Grappling with complexity in a world gone mad

I’m not sure how to write this post. I have not posted on the blog for a while. I don’t really want to write any more ‘I’m so tired I can’t write posts’, but I need to write something, if only for my own sanity.

The past two months have been a weird, crazy, anxious and difficult time in South Africa, and globally. Here, apart from the ongoing awful behaviour of our president, we have seen violent, angry protests by students in our universities. At the heart of these protests have been calls for higher education to be free for students, especially poor, academically deserving students and middle class students whose family income is less than R600,000 a year (about $42000). There have also been calls for changes to the curriculum – mostly expressed as ‘decolonising’ or ‘Africanising’ the curriculum, and for changes to the ways in which teaching and assessment are constructed and effected. Too many students are disadvantaged by a system that has for too long gone unchanged and unreflected upon. Many universities have had to shut to keep their students safe, and have struggled to finish the academic year. People have been hurt, buildings vandalised, ugly things have been said in the name of progress and change, and many of us who work in education are feeling disheartened and sad. Where do we go from here?

There are significant problems in my country and globally that need to be addressed, and change must happen, but moving from that realisation to making the change stick will take time. And time is a tricky thing in a situation like this, where some students are claiming they will work to keep universities closed until their demands for change are met. This is, I believe, because we live in a world where things happen so fast that slow research, slow thinking, slow changes are less tolerated, or even seen as resistant or lazy. Academics who are under pressure to publish know this well, as do PhD students who take longer than 3 or 4 years to produce a thesis. We should all be able to teach and research and churn out papers, and present at conferences and tweet and blog and Facebook and still make it home on time for dinner. This is obviously a somewhat cheeky comment, but I know many people who feel overwhelmed by the growing pace that seems to surround our work. Reports about mental health issues on the rise among academics and graduate students are becoming more common, as are calls for a recognition of the value of slower thinking, and research, and deeper engagement with complex issues.

I recently facilitated a workshop with lecturers who were trying to work out a set of priorities for their curriculum, as part of a review process. What did they really want their teaching and learning to achieve, for themselves and their students, and their disciplines? What was striking was that one of the most important issues that came out was a desire to have students become more able to grapple with complexity. To not be so stuck on trying to find one single answer to a question, but to see and grapple with multiple perspectives, and learn to build considered arguments. This is a huge challenge for undergraduate teaching, because the average undergrad degree is so short – 3 or 4 years only – and this is a big thing to learn, especially when you consider that many students have spent 12 years in a schooling system that teaches them to learn the answers, rather than to appreciate the nature of working with problems.  I’m wondering how much of what we have been seeing in recent weeks in #feesmustfall protests here, in Brexit and its aftermath in the UK, in the election of Donald Trump and that polarising, ugly election campaign in the US, is many people’s inability or unwillingness to see, and grapple with, complexity in the issues we are confronted with. Climate change, globalisation, immigration, different versions of neo-liberal capitalism, state funding for social change – these are such big issues, and they connect into other complexities around race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and all of these issues are just overwhelming.

Grappling with this much complexity is a full-time job, and it’s exhausting. And if you don’t have an educational or home background that has encouraged or taught you to stop, and think, and listen and try to consider or empathise with perspectives other than your own, it is commonsense to try and find one answer that feels okay for you, and stick with that. Inviting other people’s reasoning and opinions to challenge your own seems like too much to deal with, so you shut that out and find opinions and ideas that shore up rather than challenge your own. And you mistrust ‘intellectuals’ like your lecturers who would ask you to read books you don’t like, or think about ideas that make you uncomfortable, or engage with theory that threatens to unseat your beliefs. All of this makes it far less likely that we will learn to listen to and talk to one another with compassion and kindness, which we so desperately need to do if these issues are going to be addressed constructively.

I have been struggling to think and write and concentrate in the midst of all of this, as I am sure has been the case for many of you. Globally we seem to be floundering on the edge of something, and we don’t know which way this pendulum will swing us. My research feels silly in the face of all of this. Why even bother? But, then I think about the argument I have tentatively made here, and I think about my kids and my students, and I think ‘No. Stop’. There is value in slower thinking, in deep engagement, and in research that genuinely seeks to build knowledge, and create space for change. Your research matters, and so does mine. Words and ideas that can inspire change matter. We must continue to work on grappling with complexities, and finding answers and ways forward that don’t oversimplify and divide, but create richer understandings of difficult issues from multiple perspectives. There is much to be done, and I think perhaps it is time to get back to work. Who’s with me?

