[January &] Feb. Review:

No, I have not fallen into some dark hole with poor wi-fi service and no, I have not gone devolved into the typical over-worked wreck of eroding confidence that is the typical mid-course doctoral student. Unfortunately, neither am I some newly appointed research fellow or freshly returned from an extensive and fruitful research trip. Rather my silence here is the result of a largely complete loss of ‘care’ in this, and most other things, which means I don’t write much.

This is nothing special really. Living away from home, in a place that is built entirely towards my weaknesses, and working daily off less than two or three hours of uninterrupted sleep between 10.30 pm and 6.00 am, will, given enough time, take all the enthusiasm you may have about your work, career goals, and creative interests and, like a pot of water left to boil too long, evaporates, leaving a hot, distorted, fire-hazard.

The final straw, which it isn’t, but the narrative demands a sort of focal moment in all of this, was a comment made by the director of graduate studies in reply to my Michaelmas term self-assessment report (a voluntary thing that the faculty asks students to do each term and which I have taken seriously).

I had mentioned in that report that my thesis work was progressing steadily, but not quickly, and that I was having trouble adapting to the new location (which has been largely resolved). I also mentioned a few of the non-thesis projects (two essays for collected volumes and a monograph version of a previous thesis) which were moving along, but at an equally slow pace. I also mentioned that I was going to start some teaching (team-teaching of a further subject paper for 2nd and 3rd year history majors) with my supervisor in the new-year. My supervisor’s comments on the report were entirely positive and, I think he also mentioned the volume of conference proceedings I was helping to edit.

A couple of weeks ago the faculty director of graduate studies got around to reading the report and made his own comments which were, to paraphrase uncharitably, that I was working too much. He was concerned that all the non-thesis stuff risked delaying the timely completion of the thesis (which is, so far as Oxford is concerned, the only task they expect of me in 3-4 years).

I know that the university is very sensitive about completion rates and Oxford does impose the condition that full-time DPhil’s must be completed within 4 years and no longer. The faculties are reluctant to support or encourage anything other than thesis completion while also struggling to accommodate the very real needs of students for career development during the DPhil process.

I also know that some students are intimidated by the thesis and that conferences, book reviews, volunteer work, and other extra-academic work can turn into a deliberate dodge of the thesis itself. I have re-assured my supervisor that the thesis takes precedent and I said so, without prompting, at the very start of last term. In fact all those other projects have suffered a great deal for the sake of the thesis The two essays were late in getting to editors and the monograph has hardly progressed from the state I left it in late November (when I hoped to have the manuscript in a complete 1st draft by the end of Feb). And I have dropped some things off the list, to free up mental energy (time isn’t a problem) to work on fewer things. But all of that is largely superficial to the real problem with that comment about working too hard.

I have never been told that I was working too hard, by anyone, ever. I have heard the opposite for most of my life in education and for reasons too tedious and largely uninteresting to recall, I have never really felt that it was worth putting in that kind of effort. People had very low expectations of me and, eventually, I barely managed to meet even those low standards. Not until late in my honours degree did it occur to me that I was capable of working hard, and that hard work would, reliably, bring results.

Working hard at Oxford (in the way I have been going about it) gets you very little in return.

No-one really cares if you bust your ass because it’s not the place for it. You work hard to get here and once you are here, you do what is expected of you. That appears to be college-based things like bops, and social events, and fun-runs, and sports, and trips. Maybe you will get involved as a volunteer for a local conference (but not as a presenter). Maybe you will work in some student-run group with a tangential relevance to your work. If you are one of those insufferable people who are thinking about a post-Oxford life, you may take one of the teaching courses or writing workshops (in your 3rd of 4th year). Maybe you will consider writing a paper, or attending a conference, but only if you are far enough in the thesis that you can spare the time in your 3rd of 4th year.

But you don’t work too hard.

Maybe the DGS read my report and imagined some other student who has gotten in over his head, committed himself to too many projects and, by staying up late at night and avoiding his supervisor, will try and do all that he has agreed to, and because he can’t, burns out, dropping everything and making the faculty look bad. And that really is the sub-text of his statement. He lacks confidence in my ability to do what I have said I will do.

Some students here probably need that kind of guidance. High-achieving students are rarely aware of their own limitations and when you are used to easy success (and most Oxford students share this experience of regular, reliable, success in whatever it is they try) they can over-reach and cause themselves all sorts of problems they are ill equipped to handle.

There are, I am sure, plenty of students here from very difficult contexts that are nothing like mine. But even then, they at least had their academic ability to help them out and eventually, get all the way here.

I have, so far as I can tell, one of the most uncommon backgrounds of any Oxford student and that is a long and painful history of consistent, reliable, academic failure. This means I know, from painful experience, exactly what I am capable of and what I am not. I am extremely conservative in what I will commit myself to. I hate being wrong, not because I think I should be right, but because I would rather do nothing at all, than risk failure and I will not attempt anything unless I am sure I will succeed. I will gladly learn from the mistakes of others (and I do so with a diligence that I admit is slightly unhealthy) if I can avoid making mistakes myself. I do not learn by trial and error. I have no un-do option, I have no extra lives, there are no re-spaws where I come from.

But my DGS does not know this, and maybe there is no reason to expect him to know any different. Neither does he know that his mild note of caution knocked the wind out of me like a fist to my gut.

That’s January and February.

I probably bought some books, I’ll look into that later.