The myth of the autonomous teenager

White, J. 1997. Philosophy and the aims of higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 22 (1), pp7-17.

I got a bit low constructing a response to this paper, because it was published in the same year I went to university and it got me thinking about my own undergraduate experience. I don’t want to depress anyone unnecessarily (especially not on Blue Monday), so I promise not to dwell on that bit.

John White gave a paper last week at the IoE on the place of love in education, and I figured that now that we’re mates and everything (I’m going to use his first name from now on to prove it) I should read this one, and then I can talk with him about it over a beer. It’s highly relevant to my thesis as it questions the role of philosophy in determining the aims of higher education.

I used to have clear ideas about what higher education *should* be; I felt that the entire education system – including higher education – should provide a steer towards sustainability; subverting the neoliberal, consumerist agenda rather than supporting it (I’m a personal fan of Barnett’s utopian ecological university). Now, of course, I realise that this a personal preference based on my own moral philosophy; the values and idea of the good life I have attached myself to. It transpires that I would have more of a philosophical leg to stand on if I advocated that universities should be focused on serving God. Hence my thesis…

I’m going to put the critique of Barnett’s argument for emancipatory aims of higher education to one side for now, as John’s own arguments seem sound but I really want to take a look at what Barnett said first hand (and also Paul Standish’s review of The Idea of the University). I was under the impression that Barnett fully acknowledged higher education’s surfeit of aims. In his 1988 paper Does Higher Education have Aims he even argues that ‘talk of aims in relation to higher education is in several senses inappropriate and misleading’ (p239).

What I want to respond to today is John’s argument against philosophising on the aims of higher education, on the grounds that, while children do and must have aims imposed on them, HE students are ‘autonomous persons’ who decide for themselves what their goals are. Many years before before students actually became protected by consumer law and universities were formally classified as ‘traders/sellers/suppliers’, he writes of ‘consumer sovereignty’ – of aims that reflect the different goals students have in mind. Interestingly, having said here that ‘all but the oldest children are typically too ignorant and… immature to know what is best for them, educationally speaking’ (p12), the paper John gave at the IoE this week supported an extension of learner autonomy to compulsory schooling, with a taster curriculum that allows pupils to develop their own interests. I’d like to ask him more about this with reference to his views about aims in higher education. It feels to me that a general move towards developing and supporting learner autonomy brings together some big ideas – including emancipation.

I am deeply uneasy about these assertions of the autonomy of (primarily) 18-year-olds. I can think of many ways – implicit and explicit – in which the state, the business community and academics can and do impose aims on students (fee loans, internships, graduate attributes, assessment criteria). Families can be a huge influence on the goals of these so-called ‘autonomous persons’, particularly if they are offering cash or freebies. I went for a swim halfway through reading John’s paper, and overheard two mothers in the shower strategising about their children’s university education. One was putting £25 a month aside (I did the maths… disappointing). The other was wondering whether her son would be up for moving to live with his grandfather in Norway at 14 in order to do the IBacc and get a (free) place at a Norwegian university.

As promised, I won’t depress you with my own story, other than to say that parental influence deeply influenced my university choices and my actions and experience as a student (on the bright side, it was probably my deep need for parental approval that kept me going). This won’t have been everyone’s experience, and that was 20 years ago. It would be nice to think that as students *are* being saddled with huge amounts of personal debt when they apply to university, they are at least making that decision autonomously. But I doubt it. If I’m right, does that mean we can reopen the philosophical debate on the aims of higher education? Actually, thinking about it, I rather feel that we should stop encouraging teenagers to go to university. 

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Gadamer and solidarity

After Truth and Method, Gadamer shifted from writing about tradition to solidarity. Both concepts relate to deep-seated agreements about the way things are or should be, but solidarity bears an element of forward-thinking, of future aspirations with a basis of ethical and/or political values. This turn presumably helped Gadamer to address criticisms that the ideas in Truth and Method were focused on the past and lacked relevance to the future.

Gadamer held a clear belief in the idea of moral progress, which he described as an extension of inclusivity; an emphasis of similarity over difference. We often think of left-wingers as more inclusive than right-wing thinkers; of having a broader definition of ‘us’, but I found myself thinking yet again about that time I went to the Conservative party conference to talk with delegates and get to know about their lives and values. I found them surprisingly willing to talk with me, and I *did* feel that they wanted to find common ground, which was an interesting contrast to the them-and-us mentality I experienced while among the protesters. A similar pattern was found in a study by the Public Religion Research Institute in the US that looked at following and unfollowing on social media – liberals were much more likely to unfollow those with different views, and did so faster. It’s a very interesting conundrum that has been chewed over a thousand times in the press since the EU referendum and the US presidential election; made even more complex by the suggestion that the ‘winning’ voters are being manipulated and lied to by the powerful. Jonathan Haidt writes about these phenomena in this book The Righteous Mind, as does Joshua Greene in Moral Tribes. Haidt theorises that moral judgement plays a role in helping us to form communities. We may like to think that morals are just about justice and equality, but authority, sanctity and loyalty not only come into play, but often matter more.