Reading your field: how much is enough?

I like reading. I am a complete bookworm – my family used to joke when I was growing up that if I didn’t have a book, I would read cereal boxes (I did, actually). When I was studying for my final school exams I would reward myself for an hour of maths with a chapter (or 4) of my current novel. (I still do this, although now it’s academic articles rather than maths, thank goodness). This post is the first of probably a few on reading for your PhD, and also for what comes after. This post asks the tough question: have I read enough, and how much, exactly, is that?

Academic reading happens at different levels according to purpose. When your purpose is simply to read a new paper or book to find out about a new piece of research or a new study in your field, with no immediate need to reference or use it in a specific way, it can be a fairly easy and enjoyable activity. No anxiety here; just learning and thinking in an undemanding way. When your purpose is to scope your field for a literature review section that gives you a ‘map’ of the part of your field you are researching into, what research and questions have been asked, and where the gaps are that your work is hoping to fill, there is some anxiety. Are you reading the right ‘names’? Are you reading enough articles? Have you missed out on important studies? Furthermore, when you are reading to build a theoretical framework for your study, and when what you have to read is tough theoretical and conceptual texts that you need to comprehend fully and mesh together into a coherent framework, there is indeed anxiety.

Managing anxiety around reading was a challenge for me during my PhD. I have written a little about meltdowns in relation to reading, and how I climbed off those particular ledges. The anxiety, for me, was different at the different stages of my PhD. At the beginning, when I was reading for my proposal, I had been told that I needed to have done 30% of the thinking by the time my proposal was ready for submission. Wow. 30% in the first 6 months? That seemed like a lot. A lot of reading and a lot of thinking. And writing, of course. Was I reading the right things? Was I reading enough? (Can you ever read enough?) This process was a challenging one, because I really didn’t know if I had read enough, or done enough thinking when I handed in my proposal, and I am not sure it’s that easy for a supervisor – a good one – to say ‘that’s enough reading, stop now’. They can and should advise you, point you towards useful reading that will help you, and help you stop when they sense you are reading the wrong kinds of things at different stages. But you have to, ultimately, work out for yourself whether what you are reading is helping you move forwards or not. Working out your own ideas, and what helps you to answer your questions, or doesn’t, is part of becoming a researcher who can move on, postdoc, to write, publish and work on new projects.

After the proposal went through, I then had to start firming up my ‘theoryology‘ and this meant reading the complex theoretical and conceptual stuff that makes me a little dizzy from time to time. This chapter was dense, and I really felt I needed to be clear on my ‘lens’ before I went out to generate data in the field. The reading, in relation, was very dense, and not always super-interesting. I worried a lot about whether I was reading enough of the texts, or whether I was actually reading deeply enough, or comprehensively enough. How would I tell if I wasn’t? Obviously my supervisor’s feedback was an important source of direction, but she hasn’t read everything in this field, either, and both of us were finding our way through my study through my reading, writing, and thinking. This was a daunting process for me, fraught with anxiety, but also a growing experience. I did feel like I grew slowly in confidence as my knowledge and understanding of my field developed. Perhaps looking at this process of reading, writing, and thinking from the perspective of what you are gaining as a researcher can help to manage the anxiety about how difficult and often meandering this period of time during the PhD can be.

I started with substantive theory, and then moved for a long while to more conceptual/framework-type theory, and came back to substantive theory in the end to finish writing my ‘literature review’. I can’t advocate one approach over others, but it does make sense to me to scope your field, find gaps and questions and then focus on one your study can ask and answer. Then move on to read what will help you build a framework or set of lenses with which to understand your field, your question, your data and your analysis of that data. Then, at the end, go back to the substantive theory and refine your literature review according to what your study evolved into. I think having a plan, like this one or one that makes sense for your particular study or field, really helps with the reading. Using a programme like Endnote to organise your reading, or using Nvivo or similar to make notes as you read, can help with a reading strategy and keeping track of your ideas and notes as you move through different parts of your study.

