Through Struggle and Indifference – now available!

Yes, I’m delighted to announce that (with insufficient fanfare given how much blood, sweat and tea went into its creation) my thesis Through Struggle and Indifference: the UK academy’s engagement with the open intellectual commons. is now available online and open access.

Regular readers will note I’ve managed to hide no fewer than 2 jokes in its pages – albeit minor ones.  And that’s not including the doubtless myriad of typos that are still in there too.

Guess this means I need to revise the other pages of this blog now to bring them up to date too.  Now, I just need to either re-write the whole damned thing into a book – or start writing some papers from it…the labour never ceases!

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Writing is Rewriting Writing that’s been Rewritten

No prizes for guessing what I’ve been spending the bulk of this week working on.

  • Conference proposals
    • Spent Monday writing the two conference proposals that are deadlined for submission at the end of this month.  One’s an extended abstract of ~2,000 words based on my research, or as I prefer to think of it – a bloody paper already – so that took the bulk of the time.  The other one is a brief 500 word communications workshop proposal, which took slightly less time to write – but more time than I expected to polish in terms of the phraseology. As you might expect, if I’m writing about communication…I really ought to be able to communicate that better.  Biggest problem was running out of synonymous terms for communication.  Twitter was a minor help…but still ended up rephrasing a paragraph just to work around the problem.  As always, writing is re writing.  Also Mrs Llama has been lovely here giving a bit of feedback in bright-red pen (we disagree on nuances of phraseology and style a lot, but she’s hotter on grammatical structure than I am).
  • Thesis chapter writing
    • Into the home run now – working on the brief specific applications of theory for Marx, Foucault and the autonomists.  Just the methods to briefly rewrite (they’re largely okay as they are) and I can share it with my supervisors.  I’d be lying though if I wasn’t lying awake every night worrying about ever finishing whole thing though.  Or how much of a re-write this 3rd version will need after the supervisors are through with it.  Stressed?  Yes.
  • Book chapter proposal
    • Did a minor edit on this, shared it with Andreas and got told to send it off to the publishers for consideration.  And now we play the waiting game.
  • Teaching
    • Media Communications
      • Into the first of two weeks looking at Freud, psychoanalytics and their application in PR, marketing and business.  Bit of a laugh in the lecture when the academic did a double take when i walked into the room saying “What are you doing here?”.  Always nice to be warmly welcomed, but then Neil has taught me philosophy in the past – and sat through one of my conference papers.  Having explained I was lurking cos I teach on the module I sat back and enjoyed an exploration of the psychoanalytic properties of objects.  Hence the seminar that followed later in the day tried to draw out the shared cultural myths behind everyday objects – with the idea that the students could then see how we can use unconscious desires to drive advertising in subtle ways.  And given they’ve an assessed presentation on the subject coming up, I do hope they were listening.  Also took the chance to reference my good chum and Creative Overlord of Moxie Creative (free plug, they’re great) Nora, who I know reads this blog every now and again.  And by referenced I of course mean “spoke highly of”.
    • Face to Face to Facebook
      • Probably the dullest seminar session this week on digital literacy.  When I look at the approach taken to teach this, versus the effort I used to go through back in the day at York Uni for my teaching sessions…well it’s a lot less labour intensive.  Not sure the students quite get it, and frankly I think I’d overhaul the whole session given half a chance.  As it was I took the original handout the lecturer this week had written and rewrote.  And after running the session on Thursday for the first time, rewrote it again in time for Friday’s sessions.  It’s still not the greatest bit of training literature…but now at least there’s more of a logical path through it for the students to take during the session (and in their own time) that should reap them some rewards.
      • Nevertheless I took advantage of the time with the students to talk about their assignments and the course in general, turning it into a general problem solving and reassurance session(s) instead.  Fair amount of exploration of academia.edu and social media, not a lot into the social bookmarking etc.  But at least they’re aware these tools exist and some of them might well take advantage of them.  Funniest thing was one of the students deciding to give one of my supervisor’s papers on academia.edu repeated hits…taking it from a handful to over 1,000.  Not sure it was the most productive use of his time, but I used it to illustrate the falsehood of relying only on quantitative metrics for assessing research quality!
      • On the other hand the discussions around their forthcoming essays (which I’ll be mostly marking over the Easter break…joy) were productive.  A few have it well in hand, and hopefully I gave those that were less sure a few pointers.  Huzzah.
  • Marking
    • As I’ve taken over two more groups, just at the point they got to hand in a practice essay for formative assessment, this means I’ve taken on a load more marking.  I’ve been knocking off at least 3 every night this week in terms of indicative grading and feedback, rather than face the horror of a whole day (or more) lost to marking them.  Not getting paid for all this marking is a bloody cheek, when it’s supposed to be part of the hourly rate.  But I’d not taught these students when they submitted these – so it’s easy to see how the university is exploiting my immaterial labour here.  Anyway the essays are for the most part not bad, although one or two of them as always are a bit sub-optimal.  Hopefully those students’ll take my suggestions for improvements on-board for their assessed essays due in a few months.  It’s far more pleasant to be struggling to work out which high-grade to give a paper, than to sit there agonising over whether to fail or just give a very low grade to a poor one.
    • And yes, part of me does wonder if this is a bit of hand-holding for them to massage their experiences of the course, rather than offering say 1-2-1 tutorials instead.  But then my poor students would have to do this in a lobby somewhere with me.  Not having an office space…yeah, that’s going to be the biggest issue I’ve had with the NTU experience as a student, and as a member of staff – even more so.
    • Still it’s been heartening to read some polished essays that are frankly better than anything I can turn out today, and to spot other’s making common errors that I still make too.  Marking these things really helps remind me of my own failings as a writer, and spurs me to try…really try…to avoid making them again.  But I suspect I will, all the same.
  • Reading
    • I’ve not been doing a lot of deep reading this week – but these two articles certainly struck a chord:
  • Opportunity
    • As they do, an interesting opportunity for later this year has floated into sight this week, via Mrs Llama – which is somewhat surprising.  Not sure if it’ll be suitable or workout, but I’ll be investigating this weekend…

