Category Archives: grad student

Black Pudding, French Fries and the Irish Revolution

I’m starting to think that Ireland has a tendency to make everyone slightly nuts. I don’t have any proof, but I’m sure that they use whiskey to purify the water here. It’s the only explanation for why everyone is so happy all the time, and why we are all on a continuous mission to cause mischief.

irish-potato-232x300Added to this, there seems to be incessant need for the Irish to prove that they’ve recovered from the potato famine of the 19th century and feed you as much potato as they possibly can. I’ve already mentioned the baked potato stuffed with mash, but the other night we had lasagne and french fries. Who the hell serves french fries with pasta?! I’m convinced it’s a plot to take over the world. Get everyone drunk on whiskey water and weighed down by starch. Nobody’ll be able to do anything when the leprechauns move in on their bunny army.

Not to say that the food isn’t great, because it is. The doctor might disagree. She was conned insisted on trying black pudding at breakfast (excuse me while I take a moment to laugh hysterically again). I’ve never seen anything come out of someone’s mouth so fast and yet so politely.
‘That bad?’ I inquired.
‘It tastes like burnt blood,’ she said, taking huge sips of orange juice.
Now, I’m no expert here, but I have to wonder how she knows what burnt blood tastes like. I know I don’t. If it were the Middle Ages, I might consider reporting this odd incident to the local priest. It could be evidence of some odd Pagan sacrifical ceremony involving insubordinate undergrads. For now I’ll just have to watch my back.

Either way, we’re off to Belfast today. When I return I shall regale you with tales of the mysterious stranger, the wise professor’s saged advice about sex and older men, oh, and Belfast. Yay!


To Avoid Blackmail

guinness_181345tI’m always being told that I know far too much. It’s true, the more secrets people have and  the more you know about them, the harder it is for them to dispose of you, or hold too much over your head. So for sake of full disclosure, and to ensure that nothing can be lauded over me when we come back, I shall come clean on two things that have happened since arriving in Dublin (so wah-wah Doc, no blackmailing power for you).

After the bad flights and lack of sleep over the previous 26 hours, we really didn’t think we’d be doing much of anything on our first night in Dublin. Well, I didn’t at least. And then somehow, at dinner, an entire bottle of Chardonnay disappeared, and we felt the need to find some traditional Irish music to help everything digest. Lucky for us, there’s a pub right next door to our hotel; and they have traditional Irish music (actually, it was just an Irish guy singing songs from contemporary Irish bands, but I disgress).

Anyway, we decided that since we are in Ireland, and that neither of us have ever tasted Guinness we were going to order a couple of drinks and a pint of Guinness. Luckily, Guinness is really cheap because it is the most vile concoction I’ve ever put in my mouth (and I emphasise the coc here). The problem was, we couldn’t work out how to dispose of the ghastly black stuff without arousing suspicion, and possibly causing an international incident.

Being the sound-minded, brilliant and inventive person that she is, the doctor thought that if we headed outside with our drinks, have a quick chat, and leave forget the goo outside, that nobody would notice and we could avoid offending the locals. There was just one problem. His name was George. He was the bouncer. And he saw the offending message which we were sending back to South Africa, moaning about how awful Guinness is. He took the glass from us and said that if we’re going to be so rude about Ireland, he’ll bring us something better. He did. It was red. It was little. And it was good!

It’s how I ended up with the pin below. George said it was for the Children’s Hospital. The doctor said it was a con. I said okay George, you’re right (because postgrads never listen to their supers) and handed over five euros and a kiss on the cheek and he gave me his pin. The doctor now says I’ve been initiated into some underground IRA unit. I think she’s just jealous because no-one offered her a pin into a secret Irish society.


Unfortunately, she got her own back the next morning. We decided to do a tour of the city and then head to Trinity College to see the Book of Kells (if you don’t know what that is, click the link!). As per normal, I took the lead and started navigating through the streets of Dublin. All the while being told that I was going in the wrong direction. I pointed out that I had never gotten us lost before, I remembered were things were in an airport I’d only been to once, and that certain touring academics have tendencies to wander off and end up in dodgy bars. I knew where I was going.

