How to avoid humiliation

Posted by September Blue Friday, 26 October 2007 1 comments

1. Do not be a long-haired cat.
(1a. Actually, do not be the offspring of somebody's fancy pedigree long-haired cat and a smooth-talking tom from the mill down the road.)

2. If you must be a long-haired cat, avoid climbing through hedges backwards, running through leaf-piles, and chasing small squeaking rodents through dark and cobwebby places, all of which will get stuff tangled in your coat.

3. If this is unavoidable, at least limit yourself to 3 hours a day of things which will leave you with large clumps of matted fur.

4. If that proves unavoidable as well, at least don't go on a massive getting-stuff-stuck-in-your-fur spree for several weeks while you're being looked after by neighbours who are afraid of the manic yowling clawing biting rage demon that you suddenly decided to turn into when they tried to brush you.

5. Avoid the vet. Avoid, avoid, avoid. This can be best done by disappearing into an alternate dimension when the cat carrier appears.

6. If your plans are quashed by trickery involving distraction with small pieces of ham, attempt to get yourself banished for life from the vet's by launching yourself at the first person you see in a surgical-looking outfit when you are removed from the carrier, claws flying.

7. If you are foiled in this by a hand holding the scruff of your neck, wail piteously so as to suggest you are being beaten. Last-ditch attempt that probably won't work, but it's got to be worth a try, right?

8. Because otherwise, you will end up looking like this:


9. And nobody wants that.

10. Still, at least your brother still loves you.


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I wouldn't usually suggest looking to John Ruskin for the basics of a non-sexist education system. But here we are today, wise and enlightened and knowing so much better than People Back Then did etc. etc. and whatever else we tell ourselves, and here we are still dividing up reading lists for 14-year-olds into girl books and boy books.

You can see the list of suggestions from the teaching resource site here (it's a PDF file). Girls get, among other things, Amy Tan's The Bonesetter's Daughter, H. E. Bates's The Darling Buds of May, Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, Alice Sebold's Lovely Bones, and a bunch of Joanne Harris novels (Chocolat, Five Quarters of the Orange, Blackberry Wine). Boys get Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe books, Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Nevil Shute's A Town like Alice, Ernest Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon and Julian Barnes's A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters.


Okay, this isn't about demanding that children adhere to strict gender roles. This is just about letting them read things they'd be interested in. Right? After all, young teenagers are very adept at segregating themselves into single-sex friendship groups without adult involvement, and the gap between what male students and female students are achieving at GCSE level (and most other levels of primary and secondary education) is a real one. It's only been a real one since the 1970s, but I am led to believe this is just extra extra evidence of how it owes its existence to irreconcilable biological differences first ingrained in our ancestors several million years ago. (Okay, to be fair - the argument is actually that the post-1970 education system has been 'feminised' and now favours female traits like empathy. Why yes, my A-level Chemistry classes were all about writing essays on how it feels to be potassium chloride.) Girls are just interested in different things, and there's nothing we can and nothing we should do about it.

I don't believe that, but let's go with it for a moment anyway. Assume that the suggested-reading list is entirely descriptive, not prescriptive, and that it merely reflects what fourteen-year-olds are more likely to be interested in.

I read Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice when I was 14, and loved it, literally, to pieces - my paperback copy fell apart in my hands during one of the many re-reads. Loved it enough to roll my eyes at the English teacher who said "Oh, because it's a love story?". Loved it enough to nearly miss a "Boarding NOW, no REALLY!" call at an airport last year, after finding another copy in a secondhand bookshop in the conference town. Loved it that much.

It's not perfect. It was written in 1950, and there are lines that remind you of that in a particularly uncomfortable way, the kind of lines that would, if the book was a party and all the lines were guests, leave you not only walking away from them without reply but discussing them in hushed tones to other guests at other parties for years afterwards. But it's great, and it's the only book on either of those lists that I loved because I was a 14-year-old girl, rather than independently of the fact.

It's about a young British woman living in occupied Malaya during the Second World War, part of a group of women and children marched around the island for years at a time because there aren't any prison camps for them. She survives, negotiates a deal with the elders of a tiny mountain village, and spends the rest of the war working in the rice-fields in exchange for the party's food and shelter. After the war, she moves back to England, learns she's inherited a large sum of money from an elderly relative, moves to the Australian outback to find the POW she met in Malaya, and uses her inheritance to make the tiny, depressed town he comes from into a place where people could live and work. And the book's narrated by the lawyer who still holds her inheritance in trust, because the relative who died didn't believe women were responsible enough to handle their own finances until at least the age of 35.

