Lunchtimes feat SMLC PG YT*

In reply to my latest post about being alone, some people did ask me if I was doing fine. For everyone’s peace of mind (or not), I am. I just wanted to reflect on something that has been bothering me for a while and that is the feeling of being alone in your PhD. Add up the fact that during my first year I had virtually no contact with other PhDs in my subject area, and any contact occurred then always implied me making coffee for them. I did meet a lot of PhDs this way, and even made some friends (some people really appreciate some supportive chat whilst waiting for their caramel lattes), but that had some limitations. Also add in the fact that I was a self-funded full timer and my wife was still living in Australia, so you can gather the picture. As I said the other day, there is a difference between being alone and being lonely.

In any case, after the sufferings of year 1, year 2 appeared to be a much better set up for me. One of the best things about my current job (social-wise) is that I work in the same building as most of my colleagues. At 1pm, everyone drops their pens and head down to the common room for some lunch and the consequent lunch talk. We’re roughly the same same 5-10 people all the time, and it is an unspoken pact really. We are all hungry. We are all working. It’s time to get together for some mental detoxing, some bitching, and some soup.

We don’t have an on-going appointment, but given that some people have their offices along the corridor and they most likely want to work, we close the door behind us. This also prevents undergraduates from lurking around and overhearing some of our rants. This behaviour, however, has led some academics to believe that we are actually having a proper meeting, that ours is the close-knit society of the postgrad lunches, and sometimes they actually ask for our permission to enter the room. Some sit with us, but remain quiet, perhaps intimidated thinking we are in a meeting. But we are not. We are just a bunch of young researchers having lunch. It’s just food, it’s not political.

I can only praise the therapeutic effect of these lunches. Because not everything in life is academia and books and reading and writing and more writing. Or work. There are no guidelines to the conversation, so it can range from in-class anecdotes, to knitting (many skilled knitters in the group, which makes me awe at times since I can barely understand 30% of the words that are being said – whoops), to flatsharing woes and accidentally some research. I think it is great we manage to get a proper break – some times it feels like all you think or do is research, and many people have lunch at their desks “because they cannot possibly stop”. I’m glad we defy that theory.

I also feel that the social side to this is very much needed. I suffered a lot from being actually lonely in my first year, and because of my work duties, I could barely participate in the life of the school as such. People only remembered that I was doing a PhD when they came for coffee. And for a while you think “meh, it’s all good”, but you end up feeling like you do not really belong to the school because effectively you are not collaborating in any way to it, and not really being part of it. So for me, lunch actually is the time when I feel more like a colleague, like a “fellow researcher” and I think everyone gets a sense of what being in the team is like.

There is no cheese involved in this post, by the way. Only Brie on occasion.

*SMLC PG YT stands for School of Modern Languages and Cultures Postgraduate Young Team. “Young Team” is a Glaswegian phrase to describe a gang that gets up to no good, and the Strathclyde Police used to publish a list of the most dangerous “Young Teams” back in the day. We are researchers so clearly we also get up to no good. Thankfully we are not in anyone’s watch-list. For now.

Ode to my wife

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This is going to be a cheesy yet academic-y post, so if you don’t like either, I would recommend you to stop reading right now. This post also comes as a reply to my previous one on being alone in my PhD, and will be continued by another one shortly about having lunch with my fellow school colleagues. In fact, that post is already written, but I thought this one would have priority over that other one.

After work last night I went to my office space. I only do that occasionally, on Mondays mostly, because my wife is in her Spanish class and I can pretend to be a researcher for a few hours. I am trying really hard to start a writing cycle (I am technically writing… only about 10 words a day, which is utterly useless). I am also battling with some stress-related health issues, namely a tension headache that won’t go away and a feeling of having a heavy head every time I lay down. Which is not helped by the fact I am a total hypochondriac who thinks the world is over when I pinch a nerve on my back. Yes, you get the picture. Needless to say, not being able to write does not help my anxiety.

