Monthly Archives: September 2013

Why I Decided to do a Ph.D.

I had a meeting with one of my supervisors last week.  She asked me to read the Introduction and Chapter 1 of my thesis, and mark the places where I can insert the passages that the examiners want me to make according to the first page of the viva report.  I can start rewriting straight away, but she encouraged me not to, and suggested that after marking the places where new passages need to be inserted will I know what to delete.

I think this was a good suggestion, because I planned an overhaul for the Introduction, Chapter 1, and Conclusion, and this would probably have made the rewriting process more overwhelming than it needs to be. She said I wrote a good thesis, so while it is important to do EXACTLY what the examiners have asked me to do, I also need to show faith in my work and not overdo the corrections.

I appreciated this meeting as it helped me put the correction process into perspective.  Although I’m still hurt and feeling antagonistic towards the examiners and the viva report, I am more ready to move forwards than I was a couple of weeks back.  If I do exactly what the examiners have asked me to do, there is no reason I wouldn’t get the Ph.D.

But what if my corrections aren’t good enough?  My examiners said I articulated my argument very well in the viva. Shouldn’t this prove that I know the issues and debates in my field, and that I am capable of doing research?  If they’ve already heard what my thesis is about, will my corrections really satisfy them the second time?  The unknown factor of having my six years of work lie in the hands of two academics who didn’t pass me the first time worries me.  I’m one of those people who tend to lose appetite when they’re anxious, so I have to remind myself to eat enough, especially since I need the energy for aerial.

But apart from the viva report and having to pay full-time tuition, the hardest thing to combat is the feeling of being abandoned and worthlessness. There is a lot of valuable and accessible information out there about how to lead a Ph.D. life or how to write a thesis, but very little on how to pick yourself up from major corrections. It is understandable though. Nobody likes to remember failure, consequently not much has been written about what to do if you fall into the unfortunate category of major corrections.

Unfortunate category of major corrections...

Fallen to the darkness of major corrections…

The lack of information makes me feel I have done something wrong and shameful.  I was confident that I was making a critical intervention in my field, and that my work is original.  I believed in what I wrote.  However, now it seems that presentation and writing technicalities are more important than the argument itself.  Even though it’s quite late in the process, I’m wondering why I decided to do a Ph.D. at all.

I guess I’m asking myself this question over and over again to convince myself that I need to stick with the correction process.  Before the Ph.D., I had three years of working experience as a marketing assistant at a technological company, and later as an assistant editor in a publishing company.  I could do my job well, but felt I wasn’t putting in enough effort.  I hated the monotonous schedule of being stuck in an office nine-to-six Monday to Friday.  I couldn’t bear the idea of sitting in an office for the next five years.

This is when I began to contemplate at the possibility of doing a Ph.D.  An academic job would be hard, but at least I wouldn’t be stuck indoors every day of the week.  The winter and summer holidays also provide working flexibility envied by other office jobs.  I did my master’s degree on American and English literature, and after graduating I had vowed to never, ever go into academia again.  Yet I overruled my own decision, and here I am.

So my reasons for doing a Ph.D. were quite practical.  I was always interested in visual culture and identity issues, so I made the transition from literature to film.  Having a three year break from academia, I needed time to adjust to being a student again.  At the beginning everything I read made sense.  I panicked that others had already written what I wanted to say, and that there would be no originality in my research.  I remember it was in one of our first year meetings when one of my supervisors said that I need to look at my cultural context metacritically, and I wondered what she meant by “metacritical.”

It wasn’t until my third year that I began to grasp my own argument, and be able to hear my critical voice amongst others.  My thesis criticizes discourses of nationalism and analyzes how identity is projected in historical films.  I thought my research was really filling a gap seldom discussed in my field, and should also be communicated to the public.  This is when I felt I was ready to teach.

I think my reasons for doing a Ph.D. have come from being highly practical, to highly idealistic, to cynical, and now I’m trying to find the balance between these approaches.  I don’t have the answer to whether doing a Ph.D. is worth it yet, especially considering the bleak prospect of the current academic job market.  I think this blogpost from Right Scholarship has put it sadly but incredibly well, “… perhaps [university] shouldn’t have been touted for so long as the key to happiness, prosperity and the betterment of society.”  Is it too late to look back?

I made a choice several years ago, so I need to finish what I’ve started.

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Organizing My Bookshelf: Step 1 Towards Corrections

Before

Before

Last week I finally organized my bookshelf.  My filing system had imploded over the past couple of months, and I couldn’t keep track of where I kept what anymore.  I knew it was in urgent need of organizing, but kept putting it off because somehow I related “organizing bookshelf” with “getting ready for thesis correction.”  I wanted to start with a clean slate–materially and emotionally–before reading my thesis again, and with the beginning of the term approaching, I knew I couldn’t put it off anymore.