The thing is (and this is why answering the question this post posed is so tough), you can read too little, and find your examiners questioning your knowledge and understanding of your field, and the basis for your claims. But you can also read too much, and end up with so many references and so much information that it becomes difficult to find your voice and your ideas amidst all the others you are citing. It can also obstruct the focus of your study and make it difficult to choose just the one PhD to work on. It’s a bit like the Goldilocks Syndrome – not enough, too much, or just right? I am not sure what counts as ‘just right’, to be honest. There always seems to be more reading to do, and there are many journals and books in every field that can be potential sources of information for you. Draw on feedback and direction from your supervisor, and from peers in your field. Do your ideas make sense? Do you have sufficient evidence for what you are claiming? Do they believe your argument, and is it coherent? If the answers from your critical friends let you know that you are indeed making coherent, substantiated sense, you’re probably closer to ‘just right’ than you might think you are.

Carving out and holding your research space

I went to a colloquium on Friday, and it was a thought-provoking and stimulating day. There were lots of opportunities to talk to colleagues, share ideas and listen to fascinating research being done in my field. I enjoy these kinds of academic events and I had been looking forward to this event for a while. But, I also find these kinds of events tough. Coming home on Friday night, I had some great ideas for a paper I have been trying to write for a while, but I also had loads of questions I don’t have any answers to, and that brought on a sense of being without a voice and a space to claim.

As a researcher at an early stage in my career, and very new, still, to the theoretical and conceptual tools and framework I am currently using, I am not always very confident within my research space. My voice is sometimes strong (usually when I am talking to people who are outside of my field) and sometimes quite hoarse or small, or even silent (usually when I am with much more experienced and immersed researchers in my field). I battle to be confident about my own research when I am asked tough questions or come up against perspectives and research that really challenges what I am working on, or even completely perturbs what I think I might know about my areas of research and practice. In some cases, I may have answers, and can debate the points raised by my colleagues, and those debates usually provoke the new ideas and thinking. But in more cases, I don’t have answers, and I feel the youngness of my thinking keenly, and the overwhelming weight of all of the reading and thinking and writing and thinking and reading and writing I still have to do to be able to find my way to those answers.

This is the business of being an academic; I get that. I really do. But, having just finished a huge, supposedly enlightening piece of research, I was kind of hoping to have more of the ‘I think I have something to say about this’ moments than the ‘?????’ moments I experienced on Friday. It knocks my confidence, and the self-doubt becomes harder to manage. I wonder if I should even try to finish the papers I’m writing, because the answers I do not have are tied to what I am trying to write about. It’s all a bit much, really, this academia business. The more you read, and write, and the more you engage in these collegial spaces and and put your ideas and self out there, the more you realise not how much you do know, but rather how much you do not yet know. And while I understand that this is just life, really, and can (on good days) feel really excited about all that future research, reading and learning, I also feel a bit squashed by this sense of not really knowing very much at all when 3 or more years of my life have been invested in a huge learning experience.

So, this is what I told myself on the way home, because I have to write these and many other papers, and I can’t be wallowing in the mud-pit of self-doubt:

1. Chill, and breathe. Yes, it is true that you were asked some tough questions that challenged the basis of your research questions in some ways, and that was scary. But, you are not trying to answer all of these questions that other academics will ask you on the basis of their own research and personal interests. That’s not your job. Your job is to ask and seek answers to your questions, while being aware that you are advancing a perspective or a problem-answer scenario rather than the anything.

2. Claim your space. Now that you have chilled out a bit, you can see that your research is valuable and valid. You can’t focus on everything, and just as you listen to and read other people’s work using your own gaze or lens or set of perspectives informed by your own situatedness, and your own research and practice interests, so do others when they listen to your work. There will always be questions, and there will never be enough answers. Each paper, each argument, will grow your thinking and strengthen your voice. You have something to say that people will want to hear.