And so we arrived, at Christchurch Catherdral. It wasn’t Trinity College, but I got us to the church; on time to hear the bells toll four 140px-The_Spire-doyler79o’clock. Actually, I had no idea where I was going and like a true academic, I just wandered aimlessly with a more slightly less aimless supervisor in tow. So yes, I got us lost. My supervisor knew the way and got us home.

But, we did amble for three hours through Dublin to get home and found that while we’d been out, somebody had erected a giant spike in the middle of the street in front of our hotel. Apparently, it’d actually been erected a few years ago, but we didn’t see it the day before. So either there really are leprechauns with mischief and magic, or the Irish have invented invisibility cloaking, because trust me, there is NO WAY that both of us would have missed a 120 metre high phallic light pole.

Toilet Paper Wars and the Missing PJs

6520499-leprechaun-with-beers-and-rainbow--color-illustrationIreland! Yay! We made it. And after more than 26 hours of travelling I probably have enough material for about four posts. But I’m sure I’ll get it all down; maybe not by the time we leave, but definitely while the experience is fresh in my mind. Everything started off normally. I made fun of the good doctor because like all academics, she often has greater issues on her mind than the frivolities of packing a suitcase so I made sure to text her son to check her bags so nothing was forgotten (I won’t mention what was forgotten the last time, but let’s just say that the unmentionable item was relatively important).

Anyway, this time, our colleague, who was manipulated kindly offered to drive the good doctor and myself to the airport, got to experience first-hand that OMG moment when the doctor realised that she’d forgotten to pack any pajamas. I just laughed and laughed and laughed. Then I stopped. Took a deep breath and laughed some more. Our colleague was a little more sympathetic and suggested popping into the Woolies at the airport. I chose a bright orange top with ‘party’ printed on the front. I said it was so her husband knew what to expect the next time he got into bed. She rolled her eyes, took something suitable and boring off the rack and bought that. By that stage I was bored of humiliating giving fashion advice, and started listening to the consistent warning over the PA system: “Any passengers caught making inappropriate remarks about terrorism, hijacking, explosives or violence will be prosecuted in terms of the Civil Aviation Act”.

I yelled, “BOMBS! SILENCE, I KILL YOU!” Well, not really, but that’s how I like to hear the story when I think back. It’s like putting a button in front of me and telling me not to push it. It’s just mean! Anyway, after that we boarded the plane for Dubai (without the terrorist in my head popping out) and left.

It was a bad flight. Freezing plane, tiny seats, no leg room, and the air hostesses had a massive public argument in the middle of dinner service about whose responsibility it was to re-fill the toilet paper dispenser in the bathrooms.

“Chicken or beef?  No! I can’t put toilet paper in there I’m trying to give this lady her dinner. I’m only halfway through.”

“Well do it! It’s your responsibility. Not mine.”

“But I’m only halfway through this. I’ll try to remember when I’m done with the food”.

“Do it now and then come back to food”.

Anyway, this went on for a while, interspersed with the occassional chicken or beef question to passengers as the two women worked down the aisle.

I thought the missing pajamas was pretty funny, then we got a fight about toilet paper during dinner service, which I’m sure ended in toilet paper being flung ninja style at the back of the plane. Nothing was going to top this, right? Wrong!

By now we’d landed in Dubai, and were waiting to board for Dublin. Both of us are grumpy, tired and sore (did I mention how small the seats were on our first flight?). I tried to lighten the mood with some bad Irish jokes and puns. The Irish are supposed to be a bit daft apparently, so I thought it would make a fun introductory phase to our journey . The doctor just sighed, closed her eyes and shook her head. I swear I heard some whisper about idiotic grad student, but I may have been the voice in my head again (he doesn’t like being told no).

They finally start boarding the plane. They called all the first class and business class passengers first, because airlines like to remind you that to them, you are a pleb who needs to know their place: last. Then anybody travelling with small children and they lined up. Then they called the ordinary cattle to waddle through the gates.

So there we all were, in line, importants at the front, mortals at the back. But the line didn’t move. Everyone is shuffling, shifting and groaning. Why won’t they open the damn gates? We can see the plane, they’ve called us all through. What the hell? Then we realised. Everyone had lined up at the wrong door. The right one was behind us. The entire contingent of passengers (made up mostly of Irish nationals) had lined up backwards. And as if transported into some bad Irish joke, Paddy says loudly, “only the Irish can be so backward”.

