All 4 entries tagged Greg

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January 20, 2012

The January blues – by Greg

This Monday just gone (16th January) was Blue Monday. Officially The Worst Day of The Year.sleep Christmas is well and truly over, the weather is terrible, the excess of the festive season has hit your waistline and your bank balance, and the last thing anybody feels like doing is working. For the majority of the population who have no choice about whether they turn up for work or not, Blue Monday and the days that surround it simply have to be survived. For PhD students, where the whip is cracked only rarely and your duty to work is entirely down to your own self-motivation, this can prove extraordinarily difficult.

I've never been a big fan of new years. While many view the change from one year to the next as an opportunity for change and renewal, I more often view them with trepidation and dread. More challenges, more pitfalls, more things getting in my way. Frankly, I think they stink. This year has proved no different - the allure of my warm bed, blocking out the cold, grey weather and blitzkrieg of modern living (never-ending self improvement, professional development, locating, pursuing and taking opportunities, not to mention the usual feeding, clothing and housing oneself), occasionally proves too great and I succumb. If I hibernate, the thinking goes, I will avoid all of this mess.

Of course nothing is this simple. Winter must not merely be survived, but productively employed. Breaking up the day certainly helps - a bit of work is a must, but then pursuing your hobbies, getting your frozen blood moving by going for a walk, watching movies and trying to claw back a 130-point deficit in Fantasy Football can provide welcome distractions. If you can keep busy, winter will fly by. Soon it will be March, the clocks will have moved forward, the weather will be a touch better, and you can move from hibernation to becoming a fully functioning human being once again.

How has anyone else tried to combat the winter blues? Do you even suffer from them? Let me know!

November 08, 2011

9 to 5? You're having a laugh! – by Greg

Empty office

This is intended as a riposte to the systematic attempt to place PhD (and particularly arts) students into the "9-to-5" box.

We live in straitened times. Resources and money are scarce. British universities are suffering at the hands of an ill-advised march towards austerity, targeted by an anti-intellectual government with a particular axe to grind against the arts and humanities. Phrases such as "cut-backs", "lay-offs", "redundancy" are now common. We are under attack.

In an attempt to ensure increasingly scarce resources are managed and allocated effectively, our department has been the subject of a room survey recently. Particularly targeted have been the handful of rooms designated as postgraduate offices, used largely by PhD students who also teach in the department. I have absolutely no problem with this in principle - when times are tight, everybody has to make sure that every resource available is being utilised to its maximum capability. If space is not being used, it should be reallocated.

However, I have a significant problem with many of the assumptions implicit within such an exercise - the survey was undertaken between the hours of 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday. Anybody who does a PhD in the Arts and Humanities knows that such rigid working hours are a nonsense, even a fanciful wish. Many of us I'm sure yearn for a utopian future in which our research occupies our minds for only eight hours a day, five days a week. Such notions are daft - I have woken up at 3am on many occasions with thoughts, musings and ideas running through my head, unable to return to sleep. Similarly, I have spent more than the odd weekend in my fledgling academic career working on a Saturday or a Sunday, after 5pm or before 9am. In fact, there have been numerous times in the last two years that I have been in my office, working, before the sun has popped out its head, before the birds have started chirping, eating a bowl of bran flakes while reading Freud at my desk. Where were the room inspectors then??

I therefore would like to issue a complaint (not for the first time, I might add), about the manner in which resources are allocated and the means by which this allocation is decided: I do not sit in at my desk from 9am until 5pm each day, watching the clock tick down to the moment I can leave, careful to ensure I take the hour for lunch to which I am entitled, and living for a weekend in which I sleep until noon, eat fry-ups and drink beer. So don't treat me as such.

Academia is not a 9-to-5 job. Ask any of my colleagues, many of whom work until the small hours of the morning to meet deadlines, many of whom have teaching preparation which they do at home in the evening, many of whom spend their weekends completing all the tasks their hectic schedules prevented them from doing during the week. Inspecting our offices, finding them unoccupied at 12pm on a Monday and then giving them away offers a distorted picture of our profession. The cogs of our minds are turning all day, every day, and while there might be occasions when the hamster is not quite travelling at full pelt, the business of thinking cannot be contrained by the rigidity of the "working week".

