Martine Wright – Destiny calling

As I watched the Paralympics opening ceremony and the run-up on Channel 4, I couldn’t help but be moved by the story of Martine Wright, the GB sitting volleyball player. 

She strongly believed that losing her legs in the London 7/7 bombings, the day after we won the bid for 2012, was a part of her destiny, and not a freak accident. Her achievement at London 2012 is not only a consequence of her training, but also down to her overall experience, including sitting next to one of the suicide bombers.

Many of the contributors to this blog have written of how their PhD is not just about their research but is also the result of experiences. Elsewhere, I have blogged how an Olympic medal is like a PhD? Was your PhD part of your destiny?

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Judith Butler and familial influence

I stumbled across this 6-part interview with Judith Butler, gender theorist, in French and English with subtitles and a smattering of German. in the first video, Butler posits the possibility that the thesis of her key text, Gender Trouble, was influenced by her experience living with Jewish parents going through assimilation. This idea of childhood experience affecting research development is certainly something I can understand.

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Understanding the Dialectic

When I was at school, my favourite subject was Latin. I liked learning languages in general, but Latin stood out. Maybe it was the teacher, Mr Shaw, who was unforgettably unique. Maybe it was because I had a thing for the Romans. Or maybe it was the relationship between Latin and English. Or all of those things. Anyway, after GCSEs, I knew I wanted stick with the classical subjects for A-level. However, I was advised to do more useful subjects so that could get a job.

I ended up studying mathematics and computing. Don’t get me wrong, I liked these subjects too and was just as good at them as languages. They were technical skills. But I didn’t see them as technical skills but as forms of expression, creation and communication. They were languages. Ever since I was 6 years old, I loved messing around with programming languages and writing programs; what fascinates me most about maths is its role as a universal language. Any problem could be expressed mathematically. There was a creativity in both that depended on the terms or constructs used. So I then went and did a degree in mathematics and computing science. But that is as far as it went. Indeed, all I remember now is the basics and I do so with regret.

Why did I stop? After all, when I look at my transcripts, I can see that I was good at it and was on course to get 2:1 after two years. I think I was attracted by the glamour of journalism. I thought that I had got bored with my degree subject, but on hindsight I don’t think I had. Again, I was good at it and I even had my fair share of exclusives, which was always an ego boost. But what I did really like about journalism was the combination of creativity and communication. Then, I went into law, for various reasons, but what I liked most was the interpretation and analysis of law and understanding what was meant.

All of which brings me to my PhD. Ostensibly, it is about how law is used by the government to encourage recycling and the relationship between the state and the individual. But what I have discovered is that I have been drawn to a Hegelian theoretical framework because I am interested in law as the dialectic between the State and the individual. Law – and I take quite a broad view – is how the state and individual communicate or converse, with their own respective dialects.

This blog started because I believed that a PhD student’s research topic was influenced by a person’s life. Whilst the PhD is a distinct task, it grew out of what went before. But now it seems that at least my PhD is just the latest manifestation of a lifelong project to understand how people and entities communicate and, in particular, how people communicate with their environment. And so, this blog is an attempt to understand how PhD students communicate with their environment. Indeed, studying Hegel has helped me to evaluate my own political views and understand many of the paradoxes within my faith.

The post was inspired a the TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson below but not in the way I expected. Robinson says that, as a result of industrialisation, a hierarchy of subjects has been established, with subjects more closely related to jobs being valued more highly. As a result, children are pushed towards a particular direction – not out of malice but out of a desire to prepare them for survival –  without thinking that the child may not be suited to that subject and hence stifling their creativity. At first, my post was going to be how this has happened to me and why this was relevant to doing a PhD. But as I started to write and really think about why I liked Latin and languages and what it was I did like about mathematics and computing that I realised that there might be another possibility. Whatever the reason I have done what I have done, they all seem to have been ways of answering a deeper question. Perhaps this is the problem with our education system at the moment, not that it kills creativity but that its fragmentation silences those deeper questions that we have. Maybe.

But maybe I am completely wrong on this. But, until today, I have always held onto a bit of resentment towards those who advised me regarding my A-levels for not understanding my needs at the time. At least, after writing this post, I am able to forgive them.

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Do our foetal experiences help to do a PhD?

I stumbled across this talk by science writer Annie Murphy Paul on the intriguing field of foetal origins research. According to the scientific research, one’s learning begins while in the womb;  information about the environment of a pregnant mother is transmitted to the foetus, primarily through the digestive process and the senses, so that the foetus can develop the right qualities to survive in the outside world. (Unfortunately, the foetus doesn’t know that the mother’s environment is subject to change.)

