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In the olden days, when I was a scout leader, we used this thing called the ‘buddy system’ to make sure all our little charges got back to base after a ‘wide game’ running around the local creek in the dark. It’s kind of self-explanatory: everyone had a buddy, and buddies had responsibility to make sure each other made it back safely. Hold that thought.

There’s been a bit of chatter of late both on the interwebs and in the actual physical corridors about receiving academic feedback. What do you do with it? How do you cope emotionally? How do you view it intellectually? If you haven’t already done so, I recommend going over to The Thesis Whisperer and looking at what one kind supervisor told their student. But this isn’t just about students. It’s not as if academics take a magic ‘grown up pill’ as soon as they get their PhD and suddenly intuitively know how to manage this ‘feedback’ with a sanguine air. If nobody trains you in dealing with this as a student, you’re basically going to be left to figure out a strategy for yourself as a post doctoral scholar. Maybe that will work, or maybe not so much. You might be one of the lucky ones who has a great mentoring structure around you in your career, but equally, you might be (or at least feel) essentially on your own.

I’m chipping in with my two cents here because I’ve noticed some real differences in the course of my career change from the laboratory sciences over to the humanities, and there are some things that we (the humanities) can really take from the science model in this regard. I’ve shared this with various individuals, but it’s obviously ‘a thing’ so maybe sharing here will be worth it. Read the rest of this entry »

It just doesn’t seem right. I’ve sent my dissertation to the printer, only eleven minutes after I had planned to do so. Perhaps it could have done with another hour or two of proof reading, but by the bitter end, I just wanted to get the thing off my desk. And I did! Hoorah! Except… it didn’t really feel like ‘hoorah!’.

Something people don’t warn higher degree students about is that achieving the ‘ultimate goal’ of completion and submission can be not so much relieving as overwhelming. In the moments after pressing ‘send’, I actually felt physically ill and head-achy. I was cold, shaking, and fidgety. ‘What if the examiners think its bollocks? What if I forgot to include that final reference on page 51? What if I accidentally submitted the version from yesterday, before I double checked the page numbers and margins?’ And worst of all, ‘what if someone asks me how I feel?’ The delicate house of cards that is the intensely-focused self control a completing doctoral student must draw around him or herself could have collapsed in an instant. When you’ve been living in your office for weeks on end with about five hours sleep a night and taking your calories mainly in liquid caffeinated form, let’s just say it all gets rather fragile. Pass the tissues!

For me, the only way to cope with this extremely unsettling sensation turned out to be a long walk, an enormous cooked breakfast, paracetamol and half a day of aimless window shopping. Whatever it takes, right? Maybe in a few days’ time I will feel elated, but the enormity of completing something so large and significant in one’s life will take some processing. For now, I’m just glad to be over the initial panic. And I suspect I got off lightly.

In the last few weeks of frantic work, keeping the lid on emotional disturbance was a priority. In order to work effectively, I did an awful lot of deep breathing, quite a lot of running up the stairs to the eleventh floor and back, and a lot of talking sternly to myself aloud. I drank probably toxic amounts of peppermint tea and consumed way more cheap chocolate than was good for my waistline. I somehow learned to function at a mental level while my senses were dancing a tarantello. At one point I even suffered from the very unpleasant sensation that my right hand belonged to someone else, and that insects were crawling all over my body, (Delerium tremens, but without the whisky. Where’s the fun in that?)

Clearly, there were some pretty serious stress metabolites to be processed after living through all of this while remaining single-mindedly focused on a goal, so it’s not really a wonder if I needed to ‘crash and burn’. But these are the things about academic life that don’t often get aired in public. They can take you by surprise, even though they’re probably common.

Managing the emotional side of doing academic work doesn’t get the attention it deserves. There are lots of workshops students can attend about time management, using Endnote, university policies and procedures, performing statistics, using library search functions, writing CVs, and so on. It’s easy to focus on managing the information because it’s clear that this has to be done. It’s not possible to produce a thesis that coherently expresses complex thoughts without that underlying structure that wrangles the jostling ideas into shape; furthermore, universities themselves are complex beasts that require special knowledge and experience to navigate effectively. Research students have to learn to manage both these kinds of information to succeed.

