What’s in a Shitstorm? Some thoughts on approaching the hurricane

Today something disturbing happened. I was about to post something witty on twitter and, as I was typing, I stopped myself. I still thought the post was funny. I didn’t see anything wrong with it. But there was a nagging feeling that if I posted it, someone, somewhere would find something terrible hidden in the layers of meaning that I just couldn’t see at the moment. Surely, this harmless seeming two-liner was offensive in some way, and I just didn’t have the brain-power or life experience to understand. If I posted this, someone might be offended. Or someone would get mad at me for being offensive – and I really don’t want to offend people. I like people. I don’t want them to get hurt because of my thoughtlessness.

A split second later another thought crept in: I’m about to enter the academic job market. I have just published a book that I don’t want to sacrifice to a 140 character indiscretion. Now is not the time for humour.

So I deleted my tweet.

And then I wondered whether I’d done the right thing. Was I sacrificing more than a silly joke? Some higher principle of free speech and moral independence? And what for? For my career or out of genuine concern for other human’s feelings and dignity?

If you are a digital denizen in the year 2016, and especially if you are an academic navigating the politicised campus, you have been flooded with op-eds, blog posts and think pieces either condemning or demanding trigger warnings, safe-spaces and other identity protecting policies. Shitstorms are everywhere. So are writers and journalists condemning the “culture of outrage”.

What I admire most about all these people writing on these issues is how sure they are of themselves and their opinions. How outraged they are either by the kinds of bigotry allowed in the public sphere or the kind of censorship undertaken in the name of liberal ideals. I myslef am uncomfortably torn apart.

A few days ago, Ellen Degeneres tweeted an image of herself riding on Usain Bolt’s back with the caption “this is how I’m running errands from now on”.screen20shot202016-08-1620at2011-02-5820pm I don’t watch sport. I don’t really know who Usain Bolt is (though from the picture I gather that he runs really fast). I don’t even watch Ellen’s show – I know who she is primarily because she is married to Portia DeRossi, who I worshipped growing up. Anyway – leaving my pubescent longings aside – the point is, I know about this stuff not because I am remotely interested in any of the people involved but because someone posted a reaction to the reaction to the reaction to DeGeneres post. I kid you not. This is literally what happened: DeGeneres posted a picture of herself riding on a black athlete’s back (for this to make sense the colour of his skin is relevant, so bare with me). Then there was an outrage likening the photoshopped image of DeGeneres to pictures of American slave owners “riding” on their slaves.


tweet from @Br_mabe showing white people riding on slaves

Then Ellen tweeted “I am highly aware of the racism that exists in our country. It is the furthest thing from who I am”. Then there was a flurry of people outraged by the shaming of DeGeneres for a “harmless” tweet. Then there was a countermovement of people explaining why Ellen’s post was not harmless but in fact problematic given America’s history and current political situation. I am writing this down so historians from the future get a better understanding of our collective psychosis.

Please don’t take my jovial tone as an indication that I am not taking this seriously. I am. For many reasons. For one, because systematic racism against black people is alive and well in America (among many other places) and people die and are wrongfully incarcerated because of it every single day. If you think this issue is about “outrage” or “being offended” you are sorely missing the point. The point is that racism kills and sexism gets people raped and abused. What we normalise as a society  – what we joke about, what we show in ads and movies – changes lives. To think that jokes don’t matter is to fundamentally misunderstand the human mind. Yes, not every man who sees an ad in which a woman is hit by her boyfriend will then feel an urge to hit his wife. Most won’t. But if hitting women is shown to be normal in most ads and TV-shows, men who commit domestic abuse (or are tempted to) will have an easier time justifying and continuing this behaviour. What we consider normal determines what behaviour we accept in ourselves and others; at the same time, what we consider normal is determined by the culture that surrounds us – jokes, ads, and all.

But there is another reason I am taking this seriously. Shitstorms happen. And knowing my personality, my sense of humour, my inability to keep my opinion to myself, to voice my thoughts as a process in need of debate, they will sooner or later happen to me. Last week I did a one hour reading / interview on the radio. Afterwards someone I hold very dear did not speak to me for three days. I hadn’t meant to offend them. But I did. I had cracked a joke I thought harmless and sweet; they had found it insulting. While I am writing this a blog post I wrote is being published (in translation) on the website of an important German newspaper. The article hasn’t been online for ten minutes and there are already two comments written by people taking offence with my attempts to include writers on my curriculum who are not white, straight and male (update: by the time this blogpost was published, there were an additional 124 comments and counting). Even what I consider the least problematic statement ever uttered by me – it is a good idea for reading lists to include many different kinds of writers and not be exclusively taken up by members of the same group, namely white, straight, European males – can spark controversy. Even my attempt to be more inclusive is divisive. How fascinating. How terrifying.

Unlike most people writing about shitstorms and the like, I have no firm opinion. I understand that public outrage can be important. I think if people say bigoted things that propagate hatred, violence and injustice, it is helpful that other people call them out on it to avoid normalisation. Shitstorms indicate that a certain behaviour will not be tolerated. If an ad in which a woman is hit is followed by a shitstom, domestic abusers are more likely to understand that such behaviour are not normal and not accepted. I get that.

At the same time, I see that action and consequences often appear disproportionate. People say stupid things all the time. People continuously and thoughtlessly say racist, sexist, antisemitic things, without even knowing it and mostly, without other people noticing. If I had a penny for every time someone thought they were paying me a compliment by saying “I would never have thought you are Jewish – you’re so pretty”, I’d be another antisemitic stereotype (a Jew with a lot of pennies). And despite the fact that everybody says dumb shit from time to time most people go through life unscathed, while some people lose their jobs and friends over thoughtless tweets. Others get no-platformed and thus disbarred from public debate. Some get shamed and attacked – often on a personal level.