On first reading, Gadamer’s ideas about moral progress seemed to contrast sharply with another philosopher I’ve been reading for fun recently; Peter Sjöstedt-H, who writes about metaphysics and meta-ethics in the context of psychedelic phenomenology. Sjöstedt-H attempts to dismantle any idea of a universal morality, arguing that morality is more akin to fashion than technology, and that in the absence of a God/creator, humans have no prescribed purpose, therefore our characteristics and behaviours cannot be described as supportive (‘good’) or undermining (‘bad’) of any such purpose. He challenges egalitarianism, contractarianism and utilitarianism, giving examples of individuals and cultures that value valour and adventure over peace and stability. Like Gadamer, Sjöstedt-H links morality to power, but he focuses on how moral prescriptions (what we ‘ought’ to do) merely express a desire for one to change the behaviour of another (the authoritarial aspect of prescriptive morality discussed by Haidt).

But what links the two authors is that Gadamer’s moral progress relates to descriptive rather than prescriptive morality. Towards the end of his long career Gadamer became preoccupied with what, like Zeldin, he saw as a major defect in public life; our tendency to emphasise the different and disputed. Our political system is set up for confrontation as a default; our historical education and entertainment media focus on conflict. Like Hogan, he asks questions about specialisation and its tendency to drive us apart, claiming that instrumental reason seeks a control of language and the world that would be impossible to realise.

I’ll close with a passage from Misgeld & Nicholson’s (1992) book Hans-Georg Gadamer on Education, Poetry and History, as I feel it encapsulates what I’m trying to achieve with my EdD thesis:

I am convinced that even in a highly bureaucratized, thoroughly organized and thoroughly specialized society, it is possible to strengthen existing solidarities. Our public life appears to me to be defective in to far as there is too much emphasis upon the different and disputed, upon that which is contested or in doubt. What we truly have in common and what unites us thus remains, so to speak, without a voice. Probably we are harvesting the fruits of a long training in the perception of differences and in the sensibility demanded by it. Our historical education aims in this direction, our political habits permit confrontations and the bellicose attitude to become commonplace. In my view we could only gain by contemplating the deep solidarities underlying all norms of human life.

Hans-Georg Gadamer in Misgeld & Nicholson 1992, p.192

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Gadamer, Kafka and interpretation

gadamerLawn, C. 2006. Gadamer: A Guide for the Perplexed. Continuum, New York.

Gadamer was a traditionalist. He didn’t like the way the dominant scientific method focuses on the future and forgets about the past. He believed that knowledge is interpretation, and that the hermeneutic circle can and does apply to everything, with layers and layers of parts and wholes (of which we are always a part), influencing one another and causing meaning to be constantly shifting.

Gadamer built on the work of Schleiermacher but claimed to disagree with him on certain things; he felt that Schleiermacher did not emphasise the universal application of hermeneutics, and put undue emphasis on the psychological or empathetic aspect of interpretation; where one seeks to get inside the mind of the author – to come to know the author better than the author themselves – in order to more interpret their words more accurately. Gadamer felt that this emphasis subordinates the text itself, and the power of language itself to disclose truth. Did he simply mean that our words often communicate more than, or something other than, we intended to express? That would make sense. Gadamer also felt that the emphasis on the biography and psychology of the author subordinates that of the interpreter; he was in favour of interpretation that is dialogic and interactive; a collective divinatory act.

Chris Lawn, whose writings on Gadamer I’m reading, having tried Truth and Method and felt truly and thoroughly perplexed, feels that the difference between the grammatical and the psychological is not as emphatic as Gadamer claims it to be. Psychological features, after all, are made manifest through language; we find the psychological trace through the text. But when we conceive a ‘text’, where are the boundaries around it? For example, my friend Richard recently got me to read Kafka’s The Trial. There was a lot I liked about The Trial (not least that it taught me a lot about Richard and the way he experiences the world), but something I found particularly enlightening was the note at the back that explained Kafka’s dying wish that all copies of The Trial be burned, as he did not feel the work was significant or otherwise worthy of merit. Now, I would include such information – particularly as the publisher chose to print it within that edition of the book itself – as part of the text that added something to my interpretation of it. It would appear that Kafka did not even intend me to read The Trial; let alone to read it and to know that he felt it wasn’t worthy of merit. But I can still take all this information and make what I want from it. It seems a little unethical, and at odds with Gadamer’s vision of congenial, dialogic divination, but we all know that if writing is the vocation you choose, then this goes with the territory. It’s like trying to take down your own tweets, or courting media attention and then complaining about lack of privacy.

