Tag Archives: Creativity

Flying awkwardly: a year in the life of a first year PhD student.

‘Successful post graduates emerge with a new identity as competent professionals, able to argue their viewpoint with anyone regardless of status, confident in their own knowledge but also aware of its boundaries…to arrive at this point, is what being a postgraduate research student is really all about…’ Phillips & Pugh, 2005

I’ve started, so I’ll finish….  Magnus Magnusson

‘Academia: It’s like negotiating the land of OZ ……minus the good shoes’ Webber, 2011.

One year on…

I’ve had some time off from my blog due to work commitments recently and writing this next entry has proved to be a bit of a challenge to produce. Coming to the end of the academic year, and having recently passed my first year progression exam the time is right to reflect on my experiences and attempt to evaluate as reflexively as I can, what’s worked well and also not so well in order to improve and or maintain my performance and experience for the coming year. One thing I am often told is that a PhD is a journey, so as such, this account resembles a snapshot of that journey, taken at a particular point in time. Perhaps my perspectives and opinions will change as I progress. Perhaps they will become more engrained. Who can tell? Overall, I have mixed feelings at the end of year one, and if this was an ofsted report, I would probably grade this year as ‘satisfactory’. Here’s why:

Great expectations..

So, over 365 days have passed since my application for voluntary redundancy was accepted and I left my consultancy job for a life in academia.  After two refused funding applications and many years of wanting to undertake a PhD I arrived at my desk in the Autumn of 2010, full of enthusiasm and high expectations for what was to come and a clear idea of what life as a PhD student would be like. I had envisioned something which was not in retrospect, exactly that realistic.

I had imagined academia as a world of dynamic modern creatives, striving together to battle the ills of society by attempting to solve or draw attention to its shortcomings. Motivated by a passionate and relentless shared altruistic desire for the pursuit of knowledge and together working in a close team in an environment of trust, my supervisory team (perhaps in the manner of the A-team, or the outlaws of Sherwood forest or similar) together with my supervisor (who could impart a wealth of knowledge about my study and was perhaps a combination of Mr/s Majeika and say, Yoda) would form a band of scholarly rebels an together we would embark on investigation of my research topic, in the manner of an apprenticeship perhaps not dissimilar to those taken by Jedi Knights or Starfleet cadets, which eventually after three joyful years, enabled academic enlightenment which would then be passed to me. Of course all this would be supported by numerous mindbending, stimulating philosophical and theoretical conversations with my peers around life, death, love and the universe carried out in the bar until the early hours of the morning. I might even be able to impart my existing knowledge and experience on a group of bright eyed and bushy tailed students.

Okay so I’m exaggerating slightly in the account above but it’s true to say the reality of academia has not stood up to my initial ideals, which has led me to a lack of motivation  in terms of my research, however it’s also fair to say the year has not been without its notable achievements.

The good

So what positive things can I take from this year? Just being here I guess is one. The landscape of higher education is undergoing radical change and having a scholarship to undertake PhD training is likely to become even rarer in the times to come. Like most people I certainly would never have been able to afford it otherwise. Undertaking a PhD will enable me to benefit society, develop new skills, gain a qualification and change my career direction.

On a practical level having the flexibility to manage your own time is a major perk, as is the chance to be completely selfish in terms of your own training. The opportunities for real development at my previous organisations were reasonably limited. This year I have undergone a great deal of training which I just wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. I’ve completed 90 credits (three) masters level research modules and undergone valuable additional skills training via seven short courses or workshops which support my development as a social researcher. I’ve attended nine professional/academic conferences and presented my previous MSc research at three of these, which are all at an international level.

I’ve made some amazing friends, been a representative on the postgraduate research (PGR)  students committee and volunteered to represent the PGR students at faculty research degree board committee meetings. I assisted in organising the annual PGR student conference and was awarded a first prize for my presentation. Having had a ten year break from any kind of performing, I joined the UWE Centre for Performing Arts (CPA) and auditioned (successfully) for a UWE music scholarship. I then undertook formal singing lessons and I am preparing for my grade 8 musical theatre exam in November. I was genuinely surprised to be cast as a principle role in the university musical (also a journey in itself) which enjoyed a sell-out run at the Redgrave Theatre, Bristol and over the year, in my role as a CPA scholar, I have supported the CPA by singing or giving readings at (approximately) ten public concerts.