I really don’t want any of these things to happen to me. But they probably will and I guess that’s ok. I guess that’s the price for speaking and writing in public. I guess that’s the price I have to pay for being part of a society in which we say when we think someone is being a dick. Free speech means people get to say what they think – sometimes what people think is that other people said awful things and need to be taken to account. The right for free speech does not include protection from criticism – and it shouldn’t.

So instead of lamenting, condemning, or criticising the current culture of public debate, maybe I should just accept it and find a way to manoeuvre it. A way to voice and listen to criticism and to apologise when I do wrong. But at the same time I can also hope that we, the public, find a way to criticise and engage with each other productively and respectfully. Instead of complaining of Ellen’s racism, maybe critics could have said “Ellen, you probably weren’t thinking of that but actually there is a long history of white people taking pictures of themselves sitting on their black slaves – given the racist subtext, maybe you’d like to take it down”. And Ellen could have said “I wasn’t aware of the history of these kinds of pictures and I had no intention to be racist. Thanks for sharing your perspectives and helping me be a more sensitive human”.  At least these are my plan for any future shitstorms. Wish me luck.







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20 things to fear when doing a PhD

Sometimes, in the throes of anxiety, it is hard to express what precisely it is that makes one so afraid (EVERYTHING! THE UNIVERSE IS CRAPTASTICALLY SCARY! WE ARE LITERALLY ALL GOING TO DIE!!!). For future reference I have made this comprehensive list of 20 things to fear when doing a PhD. So next time someone asks what there is to fear you can point them to this list. This should save time better spent writing the PhD or, you know, panicking.

  1. Not getting your journal article published.
  2. Getting a journal article published that is so insignificant that nobody will ever read it, in a journal that no one could ever take seriously.
  3. Getting a journal article published in a great journal that everybody reads and then discovering that your article is really bad and you made lots of stupid mistakes. Everybody laughs at you.
  4. Not getting your abstract accepted for an important conference.
  5. Getting your abstracted accepted for an important conference but then discovering that you have no idea how to turn that abstract into a paper.
  6. Producing the actual conference paper but presenting it so badly that everybody falls asleep and resents you for standing between them and lunch.
  7. Presenting the paper so animatedly that people think you cannot be taken seriously and everybody laughs at you (not with you. at you).
  8. Your supervisor thinking your work is crap.
  9. Your supervisor thinking your work is great. They are obviously deluded and cannot be trusted.
  10. Students. Emails. Administration.
  11. Not being able to complete the thesis.
  12. Finishing the thesis but being unable to convince the examiners of its merits. Everybody laughs at you.
  13. Completing the thesis, passing the oral exam with flying colours, only to find that you cannot find a job.
  14. Finding a job that you hate and then having to spend your life in that loathsome profession because nobody else will have you.
  15. Finding a job you love and thus completely ruining your work-life balance. Being so overworked and spending so little time at home that you don’t even recognise your loved ones anymore; when you come home your spouse barks at you and your dog divorces you.
  16. Finding a job that is just right and then being tied to it forever. Never opening that beach bar in Maui you always dreamt of.
  17. Having wrong-headed pedants mark your thesis down for ending sentences with propositions that they think you shouldn’t be ending your sentences with.
  18. Opening the beach bar in Maui you always dreamt of. Everybody knows that can’t go well.
  19. Completion. Completing the chapter. Completing the conclusion. Completing the job application. Completing this list. Completing life. Mortality. Finality. Death.
  20. Clowns. Just because you’re doing a PhD doesn’t mean you can’t still fear clowns. Some things transcend academic boundaries.

I realize that if – like me at this moment – you are actually in the throes of thesis anxiety, this list isn’t extremely helpful (apart from the obvious purpose of communicating with outsiders). So I leave you with this sage advice. Whatever you do


Strangely, I’ve never yet seen a good explanation of why you should not panic but last time I ignored a piece of advice this popular, I woke up in an all-male circus in Siberia with a raging hangover.

Posted in thesis psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Why is my curriculum white, male and straight and how do I fix it?

I never wanted to be the kind of person who had a non-inclusive curriculum. I am of the lefty, hippy-dippy, queer, equality-loving, anti-racist, anti-ablist, anti-lookist, anti-anti-semitism, gender-equal, anti-colonialist, anti-all-the-bad-things, pro-all-the-good-and-kind-things persuasion and it always bothered me that the classes I attended as a student had almost exclusively white, male, straight, Christian curricula. I was going to do it differently.

Then I got to design my first curriculum. I was also preparing for an important exam and finishing a conference paper. I was slightly behind with my PhD work. And I needed to write a journal article. I was inexperienced, nervous, and running out of time. What do you do when you are nervous and under pressure? You fall back on what you know. To play it safe, I taught the texts I had been taught at university and ended up with precisely the kind of curriculum that I had always


Pictured: My first curriculum (pretzel not part of the original curriculum)

wanted to avoid: a white, straight sausage-fest of a reading list. At the time, I didn’t even realise it. Indeed, I felt really good about my curriculum because I had managed to include a text by George Eliot and one by Oscar Wilde – a gay, white man and a straight, white woman who assumed a male nom-de-plume. So my curriculum wasn’t entirely male or straight. Still it was all white but nobody noticed (nobody apart from me, in retrospect).

Why was my curriculum white?

The simple answer is that it was white because it was easy. This is what I never understood as a student. My teachers weren’t necessarily presenting me with these all-white, all-male, all-straight curricula because they were evil, they were doing it because they were busy. If you have too many classes to teach, papers to write, funding to apply for, money to worry about and potentially a spouse and kids to take care of you end up doing what everybody else is doing, what you were trained to do. You don’t have to be racist, sexist, or queer-phobic in order to have a non-inclusive curriculum, it’s enough that your teachers, or their teacher, or their teachers’ teachers were. Under pressure, the status quo reproduces itself. As a white, straight male once said (purportedly): “For evil to triumph, all that is necessary is for good men to do nothing”. For non-inclusivity to triumph, all that is necessary is for equality-loving inclusive humans to be lazy or overworked.