From Exhilaration to Despair – Riding the Thesis Sine Wave

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…” Dickens., 1859. A Tale of Two Cities

If ever a literary quote summed up my feelings about a week working on this thesis – it’s this one.  And given my work with trying to understand/explain another child of the Victorian age (Marxism) in my thesis theory chapter, it seems a likely companion and critique of my feelings.  There are rare moments when the sun shines through in my PhD addled brain and i suddenly grasp how all the elements of my theory fit together.  Then there are others when I’m staring at pages of text I’ve written that make NO SENSE AT ALL.  Or at least they don’t seem to any more.  Up the sine wave I go…it all works!  Then down, down I hurtle and into the trough of despair once more.

Yeah, that's about right
Yeah, that’s about right

Rewriting this theory chapter is harder than i thought, and there have honestly been days when I’m ready just to throw it all in the bin, pour lighter fluid over it and spark a match***.  or just take out my hunting knife and stab the pile of notes into submission.

I am reliably sure this is an effective research method.

Burn!  Damn you!
Burn! Damn you!

…and then there are thankfully the many moments of sanity that snap me back and remind I CAN DO THIS.  Honestly, I knew this bit was going to be hard.  But this is very very hard.  Far more than I anticipated.  A large part comes down to cranking out explanation on paper.  Despite appearances I’m not the world’s greatest or most able wordsmith (no shit, eh!) and far better at explaining things orally.  Things like the viva or my end of year review meetings don’t give me anything like the fear and distress i get with trying to contain my scholarly thoughts within the realm of a few sides of A4.   I really miss writing things collaboratively I confess, I’ve always been able to do my best work bouncing ideas back and forth between one or two other people.  I guess I’ve a strong tenancy for collaboration* rather than solo work.  Shame being solo is pretty much the life of a humanities PhD student.

Right, right.  Enough wallowing in self pity and back to writing.  I can’t put it off any more by writing a blog post to stretch my writing muscles (naturally, in no way is this a displacement activity).  Back to the grindstone I go.  Come on Marx, you must have some words to inspire me?

