Après l’éclipse: Sisyphus goes on strike

Whatever I expected from the solar eclipse, I didn’t expect this.

I have been putting off the revision of an article for weeks. It is due to the journal at the end of the month. As I opened it on my computer this afternoon and began to type a few lines in response to the reviewers’ comments, it came to me in a flash — I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to subject the originality of my ideas to the banality of the review process, and I am not saying this out of over-inflated arrogance. In academia, my work tends to polarise opinion. Reviewers often praise or slam the work with equal vehemence, often both at the same time. It is something I will need to deal with more productively in the future, but this article wasn’t it.

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Return to Sisyphus

Sisyphus seemed to keep coming up today: once, when I was pointing a friend to an earlier post of mine, and another time, when I was preparing a short preamble to my Zen group’s discussion of a chapter of Shunryu Suzuki roshi’s book, Not Always So. This post is about the latter, though it clearly resonates with the former.

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Salute to Sisyphus, Part II

Don’t get me wrong, my supervisor is a nice guy. He helped me secure the original part-time registration, gave me the teaching jobs when I arrived in England and even found me a place to stay. He helped in all the ways peripheral and central to the process, down to the punctuation and grammar in my writing, but on the content itself he had nothing to say. He said I ought to trust my instincts, but my instincts couldn’t do more than signal that something was wrong with the structure and the methodology of the project. I am all for independent study; I like the solitariness and the self-reliance encouraged in the UK system, but I am also increasingly acknowledging the need for dialogue, relations and negotiation with others. Without them, one is no more than a frog in a well. It was a bit like studying for a medical degree by only reading medical books — one cannot be expected to perform surgery after that.

Though I once blogged that I sometimes felt like a bag lady rummaging for scraps, I cannot really know whether the outcome would have been different or whether a more plotted route would have resulted in a difference in my thinking. That I was left to meander along on my own meant I found paths that might otherwise have remained hidden. That’s the way history works, isn’t it? The moment where you are now is the result of many previous moments, one building on the other, until the rocket reaches the moon or the egg lands on your face. Neither result is objectively greater than the other, only subjectively coloured by desire. It is not a question of which result is preferable, only which is preferable to you.

In the past few months, I’ve discovered dharma podcasts on the internet. A buddhist reverend from Los Angeles, who runs Urban Dharma, told this story in one edition of teaching a class of 7th graders about pain and suffering in the Buddhist context. Apparently, one girl put up her hand at the end of the talk and said she finally understood the difference between the two: ‘Suffering is when we don’t want the pain.’ In other words, accept the pain and there’s no suffering. That has stuck in my mind for several weeks. Trust a child to speak the truth.

So maybe Sisyphus pushes that rock up the hill because he simply does. Or as Albert Camus wrote:

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Maybe I can catch that rock before it hits the bottom and drag it up again.

Here’s Part I.

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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