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Well, my viva is today.

It’s occurred to me more than once in the last couple of months that I really ought to update this blog, but to be honest, I didn’t have much to say. After the relentless drudgery of data collection and analysis and the mad rush to write up and submit my thesis, my head just went blank and all I wanted to do was spend the days bumming around, listening to the radio, eating, and going out for long walks. Sometimes I would flick through my thesis or read a paper or two. Most of the time, I just sat around, dazed, still unable to quite believe I had no urgent work to do.

Anyway, the days passed quicker than I thought they would. Already it’s been nearly 12 weeks since I submitted. Since the first day I started this PhD, the viva has always seemed like a mysterious event, very vague, very far off in the distance. I always knew it would come time to have it eventually, but now that the day’s here, I’m feeling a little nervous. Nervous not just because I’m anxious to do well, but also because I want desperately for things to change now that I’m finally putting the finishing touches to this long, almost never-ending chapter of my life.

It’s at 1pm today. Everything’s set, ready to go. I feel both comfortable and restless in my suit. My shirt’s quite loose and nothing’s itchy or pinchy, but at the same time the newness of the clothes gives me a sense of self-consciousness that’s just slightly daunting. I don’t think I’ve ever even worn a suit before.

My mock viva last week went surprisingly well. I was warned by one of my supervisors not to assume the real viva will be exactly the same, if only because it’s just impossible to predict what the exact questions are going to be, but still, I think having the experience of being ‘interrogated’ by two well-versed academics independent of your supervisory team and having to think on your feet and come up with feasible answers on the spot will prove to be quite indispensable.

Honestly, I’ve no idea what’s going to happen today. I’ve done my best all through this crazy journey. Now’s the time to give this one last shot. With any luck, I’ll pass the damn thing and be done with it.

Some people look forward to getting ‘Dr.’ put on their credit cards when they pass their vivas. I’m just looking forward to my freedom.

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Despite often feeling that I work among people who have lost their ideals, and being immersed deeply myself in the last few months of this PhD, there is still a burning sense of injustice that enrages me every day, and it frustrates me that people around me cannot feel it too.

Recently, Bradley Manning completed his 1000th day in custody as his trial continues to be delayed, postponed and rainchecked by a ‘justice’ system and a long-term political regime that is institutionally prejudiced against those who speak the inconvenient truth.

Assange still spends his days in the Ecuadorean embassy in Knightsbridge, just a half hour away on the tube from where I am sitting now, an ‘enemy of the state’ for showing the world – or, at least, those who are interested – that American governments are not all they appear to be.

Hardly anyone even speaks about Jeremy Hammond, nor of the hundreds of journalists and political activists who are still behind bars today for making their dissent against injustice known, or even for reporting on the existence of injustice.

In many parts of the world today, gays still cannot marry without judgement from the prejudiced, women cannot be priests or even be educated without backlash from patriarchal fundamentalists, Blacks cannot go about their lives without being stop-and-searched, and intellectuals cannot speak their minds without being censored. The young are patronised and the old victimised, the poor overlooked and the wealthy put on a pedestal.

We should be enraged about these, yet so many of us wake up each morning and go to bed each night with these thoughts never having crossed our minds.

We should take heed of Assange’s words:

“Every time we witness an injustice and do not act, we train our character to be passive in its presence and thereby eventually lose all ability to defend ourselves and those we love. In a modern economy it is impossible to seal oneself off from injustice.

If we have brains or courage, then we are blessed and called on not to frit these qualities away, standing agape at the ideas of others, winning pissing contests, improving the efficiencies of the neocorporate state, or immersing ourselves in obscuranta, but rather to prove the vigor of our talents against the strongest opponents of love we can find.

If we can only live once, then let it be a daring adventure that draws on all our powers. Let it be with similar types whose hearts and heads we may be proud of. Let our grandchildren delight to find the start of our stories in their ears but the endings all around in their wandering eyes.
The whole universe or the structure that perceives it is a worthy opponent, but try as I may I can not escape the sound of suffering.

Perhaps as an old man I will take great comfort in pottering around in a lab and gently talking to students in the summer evening and will accept suffering with insouciance. But not now; men in their prime, if they have convictions are tasked to act on them.”

 

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I really believe that one day, the boundaries we draw between men and women, between freedom and captivity, between war and peace, between enlightenment and darkness, will be erased, and we will come to see that all people are the same and worthy of the same good, and we will no longer see horrors like this.

I believe that one day all those oppressed will be able to walk freely on the path to education, development, and civil liberties, and to be a woman will no longer be insufferable.

We must do all we can to empower girls and women to seek and defend their right to education and equal rights and liberties in all corners of the world.

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.

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The Final Countdown

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