So how do you fix it?

Well, the easy answer is: study something inclusive. If I had studied gender studies, queer theory or post-colonial literature, I wouldn’t be facing this problem. If the curriculum I experienced as a student had been designed with a focus on marginalised experience, I would now fall back on this wealth of inclusivity – and credit where credit is due, I had one fantastically inclusive tutor who supervised an undergrad dissertation I wrote on Carol Ann Duffy’s female, queer poetry (thanks @DrAliceKelly). Yes, sometimes, I regret my decision not to study something more aligned with my politics. And I am now slowly moving in that direction, partially, thanks to my students (I had the great fortune of teaching writing skills to someone working on Maori literature and to tutor two students working on gender metamorphosis).

But the truth is that my academic path wasn’t a mistake but the result of a decision. I work on the intersection of Victorian literature, philosophy and theology. I couldn’t have chosen a whiter, or more male-dominated subject if I had tried to. And maybe I did try to. Maybe, part of what attracted me to my topic is that my identity doesn’t fit in. I am a German, Jewish Atheist working on Victorian High Anglicanism and I love it. Philosophy and theology fit the rigid, logical way my brain works. And sometimes it is my mastery of these traditionally male realms that feels just that little bit extra-subversive.

So no, my realisation that given my academic upbringing and my topic-choice I naturally fall back on non-inclusive reading lists has not led me to abandon my field of study for the more colourful pastures of post-colonial literature or gender studies. Instead it has made me try harder to be a rainbow beacon of inclusivity in the homogenous, white dearth I study. This term, I am teaching a class on philosophy and the novel of ideas. Writing a reading list for that class could take me all of ten seconds and it would include Goethe, Voltaire, Carlyle, Froude, Dostoyevsky, Sartre, and Nietzsche. Preparing for that class would take me a day, since I know these guys and their texts by heart. And it would be a good class, too. Stimulating, interesting, challenging – all of the things – but it wouldn’t be an inclusive or diverse one.

So this is where the real work begins. At first I struggled to find authors that represent both the novel of ideas and the diversity my curriculum lacked. So I asked my friends who do post-colonial or gender studies and I asked the hive mind on facebook and collectively we came up with a long list of works I had never heard of or at least never read. And yes, I transformed a days worth of preparation into weeks of additional (unpaid) reading that I could have used for my thesis. But I also ended up with a reading list that includes such works as: Ralph Elliosn’s Invisible Man, Jo Walton’s The Just City,  and Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. At first, I  was secretly afraid I was diluting the rigidly philosophical pool but the truth is that Mishima’s Sailor is as mind-boggling a novel as any I had originally on my list. And Jo Walton deals with ideas that never occurred to any of the guys on my old list, precisely because they never experienced the struggle for equal-significance.

I am not sure if this story has a happy ending. For now it does. But what happens when instead of a couple of classes a year, I have a full teaching position. Could I do all this unpaid work once I have to bear the brunt of academia in the age of austerity, with all the overwork it entails. Even now, I wonder whether with the hours and hours of additional, unpaid preparation, I am unwittingly validating and supporting a culture of overwork. But I’ll leave this ethical conundrum for another day. For now, I’ll just keep on reading Toni Morrison, John Jacob Thomas, Adichie and Radclyffe Hall to furnish my stock of non-white, non-male, non-straight authors for the rainy day when I need to write a curriculum under pressure again. Sometimes, you just have to go the extra mile to stick it to “the man” and his straight, white brethren.

I welcome all corrections, suggestions and amendments. Inclusivity is a kind of progress not a stable state, so tell me: how could I do better?



Posted in oh the humanities, teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Resolutions in Bits and Pieces: Two Ways of Getting Shit Done

Trigger Warning: This is a post about things going well and a meditation on how I contributed to things going well. It might help you in your own endeavours. However, if you are not  currently doing well and feel reading about someone else feeling ok will make everything a little worse, read something else. There are plenty of dark-place-posts on this blog. This isn’t one of them. This is. This is. And also maybe this.


When my phone displayed 00:00 yesterday night, silently blinking in a new year – I live in the woods far away from tolling church towers – for the first time in 15 years, I had no New Year’s Resolution.

The reason that I didn’t have a resolution is that, oddly, I seem to have accomplished all my usual resolutions. For many years, my resolutions remained stable. I resolved to accomplish next year what I had failed to accomplish in the last: achieve an academic/work goal, exercise regularly, finish “the novel” (not always the same one). Obviously, I haven’t finished the thesis yet but the last time I saw my supervisor he used the words “finishing up” in relation to my thesis, which was shockingly gratifying. Obviously, I don’t work as much as I used to think I should. But apparently, I work enough. The same goes for exercising. I don’t do the amount of exercise which I idealised before I began exercising. But now that I exercise “regularly” – intensely some weeks, just enough not to forget how to do it in others – I feel I do a sufficient amount of exercise.

I have become about 80% of the person that I always wanted to be. And now that I am at 80%, I find 80% is plenty. When I was far, far removed from all my resolutions, I dreamed of perfection. Now that I am getting there, perfection has become irrelevant (assimilate that, inner Seven of Nine). It is much more fun to be good enough at many things than to dream of perfection in one. Also, it leaves more time for watching television and procrastinating.

Most importantly, I finished my novel. It is not perfect. But it is good to be accepted by a German publisher I like, which is plenty.

So when the iphone clock blinked 00:00, I wasn’t promising that this would be the year I’d finish “The Novel” as I had done in 2015 and every year before that since I was about 12. Instead, I was staring at the foggy fireworks wondering how I’d made 2015 “That Year”. And why I was suddenly, blissfully free of Resolutions.

