Wednesday, 30 April 2014


So, I was going to leave talking about graduation ceremonies and why I don't like them until I was due to graduate (which is to say, July), but then I realised that putting up a blog post saying GRADUATION IS BAD AND YOU SHOULDN'T GO right as people are actually graduating might be construed as sneering or otherwise unpleasant. So, you get it now instead ;)

I will not be attending my PhD graduation, and there are several reasons for this, most of which are personal to me. At least one is a more general criticism of the modern style of ceremony, and I'll get to that in a minute, but I want to start by saying this: your graduation is a celebration of your achievement, and if you want to celebrate your achievement that way, go to.

In some ways, the biggest reason I'm not going to my graduation (and that I didn't go to my undergrad ceremony either) is that I don't like wearing a suit and generally dislike formal celebrations anyway. That's not how I prefer to have my achievements celebrated. Particularly with something as individual and niche as a PhD, I found a much more satisfying celebration to be going to lunch after my final examination with my two examiners and my supervisor. Your mileage may vary.

The big problem I see with the modern graduation ceremony, particularly in evidence during my MA graduation (the only one I've actually attended), is the factory-assembly-line quality of it. Graduands queue up at one side of the stage, are released one at a time to walk across, receive their handshake and their stamp of approval, and disappear again, now certified graduates. At my MA graduation, the presiding university official (who was some sort of deputy-pro-vice-mini-chancellor) hadn't even bothered to learn his 'I admit you to the degree of...' lines and was reading them from a card cupped in the palm of his hand.

If this sounds a little bit Marxist, it's fair to say that it probably is. This is about as close as I get to true Marxism. I'm not sure I buy the line that all our systems of formal education have been designed to stamp out good capitalist workers, but I certainly felt that way as I stood in my prescribed uniform (which was given one last check-over before I was allowed onto the stage) and marched to the precisely-calculated script and blocking that would get two hundred students through the ceremony in the allotted two hours (or whatever the numbers were).

And it's particularly galling to see this at a university level. University is supposed to be about education that allows and encourages people to flourish in their own right and way. It's about individual effort, innovation and thought. It shouldn't just be viewed as a 'better job ticket' (particularly since, these days, there are so few graduate jobs that it really isn't a better job ticket). There should be more to celebrating a degree than just a handshake and a certificate.

I would much prefer graduation ceremonies to be smaller, maybe having each department or even each course have its own small ceremony. This way, graduands would be celebrated by people who knew them, knew the character and value of their achievements, and understood their work. Graduates might even be given the chance to speak, briefly, about their university experiences both in and out of the classroom. Perhaps it would cost too much money (though universities must spend quite a lot on graduation as it is), but that's the kind of graduation I'd be interested in going to.

Again, though, these are just my feelings on the matter, and because I hate formal celebrations and formal wear, there's nothing for me in the other column. Ultimately, this is an aesthetic problem - a problem of appearance, style and manner - rather than an ethical one. Going to a graduation ceremony doesn't endorse the industrialisation of universities, necessarily. It just resembles it, and that's what I don't like.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

A creature of habit

The next episode of The Second Realm still has no release date. What this means, really, is that I've been a laughably ineffectual writer over the last four months, and it's time to make some excuses...

The essence of my problem has been disorganisation. By preference, I'm a creature of habit - I like being able to know a week in advance where I'll be at any given moment. I thrive when I can take a few minutes on a Sunday afternoon to run down the coming week, see where my fixed commitments are, and fit all my creative activities around them.

This helps me focus my otherwise rather hyperacSQUIRREL (why is it always a squirrel?). This helps me focus my otherwise rather hyperactive and distractible brain to the project I want to work on next as I'm winding up to it. It helps me maintain the essential habit of writing (which doesn't necessarily mean writing every day, but it does mean writing often enough to keep momentum up). It also helps me manage my own psychology, by giving me at least the illusion that I control my life (you'd think our secret reptilian overlords would be more helpful in that regard, but I've yet to hear from them).

Anyway, organisation since Christmas has been in short supply. All my employment plans were rather drastically shaken-up at the end of the Christmas break; one of my employers decided they didn't have money to pay me for this term's work and so let me off all my obligations to them until September, and the other switched me from the reliable, stable client I'd been working with for a year and a half to a new client who was... I really can't call it anything nicer than 'chaotic at best'.

This meant less money and thus more stress, but the real problem was just that often I couldn't know even an hour in advance where I was going to need to be. Many times I made the 40-minute journey to work (which is actually a half-hour journey but I tend to err drastically on the side of caution), only to stand around waiting for the client for my contractually-mandated 15 minutes and come home. Once I got a cancellation message for a 9AM meeting with the client at 4AM the same morning.

So while the repeated cancellations did technically mean more free time, I spent a lot of it commuting unnecessarily and the rest of it not really knowing whether I was coming or going. There was also the small matter of stumbling my way into a new relationship, which was and is great but relationships are and should be largely spontaneous, which is to say not organised.

The upshot of which is I've done about half as much writing, about half as well, as I would have liked. The frustration from that, combined with all the other stresses which come from uncertain employment, left me possibly more fatigued at Easter than I've ever been before. Still, the wondrous freedom of summer is just around the corner and things should get better from here on out. Or at least if they don't, it will probably be my fault rather than the cruel whims of fate...

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Things that are finally over...

I promise, after this, I've only got one more post to do where I'm griping about my doctorate...

In happier news, it is at least over. I've just had the email from my internal examiner confirming that I have made the requested alterations to my thesis and am now free to deposit it in the university library's collection of theses, whereupon I will be eligible for graduation in July.


It's been over five years since I began the application process. I usually reckon that it's at about the five-year mark that my past decisions start to look unintelligible to me, the point where I start to ask 'Did I ever really think like that?'.

Weirdly, I can believe that I once thought my PhD would be important, because I'm in the habit by now of assuming I was stupid until quite recently. It took me about the first year or so of the PhD until I realised that it would make very little difference to anyone at all. Fortunately, a handful of months later I decided to try my hand at NaNoWriMo (because, y'know, that's the obvious thing to do in the middle of doctoral studies), and that rather answered my questions about where I was going with my life.

I don't want to say that there was no value to my doing a PhD. Not only has it given me space to practice my writing, but I had to grow up a lot - get a job, learn to budget, learn to actually stick to a budget etc. - to get this far. The job I got, as it happens, is about as good a day-job as I can imagine for a writer to have (I take notes on lectures for students with disabilities, which coincidentally means getting loads of free lectures about interesting things, which I can then stick in my books to sound clever).

And it's certainly true, too, that I had to push myself intellectually, occasionally. I had to become conversant in terms like 'graph-theoretic causal structuralism' and 'realist nomological thesis'. Unfortunately, becoming conversant in something kind of entails living in a world in which it's common and significant enough to converse about.

Doing a PhD messes with your brain; yesterday, I got very angry reading an article in New Scientist magazine in which a physicist claimed to have a particular new insight about the nature of consciousness. The physicist in question had either not read or not understood Thomas Nagel's seminal 1974 paper 'What Is it Like to Be a Bat?', and I got angry enough about this that my mood was spoiled for the next six hours or more. While it's true that anyone writing on consciousness without having read and understood Nagel is a fool, I rather feel that I've been the bigger fool in this instance... ¬.¬

Anyway, that is the essence of why I'm celebrating my PhD being over, rather than celebrating my becoming a doctor. I have the chance, finally, to restore my priorities to something resembling those of a reasonable human being with some connection to reality.

Okay, full disclosure, the reality my priorities are likely to connect to is Azeroth, but that's still a step up from graph-theoretic causal structuralism, take it from me.