It’s much easier to neglect emotional management than information management, because it doesn’t seem like the main issue. Students fall into this thinking trap too, which is why even when mental health and fitness programs are provided, students often fail to make use of them. In addition, students who make it to graduate school are usually fairly high achievers who have often internalized social assumptions that associate failure and succumbing to emotional ‘distractions’. Guilty as charged. Furthermore, there are times – like the last few weeks of a thesis – when you do really just need to put a lid on it and ‘push on through’. But academics are people too, and emotions are a real part of academic life. It seems to me good that we talk about this. So I thought I would make a small start by posting this little exposé. If you feel/felt like this when you submitted, you’re not alone. And if you’re preparing a thesis for submission, lay in some tissues and the bacon and eggs, and book in a good friend to hold your hand, because relief doesn’t always feel terribly comforting to begin with. Perhaps that’s the measure of what you’ve actually achieved.

I’ve recently taken up a three year position as an Assistant Lecturer in Medieval History (kind of like a non-tenure-track assistant professorship for those of you in North America). It’s a wonderful, flattering, privileged position to be in, and I’m acutely aware of the many really great medievalists out there who don’t currently enjoy the luxury that is a secure position in academic employment until mid 2016. My recent visit to the UK brought home to me the value and rarity of this opportunity with such force that I’d say it took me at least four weeks until the intense sensation of ‘survivor guilt’, as one good friend put it, receded to background levels. In its wake it left me with a sense that having been given the chance I have a moral obligation to make the best use of it that I can, otherwise it’s not only a waste for me, but also adding insult to injury for those who haven’t the opportunity.

You might think this would be straight forward, but it isn’t. I certainly have lovely students, great colleagues, a nice office with a comfy chair and my name on the door (This point is much more exciting than it should be!), and a more secure income than at almost any other time in my adult life. On the other hand, as many of you already know, a full-time position in a tertiary institution comes with a lot of attendant responsibility: teaching; meetings; emails; more emails; more teaching; more meetings; induction sessions; information sessions; administration; more administration; and more emails. Most of these things are genuinely important. Many of them are individually satisfying. Some of them, in isolation, wouldn’t be too much of a problem to deal with quickly and efficiently. All of them, generally, I engage in with good will and a sense of collegial obligation. The problem is, they can easily develop into a perfect storm that gobbles up all the available hours of the day.

See the Centre for the History of the Book, University of Edinburgh

From the Centre for the History of the Book, University of Edinburgh

Where to put thinking, let alone writing, in all the resulting hurly-burly? After all, a university is a special place for teaching (and learning) because – in theory – the teachers are engaged actively in building the knowledge they are imparting. Certainly in humanities departments we’re not simply delivering information, we’re modelling the art of critical engagement with material. To do that well, I need to be practising it myself, otherwise it’s a grade A case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’. Ironically, this week I had to give a lecture on research skills to a group of undergraduates and I made a particular point of arguing that simply rushing about gathering information, downloading articles, taking notes, and ‘doing’ things, is unimportant if one doesn’t also take the time to process that information intellectually; really to reflect on it, absorb it and evaluate it. In the course of preparing and delivering this lecture, I suddenly realized just how important (and difficult) it is to make the space, and the time, in a busy academic life for this core work of academia to take place.

So this week, when I arrived at my office and for the first time in four weeks had no meetings, tutorials, information sessions, seminars or any other obligation in my calendar, I decided to take radical action. I went off-piste and turned off the computer at the wall. This simple action had a number of intended benefits, and unexpected ones. In the first place, I didn’t have email binging every few minutes, bringing with it that indiscriminate sense of something needing to be done, acted on, responded to, irrespective of its relevance to me or its importance in my life. By turning it off, rather than just closing down email, I was also protected from my own addict’s impulse to seek out the perverse validation that new email can provide of one’s existence, importance, involvement in events. The particular unexpected benefit was the relative quiet that descended in the room. It was as if the hum of the hard-drive’s fan had been subconsciously pressurizing my mind. By turning it off, I made space for thinking to occur. I read a whole chapter of a book, took notes, reflected, and drew an enormous mind-map on my white board (I have my own white board!) for the chapter I’m currently revising. It felt good. I’m going to do that again. I might even try to make it a weekly thing…

Now, how to deal with the irony of programming my online calendar to remind me that it’s a ‘no computer research day’?!

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I teach and research at the Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies in the School of Philosophical, Historial and International Studies, Monash University (Australia). Views expressed here are my own and not representative of the CMRS, SOPHIS or Monash.

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Twitter: @KB_Neal

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