“Hello! I know I’ve asked you to do some strange things as my grad student, but I have a request. Please can you climb in through the boot of my car and unlock my door, the central locking’s gone.”
And that’s how my afternoon ended yesterday. Luckily, I didn’t have to channel my inner car-thief because by the time I got there the good doctor had managed to
kick the door hard enough to pop the lock get her key to work.
The whole incident got me thinking, however; I’ve had to do some crazy things since I first registered as a postgrad. And since I’m sure there will be a few more to come as I disappear into the Irish countryside in a couple of weeks, I thought I’d recap some of the lines that have usually ended with me covered in mud, up a ladder, or searching for something.
1. Help! My computer broke!
2. Help! My keyboard broke!
3. Help! The Internet won’t work!
4. Help! My mouse broke!
5. Help! The printer won’t print!
Ok, so they’re not really all about technical hiccups, sometimes, like the car story I get things like:
6. Make me French Toast!
7. Make me coffee!
8. Where’s my lunch?!
Actually, to be fair, that’s not my supervisor at all! That’s just what greets me from her darling children if I ever dare see them.
But I think my favourite line of all is:
9. Why do you always have to be right?!
A couple of weeks ago one of my Honours students remarked how impressive it was that I read books; he then gasped when I said that I often read the same book more than once. His comment was only topped when another Honours darling told me that she hated reading. My honest reaction was, then why are you doing a postgraduate degree if you don’t want to read? But unfortunately, it seems as if less and less students think reading is important and most seem to try avoid it as much as possible. Instead, they seem to prefer taking the easy route when it comes to research and are content at having a quick skim on Wikipedia. The more concise the better. Unfortunately, I’m no cartoonist, but if I were, I’d so draw what I’m about to write next to prove how dangerous such behaviour is.
The world is on the brink of destruction; the nuclear blast that the Americans fired at North Korea killed most and left many more a walking abomination of death and glowing radiation. A few survived, but in this world I’m convinced it’ll only be those of us who know how to live without technology that’ll be able to rescue the human race, kill the zombies and start a new Eden (I’m banking on being supreme ruler and will name the new world Lepus Sylvaticus).
Anyway, picture this: The zombies are attacking, there is no power and the internet has crashed permanently. The only way to defend yourself and acquire the information on how to survive is located in a quaint and archaic building previously known as a library. In order to survive, you are required to search through volumes of text and read the fine detail because not every zombie is the same. Knowing the difference between the bucketheads and coneheads is vital because only one can be defeated by butter, while the other is only susceptible to chainsaws. But here’s the problem, nobody has the ability to find anything in any of the books because they’re too used to having Google find information for them. And worse, after two sentences of reading they are bored, because nobody is used to reading anything in detail, and so they give up, succumbing to a bloody zombie mauling.
In another scenario, you may have survived on pure idiotic luck, but the zombies are fast approaching and not only do you not know how to kill them, because you won’t read more than two sentences, but you also have no clue how many you are going to have to kill because along with no internet, you have no calculators to add up how many are after you. It’s that story sum that you thought was of no use during Math class: You are surrounded by 68 zombies. Tommy has 28 chainsaws while Susie has 11. How many chainsaws do you need to pick up to get out alive? Too slow! And you actually needed butter because they were bucketheads. Your tiny brain is now being devoured. Bye bye!
Now, after this amazingly brilliant insight, I hope you see how important it is not to rely so heavily on technology? You don’t want to survive a nuclear holocaust just to be devoured by zombies, do you? Come on! Read a book! Learn to add, and most importantly, stop asking Google for everything!
Today, 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.
Anyone who knows me knows that I more than love cricket. I’m somewhat obsessed actually. I know the ins and outs better than most players and can quote random stats, like Gary Kirsten’s highest ODI innings was 188*. I always have an opinion on which players should be playing and which should be dropped (and I’m usually right). I still maintain that Herschelle Gibbs is an overrated player, filled with talent maybe, but incapable of reigning in his own arrogance to perform consistently. However, today’s post is not so much about the players, but one of the most fabulous franchise tournaments in the world, the Indian Premier League (IPL). Even a purist, like myself, appreciates the quickfire format, and the mixture of superstars all playing together. But, there’s one thing that I wish the organisers would reconsider. I can handle the constant ambush marketing of sponsors and the unashamed way that the owners of each team flaunt their wealth, but the dancing girls?
Have you noticed that nobody in the crowd pays attention to them? And yet, every time a player hits a four or six or takes a wicket, there they are, shaking on our screens. Why? Is the sight of a pretty (and I use that term loosely) girl supposed to inspire the players to do it again? Or is it trying to g-up a lifeless crowd? Or keep TV viewers glued to their screens? I can’t imagine it’s any of those. Think about it. Any crowd, at any sporting event is already excited to be there. Throw in some music, food and a winning home team, and they’ll create their own environment. Just look at test cricket, which certain uneducated cretins would label as boring, and you’ll note that the crowd creates its own fun and atmosphere without skimpy dancers.
So the dancing girls must be for the players, then? Wrong again! If you’ve ever played sport you know that if you start to do well, there is nothing more motivating than your own adrenalin. It would be ludacris to think that players are paying attention to dancers on the side of the field. If that was the case, imagine how easy it would be for fans to get to players on the boundary, and how often they’d drop catches with women, or men, flashing them their wares. So if it’s not really for the crowd or for the players, what is the point of dancers?
There have been several rumours about dancers and players getting their grooves on off the field, so I’m starting to wonder if their inclusion is just an excuse for funders of the tournament to write off their team’s concubines for tax purposes? I can’t see any other reason for them. Most are actually quite ugly, and to be a complete bitch, have the
bodies of baby hippos. I’m not including the traditional Indian women in this (who really are stunning), just the absurd imported European ones. So again, I ask, why do the organisers insist on flying in women from all over the world if they don’t add any on field value. The game wouldn’t miss the dancers, so if the organisers are so keen for these women to be there, couldn’t they find else for them to do, away from the camera, so the rest of us can get back to enjoying the game without constant close-ups of wobbly mid-riffs?
Ok, rant done! Back to the game.
Anybody 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 🙂
Every so often when flicking from
E! the History Channel, I fall victim to some stupid public service announcement. I hate them. Actually, hate is too mild, I loathe them with a burning vengeance that makes me want to never watch TV again. Usually, the remote is too far away to do anything, so I have to suck it up and deal with it. The one that’s driving (haha, pun) me nuts at the moment is that stupid ‘Don’t Drink and Drive’ ad. You know the one, where everyone looks like a murderer, even the policeman, and threatens if you drink and drive you could end up being driven home in the back of a police van with a bunch of psychopaths,who incidentally, seem to be allowed to carry knives on their way to prison (I realised later, after watching the full version, that it’s actually a tow truck driver with the knife, but he still looks like a killer).
The thing that gets me about this ad is that I think it’s missed its mark. It’s all about shock tactics, which most people believe have lost their shock value because we’re confronted with so much of it everyday. In South Africa, there are numerous issues that we’ve been bombarded with so often that most of us tune out, skip the article or change the channel. Unprotected sex, drugs, smoking, drinking and driving. We’re told that all these things can kill us and we’re lectured from primary school to be good people and not to do any of it. We’re shown extreme videos of dead bodies strewn across heroin dens, emaciated babies who’ve contracted HIV from their now dead mothers, and blackened lungs of a cancer victim. And yet, it hasn’t solved any of these problems. HIV infections are going up, smoking is as common as ever, and drinking and driving isn’t going to deteriorate until a safe public transportation system is put in place (and even that may not help).
So how do we get people to take notice? The Topsy Foundation tried an HIV campaign in which they highlighted hope rather than condemnation, but it’s forgettable to say the least. Partly, it’s because the ad is too long and has a documentary feel about it. Humans are, for the most part, pathetic creatures who like to entertained constantly. I like to call it the ‘dancing monkey’ syndrome; unless we behave like a dancing monkey, nobody pays attention for very long.
More importantly, if we want anyone to pay attention we’ve got to get them to share these messages on various social media. Now, I don’t know about you, but there’s no way that I’d share either of these videos on my Facebook page or Twitter feed. Mostly, because they’re boring, preachy and lack a dancing monkey, but also because I know that none of my friends or followers would be interested, and would probably block me if I carried on posting similar things. I can’t stand it when people put public service announcements and ‘like this 1 million times to save the cockroach’ posts on my wall. I want to be entertained, not depressed into being a more moral human being. I’m shallow like the rest of the world. People only put those things on their walls because they’re performing; they want the rest of us openly shallow human beings to know that they’re better than us because they care enough about something to put it on their wall. But I digress.
For a public service announcement to be successful and memorable, people need to watch it (duh!) and the best way to do that is to make it entertaining. The problem is, how do you make something so serious entertaining? I don’t have an answer, but whoever came up with Metro’s train safety video seems to have a good idea.
It’s racked up over 45 million views on YouTube because it’s catchy (the song will be stuck in your head for years) and you want to share it with all your friends. But more importantly, you get the message, you know to be safe around trains because otherwise you’re as dumb as somebody who thinks it’s a good idea to use their private parts to catch piranha. In fact, this video is so successful that it’s spawned a number of parodies which means that people want to engage with it, add to the conversation and be a part of the message. And isn’t that what public service announcements are all about?
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.
We all know that the government wants to raise the drinking age from 18 to 21; one of my students even wrote about it, but his post and many other comments that have been chucked around have left me a little uneasy. As S (my student :P) pointed out, raising the age limit isn’t going to stop those who are under-age from acquiring alcohol, nor is it going to stop those who already sell to under-18s (just ask the Americans!), but I think the thing that irritates me most is that all this talk presumes one thing: it’s only the youth who abuse alcohol. Seriously?! What kind of stupid logic is that? Go to any pub, bar, club in the country, and you’ll find plenty of middle-aged hipsters stumbling, slurring, and generally behaving badly. The problem that we have in South Africa, and in most of the Western world, is not an age problem (though I will come back to this), it’s that we are generally lackadaisical in our approach to responsibility and alcohol. Perhaps I’m passing the buck here a little, but I don’t think it’s anything that is entirely our fault. Overall, our consideration toward alcohol and drinking is driven by years of learned social behaviour: it’s fun to go out drinking with your friends, it’s ok to get a little drunk and giggly to let loose, and only losers can’t handle more than one glass.
And actually, I agree with all of it (yes, you are a loser if you’re drunk after one glass). I’m not advocating anything here. I can’t judge. I’ve had fabulous evenings talking to rose bushes and fish ponds after
a bottle of tequila a couple of drinks, and I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with it. But I do think it’s wrong to point fingers at an age group for something that isn’t confined them. You’re assuming that drinking and getting drunk are the activities of immature children. Pah! The stories I, and I’m sure you, could tell about people in their 40s, 50s, 80s and too many whiskies would put every teeny-bopper to shame.
The problem comes in when you’re no longer safe, and perhaps that’s where it does become a youth issue. Now I’m only talking from personal experience here, so it could just be my perception, but I’ve seen far too many students watch their ‘friends’ get completely smashed and then put them into a cab on their own, leave them on the bathroom floor in a club, or worse, send them off into the middle of town to buy food. Usually this happens, it seems, because they don’t want to leave the party, and looking after their friend will detract from the fun they’re having. That’s where the maturity comes in, I think. Most people I know (and most are pretty old) look out for each other. If I decide that I need to go off on some world-altering mission into the depths of an African street (tequila makes me think I’m invincible) then there’s usually someone who either acts as my side-kick until I get bored, or
ties me to a chair puts me to bed. I do the same for them, but, the crunch is that unless I know I have that support, I don’t go out. I don’t feel the need to be at every party and my FOMO’s decreased as I got older. Then again, that’s just me and the people I know. Maybe being a narcissistic douche doesn’t disappear with age, but I sure hope to hell it does, otherwise we have more problems than just our drinking.