Capitalism squanders human lives, or living labour, and not only flesh and blood but also nerve and brain

Gee thanks you’re no help, I’m a cog ground down in a neoliberal capitalist influenced edu-factory.  I think I might have to go with the slightly more inspirational.

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

Yeah that’s much better – the quote so good they slapped it on his tomb.  Nice to remind myself once in a while that theory is all well and good, but making a difference is what counts.  That’s what got me started on this whole PhD lark, wanting to make a difference to the world.  Wanting to leave it a little bit better than I found it.  Not 100% sure I’m ever going to achieve that, and there are moments when I think I’m just adding hot air to a well inflated academic balloon…but anyway, one has to try and be optimistic.  Can one man really make a difference?  Well as other one great philosopher and philanthropist (Devon Knight) once thought as much:

Although failing a 80s haircut, nifty black car and weirdly popular in Germany pop career, I think I might turn back to Dickens for something more uplifting:

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.ibid

Yeah, right.  If only I knew this to be true, or indeed could have some solid, stress free rest for a bit – life would be just peachy!

*and a big thanks to Mrs Llama this week for actually bravely reading some of my written output to give me a friendly critique.  So far it appears I use the phrase “it is interesting“** about 5 times a paragraph she’s commented…

**But my PhD is interesting!  Thankfully, otherwise i might just have come to a full stop a long time ago!

***Second use of burning paper metaphor in two posts.  Hmn, I shall have to be careful around matches.

Curiously Empty Diary

Monday

As Mrs Llama had the day off, I decided to take the day as well.  Making it officially the 5th day I’ve taken off since I started the PhD (not including weekends, bank holidays etc).  I’ve 30 days annual leave in my contract with the funder and university, but frankly I don’t much see me getting into double digits before October comes around.  Wonder if I’m the only student who find it difficult to shut down and take time to relax?  Actually I think I’ve forgotten how to relax…

Tuesday

Back to work today.  This week for the first time…this year I think, there’s nothing in my diary.  My to do list remains massive, but I’ve no interviews, appointments etc.  Well there is a note telling me email is off line Thu-Sunday this week, so I guess I’d best make what use of it I can today and tomorrow!  Spent the day doing transcriptions – which is not that much fun at the best of times, and in the current heat wave even less so.  The fan at the top of the stairs is doing a great job but it is just shifting around hot air.

Wednesday

Another hot day which I spent finished off Harvey’s A Companion to Marx’s Capital.  Don’t know if the first half had been absorbed in the preceding days but I found the second half far more digestible and actually quite enjoyable.  My notes about it include some potential relationships with academia that make some sense in the light of my forthcoming chapter on HE.

Finshed off the day typing in the most recent readings into RefWorks, though by half past five the heat had given me a nasty headache so I went for a lie down in the coolest spot I could find, before popping out for a cheeky drink with a nice bloke I know to bore him to tears with social media, research and LARPing.  He did well not to run out the door screaming 😉

Audit cultures
Audit cultures

Thursday

A day spent reading a book on anthropology, ethics, morality, auditing and higher education, which was recommended by my supervisor.  Have to confess that I wasn’t convinced by the opening chapter which seemed to be focused on the IMF field operations – quite how that tied into HE I couldn’t follow, though it was an interesting read.  However, large chunks of the rest of the book were very interesting in terms of the forced evolutionary path of institutions as a result of neoliberal audit culture influences.  Having worked in my last post for a boss who was statistics and KPI crazy (honestly, everything had a metric) I can certainly attribute some personal reflections here on the subject.  Came away with lots of ideas for my nascent chapter, though I’ve three or four more books to read at least before I really write it.

However, that said I did draft the opening paragraph, which makes it officially the first bit of my thesis I’ve written.  I suspect that probably every word of it will change in editings, but it’s the start of a long long process.

Friday

A day transcribing interviews in the heat.  It doesn’t get more exciting than this at the moment.  Still a whole heap of them to do, but am picking up on themes and issues that I didn’t quite clock the first time round so it’s doubly useful.  Hands pretty sore from typing as a result.

