The PhD Diaries #5: A Nod to the Past & A Glimpse of the Future

New year, new goals!

And one big note to self: Stop taking yourself so damn seriously all the time. I was skim reading through a stack of women and leadership material today, trying to get back into the groove of proper 8-hour workdays and seeing if there was anything useful in a book I’d put down sometime in early December with good intentions to revisit (yet happily ignored for a month), and I read this line: “We watch ourselves watching ourselves,” and I thought ‘huh, that's cool’ and then promptly kept reading. About 20 minutes and another coffee later I had one of those epiphanic moments seem to happen every now and again. I scrawled the statement down with a slight adjustment: “I watch myself watching myself,” and as a side note, “e.g. own harshest critic.” While watching myself and anticipating and processing my interactions with others is a vital part of developing self-consciousness, on reflection, overdoing this activity (for me at least) can sometimes lead to paralysing self-criticism because I over-anticipate or over-interpret beyond what is reasonable. And I did it an awful lot last year, probably because of the heightened levels of uncertainty and anxiety associated with starting something new and difficult. But it’s a new year, and since I have been pre-conditioned by a lifetime of tradition to symbolically leave the past year behind and look at the new one as a beautiful blank slate I will endeavour to spend less time in my head imagining all the ways others might be seeing me (but really, how I see myself seeing myself) and getting all knotted up with irrational worries, and instead, invest more effort into becoming a more thoughtful and engaged listener and speaker (I'm reading a lot on Bakhtin and dialogism at the moment - and it is topic I will explore in a lot more depth, along with its implications for my work, in the next post).

But before moving properly and fully into 2018, I want pat myself on the back for giving 2017 my best effort. Despite a few sluggish moments, I achieved the following:

  • Co-wrote and edited an article which has been accepted into a prestigious academic journal (I think it will be published this March)
  • Received a revise and resubmit on another academic article
  • Applied for and was accepted into the University of Auckland doctoral programme
  • Prepped and delivered four lectures and one workshop (three at the University of Auckland and two at Massey University)
  • Marked assignments and exams for two papers
  • Completed the Graduate Teaching programme
  • Completed the Advanced Qualitative Research course with an A+
  • Read over 70 books (this tally doesn’t include all the texts read for university research work)
  • Started a book club (we read and discussed five books in 2017)
  • Moved house
  • Had a proper holiday break over Christmas (this is an achievement for me – I’m really, really bad at having guilt-free breaks and usually take on extra work over summer)

There were two things on my 2017 goals list which I didn’t quite manage to tick off, the first of which was attending regular yoga sessions. I went sporadically over the year, but definitely not twice a week as per my goal (and a repeat goal for this year). I also wanted to do a creative writing course, but given the amount of work demanded by the PhD I shelved that idea, and will probably keep it tucked away for the time being (not forgotten though! If academia is not for me I could always be a novelist, right?).

Reading – A Year in Review

2017 was my most impressive reading year yet. But for all of that, I didn’t quite reach my (overly) ambitious goal of 80 books (this goal excluded nonfiction reading for university). But I did manage to read 65 books in full, re-read 5 novels (mostly for book club), and skimmed about 5 for a total of 75 books.

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The Basic Breakdown

Nonfiction: 12

Novels: 57

Short story collections: 6

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Female author: 69

Male author: 6 (sorry not sorry)

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Most Read Authors

Ursula K. Le Guin (5)

Margaret Atwood (3)

Octavia E. Butler (3)

Amy Tan (3)

The Novel Which Deserves to Be Read Twice (at least)

The Power by Naomi Alderman

I picked up this novel last February and devoured it, but when I re-read it again in August and discussed it with The Alcove Book Club it left an even stronger impression. The story follows a plethora of characters in what is easily recognizable as our present-day world but with one small twist – girls are suddenly in possession of a new ‘power’ which gives them a physical edge over men. Often unsettling (there are some very graphic scenes) and deeply confronting, the novel is concerned both with disturbing how we commonly think about gender in Western society and questioning the very nature of power itself – who has it, how do you get it, and what does it do to you (and others) once you’ve got it? Would women lead differently from men? Or is it the very structures and institutions which govern our society which are the real problem? If so, can they be changed? And how? Or is humanity basically f*cked? As a group, we followed Naomi Alderman’s advice to imagine what it would be like if we could electrocute people. As she says, imagining won’t hurt anyone, but it did give us the opportunity to think and play with idea of how we might act or be differently in the world if we had the capacity to physically overpower others (aka men) at will. I see so much future potential for this novel in my work.

