The PhD student as political animal

University of BristolRhiannon Easterbrook is a second-year PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History. Having gained degrees from Cambridge and UCL, she took a few years out to work but is delighted to be back in academia. Her work is on classical reception in performance and performativity in Britain, 1895-1914. She is interested in how the Edwardians used ideas from the ancient world to think about embodiment, gender, and sexuality.

I read Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha Nussbaum back in 2011.  At the time, we were looking towards the increase in tuition fees to £9000 and the drastic cuts to teaching grants for arts and humanities degrees. While I didn’t agree with every word in the book, Nussbaum’s impassioned argument in defence of the humanities as a vital component in the education of democratic citizens inspired me.  It can come as no surprise that, as a Classics student, I have a long-held belief in the benefit of humanities degrees: as an undergrad, I was challenged to develop my analytical skills to be as rigorous as possible, exposed to different ways of experiencing and understanding the world, and driven to re-evaluate what it means to be human. As far as I can see, all three of these outcomes have a political implication: how do we process the information about policies and politicians presented to us? In a heterogeneous group, what kinds of differing perspectives must we accommodate? If we are entitled to certain rights based on being members of humanity, then what does that say about being human and who gets to decide? It was unquestionable to me that studying a humanities degree was not just personal choice but a deeply political one.

But, if studying for a humanities degree is a political choice, then why have I spent so much of my PhD so far feeling like I was failing as a political animal? When climate change is an ever-present threat, conflict rages across the world and hundreds of thousands of people are using food banks in this country, studying for an advanced research degree about some classical-ish plays put on a century ago can feel at times like an indulgence and that I should somehow be going out and helping change the world.  Plus, having to juggle so many different commitments in order to stay afloat and work towards my intended career requires a great deal of attention.  (I’m aware I’ve complained about this on the blog before).  Staying focused on research and worrying about income are not necessarily conducive to staying politically active and tuned in. It also doesn’t help that the classic imposter syndrome – the plague of so many PhD students – has come along and infected this part of my life too, leaving me feeling that there is always someone else better qualified and informed to talk about the issues of the day.

Yet at the same time, I have been much more conscious of how my work as a scholar reflects my political and social interests.  Feminism has been extremely important to me since my teens. In the last few years, I have begun the process of reassessing my stance on several issues and have developed an interest in intersectional feminism. This has led to the conscious incorporation of intersectional feminist analysis in my research.  Now this has come full circle and I am ploughing what I learned in theory back into practice.  Along with a group of excellent colleagues, I am working towards establishing a society for women Classicists. An awareness of intersecting oppressions has meant that we advocated establishing positions on the committee for other minorities: people who experience oppression as women, whether they’re disabled, LGBTQIA or BME, all deserve attention paid to their specific experiences and we all need to develop our understanding of where we may be a bit more privileged.

While this only a small step in a society which is riven with so many inequalities, I hope that I can begin to do my bit. Part of this is about reaching out and keeping discussions going.  I am honoured to know so many thoughtful, insightful people – including a considerable number of brilliant women who offer mutual support and advice – people whom I would never have met had I not started my PhD.  Whether I’m marching with them at Reclaim the Night or chatting about our theses in the pub, this community inspires me to be a better person and a better researcher.

As the future of the Human Rights Act looks uncertain questions of what it means to be human may gain more attention. But as I think again about the humanities and their role in this discussion, it is now clear to me that it’s not just why we do the humanities that’s important, it’s how we do them. It’s about re-evaluating our own subject-positions and how they influence our research, remembering that there is no neutral position. It’s about the voices we privilege and the voices we sideline. How often is it acceptable to have all-male panels, for example? Do we make our work and teaching accessible? We all have to live and right now, I have chosen to live as a researcher.  However, that does not mean that I’m isolated from what happens outside the Graduate School.  I’m beginning to see more and more how, while academia might feel like part of a strange bubble, it’s really part of a much wider community, capable of reproducing social problems and able to speak in dialogue with different parts of society, like any other sector. It could well be that very few people will ever read my thesis but I know that I can take what I learned me as I go through the world.

Faking It

University of BristolRhiannon Easterbrook is a second-year PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History. Having gained degrees from Cambridge and UCL, she took a few years out to work but is delighted to be back in academia. Her work is on classical reception in performance and performativity in Britain, 1895-1914. She is interested in how the Edwardians used ideas from the ancient world to think about embodiment, gender, and sexuality.

I’ve recently taken to re-watching an old TV favourite of mine: Faking It. Back when I was at school, I took real delight in this early example of reality television but it’s interesting that this is the first time I’ve thought about it in years. For those of you who missed out, this Channel 4 series that first aired in 2000 portrayed ordinary people attempting to pass themselves off as up-and-coming professionals in a completely different field. Students, cleaners and factory workers, among others, would spend a month learning not only the right skills, but the right lingo, dress, and manners with the help of mentors from the same field. After a crash course, they would have to show the appropriate abilities and persona to persuade a panel of experts that they really were a DJ/ polo player/ burlesque artiste. More often than not, if the novice put the work in, they would be at least partially successful. The show was inspiring, funny and sometimes pretty cringe-inducing but it faded from my mind.