And then we left.

Keep It Simple Stupid

imagesToday, I’m going to get a little personal. I apologise to everyone in advance, but I write this post as a way to, hopefully, generate a little discussion about the lives of students. Every so often my department tries to “promote a culture of learning” and invites all their postgrads to a seminar in which either a senior postgrad student, or a staff member, talks for an hour and a half about their research. The problem is that it’s usually only the most junior of postgrads who attend (there are reasons for this, but I’m not at liberty to divulge them), and for me, it appears that most don’t want to be there, and honestly, don’t really seem that interested. I’m not sure how true this is, I’m hoping that some will be brave enough to comment on this post and talk about their feelings (I’m like a cool social media therapist in that way).

Perhaps part of the problem is that most of them have just come from a two hour seminar, but I think there’s more to it than that. Yesterday was one of those days, and while I was listening to people talk after the presentation, certain things struck me as to why most students don’t seem that interested in attending these talks. But before I begin, I want to make one thing clear, yesterday’s presentation was interesting, and if you’d read the piece of work the presenter was talking around, it would have made it easier to follow.

Anyway, I think a lot of the problem has to do with the delivery of the whole thing because there’s a definite sense of them and us. Everyone seems oblivious to the fact that most of the people attending these workshops are still starting out in their academic careers and are still learning how all of this works. And that they’re still apprehensive about seeing and talking to their lecturers as people. Some would argue, tough they must grow up, and that this process isn’t meant for them, but to give staff members a chance to understand each other’s research and work. Well then, if that’s the case, why not just set aside a time to do this privately (again, I have theories, but I value my life)? We do this because the little ones must be given a chance to see where research goes, they tell me.  But then why does it seem that everyone is incapable of talking about things in a simple manner, and making it and themselves more accessible? Maybe, it’s just the academic way, but for me (and this is where it gets personal) it appears that most people are just trying to sound smart rather than having the ability to generate real discussion around an issue. I’m sure that if people were less concerned with using four-syllable words and academic jargon (usually incorrectly), they would get more people joining in on a discussion.

It’s no wonder that the ‘real-world’ view academics as living in ivory towers coming up with ideal ideas about things that have no bearing on the realities of the outside world. The sad irony of it all is that there is a lot of value in the research that is done at universities, but because of the way it’s delivered, the general population are excluded from engaging with it.  One of my students recently wrote a post complaining about the way that academic articles are written, and I see her point. So for the next seminar, which I have the misfortune of having to present, I’m going to try something different. Keeping it as simple as possible. It may work, it may fall flat on its pimply pre-pubescent posterior, but I’m going to try. So, no more pedagogical endeavours masquerading as entertainment, mine’s about chilling, chatting, laughing and having fun.  Oh, and there will be wine because the best discussions always have wine.

5 Ways to Get Your PhD

student_dreaming_graduation_lg_whtAnybody who told you that getting a PhD was about hard grafting, reading vast volumes of work and writing up your findings in a couple hundred pages was lying. Getting a PhD goes far beyond that. I’ve promised that one day I’ll write an entire book detailing the things that I’ve had to endure while being a grad student. Today, however, is not that day; instead, it’s the best advice I can give anybody who thinks that becoming a grad student is a good idea, and how to get out as quickly as you can.

1. Assing Around 

It may sound absurd, but hear me out.  Being a grad student generally involves taking some time to work as a grad assistant, or grad ass, as I like to say (with the emphasis on ass). You’re at the bottom of the food chain in the academic environment, which means that you are responsible for the ass-end of things, and the general mopping up of any shit that goes down. And I mean that quite literally. I’ve actually been made to dispose of scat left by the building’s feline colony (I have my suspicions that it’s actually students leaving a warning to various lecturers about their teaching styles, but I try not to rock the boat and keep my mouth shut).  Anyway, you should prepare to be treated like an ass.  You’re a necessary evil to make people’s lives easier, but something that most don’t like to deal with. The quicker you learn that, the faster you can impress your supervisor who will speed up the process of reading your work to irrigate the department, so to speak.