Elsewhere my father went in for a lengthy brain tumour removal operation, so my thoughts were with him and his family very much today.

9 Months In

Monday

So here we are entering the second half of 2013, and I’ve now completed 9 months work on this PhD.  As regular readers will realise this means I’ve still barely scratched the surface in terms of background study and field work, let alone analysis.  All the same though when I think back to my first real day on the job in October it now seems a very long time ago, along with all the bafflement of the start of the RPC!

Today was never going to anything special as I had an absolutely vile night’s sleep, and since Mrs Llama left for work around 6am on her two-hour weekly commute, I didn’t really get a lie in.  So I made the best use of the morning finishing off my Foucault book (surprisingly insightful, though I’d be lying if I said it had all sunk it), and then rounded it off with an interview (number #51).  After a light (it’s a 5:2 day) lunch I tried to get going on some transcription but the lack of sleep forced me to curl up in bed for the best part of an hour (while my neighbour drilled holes in lawn).  This really helped and since 3pm I shot through two transcriptions and also planned out what I need to do tomorrow.

Decided it’s time to follow-up with the dozen or so people who I’ve either approached and heard nothing, or had a partial exchange with but never tied down to a time.  And perhaps try a further final dozen institutions to see if i can just fill in the edges of my scoping work.  There’s a concept in qualitative interviewing called saturation which is when you start to hear the same things over and over, and it’s there to help you realise that you’ve managed a sufficiently broad sample.  Unlike quantitative research which strives to be all inclusive with huge numbers or representative samples the idea here is you may miss the odd factoid, but I will have captured the grand scheme of things.  Which I think is true as there is a lot of rich data in these interviews, but I’m starting to feel like I’m getting diminishing returns now in terms of unusual, unexpected and eye-opening responses.  I’ve certainly enjoyed the interview process (even the ones where the interviewees were a little more tacit in their vocalizations and needed more encouragement to open up), but I do think this phase is coming to a natural conclusion.  Think I’ll try and tie it up the data gathering over the next couple of weeks, and focus in on theory, chapter writing and working out how best to analyse the hours of data I’ve captured.

Tuesday

And having said that, I then woke up today and reviewed the institutions I’ve approached and spoken to.  Came to the conclusion that it just wasn’t inclusive enough and that I’d certainly not made nearly enough approaches to some of the smaller, newer ones.  So I spent the morning seeking out contacts at around another 60-70 HEIs and sending them a variety of emails; or rather drafting the emails and sending them out in one burst.  I also went back over the dozen or so places where I’d approached and got no answer, or where I’d opened a dialogue but not landed an interview yet.  I still won’t have approached every university in the country, but at least I’ve approached the vast majority now.  Might see if I can’t capture a few of the missing ones at the Fringe at the month’s end as the capstone to this work.

The afternoon was spent following up on a few of the replies I got (hardly a flood) and doing a couple more interviews.  Arranging, conducting, transcribing and analysing interviews is certainly turning into a far bigger time suck than I anticipated; but I do know for my next phase of interviews that I’ll try and go for a bigger initial target group as I’m fairly certain that I’ll get a lower initial response rate.

Wednesday

More replies and have adopted a taking the bull by the horns approach, and rather than trying to slot interviews in later I’m actually grabbing those people who say “Call me anytime” and slotting them in on the same day.  Hence 4 interviews today, and four on Friday.  But keeping Thursday free for theory and reading.  Managed a little bit of transcription, but I’m horribly behind on this now.  Can’t be helped as data capture is more critical right now.

Read a short article about procrastination and motivation for PhDs.  Thankfully while I’m as guilty as the next doctoral student for putting the kettle on and stacking the dishwasher, I’m also someone who’s happy to keep working beyond the normal 9-5 once I hit that rhythm.  And perhaps right now with the pressure of everything I need to do, that’s motivating me more than anything.  Always noticed I work better with pressure and deadlines, so setting my own deadlines means I keep more focused!

Popped over to see a friend and her academic husband for dinner, and spent half the evening thinking about him as an example interview subject and how I might approach questioning someone like him about open access.  Also had a tasty dinner and good company for a change mid-week. Which was lovely.

