Writing and risking: toe by toe

I’m a bit out of the academic writing game. (I’m very into the pinching, ponching and pooching my baby game, but no one’s giving me a red graduation cloak and silly hat for that.) As my maternity leave comes to an end, I’ve been easing back into it with a burst of writing here and a spurt of research there, but no one’s more aware then me that it’s time to buckle down and really do this PhD thing.

“So what’s stopping you, Nudelman?” I hear you ask. 

“To be honest,” I answer, “I’m scared.” 

That’s right, dear reader, academic writing is scary. An empty screen with a flashing cursor top left is enough to supercharge the butterflies in my tummy. Where will the words come from? What if they’re no good? What if I get to the end and realise that nothing I’ve written makes sense? Who will read it and how will they judge me? Will they realise I’m just a big academic fake?

I’ve thought a lot about how I manage the risk involved in writing. I find it a bit like getting into an icy cold swimming pool. Some people dive right in, but I tentatively dip the tip of one big toe in, then the ball of the foot, the heel, a calf… then the other. I know how cold I’m going to be so I mitigate that imminent shock by drawing out the moment.

I do the same with writing. I know that my words on the page will have to stand alone without me, so they need to be strong. And logical. And succinct. I think this is why I approach the writing game slowly. I test the waters of my knowledge. A chunk of literature here. Some data generation there. A smidgeon of policy analysis. And so on.

Perhaps it’s not the most efficient way to approach the thesis writing, but tackling my work bit by bit makes it a little less scary for me. It becomes less of a behemoth and more possible. How do you deal with risk in your writing?


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What to expect (from mommy and PhD blogs) when you’re expecting

During my daily morning cyber amble through the Facebooks, I came across this article about a new mother who posted a photo of herself that has gone viral. In the photo, she holds her 3-day-old son close to her bare chest and stares directly into the camera,expression raw, eyes red from crying. Mothers from all around the world have applauded her honesty and her courage in not sugar coating the realities of the postpartum period.

The article that accompanies her picture describes this woman’s tough new reality. It includes input from experts explaining just how hard this time really is for mothers. It talks about isolation, feelings of loss, inadequacy, loneliness, physical pain. The photo, the article says, “is a perfect answer to the overly curated image of new motherhood that we get on social media”.

The reason I came across the article this morning is a result of not needing to rush to get out of bed, which is a result of being 39 and a bit weeks pregnant, finished work, and trying to follow everyone’s orders to “take it easy”. Basically, I’m about to have a baby, which translates into spending a lot more time then usual trawling mommy blogs and finding out how little I know about anything to do with babies.

Reading the article, though, I was struck by conflicting feelings. On the one hand, I think it’s great that women aren’t forced to present some flowers-hearts-smiley-smile version of new motherhood. I have no doubt it’s going to be a tough time, and I appreciate the honesty. But on the other hand, the article’s very honesty, its undertones of desperation and darkness, make me question the whole idea of even having a baby. I find myself wondering – do I really want to go through that? It doesn’t sound very nice.

And it struck me that many PhD blogs I read are equally gritty and raw. They present the warts-and-all version of the PhD process, with people attesting to their struggles. Again, I appreciate the sense of solidarity that these offer and the knowledge that I’m not alone in finding it hard. But I do wonder, if I’d read these before I started studying again, would I even have got so far as registering?

Granted, it’s a little late to back out of either my baby or my PhD at this point, so I guess I’ll take what I can from the articles, particularly that it’s OK if it’s not all perfect all the time, and try not to expect the worst from either process. And then, I will watch some ridiculously cute baby animal videos (like this one of a kitten meeting a baby hedgehog) and proceed with as much calm as I can muster.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Two worlds collide: Jews and higher education (and yoyos and figure skating)

Imagine that you were totally into two things in your life: yoyos and figure skating. So there you are, one day, flipping through the channels when, lo and behold, you stumble across the world’s first ever yoyo-based ice dance. The graceful woman with the tight buns (in her hair, people, in her hair) leaps and twirls over a series of artfully-strung “around the worlds” and “rock the babies” perfectly executed by her partner in the tight pants. “Figure skating AND yoyos in one program?!” you exclaim. “What are the chances of that?”

That’s the kind of feeling I had the other day when I came across THIS article with the headline “Higher Education Transformation Network (HETN) labels Habib, Wits (Jewish) Puppets“. “Higher education AND Judaism?” I thought. “What are the chances of that?”

