Salute to Sisyphus, Part I

On 1 August 2006, I sat for and failed to clear a viva voce examination for a PhD. I had hoped to write a very different blog on the subject, but as it is, such outcomes can never be determined. Failing to attain a qualification for which you worked six years for is a blow — there is no denying that — but it also threw into relief what I’d lost and gained in the last six years.

I embarked on an academic career some six to ten years ago, not so much to become a university professor, but as a means to finding myself. How trite that sounds now. Having dabbled in copywriting for commercial advertising and the corporate life, it didn’t take long for me to realise that a life without a BMW wasn’t punishment enough for me to go down that route. At the same time, job prospects for university professors, even back then, ranged from challenging to dismal (and there’s nothing I can add here that the Invisible Adjunct hasn’t already said). Nevertheless, like a lot of students who embark on a PhD, I started off by wanting to change the world. However, that enthusiasm soon wore thin, not because I no longer believed in what I was researching and writing (I’m still hopeful that I’ve something important to say), but because of the need to find a way to finance that writing and research, as well as, banally, to put food on the table, keep a roof over my head, and not shove my parents further into the red. This blog entry is my attempt to work out the time line that seems less linear than inclined; like Sisyphus, I seem now to be standing at the peak watching the rock roll down the hill.

In sheer resistance and defiance at having to do the GRE and TOEFL to enter an American university, and well as to have to pay for the privilege of applying, I sent my applications to institutions in Canada and the UK. Two Canadian universities and one UK university did not reply; one Canadian university said my work was not of sufficient standard; one UK university accepted my application but could not offer any funding; and the last UK university offered not funding, but an option to register part-time for a period, while remaining in my home country. Eager to begin the work of changing the world, I accepted the compromise and worked my way through four part-time jobs simultaneously over three years to fund a PhD I didn’t have the time nor the energy to read for, much less write.

In the third year, I decided, enough was enough. With the help of a modest savings plan, my parents, and a small loan against my life insurance policies, I found my way to England. There I was offered a half-fee scholarship in exchange for teaching some classes. I was under no illusion that this was a handout of any kind: the amount of funding my courses were bring into the department in terms of student enrolment far exceeded what they were foregoing in my fees, but I did it because paying half the fee is better than paying the whole fee, and I told myself that the teaching experience was going to be valuable. No matter that I was the only graduate student I knew of who was developing, teaching, running and marking two original courses by herself, in addition to two other courses I was also developing, teaching, running and marking for an adult education centre. We were back to the magical number four, but home or away, I still had to put food on the table, keep a roof over my head, and not shove my parents further into the red. Déjà vu was fast becoming déjà fait. And I haven’t even included the other peripheral jobs, like brailling (converting printed text into Braille) and invigilating exams. If my language abilities had been better, I dare say I might have added waitressing at the local Chinese restaurant to the list.

I was, however, continuing to publish academic papers. Three papers came out in the first year of being in England, a textbook in the second and three more articles are awaiting publication from the third. How did I do all that with only 24 hours in a day? I really don’t know. I look back on the time and see someone else. In the meantime, the thesis proper was floundering. I had the inkling of an idea I was trying to hook onto but the line kept sinking each time. I was afraid my premises were unsound, my methodology untenable and the scope of the project completely unrealistic. In my world-changing mode, I was trying to take on four major humanities disciplines at the same time. But I didn’t know how to scale back, how to make the project more manageable. Unlike in America, PhD students in the UK are left to do ‘independent research’ — there are no committees, and no review panels, just you and your supervisor in the writing stage and you and the examiners in the defence stage. Each emphasises a different values system: one places its faith in institutional procedure, the other in individual integrity — it didn’t prevent me from feeling that the latter most resembled Russian roulette.

End of Part I. On to Part II.

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