So when I went to my office space last night and I could not write, the whole world fell on me (again). I had two hours to sort of put together some thoughts about how I wished my introduction to be, and I just could not do it. I could not even write one sentence. My netbook crashed and did not save the only 25 words I liked of my daily contribution and then I hated myself even more because I could not remember for the life of me what was that I had written. So at 7pm my mood was gone, I was in a grump, and I walked home thinking “I will never write again”. I wasted time at home and then I put on an Aussie rules game on the background and laid on the couch. Which brought me back to my head pressure and tight neck issues.

The wife got home some time past 8 and saw this little blob on the couch, feeling sorry for itself, rolled into a ball. She urged me to get out of the couch and try to cook some dinner, and try to work through my issues. So I cried. Not a lot, I have cried worse about my PhD before. But I cried a bit because I could not talk about certain issues without feeling completely lost in them.

She asked me to describe point by point everything that was wrong, and then we tried to work out a solution. My main problem is that I should be writing “right now” if I want to finish this chapter when I said I wanted to finish it (by the end of February, and way before my year review). However, there is so much stuff on the theory of intertextuality that I *need* to be using but I have no *idea* how it works (and how to write about). And I have a few books to read, but they don’t seem to offer me much guidance on how to use the theory in itself. And there is a book I need to find but I don’t know how – funny, being my wife a bookseller.

I also need to just be able to rewrite an entire introduction and make it more accessible and readable. I don’t like how the original one looks and I have opened a new document, meaning if I need to borrow some bits and bobs, I am happy with, but I read the original and I hate it, but I cannot put my finger on why I hate it. And needless to say I can’t seem to write anything better. I feel dwarfed by the language I need to use and by the content I should know but I don’t. And to make matters worse, lately I feel so light-headed and almost dizzy that it is really, really difficult for me to construct a sentence in English that sounds good, academically speaking. I mean, read this blog! Why can’t I say the things I want to say? Properly, I mean.

So of course I cried. But it was good to let it out. She said that she understands why I feel alone in my PhD, but I don’t need to have the burden on my shoulders at all times. And writing, better writing, will come – sooner or later. And that she would help with all the revising and re-reading. I hope she is still happy with this three or four readings into the second draft of chapter three… Then suggested people I should go speak to and ask. Ask about intertextuality. How it works, who proposed it, how it is understood today. That kind of stuff. I never really thought about that, but hey, it maybe going back to basics is not that bad at all.

I cannot express in words how not-alone that makes me feel. Given the life plans that we’re trying to sort out, me getting a PhD is part of this whole conundrum working out, and that is a lot of pressure on myself, not only to finish, but to finish relatively well. And working full time is a factor that definitely works against being incredibly productive. So being able to share the burden makes me feel so much better, and makes me love her one million times over. She has the patience of a saint (those who know me well really understand this…) and is happy to get me out of the couch when all I feel like is being a crying blob on it.

Being a Mongrel often requires asking for help, even to those who are normally helping you anyway. You are not alone.

Alone

I have to confess I worked one morning during the holidays. Wow, I know. Two hours of full dedication to my PhD. That is more than I have dedicated (continuously) for nearly a year and a half. I mean, the way I have to chip in at my poor Mongrel PhD, I may have been able to work for three hours or so some days in the past few months, but never continuously. Not that I want to – that is something for another post. But you get the general gist.

I came to an agreement with my wife and my sister – we would all go to Barcelona: they would go get a dress for my sister, I would go to the library. And so we did. I actually finished before they did and had an additional half an hour to spare to sort out my thoughts and fears about the whole process.

In the library I had access to three books that are pretty much essential for what I am writing at the moment. I took some scans and copied some paragraphs, took some samples and made plenty of notes. I was pretty satisfied with myself because this was the equivalent of a field trip to collect data – finally something tangible to write about! So when I had the chance to write my thoughts about how the chapter is going, a few issues came up.

I have been using Katherine Mansfield as an anchor to introduce the influence of Anton Chekhov on Merce Rodoreda, the Catalan writer I am studying. But the more I got my ideas organised on paper, the more I realised that actually, I have no clue about English literature, and introducing Mansfield was a liability for the whole content of the chapter in particular and the thesis in general. In terms of space in the chapter (Mansfield takes up 3,000 words) and congruence with the topic (she is not a Russian writer and I am making a case about Russian literature), in my head, the decision was taken: Mansfield has to go. My supervisors don’t seem to agree and they think it’s a tough call to make, but seeing the amount of data I had obtained on Chekhov in Catalan, for me it was obvious.