The gist of the article is that HETN believes that, by removing Mcebo Dlamini (he of “I love Hitler” and “I’m a Sisulu“-fame) from his position as chairperson of the university’s SRC, Adam Habib has capitulated to the evil machinations of the evil Jews who run the world with their evil money. And just in case not enough offence was caused by this awakening of the oldest antisemitic trope in the world, HETN throws in the following:

It would be unfortunate if Wits University management now has adopted ‘Gestapo-type’ management tactics of summarily expelling students and staff merely because they hold dissenting views…

I love the rhetorical reference to the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, who formed an integral part of Hitler’s system of terror, slavery, murder, and genocide. “Yes,” the reader is clearly meant to contend. “That’s exactly what Habib and Wits are up to.” A regime determined to wipe out any part of society not deemed racially up-to-scratch? A university meting out consequences for an act of thuggery against a senior staff member by a student? Now there’s an analogy that sticks.

(Anyway, we’ve seen this before, HETN. BDS movements across the world love to remind their acolytes that the Jews have now become just as bad as the Nazis. It’s getting old.)

It’s clear that what lies at the root of this statement has to do with deeply entrenched issues, like race, privilege, nationalism and the need for transformation. But, for what it’s worth, here are some thoughts from a Jew who cares deeply about higher education (and yoyos and figure skating):

  • You support a man who “loves Hitler”, but condemn Wits for its “Gestapo-type” management. Mixed metaphors, much?
  • After the whole “Jewish funder” shtick, your statement goes on to condemn acts of racism on campuses that allegedly haven’t been followed up on. Couldn’t agree with you more. Root them out. Shame them. Punish them. Push universities to do that. Saying that Dlamini shouldn’t face consequences for his actions because other perpetrators haven’t faced consequences is counter-intuitive to your mandate of change. Rather, use your position to ensure that those who haven’t been brought to book face the consequences of their actions.
  • IT’S NOT ONLY JEWS WHO DON’T LIKE HITLER. He killed 11 million people, among them Jehova’s Witnesses, Roma Gypsies, Catholic Priests and Christian Pastors, homosexuals, resistors, the disabled and citizens of countries the Nazis invaded. So, not that this is why he lost his position, but why this assumption that the only people who could have possibly taken offence to Dlamini’s Hitler statements are the Jews?

I wish HETN’s leadership would actually speak to Jewish people. Maybe then they would realise that we’re not all the same. We hold widely dissenting views and come at issues from angles that differ politically, ethically and intellectually.

You bunch us together as one, fixing the handy label of “Jewish money” on an issue that is so much more nuanced. If the labelsticks, it could cause untold harm to the Jews of South Africa, as it has to Jews again and again throughout history. If it doesn’t, the current transformation debates on campus will fester into destruction, hate and harm to people and properties. To get back to where we began, it seems to me that HETN’s skating on some seriously thin ice here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

UCT: the best university in Africa! (…?…)

uct best

Do you know that UCT is the best university in Africa? Of course you do! I don’t know who does the marketing for these people, but whoever they are, businesses everywhere should be poaching them like mofos, because whatever it is that they’re doing, they are doing it well.

I recently ran a series of interviews with a group of engineering students. One of my introductory, break-the-ice, lets-be-friends questions was about why they chose to study at UCT. And without fail, each of the (very diverse) group of interviewees told me it was because UCT is the best university in Africa.

Now bear in mind that these interviews were taking place at the same time as the #RhodesMustFall story, which has seen students come out in droves to protest about the pervasive institutional racism at UCT and lack of transformation on campus. I’m totally fine with #RhodesFalling, and I think the debates and discussions that it’s stimulated are brilliant and overdue.

BUT with so many students angry about the state of UCT, it blows my mind that they still laud the fact that it’s the #BestUniversityInAfrica. For the students I spoke to, studying there is a mark of prestige; it counts now and it’ll count when they enter the job market.

This all leads me to two possible conclusions:

  1. Students believe that universities in Africa are so bad that even with all its problems, UCT is still the best one.
  2. There’s a major gap between the #RaRaUCT rhetoric and the #BooUCT rhetoric, but for students, the functionalist benefits of attending a highly ranked university trump ideological discomfort.

Or, of course, another possibility is that engineering students are crazy, non-stop, workaholic aliens who don’t have time to get on the #UctSux train. Either way, there seems a delicious hypocrisy going on here, and I kind of #LoveIt.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

I probably should have just bought this blog post

Dear readers,

For a good (academic/nerdy) time, check out these websites http://myessaywrite.com/ and http://forensicsinschool.com.

