Reflections

PhD Reflections/Tips After Year 1

Row of Books in Shelf

I recently completed my first year of a PhD in French. There are two major reasons why I have decided to post the following reflections/tips.

First, I believe that it is healthy to reflect periodically on one’s progress when undergoing a long-term project.

Second, my reflections may help current and prospective graduate students who come across my blog.

Reflections/Tips

Now on to the reflections. I have made a list of 10 PhD-related things that I have discovered about myself and about graduate school in the past year. All tips are inspired by personal experience:

1) Being a PhD student is very much like being a wannabe actor who has recently moved to Los Angeles, California. The odds of “making it” are slim but thousands of us try every year. PhD students and newbie actors are in their industries for one single reason: they love what they do.

2) Constructive criticism is so valuable. Most professors (across institutions) do not grade term papers, so take seriously any constructive feedback you receive. Constructive criticism from a professor who has taken the time to read and mark up a paper should be received with gratitude.

3) On the flip-side, nonconstructive criticism is not only demotivating but also utterly useless. Try to ignore anyone who criticizes you or your work without telling you how you can improve. They are not worth your time or mental energy. They don’t care about your success.

4) Make friends with the other PhD students in your program. Support each other. You are all in this together.

5) If you have been following my blog in the past year, you will be familiar with the following advice: Academic writing IS your job. This is especially true if you are in the humanities or the social sciences. Start thinking of yourself as a writer because you are one.

6) You are an apprentice learning a craft, not an artist trying to harness a Muse. In popular imagination, the image of an apprentice evokes practice and determination. The image of an artist, on the other hand, evokes a born genius who effortlessly produces one masterpiece after another while sipping a latte at Starbucks. The apprentice takes concrete steps to improve her craft. She knows that a poorly-constructed table is not a reflection on her character, and that practice means progress. For more on this, check out Joli Jensen’s excellent book Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics (I also made a video about it here).

7) Participate regularly in activities that take you outside of the academic bubble. You need frequent reminder that there is a world outside of academia and that this world can be just as fulfilling as the one in academia.

8) Mental health matters.

9) Attend local conferences in your field even if you are not presenting. You will learn a lot and meet other academics.

10) When a family member asks you what you study, try to explain. The act of trying to explain what you do to someone outside of academia will teach you a lot about yourself and the importance of your work for wider society. What you study matters, so share it.

Satire

Review of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

And now for something completely different.

Image result for sense and sensibility and sea monsters

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Jane Austen and Ben Winters is published by Quirk Books, the same publisher that put out Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. If you have been following me for a while, you probably know that Jane Austen and I don’t get along. I have tried to get into her works, but both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility have bored me to tears. I thought reading the latter next to the Niagara Falls would spice up the reading experience. The woman who lent me her copy told me that she had reread Sense and Sensibility at least five times! What?! I don’t understand. It took me a month to finish the work.

But man-eating sea monsters can make even the most boring of works exciting. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters keeps the general plot of the Austen novel (and around 60% of the original lines) while terrorizing the reader with highly-enhanced sea creatures. Lobsters lop off heads and German shepherd-sized hermit crabs crush bones to powder. There are even pirates in this book.

At the start of the novel, John Dashwood’s father Henry is devoured by a hermit crab. Before breathing his last, Henry bequeaths his house to his son but insists that John’s half sisters and step mother get a share of the inheritance. Consequently, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, and Mrs. Dashwood are sent to live near Sir John and his indigenous wife Lady Middleton in a rickety shack by the sea.

If you are squeamish, this is definitely not the book for you. Ben Winters revels in violence and gore.

Despite the obvious silliness, the novel offers a refreshing perspective on Regency England. Sir John is an explorer, who massacred an entire population of indigenous people. Lady Middleton and her mother Mrs. Jennings were the only two women on the island whom Sir John spared. Many reviewers on Goodreads are appalled by this flippant treatment of genocide, but disregard for the lives of anyone not upper class and white is a running theme in the novel. The Dashwood sisters chat nonchalantly about their love interests  while servants are devoured before their very eyes. I believe that Winters pokes fun at these atrocities to draw attention to the social and racial inequalities of Austen’s England. In Winters’ novel polite society is built on the backs of the oppressed.

I understand why most Jane Austen fans dislike Winters’ book. It reads like a satire of the original. But I admit that Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters appealed to me largely because I found Austen’s work so frustratingly cloying. I wish I could appreciate Jane Austen’s social commentaries. I wish I could care about the men and women in her novels.

Maybe Northanger Abbey will appeal to me, since it is a satire on gothic conventions.

Maybe.

I obviously prefer to read classics in the original, but if I dislike one – especially a well-known classic – I will seek out a parody of it. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters was a good palate cleaners.

Religious Texts

The Female Experience in a 16th C. Play

Image result for sarah and hagar 1500
The Story of Abraham (1543), Georg Pencz

Circa 1500, a 50,000 line play appeared called Le Mistére du Viel Testament [The Mystery of the Old Testament]. Although it has never been translated into modern French (let alone English), it appears to have influenced a few 16th century playwrights. I recently finished reading the section on Abraham because I am writing a term paper on Theodore Beza’s 1550 play Abraham Sacrifiant.