3. Questions are a good thing. Scary as they can be, because they can unsettle us, questions provoke thinking, reflection (if you’re not just dismissing them) and on the basis of that reflection, growth. If no one pushes you, how will you grow? If no one disagrees with you, how will you refine and develop your thinking? Being challenged is uncomfortable, especially if you’re early on in your career and still finding your feet and your voice. But it’s also part of being an academic, and I am starting to realise that I would rather be challenged than have people just pass me over. At least if they are challenging my work, they are reading it, and it’s provoking their thinking in some way. That’s way better than being so blah that no one can find anything to say.

It can be difficult to claim and hold the research space you are carving out for yourself during and just post the PhD. But it’s important to remember that you don’t know nothing, and your work has not been for nought because you do not have all the answers yet. In some cases the questions are not actually for you – they are not yours to answer. In other cases, the questions people challenge you with can be opportunities for further thinking, more reading, productive scribbling and writing, and ultimately, your own intellectual, personal and professional growth. Taking this perspective is helping me to see, again, what these engagements and events offer me, and helps me to hold this space in spite of my misgivings. Onwards, and onwards…

Self-belief: essential PhD armour

John Mayer wrote a song a while back called ‘Belief’, and one line in this song stayed with me: ‘Belief is a beautiful armour’. I have been thinking about this notion of armour and belief in one’s self and research as an important piece of PhD (and post-PhD) armour a lot recently. This thinking is related to my last post on why I can’t seem to write the papers that need to be written. I need to go back a step or two to explain.

I spent quite a lot of time during my PhD feeling inadequate. I wondered, a lot, whether my research was important or worthwhile enough to entice others to read it. I believed (still do) in my research – I would be unable to keep doing it if I did not believe in what I was doing; but I when I listened to what my PhD colleagues were researching, and compared my research to theirs, I often found it wanting. My questions all felt smaller, less significant, less worthy of attention. This lack of self-belief was not constant. When things were going well and the ideas were flowing, I believed very strongly in the validity and importance of my research, and in myself as a writer. But not always.

I think that one of the reasons I am struggling to write now is that, even though I now have my degree, I still lack more constant self-belief – more specifically, I lack consistent belief in the importance, necessity or readability of my research. I seriously do wonder, sometimes, why anyone would want to read what I am thinking about, and I do fear the negative critique and rejection that in darker moments I feel sure will come when I put my work out there and send it to journals. I also seriously wonder if my research is important, or interesting to anyone other than me and a small group of people who have heard me speak about it and seem interested in it too. I’m not finding a cure for cancer or changing policy or developing a system for agrarian development that will change the way poor people access land, for example. I went to graduation last week and heard the citations for PhD candidates that were focused on research they had done that has the ability to change government policy, and to make a real difference in the lives of children, the poor and the politically disenfranchised. I felt inadequate all over again. I feel like my research is so small in comparison. And this lack of self-belief is now standing in my way and making it hard for me to write these papers and send them to journals for consideration.

I am sure I am not alone. I think self-doubt, worry, feelings of inadequacy and all the inner turmoil of that are part of a PhD journey. During my PhD and now, I find that some of what I read bolsters me and connects so well with my research that I know what I am writing will find an interested audience and contribute to my field; but some of what I read fills me with doubt – has what I am saying not already been said? Have I anything to add? Very few of us in the social sciences get to coin new concepts, or find a rare beetle we can name after ourselves. We are often extending, critiquing or updating the work and arguments of others. This is important research work, though, and it’s important to keep sight of that. Writing for publication is about conversations – connecting our research with the research of others, adding new perspectives, different data, alternative theoretical and analytical frameworks to extend, challenge and change the way we think about the fields in which we work. I tell myself this – what I am doing is joining the conversation, and my voice is strong, and should be heard. But I have to believe that.

We need armour when we take on big projects like a PhD – projects that will change us and challenge us; that are personal as well as professional. Our ideas will be questioned – this is an essential part of the process – and often we will have to reject some of our earlier thoughts, rethink things, make serious revisions. This writing and revising process can challenge our belief in ourselves and our ability to write. We need belief in ourselves and in our research and writing – this is essential armour for any PhD student. This self-belief is not always easy to come by; it can elude us when we most need it. I am not sure I can tell myself all the time that my research is valuable, and that my writing is good, and believe it. But I can try. I can work on being the positive voice in my head that tells myself to keep going and keep writing; I can seek out writing friends who will read my work and give me feedback that encourages me and also improves my writing; I can cover myself in self-belief as armour against the doubt and the worry, and write. Write on and know that, eventually, the words will come and the papers will be written.

