… especially if the tunnels have train tracks.
Kelly DeVries is rightly proud of this unappreciated paper and to help disseminate its message of historical empathy, I will give it another small place in the internet for people to find:
..but apparently, little interest in writing for it. That’s a shame, since it does contain rather a lot of stuff I wanted to write, and keep, sometime in the past. Ah, Oxford, how bad you were for my soul (not that I believe in souls mind you, but it’s more poetic than ‘Oxford, you [the abstract entity best identified as Oxford, representing 3 years of living abroad] were not constructive to my sense of self, my confidence, or emotional stability’).
Let’s stick with the poetic.
There is some dark comfort in the knowledge that all works of creativity, given enough time in production, is transformed through a bitter alchemy, into something the creator hates. Ask any artist in any medium, or any writer who feels there is a place for art in any string of words, and they will tell you the same thing, in similar but more effective words. Given time, every masterpiece becomes, in the eyes of its creator, a tragedy that can’t be stopped. I know this because I have been there before; staring at some lump of metal that I knew was done because I hated it. My thesis is not done, but I hate it anyway. That’s probably for the good. It’s not long from being finished.
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.
The year so far, between now and the 2nd of October, has not worked as planned. Not that I consider plans to be proof against unforeseen complications, and each plan is set up with alternatives in the A, B, C, and often D sub-sets capable of accounting for crisis. However, the problems this term were well beyond my ability to compensate and thus I fell back to plan K, which boils down to ‘keep the shit together’. That worked until about the 9th at which point I officially lost it, but that didn’t last long and I am now back home in relative comfort.
The result of all this plan-failure is that I am about 6 weeks behind on just about everything; (I’m probably only about 3 weeks behind on the thesis research, but everything else is consistently behind about the same amount). I can, with any luck, salvage some of that and I don’t think I will have to give up on any of my commitments but it does mean that my ‘break’ for xmas exists only in a hypothetical sense, thus the quotes.
I have written about half a dozen versions of this particular update and none of them are really worth the time to edit or impose on some unprepared reader. The only important thing to know is that writing is very difficult to accomplish under certain circumstances and I hope those circumstances do not return in early January when I go back.
That most compact of adverbs has its place, but it will have no room in anything I edit. I know that its insertion in the margins of student papers, usually adjacent to some concluding sentance which, the author hoped, made a point of sufficient clarity, is meant to indicate both the failure of that goal, and a prompt to defend the statement with more vigour.
When I read an editor’s comment that consists of only this, I don’t read it as ‘So? Please make your claim more explicit.’ Instead, I see this; ‘So? Who cares? Certainly not me. You have wasted my time and I will not waste it further with unnecessary key-strokes. Count yourself fortunate that I even bothered to hit shift at the start.’
Yes, that’s harsh but really, that’s not helpful. This is, or rather was, on my mind a while ago because that adverb was repeated with painful regularity by two editors who returned a paper last week. They still want the paper, and their comments are, ultimately, beneficial. I’m just not in the mood for that sort of interrogation. I’ve got until Jan 15 to make fixes, so it’s not an emergency.
Speaking of emergencies, one may ask what was manner of crisis kept me from PBS since 23 Oct. You can ask, but there is little to tell. The trials of the doctoral student are well known but they are not really part of my experience. My research is going well, although slowly. I have no serious doubts about the course of the project, my methods, or my goals. My supervisor is the model of helpfulness and dedication. The minor irritations that most students experience, but accept as part of the ‘life-style’, for me, become colossal obstacles to work, sleep, and ultimately mental health. Now that’s a touch of hyperbole. I would not even consider joking about clinical depression and I know that my experiences are not universal and thus worthy of universal sympathy. However, there is only so much one can do on 3-5 hours of sleep a night, for 5 weeks straight.
The little room I was given in a 4 room flat, at the start of this term, would have worked out if there was some way of replacing all the occupants with ninjas. The people themselves were fairly quiet, when they were in their rooms, working. Otherwise, they were the loudest people I have ever had the misfortune to experience. Everything was loud. The doors, the kitchen cupboards, the chairs, the cutting boards (every chop, and it was always ‘chop’ and never slice) was audible. Every dish that was cleaned required several good whacks on the stainless sink. And all of this could and would happen at any time of the day or night. No-one (other than me) closed doors on their own. Everything was left to slam shut on its own, except the front door.
Oh, the front door. I had written the most polite and respectful note (necessary as hardly anyone was reliably around when I thought of this) and taped it to that door one early morning, in hopes that I could stop people from slamming that door shut as they came and went. This way, I wouldn’t need to wear earplugs constantly, and I wouldn’t jump from my chair (or bed, or slumber) at the gun-shot level volume. That note was promptly torn down by the first person who read it, and the door continued to be slammed, quick energetically, when that particular person left the building.
Sometime around 9pm, maybe 27 Oct? I was typing in mid-sentence for a draft that was, by then, a good 4 weeks behind schedule when the door, in a manner that would have produced diamonds if coal were left in the jamb, blasted through my earplugs and kicked all my careful prose out of my head. I jumped up, ran to the window, stuck my head out and stopped.
I’m not sure what I would have actually said (or shouted) at the back of the student, heading up the street, ignorant of the wreckage he was making of my already damaged psyche but I doubt it would have been at all coherent or fit for reproduction in text. I had already told the college about this and, to abbreviate the details, a room did appear, which is quieter (at least so far as the maximum volume of any one source of noise is concerned) and I am now safely re-deployed.
I’m still very far behind in the non-thesis projects. I have a massive sleep debt and I have to un-do my irregular sleep pattern I developed at the other room. I am now capable of some writing again, which is why PBS is getting this little catalogue of complaint.
As compensation, here is a picture of what £100 will get you from Bennett & Kerr, rare books in Steventon Oxfordshire:
And, here is the new place, with ample shelving and more desk space.
And now, back to some normalcy.
This bookcase is too tiny! How am I going to finish my DPhil with such a tiny bookcase? If I am not careful, I could be trapped in the tiny bookcase, because it is so tiny.
Now is the stage in the student’s progress where he or she records all that one hoped to do over a break, and in doing, reflect with growing bitterness, on failures that outnumber successes. That’s melodramatic by design because I have set myself up for this sort of disappointment from the start, and I suspect most students in my place do the same.