The room allocation might be a minor bugbear in the grand scheme of things, but it speaks to a wider problem - in an environment where intellectualism is under attack from philistines, we might feel the urge to conform to what they want from us in order to survive. But you only have to look at something like IMPACT - a proposterous concept which, among other things, forces researchers to demonstrate the contribution their work makes to "economic growth" - to see the radical misunderstanding of the role intellectuals play in society, and the ways in which they work. We must not let this happen.

Working 9-to-5, as Dolly Parton once said, is a less than ideal way to make ends meet. So stop punishing those of us who have found an alternative, an alternative which is not capable of conforming to a frankly outmoded and rigid model of work.

October 14, 2011

Keep the Whole Garden Going – by Greg

Year III, Term I, Week II. As it stands, I have a maximum of 14 months left of PhD study. I have made good progress - one chapter left to research and draft, supplementary bits of other chapters to finish off, a comprehensive literature review to write and, finally, the introduction and conclusion, which should present themselves fully formed once I've finished everything else (I place emphasis here on the word "should"). However, when I look into the mirror, I do not see someone surging ahead with intellectual adrenaline. Instead, I see bags under the eyes, a rapidly receding hairline and an expanding paunch. As many research students will no doubt testify, the evidence of tiredness, hair loss and weight gain are warning signs that you are letting work get the better of you. Indeed, in the past I have accidentally cultivated many disastrous hairstyles as a result of my obsessive relationship with academic study, simply ignoring the length of my barnet because there are more important things to be done.

But what other option is there? PhD research demands a lot from you, a level of commitment that those outside academia fail to recognise. When I encounter friends of my parents who ask me what I'm doing with my life, and I answer "I'm a PhD student", I often get looks of scorn. It seems in their minds all students are to be tarred with the same brush - lazy and directionless, using taxpayers money to subsidise a life of alcohol abuse, junk food and pursuing romantic entanglements. If only they knew the truth.

Firstly, there is your thesis. The thing you came here to do. Your calling card. Your raison d'etre. Much like the carnivorous plant in The Little Shop of Horrors, your thesis needs a pound of flesh from you to be kept satisfied. If you are unable to feed it adequately, it will shrivel up, wilt and die, and you will be left with nothing to show for all your hard work. You will never be able to do enough to keep it happy, but then that is the dance you have to do. So that means hours and hours reading, viewing, exploring, thinking, mulling over, pontificating, talking through and, often, stumbling down blind alleys which lead nowhere, deviations which might be frustrating but are nonetheless necessary. Sounds like that's enough to be getting on with right?

Little Shop of Horrors

Wrong. In addition to the bloodthirsty plant, you also have "professional development": essential activities which will assist your attempt to be gainfully employed at the end of all of this. So that involves: teaching preparation, teaching itself, marking exams and essays, thinking of and writing articles for publication, corrections and proofs of said articles, working on conference proposals, writing conference papers, chasing copyright permission from intractable publishers and, if you're not doing these things, then you're worrying about them. To be best positioned to pursue an academic career at the end of a PhD, one has to have thought about and achieved many of these things. But there are only 24 hours in every day and, as a result, all of the other things that have made you "A Unique and Special Individual" tend to fall by the wayside. While you've been tending to the bloodsucking carnivorous plant, all the flowerbeds and rosebushes that don't constantly scream for you have begun to wither, gasping for the nourishment that only you can provide. They may not crave the same level of attention, but they need a bit of TLC now and then. So you must find the time to give it to them.