However, it isn’t really a mystery why this old favourite has popped into my head. As I try my hand at more and more tasks associated with life as an academic, that familiar imposter syndrome about which Louise has blogged so well rears its head. In the strange, liminal space between student and academic that is being a postgraduate researcher, the need to make that transition to full academic (whatever that means because, after all, that covers a range of roles) is often tempered by a fear of being seen as presumptuous in some way.

To succeed in Faking It requires a mix of dedication, mentoring, and something more personal. Mentors pass on knowledge of the field but they also help candidates develop their own work, whether that’s visual art, fashion designs or a burlesque act. In some senses this is a little like a PhD. You have to work hard, learn how to adapt your style to the demands of academic convention, whether that’s in a conference abstract or a lecture, and also produce a work of original research, all with the guidance of your supervisor and any other helpful people you pick up along the way. In both cases, there is no handbook that will tell you everything you could possibly know about taking on that role.

Sometimes, this is a scary thought. At school, exams have a very precise set of marking criteria and it’s easy to know exactly what is required (although whether or not you can attain that is another matter). Success is defined narrowly and the goals are often clear. But coming to a PhD, you realise that everyone has their own style. You have people who do all their, say, archival research and write up at the end and then you have someone else who swears by writing as they go along and wouldn’t have it any other way. Some people put footnotes in their abstracts; others find the very idea ridiculous. Gradually, as I have progressed through my studies, I have realised that the markers of “proper” academics on the one hand and the frauds are less defined than I first suspected. That doesn’t mean that there are no standards and we’re all just a bunch of charlatans: try plagiarising, for example and no one will take you seriously again – and quite right too – but there is more flexibility than I had first thought.

This really came to my attention a couple of months ago. I was due to be giving my second-ever paper at a conference and was feeling pretty nervous about it. A call had gone out for volunteers to chair panels, and for some reason, I decided to pile stress upon stress and give it a go. When I found out what panel I had been assigned, I became even more nervous, realising that I wouldn’t be chairing my peers, but a bunch of bona fide academics with real, live academic jobs. Oh, and they were mostly talking about things of which I knew little, so who knew if I’d even be able to ask a question, should the audience fall silent?

In the end, though it was fine and I managed to ask a question, and keep control of a somewhat chatty room. Afterwards, I spoke to one of the very lovely panellists who expressed surprise that it had been my first attempt. Apparently, inexperienced chairs often turn up having done lots of preparation and with lengthy introductions. I just did what I’d seen others do: turn up a little before and ask people what they wanted me to highlight and whether they wanted warnings about time. I acted like I knew what I was doing and that seemed to work.

Now, I’m not saying I will never get nervous about anything like this again because I definitely, definitely will. But what I have found is that faking it as someone who knows what they’re doing can help. Maybe I’m a real academic and maybe I’m not, but as long as I get the job done, am willing to keep learning, and behave fairly in the process, who cares?

The school of hard knocks…

Throughout the coming year we will be showcasing the various members of the BDC team, so that you can learn our stories and get to know us a bit better. We’ll be kicking off these posts with Loriel Anderson, the Student Development Officer at Bristol Doctoral College. Loriel began working at the BDC in September, 2013, while writing up her dissertation. She completed her PhD in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Bristol in February, 2014.

I really love working for the BDC. Although this is not where I had thought I would be when I started my PhD, I find my work very fulfilling, which probably wouldn’t be the case, if my PhD journey hadn’t been so rocky.

I came to Bristol in 2007 to begin a PhD in Classics and Ancient History. My background was in History, not Ancient History, so I knew that I would have a lot to learn, and that completing a PhD would be a challenge, but I don’t think I realised just how challenging it would really be. My journey, like most others, was not a smooth one. In addition to the intellectual hurdles I encountered, which I had somewhat expected and prepared for, I had a number of personal difficulties to face as well. In January of the first year of my PhD my mother passed away very suddenly. I immediately flew back to Canada to be with my family, and consequently missed most of the second teaching block of my first year. With time I managed to re-focus and get my studies back on track, but then in March of my third year my father was in a very serious car accident and almost passed away himself. I again returned home and spent a month caring for him in hospital. Needless to say, the separation from my family while I studied has been one of the most difficult aspects of my programme. Given these family emergencies, and the fact that I was asked to return to my previous University to teach for a semester, I was granted a one-year extension to my programme.

I submitted my dissertation on September 30th 2012, went to Greece for two weeks to celebrate and relax, and then returned to Bristol to assist with delivering a Greek unit for a term while I prepared for my Viva. I had my Viva in January, 2013, and although I had felt quite prepared, and was proud of what I had produced, I failed. That’s a hard thing to admit. Anyone who pursues a postgraduate degree has undoubtedly done well in all of their previous studies. I had never failed anything and now I had just failed the most important examination I had ever faced. My examiners acknowledged that my research was interesting and innovative, and noted that I had made a significant contribution to our understanding of the field, but felt that I hadn’t expressed those findings clearly enough. I had been too diffident to other scholars in my field, too submissive. They wanted my “voice” to come through more clearly, and asked me to re-write my dissertation and re-submit it. As you might imagine, this was not an easy process. Having to pick yourself back up after this kind of a failure is extremely difficult. The disappointment and defeat you feel in yourself are not easy to contend with. Looking back on it, I can see that my examiners had a point – that’s also not easy to admit. I wanted them to be wrong. I wanted to feel that I had been cheated, that it was all some kind of horrible mistake. Once I got over myself, I was able to see what they meant, and I spent the next 9 months ruthlessly editing, revising, and re-writing my entire dissertation. And it passed, with no further corrections, and no need for another Viva. And so I received my doctorate.