I’ve learnt a lot about myself. That sounds dramatic but it’s true, in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated. My skills are improving, although this has been a slow process. Whilst it is a continuing source of worry and bone of contention surviving on a budget has made me richer in other ways. It’s surprising how your identity can develop through creating, observing and appreciating things when you get off of the conveyer belt of consumption that blinds you to them so easily. It’s easy to think when you have been used to earning a certain income that when your circumstances change and you stop work that the world may end. It doesn’t. You have to find a way to adapt, reassess, negotiate but somehow life has gone on. I’m still here. Slightly shabbier looking, a bit fatter but mostly smiling and often covered in paint or glue rather than the trendy (ish) labels.

The bad

So. Where did the struggles occur? For me, concerns began to arise from the outset, as I had not been consulted regarding the appointment of my supervisory team, all of whom seemed excellent academics but I had not been assigned anyone that had in-depth knowledge of the theory I wished to draw upon, or any experience or knowledge in the methodology I wished to use. This has been an ongoing concern and I am told will not be resolved due to resourcing issues.

As I mentioned before expectations were pretty high when I arrived and certain things disappointed me, aspects of the process sometimes seemed ridiculously old fashioned and not the best way to get the best out of students. Some senior academics seemed incredibly blinkered, demonstrating clear bias toward method, philosophy or approach and disparaged the work of their well respected colleagues. All of which is apparently common in academia but not something I had expected or respected. I sort of found it unprofessional and again, old fashioned. Interdisciplinary postgraduate training had previously taught me to have an open mind to various approaches and it came as a complete shock to find that generally this didn’t seem the case in reality. Don’t get me wrong, academics are incredibly exceptional people but I was wondering that if arguing a particular thesis so repeatedly throughout your career actually makes you more blinkered? I lost motivation and the academic pedestal begun to waver as I questioned ‘was I ready to become that narrow minded? The only thing my years of education had taught me was that none of us really ‘know’ anything at all, but it was like nobody actually wanted to admit that. Instead, flags waved from methodological and philosophical islands, and the reality was far different from that I had hoped for. Beneath that I felt was fear and insecurity of difference and the unknown.

Suddenly, the emperor was before me, and I could see his dangly bits.

My poor supervisor didn’t live up to my expectations either. I am his first PhD student and it often felt like a case of the blind leading the blind particularly in the early months. He is just a few years older than me, and is very nice and kind and we drank a lot of coffee, tweeted and text and ate cake and everything was fine. Fine for months. He was very reassuring, there was no nagging and he often wrote/re-wrote chunks of my text for me. As every PhD student-supervisory relationship is different I didn’t question it, until eventually I began to wonder if that’s how everybody else’s meetings went. Turns out they didn’t, and I don’t think things are ever supposed to be ‘fine’ until that last draft has finally been submitted.  So we have to renegotiate the way things are done. No doubt I’ve done nothing but complain and kick and harass various members of staff this year over various things and they are probably all enjoying the break from the crazy Webber girl.

I found the monthly meeting process in general difficult – (this I have been told is in part due to my lack/volume of written output which is a fair criticism). The initial meetings seemed rather odd almost like a kind of role play at times.. (cue schizophrenic breakdown as I began to question the reality of the situation – am I in a play within a play?) I was told I was not playing the ‘game’ several times. Which was somewhat confusing for me as I felt I was there for a meeting about my project, and it’s a bit rubbish if I don’t know what the rules are and no one tells me. As Phillips & Pugh (2005) state above, a large part of the PhD process is learning how to negotiate and present your argument with those of high status. So, part of this meeting process involves the big-wigs belittling you as best they can so you can get used to responding in a professional way. I think I’m okay with criticism if the point made can be fully justified, but I have struggled with the way it has been delivered. Currently the sneeryness  has me yo-yo-ing between wanting to give two types of responses a) melting into a tearful heap on the floor screaming ‘high status suity man, your words, how they burn’ or b) jumping around throwing tables out of windows shouting ‘come and ‘ave a go if you think you’re ‘ard enough’. Again this type of questioning encouraged a lack of motivation not just because it wasn’t particularly pleasant but also it seemed poorly justified and old fashioned. What exactly is so special about academics/academia which qualifies them to behave in a way which would ultimately be seen as unprofessional in commercial or other types of public practice?