To be able to provide for your other saplings, you must tell yourself this, and recite it as a mantra every day when you look at your haggard visage in the mirror each morning: You Are Not A Thesis. Academic work is not everything there is about you. Although you have chosen this path because it is something about which you are passionate, and to shift the metaphor from the garden to the bedroom, academia does not require you to be monogamous. You can plant your seeds elsewhere. Doing a PhD may not be about free love, but you can have an open relationship. You can remain committed to academia, but still have an affair with Fantasy Football, or the guitar, or cooking, or yoga, or sewing. As long as you've given it enough of your blood during the day, academia won't mind if you spend the night with something else. As long as you've shown yourself to be a committed scholar, academia will never leave you. But you can leave it. Sometimes, just for a while, as long as you're back in time for breakfast.

July 01, 2011

How much is too much? Knowing when to stop researching and just write the damn thing – by Greg

I'm sure this is a feeling all PhD students have had at some point or another - the sense that you have no idea what you're talking about and your ignorance is going to be discovered at any minute. One way I have sought to avoid this particular charge is a fool-hardy attempt to know everything about everything. Given that I am a man of 26 with some semblance of a social life, and the fact that we have a finite period of time to formulate, research and write our theses, this ambition is an absolute nonsense. One cannot possibly know everything about everything, because not only would the pursuit of this goal render you a dribbling, probably insane wreck, it would also negate the point of academia - the grand debate. But still, I'll give it a damn good go.

Take my current work for example - I am researching African American stardom in Hollywood cinema, with particular focus on those accomplished thesps Morgan Freeman and Danny Glover. Now there are countless (literally) books on the subject of race and film, and if one stacked DVD copies of the films both men have featured in, it would dwarf you, and make you appear physically small, rather than the simply metaphorical feeling of inferiority you have been cultivating diligently. Despite ploughing through endless books, and watching countless films, I still have the depressing feeling that I have barely scratched the surface. I am drowning in books, articles, DVDs and videos (remember them?), and there is no light at the end of the tunnel, because the tunnel is blocked by copies of Lethal Weapon 2 and Driving Miss Daisy. I feel confident I could write something interesting and new, but I still can't help feeling that anything I produce will be somehow incomplete. Perhaps it is time to put my supplementary work aside for the sake of my mental health, return to my primary texts, conduct my analysis, and just write the damn thing. Sounds sensible right?

However, there would still be the overwhelming feeling that I have missed something. Perhaps there is a book, in some long-forgotten archive gathering dust, just waiting for me to open it, and deliver a profound new realisation to the world. Or maybe there is a movie, featuring a performance so astoundingly relevant to my argument that it will prove to be the "eureka" moment I so desperately crave. I lie awake at night with bibliographies and filmographies etched into my retinas, imagining tricsky questions from esteemed intellectuals tinged with a tone of utter disbelief that I haven't come across a particular obvious notion, and my months of hard work will be shot down in flames. While many of you are no doubt wrestling with questions perhaps not quite as apparently trivial as the merits of Glover's performance in Predator 2, does this seem like a feeling everyone can relate to? The feeling you know nothing can be debilitating.

I must try to accept the fact that I am a human being. The pursuit of total knowledge is something to aspire to, but also something one must accept will never happen. There are only 24 hours in every day, and I spend at least 7 of these sleeping, and I strive to eat 3 square meals a day. Given there was a period in my life in which I did neither of these things particularly well, I feel they are important for my physical and mental well-being. I will not bow to the contemporary thirst to "cut" everything to the bone, for I feel this will prove detrimental - I need my sleep and I need my food, and leaving these things out will only hinder my research, not help it. I can only hope that, should my relative ignorance become apparent, academia will put its collective arm around my shoulder, hand me a bibliography of further titles I might explore, and whisper in my ear that it's OK, I don't need to know everything.

Perhaps this blog post will help me exorcise my demons, accept the fact that I will never know all there is to know about Mr Freeman and Mr Glover, and whatever my thesis ends up looking like, I will do them and my overall subject justice. Here's hoping.

I hope this is something everyone can relate to. It will make me feel less crazy! Now to return to that obscure mid-80s Morgan Freeman film just one more time...


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