I also put together other ideas on how to organise the chapter. In all honesty, I think that if I had had another hour or two, I would have started rewriting the chapter at that point, and I would have been bloody good. But I didn’t, and it was fine. I was still pretty chuffed with myself: a great feeling of having done something productive and having advanced, even if only mentally, in the right direction.

When I left the library, I was happy and all smiley. The wife asked how it went and I said it was good. We lost ourselves in Barcelona and other things. I forgot about the library, and the PhD, and Chekhov. Other things were more important.

In the evening, we were getting ourselves ready for dinner, and then she asked further questions, something on the lines of what I had found and how it had actually gone. I ranted for about ten minutes about my state of mind: how Mansfield needed to go, how I was going to restructure and rewrite the chapter, how I found some things that were funny but really interesting, etc. It did not occur to me at that point that she was being nice and I was going too technical about things. All of a sudden I felt less confident about dropping Mansfield and said that I wasn’t sure how that was going to go down with my supervisors. She was very supportive within the limitations. I think I may have asked for her opinion, but of course, that was not particularly a great move from me. It’s my PhD, she can only support me, not provide in depth analysis of what I need to be doing. I started to doubt myself: how am I going to write this chapter after all? And then it hit me.

I am alone. I am walking alone.

It is unreasonable of me to ask my wife those questions because only I can answer them (or try!). And I can argue my case with my supervisors, but they cannot answer it for me either. I have questions that go down to the bones of my chapter and my thesis and I am finding it difficult to put the pieces together, and there is no one out there who can help me. There is guidance on the process, and advice on how to deal with things, but no one can answer for me how I am meant to drop Mansfield and reintroduce her later in the chapter, and no one can advice me on what short story by Rodoreda there is more of an intertextual connection with one of Chekhov’s stories. And this is very daunting.

Since the Christmas break, I have had a meeting with my supervisors to discuss the whole Mansfield conundrum. Whilst one thinks that I should keep her, the other is leaving it up to me to make a decision, stating that it is actually a tough call. At this point in time, with a chapter in shambles, and still trying to piece things together (who would have thought intertextuality would be so damn difficult to understand!), I can understand their concern. It still makes sense in my head, but I haven’t written what I want yet, and the chapter is far from reaching its full potential. I am concerned too. I feel less alone now, but still fairly alone when it comes to opening the document and facing the blank page (or the full page, mind that).

I suppose it happens to all of us but only at this point I see it for myself. Maybe the solution is to keep walking and embrace being alone, and cherish the fact I am not lonely.

‘Tis the season to go to workshops

After six months of very little contact with my academic fellows (outside my school, that is), in two weeks I will be starting my “workshop season”. Not that I am giving any workshops myself (I would love to give the Time Management one, I have to admit it), but rather I will be attending four in five weeks. That is a rather high ratio considering I only attended two last year (the required ones according to the regulations).

I feel that workshops really help me connect with other College of Arts students, so I actually enjoy attending, even if I am not particularly fazed with the topic. I sometimes attend just to tick the box, I have to admit it. But yet again, I try to attend as many as I can, and having been at university for three years already, it is hard to pick a workshop I have not done yet.

This year, however, the workshops I have lined up are incredibly relevant to what I am doing. Their timing could not be better, really. First, I have How to fund research projects. This is in line with the fact that in the past month I have sent two rather important applications for project funding and I am hoping I will get some travel money to fund two weeks of field research at some point this summer. It is always good to hear about new ideas for minor funding – given that major funding seems to be rather elusive for those who research Literatures that are not English Literature in the UK.

Next up is Reviewing your career. Lately I have been thinking about it a lot, since the job market for academic position in the Hispanic or Catalan Studies seem rather slim. I don’t want to subject myself to a particular location for many years or have any wish on waiting around until someone retires. Hence at the moment I am looking for solutions to stay within the university structure that do not imply becoming an academic – I think I would make, for example, a great Student Advisor, or Undergrad Career Counsellor. Ironically thought, I am not exactly sure of the steps to take in that direction at the moment, and some insight on life outside academia will be very helpful.