The epiphany…

Oddly enough one of the most difficult things I have struggled with is almost an existential one. Often people say that a PhD starts with research questions, but I say it starts with a person. The researcher. Whilst I’ve managed to pass my first year, my research outputs or study focus is not where it should be due to time lost. Whilst some commentators say this is due to too many other things going on, I attribute it to a basic loss of engagement and motivation due to a) strange relations with my supervisors and my own pre-occupation with my unhappiness about the process and b) having to negotiate this pending ‘new identity’  that Phillips & Pugh (2005) speak of.

I sat in front of a computer, staring at a blank screen unable to write for months before finally being signed off work with depression. It was through therapy (together with a two week arts intervention experience ‘The Fortnight Project’ which ran in Bristol as part of the ‘Mayfest’ theatre festival in May) that I began to explore my real motivations for doing a PhD – beyond that which was written on the application form or CV. Having got to know more and more students I discovered that behind each of them was a story. All of us were genuinely interested in our subjects and believed in what we were doing, but there was always something else. The expectations of a parent, or the rivalry of a sibling, the chance to escape domestic drudgery in a different country, avoidance of the ‘real’ world, the passions of a working class girl who saw the lawns of Cambridge one day and wanted a different life.  There were many stories amongst the research proposals that were not always openly acknowledged. So what was mine?

I realised that education had mostly, done a lot for me on behalf of my parents, and I realise now that it’s how I learnt to grow up. So perhaps this is my final push to do that. I never really totally learnt how to negotiate problems, differences or defend myself well or speak my mind in all circumstances, or believe in myself enough to go for what I want. Perhaps I’m here doing this so I can finally learn.  I’m also acutely aware of how, leaving school with just my few GCSES, that for seven years I was often treated as I were stupid, less of a person or (literally at times!) patted on the head and told a ‘girl like me’  wouldn’t need to go to university as I could just find a rich man.

The situation is also a bit of a double edged sword. The new PhD identity will obviously eclipse the old one.. but what will that mean in terms or how I relate to my family? With every course I take I am increasingly viewed as a strange and foreign entity and the title ‘doctor’ will be the final allienatory straw breaking the donkeys back. Whilst my family (complicated) are happy for me, they just don’t get it, or really believe in or value it. So which identify do I use when I’m a Doctoral graduate? The old one so I can relate to them, or the new one, when I can sneer alongside the best of high status professors?  Fundamentally, I believe that people should be recognised for their achievements but I don’t really recognise the social hierarchy. Who am I to say that I am higher status due to those words ‘Dr’ before my name? In some way I almost felt guilty. If I go back to the Wimpy now, after however many years it is – am I really so different? and psssst….   most importantly – Am I going to end up being completely boring, wearing elbow patches with no idea how to be silly or fun or believe in anything without reams of ‘evidence’ to substantiate it? (oh okay that’s an exaggeration, no one really wears elbow patches anymore, and okay some academics are fun (my supervisor is that’s half our problem)

The future

So. It seems I have passed my first year, although it’s not been without incident or a few pilot weeks on prescription drugs (I had a bad reaction to them and gave them up for art and theatre instead) I guess there is nothing else I can do but re-address my expectations of the PhD process, plan my next six months thoroughly, catch up to where I feel I should rightly be and try and hope things with my team improve (Although anecdotally it’s supposed to get really hard at this point). Having spoken to numerous PhD students and graduates it is fair to say none of them have really raved about the process and most seem, by the end of their projects to be bloody glad to be rid of their thesis. Academia is indeed a strange creature, and this odd, Oz like journey appears to be just as concerned with endurance and determination and negotiating relationships as it is with actual research. I decided that what I need to survive, (along with a sense of play and embracing creativity and art outside of work) is a mantra, thus quoted by Magnus above:

I’ve started… so I’ll finish.

(repeat twice a day, every day, until thesis completion)

However I feel, (good or bad) today, next week or this time next year, it won’t last forever – the time has flown and I received my bursary payment schedule recently and looking at those 24 payment dates …. well two years does not seem that long at all.

I’d better get on with it then.

(‘Flying awkwardly’ was also posted at  SociologicalImagination.Org )

Something lovely came to Bristol.. Mayfest’s ‘Fortnight’, creativity and new beginnings.