So here’s what I came up with. The way I had managed to make 2015 the year of the Novel, the Exercise, the Thesis and becoming almost the person I had always wanted to be was…. *drumroll*…. bits and pieces. It wasn’t a tour de force, it wasn’t sleepless dedication. It was a 4km run here, 15 minutes of nocturnal novel writing, 300 words of thesis when nobody was looking. I still spent more hours surfing the webs and doing nothing every day than I could ever admit to anyone. I still watched more television than seems humanly possibly (they call me the Telly Terror; bingeing is a super power).

The reason I finished “The Novel” in 2015, after failing to finish it every single previous year since 2000 is that I realised that I could be almost the person I wanted to be without stopping to be the person I am. In all the previous years, my resolutions were based on a radical decision not to be myself anymore. That is: no TV, no facebook, no carbs. I do that for a week, collapse into illness or anxiety, and then forget all about it until the 31st of December when I resolve to do the same thing next year. But not in 2015. In 2015, I did a little exercise, a little novel, a little thesis, a lot of telly. A little guilt; many fresh starts. I accomplished 15 years of resolutions not with a bang but a whimper. Not through one giant leap but through many bits and pieces.

Bits and pieces are not true synonyms. A “bit” is a small piece. And this, I think, is crucial. It’s not only about regular bits but also about larger, focused pieces. Not every run I did was 4km. Many were much longer. Almost exactly half of the novel was written during a two year period – in quarter hours after a day of thesis writing, in solitary Sunday morning brunches, in stollen minutes. But the other half was written in one long uninterrupted, joyous push.

There is a temptation to think that the push is all. “If only I had four weeks without interruption, I could finish the thesis/run a marathon/write a novel”. But, for me at least, the big piece alone won’t do. I tried that a lot to varying degrees of panic. The result is either what I call writer’s dread or about half a draft that I abandon as soon as my uninterrupted time comes to an end. I defer finishing the piece to the next uninterrupted time. When that comes along whatever I had previously written has become so inaccessible that it seems easier and wiser to simply start something else.

Similarly, I found that small bits alone also don’t quite work. Whenever someone tells me that “all it takes is 15 minutes a day,” I become suspicious. You have to be some kind of super hero monk-saint to do anything for 15 minutes every day. By day three there are usually more important things to do. By day seven I feel so guilty that I pretend I never meant to do the thing in the first place. More importantly, even when you do 15 minutes a day, the results are underwhelming. Yes, you progress but you never have the glorious feeling of accomplishment.

The trick is to combine the bits and the pieces. To write for 15 minutes  a few times a month, so when you have a week to write, you remember how to do it and what you were writing about and when the week is over, you can still progress till the next big chunk of time becomes available. You need to run those underwhelming 4k, so when the time comes for the glorious half marathon, you can hit the ground running.


Posted in getting things done, on writing, thesis phsychology, thesis psychology | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

What is an argument and how do you make it?

As a lazy person, I don’t like answering the same questions in every class I teach. And while there are great introductions to academic writing, it is really hard to convince students to read books on writing, when they are busy mastering the actual content. So, in the Academic Basics series, I tackle some of the key issues of academic writing. Please feel free to use this as a teaching resource (or refresher).

Me: “Do you have an argument?”

Student: “Sure. Basically it’s women in Dickens’s early works.”

That, dear student, is not an argument. It’s a topic. When students get a little further, they realise that “women in Dickens” won’t fly and instead they say “a post-feminist approach to patriarchal power-structures in Dicken’s juvenilia” or some such bullshit. But it’s still not an argument. “Dickens undermines patriarchal power-structures” or “Dickens enforces a gender binary in which women are seen as both purer and weaker than men” are arguments (quite bad ones but that’s ok).

What is an argument?

Arguments argue. They do not describe a topic; they try to make a point about a topic. In the humanities arguments can range from “this academic’s position is wrong” to “academics should be looking at this instead of that” to “this piece of evidence (that I discovered) is important when we talk about this topic” etc. What all arguments have in common is that they, in some way, try to change, challenge or develop how others in the field think about a topic. So, if your topic is “women in Dickens” then your argument should in some way change the way that others look at women in Dickens’s writing.

Why do you need an argument?

Arguments are really important for academic writing because they guide the writer in writing and the reader (or listener) in reading and evaluating a paper.

If the topic is “women in Dickens”, there is too much material for a comprehensive reading. But if the topic is narrower, say “the role of women in Dickens’s Hard Times,” the writer still needs to include some evidence from other works by Dickens (otherwise the essay is too flat) but not from all (otherwise it becomes chaotic). Having an argument helps the writer decide what evidence to include and what to omit. So if the argument is “Louisa Gradgrind’s sexual deviance undermines patriarchal power-structures,” then the writer should include whatever they feel helps them make that specific argument and omit everything that does not help make the argument. Similarly, the reading of secondary sources and the writing process should be guided by a simple question: What do I need to do in order to convince my reader of this argument?

But an argument also helps the reader follow and evaluate the paper. If the writer clearly announces their argument in the introduction of the paper, the reader will know what to look for in the remainder of the paper. If the evidence in the paper supports the claim made in the argument and if the writer manages to convincingly sell his argument throughout the paper, then the paper is well written. If the paper does not convincingly argue what it pretends to argue, the reader can conclude that the paper is bad.

This evaluation has nothing to do with whether the reader agrees with the writer’s view. The only question is whether the writer has successfully argued what they claimed they’d argue.

How do you make an argument?

A good argument is specific, original and suited to the topic; which is why a good argument is hard to find. That being said, there are some simple tricks to finding an argument.

A lot of the time, when students begin to understand what an argument is, what they end up doing is to reproduce arguments they found in the critical literature. They will find a paper arguing that, from a Kantian perspective, realist art can never be truly beautiful and then they will write an essay arguing the exact same thing. While the argument might be a good one (which is why it was published), when they reproduce it they fail to change, challenge or develop the way academics talk about the topic (though the argument was challenging when it was first published).  A challenging argument is challenging only once.