In normal circumstances I usually like organizing.  It provides a sense of accomplishment with immediate results.  But clearing things out is never as simple as it sounds because you’re also going over memories.  Sorting through my old thesis notes and drafts, printed journal articles, fiction I no longer read, Christmas and birthday cards, art and festival programs… they reminded me of the things I did over the past few years and realized I’ve accumulated much more stuff than I thought.  It doesn’t help when I’m a bit of a hoarder when it comes to keeping art and film festival programs.  I had to tell myself to part with them otherwise I would run out of space for books.

My thesis notes also brought me heartache as they reminded me of the times I thought I had a research breakthrough.  At one point I had about seven to eight piles of documents surrounding me, waiting to be categorized.  I thought I was going to break down and sob.

After

After

I couldn’t just throw everything away though.  I carefully checked for one-side printed pages as these can be used for scrap paper.  Most of them consist of old thesis drafts that I no longer need.  There is something contradictory in academia when it comes to printing and photocopying.  I print journal articles, thesis drafts, and sometimes the introduction from a book so I can make notes, but this uses up a lot of paper. I try to justify whether I really need a journal article before printing it because most journal articles in film and cultural studies are at least thirty pages long.  I also feel guilty about printing my thesis drafts, but sometimes I need to get the feel of how it reads on paper compared to how it reads on the computer screen.  I’m going to try to give them new life by turning them into notebooks following this method.

I started organizing my bookshelf around 1 o’clock in the afternoon, and managed to finish just before dinnertime.  Even though it was hard, I took the first step to prepare myself for the corrections.

Pole Dancing at the Gothenburg Museum of Art

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Art, statement, and display.

The Gothenburg Museum of Art had a huge rotating sculpture of a girl pole dancing at the entrance. This was the other nice surprise during my trip to Gothenburg.  I should’ve stood next to it to show how big it was.  I think this is one of the indicators that pole dancing is really becoming mainstream. The fact that this sculpture was placed at the entrance of an art museum challenges the perception of pole dancing being “low brow” art performance.  Academically, from the angle of cultural studies, the dichotomy of low brow vs. high brow has pretty much been dismantled, as almost any form of art and cultural activity can be studied and is worthy  of analysis.  But pole dancing has a stigma of being a crass and sexually provoking performance.  That side of the spectrum does exist, but the sexual and gender politics of pole dancing in modern life are much more complex to conveniently label it as such.

I love the body lines.

I love the body lines.  

I learned a lot about pole dancing while doing online research on aerial.  I don’t know if pole dancing is normally categorized as circus or aerial performance, but there are a lot of similarities between pole dancing and aerial performance as you need to engage upper body muscles to lift yourself up in the air.  Plus, the amazing Felix Cane (twice pole world champion) performs for Cirque du Soleil, showing that pole dancing can be incorporated into circus performances.

Personally I’ve tried pole only once, and it was during our university’s Fresher’s week when the student clubs come out to promote.  A guy (yes, a guy) from the pole dancing club showed me how to do a move locking your left armpit on the pole, placing the right arm lower on the pole to lift yourself up horizontally.  (I’m not familiar with pole dancing moves at all, so if you know what this move is called do drop me a line.)  I thought to myself: hey, I do aerial, I have a pretty strong upper body, this should be a piece of cake.

I was wrong.  Even though I did manage to lift myself off the ground, I couldn’t do it horizontally.  This is when I realised that even though you’re using the same muscles groups, due to the difference in equipment you probably have to engage them in slightly different ways.

I used to think… and forgive me for having thought so, that pole was easier because the pole is solid and therefore it seemed that you have more to grip on.  I know, I know, I was WRONG. The more I read about it and the more videos I watched (that’s how I came across Felix Cane, Jenyne Butterfly, Natasha Wang and other super women), my perception towards pole dancing changed completely.  There is a sexual aspect to pole dancing, but to over-emphasise it is to overlook the training and hard work these performers put into it.  Performing pole outdoors in the summer is also a big challenge.  I watched an interview where a performer from Taiwan (temperatures can get as high as 35 degrees in the summer) said the pole heats up so much, sometimes she can smell her skin burning slightly from the friction on the pole.

I also learned about the danger of pole when I became friends with a certified pole fitness instructor. She wore tracksuits to a gig rehearsal that had flashing lights… looking back she has no idea why she wore tracksuits to rehearse.  She missed her grip when she got distracted by the lights, and the fall resulted in 13 stitches on her face.  After three months of rest she got back on the pole and continued to teach and perform.  Now she also trains on the silks and rope.

How can you not love aerial when you meet people like these?

Circus Delight in Gothenburg

I planned to visit an old friend in Gothenburg, Sweden after the viva.  It was meant to be a celebration trip, so I hesitated whether I should still go away on holiday after the disappointing result of major corrections.  In the end I decided to go because I hadn’t seen my friend in a long time, and I needed something to distract me from being depressed.  I had my viva on a Monday, so pretty much cried throughout the week and couldn’t leave the flat until Sunday.  The weather was incredibly sunny that day, the whole city was alive with the amount of people that came to enjoy the seafront.  I half cried through my lunch as I felt I couldn’t join in the season of summer festivities.

