Category: Other Stuff

On PhDs, rejections, and pathways

On PhDs, rejections, and pathways

This past six months, one of the most rewarding things has been slowly putting together CoFUTURES, inviting in fellows with whom I will be building something crazy cool over the next years, and  hopefully changing the world a bit for the better in the process. Let me put it this way: I feel really lucky that the project got the people it did. These are people exceptional in every way, who are in successful careers of their own in different disciplines and contexts but who have nonetheless decided to think together possible futures for the world, some even relocating to Oslo (which, beautiful though it always is no matter what the season, can really test one’s resilience with the cold and dark in winters if you come from the warmer world). With our weekly meetings and movies, and the passion of the discussions all around, even if temporarily all we can do is zoom, I can already tell that this is going to be an amazing experience. And then there will also be more people, which I am really excited about, so that in a year or two the dozen might double, all engaged in rethinking the whole world and its speculative dimensions from the ground up. Fingers crossed for that. I am truly grateful for this experience.

This past six months, one of the saddest things I have experienced in the same process of hiring PhD fellows is saying no to some of the most brilliant candidates with excellent proposals I have come across. With the hundreds of candidates who have applied for just the four advertised positions, these things are bound to be extremely hard decisions. Sometimes I didn’t quite know what to tell such exceptional candidates except wishing them good luck for the future even as I wished silently that there weren’t one position but two or three or half a dozen more, and we could all be one crazy bunch thinking working doing things together. Some people had projects that didn’t fit into the exact categories I had in mind, others simply because someone else edged them out a bit on experience. There were many astounding applicants who already had PhDs and were interested in pursuing a second, and I wish that were possible too.

Both these things remind me of two different times of my life connected to PhD positions. A rejection and an acceptance. The first was a rejection too back in the day exactly like the ones we have had to hand out now, from the  Commonwealth UK doctoral fellowships, where I was the sole India nominee for my field that year. I wanted to do a PhD at Liverpool, because of course. It hurt like a ton of bricks. No other way to describe it. I was a 22 year old after all. I couldn’t apply for US universities, since all those applications and the GRE drill cost quite a lot of money I couldn’t afford and a bill I did not want to saddle my parents with, nor did I want to spend money on something where the returns weren’t guaranteed.

I spent the next two and a half years doing an MPhil (a second masters), working briefly as a research assistant, and teaching. In those two years I also spent most of my time at the library and at home pretty much reading through everything I found theoretically, historically, or philosophically interesting, a quest that begin during my first masters (I bunked almost all my classes to read on my own instead), but the second masters and its flexibility gave me more time. Those reading lists went all the way from Plato to Derrida to Modernist art theory to Subaltern Studies, and all the journals and books I could find, get, or download from all kinds of sources. I was pretty good at that downloading too – so much so that a friend of mine cited me in her thesis acknowledgements as a kind of master pirate, which I still think of as a pretty cool thing. There was no money to get it all at the rate I read or wanted to read or could get from the library, even though I probably spent 80% of my income on books, so much that my friends joked that some publishers’ turnovers probably depended on me, and my dad once asked, jokingly, how much a book cost per page (it was a slim book that I had had to import and it cost half my monthly salary then). Academic piracy is after all still the reality of most of the world, even now. There’s no money for fancy research in most of the world. Before the Open-Access movement there wasn’t much of open research either. While the 20th century, including structuralism, postmodernism, postcolonial studies and subaltern studies had taken up a lot of my masters, now it was mostly a lot of older stuff mixed with a lot of absolutely current 21st century stuff. There was a lot of 18th and 19th century in my reading, because the library had a lot of those, and my MPhil courses took me in that direction. Vico. A lot of Spinoza and everything around Spinoza for a while. Kant ate up way too much time but it was worth it. A whole bunch of time on the Upanishads and several strands of Indian philosophy. Media studies. And a ridiculous amount of reading on modern drama too, oddly enough, Jerzy Grotowski, Augusto Boal, and Badal Sircar and what not, and I scripted two complete science fiction plays (which will never see the light of day). I remember spending a fortnight reading everything on CTheory for the sole reason it was open-access and seemed really cool. Trawling through journals in JSTOR or Project Muse for hours and hours on poor, slow internet in sweltering heat in the college computer rooms where the air-conditioner seemed to be just for show. I even ended up writing a thesis on degeneration and eugenics and early 20th century science fiction, which got an A and gave me an MPhil distinction and one of my first journal articles, but that’s another thing altogether. When I finally left India after a brief return to teach for a year after my PhD, I donated all my notes and printouts, things I had collected etc over 7 years of college life to my old college Ramjas department library. It was in 50 volumes or so, thick hardbound A4 books, but I am not really sure of the number anymore. There were books too, numbering in thousands, that I wanted to donate, but it could not be arranged before I left.

