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The heart vs head…

15 Aug

I feel a bit broken today. Broken for a country I love that has descended further into turmoil, and broken because the changes I thought I might have to make to my fieldwork plans are probably just the beginning of a retreat away from a project I (and, I think, my supervisors) really believed in. My heart and head are in conflict and it’s coming to crunch time…

My research explores activism in Egypt. Having worked and lived in the country on and off for over two years, I have a deep affection for Egypt and the many people I grew to care about in Cairo, Luxor, Aswan and beyond. There was always something special about arriving back in Egypt: my Arabic skills would wake up at passport control, groggy from the months of rest and the late night arrival, and, as the taxi reached a familiar flyover in central Cairo, I would feel, in some ways, that I was coming home.

As part of my fieldwork, I was hoping to return to Egypt and explore political learning with community activists as their struggle for democracy continued. But as the situation escalated since the protests of June 30th, my researcher ‘head’ is being battered with the ethical concerns for the safety of participants being asked to discuss politics and thoughts of ‘the political’, and the university’s risk assessment for me as a researcher in the field. These battles mean the time has come to make some changes to my research project. Not completely, but enough that my heart feels a sense of sadness for the stories that cannot be told in the way they need to be told.

One of my criticisms of the academy has been the lack of research in authoritarian states and in the middle east – but today, it feels like I’m perpetuating that bias. It’s not a decision I take lightly, and I’m determined to remain focused on Egypt and Egyptian activists, but theoretically and methodologically, the plan we were so sure of has to evolve and take into consideration the heart and the head.

When we start a PhD we know there will be inevitable changes along the way: a new theoretical direction emerges from an illuminating reading session, or a new way to use a method previously dismissed seems possible, relevant and necessary. People in my department who know my work is on Egypt have enquired of my plans, many suggesting simply, ‘you can just apply the framework to somewhere different though, yeh?’. For me, changing case studies is not an option I’m ready to consider: my heart is still connected to Egypt, even though my head knows of the practical and ethical concerns of the university, not to mention my partner and family.

But maybe it’s being stubborn and maybe it will come back to haunt me, but I think we have a commitment to doing research that needs to be done, and that contributes understandings that can help to make the world a better place. If I were to back away from Egypt now, I would feel I was letting down all the Egyptians who made me so welcome for so long.

The immediate challenge is to use my head to adapt the research theoretically and methodologically because my heart tells me the ongoing revolution in Egypt is too important to walk away from…

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The conference nuggets and baby steps!

26 Mar

Now, I’m still a baby in PhD land, a conference novice, so forgive me for an extreme naval gazing moment (yes, again!). This post is really for me to acknowledge the baby steps we take during a PhD, and to hold on to a feeling of achievement I gained from noticing the difference between a conference in November (8 weeks into PhD) and now, March, (6 months in). Part of the difference is in my attitude, part in the content, and part in the implications for my work.

Among many reasons, we go to conferences for those golden nugget moments: the little spark that illuminates a new direction or a different meaning on some part of your work, or maybe even opens a new path that changes your perception of something you thought was or wasn’t related to your PhD. It can be the moment when you realise a critique you have (but perhaps are still reluctant to say aloud because conferences can also be intimidating places at times) is the same insight you should apply to your own work. Or it is the moment where you connect with someone else’s ideas in a way that clarifies and sharpens your own understandings.  These kind of golden nugget moments are exciting and provoking, challenging and rewarding.

I had a few nugget moments today, particularly one that arose out of a discussion of contrasting understandings and practices of solidarity. When one audience member responded to the presenter, I felt an argument brewing against what he’d suggested. I pondered (no really, I actually put my pen in my mouth and gazed upwards…. oh, dear, dear, dear….). I scribbled frantically and knew I’d had a moment where I could see real progress. But then a second, golden, nugget…

 

I realised that, whereas the November conference had me festering in a bewildering pit of my own fear at how much I didn’t know and excitement at how much I wanted to know, not only was I was now able to actually understand more of what people were saying (I’ll readily admit I remain befuddled at much of what social scientists say…) but I was growing in confidence in my own opinions and responses, arguing against their suggestions in my head and tracing my own journey to that standpoint. Ok, so it’s a seemingly trivial moment, but the golden nugget moment I’m taking from this conference is that the greatest achievement for me if (when… when… when!) I complete this PhD will be surviving the process and learning from all the positives and negatives that come with it – not simply the topic but all the other ‘stuff’ that makes the PhD such a unique experience. It really IS the journey, but it’s a journey full of tiny steps that will (hopefully) come together in one big, happy leap.

