Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Indigenous Thesis Whisperer™: To care or not to care, that really IS the question.

As someone who supervises research candidates and has navigated the lonely journey of the good old PhD,  I understand how powerful it can be to hear ways to cope, grow through it and persevere on what is always going to be a terribly difficult and painful... wait... what am I saying?   That a thesis is the worst thing that will ever happen to you?  Cos that can't be right, can it?  I mean why would anyone do something really terrible and soul-destroying? 

There is a term, 'First World Problems' and we all either use it or loathe it, right? I loathe it - normally - but I think I might have found the absolute definition of it.  And it's wrapped up in a bundle of Whiteness and centralising ontologies to boot. 

PhDs are heaps easy
Let me take a step back.  If you've ever completed a PhD, there are two things you can't say.  Must not say.  The first is that it's fun, the second is that it's relatively easy.   If you ever want to experience community-shunning, shout out (on, say, a blog) that PhDs are just like everything else you do in life, unless you turn them into something to fear.   Well I found a blogsite that turns the entire process into something you'll fear, and it annoys me no end because it's filled with people encouraging this bizarre fear.  And it annoys me more because it's also filled with some gorgeous writings that should have an airing.   

It's all about approaching it like a scary big horsie
The Thesis Whisperer raises a few red flags for me.  In part it's the astounding amount of articles on how the academy is terrible, nobody can get a job, you'll never see your family again. And in part it's the privileged language that they use to describe this... it's 'slavery' (yes, really,  the word 'slave' and 'slave-driver' (a supervisor) is used unproblematically across three articles), and that's if you make it through the thesis itself.   The thesis... clearly you wouldn't wish it on your worst enemy - if you read enough articles of The Thesis Whisperer you will understand that the thesis is something to endure, not to enjoy.  We'll come back to enemies. 

What if they're wrong? 
Of course there is a rival opinion that this is complete and utter bullshit. You know what a PhD is? It's working on a project for three or four years, researching something, analysing it and writing it.  

If you do an average four-year undergraduate degree you read as many texts as you need for the disparate units that you take, conservatively you'd write about 20-25,000 words a semester, and you focus on about 32 different topics that you may or may not be interested in.   If you write a PhD, it's about 80-120,000 words (about half the amount) on a single topic that you're interested in, and you have support to do it.    

Oh... wait... there's more.  For Australian students -  on top of that - your PhD or Masters will likely be free (RTS funds more than 97% of HDR students in Australia).   In fact you may even be paid to do it.  But yeah by all means turn into a martyr about it, think it's harder than it is, and listen to people telling you its the hardest thing you'll ever do, cos I'm sure that'll help make it easier.   I mean they pay for you to study, and you have to put your thinking cap on... the humanity!!
Issues, Tissues and Some Good Stuff
Just because something is hard doesn't mean it's bad.  Presumably 'hard' is actually good, if you want to use your brain.  You wouldn't want to do a jigsaw puzzle that you could put together in ten seconds, would you?   And presumably 'easy' is the process of enjoying working something through, making it rather less difficult because you don't just magically know it (the puzzle didn't put itself together). 

If you want to research something meaningful, then do it. If you want to engage meaningful knowledge-transfer, wonderful! But also don't beat yourself up, not everyone likes the process of doing a PhD.  If you consider that a PhD is research training and you hate the research aspect of it, it might not be the best career path for you.  If you do research (and that's mostly what I do as a researcher) then it will actually involve many of the PhD elements except every day (presumably for TTW kind of like Sisyphus' plight).   If you actually don't like it, seriously, try something else. Or at least take a break till you love it again.  You deserve more - you really don't have to loathe the work you're making.  There are millions of clever people out there who don't do PhDs (and, according to articles in The Thesis Whisperer, they make more money and have more fulfilled lives).  If you do want to do it, then love it.   All you have to do is focus on something, think about it, work on it, and write it up - it's not that beyond the realm. 

You should do a PhD
If you have something you want to research, if you have enough time to be able to do it, and if you have people you want to work with (as supervisors, other researchers etc), then do a PhD.  Go on.  You'll do great. You'll love it, it'll be fun... it'll be hard, it'll be easy... there'll be coffee. You deserve it.  The world will be better off with your research.  It is not something that will destroy you. Don't let people tell you it is.  

Size of a PhD... look, it's tiny! 