Thursday

A day of no interviews.  Odd that, especially since i won’t be seeing anyone today (bar the neighbour who popped round with a tech support question mid morning and had to deal with my glazed “I’m reading Marxist theory” look).  Today was about a spot of Marx.  There’s a better book I’ve tracked down that I’ll pick up next week at the uni, so for now I’m reading a less accessible text to just try and ground some of the ideology, phraseology and concepts before I engage with it.  Hopefully that’ll mean I’ll get more value out of it.  Certainly each bit more of Foucault I read is a little easier to access, so I’m hopeful my brain can be tamed/trained.

Last couple of hours spent in a blizzard of transcription – wrote up two by challenging myself to focus for two hours.  Clearly gamification of transcription is the way to motivate myself.

I also heard back from two papers I’d requested via our local inter-library loans service.  As the former manager of a ILL service (and past Chair of FIL) I always appreciate the efforts that people go through to get stuff.  Sadly the BL didn’t hold these papers, no other library did so the library suggested I approach the author (tricky since the last trace of him is in 2007…).  The journal’s website is defunct as well, so there’s no use even trying buy them from a publisher (and this would rather frustrate my professional ethics!) In frustration I did a quick and dirty websearch with the article  titles…and found both them straight away in full text open access.

I’ve always been curious why most ILL staff don’t do a Google Search for papers as a matter of course (yes, and indeed I should have done my self before putting in the ILL request, bad ex-librarian/stoopid student) – especially as it was something I used to do and exhort my team to do as a option of last resort.  A lot of library customers for some reason don’t like links to websites I’ve found, preferring a nice crisp British Library photocopy through their door.  Ah well, I’ll remember next time – Google before you use your library, it’ll be quicker, cheaper and more effective!

Friday

4 interviews today, a spot of Marx and a whole heap of transcriptions.  As I’d woken up at dawn I ended up starting work at 7.30am, and only knocking off after 5pm as my last interview was 4.30pm today.  A whole 30 minutes for lunch and a whole heap or work really.  Next person who tells me it must be nice to lay around all day as a student might just have to face the big green llama Hulk! 😉

Sadly one interviewee wasn’t available today when I phoned, which is a shame but it turns out they were trapped in a looooong meeting, so we  rescheduled for next week.  But all the interviewees who did pop up today were a treat once more, and I finished the day with interview number 60!

And since as it’s been on hell of a long week, here’s my favourite academic singing my favourite song about academic life.

6 months In

I was planning to take it a little easier this week, and unfortunately another cold has hit me and pretty much wreaked my chances of doing anything much.  That said when I couldn’t sleep the other night, I was reading philosophy around 3am in the morning, so it’s not been a total loss.  So rather than talk about what I’ve been doing in the short term, I thought it might be an opportune moment to reflect back on the first six months  – which is 1/6th of the way through my funded period and 1/8th of the way through my maximum period of registered time on the PhD.  It feels all kinds of scary to think about where I am, and how much there is still to do; and I’m sure I’m not the only doctoral student thinking this.  In this respect, perhaps a walk down memory lane might help!  To help out, I’ve added a calendar function on the right hand side of the page

September

This was a month of big changes for me, and while my registration date was  October, I also had to sort out things like enrolling online for the degree and then attend an induction day at the end of the month.  Oh and practice driving to campus too!  I don’t need the driving practice (not having to drive as often as with my old job is one of the joys of this PhD), but learning how to get onto or find a campus can be a challenge, even with a satnav.

Looking back the highs, like being made feel welcome, and the lows, not being sure what to do next, at this time it’s interesting to note that there are still a lot of things today (March 2013) that are bit of an unknown factor.  But then I guess that’s what a student experience is all about, unlike a job you don’t do the routine and repeat!  I also note that I was going to look into the “hot desking for graduates” the following week.  Slight confession, I’ve never bothered – and from all reports I’m not missing out much.

Still wish I had some office space in the dept though.