The big C

18 Feb

Today I had one of those moments that (from trawling the internet) appears to have happened to many phd students: hating academia utterly and completely. It seems like most people go through it – wondering how they got to the point of deciding to start the phd, let alone reaching a point where they feel able to complete it.

I am well aware that my main problem is confidence. No matter what I’ve done, I’ve always thought I’d be found out as some kind of fraud and that I had made it where I was because of a lot of luck and other people equating enthusiasm with ability. Even when I passed additional qualifications or got letters and cards that should have given me faith in myself I wouldn’t ever believe what was said. I love writing, love my topic, and I really love where the research is going. BUT (of course there is a but!) I have started to hate academia already, particularly the feeling of inadequacy that follows me everywhere as soon as I step away from my desk and have to interact on any academic level with anyone and they’ll find me out.

And so, I hope this post becomes the realisation that I have found the battleground of my PhD: self-confidence. I don’t know how to change it, but I hope that recognising it is the first step to ensuring I don’t quit…

Now I know this is all self-pitying twoddle, but apparently it’s normal to feel like this… A more amusing stance on the issue is evident in this list of acronyms for PhD (taken from http://www.cs.berkeley.edu/~taneja/phd.html):

Patiently hoping for a Degree
Piled higher and Deeper
Professorship? hah! Dream on!
Please hire. Desperate.
Pour him a Drink
Philosophically Disturbed
Probably headed for Divorce
Probably heavily in Debt
Patiently headed Downhill…
Permanent head Damage
Potential heavy Drinker
Professional hamburger Dispenser… “Would you like fries with that?”
Post hole Digger
Professional hair Dresser
Piano hauling Done
Pizza hut Driver
Pretty heavily Depressed
Prozac handouts Desired
Pretty heavy Diploma
Pretty horrible dissertation
…and the funniest of them all – Philosophiae doctor

The Silence and The Step Back

31 Jan

Although I didn’t fall into a hole and hide from the world, the three months silence from here was probably a manifestation of my work taking so many directions and my confidence taking so many tumbleturns. Being able to step back a little now is much less about feeling more confident and more about feeling more confident that this is exactly the process I need to go on to feel confident in the end. 

The research topic has taken new shapes, new dimensions, new forms and has, ultimately, become driven by the theory… but weirdly, it’s better BECAUSE it’s driven that way. And it’s not even particularly different but it does feel more original and more necessary. That’s got to be good, right? 

During ‘The Silence’ I learnt to step back entirely from what I expected from myself and what I expected the PhD to look like in the end. It’s a freeing moment when you realise that the joy of doing this type of research is the myriad of avenues your reading and inquiring can take you (and on a side note, the moment of joy when you realise Foucault IS relevant, IS interesting and IS comprehensible… in parts!). 

The Step Back was actually many forms of stepping upwards, backwards, downwards at the same time; up a level of theory, down into specific parts of that theory, back to historic theory; upwards in my own knowledge and understanding, backwards in expectations of myself… The list really could go on. 

By the end of next week I should have completed the rewritten, reformulated, refocussed, retheorised, repositioned (……etc!) proposal for my research, and my first chapter. I’m hoping the next silence is as I breathe and enjoy a step forward. 

The first assault…

9 Oct

“The PhD is an assault on your confidence…” I was told this on day one by a 3rd Year Ph.D student and didn’t doubt it, though I had expected to get a few more weeks under the belt before I felt it happen. Even the supervisors said this is normal process, another student insisted I’m still further along than most at this stage. But that doesn’t help when you’re used to achieving well, used to being capable of stringing more than three words together in sentences that make sense and possibly even sometimes create some logical, convincing and coherent argument. Not today.

After a week of exploring the proposal it seems like I’m being encouraged to step further away from the topic that drives my passion for the research and step into a territory that I think will pigeonhole me in a way that I don’t want. Whether it’s because I don’t feel any kind of confidence in that area or because I don’t want to feel like I’m allowing 10 years of expertise to just dissolve, I think today is my first experience of having to “push against it”, as fellow student C said. He said he wishes he pushed against the interests of his supervisor a bit more, after all it’s OUR three or four years and OUR chance to carve out the expertise in the topics we’re passionate about.  

But then it’s not like I’m not passionate about all aspects of the topic. Is this assault on the confidence actually related to wanting to stick to what I feel comfortable with, and if I do that am I actually selling myself out and not using the opportunity to get stuck into something so that I really learn and really grow? Is the Ph.D about learning how to research, how to ground research in theory so that it can be justified and respected, or just adding to what I’ve done already?

The first assault has resulted in the task of a month of reading around a topic I enjoy but not the central topic I am desperate to not leave behind… the battle lines are bound to change but they’re looking a little scary at the moment….