So. Do you think it's in the 'For Boys' list because the designer of that list gave it to a representative sample of male and female students, carefully weighed their responses against a backdrop of gender expectations and stereotypes, and decided accordingly; or because someone, somewhere, went "Oh, this one's about war. War's a boy thing"?

So to return to Ruskin, who wrote Sesame and Lilies fifty years before compulsory secondary education in England and Wales was even introduced:

Keep the modern magazine and novel out of your girl's way: turn her loose into the old library every wet day, and let her alone [...] Let her loose in the library, I say, as you do a fawn in a field. It knows the bad weeds twenty times better than you; and the good ones too, and will eat some bitter and prickly ones, good for it, which you had not the slightest thought would have been so.

We've come so far.

1) Lean back in your chair. Right back. Your shoulderblades should be almost touching.

2) Raise your arms, elbows bent, hands just above your head.

3) Now start flailing. Mostly from the elbows, but these should be moving in slight circles so that you can get some good flailing in from the shoulders down as well.

4) Drop your head back and open your mouth in a soundless wail.

5) You are now demonstrating, exactly, how the retired dean I was sitting next to at the wedding ended this sentence: "Well, that must have been very..."

What he was describing came in response to something I'd said, which was an answer in itself (and if you're thinking there's something a bit strange about this sentence, bear in mind that I don't have to write my PhD any more and so I'm relearning the basics of 'conversation', as I believe it's called) to him asking me if I'd finished the thesis before teaching started. Wouldn't that have been a good idea? But no, I didn't, so there was an overlap of a few weeks between the start of teaching and the end of my thesis, which isn't even The End because I still have to go through the viva, which is best illustrated by the 'end' of every Mario game where you climb all the way up through the castle and then still have to beat the final boss. And that's not until next year, so I'm not exactly finished, except in the sense of having run out of extra lives, hit-points, energy, motivation and all reserves of strength, because in that sense I'm very much finished.

And his description was exactly right.

So anyway, yes. I'm not done. I'm not 'Doctor'. I'm not passed, not even maybe-passed. But a few weeks ago, I handed a stack of paper bound in plastic over to the kind souls at Registry, and this should count for something. I was going to add some advice here, but there are only three things I have learnt that are of any value to anyone in the last stage of their PhDs:

a) If you need to sleep in your office, and you might well need to sleep in your office, don't curl up in your chair. It is almost impossible to curl up in swivel chairs with no arms, for one thing, and there's nowhere to put your head. I did this and woke up half an hour later with my scalp completely numb from where the plastic on the chair-back had cut off the circulation, and I do not advise this as an experience that will do you any good. Instead, sleep by making a little nest out of swivel-chairs in a corner of your office. You can adjust them to different heights for pillows and arm-rests and so on, and - here's the best bit - when you move, they all move with you. Advanced sleep technology, available for free just ten feet from your desk!

b) Everyone will tell you that finishing your thesis and handing it over to Registry is an anticlimax. Since they've got a point, the best way to counter this effect is to immediately go and get very, very drunk. You can reflect on your life and your academic career later on.

c) If there is any way on this earth you can avoid doing so, don't start teaching on two new courses a few weeks before you need to hand in your thesis.

Well, huh.

Posted by September Blue Saturday, 20 October 2007 0 comments

In seven hours time, I will be sitting in some scratched and lumpy chair at an airport, wearing my best going-to-weddings outfit, responding to increasingly anxious 'Do you have your passport? Are you SURE you have your passport?' text messages from my mother (it's irritating, but she's got a point - I wouldn't trust me to remember it either), and... making last-minute corrections to an article. Question my dedication now, academia!

(Okay, usually I'd plan to do this and then not, but the article is to be finished and sent off ASAP on pain of pain from the supervisor. So.)

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Genius. GENIUS.

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 18 October 2007 3 comments

My current flatmate and mover of boxes of heavy things, Dr K, is getting married soon. (Aww.) And so Dr K has a wedding list, the product of six hours spent staring at spoons in the kitchen department of John Lewis, or so I am told, although six hours? Spoons? Hmm. Anyway. So we were looking at his wedding list, and wondering about the general absence of Look, Here's Some Stuff I Need for all those other times in people's lives when they need stuff. No 'I'm Moving House And Suddenly Need Furniture' lists. No 'I Got Divorced And Need To Furnish My New Place' lists.