Brought to Bristol by Proto-Type Theatre, from the outset the Fortnight project required something of a personal leap of faith:

Something poetic, beautiful and strange is coming to Bristol.
It will encourage you to peel back the layers of where you live.
To look for secrets
To meet someone new.
Or hide in a crowd.
On 2 May, Fortnight comes to Bristol.
And you are invited…

For someone who had never attended or been involved with a production incorporating direct participatory audience engagement or ‘live’ art, I was a little apprehensive yet excited at the prospect of my first Mayfest experience. Having been fascinated if a little overwhelmed by the Arnolfini workshop ‘writing on the body earlier in the year, I was ready to once again dip my toe into the unknown in spite of the fact I originally felt like something of an inadvertent artistic philistine.  Whilst the concept of an interaction which was ‘beautiful, poetic and strange’ was appealing, for me, the Fortnights project’s main attraction was the promise of the exploration of place and the opportunity to find greater meaning.  On a few weeks break from my PhD research on doctors orders I figured that I really didn’t have much to lose in taking part (apart from the £15.00 ticket fee) but also admittedly didn’t really have great expectations as to what was to come.

Mysterious beginnings

Fortnight began with a mysterious personalised handwritten letter delivered at midnight, containing a felt badge and instructions as to the next day’s events. The following two weeks unfolded almost moment by moment. Everyday a new location to explore coupled with interactive media based tasks that required us to think, imagine, remember, see, appreciate and reflect on both Bristol as a place and on our on our own reactions to the activity and the resulting thoughts and feelings. Philosophical prose was emailed daily, along with beautiful poetry. A visit to the fountains revealed hundreds of yellow rubber ducks bobbing happily (ours for the taking).  We were encouraged to participate as much or as little as we wished, to play, to create and contribute through film, sound, and visual art, and tweet our comments anonymously on the shared fortnight twitter page, as well as receiving and conversing daily through text messages and emails with the mysterious ‘Fortnight’ who after such regular, personal and often individual contact the absence of which left something of a void after the project came to an end. Taking themes such as space vs. place, nostalgia, the daily commute, spirituality, time,  and meaning , participants were encourage to explore the city both physically and temporally discovering new secrets, hidden places, ourselves and quite often each other. Cumulating in a final group goodbye on the 17th story floor of Castlmead the participants were treated to a spectacular 360 degree view of the city, a party buffet and media presentations of the individual and co-produced contributions that had been made – all of this without  any assistance from the secret Fortnight hosts.  Who continued in the typical fortnight guise of being virtually present, yet corporeally absent.

Writing this now a few weeks after the fortnight project finished I am still a little lost for words in actually defining what Fortnight was and adequately describing its impact and value.  On reflection I came to few key areas of significance that either stood out and I took away with me the following thoughts and contemplations from my experience.

It’s performance Jim, but not as we know it…

As the days went by, there was a continual ongoing debate amongst participants as to what the Fortnight experience actually was and how it could be defined.  The project was in fact so many things.  It was ‘live art’ although I would argue that this was co-creation of performance rather straight audience participation (in my head there is a difference between these two concepts but I’ve no idea if it really exists or if my explanation communicates that well..) but the experience also simultaneously contributed to social, economic and community development as well as having an environmental agenda.  For example the *trail* led us to mostly free, important and perhaps under used resources – a church, a local independent cafe, public spaces and parks, museums and collections, and on the way we passed  local exhibitions and information for local creative support networks, casting offices, records offices, and other various places that may help us on our individual artistic journey.  Additionally some of the tasks may have also passed comfortably as public consultation techniques on the notion of place and the city, and the ‘council planner’ in me would have been interested to see the full list of  opinions on ’non-places’ and the reasons for living in Bristol that were identified by some of the participants.

So on a practical note it seemed to be contributing a wider benefit other than just on an individual psycho-geographic level.  Whilst it was very much an individual experience on one hand, the interaction amongst participants strengthened knowledge of local resources, senses of local and personal  identity  and community ties (having completed the project 30 people signed up to a facebook group in a bid to keep the communitas and creativity going). It also was a great incentive to walk and got participants exercising, as people explored the city from location to location each day. My feet were sore on more than one occasion.