After that, I have Writing in the middle of your PhD. That one is rather self-explanatory. I am technically in the middle of my PhD. And I am writing (with more or less success) pretty much all the time. I am always on a started-writing, mid-writing, coming-off-writing phase and everything revolts around that, so I feel lucky this year I managed to catch this workshop early before all the places where taken.

And last but not least, I have also enrolled on Stopping self-sabotage. This is the most cryptic yet intriguing-sounding of all the workshops, and the one I am most looking forward to. I am not particularly a self-sabotager – I just cannot be bothered picking up the books or waking up early and be strict with myself. I feel this is absolutely normal when my week is already packed up with 35 hours of a full time job. On days like today, when deadlines are looming and I have barely had time to think outside my little box and face other mental tasks, I think the perfect solution is to lay on the couch and play FIFA, rather than reading (or in this case, just blog, because why not). However there are times in which I am fresh and ready to rumble and still the flow of work gets distracted by something, and strategies on how to solve this would be appreciated. To be absolutely honest, I am also attending this workshop to see what other people quote as their main self-sabotaging issues. I found that being in a course like this, talking to full time students and telling them that I actually juggle my Mongrel PhD with work commitments and a wife and hamsters makes them realise that their time problems are not really problems. I take one for the team in those occasions.

Workshops do make me feel like I am an actual enrolled student, and not a secret part-timer, and every so often that feeling is most necessary. I will write a post soon about a revelation I had over Christmas, when I realised that I am alone in my PhD, and in my research in general. So a little bit of a PhD buddying exercise in an actual academic environment would be good for the Mongrel soul. And I might learn a thing or two – bonus.

Looking forward to February now, so we get over the January blues and the workshops start rolling.

Dyslexic melons

I saw this board on the side of the street a few years ago that said:

“If life gives you melons, you may be dyslexic”

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It was a sign for some bar in Bath Street I believe, and I flew past it on my bike. I may have stopped to take a picture of it but I have no recollection of it and no sign of a picture on my phone (it was quite a while back), so no chance to illustrate this post with it. As much as it made me laugh then, it is something that has been entering my mind at times this year.

Is there such a thing as being slightly dyslexic? Can you become slightly dyslexic later in life? Or it’s just down to stress and writing too fast, or dehydration, or lack of focus?

My wife suggests that our brains are ruled by a little admin person who searches the brain cabinets in order to find out information that is stored away. That’s why when we go to Spain, her Spanish cabinets are out in the open and the English ones at times become difficult to handle. I have a similar problem. The little person in my brain sometimes cannot picture the word I am going for or what I am trying to say. This is tough when you are writing an important document – and my thesis at times suffers from this.

When I have spent a lot of time in an English speaking country and therefore have shut down the Spanish cabinets, I feel I can communicate fairly well. However, the issues is I have not had my Spanish cabinets shut in a long time. And wait there, I have my Catalan cabinets open at all times since a lot of the reading that I am doing for my PhD is primarily in Catalan. But there is also a lot of information (a lot of complex, theory-heavy information) that I am reading and need to assimilate and form a critical opinion on in English. There is the odd Spanish article. And on occasion, a piece of Russian might come along (just the one sentence at a time, though). So most cabinets are open at all times.

Then of course, I need to use English to communicate on a daily basis. This is not the EAP (English for Academic Purposes) that I tend to use when writing reports (or thinking about my thesis). And I often forget the most common words. I looked at the radiator before and all I could come up on the spot was “thingy” or “one of those”. Really, not cool.

I don’t know if that is enough reason to justify this melonade effect. I often find myself writing emails very fast and then re-reading them and going: “Wait a minute, that is not the word I am looking for”. Simple basic errors in a simple basic task. And there are words that, I suppose by the nature of their order and the setup of the computer keyboard, I always misspell. I always write “from” when I mean “form”. And that is only the tip of the iceberg.

I reckon the fact that I have been completely disconnected for three full weeks cannot really help the fact that I feel really rusty when putting into words what I mean about texts and other monsters. But this was happening before I went on holiday, and now that I am still in the post-holiday blues dip, it’s only getting worse. Oh well.

Maybe I just need to give the little brain admin person a little bit of leeway and be more patient.