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One rainy afternoon, when I was about 11 years old, our class teacher at my Catholic primary school – I’ll call him Mr K – was off sick and, as was common in those times, one of the mums from the parents’ association took over to fill in. Mrs O’Brien was the mother of a rather immature dirty blonde boy called Michael (not their real names). I had been wary of Michael for some time because, the previous year, it had somehow transpired that he had written “I love [my name]” on his ruler in maths class and everyone knew about it. Despite my mortification with her son, Mrs O’Brien was an awesome substitute teacher. She was a pillar of calm and reason amidst the screaming, maddening outbursts of the pupils and dealt with every end-of-the-world crisis without batting an eyelid. We spent a lovely afternoon conducting an art class in which we painted, cut, pasted, folded and decorated to our hearts’ content. At the end of the day, during the mad rush that was ‘packing up time’, I remember someone knocked over a pot of blue paint. It fell straight on the floor and spattered all over the carpet, splashes dirtying the table legs and spilling over onto the lino. “Oh my God!” exclaimed Michael, which was a felony offense at Catholic school (“Stop using the Lord’s name in vain!” was a warning frequently heard in and around our school grounds). Children were squirming everywhere, running around, laughing, kicking, jostling each other in hysterical yelps to avoid the blue liquid oozing over the terrain.

Mrs O’Brien just looked at her son and said, “It’s not God, it’s paint on the floor. Now let’s get this cleaned up.”

Thanks for teaching me to stay calm in a crisis, Mrs O’Brien. Right now I’m typing away madly trying to get this draft chapter finished and sent off to my supervisors. I have a headache, cracked lips, and a sore neck. I have the rest of my thesis to write before the spring comes. And I am doing my absolute best to hold on to my sanity, and see this through.

Something many of us fail to remember during our PhDs, while we are busy collecting data, reading papers, and whinging about how stressful, chaotic, and daunting the whole process is, is how rewarding and enjoyable being a researcher has the potential to be.

There are so many people who wake up each morning and feel grumpy because they have to get up and go to work at a job they dislike, and they do everything they can to procrastinate, avoid tedious errands, and get out of work early in order to find time for things that make them happier. Conversely, most of us ended up in research because we have (or at least had!) an interest in our subject area and wanted to work on our own project to advance understanding in that area. How many people work a job in which they are able to read literature and collect data on a topic they love? (This is, of course, with the exception of the nausea that follows reading/data overload…).

What’s intriguing to me about this is that, when you’re a researcher, work and play often become enmeshed, entangled, and intertwined. The same aspects of our work both frustrate and inspire us. We are fascinated by whatever branch of science or art we study, yet at times we come to despise it. We get cranky, and incredulous, and we slink around the lab looking gloomy and sighing a lot.

I for one, sigh a lot.

There’s a thin line between work and play in research. Often it disappears altogether. There are all sorts of perks and downsides. Today a colleague who’s supposed to be at home writing up walked into the office and handed me a box of Belgian chocolates. Now, I am faced with the dilemma of eating the whole box in celebration of all I’ve achieved this semester, or rationing them out over the next few months in reward of each new milestone I reach with my own writing. Decisions, decisions!

Looking back over the last few years, I see I delved into something I essentially enjoy, but I’ve come to have a love-hate relationship with my work. I love Belgian chocolates and the rush of creating new and exciting projects. I hate coming to the end of the box and feeling a sense of stagnation as I near the end of my work, and transition to write-up.

Ideally, I’d like to have a love-hate-love relationship with my thesis.

I want to end this thing on a high.

 

Van Gogh is one of my absolute favourite artists of all time. My fascination with him began when I was about 17, and in a way that is probably unconventional – in an introductory psychology seminar.

As part of our first semester classes we were required to take what was then called a ‘scheme module’ – a mandatory class not affiliated directly with our department but taught by departmental staff all the same. The particular scheme module we were assigned to was known as The Psychology of Everyday Life, though, again unconventionally, the sorts of topics it contained were far from everyday, and most weeks we would find ourselves sitting in lectures concerning anything from paranormal phenomena to celebrity stalking to colour psychology.

It was a great module.

The only assessment in the module was a 2500-word essay on any of the topics covered in the lectures. Unconventional as they were, most of the topics on our reading list didn’t appeal to me. I was young, and angst-ridden, and a rebel at heart, and I desperately wanted to exert my efforts on something more profound than poltergeists or the meaning of red.

So it was that I gravitated to the psychopathology of van Gogh.

It was a time when madness and insanity fascinated me, especially their social construction and their subjectivity, and the way social and cultural changes across time and place meant that mental disorder was something undefined, misunderstood, and inherently mysterious. I was fascinated by the strangeness of mental illness before the 20th century, the way young women would inexplicably become hysterical and be committed to sanitoriums for rest and relaxation, never to emerge again.

Vincent, on the other hand, was no delicate young woman. He was a contradiction of sorts – equally rough and gentle, violent and serene, lucid and insane. People tend to romanticise his madness, but in fact his poor health frustrated him and he yearned to be well. He loved painting, and he painted everything from flowers to landscapes to portraits. Especially in the Arles period, he loved painting canvases that were vivid with colour, drenched with sunshine, oozing with blues and greens and fiery reds, and emanating, especially, a dazzling spectrum of yellows. He loved yellow. I imagine it reminded him of the sun…and happiness.

This still life of sunflowers in a vase – one of eleven he painted over his life – is in the National Gallery in London and I have been there more than once to just stand there, gazing at it as the crowds buzz around me. His use of yellow is amazing. On one visit I was joined in my gazing by a class of primary school children sitting on the floor, pointing at the different shades of yellow as they were directed by their teacher. Sunny yellow, pastel yellow, lime yellow, mustard yellow. It’s like the entire canvas is an orchestra, playing chords of yellow in octaves high and low in perfect harmony.

My essay considered the various theories of madness – schizophrenia, Asperger’s, syphilis and bipolar. But I argued that I didn’t believe Vincent was mad. He was just one of those people whose greatness is not appreciated until it is too late – and the many sadnesses and rejections he endured in his life made his yearning for happiness, and his pursuit of it, ever more frantic.

When I think about Vincent during moments of near insanity in my PhD, I remember his persistence to carry on with what he wanted so badly to do, and the beauty and elegance he portrayed in his work despite being a complex and imperfect person.

This is something I strive to do.

And in closing he was ever the gentleman…

Handshakes!

I came across a strangely delightful quote from Scott Fitzgerald today:

To write it, it took three months; to conceive it three minutes; to collect the data in it all my life.
Poor, tragic Scott. I wonder if writing novels is as mentally exhausting as writing a thesis?
There are interesting parallels between the literary process and thesis-writing. The most obvious (to me) is that both cause irreversible madness. But more than that, when you think about how long it takes to write, and the lengths you have to go to just to get to a stage where you can write, you see the process is the same.
 
Sure, I will write the (almost) final draft of my thesis in three months, but to get to the stage where I can do that, I spent six months trying to work out what a PhD is all about, three months collecting and analysing data for my first study, nine months writing up my first study and running my second study, and another six months running my third study and coming back to trying to work out what a PhD is all about. I spent the best part of 2 years swimming in a mental sea of data – words, numbers, statistics, software packages, charts, tables and diagrams. I just swam around, trying to interpret it, and trying to make my interpretations actually make sense, and maybe even an original contribution to knowledge. Then there’s the fact that I conceived of the original idea for this whole project in the space of about 20 minutes.
 
If only I’d known what I was getting myself into.
 
No matter what sort of writers we are – artistic, academic, or a bizarre blend of both – there is a lot that goes into our work besides just writing the words. There’s a lot of thinking and a lot of data collection, and a lot of interpretation and reinterpretation and a lot of madness.
 
Struggling thesis writers, novelists, madmen and women – unite! We shall conquer these great seas of chaos and emerge brighter, stronger, more learned, at the helm of this mighty ship.
 

 These titles are, if you need explanation, derived from the home countries of the external examiners my supervisors and I are considering.

Yesterday I met with my supervisor to talk about externals again. Since our first choice declined because of other commitments at the time my viva is scheduled, we talked about two other possibilities that are on the cards. The first, a colleague of the Danish gentleman who had been our first choice, seemed to fit my thesis better, while the second, a professor based in Portugal, was decidedly a last resort (though not necessarily because Quero Formar** sounds more like the Latin motto of some well-to-do white middle class college in West London).

We agreed that my supervisor would approach the Dane the next day. But sitting around in my overheated office, frustrated at the headache that had been pounding away in my head all day, I suddenly wondered if we weren’t perhaps looking for my external in the wrong places. When you’re doing a PhD in psychology you reasonably expect that your external will also be a psychologist of some sort. But what if someone else’s expertise fits better with your thesis than any psychologist you’ve been able to find? That’s when I thought of…well, the woman I’m thinking of now.

She isn’t a psychologist.

Actually, she isn’t technically even a scientist, though the boundaries between scientific disciplines, and between science and art, are usually more blurred than we’d like to think.

The thing is, sometimes PhD theses are at the intersection of so many different obscure lines of enquiry across art and science that it is almost impossible to locate an external who is as well-versed in your uber-obscure area of expertise as you are. I mean, if I could have the ideal external for my thesis, it would be myself. Failing that, though, if there’s someone out there who is interested in, and published widely on, the topic I’m focusing on, though from a perspective other than psychology, I’ve begun to wonder whether that person is better qualified to examine me than a psychologist who, although vaguely knowledgeable about my area by virtue of the fact that they are a psychologist, would probably have to go to considerable lengths to do background reading before they could confidently question me at my viva.

This is all so confusing. I’m not sure I even have an academic identity any more. What am I? A psychologist? By virtue of the fact that my first degree is in psychology, or because I do research in a psychology department, or because I am supervised by psychologists? Does it matter that my research includes as much sociology, philosophy, economics and political science as it does psychological theory? Are non-psychologists, and indeed non-scientists, if there are such things, qualified to grant, or recommend the granting of, psychology PhDs?

I just don’t understand.

And in further news, I’ve just found out my other supervisor, whom we really need to consult on all matters relating to external examiners, is overseas tending to some urgent family issue and may not be back for a week. I’m glad I asked my supervisors to begin the examiner search 8 months in advance, but I’m beginning to think with all the unavoidable, unforeseen delays we might end up being only just in time.

I just really, really want to graduate. And though I know I’ll do everything I can to meet my responsibilities, the uncertainty surrounding factors out of my control often worries me and gets me down.

I want to graduate! And I will irrationally translate this into any language known to man until I do!

*Dutch for “I want to graduate” …at least according to Google Translate.

**And the Portugese.

Mid-week already and still so much to do and so little time. On today’s menu: Meeting with my supervisors to discuss my thesis examiners.

This has led me to a sort of retrospective on my life so far and how, in a ubiquitously contradictory way, the events leading up to my PhD have been both incredibly typical and incredibly unpredictable. So today I’m taking a walk down memory lane to remember all the crazy things that I never thought would happen (now imagine the harp tinkling in the background to take us back…)

From the age of 4 to the age of 11, I went to a Catholic primary school where we would pray every morning and every afternoon for Jesus to guide us and fill our lives with His love. Our home-time prayer in first grade, verbatim, was:

School is over for today

We’ve done our work and we’ve had our play

But before I go I’d like to say

Thank you heavenly Father.

When I was little, at my ultra-Catholic primary school, we would sometimes be asked about our aspirations for the future. I remember one occasion when I was about 9 years old, when, on a rainy afternoon, our class teacher Mrs O’Sullivan asked us to draw pictures of ourselves in our occupations 10 years in the future. I recall sitting next to a popular, teacher’s pet girl at the time – let’s call her Carolyn – who, for some reason unfathomable to me even at that young age, was hellbent on growing up to be a supermarket cashier…stacking shelves at Coles. Sure, I had respect for supermarket cashiers, they’re just people trying to get by, but surely girls our age should be aspiring to achieve a little more? Annoyed at this, I remember furiously sketching myself as an architect, a crudely drawn dark-haired figure bending over a drawing board covered in notes and building plans. I got a nice tick from Mrs O’Sullivan.

If you had told me then, as a 9-year-old, that one day I would grow up to be an academic, sitting in an office, doing research in the social sciences, I would have looked at you as if you were some kind of alien life form.

Then when I was 10, my parents let me be truant from Catholic school for 6 months (shock horror! 6 months without going to mass!) to go backpacking with them around the world. Not really around the world – around Europe, but at that age and never having been outside Melbourne my whole life, Europe felt like a whole world in itself. Those times were when I saw first hand that there is so much variety in the world, so many people living in so many different ways, and that Catholic school is most definitely not the only way to be. Travelling on a shoestring also made me forego any attachment to luxury on the road, and I enjoyed ‘rednecking it’ – living cheaply in backpacker hostels, driving from city to city in a 6th-hand ’91 Transit, and surviving on some of the most interesting street food I’ve ever had.

So then, I forgot about being an architect and instead wanted to be one of those people who work for Lonely Planet, getting paid to travel every conceivable nook and cranny of the world, discover the ups and downs of everything, and then write about it in a sexy little book. And if you had told me then that I would grow up to be an academic, sitting in an office, doing research in the social sciences, I would have scoffed at you and said “Why sit in an office when you can zig-zag across the remotest corners of the world?”

When I turned 11, everyone in my class wanted to be a marine biologist. I have no idea why. But I remember that to say you were going to be a marine biologist when you grew up, at that time, was an extremely cool thing to say and made you look very intelligent. Not wanting to be a sheep, and not knowing what a marine biologist was anyway, I made up my mind to become a zoologist instead. That way, I succeeded both in being unique and in looking intelligent. It was also very cool at that time to be ‘into’ animals (it being the golden age of Free Willy and WWF), so I was pleased that I could become some sort of animal-scientist and look cool at the same time.

If you had told me then that I would grow up to be an academic, sitting in an office, doing research in the social sciences, I would have cried my eyes out at not having an occupation related to saving cute animals and looking intelligent.

After I left Catholic primary school, I parted ways with most of my Catholic classmates, who went to Catholic high school to continue going to mass and wanting to be marine biologists, and instead went to public high school, where I was amazed to find that no one sang Advance Australia Fair at Monday morning assembly, or even had Monday morning assembly at all, no one prayed for Jesus to fill their lives with His love, and many of my classmates’ parents were, to my childish horror, divorced (!). And although I was ambivalent about public school, away from my Catholic ‘friends’, I’m glad now that I went to a state-run school with overcrowded pre-fabricated classrooms, leaking ceilings, and 15-year-olds smoking fags behind the bike shed. Because it opened my eyes to the real world.

Having found a small group of friends at public high school who, for a change from Catholic school, actually accepted that I was different and liked me for who I was (an eccentric, very un-Catholic bookworm of a child from a working class family), I was confronted with a much heavier workload than I had been accustomed to in primary school, and I was glad about that because it challenged me. I was a nerd in high school and aced every subject I took. Of course, that doesn’t mean I enjoyed every subject: In fact, my favourite subjects at that time were in the humanities – history, English, French, and art. I wanted to become an archaeologist and a writer, and travel the world not for Lonely Planet, but for some obscure philanthropist’s enterprise which would fund my trips to Egypt to conduct excavations on the Giza plateau, Howard Carter style, and then I would write up my excavations for classics journals and become a world-famous expert on ancient Egyptian dynasties.

And there was no way at that time that I would ever consider giving up this exciting dream of becoming a real life Indiana Jones to become some boring academic in an office doing social science research crap.

Life went on and in time I moved permanently to the Northern hemisphere and finished high school in a completely different cultural environment (and even a different language). That’s a whole different can of worms that can stay closed for now.

After a few years, when I was about 16, I wanted to become an architect again. But researching the job opportunities in what is still, unfortunately, a male-dominated occupation, I became disillusioned with the idea. I wanted to study something that fitted my personality – something that would feed my relentless, maddening curiosity and set me free from the constraints of Catholic school, unrealistic expectations to become Indiana Jones, and the monotony, for me, of being an architect.

Though I can’t believe it now, I considered studying fine art, choreography, or literature. I remember sitting at the kitchen table at home, staring down at the mallard ducks printed on the vinyl tablecloth, and thinking what on earth should I do in my life?

Suddenly (and to this day I can’t remember how exactly), I decided to go to England to study psychology.

I am months away from completing a PhD thesis in psychology and I have no idea why I decided to study it.

As a first year undergraduate I was struck by the prestige (at least to me!) of being a university student. Wow, I would think to myself, I’m actually a university student. I would go around in disbelief that I was so intelligent (I wasn’t, of course, but what do you expect from a 17-year-old). Then when I was in my second year, it dawned on me that first year undergraduates are actually quite naive, and that the really intelligent people are second year undergraduates. Then as a final year student, I felt on top of the world because I was, in my still naive mind, at the ‘top’.

At that point I still had no idea that I would grow up to become an academic sitting in an office doing research in social science.

So, what next? Six months before I started my PhD, I was still in two minds about whether to apply for a Master’s degree or a PhD. I went for the PhD. To this day I have no idea why.

In my first year as a PhD student I felt very busy, very sleep-deprived, and very unaccustomed to having so much freedom (as my supervisors have always allowed me) to direct my own research project. Which I loved. I also felt (similar to when I was an undergraduate) on top of the world because I was sure, this time, that you must be pretty intelligent to be able to be a first year PhD student (Note to self: Not necessarily). I was so busy becoming accustomed to being a PhD student in my first year that I had little idea of what I wanted to be when I grew up and very little time to think about it.

Towards the middle of my PhD – in my second year slump – that’s when I knew enough about academia to want to be an academic.

Now I’m nearly at the end of my PhD.

When I grow up I want to be an academic, and sit in an office, and do research in social science. That’s exactly what I’m doing right now. I’m an academic in training.

I believe it now, but when I remember my life in retrospect, I can’t believe I wanted to be an architect, a zoologist, an archaeologist, a choreographer. I can’t believe I thought I would dig up another treasure trove in Egypt and become famous like Howard Carter. I can’t believe my dreams have been so wild and so diverse, and how they have ended up focusing on something quite so tame, quite so modest, and quite so content.

But I am happy.

One usually dislikes a play while writing it, but afterward it grows on one. Let others judge and make decisions.

One can only wonder what might have been, if he had done a PhD!

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The Final Countdown

Submission of PhD ThesisMay 1st, 2013
The big day is here. Joy to the world!