As students mature they start doing the opposite: they find a critical essay and violently disagree with it. Disagreement is the most obvious case of arguing. Unfortunately, it often looks a bit childish (like sitting in class and saying “no,Lebowski you’re wrong,” when somebody suggests something).

When you violently disagree with something you also risk looking either
boring or stupid.
If the original essay that you disagree with is fantastic then you probably have to omit a lot of evidence or make really silly claims in order to disagree. If the original essay that you disagree with is badly argued, then you aren’t really challenging or changing anything because most people already agree that the essay you’re tearing apart is crap.

The easiest way to make your own argument is to find a strong argument in the critical literature and develop it further. This development might include some agreement or some disagreement – you might say something like “scholars are correct to claim that x is the case but they omit to consider y” or “Leavis’s argument is flawed because x but could be salvaged by considering y”.  The point is that you take part in a conversation and develop what has been said before you.

The best way to make an argument is to consider your essay as part of a conversation. You don’t want to be the person who repeats what someone else just said and you don’t want to be the asshole who tears other people down. You want to be the person who listens attentively (i.e. reads the arguments others have made) and then picks up on their arguments and develops them further.

So what have I forgotten? Do you have advice on how to make arguments and how to teach it? What Academic Basics should I cover next?

Posted in Academic Basics, on writing, teaching | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

No, you should NOT be writing right now. Writing guilt is the eating disorder of academia.

Quick question: What should you be doing right now? Your answer is “God, I should really be writing!”? Congratulations. You’re an academic.

As @AcademicsSay eloquently sums up time management in academia:

But here’s the truth: You should probably NOT be writing right now. (unless you have to write 2000 words or more till tomorrow, in which case, what are you even doing on my blog? Go write; Godspeed.)

Don’t believe me? Ok, let me show you the math. Then I’ll show you that not only should you not be writing right now, thinking that you should be writing all the time is really dysfunctional and about as useful for your productivity as ridiculously restrictive diets are good for your figure or health.

So, let’s assume you’re a PhD student who has to hand in a 90,000 word thesis. Now, let’s say you’re ambitious and you also want to publish 2 original papers (written from scratch, not lifted from your thesis) of 7000 words each during your PhD. You’re really fucking ambitious, so you also want to give 5 original conference talks. So: 90,000 + 7,000*2 + 2,500*5 = 116,500 (approximately, where’s the calculator on this machine? Dammit Jim, I’m a humanities student not a computer).

Ok, so, say you’re a leisurely writer and if you’re actually writing (rather than procrastinating or guilt-tripping) then 500 words takes you about an hour (if I am actually in the writing zone, I write 500 words in 25 minutes but use whatever number seems appropriate). This means in order to do all your writing (thesis plus publications) you need 233 hours of pure writing time. If you have an 8 hour work day that means you have to spend 29.125 days writing (found the calculator). No one can do 8 hours of writing academic prose per day. But it still breaks down to roughly sixty 4 hour days. Roughly 120 days of 2 hours each. Roughly 240 days (= less than a year) of 1 hour writing per day.

If, like me, you are in a three year program, then, on average, you have to spend roughly 18 minutes a day writing – weekends and holidays excluded (if you wrote every day it would be roughly 12 minutes or 109 words per day).

Realistically speaking, you should spend most of your time during your PhD NOT WRITING.

Now before you start throwing pens and keyboards at me, I am not saying you should not write. All I am saying is that there is a complete disconnect between the time most PhD students (and many full-grown academics) think they should be writing (all day, every day), the time they should actually spend writing (12-20 minutes a day or roughly 90 min per week or 6.5 hours per months), and the time they actually spend writing (in the last two weeks, I did not spend a single second writing academically, though I spent all the time thinking I should be writing).

I also think that how much we think we should be writing and how little time we actually spend writing are directly related. In other words, if we aimed to do what we need to do, instead of riding some permanent writing guilt trip, we would actually get our shit written with ease and enjoyment. More importantly, instead of wasting our time thinking we should be writing, worrying about writing and procrastinating to avoid writing, we could spend it with all the things we actually need to do, like reading, researching and editing, which is really slow work.

Of course, our collective obsession with writing makes a lot of sense. In the end, we have to hand in a piece of writing, not a piece of thinking or planning or editing. So it might seem that writing is the only thing that is truly essential to finishing the PhD. This is obviously an illusion.  Researching, thinking and editing are just as important. The fact that you have to hand in a piece of writing doesn’t mean writing is necessarily the most important task, just as a metal welder does not an aeroplane make (engineers and other scientists are also kind of important; no one boards a plane that wasn’t engineered; no one gets a PhD without research or editing).

But, yes, writing is an important task and we should do it well. Unfortunately, one’s ability to do things well seems to be inversely proportional to the amount of negative feelings that surround the task. In other words, the more dysfunctional your relationship with writing is, the less well and fun the actual writing.

And truthfully, writing is really fun. Unless it scares the shit out of you or makes you feel all kinds of guilty. But when it’s just pouring out of you word after shiny word like a smart and witty string of pearls, it is the best.

Have you ever been on a diet? If you have, you know that nothing makes you crave chocolate and crisps more than thinking you can’t have chocolate and crisps. Similarly, nothing makes you dread writing more than thinking you should be writing all of the time.

So, let’s stop thinking that. It’s simply neither true nor helpful.

Instead, let’s think about when we actually should be writing:

1) If you have a deadline tomorrow and are still missing words, yes, you should be writing.

2) If you have a fantastic idea and really want to write, go for it! Have fun, you rockstar.

3) If you’ve done some research and have a bit of info or argument that you could be writing now and it’s during your working time not while you are meant to take a break, you should probably jot it down, lest you forget it.

4) If you haven’t written for a really long time and are becoming anxious then set yourself a 10 minute timer and do some furious free writing, then chillax and think about how you should manage your writing obligations in the future so you don’t reach peak panic again.

But here’s when you should not be writing and when you should especially not think that you should be writing:

1) During your leisure time. If your hanging with your friends, family, loved ones or netflix, you should not be writing, nor should you be thinking about writing.