2. Learn how to reference

This might seem like an obvious tip, but I don’t mean learn how to reference for your thesis. I mean, learn how to reference using every style that you can lay your hands on. Why? Because referencing is a time-consuming banality of academics.  The chances are when your wise and supremely talented superior submits an article for publication they are far too busy contemplating existentialism and the meaning of life to worry about such menial chores, so you, as the ass, will be entrusted to put their reference lists together.  And God help you if the article is rejected because of bad referencing. You will spend an extra six months waiting for your draft to come back because you cocked up, and your supreme leader has to take time away from your thesis to fix your incompetence.

3. Learn how to use Google

Again, this many seem obvious, but when you are putting together that reference list the chances are, that in their ultimate wisdom, your supreme ruler will have forgotten to include one or two references, page numbers, journal details or the like to test your abilities. It’s up to you, like a super smooth 1920s detective, to work out where the information came from and fill in the blanks. Being able to find missing references is an art, especially when you are looking for a page number of a quote from a book that’s been out of print for the last 50 years. Being able to do this fast, and correctly, will prove to your supervisor that you are worthy of a few extra minutes of their time. Remember, every minute you save your supervisor, is an extra minute they can dedicate to your thesis.

4. Be able to define a ‘thingie’

If you’ve ever watch The Devil Wears Prada, you might remember the scene where Miranda tells Andy to book that restaurant that she likes with the guy whose name was on the piece of paper that she had in her hand last week (or something to that effect at least).  Now combine this vagueness with the more stereotypical vagueness of an academic and you come out with the following conversation:

Supervisor: What did I do with that thingie from two days ago.

Me: It’s on your desk under the book on phenomenology.

Supervisor: No that’s the other thingie. I’m talking about the one with the thing that has the thing on the thing with a thing.

Me: Oh that! Here you go.

I’m that good. And sometimes, if I’ve been really good, I even get a thank you and a whole two minutes to discuss my latest theoretical idea.

5. Be observant

Always pay attention. You will be asked to find lost books, envelopes, passports and of course, thingies. Like a wild game hunter, you need to know your surroundings and be able to notice when something’s amiss. That’s the difference between an average grad ass and a super grade A ass. Your ability to notice and remember where you see things can make it seem like you’re super-human, with awesome psychic powers or x-ray vision, and nobody wants to mess with a superhero. If you are able to locate random missplaced essentials with seemingly no effort, your supervisor will speed up the process. Either because they fear what you may do with your super powers if you turn to the dark side, or because there are only so many times that their egos can be upstaged by a know-it-all grad student. Either way, you’ll get out fast.

And if all else fails, threaten to write a book 🙂

What If…

We’re always faced with a multitude of what ifs in our lives. What if I’d never gone overseas, what if I’d never had that one night stand, what if I’d stopped at that red light. But I think the question that plagues me day in and day out as I ponder my existentialism is what if I’d stopped after my undergrad and got a real job. You see, that was always my plan. I never meant to carry on to do Honours, let alone anything more. But as life happened and things unfolded, Honours ended up being the way to go. Once I got in, the powers that be thought it was a good idea to give me my own first year minions. They hung on my every word and celebrated my amazing intellect (not really, but I like to pretend they did). But more importantly, they did what I said (not that they had a choice… It was either that or fail).

From then I realised that being a postgrad meant you had power. Not as much as the old wrinkly lecturers, but enough to allow illusions of grandeur to permeate my psyche. Looking back now I realise how misguided and naive I was as a baby postgrad. There wasn’t any power, just a lot of first years who liked being able to say that they’d seen someone who taught them stuff drunk. The higher you go there’s less fun and people start to believe that you are intellectually capable and should take on more responsibility. Ugh! True, it was fun as a baby postgrad, but I’m now convinced that’s how they trap you. They give that false belief that you are awesome, then once you’re in, they make you wish you were dead. Research, writing, suicidal students, menopausal lecturers, oh, and a thesis or two. You have to deal with it all.

Why couldn’t I have just left when I had the chance? I could’ve been someone… Or I could still be unemployed whining about the fact that I should’ve done Honours. I guess that’s how it is. You never know. To be honest, I enjoy most of what I do, but it would be interesting to see where I’d been if things were different.

