Tag Archives: Academia

Academia: It’s a mug’s game

This is an unusual post for me. It has no images. It has no jokes. It’s just a cathartic rant I need to get out.

On the 24th of February 2015, I had the successful viva of my PhD thesis. It was not a particularly joyous occasion. I had a good idea what was going to happen. Nothing. And indeed, three years later, here I am, not having held a single academic job, and severely depressed by my prospects.

I in part blame the way I was treated by my university, who gave me no teaching opportunities during the course of my PhD. I signed up to everything I could, volunteered for all sorts of positions (just Google me, I’m everywhere), supported other PhD students, and went to a plethora of lectures and research seminars. I strove to make my government-funded research relevant and accessible to the public: starting this blog, for instance, and experimenting with different kinds of outreach and engagement.  But when I came to apply to be a teaching assistant, I was turned down. I was pretty angry as it mean I wouldn’t be able to apply for any academic jobs when I finished my thesis on time. I spent the next two academic years hanging around my university, getting what teaching assistant positions I could alongside admin and website work, including teaching a pre-set BA1 topic course, and organising a conference, that I really should have been able to do during my PhD.

So now, here I am, in the midst of a third academic year since my completion, with the basic experience I should have had in hand three years ago. But fellowships begat fellowships. People move from institution to institution. Once you’ve fallen out of the system, it’s very hard to get back in. You lose access to libraries, your username and password to online journals, you lose your email address, you lose a community. You become a try-hard pariah.

I worked on what I did because I thought it was important. I see the English parish church as this massive untapped body objects of knowledge, that unfortunately is side-lined as a picturesque curiosity for handful of retiree enthusiasts to visit. But universities are becoming nothing more than neo-liberal degree factories.  They don’t want hard research first. They don’t primarily need exciting new ideas. First and foremost they want good lecturers who the consumer students will immediately take to. The higher the customer satisfaction, the more they will be able to charge. Simple as that.

The sheer amount of nepotism I’ve seen in academia is quite disheartening. I’ve seen job searches take place when the ideal candidate they want is all set up in advance. I get quite a lot of interviews, but I often feel that the whole position is a done deal, and I’m just a patsy. I don’t even get my travel expenses to get there and back. I carry on with some honorary positions at charitable organisations I care about (that means unpaid), a few sources of unreliable freelance work, but I’m losing the will to actively research my long-planned post-doctoral project on parish church chancels, or keep up with academic literature. There’s only so long you can go on without validation.

The idea of a humanities PhD having at its core a single significant research topic is looking highly flawed. The American PhD takes around five to eight years, and is a lot more rigorous. The British PhD looks like the musings of an amateurish gentleman scholar by comparison. The best plan in this country is to apply for jobs during your PhD – something I was actively discouraged from doing because the university doesn’t want to suffer the black mark of a funded non-finish – and then just work on the thesis at weekends and hand it in at some distant date when it’s eventually ready. As universities become ever more like corporations, fighting profit margins and paying their CEOs (vice-chancellors) hundreds of thousands, what place is there for someone who just wants to rescue English medieval architectural history from literal ruin? Seemingly not much.

If the governmental regulation and reform of the higher education sector continues the way it does, and universities end up in the sorry state of so many of our schools, then after Brexit, our university system is going to be a joke. A joke I don’t think is funny anymore.

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All that is solid melts into wifi: note-taking in the digital age

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BA and MA notes

As I’m doing a little bit of teaching on art-historical methodological texts next term, I’ve been digging right back into my BA notes. Partly this is to remind myself why I hate Said’s Orientalism so much, but also to think about how you think and note-take as a student. What’s evident mainly how much the way note-taking has changed in the giant leaps we’ve made in technology in the past ten years, perhaps fundamentally changing the way we engage with texts. Is this a good thing? Well, it’s a thing, for sure. A thing that might be even more boring than moulding profiles, but I’m still going to put both on my blog.