2) If you haven’t got a faint idea what to write, you should not be writing. You should be reading, thinking or planning (unless writing is how you think, then go for it).

3) If you spent the whole day thinking you should be writing without actually writing, then you should definitely not be writing. Feeling guilty about writing is really hard work (I am not being sarcastic; it’s the pits). You need to take a break. And then tomorrow, or after a nice weekend you need to wrap your mind around how you want to manage your writing and give up some crazy idea of writing all of the time. That way madness lies.

Posted in on writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

“The Value of the Humanities” and other trick questions

This Friday, at the Oxford graduate conference on value, I asked a terrible question about “The Value of the Humanities” . It was during a roundtable between three senior academics, among them Helen Small, author of The Value of the Humanities. What I asked was, basically, whether we weren’t in fact throwing the Humanities under the bus by allowing the question “What is the Value of the Humanities?” in this broad, abstract way. I suggested that scientists rarely discuss the “Value of the Sciences” in this way, despite the fact that not all scientific work has obvious or immediate value.

Helen Small quickly pointed out that, of course, scientists have to prove the value of their work at least as much as we do and that they are constantly being reviewed: “If they don’t prove their value, they simply lose their labs”.

Patrick Hayes, the second panelist, was not as forgiving and said that my question made no sense because everybody has to prove the value of their work, otherwise nobody will pay them. At that point I panicked, blabbered something about broadness, and clandestinely attempted Hara-Kiri by pencil.

st dominic holding bible: Quote about digging hole deeper to find it s a grave

I am not convinced this quote is actually from St. Dominic but I really want it to be.

So this is the point where I find myself in a hole and keep on digging, in the hope that there is at least a deeper understanding on my part, on the other end. I think that maybe my error was one of communication and not of content. I think, the panel understood that I was asking whether we should allow questions about the value of our work or the work in our field. But what I had meant to ask was whether we should allow the question about THE Value of THE Humanities, instead of focusing on the value of our own and each other’s work.

This is why I brought up scientists. Of course, scientists have to prove the value of their work and the times of easy funding are well over. But as far as I’m aware, scientists, who have to show the value of their work in order to keep a lab or get funding, will try to make their work appear as valuable as possible but they will rarely argue for The Value of The Sciences, partially because the sciences, like the Humanities, are much too fragmented to make a single argument about their value.

Imagine if someone asked you “what gives your life meaning?” – a question that might be answered with the pursuit of knowledge, helping others, having fun, raising children, solving problems, etc. etc. – but instead you opt for  “So you want me to tell you the meaning of life?”. You are replacing a concrete question that has concrete answers, however difficult to uncover they might be and however much soul searching they might require, by one that is so abstract it can only be answered in platitudes, if at all.

There is no one size fits all answer and yet we ask the question as if there were and thereby make our answers ring hollow – surely, the meaning of life is not to have children or to pursue knowledge, even if these things give individual lives immense meaning. Surely, individual works in the Humanities have meaning, which cannot be extended to cover all of the discipline.

This is why what Helen Small  does in The Value of the Humanities is so valuable. The book does not put forward a single answer – Helen Small makes no single claim for the value of the Humanities herself – instead it shows that all the existing arguments can be classified as falling into one of five categories. Then she shows that no single answer is universally applicable. In fact, Helen countered some of my broadness claims by saying that, of course, part of the work in the Humanities is to take an impossibly broad question and break it down. And that’s exactly what she does. But all the people she critiques fail to do it and that’s why they end up with explaining the value of the Humanities with an answer as broad (and insufficient) as “Democracy needs us”.

The book goes on to critique the tendency of those engaged in a defence of the Humanities to make “us vs. them” dichotomies – to claim that “The Humanities” develop a particular intellectual ability or fulfil a particular role in society that “The Sciences” fail to. This is partially a bad idea because no matter what the quality is the Humanities are said to promote, there will always be works in the Humanities that do not accomplish or even attempt this and individual works in the Sciences which do. So no matter what argument you put forward for the Value of the Humanities, you are always inviting disproofs.

In its broadness, I think, the question for the Value of the Humanities is a trap. As we all know, when you ask for “the answer to the ultimate Question of  Life, the Universe, and Everything”, what you get is as helpful as “42” or “Democracy needs us”. But that does not mean that your work in the Humanities has no value; it simply means that its value is specific to itself and might be extended to a couple of other works but not to a discipline as vast and many-faceted as “The Humanities”. Just as the fact that I don’t know what the meaning of life is does not mean that my own life has no meaning.

Speaking of life, have I finished digging this grave, yet? Am I making it worse? Or is there value at the bottom of this pit?

Manatees under water. Text: A crime against you, manatees.

To make matters worse, here’s a really bad pun.

Posted in oh the humanities | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

How to make your academic conference paper a success

Ok, so a couple of months ago you saw that Call for Papers. You liked what you saw. At first you were shy, because you didn’t really have a paper. But then you thought that you could just whip a section from your thesis into shape. No probs, whatsoev. Now it’s the night before your conference and you have no idea what the fuck you were thinking. Apart from cursing your foolish past self, here are some things you can do to make your academic conference paper a success.

1) Do NOT go overtime. If you have 20 minutes, speak for 20 minutes. Or fewer. Gandalf the white meme saying
Stop mid-sentence if you have to. Whatever you wanted to say after the time limit won’t be heard anyway because people will be busy thinking. The chair will be thinking about whether they should cut you off. Your fellow panelist will be thinking about whether you’re stealing their time. The audience will be thinking about lunch. No paper in the universe is more important than lunch.

2) Know your audience. At my first conference, I presented this elaborate (read pedantic) paper about the manuscripts of the Victorian poet Arthur Hugh Clough. Three seconds in, I realised that my audience could not be less interested in Clough if he were the world’s most mediocre bingo player. There I was blabbering on and on, while I could feel the entire room thinking about the two modernist papers presented before me, and, you know, lunch. Then I went overtime. Apart from a really traumatic experience, I also gained the invaluable knowledge that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure… could have got that from the big book of platitudes but I like to do things the hard way.