Be Nice

Be-Nice-or-Leave-PosterEvaluations. I hate them. Especially when they come back from quality control and you get a sense of how much a class either liked you or loathed you. Most experienced lecturers will tell you to just ignore the nasty comments because those are usually written by the most difficult students, but if you’re having a marginally bad day, the remarks can make you near-suicidal. Luckily, I haven’t had anything too awful written about me yet; though once an evaluation had clear death-threat connotations attached to it, and another said that I shouldn’t get a salary because I suck. But while perusing the bitchiness and constant nit-picking about whether or not I’m old enough to lecture, or if I’m nice enough to talk to, I began thinking, why don’t we get to write evaluations on students. I know we mark their work, but that’s an assessment on how well they’ve applied themselves to a given task. What would happen if their final mark was assessed by their overall approachability, organisation and conduct during class.

Luckily, I have a blog, so here are a few things that I would like to comment on in my evaluation of individual students over the years:

For in-class behaviour

1. Student hasn’t brought any writing implements with them throughout semester. Concerned that they never learnt to write. Perhaps they should learn, come back next year, and try again.

2. Student on cellphone throughout class, with headphones in. I do like the sound of my own voice A LOT, but I can talk to myself at home… in bed… with coffee. So, if you don’t want to listen, please stay away.

3. Student conducts private lecture at the back of the class. I would really like a break so I suggest that you take the whole lecture (on a side note – wait until someone starts giggling for no reason and see how confident you feel).

For assessments

1. Student cannot form a complete sentence. Please go away and don’t come back until you learn to write.

2. Student writes gibberish. When I ask what they meant, they look confused and reply ‘I don’t know’. Please go away and don’t come back until you realise that I don’t speak idiot.

3. Student wrote beautiful essay on the public sphere. Pity they were required to write on postmodernism. I assume their reading level is up to Twi-hard. Just walk away…

Overall performance

1. Student smells. Disturbing other students. I advise deodorant, or more preferably a bath.

…….. Wait, hang on…..

I’ve always threatened to put up a shame board of ridiculous student answers and antics. That could be a way of getting back at the mean ones (you think we don’t know your handwriting and those evaluations are all anonymous… Ah, bless).

5 Awesome Sites for Procrastination

I’m somebody who has a relatively small attention span, and even less of a concentration zone, so when I find my happy place I like to sit and work; and God help the person who interrupts. Anyway, today, after pulling out a bunch of papers from my very big file of academic stuff, I planned to read and develop a truly magnificent existentialist argument. But as luck would have it, a giant elephant (I do live in Africa) decided to stomp up and down outside my door and announce itself to every other indigenous creature. After muddling through the first few chapters from my file, I was forced to give up – the sounds from the beast were too loud to ignore. You might ask, why not just get up and chase it away, or move to a new location. Well, the answer is quite simple, elephants are dangerous things. You wouldn’t want  to risk annoying it.  I imagine that shouting, waving, or chasing it with a stick would only result with me trapped under its enormous smelly rear-end. And don’t let their size fool you, they can move pretty quickly, especially if it thinks you’re food. So instead of tempting fate, I found a way to entertain myself while I waited for it to waddle off again.

What I found were some brilliant sites that are just perfect for wasting time when you stuck between an elephant and a two-storey drop (I actually considered jumping).

1. I Waste So Much Time

If you haven’t seen this site before I really recommend it. It’s an awesome collection of funny pictures, videos and just random stuff that people have put together. However, I wouldn’t advise visiting unless you have about a gazillion hours to spare – otherwise you’ll be lost forever…..

2. Sporcle

Here you have the opportunity to take hundreds of quizzes, ranging from Pixar movies to the Butt quiz (the elephant is the third one on the top).

3. My Happy Games

Ok, so there are masses of online gaming sites, but I like the little bunny in the logo for this one. And besides, what other domains lets you play Angry Birds and  Plants vs Zombies after you’ve finished whacking all the Bad Piggies?