Indigenous Candidates. Non-Traditional Candidates. Actually it's About Value-Adding. 
I had left school early, had no real expectation of smarts, and it had taken me some time to take to higher education.   Of course when I did, like a lot of my colleagues who were late to the party, I felt terribly privileged, I never turned back. It was freedom... because knowledge and engagement is pretty amazing.  I was a lecturer for ten years before I started my PhD, and it's been another ten years since I finished it, but none of that was simple, but it also wasn't awful.   Like many other Indigenous candidates, I questioned everything - my process, my journey, my right, the academy.  But I also knew the enormous support and engagement provided that told me that failure was okay, because it's not the pinnacle of what makes you smart or successful, it's just a bit of paper.  Which was great to know.  It all felt enormously edifying. 

In the last fifteen years, I have had the pleasure to work with a range of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander candidates.  Some have completed, some have moved onto other (often better things), some have halted their studies midway, and others have decided to extend the time that they do the work.   And many of them have found it a struggle, but the struggle - and this is my central complaint of The Thesis Whisperer is often not the same as the struggle that is frequently written about there.  The struggle is that of responsibility, of being the first in a family, the first in a community, the person who will document and support, the person who will put the voice of the community first, the thesis writer who will disrupt the academy, the one who will finally, finally, finally tell our stories.  Because it's about knowledge-transfer, not feeling sorry for our free education and capability to write about whatever we want.   That you can find the word 'Goldilocks' two times across The Thesis Whisperer articles, but you'll only find the word 'Indigenous' in a piece of advertising, is a measure of our value, they're missing out on a really neat trick.  A trick about looking beyond the 'hard' and seeing the impossible.  And doing it anyway.  It kind of makes me think that the 'brass ring' may indeed be knowledge-transfer and meaningful research, and that some of the emptiness is a fear that their research doesn't matter. It should... you deserve more.  Other people deserve more of your research.  

How could we not love our work?   For me, it was getting to think through an Aboriginal-centred question, I got to work through a gender problem and come out the other end with something lovely to show. How could that be anything other than a win-win? 

Note: Oh, in case you're wondering there is no 'Aboriginal' or 'Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander' either, and 'Indigenous' is, of course, not even capitalised even though it's a short-form for a proper noun, so just a suggestion: learn some English, even if you can't be respectful enough to consider that we deserve capitalisation. 

Friends and Enemies
With friends like these!  Look, truthfully I wouldn't be whinging about The Thesis Whisperer if they weren't also producing good material that is helpful.  How to Write 10,000 words a day, was a crowning achievement filled with promise and clever strategies.  But with helpful friends like some of the writers and so many of the people commenting I wouldn't want to contemplate the enemy in the room.  But they're there.  There are a lot of people who are going through their own personal dark night of the teacup, sure, but there are also people who really need help and are grasping at anything that can get them unstuck from their problem... I wish they were better supported.  But I'm convinced that The Thesis Whisperer is often a huge suck-hole of negativity that is hard to climb out of.  I used to say to students, go there just try to avoid the comments, now I think... do I really want to be responsible for recommending something that just paints a completely bleak picture using exceptionalising and individual experiences.  Cos... frankly, just like me saying my PhD was easy... the 'journeys' depicted are just that - individual and their experience and cannot be easily cast as truth for all readers.   Like the person who says that they can't find a job in their field, but clearly aren't willing to travel for it (side note, kinda, we are advertising for a Level C that goes across humanities areas and we may not fill it).   Or the people who struggle every day that they wake up... even if you also struggle, your struggle will be different. 

But worse than the negativity in articles,  there is also a certain flavour to those commenting who blame the system.  One such academic who was lamenting the horrors of the system that pushes through all of these PhDs with no jobs in sight was blaming the system that he works in - even though he's a very senior academic entirely entrenched in developing and promoting the same program he is complaining about.  As though a system exists without him endorsing and shaping it.  As though the institution is a building that controls you and you have no agency... maybe he's staring at a sign that says Freedom is Slavery in his totalitarian dystopia (this sounds familiar).  There is a part of me that wonders if there is a rite of passage element to it.  Scare them, shake the tree, if they drop out... good.  More money for us, more jobs for us, more more more for us.  And it's about as transparent across that space as the frightened comments that they're putting out.  It's okay sad little bloke, you have tenure. 

Privilege Redux
Privilege is something that people either choose to interrogate or choose to accept.  As someone who is well and truly in the former camp, I am concerned that The Thesis Whisperer uses terms like 'slave', details notions of unfairness from an entirely privileged perspective, and sets up the system that people are actually participating in as the evil empire.   If you knew what it was to not have privilege, you wouldn't do it.   TTW... hear diversity.  It might make you less whingey.

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