But you know when a list would come in even more handy?

We're picturing the posters now. "Jilted? Gutted? Lost your CDs? Post a list on!" For anything and everything you lost custody of when a relationship went wrong. Nicely-designed cards with list numbers to hand out to friends who ask if there's anything they can do to help, 10% commission on sales for the site owners - I'm telling you, it's brilliant.

(Featured on my list would be: a guitar, a Chinese hamster, Neil Young's After the Gold Rush, and this really nifty blue jacket from M&S. No spoons.)

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Generation gap

Posted by September Blue Wednesday, 17 October 2007 1 comments

Generation gap

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Scaring the hell out of the next generation

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 14 October 2007 0 comments

I slapped a book out of someone's hands last week. It was for her own good.

I'll explain.

Since the earliest days of academia, from the very first time one of our distant ancestors threw a rock at an auroch and another of our distant ancestors decided it would be a really good idea to write eighty thousand words about the deeper cultural significance of that moment ('"God Gave (Au)rock And Roll To Us": The Slipperiness of the Signifier in/on Contemporary Shamanic Communities of Thag's Mountain'), there have been books written about the process of becoming a scholar. Some of these books are better than others.(1) I promised one of my Masters-student friends my copy of one of the more useful books on writing a PhD in exchange for her putting in a good word for me with her landlord, and she, in her innocence, picked up a different book on the subject and said "Oooh, this one?", and, well, drastic measures were called for.

I'm not going to name the book in question, lest the authors send packs of rogue postgrad students round to send me to sleep with the Special Collections material, or something.(2) I will say in the book's defence, too, that it's not all page after page of unhelpful and terrifying tales of angst and woe suitable only for wallpapering the TA room. There's even some fairly good advice in here. But, well, put it this way: The Thorn Birds probably has some valuable insights on farming in rural Australia in the (early? mid? SEE MY POINT?) twentieth century, but all anybody remembers is the thing with the priest and that bit with the wildfire where somebody got burnt to death and then somebody else went to find him and got gored to death with the wild pig.

I give you Exhibit A: the preface to the revised edition, which addresses previous reviewer's complaints that the book was too depressing. Acknowledging the point, the authors 'reiterate' ('re'? ha) the many positive aspects of being a PhD student:

The joys of doing research are considerable, and anyone in a position to carry out research is indeed privileged. Feelings of exploration, excitement, challenge, involvement and passion are frequent and are commented on in this book. The enormous feeling of achievement on the award of the degree lasts for many throughout their whole lives. Clearly the process is very rewarding otherwise so many would not have carried it through to the end.

Despite the promises of future comments, that's pretty much it for the entire book as far as looking on the bright side goes, but leave that aside for a moment. Dwell, instead, upon the odd passive voice elbowing its way into the sentences. These 'feelings', it seems, are autonomous entities that come and go in a puzzling, unpredictable manner, flapping by like migrating geese. Quick, it's a feeling of involvement! Catch it before it gets away!

I don't think the whole book should be positive, of course. It's only fair to send new PhD students into the system having some rudimentary idea of what the system holds in store for them, like that time Indiana Jones took his dad's manual with him to find the Holy Grail, and knew exactly where to step so the floor wouldn't collapse and knives wouldn't fly at his head. Impostor syndrome loses a lot of its strength when you realise that you're not the only one feeling like a fraud. So sentences like this, I suppose, are fair enough:

[New postgraduates] come into the university or college knowing precisely who they are: successful and intelligent holders of well-earned qualifications. It is not long before they lose their initial confidence and begin to question their own self-image.

Or at least, would be fair enough if they weren't followed by case studies like this one:

Sophia came to Britain on a government scholarship from a country that has little tradition of empirical research in her field. She was allocated to a supervisor who had good practical experience but who had not in fact done any research himself. She worked away by herself, with occasional comments from him that he thought a particular section very interesting. But he had badly underestimated the nature of a PhD. When she submitted her thesis, the external examiner said that, in his opinion, it was so completely inadequate that there was no point in having the oral examination or in allowing a resubmission. She returned to her country sadder, if not wiser.