I have been thinking  about the origin of phd topics and how they are influenced by the environment of the PhD student. There may be no connection but this talk made me wonder whether the skills required to do a PhD or experience that led to a PhD topic are the result in part or indirectly of any foetal learning.

It is interesting that Paul’s book on foetal origin research was written while she herself was pregnant. Did her experience as an expectant mother make her look more favourably on doing the research?  

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A PhD topic as one node in a network of ideas

I started this blog because I was interested in that tweet of the imagination, that moment of inspiration, that lead to a phd topic. But, according to Steve Johnson, there is no such thing as the famed Archimedes moment. In reality, The badly-named environment is a network of human and non-human entities in contradiction and in dialectic to each other. One person’s tiny idea is, as Hegel would say, the synthesis of thesis and antithesis. Those big ideas – one amazing example that Johnson cites is the development of GPS – are really the collision of smaller ideas, that occur through the communication of people with their network.  We talk about the apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head but the apple wouldn’t have fallen without gravity to pull it down, without Newton being in the right place and who knows what else happened from him to be there.  (Indeed, the ‘apple of the head’ is believed to be apocryphal, most likely developed to explain the moment that drew everything that Newton went through before together.) Catherine Malabou would have described this idea as le voir venir (to see what is coming). In this video, Johnson refers to a number of famous innovations and the network,behind them and explains why coffee shops are a part of writing a PhD. It turns out that they are a part of our societal DNA. But it also raises a good and pedantic question: why is the outcome of a PhD called a thesis when it should surely be a synthesis?

I have just realised that through this post and the previous one that this blog is  part of a larger network of researchers.

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Elizabeth Gilbert on the spiritual origin of creativity

Sometimes, being creative feels like an overflowing river bursting its banks, granting fruitfulness to the land. At other times, it can be like trying to get blood from a stone. A common piece of advice for being creative is the important of writing regularly – the more you do it, the easier it becomes. There is some truth in this. After all, that is how the brain works. Neuronal connections become stronger each time the connection is repeated. So of course, one would not want to dispute neurobiological research. But I can testify to the argument of writer Elizabeth Gilbert, speaking at TED, that creativity is not the result of a purely mechanical process but something that is given to us from a force larger than ourselves.

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Where did your “Archimedes moment” come from?

I started this blog because I was interested to in the “Archimedes moment” of PhD topics. It was my hypothesis that there was a connection between a PhD topic and the ‘environment’ of the researcher. The “Archimedes moment” – that moment of insight or aha or Eureka – was a moment of what Catherine Malabou calls le voir venir, where the researcher consciously or subconsciously looks back to what went before and then forwards to what is to come. Indeed, a number of contributors to this blog have often commented how the very act of writing a post was a cathartic process of making sense.

But one thing I have noticed during the course of my PhD is that there has not been just one moment of insight, there have been a whole series of them. I noticed I would have them at the oddest times – travelling on the bus or train, in church, watching TV and always when I was not thinking necessarily thinking about my PhD. In fact, sometimes I even had them while procrastinating. Perhaps the best example is my actual theoretical reading.  Sometimes, I would start reading a philosophical book and it makes no sense whatsoever so I put it to one side and get on with something else. I would then keep putting off going back to that book. But eventually I do and it makes perfect sense. It’s almost as if I had to do other things first, read other things first, come to certain points in my thinking first, before my brain was ready to process a particular philosophical text.

On the one hand, I would put this process of insight after preparation down to God. He knew, in his omniscience, what I needed to do and in what order; he had his teaching programme all mapped out, and if I tried to depart from it (unknowingly) it wouldn’t make sense. But then I wondered, how does he do that exactly? According to Jonah Lehrer, it’s done through the very structure of the human brain.

It turns out that there is no such thing as right-brained or left-brained people. Well, there are, but those people are suffering from brain damage. But the healthy person uses both sides of the brain. The left side focus on individual detail and the literal meaning of words and the right side focus on connections, underlying order, connotation and so on. We are physically reading or looking at some data, our brain will use the left side as far as possible to understand it but eventually it reaches an impasse where what we are looking at does not make sense. We give up in frustration and decide to do something else. But that’s when our right side kicks in. Having failed to understand on the surface, the brain goes under the covers and looks underneath the data. That’s when we get insight. It works when we are not actually ‘working’ because it is only reviewing the work that has already been done.  I’m going to hazard a guess but that must be why I’ve woken up in the middle of the night with a solution.

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