The project has been an excellent demonstration of the opportunities of art in a community setting and how it can be applied to the benefit of others. My previous knowledge of art was not extensive and to be honest I may have secretly thought that at time it could be a little elitist and a bit self indulgent so the power of it and its possibilities I didn’t really appreciate before.  So perhaps rather than trying to define what in fact Fortnight was I was left with a broader question:  What is art? and who is it for?

Whilst I have few criticisms of the project, we should allow for context to a certain extent. Mayfest was an ideal platform from which to launch the project and Bristol of course already has a strong cultural identity and arts scene.  If the aim of the project was to continue to try and reap some of these broader community benefits, It would be interesting to see if the success of Fortnight could be repeated in other less ‘desirable’ or overtly ‘arty’ cities.


How does technology change the way we relate to self and other?  

A key point to the experience was the projects reliance and use of pervasive media.  This made the experience more ‘magical’ in one sense but also highly personal in another. The *challenge* or key thinking point for me was the role that technology plays in human communications and its impact on relationships. It was surprising how quickly I became used to, and looked forward to the daily communication via email and text and how despite trying not to, my ‘Fortnight’ represented  a person I had connected to. Perhaps my connection with Fortnight was that of a literary lover who wrote beautiful heartbreaking poetry, or a friend or parent who encouraged my creative endeavour. Either way it got me thinking about the role of technology and the distortion, interpretation or enhancement of human connection – virtual, imagined, temporal or not.

The consequence of these communications was also something that I thought about. What happens once the text/email/tweet/blog is out there, broadcast or published and you are unable to take it back? Do es the potency and meaning of the message change over time or is captured and kept for as long as the message exists in its virtual domain?

Creativity and play in artistic recovery, innovation and everyday life

So on to the most significant aspect of the project for me.  The role of play and outright silliness in the development and production of creative ideas.  Here I think it’s important to define the difference between ‘art’ and ‘creativity’.  Or is it? Oops have I come back to the ‘What is art question again?’  Artists of course, need to be creative and to create, but engineers also need to be creative to design, social scientists need to be creative to solve problems, to an extent creativity is necessary for everyday life, whether for problems solving, self expression or sharing with others.  So perhaps another lens to look on Fortnight, the *art* of fortnight is its facilitation of creativity amongst participants regardless of background. The emphasis on art that does not/should not take itself to seriously was in my opinion one of its strengths.. especially (can I say it?) at a festival like Mayfest. Brilliant productions. But how accessible are they to a wider audience? Is a wider audience welcome at such a festival?  Should it be encouraged? (Just asking the question)

Fortnight was both empowering and grounding, and a reminder that even the most highbrow/contemporary artistic ideas or productions often started off with a rubber duck in a bath (and nobody should ever be too *arty* or educated or experienced for a duck bath. No. No. No)

A further question that struck me was:  Who is the artist? Is the four year old child drawing on the wall with crayon an artist? Is the student an artist? or is an artist made when her peers agree her work is significant or when she secures her first commercial commission/role?  Perhaps there are different debates depending on how you look at it. For me. I decided that creativity realised in any sense no matter what scale, equals art in whatever form – and that is all.

Conclusion – I’ve been wearing my pyjamas for the past 100 years…

Oh okay, so 100 years is a bit of an exaggeration, and they are metaphorical pyjamas of course… but my key conclusion is thus..  On reflection, prior to the project I did feel like I had been sleep walking through life.. Fortnight promised to peel back the layers of where we live revealing new meanings and hidden secrets, and it did just that. In addition it gave me new confidence to create, embrace the potential of technology, removed my block, got me out of the house, renewed my appreciation of where I live and my sense of identity and place. It created new lasting social networks in my local community.  Fortnight reminded me that Bristol represents a city of possibility if only I can retain my sense of being present long enough to notice it. It was a potent reminder that when your expectation is to create rather than to achieve, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

And so to the future.

After such an experience what next? I decided to set up this blog. To tweet with other artists and pester them nicely in the hope that I will learn things.  To see my new friends regularly. To consolidate my creative endeavours and remember possibilities I had long since buried. To apply the principles I had been reminded of to my everyday life and improve my efficiency at work. To make a plan for the future.

So that’s it. My first blog entry , dedicated to the Fortnight project…


Oh and one last thing… As long as you do understand of course… that I do realise, that, at the end of the day – it was just a project, right?

You know – an arts project?

Because magic….Magic doesn’t really exist.

Does it?