Incidentally, it was interesting to discuss The Trial with Richard and to compare our interpretations of it. They overlapped a lot; obviously it helped that I knew a little about Richard and that he felt this book was highly significant to him, but there was one key point of departure between our interpretations. Near the end of the book, the beleaguered lead character is told a parable by a clergyman; a story of a man who finds a door that leads to Truth. The door is open, but guarded by a doorkeeper, who doesn’t let the man through. The man stays with the doorkeeper, trying to persuade him to let him in, and remains there until he grows old and dies. At the moment of death, the doorkeeper closes the door. My interpretation of the parable was that it illustrated the insanity – and the paradox – of an obsession with truth; why spend our lives doggedly and pointlessly trying to get at it, when we could choose to walk away, out into the sunshine, and go skiing, or dancing, or learn to surf? Crucially, what paltry, half-assed, incomprehensible truth can possibly lie beyond that door if we’ve spent the only life we have sat on a stool next to it?

This was not how Richard had interpreted it; I rather think he quite admired the man’s determination, and shared his intrigue about what lay beyond the door of Truth. Which just goes to show how important our own biographies and psychologies as interpreters are in finding meaning in texts.

The relevance of all this to my thesis project is because I’m going to be exploring, interrogating and interpreting other people’s views about the purpose of universities. In seeking to be an equal partner in conversation with my participants I am explicitly and intentionally stepping within the hermeneutic circle; I make no pretensions of being a detached, objective observer. My interpretation of the conversation and its implications will be deeply influenced by my own position and biographical context.

This approach also has potentially weird and wonderful implications for my chosen method of Conversation Analysis. CA was devised for the analysis of naturally-occurring speech, and the speech I’m going to be capturing is not going to be wholly natural; also, half of it is going to come from me. I managed to stumble across one of the tutors at Brookes on Tuesday who happens to be a bit of a CA expert and I need to pick his brains about this… Perhaps it would be best to simply get the conversations done as soon as possible, before I get too familiar with the CA technique… otherwise the knowledge of what I’m going to be looking for is likely to influence what I say and how I say it?!

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On pure experience

In an assignment I wrote recently on psychedelic experience and education, I cited Huxley’s (1954, p47) call for us to learn ‘to look at the world directly’ rather than through the ‘half-opaque medium of concepts’, and also Watts’ (1971) warning not to ‘confuse that system of symbols [language, calculation], with the world itself’.

A friend/colleague very generously provided me with some comments (after I’d submitted it), and I am really enjoying exploring his suggestions. Against the above, he wrote the following:

‘You’ll know that John McDowell argues that it is impossible to look at the world directly, if by that you mean to have unconceptualised experiences. See his Mind and World. He bases his argument on Sellar’s idea of the ‘Myth of the Given’.

I didn’t know of John McDowell, and I haven’t got myself a copy of Mind and World (yet), but I did come across a really nice review by Wayne Christensen of a book by Joseph K Schear on ‘The McDowell-Dreyfus Debate’. While McDowell argues that everything we perceive is pervaded by conceptualisation – a view I didn’t think I agreed with at all – at least his definition of conceptual understanding is not restricted to that which can be coded in language. Christensen cites the example of an individual who perceives a shade of colour for which there is no name, but can retain the experience in memory and refer to it in their mental processes. This is a rather simple example, compared to some things I’ve perceived that couldn’t possibly be recounted, and also, annoyingly, evade capture by the memory (I may only recall, for example, that I perceived something of great significance while fetching a teabag from the cupboard above the kettle, and it was wonderful and reassuring and I wanted so badly to write it down but I couldn’t). The example of the nameless colour brings to mind Philip K Dick’s ‘pink light’ in Valis. It also reminds me of an embarrassing moment I had one Christmas with a boyfriend’s family; being asked to describe a china tea set to his sister, who had been blind since birth. How should I explain ‘gold’? or ‘green?’ Should I even try? Since then, I’ve googled ‘how to describe a colour to a blind person’ and realised that she was probably testing me. Ha.

