if they can be proven – are neither here nor there when it comes to explaining the year-on-year improvement in results. The reason why people appear to be doing better than they used to is because of the pressure on schools to ensure that they rank well in league tables. Urwin wrote:

“My friends who are teachers say their profession now studies marking schemes obsessively and point to a greater emphasis in lessons on exam techniques and on showing pupils how to revise. Most are sad, thought, that secondary school has become so assessment-orientated, that so much focus is on league tables and targets.

Unsurprisingly, then, many of my peers describe their former schools as “exam factories”, churning out the As with little attempt to foster passions in a subject or to encourage wider reading. Some also felt so spoon-fed up to 18 that they were ill-prepared for independent study at university.”

I can remember my experience of learning A-level French. There were two particular set texts that we studied in French and the exam did involve writing discursive essays. But I think the teacher had already identified the ideas and themes of the books and the discussions we had stayed within this framework. When I put forward my own thoughts, I felt like I was shut down, not just by the teacher but by the rest of the class too. Now, perhaps, my thoughts were complete crap but there was no attempt to discuss them.

Indeed, one could say that the effect of the tendency in schools to train students to regurgitate from memory is longer term than the three years of a degree. I am finding that, while doing a PhD, my brain is automatically regurgitating what I read and I have to consciously make a point of thinking critically about the text. It’s not a skill that comes naturally, so I have to train myself all over again.

What makes a man?

I’ve spent the last couple of days at a conference for postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers working in the area of law, gender and sexuality. I was presenting a paper on the impact of incentives on the relationship between society and state. But the whole conference was fascinating – every speaker had something interesting to say. But I think this is going to be one of those events which could change my life.

One particular speaker spoke on research that she is doing concerning the treatment of children who are born intersex, that is born with genitalia and/or secondary sexual characteristics from two sexes. The parental response, understandably, is to push for ‘corrective’ surgery that makes the child into a ‘normal’ boy or girl. I found this presentation particularly challending because it went to the heart of  the most basic label by which I identify myself. Am I male because that’s how I was born or because I brought up that way? What is it that makes me a man?

In Genesis 1:27, “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them”.

This is often taken by Christians to mean that God created two sexes, male and female, and that, along with other verses, he intended for marriage to be between a man and woman only. Now, with sexual orientation being based on sexual attraction and feelings, I can see how easy it is to argue, rightly or wrongly, that sexual orientation is a choice. But, with intersex, we are talking about an actual physical condition which can be seen and touched. It is difficult to argue that God did not create people as intersex. In other words, there are people who are created male and female. So, I wonder whether Genesis 1 could be reinterpretated to mean than individual human beings comprise attributes that are commonly known as both male and female. If that is the case, then it is difficult to argue that marital relationships can only be heterosexual in nature.

A cult of science?

Most Fridays, I attend an academic group at university that discusses the philosophical foundations of law and finance. Yesterday, we looked at why people believe they experience the paranormal or supernatural. One of the things that the lecturer in charge talked about was how, after the second world war, anthropologists went off to remote islands to study the indigenous people and found them worshipping the remains of aircraft (so called ‘cargo cults’). Apparently, the thinking was that these people saw something fall out of the air to the ground and, quite reasonably, concluded that if it has happened once, it can happen again. The whole belief system was premised on the idea that something would happen in the future because it happened in the past. To me, that sounded very much like science – we observe things happening in the past and develop a theory that say that those things will happen in the future.

So, when I stumbled upon this critique of the dominant climate change science narrative by activist teacher Denis G Rancourt, I was already in the frame of mind to read objectively.

On the gargantuan lie of climate change science

In all of human history, what was believed and promoted by the majority of service intellectuals (high priests) in each civilization was only created and maintained to support the hierarchy and the place of the high priests within the hierarchy. To believe that the present is any different regarding any issue managed by our “experts”, whet … Read More

via COTO Report

Now, I have always believed in the importance of protecting our environment and I am not ready to given up my membership of the climate change camp. Indeed, to a science worshipper like myself, Rancourt would probably a heretic. But he does highlight a particular problem in the way that science is presented.

Up to 500 years ago, the Bible was published in Latin. Unfortunately, the masses could not understand Latin, so they had to rely on experts (priests) to read the Bible and interpret it for them. Similarly today, scientific papers are published in a their own scientific language – which can be understood by other scientists – but not by the masses. It then requires several levels of interpretation for us to understand. I am not suggesting there is anything sinister in this.  (On top of that, much scientific findings cannot be afforded by ordinary people.)

As a result of the translation of the Bible from Latin into the languages of the people in the Reformation, anyone could read and understand God’s Word. Of course, the experts and other people are still needed as quality control, but basically one does not need to have studied theology. Yet, if I wanted to read, for example, a paper on climate science, it would read like gobbledygook (sic), as my scientific education stopped at GCSE. Of course, I read the articles in the newspapers and watch the engaging documentaries on TV but all this is second-, third-, even fourth hand.

Now, I am not suggesting that there is necessarily any hidden agenda on the part of certain interests to hide the truth. But we were clearly meant to understand how the world worked. Yet scientific papers seem to write in their own version of Latin.

The same criticism could be made of academia in general. I could go to Waterstones and pick up a popular book on philosophy, but it is quite difficult to get hold of the original material (or at least English translations of the original material). I had never even heard of Hegel until after I started my PhD, now I think he is the greatest guy in the world. Yes, his work can be difficult to read, but I am slowly getting to grips with his philosophy directly. And it makes a big difference to reading it firsthand. But I daresay that I would even be in this position if I wasn’t at university.

Coming back to climate science, everyone throws around this figure of 2 degrees as some kind of target. And I have no reason to doubt what they say. But I get the feeling that there is all this focus on numbers and data, as if somehow not staying within the limit is the answer to the world’s problems.

Ok, I don’t really what the point of this post is. I don’t have a conclusion. Perhaps someone can provide one for me.