My Favourite Essay Collection of the Year

Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin is an author who makes my heart happy. She is insightful, wise, humble, kind, outspoken, strong, and brave. She writes her essays in a way that makes you feel like you’re sitting down to have a conversation and cup of tea with a dear and wise friend. For example, in her opening piece of the collection Le Guin (2016) writes: “Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. Music, dance, visual arts, crafts of all kinds, all are central to human development and well-being, and no art or skill is ever useless learning; but to train the mind to take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and new strength, nothing quite equals poem and story” (p. 4). If one day I was even half as eloquent and elegant as Le Guin I would be content.

Books I Read in a Single Day Even Though I Had Many Other Things To Do Which Means They Must Be Good

Where the Past Begins by Amy Tan

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

Women and Power by Mary Beard

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamind

Other Best Books of the Year Which I Would Recommend to Almost Everyone (Except Your Conservative Friends)

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Only Book that Made Me Cry Real Tears

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

The Best Finds for My PhD

Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by the most wonderful and clever Octavia E. Butler (when a novel from the late-nineties has a US President in it who goes around saying that he will “make America great again” but it's a novel that's written by a feminist you know you’re on to a good thing. I’m about to set out on a re-read of these novels so I’ll write a longer exposition on the series soon).

The Book I Wanted to Love but Had to Give Up Because I Still Can’t Take Vampires Seriously

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

That Classic I’ve Always Been Meaning to Read

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Dated but still worth the effort. As one of the first women to write about an all-female utopia/dystopia, you could call Charlotte Perkins Gilman one of the Mothers of the feminist speculative fiction genre).

The Book Which Had the Best Premise But Failed to Deliver

The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall (A could-almost-be-real dystopian England? Check. The promise of a spunky and interesting protagonist? Check. A female-run community and army tucked away in the hillside? Check. A decent plot and realistic character development? No such luck).

The Most Surprising and Gratifying Visit to My Personal Bookshelf

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (I picked up this book for $8 in a Book Depository sale at least two years ago without knowing much about the story or the author. It was gathering dust until, desperate for a quick beach read before New Years, I grabbed it from the shelf. The Best Decision).

Reading My Way Through 2018

I know I’m going to be incredibly preoccupied with proposals and literature reviews and all that ethics stuff over the coming months, but I plan to keep reading voraciously. During my holiday I dedicated a couple of afternoons to exploring book blogs and websites (like LitHub, The Electric, and The Guardian) and updating my to-read list on Goodreads. This careful scouting and review reading is well worth the time. When I started my Masters I had very little idea of how to distinguish or even find (barring the major prizes) well-written and high quality women’s literature apart from physically getting the book and then reading it. Now, I have special skills.

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In terms of forthcoming publications, my number one pick for 2018 is Circe by Madeline Miller, a retelling of the mythological life of the witch Circe from Homer’s Odyssey. I loved Miller’s rendition of the story of Achilles and Patroclus in The Song of Achilles (which won the Orange Prize for Fiction), so when I heard she was writing a novel of a similar style, but featuring a cast of dynamic female characters, I was (and still am) enthralled. In March, Meg Woltizer (a contemporary feminist writer) is also releasing a potentially thought-provoking work – The Female Persuasion, perhaps this generation’s The Women’s Room? The description gives off the sense that the novel will be deeply engaged with current feminist thought and attitudes. While I haven’t been particularly impressed with Wolitzer’s novels in the past (saying that, I have only read The Ten-Year Nap in full), this story could be engaging, especially since its central themes purport to be power and influence, womanhood and ambition.