October

The new office space - Gary Cole not includedWelcome to Month One  – a productive period for blogging with 9 posts in it, more than I do now I’ve adopted the epistolary approach of weekly diary round ups.  It was a month about tentative beginnings and administration challenges (shades of last week then), the roller-coaster of enthusiasm (featuring the best diagram, ever), the onset of the winter weather (has it really been 6 months of winter?) and comments on things like Google+ and eBooks.  I think the roller-coaster metaphor still applies, but hopefully with my plans to kick off some actual, honest to Jovis research in the next couple of weeks, hopefully I should be at the top of the crest to start April.  October also saw me set up my home office in the conservatory  though a combination of falling temperatures (there’s no heating in there) and house renovations have meant that I’ve not actually been able to use the space since early December.  Hopefully as spring finally arrives and we move on with the house decoration, I’ll be able to finally return.  It’ll certainly be better than working on the dining table all the time.

Notice that I obtained an ILL in October, to date the only time I’ve needed one.  Generally the uni has the books and access to journals I need, supplemented by buying stuff off Amazon resellers for in some cases a single shiny penny.  All in all though, the general themes of month one are getting started and finding my place in a new environment.

November

It was also the month when I first really encountered MarxMonth Two brought with it 8 blog posts (see this number drop in the coming months!), although one of the posts was actually about one of my puppetry videos so that probably doesn’t count.  It was a month when I read a whole heap of books, probably more than in any month before or since.  It was my key directive at that time, to read as much as possible to inform my thinking and planning.  At the time I remember struggling a bit with motivation, getting a bit depressed and trying to see how this work would actually contribute to the PhD process.  Now though, I’m grateful I put the time in then, as now there keep just being so many other distractions, coursework, administration etc that get in the way of serious reading.  Doubtless, full-blooded academics will tell me how it is for them all the time.  As well, I was also feeling a sense of dislocation from my fellow PhDs given the spacial distance and rare encounters   That’s faded a fair bit now, and there are more than a few of my cohort who’d I happily go out to dinner with; although having said that I’ve not managed to make any kind of social life out of the PhD yet.  As well, at least the relationship with my chickens (the remaining two) is there to support me.  I’m still aware that as a mature student it’s pretty uncomfortable to think about joining a club or society, and certainly living miles away doesn’t help.  Ah well, such is life.
This was also the month when I started work on editing my research proposal into shape – something that would continue through to last week.  It also saw the first efforts towards getting my fellow English, Media and Culture students to meet up regularly.  We’ve managed it twice since then (three times if you count the occasion when only two of  us showed up), and it’s still proving tricky.  It seems that simply meeting up to chat for a couple of hours isn’t enough, they need a reason or discussion topic; and these are proving a bit elusive – certainly those that are of interest to us all anyway.  November was also the month where I took a look at how I was almost learning to read all over again, or at least learning to read critically.  Certainly now that’s something I find a lot less effort, so all this time spent cracking the books has certainly paid off.

December

I DID remember to have Christmas thoughMonth Three saw 6 posts, continuing that downwards trend, and one of these was a long discussion about the Mass Effect game series.  The three substantive posts this month saw me battling to edit the research proposal and doing a fair bit of reading on theory and method.  It also saw me take a week off over the Xmas period, mostly because the Wife didn’t like the idea of me trying to work while she relaxed, and also because she thought I ought to take some time for myself.  I’ve not got any better at taking personal time, as the only points at which I down tools are weekends or when I have a raging cold that prevents me breathing – let alone work!

We also welcomed a plasterer into my working space, which didn’t make for a productive day research-wise; though the dining room looked lovely afterwards.  Just one of the many distractions that happen when your working space is also your living space.  I guess as an undergrad my living quarters were my study, but no one tried to renovate the room while I was using it.  As it was the end of the year, there was also a chance for a couple of cheeky statistics and review posts, the cap stone to my 2012 experiences.  Looking back now it almost seems like this was a month when I really knuckled down to study, and read some books that I really disliked.  On the upside I read some that were bang on what I needed.  I also note that some of the books I got out in this period are still sitting on my shelves unread.  Hopefully I might finally get to them over the next week or two, and then free up my library ticket!