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An example of BA3 note-taking

The notes for my BA at the University of Manchester and my MA at The Courtauld Institute fill three whole lever-arch binders (the majority of which are for my third-year BA, not including the dissertation). Ten years ago, if you brought a laptop to a lecture, you’d stick out like you’d brought your own sandwiches to a lunch meeting at a mediocre café. Everyone would look down on you for it, even if deep down they thought it was a rather good idea. But nevertheless, I was never the one to make this faux-pas, resulting in reams of A4 paper with fountain-pen notes. I developed a system of organising notes – for both set texts and lectures – into sections, using bullet points or indenting as the argument deepened, and returning to the margin when a new idea was introduced.

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Some PhD note taking

I attempted to continue my developed system of tiered note-taking (the “classic” type, I have thus dubbed it) into my PhD. The problem is that, whereas in taught, structured classes with assigned reading, it’s easy to organise all this thought on to paper, it’s much harder in the flowing, free-form nature of your own thesis. Despite my determination to hold on to my fountain pen, it was never going to work. I found myself sometimes turning through page after page of my folder trying to find the reference for something I’d written down when writing part of a chapter. My little red ring-bind folder was abandoned before it even approached the size of my BA notes, for the referencing system Zotero, which can hold all your bibliography and notes thereon in the Cloud. As long as you hadn’t imagined making it, no note is ever far from your grasp.

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Lecture notes

Writing however, continued to be useful to help understand things rather than simply to record: most of all lectures. My golden age of the “classic type” of note-taking survived into the extensive notes I take during academic talks, not necessarily to remember what they said, but to have some sort of exercise in front of me to understand the facets of their argument. For much of the three years of my PhD, these were done in notebooks. Increasingly, my scrawl became ever-more spidery, and if anyone was to research my archive if I suddenly die in a bizarre gardening accident (the latter far more likely than the former) they’ll need to train themselves in palaeography at a level usually reserved for Babylonian cuneiform. Marginal doodles of Gothic tracery reached their apex during the middle of year three, suggesting I may have being having some sort of episode by then.

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Microsoft OneNote (not as many spelling errors visible as there usually are)

For the past year, I’ve been note-taking in lecture rooms with Microsoft OneNote on my ASUS Transformer laptop-cum-tablet, as now it’s socially acceptable to have a “device” with you. Of course, the tab key is the ideal way of maintaining the “classic type”, preserving a system that was developed on the page in the screen. The great thing about this is now I don’t have to keep these notes anywhere, I can make them and forget about them, and never have to destroy them – even if most of them I will never read again. Possibly the only downside of all my notes being perfectly legible is if at a conference anyone gives a paper so bad I stop taking notes and type something rude about it, if they sit next to me later on they might read it.

Of course, rather undermining the whole analogue-to-digital conceit of this post, my essays have always been done digitally. I cannot imagine writing long-form prose without being able to pre-emptively launch into a draft without an introduction, move bits about, revise and rewrite chunks, slot bits in, and all the other things that personal computer word processing has made widely possible for at least 20 years now. Probably someone reading this will give me the full-on Four-Yorkshiremen treatment of how they had to do their PhD before the big bang, when we didn’t have all this “time”, “space” and “matter” that you kids today take for granted and that’s totally fine but I’m sharing my own inconsequential personal story about taking notes and I’m nearly finished now so just hold off a little bit longer and then you can tell me that I don’t even know that I’ve been born.

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My PhD reading and notes organised into consecutive folders

The weird thing is, I don’t actually remember writing much of my dissertation. Just editing and refining these essays I wrote for my supervisors in the manner of assessed work. Despite the fact emerging pretty early on that trying to structure your PhD in the manner of a taught module was a stupid idea, I stuck with it till the bitter end (although the name of the final folder may reveal my recognition of this). Some of these were directly turned into chapters, others swallowed up into the larger picture.

Making the leap from systematic, linear note-taking to cultivating truly original research is not straightforward, and I’m sure everyone has had their own way of making the shaky transition from student to not-student. But the tools easily available to us now with Cloud-based note taking systems I think truly do help us organise thought and information in a more holistic and adaptable manner. It doesn’t make things any easier than before, but it does mean we can do more. However, on occasion, I still like to pick apart a particularly complicated text with my good old fountain pen.