I managed to decide to go to Gothenburg anyway where my friend Fabiana lives.  I had a great time, and the trip dispelled the viva blues… Until I came back at least.  One of the nicest surprises was to see a free street circus show.  I only found out that I caught the annual culture festival in Gothenburg, and a number of events were free to the public.  We were on our way to Haga, an area similar to London’s Soho in vibe, when we caught glimpse of the performance from afar.  It was the last ten minutes of that performance, but we checked the time schedule on the board and were lucky to find that they were performing again at 6pm.

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Doubles on the cloud swing.

It was only a half-an-hour performance, but I was impressed not only by their muscles (I want those muscles!), but also admired their choreography.  It was only two of them filling up half-an-hour.  One could tell they were experienced performers from the way they engaged with the audience and entertained them. There was no break within the half-hour, so they would take turns to rest while remaining in character.  The physical endurance required to perform the moves the way they did showed they were very skilled and strong.  As with Scandinavian summers the weather wasn’t very warm, so it’s more likely to get injured performing outdoors in those temperatures.  Circus and physical theatre performers make tricks look easy, it’s easy to forget the amount of training they go through to achieve that strength.  Fabiana is not a circus enthusiast as I am, but after seeing them perform she “advised” that I definitely need to build more muscles.

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A move similar to the “flag” on the rope but on the Chinese pole.

I was also impressed with how they managed to play with different equipments in such a short amount of time.  They used the pole of the free-standing rig as a Chinese pole, the cloud swing as a rope, and the platform at the top of the rig to do something similar to an ankle hang on the trapeze bar.

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Fancy tea upside down?

There was also acrobalance.

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I’m a lady… strong lady!

I usually don’t take that many photos during a performance because taking photos distracts me from enjoying the moment.  I think this time I clicked away to my heart’s content because it was such an unexpected nice surprise.  What I feel really bad about now is I’ve actually forgotten the name of their circus troupe!  The whole point of performing is to let people know who you are.  I can’t believe I’ve forgotten!  I know they’re Danish performers, and I thought I could google them, but haven’t found them yet.  I can only remember that the name of their circus troupe is a combination of their names together starting with a B (Billie?).

If you recognise these amazing performers, drop me a line. :)

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You were wonderful!

Trying to Spot an Injury Before Getting Injured

It was a good thing I went for a sports massage today.  The masseur told me I had torn a muscle on my shoulder (an area closer to my neck) which healed, but the knot had split into two.  He said it was very peculiar.  I’ve had sports massage sessions with him for over a year and he’s never described my knots as “peculiar.”  I didn’t know whether to feel proud or worried.  The right shoulder, arm, and chest muscles are also very tight.  I felt a tiny needle pain in my chest when I inverted yesterday, and he thinks it’s because my chest muscles are beginning to compensate for the tightness on my shoulders.  This would explain why I’ve been having a weak grip: my muscles are not working together effectively.

Knots in the muscles? Not nice.

(Photo above from Rebecca Dongallo.)

I have a slight idea on how I tore my shoulder muscle even though I didn’t feel it when it happened: we were moving furniture around in the flat to make way for the desk in the bedroom and a sofa bed in the living room.  It was like playing tetris but in 3-D.  We have a small flat, so moving the desk into the bedroom meant we needed to move the dining table, the shoe cupboard, and a chest drawer out of the way before we could even start moving the desk.  We did this the next day after I came back to training from having a week off, and the heavy use of muscles probably aggravated the fatigue from the week-long workshop which I hadn’t completely recuperated from.  But it could also be from learning a new move with the rope resting on my right shoulder.  Maybe that’s where the split knot came from, hmmm.

But in general I feel ok.  I’ve had a worse injury before, which also took place after last year’s workshop.  I was learning a front balance to a hip lock on my right side, and I thought I needed to train my left arm strength in order to pull up.  It turned out I was crossing my legs the wrong way, and that’s why the rope kept slipping.  I was using my left forearm so much, that I developed this constant soreness and pain which stopped me from falling asleep at night.  I had to use ibuprofen gel to relieve the pain.  I was quite depressed because I was forced to take two weeks off at the start of term, and thought I could never do aerial again.

The two weeks off turned out to be a good decision, because coupled with rest and a few sports massage sessions the pain went away.  This was a very new experience for someone who has never associated herself with “sports injury.”  I’ve always liked sports but was never athletic, so the notion of “sports injury” was very alien to me until then.  When I started discussing this issue with an athletic friend who runs marathons, I felt I was venturing into unknown territory.  My friend V. said I should think of “injury prevention” rather than “I’m not injured.”

Since that injury, I’ve learned how to pace myself.   Sometimes it’s difficult to find the balance between pushing yourself and knowing the limits, because it’s tempting to go through that move just one more time.  What I try to keep in mind is if a move keeps evading me, it probably means I’m not using the right technique or I’m not strong enough yet.  I leave it out of training for a couple of sessions, then come back to it after coming up with a new way to approach it.