I was reading everything and all the time I had was spent on it. I don’t believe all that reading has ever set in or is likely to. The support I had from my teachers at Delhi University and my colleagues at St. Stephen’s was extraordinary to say the least. They indulged me is how I see it now. I think to a certain extent my students and fellow-learners at Stephen’s had to suffer through a little of all that reading too as things blended in my lectures. Hopefully they didn’t suffer much, given that I have kept in touch with many of them, but you never know when your students are just being polite and indulgent either. And I learnt a lot from them too. I also had the best mentor (may he be at peace), who basically gave me a ton of books and spent many late afternoons discussing Frankfurt School, Heidegger, Husserl, and Gadamar, as well as Foucault, Derrida, and the postmodernist bunch with me over cups of over-flavoured tea. He would sneak off to smoke a cigarette on the smoke-free campus, and ultimately he died from his smoking and drinking, but he almost quit smoking the year I worked because I couldn’t stand cigarettes and used to buy him nicotine gum. But Dr. Ashish Roy is not someone I would like to discuss now, and in any case I don’t think I am ready even now to describe the complicated nature of our difficult friendship. Every one of his students and friends has a story, and others closer to him have written a lot more. This one by Paromita Patranobish is especially beautiful.

And then, about two years later, I got accepted in a PhD programme, which was not only a fully-funded, but I could also work on science fiction: what I had prepared for four years by then. I packed my bags for the cold, dark, north which I also now call home, and I arrived smack in the middle of winter less than a week after my 25th birthday. The digression and reading helped me think through the many problems, and I do think I was more ready as a 25 year old than a 22 year old. Ten years later, here it all is, and it is what it is. But the one thing that kept me going in those two years after that ton of bricks, and continue on also within academia, is something that my SF guru Andy Sawyer wrote to me on an email right after I shared the dissapointing news, for which I will remain ever thankful, which was that I shouldn’t give up on science fiction. I didn’t.

Those with the heartbreak now, don’t give up on science fiction. There are better worlds to be made, and they are in waiting.

Oslo School of Environmental Humanities: Opening Conference

Oslo School of Environmental Humanities: Opening Conference

So yesterday I was at “Nordic Environments,” the opening conference of the Oslo School of Environmental Humanities.

Oslo School of Environmental Humanities (OSEH)[i] is the Faculty of Humanities and UniOslo’s flagship 5 year research and education initiative for the environmental humanities (EnvHum). While OSEH has been in operation for nearly a year, under the leadership of director Ursula Muenster (Associate Professor at the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages) and some of the coolest people at the Faculty of Humanities, UniOslo, the opening conference[ii] was a celebration of the different kinds of initiatives and dialogues that OSEH has facilitated or participated in both at the university level and the wider public level over this year, as well as a statement of its goals and projects over the next years. The conference was held at SALT,[iii] which was an unusual location for an academic conference for those outside Scandinavia, being a “nomadic art project”, sauna, and exhibition space. However, it fit well with the Norwegian celebration of nature, the environmental focus of OSEH and its desire to promote interdisciplinary knowledge production including the arts, as well as the general academic goal of increasing public participation and bidirectional knowledge transfer. OSEH has also been doing it with a number of cool events, such as their EnvHum lunchtime discussions (check out the OSEH webpages for more!), so in that sense having a venue outside the university space made sense.

Due to other commitments, I was unable to attend the post-lunch panel, but I did manage to attend the morning sessions as well as the full evening program. So what follows are some general and haphazard thoughts on the event, and some of my takeaways from the opening day.

* Heather Swanson’s keynote: this was an amazing keynote, not only because Swanson is an engaging speaker, but because the topic was “failure”, which is an increasingly relevant theme for our times. The failure ranges from the personal (managing precarity; reviewer two etc., themes that came up during the Q&A session as well), to the disciplinary (true “interdisciplinary” exchanges between humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences; having an actual impact on the state of affairs in the world etc.), to the academic-political (increasing corporatization of public sector institutions; failure to facilitate meaningful and progressive political change in these times of political crisis; balancing research responsibility with other kinds of political activity, balancing environmental, queer, and left activism, etc.). Swanson’s talk brilliantly and beautifully captured all these failures, and went beyond them.