So, when you touch up your paper for the conference, have a good look at the program. How different is your topic from everybody else’s? Given what other people are speaking about, what can you expect your audience to know, what do you have to explain? What can you expect your audience to be interested in, what will bore them to death. Can you link what you want to say to what interests your audience ? Can you link your paper to the other panelists’ topics?

The general rule is: the closer your topic is to other people’s topics, the more accurate and elaborate and the less “interesting” you have to be. The more alien your topic is, the more you have to sell why it’s interesting. One easy way to do that is to gesture beyond the scope of your research. For example, knowing that my audience cares about literature but not about Clough, I should have discussed what my research tells us about the way writers write and editors edit.

3) Know your time slot. If you’re on first thing in the morning, when everyone is happy sipping their bad conference coffee, you can pretty much be as academic, complex and theoretical as you like. People are in their “let’s listen to some conference papers and be super academic” mood and you can hit them hard. Now, the closer you come to lunch, the less brain can you expect your audience to devote to you. This means that if you want to get a message across, or if you want people to remember you in a good way, you have to give it your all. If you have to be complex, summarise your argument in a simple, concise manner before and after you make it. Be entertaining. Put very little text and many bright pictures on your slides. Speak slowly, enunciate, emote. People have been listening to other people reading their papers all morning, just speaking in a different and more animated manner will get you an extra few ears.

4) Don’t just read out a passage from your thesis. I know, a lot of people do that and we are trained to think that it works. Well, it doesn’t. Even first thing in the morning, academics tend to overestimate the amount of auricular stimulus their audience can take. Papers that would be fantastic in print are often too complicated for listening comprehension. So even if you will be reading your paper out, write it for listening, not for reading. A good way to do that is to read the finished paper out while recording yourself (this is also a great way to keep an eye on the time). Then, listen to the recordings and note the moments when you hear yourself struggle with a sentence, or when you notice that you are losing interest as a listener. If you have a test audience, ask them to take notes of the moments they were interested and the moments they were bored or thought that something was too complex. Also ask them to sum up what you said so you can see whether you are getting the right message across. 

5) Practice. A year ago I spoke at a conference on evil at which Terry Eagleton gave the keynote. Words fail to describe how much and how obviously better he was than me. At first this depressed me but then I realised that it would be significantly more depressing if a man who’s been doing this for almost 40 years longer than I have, were not better than me. Practice might not make perfect but it does make you suck much, much less. Practice with an audio or video recorder on your own, practice with an audience, take classes (most universities offer presentation classes for little money, the ones at Oxford are tremendously helpful). Most importantly attend conferences and view them as training opportunities. Especially graduate conferences (where the risk of embarrassing yourself in front of future employers is low) are a great place to try out new things and improve. I’m speaking at the Oxford graduate conference on “Value” on Friday and since I am on just before lunch and my subject is incredibly far removed from what everybody else is doing, I have decided to use the opportunity to try out how I feel about speaking with pointers but without a script. It might be just right for the time and the audience but even if it’s a disaster, at least I’ll know, without losing more than my dignity in front of my peers.

My final piece of conference advice has nothing to do with the actual paper but is at least as important: Stay for the after show party. Conferences are about presenting your work and presenting yourself and finding out what all the cool kids are doing. This is actually much easier with a meal and some vino. Oh, and last but not least. Do drink but not too much. No matter what they tell you, what happens at the conference does not stay at the conference…

What have I missed? Any advice? Most importantly, any ideas on how to write an abstract that will get me a good time slot and a suitable panel? I always end up at the wrong time in the wrong place…

Posted in presenting | 7 Comments

Five ways to love the PhD thesis MORE

Ok, so reminding yourself why you love your thesis is lovely for the meditating, kumbaya singing crowd, but I am not zen enough for that shit. It was fun; I made a list (lists are good); but on day 2 I got bored. Rather than telling myself why I should love the status quo, I should probably engage in making the status quo lovelier (this is completely unrelated to, say, UK elections). So instead of going on about reasons to love the thesis, I am using that knowledge for improvement. Here are five ways to love the thesis MORE:

1) Go places. 

Rather than celebrating the mere fact that, like many thesis writers, I can write wherever I want, I should bloody well do it more. Beware the crying children and garrulous tourists but if the place is nice enough, I usually find that what I lose in productivity, I gain in overall happiness, which often translates to productivity and creativity. So especially when stressed and anxious – when you feel you don’t deserve to leave the library – make an effort to discover awesome new places to work. Even a few hours of Working While Happy can make you love the shit out of your thesis (I hear a pint also helps).

2) Love your topic.

People spend a lot of time feeling that the topic of their theses is insignificant or boring. Good news is, it probably isn’t. If it were, your uni wouldn’t have accepted you. Your supervisor wouldn’t have taken you on AND most importantly, you wouldn’t have wanted to do it in the first place. Bad news is, a lot of the work you have to do probably is boring. In order to make a fascinating point, one has to spend a lot of time doing monotonous, dull things. I spent a month last year reading 18th century French texts on the efficacy of grace. Believe me, it sounds more exciting than it is… But I needed to read those dull texts for my overall argument. And though I didn’t see it then, the overall argument is pretty fly.

My PhD thesis on theodicy and literature paraphrased in a single image

A picture is not worth a 100,000 word thesis. I miss Kindergarten. Those were the days.

While belly-deep in the valley of boredom, remind yourself of what it was that first attracted you to your topic. Especially when you are bored with your work, don’t avoid it but discuss it with willing victims. Become passionate again. Find the popular science book that relates to your topic and read it FOR FUN. Find tangential connection to your topic in tv shows, or the news (OMG Stephen Fry is totally talking about my topic). Or nerd out and draw your thesis.