A letter to my dissertation, after the break up

Dear PhD dissertation,

It’s been just over 2 months since you left my life. Two long months. I have been filling up the time with holidays and family and more recently work again. I’ve been busy but it’s a different sort of busy to the busy I was when you and I were still together. I find that, although I was relieved when I said goodbye to you, I miss you. But more than that, I think I miss the me I was when we were together.

Allow me to explain. Choosing to get involved with you was a big step for me.  I had to make a choice between a new field of higher education studies in which I was working and my previous field of research in women’s studies and politics. It was not an easy choice to make, but as I began to immerse myself in the theory of this new field, and in its practice, I found myself really enjoying the intellectual growth, the new colleagues and connections I found and I realised I had to find my way to you, and to the qualification you would earn me as well as the recognition and career opportunities you would bring me to. You represent the choice that I made.

Initially getting involved with you was difficult. You were so demanding – you wanted so much of my time, my headspace – I didn’t know how to give enough to you and to my work and to my husband and children. I felt frantic all the time, and after a year of getting nowhere fast I decided we needed to take a break from each other. I needed to find some kind of balance and I couldn’t stay attached to you and do that. The break lasted about 6 months. I just focused on work, and on my life at home. At first it was glorious – all the space in my head and in my diary, no pressure all the time to be reading and thinking and writing and Making Progress. But then I started to wonder if I had given up too soon. I slowly started reading and writing again, but on a new topic, a different focus to what I started with. I found myself writing a proposal, and enjoying it. I still felt a bit overwhelmed and frantic, but it was clear that, for the present anyway, we belonged together and I needed to get us back on track.

I realised that what I was finally starting to feel was the beginnings of a scholarly identity or sense of myself. I felt like a researcher, albeit a fledgling one. And that felt good. I wanted to know more, think more, write more – I wanted to grow intellectually, professionally, personally and I knew you and the people you brought me to would help me to achieve that goal. Grow I did. I am not the same person now, professionally or personally, that I was in 2010 starting out or drowning in 2011. In doing a PhD I found my way to sense of self and a scholarly identity that I quite like. I was part of a scholarly community of fellow PhD students and travellers who understood what I was going through both personally and intellectually, and I really enjoyed being ‘in’ with them. I enjoyed the status that came with the statement ‘I’m working on my PhD’. I got recognition and also some sympathy, and a bit of a free pass on some things at work. ‘We can’t ask S now, she’s doing her PhD. Let’s ask her to do X or Y next year rather’. It was pretty great on the whole, even though it came with all the tough stuff too.

And now, PhD dissertation, you are gone and so is all of that it seems. I feel relieved and bereft at the same time. I have all this time to do things now, yet I’m drifting, aimless. I send endless emails and reorganise my desk and file papers and go to meetings and talk to students and complete the more mundane tasks. Some of my work is not mundane at all but it feels mundane compared to the enormity and importance of working on you. You made me feel important and scholarly and smart, and now I feel duller, less colourful, full of doubt. I don’t know how well you have been received yet by the examiners. I am terrified of turning you into papers for journals lest people find my work pedestrian or uncritical or worse. What do I do now? I feel so lost without you, and without the community you brought me into contact with. There is a PhD-shaped hole in my life and I don’t know what to fill it with yet.

No one told me it would be like this. People have told me about missing their PhDs, but now, in missing you I wonder if what they miss is really this part of themselves that they find in this process of taking on and shaping their own doctoral identity. I will gain so much by having had this time with you, but there is also loss. I can’t be a PhD student anymore, and I cannot continue to live as much as I have in that question-mark-space. I feel that I am being asked to claim a firmer identity now, that of a Dr, which still feels alien,  and that I am being asked to know things I am still not sure I know.  I will get there, of course,  in time. But breaking up with you is turning out to be hard to do.

X