I came across Hubert Dreyfus and his five stages of expertise before when I was writing a book review of Transformative Learning & Identity. I recall liking his suggestion that the most proficient, most expert practitioners actually think less about what they are doing, not more. It seemed to counter Schön’s dogma of the reflective practitioner, which I’d found irritating. It does depend on what one means by ‘thinking’ though – as Wittgenstein noted, there are many different kinds of thought. I’m willing to bet that there is plenty of brain activity involved in what Dreyfus called ‘absorbed coping’. Charles Limb’s brain scanning of musical improv artists may be a case in point (although I don’t know for certain if his research subjects would have claimed a lack of conscious awareness of what they were doing). If the brain *is* indeed highly active during the highest levels of competent practice, can we claim it to be non-cognitive? Perhaps it is sometimes the case that the more expert we are, the less we are aware of our thinking, hmm? Christensen argues that our conceptual self-awareness is often inaccurate, citing a study that found professional batsmen do not, in fact, keep their eye on the ball (as they thought they were doing).

I looked up Barbara Montero after reading Christensen’s review and I love her perspective. She has digested a lot of thinking from across the disciplines about cognitive activity and expert performance, and built a strong case that expert action can be ‘richly minded’. A ballerina herself, she argues that ‘autopilot’ performances are dull for both the dancer and the audience. It makes sense to me that different kinds of skills demand or benefit from different kinds and degrees of absorption when performed at an elite level, and that this may even vary significantly between individuals. There is more than one method of skinning a cat, and there is more than one method for producing a note-perfect performance of Chopin’s Waltz in A minor.

The awareness and conceptualisation of thought is such an interesting topic; its study has been shown to benefit from interdisciplinary approaches including phenomenology, neuroimaging, eye movement tracking, etc. These same approaches have been utilised in the study of psychedelic experience. Both areas of research flirt with the boundaries of what can be articulated, and that is what is so intriguing and exciting about them.

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On economics

Lurking behind my thesis topic of the purpose of universities in society are questions about how society is organised; i.e. how we put our various resources to use and to what ends. My interest in these questions has directed me towards texts about economics, some of which – e.g. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ The Dignity of Difference – I started reading without realising economics was a big part of what it was about. When we talk of difference in and between classes, cultures and civilisations, we mean differences in our values and priorities, which influence how we allocate and use resources.

I suppose what really bugs me – and what is motivating me to do my thesis project – is the extent of disagreement about the means to which we work towards our end of universal prosperity. In his 2016 report for CUSP on consumer capitalism, Jackson defines prosperity in terms of its social and psychological dimensions as well as its material ones. This would include the respect of peers, the contribution of useful work, a feeling of belonging, and a sense of security in the face of uncertainty.

That all makes sense to me. But does everyone feel the same? And how difficult is it to remember that ‘meaningful participation in the life of society’ is what we actually want, when we’re bombarded with conflicting messages by people and companies who seek to manipulate us for their own financial gain? We are adapted for selfishness as well as altruism; some of us more than others, it would seem.

I’ve recently finished reading ‘Island’, in which Aldous Huxley imagines a utopian society where, among other innovative practices, pre-school children are tested for certain tendencies and educated appropriately. For example, those with a tendency to seek power over others are taught awareness and sensitivity, and given physically strenuous tasks that ‘satisfy their craving for domination’. I wonder how such a scheme would go down in modern Britain; would it be spun as labeling, differential treatment, and a compromise to our individual freedoms (bad), or early intervention and prevention-over-cure (good)? We already have national schemes for the identification of sporting potential (including mental attributes), but it’s not compulsory to take up the resulting opportunities, and it is probably less troubling for an individual to be identified as a future athlete than a future megalomanic.

While I did recently encounter an advert for a couple of PhD studentships in what sounds like a similar area of activity, I expect the idea to languish in the realm of fantasy as we slip further under the control of Huxley’s ‘Peter Pans’ and ‘Muscle Men’. But let’s move on…

Economics – how we put our resources to use – is a field of study that is constantly in flux as we discover new resources or applications, learn how finite they are, and what the effects and opportunity costs are of using them, among other things.

As well as being constantly in flux, economics is highly contested. Even if there is a broad consensus on the utilitarian view that we seek the greatest prosperity for the greatest number, and even if we agree on what prosperity looks like, the limits and boundaries we conceive around this principle are fluid. Are we concerned only with the prosperity of our own nation, or humanity as a whole? What about future generations? Other species, even? It is tempting to focus only on the here and now; indeed, to do otherwise demands more knowledge from us than we have. Maybe this is why sustainability debates can get so heated; no-one really knows what they are talking about; the absence of a scientific explanation for the end of the last ice age, for example, is convenient for those who believe that climate change is independent of the activities of man.