3) Get off on your thesis writing.

Stop me if you’ve heard that one before:

PhD student 1: “Hey, how’s your writing going?”

PhD student 2: “I have xxx words but they are awful.”

No, they bloody well aren’t. Obviously the overall structure has to gestate and that ain’t pretty; chances are, the macro structure of the the thesis will be rubbish almost right until you hand in. BUT, at the same time, some of your writing, especially on the paragraph or sentence level is bound to be amazing early on.

My supervisor has a habit of ticking the bits that he loves. This is incredibly helpful, not only because it makes me feel good but because it makes me see where things are going well and where I need to add sparkle. If your supervisor doesn’t do that for you, ask a friend or do it yourself. Highlight the bits you are pleased with to remind yourself that you can write some rockstar prose. It is also really helpful to keep a list of the stunning phrases, subtitles or sentences that didn’t make their way into your writing or that fell to the Grim Editor; you might be able to use them later on.

4) Become a better human.

Ok, I know this seems a stretch – especially if your thesis has turned you into the junk-food-malnourished, anxious and not so great unwashed – but hear me out.

Writing a thesis obviously induces intellectual growth, you’ll know more about your topic, about writing and about your field when you’re done. But it also fosters all kinds of emotional and even (I shudder to admit) spiritual growth. It teaches humility but also the self-worth that comes from doing something you thought impossible. Writing a thesis is like everything people say about having children, only that the crap you clean up is usually your own.

Most importantly, you will probably never have fuller control of your time – which is why PhD students complain about their procrastination so much. But what if instead of procrastinating, you are actually taking time to become the person you want to be. When you ask people how they procrastinate, answers range from running, rowing and mountain climbing to learning languages, singing in choirs, writing fiction, baking, or charity work. Truth be told, I’d rather be a person who climbs, bakes, speaks foreign languages and helps people than a person who finished their thesis really quickly.

5) Come together.

We are always whining about how lonely writing is – after all, it’s just you and your  computer. But the truth is that thesis writers are not actually alone, at all. Libraries and faculties are full of people who aren’t only doing what you are doing but probably feeling what you are feeling. Anxiety, impostor syndrome, writer’s block– all these emotions are caused by writing a PhD thesis, so naturally, the thesis writing crowd understands each other better than “normal people”. This is why I love reading thesis blogs. It reminds me that I am not alone at all; I am a member of an exclusive secret society – half freemasons, all free food.

More importantly, if isolation is what makes people unhappy with thesis writing (and for me it is) then the solution is glaringly obvious: work together. Some universities (like Stanford and ANU) are really good at bringing writers together. They offer “Thesis Boot Camps” where people meet to write for a few days, balancing peer support and peer pressure. Even if your uni does not offer these programs (Oxford doesn’t), many aspects of the group writing experience can be recreated without official support.

I recently read about “Shut up and Write” on the amazing “ThesisWhisperer” blog and have been experimenting with it since. I am still working out the kinks (how do you remind people to shut up without being a dick?) but am sure I can make it work. The great thing about “Shut up” is that anyone can set up a group. All you need is a room to do it (a cafe or community space) and some dedicated people. Even when group work is not the most efficient (which I hope in time it will be), it stops your thesis from being the thing that keeps you away from people and becomes its own social occasion.

So these are my five ways of loving the thesis more. What have I missed?

Posted in thesis psychology | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Ten reasons to love the thesis: 1) I can work where I want. 

Much like writing a thesis, writing down ten reasons to love writing a thesis is not as easy as I initially thought. The big problem is that a lot of the things that make PhD student life so attractive have Australia-sized downsides. Things in the thesis aren’t simply black and white but many shades of that color in-between.

We spend a lot of time fretting about the detriments of doing portable work; the fact that no matter the place or time, we always feel like we could – and therefore should – be working. I sometimes envy the people who leave the office or the lab and are free to do whatever they want without feeling guilty. All I need to do thesis work is my laptop. And it’s always with me. Sometimes I catch myself planning the work I’ll do when I get home on the way back from the library. Like grad students everywhere, I cheered when the Dowager countess asked the question that had been troubling me since I began this: “Weekend? What is a weekend?” A couple of weeks ago a friend explained the concept of the thesis workation to me: “It’s basically a vacation where you work on your thesis.” To which I replied: “So it’s basically a vacation.” So yeah, being able to work everywhere means you’re never really off duty.

But let me just take this chance to remind myself not to be a total plimhole. The reality is that I can work wherever I want, whenever I want, wearing whatever I want. Mostly I want to wear PJs, and whether I work at home or in an Oxford library, people are very openminded to my work attire. So, today I am working in my garden looking at woods and sheep, cows and lamas (while wearing a PJ). A week from now, I’ll be working in the gorgeous quad of Somerville College, Oxford. In a couple of months I’ll be working at a lake in Northern Italy. This sure beats being stuck in a basement lab 8 hours a day, 45 weeks a year. I might not have a designated work space – or designated non-work spaces – but I get to work in some of the coolest spaces on the planet (or off the planet).

This is me working in my garden near Heidelberg, where I spend half the year because I am free to leave Oxford whenever I want, not working in a lab and all...

This is me working in my garden near Heidelberg, where I spend half the year because I am free to leave Oxford whenever I want, not working in a lab and all…

The good thing about being able to work wherever I want is that I know the moon landing was not a hoax because, contrary to all the people who are tied to an office, I had the time to be there.

The good thing about being able to work where I want is that I know the moon landing was not a fake because, unlike the people who are tied to an office, I was actually there.

When the cat tries to keep me from working by sleeping on my arm, I turn the tables around, by working on the cat.

When the cat tries to keep me from working by sleeping on my arm, I turn the tables around, by working on the cat.

All images are my own, apart from the one of my mate Buzz and me, which belongs to NASA but they kindly allowed me to use it (public domain).

Posted in thesis psychology | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments