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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 spent the weekend preparing slides for a lecture I’m giving to a group of undergrads in a few weeks’ time.

I, the supposed-to-be-submitting-in-May PhD candidate.

Over the years, the more immersed I’ve become in my very narrow, very specific area of research, the more complex my understanding of the world has become, and the less I am now able to see the world in simple (or simplistic?) terms. Where, as an undergraduate, people, places, events seemed reasonably clear to me in what they were, now I always seem to be saying “but only if”, “based on the assumption”, “may have a different perspective”, “if we hypothesise”, “insufficient evidence to suggest”, “need further research” and “remains an open question”.

Even about things like what the weather’s going to be like today.

I’ve forgotten how to think like a lay person. Science has taken over my thoughts. I can’t resist the logic, the rationality, the stoic procedural calmness of thinking like a scientist.

So it’s not surprising that I find it difficult – infuriating, even – to write lecture material for an undergrad cohort mostly newly out of high school and unaware of the basic things many of us academics would expect they ought to be aware of. At an undergraduate statistics tutorial last year I only just managed to hide my incredulity at a student who didn’t know how to round numbers to two decimal places when the purpose of the tutorial was to construct a simple 2D correlation matrix using output from statistical software.

“So when you’ve got 0.972, you look at the 2 and then what?” she asked. I stared for a second, unsure if she was serious or joking.

“Then because the 2 is a number 4 or under, you leave the 7 as it is, and your answer is 0.97,” I said.

I thought that would address her confusion, but a while later the same student called me over again and this time asked me what to do if the third decimal place was a number 5 or over.

Honestly, I remember learning about decimal numbers in 6th grade. At primary school. Where have these students been all their lives? What do schools teach them these days? And I’m not even that old – in fact, most of the students I teach are just about my age, in their early twenties. It’s not like I was educated in a different era.

So, in what should theoretically be a straightforward research methods lecture, I have, deliberately, included words like “paradigm”, “constructivist” and “empirical” and suggested reading original articles dating to the 1960s. In short, I’ve included material that, in comparison to the relatively ‘soft’ lectures other staff seem to give, will shock and repulse many undergrads and fill them with the horror of actually having to look up an article themselves and read it in all its 1960s snobby white upper middle class style of English. And, imagine them being forced to look up “paradigm” in the dictionary! Oh, the torture!

So what do we conclude? Am I a bad lecturer for raising the level of complexity in my material even when I know many students won’t be able to understand it completely without, shock horror, doing extra reading, researching, or investigating? Or is the system to blame for so many of the students coming to university without knowing how to round decimal numbers, write essays, or address lecturers respectfully? Or, conversely, are all undergraduates at a degree of understanding that is somehow ideal, and instead I’m the one who’s gone nuts because my PhD has made me far too scientifically knowledgeable?

Everything is shaken up today. Like one of James Bond’s ubiquitous vodka martinis.

First up: My preferred internal has provisionally agreed to examine my thesis. This is great. Here’s the downside: He can’t make July. Or August. Instead, he has offered June, September, or October. June is cutting it a bit fine for me, and September and October seem so far down the line I’m afraid I could lose all motivation by then.

Is this news good or bad?

One of the primary reasons why Chekhov set himself apart from other 19th century Russian literary artists is the fact that his characters (especially the ones in his plays) are neither good nor bad. You watch the plays, read and reread the scripts, try to work out if Ivanov is a hero or a villain. The truth is he is neither. Chekhov set out to show his audiences that humans – and life itself – are neither all good nor all bad. They are, instead, impossibly complex, sometimes tending towards goodness and sometimes towards evil.

If life is, like Ivanov, impossibly complex, then try my examiners!

Next: If my supervisors and I agree to take on my preferred internal, we would need to decide whether we will take him on for the sooner viva, in June, or the later one, in September. What we decide will then have a knock-on effect on my thesis submission date, which, if we take the June option, would mean I might even have to submit in April. That’s really cutting it fine. But let’s say I do manage to submit early. Then, there’s the issues of finding and agreeing with a new external, whom we haven’t even decided on yet, and chance being that this person can make a June viva. What if they can’t? Then we’re stuck till September for my internal to be available again. And then what? What if my external (whoever that is) isn’t available in September? Then what?

Sometimes I look at all the postdocs and lecturers and tenured professors around the department and am struck with awe at how they ever managed to get two examiners together at the same time in the same place to conduct their vivas. It’s a one in a million chance and they managed it. People with PhDs all over Europe manage it every year.

Maybe I’m just not as smart as them?

Maybe I’m going to fail the whole thing?

Then what?

It’s quiet in the office today. There’s an intern typing calmly away on her Mac. Some postdocs are passing to and fro in the corridor outside, going about their business. There’s the muffled laughter of undergrads on their way to lectures outside. Life is idyllic, just like any other day. I, too, am calm. I am quiet and typing the last lines of this post at my desk. Yet inside I’m in turmoil. I’m trying to reconcile the impossible chaos of my immediate future in academia with the equally impossible chaos of…I don’t know. Lovelust maybe, or more likely wanderlust. Just the increasingly strong impulse to be…free.

Friend of WikiLeaks

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The Final Countdown

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