Jackson points out that the financial economy exists in the service of human prosperity. Why are they so often conflated? One reason for this may be that that GDP is perceived as easier to measure than happiness. I’m highly skeptical of this view; not only does the World Happiness Report seem to be going strong as a comprehensive measure of social and psychological prosperity, it also appears that GDP includes consumer spending and business investment; both highly dependent on debt that – in the UK – is literally created by banks. According to Jackson (2016), 95% of the money in the UK is created in this way; when banks agree loans. When ‘real’ money is subsequently ‘made’ and paid back to the bank, then all good; the cash comes into its promised existence. If it isn’t then the balance sheets become very fragile; a state of affairs that apparently led to the financial crash of 2008. Is it the case that our position (5th, I believe) on the GDP-per-capita league table is down to high levels of lending? If so, I’m not impressed.

Another reason why money is conflated with prosperity may be its ubiquitousness; money is the currency through which we are most commonly remunerated for our work and with which we obtain goods and services; an exchange that can become rather circular. I saw the Dalai Lama on a rainy Sunday morning at Glastonbury a couple of years ago, where he shared the following gem:

‘Man sacrifices his health in order to make money.
Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health.’

He didn’t attribute it as such, but this happens to be word-for-word identical to a 2001 poem by James J Lachard called An Interview with God, itself reminiscent of the 1975 Eagles song Take It To The Limit:

‘You can spend all your time making money.
You can spend all your love making time.’ 

Many believe that industrialisation improved living standards across the board, and over the longer term this could be argued to be so. But Jackson (2016) agrees with Marx (1867), that industrialisation and capitalism has contributed to the concentration of financial wealth in the hands of the few. Polyani (1944) also noted how the emerging capitalist economy had ‘disembedded’ economic activities from social relations, leading to a loss of accountability in economic relationships; a point that was more recently taken up by Sacks (2002).

I attended a book launch in September for Rethinking Capitalism (Mazzucato & Jacobs 2016), which takes a similar line to Will Hutton’s (2015) How Good We Can Be. Both take a well-reasoned approach that is framed independently of beliefs about human motivation and purpose. Hutton is big on addressing national inequality but not so vocal on global issues and the environment. I rather suspect this is because he doesn’t want to risk being written off as a hand-knitted lefty or enemy of progress, rather than because he doesn’t care. While Hutton, Mazzucato and Jacobs are definitively pro-growth and Jackson is not, all of them provide excellent ideas for ways in which things could be better – far too many to summarise here, but none of it is rocket science. They all constitute a call for action – but to whom?

Even more interesting than the contents of Rethinking Capitalism was the make-up of the discussion panel at the launch. Joining Mariana Mazzucato and Michael Jacobs were Wendy Carlin, an economics professor at UCL, and a chap called Richard Davies, former Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers at the Treasury. What I found intriguing (and also, not surprising) was that Davies, with his position of great influence, didn’t seem to agree with anything in the book. Despite the editors citing powerful examples like Huawei and Eriksson reinvesting all profits, the direct investments of the German State Bank into green technology and transport R&D, and the golden days of NASA when the top rate of tax was 90%, Davies believes that the economy can be left largely to market forces and that competition (rather than state support) drives innovation. 

Essentially, if the advisor to the Chancellor doesn’t agree with you, then the prognosis for your ideas is possibly not good. I could have suggested this during the questions at the end but instead chose to ask the panel why they thought growth was so important. I wasn’t satisfied by Davies’ response that we get better (i.e. more effective/efficient) at what we do year on year. I lean towards Jackson’s (2016) view that productivity gains and increased automation justify us working fewer hours (as Keynes himself suggested in his 1930 essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren), and shifting to areas of activity that are inherently labour-intensive and sustainable such as care, craft and culture. I suggested as much to Davies but he dismissed it, claiming that humans are ‘naturally competitive’. Certainly many of us are. If only we could catch them early and perform some sort of intervention…

*with 91% of growth going to the top 1%, according to Mazzucato & Jacobs (2016).

 

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Some notes on knowledge disciplines and God

Back in March I wrote about Isaiah Berlin’s essay The Fox and the Hedgehog, where he proposes two different categories of thinker/writer; those who view the world through the lens of one defining idea (hedgehog), or those who draw on a range of ideas and experiences (fox). In his book ‘Curious’, Ian Leslie proposes that as individuals we benefit from nurturing both ways of being; to be a ‘foxhog’ who develops a specialist view of the world along with a broad range of knowledge that enables one to empathise, connect and adapt. 