There was one issue for me however and that was the notion of genre and breaking genre. But it was “more a comment than a question” so it was better to write it out than bring it up in the conference space. From my literary training standpoint, genres are always already broken. There is no such thing as a “pure” genre, and therefore breaking genre doesn’t make sense. This goes as much for an academic lecture as it does for academic writing, or self-presentation, or performance. It also brings up another issue, as visual anthropologist and my friend Moumita Sen puts it: there are many occasions where it makes no sense to subvert the subversion, because it only serves to bring us back to the status quo. This is particularly an issue when constant subversion becomes the norm to such an extent that the only way one can “subvert” is by being apolitical, or by being strongly against political correctness. In the last few years, we have seen some strong instances of “breaking genre,” such as dressing informally for an academic talk which have been nothing more than reinstatement of the status quo in different forms. Take as example Matt Taylor’s misogynist t-shirt which sparked quite a debate a few years ago – because on the one hand it did subvert the genre of serious academic talk, while reinforcing the general misogynistic problem within STEM and academia.[iv] At what point do we set the limits of subversion, at what point is breaking genre a valid exercise, and when does it become yet another capitalist way of marking the path of progress: innovation as the continuous breaking of genre? The question of failure can also lead one down the same path – what really constitutes a failure if it is a “productive failure” (after all, science and knowledge progress through failures), or if it is the seed of something else (particularly true of political revolutions, when we talk about the “failure” of Occupy or the Ukrainian Orange Revolution or the Arab Spring)?

Swanson did distance herself from the problems I raise here, especially during Q&A when she emphatically asserted that her objective to bring up “failure” was not a call to abandon political struggle, or academic work, or any of those things, nor was her call for productive failure a Silicon Valley-esque call for innovation. And I agree with her that they are not, but they are connected and the problems raised by using the same strategies towards progress and conservative ends are not easy to ignore.  This, and the problem of genre and breaking genre, are also at the heart of the CoFutures argument, so a lot of these are thoughts that came up due to my own preoccupations rather than Swanson’s talk alone, but I raise them to point to the richness of her talk and the concerns she brought up. I am not sure some of these contradictions can be resolved. I will just mention in context the epigraph by Nic Pizzolatto in Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Agents of Dreamland, which is on top of my tbr pile at the moment, that an answer isn’t the same thing as a solution.[v]

*Another question that Swanson raised was the point about “Environmental Humanities” as a problem term, and how “environment” serves as a boundary object that allows negotiations with other disciplines, while humanities serves to exclude interdisciplinary collaborations. Somehow, she argued, we are stuck with it, even though EnvHum should perhaps be called not- environment, and not-humanities. This was a fun idea to think with, because a lot of us have similar problems with the term science fiction.

*Speaking of SF, Muenster ended her introduction with a list of six powerful women who have transformed our way of thinking, and she included two people those of us in the SFF field are proud to think of as our own in some ways: Ursula Le Guin and Donna Haraway.[vi] SFF and EnvHum have never been far apart, and CoFutures will also focus on these connections, including eco-fiction, environmental literature, climate fiction, anthropocene fictions, etc. There is a lot to say and I will write about it at some other point, but it was really wonderful that she brought it up.

*Interventions: the evening programme is worth focusing on. Muenster and OSEH created a packed but extremely engaging programme with speakers from public organizations, artists, architects, and finally, a concert with Sami Joik artist Vassvik.[vii] In brief presentations, we learnt about GrowLab which stages urban interventions in the Oslo city space, marine creatures in the inner Oslo fjord, the popping and crackling sounds of oxygen escaping the slowly declining iceshelves of the Arctic from the Future North project, about Natur og Ungdom and the anti-oil drilling climate lawsuit brought about by children, youth, and others against the Norwegian government, a supremely tragicomic performance by Kristy Kross (dressed as a fish) about extinction adapted to “Don’t Worry Be Happy”, and a presentation of the weird Anthropocene Cookbook. The broad range of topics and presentations, with the common theme of anthropogenic climate change but focusing on it from a variety of lenses from legal perspectives to aesthetic concerns to overconsumption to neoliberal capitalism to settler colonialism, offered us a snapshot of academic, political, and artistic ways of strategizing for a common cause, and the ambition of OSEH to work across disciplines and initiate different kinds of discussions going forward. And the concert that brought it all to a close was out of this world.

Altogether, it was a perfect day. Many congratulations to the organizers and OSEH putting this amazing event together! I am really excited about the next years!










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