I always knew that there were online companies that would write your academic essay for you, but I guess I thought this would be covert and a little sneaky. But these sites (and tons more, I’m sure) manage to spin it so that suddenly, buying your custom-written academic essay is the right thing to do. These are some of my favourite quotes from the sites:

“Purchasing essays is, essentially, an investment into itself. You are buying the expertise that our company can offer your future, which we hope is spectacular.”

“Professors have known for ages that students will take an ‘easy way out’ where and when applicable, yet to buy essay assignments online, one must actually have some primary directive in mind. For honest students, it’s about passing classes and getting onto their careers.”

“Essay subjects have become increasingly difficult over the years which either causes students to flunk, or even lose their potentially lucrative scholarship. Rather than worrying about completing your essay, simply hire someone online to discreetly write this essay based off any topic you wish and avoid missing out on your teenage years in school because you were cooped up writing essays you don’t understand.”

and perhaps most bewilderingly:

“Case studies and teachers believe that buying essays from online sources becomes a formality of plagiarism; if this was the case, our government would shut thousands of companies down. If you cannot grasp the outline or general idea of essay writing, hiring someone to take care of it for you is no different than writing the material yourself so long as the material wasn’t plagiarised.”

Readers, I kid you not! These companies are framing the purchasing of academic essays online as an investment, as educationally productive and as something you should do because… let’s be honest… you’re worth it. It’s basically like telling someone, “Quickly, grab that lady’s Chanel handbag, because capitalism is an unjust system and private ownership is corrupt”.

I’d never condone this kind of action, but somewhere deep down, I’m hoping that if students do buy essays online, they’re upfront about why they’re doing it: too many deadlines, no grasp of the course material, or they just can’t be arsed. I hope students aren’t buying essays with the belief that it’s really ethically and morally justifiable. They can’t be that stupid… can they?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Publish or Perish!! (Although you may perish before you figure out how to publish)

Three years of undergrad, one year of Honours, two years of Masters and two years into my PhD, I find myself spending the first days of the new year haphazardly hashing out a journal publication strategy for 2015. I’ve co-authored a couple of papers over the years, but solo work is unchartered land for me and it’s taking ages to figure the whole system out. It occurred to me this morning that after nearly a decade into my tertiary education (eeeeek!), it really shouldn’t be this hard.

Everyone knows that to become an academic, it’s essential to be publishing regularly. There’s also funding and promotion implications. I understand that by the time someone embarks on a PhD, they should understand how the academic game works, but surely in my senior undergraduate and postgraduate years at Africa’s top-rated university, there should have been a workshop on how to write for scholarly journals?

There’s a lot in the literature about the importance of inducting new students into the world of higher education. New students often don’t understand the discourse of the academic world and struggle to succeed. For example, something like referencing, which is so fundamental to academic writing, may be a completely new concept. For this reason, it’s important to make the discourse explicit for students; it’s like making the rules of a new language super clear so that people can go on to learn the language. That’s why this area of study is called academic literacy.

So if there’s a growing focus on developing students’ academic literacy, why is it that the rules of journal writing remained tacit during my studies? A cynic may wonder whether this was academics’ way of keeping the pool of contributing authors down and thereby increasing their own chances of publication. Mine is a call for academic academic literacy: I sure know I could have benefitted from it

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

If a PhD student falls in a forest…

I’m reading a book about policy analysis, which should be boring but really isn’t. I am so into it, that at times I find myself shouting “Yes!” out loud or giggling along as I it becomes clear how we human beings are so very shaped by the way official policies (particularly governmental ones) represent society. At moments like this I feel so lucky to be a PhD student, with time and space to expand my mind.

Sounds rad, right? In the midst of enthusiasm, I came across this Foucault (1988: 265) quote. It’s about a particular approach to policy analysis, which encourages us to:

… question over and over again what is postulated as self-evident, to disturb people’s mental habits, the way they do and think things, to dissipate what is familiar and accepted, to reexamine rules and institutions and on  the basis of this re-problematisation… to participate in the formation of political will.”

“Eureka!”, thought I. That’s exactly what the PhD’s meant to do! How exciting… how empowering… how realistic?!

Because come on, people, realistically what are the chances of my PhD changing the world? (And you don’t have to be kind, oh loyal readers, I can handle the truth). Even if it’s super-duper good, fuelled by insights and enlightened realisations, chances are it’ll only ever be read by my supervisors, examiner(s) and, after subtle coercion, my very kind husband.

Just like the old adage of the tree falling in the empty forrest, If a PhD student writes a magnificent thesis, but there’s no one there to read it, does the knowledge really exist at all? And if the answer to this is no, then really – what’s the point of it all?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized