In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
T. S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’, no.2 of Four Quartets
This is my final post as a committee member for Pubs and Pubs; though you may see my name on a post again, it will be as a guest. It is a strange time to be writing on PhD life, and so in this post I wonder what we might learn from time spent apart.
As scholars, we attempt to spread our ideas to an audience. Depending on our inclinations, discipline, and the particular type of research we do, this might be a broad, public audience or a select group of fellow experts. In either case, the aim is to reach as much of that audience as possible, and hopefully change the way they think about some issue or phenomenon. In running Pubs and Pubs, the committee follows the same logic: we seek to reach as many readers as possible, and think of our most read posts as having achieved something. Not that this is the only metric, of course, we all have our personal favourites, but reader numbers feel somehow objective. And, besides, what is the point of wonderfully written posts if they go unread?
Today, as I write this, and in the days to come, as you read it, people across the world are trying to slow the spread of a highly contagious virus. Energy that might normally be spent bringing people together, connecting teams, sharing visions or growing networks is, instead, being channelled into maintaining safer social practices, from remote-working to full-scale quarantine. Of course, we are also seeking to maintain our personal and intellectual networks, but only while keeping our bodies respectfully distant. While we usually want our work to go viral, our aim now is to avoid becoming virus vectors ourselves.
This is not another think-piece about living in isolation. Instead, I want to use this time to think about what we mean by spreading our ideas, building connections, and enriching scholarly networks. To suggest that our best work is not viral.
The lure of the click
The most viewed post on this blog is Every App You Need For Your PhD, by former committee member Drew Thomas. It has nearly 20,000 views, more than three times as many as any other post. It’s a fine post, and even a few years after it was written still contains much of interest. Nevertheless, it’s probably fair to say that the reason for its large number of views is the number of people searching for this topic. It’s not that it’s the best post on the blog.
Another way that a website might view success is the extent of online conversation around a particular piece. We experienced some of this in 2017, when former committee member Richard Parfitt wrote on how to finish your PhD in three years (in the UK system). This piece only has 752 views, but some of those readers felt that it was condescending to anyone who didn’t finish within three years. They took to twitter to tell us so. I must say, even from a position of having just submitted during my fourth year, that I still don’t think that this is quite fair to what Richard said. Anyway, that post certainly generated a lot of talk, but I’m not sure it’s what I’d point to as an example of our best work.
Both of these posts might be considered effective in their spread, by different definitions of what this means. But that is not an indication of how good they are. The posts that make me feel proud to have been part of the Pubs and Pubs team are those that managed to shed some light on the really thorny challenges of PhD life. This is tricky to do in just a thousand words, but there have been some wonderful examples: Claire E. Aubin on feeling a fraud, Devin Grier on PhD life with ADHD, an anonymous author on the PhD as a relationship, Cecily Jones on mental health among BAME students, Elke Close on heartbreak and the PhD, Laura Newman on eating vegetables, Roseanna Doughty on women role models, and Drew Thomas on how to stop reading everything. All of these bring a humility, honesty, courage and touch of humour that for me represent the best of what Pubs and Publications can be.
But these qualities are not what is encouraged if you go hunting for clicks. The most viral content tends to be either the most practical or the most controversial, and these are not necessarily the kinds of posts that give people a real insight into PhD life.
What does this mean for our research?
I am not arguing that we should close off connections and seek wisdom in isolation. Indeed, this would go against many of the posts I have just praised. But what I am urging is that we reconsider what we mean by excellence and productivity. Is the best article the one with the most citations? Must you stick with the big names of your discipline, irrespective of whether they help you in thinking through the questions you want to answer? Couldn’t the book that took twenty years to write be a more important contribution than the numerous articles that it could have become instead?
As universities close their doors, and we seek out new ways to connect online through video-conferencing and social media, take a moment to consider slower, more playful modes of thinking. These may not be what is rewarded by academic capitalism, but perhaps in the long run they may produce better ideas, more effective and humane ways of thinking, and a deeper understanding of what solidarity with others can be. And this work may, when we look back, be more worth having.
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
T. S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’, no.2 of Four Quartets
Sam Grinsell has just submitted his thesis in Architectural History at the University of Edinburgh. Assuming everything goes to plan, he will shortly take up a visiting research fellowship at the University of Antwerp, funded by the Leverhulme Trust.
Image by Wajahat Mahmood, CC-BY-SA, flickr