No description of any way Sophia could have avoided that. No description of the kind of systems universities put in place to make sure it's not just you and your supervisor who know what you're doing. No comforting tales of Sophia leaving Britain with a huge smile saying that at least the scenery was pretty, or of her getting a non-academic job she's perfectly happy with. Nothing but "[s]he returned to her country sadder, if not wiser." Sophia is this book's equivalent of that man in The Thorn Birds who got gored to death by a pig, if The Thorn Birds claimed to be a helpful guide to rural farming.

Tony's story isn't any cheerier, but is (arguably, arguably) a lot more fun:

[Tony and his supervisor] saw each other less and less because Tony felt that they were talking at cross-purposes. After four months they ceased to have any meetings; after six months Tony was observed rushing into a lecture room to avoid his supervisor whom he saw coming towards him along the corridor. He never submitted his thesis.

Maybe he's still in that lecture room.

Not all research students end up as sobbing heaps on outbound flights or Gollum-like creatures scurrying behind the OHP every time a class comes into the room, and the book does attempt to provide some kind of balance. Consider Bradley, presented as a success story after describing himself as 'utterly alone, but I don't feel isolated':

Bradley explained that he needed to feel that he had rounded off a schedule of work in the three years and that it was this inner drive that had kept him going. At first he had 'gravitated into research because I couldn't think what else to do'. By the third year he said that his 'natural inclination' to do anything other than work hard on his research and complete the thesis had become much less pressing.

Wait wait wait now. What, exactly, is Bradley finding 'much less pressing' these days? Talking to other people? Sleeping? Eating? Somebody take Bradley a sandwich, ASAP! (And take a bucket of fish-heads for Tony while you're there - he doesn't like the natural light much, but we think he comes out to prowl at night.)

The book is aimed at science students (although it thinks it's not), resulting in a bunch of not-exactly-universal practical advice regarding working in a laboratory and collecting data. It advises PhD students to learn how to do research by watching their supervisors, too, which isn't much use to Arts people (although fantastic advice for anyone who wants to rehabilitate an orphaned PhD student back into the wild). Advice which truly does affect everyone tends to appear in the form of mystic Zen-like phrases:

It is a wise student who decides to postpone the pleasures of attempting to be totally original until after the PhD has been obtained.

Originality leads to frustration, frustration leads to despair, despair leads to hate. Employment, a Jedi seeks not.(3)

We proceed through instructions for working with your supervisor, including cheerful insights to bear in mind ('Just as you may take an instant dislike to someone so, too, may your supervisor'), reassuring advice about the nature of your meetings ('[M]ake a short summary of what occured during each tutorial. This sheet of paper should be photocopied with both student and supervisor keeping a copy'), and encouraging anecdotes from other students ('I've blotted out most of this period except the pain'), a brief burst of actual useful advice for 'surviving in a predominantly British, white, male, full-time academic environment', and dire warnings about the viva (some universities allow other people to sit in and watch! What do they provide for half-time entertainment, gladiators beating each other to death?).

So to return to what I was saying: my friend picked up this book and was about to open it, so I did what I had to do. She'll understand one day.


(1) I don't have anything useful to say in this endnote, except that the reason I've gone all endnote-crazy here is because I'm writing an article in a new (strange, alien) style format and trying to get used to the idea in my spare time.

(2) Littlle-known fact: the Reavers in Joss Whedon's Firefly were originally PhD students, until somebody took their conference funding away and they just couldn't take it any more.

(3) While we're on the subject of TV SF and academia, it's apparently semi-canonical fact that Mr Morden, the creepy human emissary for the evil Shadows in Babylon 5, has a PhD. No, seriously this time. It's in one of the books that got the JMS stamp of approval. I think this makes him a less interesting bad guy, actually, especially if the job market for PhDs in the future is as miserable as it is today.

Bad scan. No biscuit.

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 11 October 2007 1 comments

There are lots of reasons why we love digital archives. I would be a sad, lost and forlorn student without the wonders of the (searchable!) Making of America and the PAO; I have friends who owe their PhDs to electronic wonders like ECCO and EEBO. We're a generation of computer-raised scholars, and I know I'm not the only one who's searched through whole archives from the comfort of her desk, with Escape Velocity open in one window and some otherwise-inaccessible text open in another, wondering how on earth people coped in the days before.

It's easy to forget that digital archives don't always love us.

If you suffer from easily-induced headaches, you might want to look away now:


Look! Look! The woman! She's trying to get out!

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Run, Esther, run

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 7 October 2007 0 comments

"And why are we supposed to love Allan Woodcourt so much anyway? The man's like the Angel of Death. How many of his patients actually live?"