As a field of study, higher education draws heavily on the disciplines of economics, politics and philosophy. I have set out to read in these areas assuming breadth, but I increasingly feel that economics and philosophy in particular are fundamental to my specialism. I no longer feel that I’m going off on a tangent by reading Piketty or (trying to read) Nietzsche. It all relates and connects, often explicitly so. In the last month I have seen the same references (e.g. Adam Smith, John Locke, Karl Polanyi) cropping up in pretty much all my reading matter – from Rabbi Sacks’ Dignity of Difference to Tim Jackson’s working paper for CUSP, and a new book on economics (Rethinking Capitalism – Jacobs and Mazzucato 2016) that I attended the launch for last month.

As news came in yesterday of Finland mandating the introduction of transdisciplinary, topic-based teaching for all school-age pupils, I coincidentally found myself reading a lovely paper by David Jardine and Kim Grant (2011). It captures an email exchange prompted by a classroom discussion about the industrial model – the breakdown of things into detached parts – influencing schooling from the early 20th century (Ken Robinson also talks about this in his TED talk on schools killing creativity).

Jardine and Grant’s conversation draws on literature ranging from Gadamer and Aquinas to C.S. Lewis and Calvin and Hobbes (yes really) in exploring Jardine’s question: ‘What about our knowledge of the world? What (if any) good is it?’. This is a key angle on the debate about the purpose of higher education, and I was reminded of Paul Standish’s paper on the ‘given’ in educational research, as the value of knowledge is so rarely questioned in everyday life.

During the conversation, Grant refers to Parker Palmer, writer of much lauded self-help books for teachers such as The Courage to Teach (1998), in which he describes the vital need that teachers have ‘to investigate connections between our subjects, our students, and our souls that help make us whole again and again.’ (p.120). Grant writes of her realisation that ‘we have broken things apart…in order to better grasp them and pin them down long enough to teach about them.’, claiming ‘…it does strike me as ironic because my passion in teaching has always been about showing the connections.’ She also ponders whether all ‘great things [are] filled with sufficient grace’, and whether/how ‘different ones of us attuned to different fields of grace’, citing how, while maths leaves her ‘cold’ despite having had great teachers, she loves to study history.

Grant describes how the study of cells may fulfil a biologist and the study of musical theory may enliven the writer of symphonies, and proposes the disciplines are different ‘worlds’ through which ‘God’ reveals himself, quoting Aslan at the close of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia: ‘[in your world] I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.’

Grant, K, and Jardine, D. 2011. “We Need a Saviour“: An Irreconciling Conversation about Curriculum. Journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Curriculum Studies, 7.

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Some notes about Ludwig Wittgenstein

ludwig_wittgensteinI’ve resolved to brush up on my knowledge of a few key philosophers. Today I’ve been reading more about Wittgenstein’s life and philosophy, inspired by Ian Ground’s PESGB lecture last week and also because I felt his thoughts about language are potentially relevant to my thesis.

Like me, Ludwig Wittgenstein grew up in a house full of pianos and depressive siblings, doubted his effectiveness as a teacher, hated office parties and liked working with his hands. Other things we have in common are a love of Schubert and cooking, techno-skepticism, and disdain for the press. I think we would have got on pretty well.

Originally a student of maths and engineering, Wittgenstein’s interest in logic and structure evolved into a passion for the limits of language and meaning. An analytic philosopher, he describes philosophy as the logical clarification of thoughts. A thought cannot be shown, so we have to use representation; as musical notation and the grooves on a record are representations of music that have homologous form with it, but are not the music itself.

Here are some basic Wittgensteinian ideas that I think I’ve grasped:

  • Logic deals with information in its purest form, i.e. free of emotion.
  • Thoughts can be logical without being true.
  • Tautology and contradiction are not propositions; they are not proposing anything and mean nothing. But they are important as they demonstrate the nature of logic.
  • Not everything is explainable.
  • Logical necessity is the only kind of necessity.
  • Causality is superstition.
  • We cannot describe the limits of language (as we are limited by language!)
  • Different uses of a word share a resemblance. The strength of a word as a symbol is a product of its multiple different uses.
  • We can only ever make inferences about another’s inner world.
  • There is no difference between the content of experience of wishing and intending; the difference is in the way they are articulated.

At first I thought the implication of that final point was that we could articulate our wishes as intentions and change the world, but I really don’t think that’s what Wittgenstein was driving at. He wasn’t known for his optimism.

In the years following the publication of his main work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (literally a ‘handling’/discussion of logic and philosophy) other philosophers prompted him to question some of his original principles, including the one that all propositions must have logical form (we can debate whether certain propositional hand gestures have logical form, for example).

Wittgenstein came to agree with the Ancient Greeks’ idea of philosophy as a kind of therapy; a way of developing thoughts that are ‘at peace’, by challenging the habits of thought and taken-for-granted forms of everyday speech that are entwined with the way we live. (see p85 quote.) One suggestion he made was that we should do away with all attempts to explain and stick to description; this reminded me again of the ‘pathic’ writing activity David had us do in Year 1; the treatment of a critical incident though a descriptive, pre-reflective account.

Wittgenstein felt that the job of philosophy is to defend our intelligence against bewitchment by language. He highlighted how thought appears simple until we reflect on it and realise that it is not one kind of activity; there are many, many different sorts of thinking. It occurred to me reading Wittgenstein’s ideas about thought that the perceived effort we experience in thinking ‘hard’ is due to things other than the thinking about the problem; ‘stress’ or ‘overthinking’, perhaps the pressure to look like we’re thinking. Maybe they actually get in the way of the thinking? Wittgenstein says that thought is not an inner process that occurs in our heads. It is our thought, but we do not transfer it from one person to another. I may express the thought, and you may hear it, but you do not need to have the thought yourself in order to understand.

Another interesting point Wittgenstein makes about language is that it is dependent on non-linguistic features; for example to respond appropriately to a joke requires a sense of humour. It also helps to have familiarity with the person telling the joke.

I now totally get what Ian Ground was saying in his PESGB lecture about the relevance of Wittgensteinian thought to a consideration of animal consciousness. Wittgenstein supports what I wrote in my last post about human life being bound in language; we can’t step out of language; we can’t even describe its limits. Mathematics, like language, mirrors our form of life. If we saw and perceived objects differently, we would have a different mathematics.

I do, however, believe certain activities can provide us with a hint – a glimpse – of what lies outside. This upcoming online course by Stanislav Grof looks absolutely intriguing. If it’s free, I’ll do it.

Now, a lot of people who click on that link will probably denounce it as irrational, corny new-age delusion (as apparently many of Roy Bhaskar’s fans did when he published From East to West). But Wittgenstein points out that we seek satisfactions of different kinds, which do not necessarily contradict one another; for example Darwin’s account of evolution and the account of creation in Genesis. If we assume that magic is trying to achieve the same ends as science, we will look down upon it. But magic does not seek causal explanations; it is a language of gestures that brings different satisfactions (this is what Wittgenstein means by ‘the spirit in which one acts’; he means the satisfactions that we seek). Whereas a lot of philosophers seek the identification of founding principles, it is said that Wittgenstein’s theme of language games makes his philosophy more rhizomatic.

It struck me again, reading about Wittgenstein, what can be achieved by bright individuals when they are freed from the necessity to make a living. Wittgenstein came from an incredibly wealthy family. Not a happy one, it seems (all three of his brothers committed suicide… incidentally, he did argue against the existence of happiness as a state of mind). Ultimately, having chosen to walk away from the family fortune and carve his own individual path through life, it’s clear he was under no illusion that money equates to wealth. One key argument in favour of universal basic income if that is we are released from our wage-slavery we can follow our passions, develop our own particular talents, and do and achieve truly great things for humanity.

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Animal consciousness revisited

I’ve started going along to the PESGB’s Wednesday lectures. Oral comprehension is something I’m trying to get better at (I don’t know whether it’s an attention problem or a processing problem, probably both), but the chats in the bar afterward are a suitable reward, so I’ve resolved to make a habit of it.

Last week the PESGB had Ian Ground along to talk to us about non-human consciousness. The essence of his paper was along similar lines to a blog post I wrote in my first term of the EdD, which I am rather proud of, looking back. I feel like I was more prolific, more eloquent and more confident back then. Maybe it’s nothing to get depressed about – I suspect it’s largely because I was less likely to see one thing as being connected to everything else; a position that makes it bloody hard to encapsulate your response to something in a blog post.

Truth be told, I’ve revisited old blog posts a lot more then I’ve written new ones in the past year. I’ve found my earlier posts to be indispensable in building my research proposal and ethics application, and I need to continue capturing my thoughts as I go, or they’ll get forgotten. Someone tweeted Hugh Kearn’s ‘Seven Secrets of Highly Successful Research Students’ earlier today. Kearns writes: ‘The words you write might never make it into your final thesis, but they will be the grandparents of the ones that do.’ Everyone says how important it is to keep writing, and I know this to be true. So this is me, back at the keyboard, writing about what makes us human…

(‘but what has this to do with your thesis?’, I hear you cry. Possibly nothing, possibly everything. We’ll see.)