4. Nyan Cat

Yes, Nyan Cat has it’s own website! And it challenges you to watch the magical rainbow cat for as long as possible, so that you can post your best time on Twitter and Facebook. And if you get bored of the pink pop-tart kitty (how could you?), there are a bunch of extra flavours, ranging from Pikachu Nyan, Rasta Nyan, Ninja Nyan and my personal favourite, Buggy Code Nyan.

5. My Blog

And when all else fails, come back to me! I’m funny, quirky and unashamedly advertising myself on my blog – it’s what all about, right?

Growing Excellence to End Poverty

This doesn’t really relate to this post, but it’s funny

It was a little while back (not sure when, I’ve been a little pre-occupied with a little pain) the South African Minister of Higher Education, in his infinite wisdom (I use wisdom loosely here) proposed that all South African university graduates have to undergo community service to complete their degrees, just like doctors are required to do. Now I have two issues with this.

First, most university students (and eventual graduates) can barely spell their name (I’ve actually had students hand in assignments with their names spelt incorrectly), or think that they are some super pop diva, so they only write their first name on everything. Sorry, but I have no clue who Bethany or Apple Pie is (and seriously, you need to sue your parents for stupidity or torture – I actually have a student whose name is Swastika). And our Minister wants to send these geniuses into the community to do God knows what.

This is where my second point comes in. While some degrees do give you a skill, most humanities and social science degrees, don’t actually train you to do anything. You just spent thousands on a piece of paper that doesn’t qualify you to do anything. And if you disagree, maybe our Minister could please tell me what type of community service a person who has a degree in Classics and Philosophy would engage in? I seriously can’t quite picture farming with community members and telling them how everything they are farming doesn’t really exist, but it’s ok because we ourselves are just a mere construction of social representations. Hmmm…. Maybe I under-estimated ol’ Blade. Maybe this is some massive ploy to cull the population. Realising you don’t really exist is rather depressing, and I’m sure with mass poverty there are thousands of suicidal depressants out there. This could finally send them over the edge. Poverty solved, they’ll all kill themselves after two minutes with a bunch of humanities’ ‘experts’. And if they don’t, we could just offer them administrative jobs at my uni.  They’ll kill themselves and everyone around them after a week of dealing with the mass incompetence that abounds these hallowed halls of ‘Premier scholarship’.

Life of a Grad Student

Ok, so this afternoon I realised that most of my recent ramblings have been somewhat serious and far from the lighthearted nonsense of my older stuff. This has upset me greatly, especially when I read some of the other things floating around my inbox, and realise that people who are far too serious really annoy me. So from now on I’m going to try (very very very hard) to intersperse my brilliant (far too obnoxious) opinions with a little bit (a huge big gigantic slice) of my lost inner demon bunny spawn (I know it’s down there somewhere just past my flailing conscious).

And the first thing that pops into my mind is to regale you with the day-to-day frustrations of being a grad student. As the saying goes, ‘we’re not bad people, we’ve just made terrible life choices’. There’s something masochistic about embarking on a doctoral degree; you’ve been through 3 years of undergrad, followed by 1 year of Honours, then another 2 years for your Masters (emerging with a caffeine addiction and sun-repellent skin), and then think hey, I’ve got no life anymore so let’s spend the next 3-5 few years researching and writing something else that nobody’s going to read (I’m not even convinced that supervisors and examiners care enough to read the whole thing – it’s really long and boring).

But while embarking on the self-torture of churning out 80-odd thousand words, you realise that this is not nearly self-deprecating enough.  You also need to subject yourself to cruel and unusual dogwork just to scrape a bit of extra cash together so that the inflation on the thousands you owe the bank doesn’t kill you once you hit the real world (because being over-qualified for everything and without any real skills makes you entirely unemployable). The sucky part of my story is that at the moment, I will probably die of starvation or worse, demonstrating how to use a blog, before anybody pays me. The excuse is that, unfortunately because we have shifted all operations to a new system, everybody has yet to be trained in the new procedures. Um…. Could you tell my bank manager that when I reneged on my loan repayments, or better yet, could you please use your salary to pay mine since you earn more than the president? No? What can I do to make you? Well nothing really, except maybe get you another slice a pie while I do your undergrad marking.
Ah yes, ain’t grad life grand?!

The ramblings of an overworked underpaid grad student in South Africa



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