I plan to spend more time with nonfiction this year. This month, Zadie Smith’s essay collection Feel Free comes out, and I am also fascinated to read I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell, and of course, Le Guin’s newest collection of essays titled No Time To Spare: Thinking About What Matters.

Coming via airmail from Book Depository are the last two books in Le Guin’s Earthsea series, The Other Wind and Tales from Earthsea. Le Guin wrote the series over a long time period (1968 – 2002), and what makes it so fascinating to read today is that you can trace the evolution of her thought, particularly her feminism, as it reveals itself over a lifetime of writing and thinking. Fascinating. Mitchel has made it a goal to read all the Man Booker and Pulitzer prizewinning novels over the next 10-20 years (some 100 books in all). He’s made a good start with the Pulitzer’s but has only read one Man Booker prize winner (The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton) so I have just ordered Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders for him. Based on his evaluation I might give it a go (or not; we’ll see!). I also splurged a bit ($35 on a single paperback book is a splurge for me) by buying Sara Ahmed’s new book called Living a Feminist Life. Ahmed is a writer and former academic (she resigned from her academic post in 2016 in protest of alleged sexual harassment of students by staff at the university) who blogs about feminism, queer theory, post colonialism (among other topics) on her personal website feministkilljoys. I try (a lot of emphasis on try) to live a feminist life, and I suppose I want to try harder, hence the purchase of this book.

At the local library I’ve placed on hold The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell (I love reading nonfiction books about people reading, writing and selling books. It’s bliss), along with the very popular and well-reviewed Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (I think I’m placed about 180 in a que of over 400). I was having a browse through Roxane Gay’s (author of Bad Feminist and Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body) Tumblr the other day and she recommended a dystopian speculative fiction novel I’d not come across yet – The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Ellison. I’ve also just picked up The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemison, a Hugo Award winning novel. I’m only a quarter of the way in but I’m hooked! It’s wonderfully engrossing and captivating, and it may even be suitable for my work.

Last night I got out all my Bakhtin books, such as The Dialogic Imagination, and commentary – I’ve been intending to start properly researching his work for a few weeks now as I plan to use it as part of my methodology, but it is heavy stuff! I think I only managed to read 20 pages of a commentary piece over the course of 90 minutes last night. But I am determined!

This Tightrope Which is My Home

I won’t lie and say that I’m bursting with excitement about the coming year. I have energy, yes, but it’s tempered with what is probably (hopefully) a healthy dose of trepidation. I am looking forward too many things – reading and analysing the novels, getting the formal book clubs underway, collecting data (I hope!), learning, writing, researching and so on. Still, it is all so new and more than a little scary. I think what scares me the most is not so much the actual doing of things, but rather the fear that people won’t see any value in what I’m doing or won’t see me as a serious researcher (again, this is the classic watching myself watch myself). Balancing on the tightrope which spans the distance between the arts and business schools feels a precarious undertaking. On the one hand, I could be producing a bastardised version of literary analysis which everyone in an English department would scorn. On the other, it could be too abstract or 'artsy' for management, too different or unusable in a practical educational and developmental sense. So sometimes when I talk about my work and ideas it is in an almost apologetic tone: ‘Oh, it won’t make much difference,’ ‘It’s not really anything important. I’m almost indulging myself by being here.’ 

In a workshop I attended last year run by Professor Nancy Adler (whom I greatly admire), she asked us to contemplate our compassionate outrage and compassionate commitment. One of the questions Adler asked was: If I allowed myself to care about the world what would I do? What would I commit to? I've been thinking about this a lot while I've been holidaying and the answer - even as I've grappled with it mightily - always comes back to "it's definitely this." When I think of all the things that make me feel compassionate outrage, such as the lack of women in leadership, popular social media movements like Women Against Feminism, the general lack of knowledge and inability/tools to name and understand the issues and factors which shape the experiences of women and girls, patriarchal power structures, and so on, I remember why I’m on this path. It may only be a small thing, a tiny thing really, but it still matters.