But I still feel a little like they stole the joy I had felt in my research. I no longer love my research the way that I had, and I certainly have no desire to continue in academia, despite the fact that I recognise that I am now a much more rigorous scholar. What I do love is helping other researchers through their degrees. My journey was not a smooth one, but I did have a great supervisor and a strong network of friends and family who helped me through the process. I know that I would have benefited from the support that the BDC is now able to offer. Being a part of a research community, feeling like I wasn’t the only one who was struggling, the only one who ever failed, would have significantly improved my experience. I would have benefited from workshops on how to plan and manage your PhD, how to write your dissertation, how to manage your time. I suppose this is why I am so passionate about what I do now. I love working with other researchers, ensuring they have access to the resources that I didn’t know were available. I love helping others to tell their stories, so that no one else need feel so alone. I love being able to respond, when people ask for help, knowing where to point them to get the support that they need, or simply being a shoulder that they can lean on.

Not everyone’s experience is as difficult as mine was – indeed, I hope that no one else will have to go through the things that I did – but it’s also important to acknowledge that doing a PhD is never easy. And it wouldn’t be worthwhile if it was.

One step at a time

University of BristolRhiannon Easterbrook is a second-year PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History.  Having gained degrees from Cambridge and UCL, she took a few years out to work but is delighted to be back in academia. Her work is on classical reception in performance and performativity in Britain, 1895-1914. She is interested in how the Edwardians used ideas from the ancient world to think about embodiment, gender, and sexuality.

When, in my first meeting, my supervisor asked me if I was familiar with the psychology of long-distance running, I was apprehensive.  When he followed this up with a warning that I will “face [my] demons” as part of my research, I really began to wonder what I was letting myself in for.

I have never liked running and am not particularly into demons – my own or other people’s.  I began to worry that I had set myself up for the sequel of Marathon Man. Trying not to clutch my mouth in self-defence, I waited for whatever grim surprises lay ahead.

Looking back, my supervisor had a point, however.  Although I haven’t exactly been tormented by nightly apparitions of my deepest, darkest self, I have had to keep an eye on my mind-set and this has been more obvious to me now than at any other point since I started. You see, two months ago I completed my upgrade.

For those of you who don’t know, an upgrade is where you go from being a lowly MLitt student to the, err, heights of doctoral candidate.  In order to make the change you have to demonstrate through a written submission and viva that you have made sufficient progress in your research and that you have project which is worthwhile and able to be completed on time. Hours of toil went into producing an 11,000-word sample of my first chapter, a detailed thesis plan, and a schedule of work.  Bearing in mind that prior to this degree, I had never studied the Edwardian period or used an archive and that, while my MA thesis had been in the same field, was on something completely different, you can imagine that it took me quite a lot of work to get to this point. And that’s on top of settling into a new city and earning my keep.  Suffice to say, an upgrade can be a pretty stressful way to end your first year!

After all that work is the assessment with two internal examiners.  There were some good moments, such as the time I almost got an impression that they might have enjoyed reading the thing.  There were some not-so-good moments (oddly enough, those tangential paragraphs I tried to sneak in did actually get noticed by two people with years of experience in academic writing). There was one bit that was just plain embarrassing (not sure how I managed to start talking about the Singing Bush in The Three Amigos but it was something about slaves being treated as part of the flora and fauna). Overall, it was tough and I came out feeling bruised but positive, tired but hopeful.

However, as helpful as the process is (or should be) in getting you to evaluate your project, the period afterwards is, in many ways, even more difficult than the weeks before submission.  The first year is dominated by this looming deadline but, once that passes, all that is left is handing in the full thesis, an event which is at least two years down the line.   Now that the pressure is off, self-discipline and focus become even more important in the intellectual marathon my supervisor warned me about.  In addition, being forced by my assessors to reappraise my work – despite knowing that it needed reappraisal – is still a blow to the ego.  PhD research becomes a part of your identity and no one likes having their identity challenged.  Having repeatedly chewed over the upgrade problem with friends who are ahead of me, I knew this would happen but there’s a difference between seeing a route and running it.

So, how am I doing?  Well, it could be better.  Like many a self-funded arts PhD, I work to support myself and there are times when my various side-jobs and duties threaten to take me on a detour.  I also occasionally like to pretend I have a social life.  Yet, I still seem to be researching.  I look out for the landmarks on my way – the conferences I’m contributing to, the mutual support from my comrades-in-research, those small but significant breakthroughs in my thinking – and most of all, I keep putting one foot in front of the other.