January

MoosasterA quiet month with the regular 4 posts/month emerging.  Themes that started to emerge here were a realisation of coursework deadlines, snow (still with us as I look out the window), research proposal drafting, more snow and working on my first book review coursework.  Even now I still can’t believe how long it took me to write that book review, a combination of uncertainty about assessment criteria, formatting and paper research certainly played their part.  While word-for-final-word-count the research proposal has taken far longer, book review 1 is still the one thing I’ve done on this degree that gave me the most frustration and anxiety.  Doubtless there will be other things to exceed this – like my panel review meeting maybe in the near future?

It was also the month that saw I was finally making some inroads with some of the nice folks in my RPC cohort, as we struggled to get discussions going on the online board.  They’ve been better but not perfect, but at least there’s been some kind of intellectual interaction!

The month also saw me run out of milk for tea, possibly the single biggest disaster that can hit any PhD student.  Not quite sure how I managed to come back from that catastrophe…

February

Every PhD gets it I thinkMonth Five and four posts with themes ranging from research proposal editing (that old chestnut), twin coursework deadlines, back pain, moments of genuine scholastic crisis and reflections on the PhD process as a never-ending vortex of work.  I can still remember this feeling, stemming mostly from a period when I was getting much feedback from my supervisors other than a driving need to revise my research proposal, though March was better in this respect.  It was also a month where I battled with feelings of apathy and motivation again, a reoccurring theme.  Wonder if there’s some way other PhDs use to keep themselves on the  treadmill, other than caffeine and happy pills?  In terms of the coursework as of this writing it’s interesting to note that I’ve still not had the second piece of coursework back – the mock research proposal   Shame really, given that as of last week I’ve submitted the real one.  While the intention to help us develop the proposal with this working paper version was appreciated I think perhaps the folks running the RPC might need to reconsider their timings as any feedback now is going to be largely superfluous.

I also had a hint of a cold, but that didn’t come to anything.  Unlike the two in March – the month of sneezes.

March

It feels like most of March has been me looking/feeling like thisThen we come to March with a shocking four posts (five if you count this one as well).  It saw the delights of philosophy book review 2 being written, a week where a nasty fluey cold knocked me out, re(^6)writing of the research proposal and finally the joy of submitting it.  And the not quite as much joy as jumping through the bizarre paperwork requirements of my 6-monthly review; where if it’s not signed about 11ty times by staff it just doesn’t count.  There was no small amount of other stresses this month.  In part due to deadlines for coursework, but largely down to the idea of getting the research proposal finished.  It seemed an ending was never in sight on some days, and I came to dread my supervisors’ emails with each new amendment   Gradually though the comments got briefer and briefer as they got happier with it, although telling me to “Rewrite the literature review section” four days before I was submitting it sent me into a futile round of headless chicken anxiety.

It was also the month where we lost one of our flock 😦 but were offered some geese*.  It was also a month I was supposed to go on a day course on PhD project management, but was stopped by my illness and Mrs Llama taking away my car keys**.

*Which we would love to have accepted if we knew where we’d be living 6 months from now for definite!
**She was right – I wasn’t fit to drive, probably saved me driving into a ditch 100 yards down the road.

The Next Six Months

These are going to be very different. For one, the RPC course has only 3 more sessions and one wrap up day conference and I’m done with it.  There is another module in October, but it only runs every 3 weeks.  For another I’m going to be starting on the actual meat of my research, which means I need to start talking to more people outside of the uni.  I’m looking forward to this element, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to be an uncertain level of challenge.  And given some of the events of the past six months have been unexpected highs and lows, doubtless there are going to be plenty of surprises along the way.

Meanwhile, anticipated trends of the coming posts are:

  • The challenge of getting subjects for my research
  • Discovering the joys of analysis my research
  • Maintaining the work life balance once Mrs Llama moves away***
  • Experiencing academic conference life
  • Struggling with the isolation, apathy and stresses of working on a PhD from home
  • Wondering how I’m going to fit everything I need to do into just 42 short months…

Come October 1st, I’ll be interested to see just how right/wrong I was!  For now I’m going to wrap up my week by catching up with my backed up reading!