The first meeting…

1 Oct

I am incredibly lucky to have two supervisors who have agreed they want to take an equal role in helping to shape my learning and the research experience. Despite this meaning twice the pressure to live up to, I class myself as lucky because they’re both influential and important in their respective fields and that and the end of the slog I’ll have had the experience of two great academics who will have pushed and pushed and probably wanted to throttle me to get the best work done.

But two supervisors makes for quite the first supervisory meeting. Gulp doesn’t quite cut it.

The first meeting is where we set the tone, the expectations, and the fear sets in. Despite one supervisor’s encouraging opening ditty (“I told other students they had to be incredibly passionate about their work and knew I didn’t have to say that to you… I’m so excited for you!”), I still felt the nerves trickle down my spine like drizzle on a drainpipe! The three of us sat around a small table, my original proposal winking from beneath a pile of forms to fill in and agendas, and got ready to set the ball rolling. Suddenly, the whole thing took on a reality that I don’t think I’d allowed myself to acknowledge.

We spent over an hour talking through the expectations they had of me and what I could expect from them. We talked about the process (and I internalised the fear!!), discussed the topic, explored my training and methodology, and agreed on next steps. Apparently, I am now a Ph.D researcher…. with a 1000 word piece of homework and a pretty huge dose of trepidation on one shoulder and excitement on the other.

The topic…

1 Oct

Passion and commitment to the topic must be central to any Ph.D, whether three, four or five years. Thankfully, I’m not short of either, though sometimes I know my passion can verge more towards over excitement and annoying exuberance!

My topic is current, political, potentially gendered, and based on my own belief in the power of education to shape and build better futures. But I have taken the difficult decision to step away from the practical, pedagogical application and take stock of all that comes before: how our understandings of the world and our place in it shapes our pedagogy and the type of education we promote.

I had arrived at the first meeting desperate to cling on to what I felt confident (*insert, comfortable) with – pedagogy and the role of the teacher. But four days around other Ph.D students must have had some kind of impact because as we discussed the purpose of any Ph.D I realised I had to cut the apron strings and step away from the comfort of pedagogy and push myself to somewhere new where other passions would have the opportunity to ignite and, hopefully, thrive.

The first week and first real discussions showed me that the Ph.D is about learning how to research, how to think and question and reflect in a whole new way, and then apply that practically. So the topic changed a little and morphed into a new shape; it has the same content and passions but has new edges, new dimensions and new opportunities. And new excitements.

The diary

24 Sep

One of the wonderful benefits of studying within a large, well respected University is the opportunity for continuing professional development through training, seminars, conferences etc. The only downside is how to work through the myriad of opportunities and still leave enough time for the all-important studying.

The University encourages self-reflection (which is what this blog is all about; my chance to record my reflections in one place and potentially discuss the process with others). So I sat down to reflect on training presented as the ‘compulsory’, the ‘expected’, the ‘supplementary’. Add to these categories, the networking, the knowledge and the stuff you know will be essential, my week is already full. Which leads me to the dilemma of when to actually read and get around to doing the research I came here to do.

Having spent nearly 15 years in work, the MA that I completed two weeks before starting the PhD was already a wonderful chance to expand my mind in line with my broadened horizons. But with every course I signed up to (“it’s so interesting”; “of course I’ll need to know this in the future”; “it’s too good an opportunity to miss”!) my diary got squeezed and squeezed, until breaking point happened and I stopped doing anything that wasn’t compulsory, and I mean really, really compulsory. Not just ‘expected’ for professional reasons. So the question for my diary now is just how many hours of the PhD is meant for training, and the broader learning, and how many hours do I have to say “No, I AM at my desk. I AM reading. I AM working alone?”

The diary will probably have exploded by the time the next post is written….

The proposal

21 Sep

No, not the Sandra Bullock film, the few hundred words detailing my intended research for the next three years and the start of my journey to doctordom. The start of my PhD. The road to somewhere, I hope.

Writing a proposal is exciting, invigorating and awful. My brain swirled in a foggy mist of everything I found interesting but couldn’t include, everything I felt passionate about but probably couldn’t be objective about, and everything I knew I needed to know but had dreaded the realisation of admitting I didn’t know enough about. Or something like that. But I got a title together and even managed to find some people who kind of agreed with things I wanted to say.

When outlining your research, you have to include your methodology. So far I am committed to qualitative AND quantiative methods, and a whole lot of grey literature. So most of the methods of research in the social sciences then. But the strange aspect of writing the research methodology section is that you write in the future tense… I will… this research will… through the use of… I will… I will…. Will I?