I was particularly struck by the female representation in the Viel Testament version of Isaac’s birth. Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant, gets a surprising amount of attention in the play. Although God promises to care for Hagar and Ishamael in the Biblical story, the Viel Testament Hagar demonstrates more agency than in the original. After Isaac is born, Hagar repeatedly asks Abraham to remember the promise he made to her and her son. Classism is also evoked in the play. Abraham and Sarah try to silence Hagar by bringing up her social class.

Abraham: “c’est ma femme, /Qui doit estre maistresse et dame,/ Et vous sa simple serviteure” [My wife must be mistress and lady, and you her simple servant.]

But later, Abraham allows Hagar back into his home and promises to care for Ishamel. When Sarah finally becomes pregnant at the end of the play, Hagar offers to help her deliver Isaac. She also comforts Sarah, who fears the pain of childbirth:

Sarah: “Bien, m’ayme, vous me ayderez,/ Car je craing la douleur terrible” [I would definitely like you to help me, because I fear the terrible pain].

After Isaac’s birth, Sarah is relieved that she will no longer experience societal shame:

 Sarah: “Et plus en la communite/ N’auray de brehaine l’injure” [And in the community, I  will no longer be insulted for being barren]

Even though this play is terribly obscure, I couldn’t help but share a few passages with you because it is rare to find medieval and Renaissance texts that mention the female experience.

I hope to read the other sections of the play in the future. Evidently, Le Viel Testament describes the deaths of Adam and Eve, as well as the fall of Lucifer. Sounds intriguing!

Miscellaneous

Twitter for Academics

Woman in White Long Sleeved Shirt Holding a Pen Writing on a PaperStill alive, just crazy busy!

I am currently participating in a game of “How many pages can you write in two weeks?”, which will be followed by a Master’s exam. I already have one Master’s degree, but hey, why not get another one? Right? In my program, the MA exam is basically a preliminary qualifying exam that we all take at the end of our first year.

For the past few months, Academic Twitter has not only helped me get through the insanity, it has also demystified academia for me. Many of my favorite accounts share academic writing tips.

Here are some of my favorite Twitter accounts:

Medieval (not strictly for academics)
Medieval Manuscripts (@BLMedieval): Not strictly for academics. Shares pictures of medieval manuscripts from the British Library.

Discarding Images (@discarding_imgs): Wacky, outrageous, and sometimes inappropriate medieval manuscript art. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of medieval marginalia!

Damien Kempf (@DamienKempf): The wackiest, most inappropriate marginalia art of the Middle Ages can be found here 😛

For PhDs and Early Career Academics
Write that PhD (@WriteThatPhD): Do you have questions about academic writing and/or publishing? Look no further.

Dr Raul Pacheco-Vega (@raulpacheco): I couldn’t more highly recommend Dr. Pacheco-Vega’s Twitter account. He posts and shares excellent tips for PhD students and early career academics. His blog is also fantastic.

Writing For Research (@Write4Research): All about that academic writing. Prof. Dunleavy also has a blog.

Shit Academics Say (@AcademicsSay): If you’ve never heard of this Twitter or Facebook account and you are in graduate school, where have you been? It’s here to give you your snarky-pessimism fix for the day.

Inside Higher Ed (@insidehighered): Lots of useful information here. Unfortunately, some articles are behind a paywall.

For Wasting Time
PHD Comics (@PHDcomics): Read moderately! The comics just never get old. In my opinion, the second film was way better than the first one they made.

Hashtags
#AcWri
#phdchat
#phdadvice
#phdlife

I could name many more, but these are my favorite Twitter accounts. If you are in graduate school or are an academic, what are yours?

Miscellaneous

Book Buying Fail!

At the end of last year, I set myself a book buying challenge. I can only buy ONE book after I have read 5 books I already own (that are not school-related). I was quite good for the past few months, but I have bought three books in the past couple weeks that are not school related.

I’m torn between being slightly angry with myself for buying more than one book and somewhat understanding about the decision I made.

I realized earlier today that I am more likely to buy books if I’ve spent more than fifteen minutes in a bookstore. I feel obligated to buy a book to explain my presence in the bookstore.

Is that an excuse? Kind of.

Now that I know why I made the decisions I made, I will limit my bookshop visits to under fifteen minutes. I love browsing, but I haven’t felt an urge to buy books in months.

I am going to continue with this challenge. I could make myself read six more books I own before buying one new book, but I won’t. I don’t need any more stress in my life (school guys!).

Anyway, here are the three books I bought:

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire
Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (The Wicked Years, #1)

Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Kintu

Shahnameh: The Book of Kings by Ferdowsi (Trans. Dick Davis)
Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings

These are all books that I look forward to reading even though I also need to stick to my buying goals.

Philosophy

Thoughts on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

Image result for the nicomachean ethics oxford

I am currently doing a project that requires some background knowledge of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Instead of giving you a summary (because that would take too long), I thought I’d mention what stood out to me in the work.

The Nicomachean Ethics (c. 300 BCE) is roughly divided into four sections: Virtue, Justice, Pleasure, and Friendship. Aristotle’s greatest contribution to the West is arguably in the area of virtue ethics, although his Metaphysics and Politics were also influential. I decided to do my project on the Ethics because it’s a work that I have wanted to read ever since I finished The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I am fascinated by studies on habit formation. Graduate school should be about reading difficult things, so I often choose to do my term papers on texts that I have been putting off reading.

On to the book…

Moral Virtue
I love that Aristotle defines virtue as an action. It’s not an intention or a feeling. Virtuous people ACT virtuously. Although moral virtue has a natural component, it is mostly the result of habit. If you want to be courageous, you have to practice acting courageously by taking on projects that make you uncomfortable. According to Aristotle, true philosophers are not merely theoreticians. They walk the walk too.

Aristotle argues that all humans seek the good because it brings them happiness. We do everything for happiness, but not all actions can make us truly happy. Every virtue involves choice and is the mean of two extremes. The middle-path can be difficult to discern, but it leads to the greatest happiness.

There were a few things, however, that put me off to Aristotle’s teachings in this section. First, love is not listed as one of the moral virtues. Second, pride is described as the root of all virtue (!). And finally, men alone have the capacity to be virtuous. When Aristotle says “men”, he means men. Women are described as under-developed men (lovely, I know).

Justice
Unfortunately, the only notes I made in my book on this topic concern teachings that I dislike. Aristotle thinks that fathers cannot act unjustly toward their children because offspring are the equivalent of a “man’s chattel” until they can live on their own.

He also does some victim-blaming in the subsection on anger. An angry man is less guilty than the one who provoked his anger: “[F]or it is not the man who acts in anger but he who enraged him that starts the mischief”. Still, it is worth pointing out yet again that justice is not an inner disposition but an action. I’m sure Aristotle addresses political justice in more depth in The Politics.

Pleasure
This is arguably the most confusing section of the book. The end-notes of my Oxford World’s Classics edition describes the scholarly confusion surrounding Aristotle’s teaching on incontinence. I did, however, gather a few things from this section.

Only humans are capable of being continent because only humans have the capacity for universal judgement. Men become incontinent when sleep, anger, or alcohol impede their judgment. Incontinence, like vice, is an excess. I appreciated that Aristotle didn’t try to address a myriad of individual cases, but admitted that many situations require discernment.

Pleasure
Aristotle is not opposed to pleasure. In fact, he thinks it’s impossible for a person to be happy while experiencing torture (against the Stoics).

Those who say that the victim on the rack or the man who falls into great misfortunes is happy if he is good are, whether they mean to or not, talking nonsense.

I agree. I can certainly see people acting courageously in difficult situations, but they aren’t happy.

Pleasure is not evil in itself because “all things have by nature something divine in them”. Pleasure only leads to vice if it is taken to an extreme. Only if pleasure obstructs a person’s ability to reason or to behave temperately is it harmful.

Friendship
This is, hands-down, my favorite section of the book. Aristotle defines a friend as a second self. For a man to be happy, he needs friends because humans are meant for community. Consequently, a healthy state functions as a kind of friendship between the leader and the people. In the 16th century, Montaigne will disagree that any kind of friendship can exist in a hierarchical relationship, but Aristotle things that equality does not necessarily mean that everyone should be treated in the same way. While I am more inclined to agree with Montaigne’s definition of equality, I appreciate the communal/political dimension Aristotle gives to the concept of friendship. He makes it clear that friendship requires justice. It is justice that creates equality in a hierarchical relationship.

Reciprocity is central to a good friendship. Bad friends only care about what they can get from another person. They are compared to tyrants who use others for their own benefit. The best friendship is between two virtuous men, but all true friendships are pleasurable and good.

Parting Thoughts
In the 16th century, Michel de Montaigne will develop Aristotle’s teachings on friendship in his essay “Of Friendship“.  This beautiful meditation is inspired by Montaigne’s life-long friendship to Etienne de La Boétie.

Aristotle is at his best when he makes general observations about human behavior. If you are interested in habit formation or virtue ethics, I recommend The Nicomachean Ethics. It is a good place to begin.

Classics Club Events

My Spin Pick

British Library
Source: British Library

So the Classics Club Spin number has been announced. 3

I will be reading Piers the Plowman by William Langland. Here is what Goodreads has to say about it:

Astonishing in its cultural and theological scope, William Langland’s iconoclastic masterpiece is at once a historical relic and a deeply spiritual vision, probing not only the social and religious aristocracy but also the day-to-day realities of a largely voiceless proletariat class.

This is a phenomenal opportunity to learn more about the predominantly illiterate medieval worker class and their struggles. I look forward to reading it.