***We’re not splitting up – new job for her down south, so we’re going to be apart in the week.

All proper tea is theft…or something along those lines

Part of my training is a module on philosophy, or rather how philosophy can be applied to the research questions myself and colleagues will be working on.  Each week we get a different philosopher, and each week I try and scribble some notes to myself to make a sense of it all.  I’m not one of nature’s greatest deep thinkers so it can be a bit challenging to engage with words like dialectic and phenomology; indeed even spelling them is a challenge.  However, following  a request on twitter here’s my (very basic) reflections on Marxism as we were presented with it this week.

The only Marx I understood to dateSo lecture 4 and we move onto Karl Marx and Marxism, which given my area of interest in the open and commons, not to mention knowledge commodification is one in which I’ve got particular interest. One thing that was apparent, each of our tutors have been real enthusiasts for their philosophers of choice which is very engaging. Neil started off by explaining that Marxism is a less popular topic than it was 30-40 years ago, and yet remains very relevant today – especially in the light of the mess that the application of capitalism and the free trade economy has made of the world. It develops themes from Hegel, and the idea of dialectical materialism,

The heart of the ideas start with the idea of production: everything is produced, and capitalism is dominated by this concept and the fact that the worker (proletariat) produce more value for the owners (bourgeoisies) than they are recompensed for. It is this excess value that makes capitalism work, and what Marxism points out is that by being aware of this fact the worker can attempt to redress the balance. Interestingly to be a member bourgeoisies was defined as being able to live off your rent or your shares/investments without needing to work. Which essential means virtually all of us (the 99%) are members of the proletariat.

Sadly today it seems more than ever that the split between proletariat and bourgeoisies is wider than ever – capitalism being as Marx said a crisis ridden system. Neil pointed out that the root of the global financial crisis could be pointed to a failure of an equality of wealth redistribution. Wages have been kept down (the standard of living in the US for example remaining static for decades), but production of consumer society items has continued apace. In order to ensure that the money still flows, banks have to loan to the workers – who themselves are unable to repay due to wage suppression and as such the money fails to flow and the system fails.

Your faculty hard at work - yesterdayProduction includes not just physical goods, but also includes knowledge – with Neil noting sardonically that universities are increasingly viewed as knowledge factories with targets and benchmarks set by people recruited from industry, rather than allowing a more egalitarian development of knowledge. Marxism says that there are always disadvantages in a system but we workers tend to forget this and just get on with life (I assume this is liked to the idea of religion or TV being the opiate of the masses!). Coercion in the form of laws or fiscal reward is used to ensure that workers do what the owners want, but always seeking to minimise that outlay to maximise profits.

However, every so often the workers get bolshy* and decide that the world doesn’t have to be this way – citing the example of European shoe production becoming unionised in the 1970s resulting in it moving to the far east. This represents the shift from a class-in-itself to a class-for-itself.  For myself there is a direct applicability to the idea of academics (workers) serving the bourgeois capitalism publishing houses. Their reward is financially pretty weak sauce – citations from other authors – but these are needed to meet the metrics and promotion criteria in order to drive forward their own careers. A cycle to which OA potentially offers an answer to, but to which relatively few are prepared to move.  This will be something I’d like to find out more about.

Since the lecture was foreshortened there’s more Marx in my future next week (coupled with Freud, which should make an interesting pairing!) – but it was certainly one I very much enjoyed, and was very well presented.  Talking with one of my colleagues offline the suggestion was made that Marxism is utopian but when applied in the real world comes with real world failings (5 hr queues for bread); but then as I  suggested – doesn’t any philosophy or system come with failings once people get involved with it?  I’ve sure Karl would agree.

Das Kaptial on sale on Amazon - I fear there's an element of the ironic here
Oh and as for Das Kapital, we didn’t get into that – which is just as well, it still sounds like the title of a bad ITV variety show in the Britain’s Got Talent niche, probably fronted by Ant and Dec!  Oh and phrae of the lecture had to be commodity fetishisation – as represented by the poster boy for the movement – Smeagul/Gollum!  All my precious property, it must be mine…

*traditionally my mother’s word for me when I started answering back as a teenager.  Or at least the repeatable one!