Ian opened his paper by reminding us that ‘philosophical and scientific inquiry into the nature of mind has generally proceeded as if we humans were the only minded species.’ We are obsessed with our own minds – on personal, cultural/societal and species levels – but spend comparably little energy considering other kinds of mind. Ian feels that Wittgenstein’s philosophical framework allows us more flexibility in this sense (I don’t know much about that, but I’ve just ordered a book on it).

The most important point I took away from Ian’s lecture was that language is the crucial difference between humans and other animals, and it is the way our language constrains our thinking that makes it difficult for us to conceptualise non-human minds. This is along the same lines as what I thought three years ago:

For me, what makes us distinctly human (from a human perspective, of course) is not so much about free will as about language. Essentially, this paper [Buchanan 1998] is about investigating matters of free will and choice among our fellow human beings. Having a common means of communication – language – enables us to investigate matters of free will and choice more deeply than we would be able to with, say, a tree frog. So, we can go beyond observing and counting in order to make predictions, and start eliciting narratives that make explicit what is going on for people and enable us to develop a deeper understanding of the situation – and its significance. Other animals – and plants too – have their own means of communicating with one another, but it makes perfect sense that the greater the commonality in our communication, the more nuanced and delicate our awareness can become. This idea has been touched upon in readings for both units so far; in terms of what it is possible to know, and in terms of academic (and other) discourse(s).
November 24, 2013

But there was more in Ian’s paper that was of interest, some of which resonated with my recent writing on entheogens (psychedelic plant medicines) and the window they provide into other states of consciousness. In the Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley writes at length about the inadequacy of language for representing the full spectrum of our experience. In the discussion after Ian’s lecture, Richard Marshall argued that thought without language does exist – a position that Ian seemed skeptical about, despite having quoted John Searle on the unnaturalness of language. I wholeheartedly agreed with Richard (on this point only). Just because we can’t put something – an action, an experience, a view – into words, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist and isn’t important. In fact, I feel the opposite may be true – we place too much importance, perhaps, on the things that can be put into words. This is apparent when one considers how we assess university teaching; through written, reflective accounts of it. Even when assessment incorporates observation of the act of teaching (notably absent from the highest accolade of the National Teaching Fellowship), the observation only acquires validity in being formatted into a written report.

Through his experience with mescaline, Huxley learned how psychedelics confront us with the ineffable. Many psychonauts have experienced a frustrated desire to translate these experiences into words, as if they have no meaning or permanence otherwise. Huxley’s Doors of Perception is a remarkably successful attempt at translation, but I’m not sure how intelligible it would be to someone who hadn’t had a similar experience. In his final work of fiction – The Island – Huxley weaves the entheogenic experience into an account of an imagined utopian civilisation. In explaining the role of sacred plant medicines in social life, a central character in the novel challenges his guest’s assumptions, explaining that the brain transmits rather than produces consciousness. I think this idea is highly relevant to a consideration of the consciousness of non-human animals.

An explanatory anecdote: My two-year-old cocker spaniel is very beautiful and relatively well-behaved, but I struggle to understand his behaviour at times. Over the last few months he developed what I experienced as an annoying habit of stealing another dog’s ball (or a child’s toy, or someone’s sock), refusing to drop it on command and running in the other direction when I tried to chase him. For me, this wasn’t funny – I often found it embarrassing and stressful.

I have found, like others, that microdosing with entheogens loosens the ‘human’ and/or linguistic constraints on my thinking. The first time Indy’s ball-stealing coincided with a microdosing day, I had a flash of understanding – I knew what the ‘game’ was in his mind; i.e. what he ‘wanted’ me to do and what would lead to him dropping the ball. I’ll try to explain what I did. Rather than running towards him, I sprinted – very fast – around him in a long, wide arc, projecting a feeling of joyous playfulness. His eyes lit up. He scuttered a little to one side, and then to the other. He hunched his shoulders and stuck his neck out. I opened my arms wide, and advanced towards him with my feet wide too, making a wall with my body and my mind (I don’t know how else to describe this). And he dropped the ball and sat back on his haunches!

I feel that this example resonates with Huxley’s position (supported by modern neuroimaging studies) that psychedelics open up the brain to areas that are usually silent, allowing thoughts and sensations to be transmitted that reach beyond everyday human experience and language and in that sense are less exclusively human; more animalistic.

Another connection with entheogens arose in what Ian said about humans drawing a distinction between ourselves and the world, and his suggestion that animal consciousness may not include such a distinction. Much has been written about the ego-dissolving effects of certain plant medicines, and it has been suggested that realising that we are part of the world rather than separate from it, is a higher way of thinking (Huxley declines to use the word ‘enlightened’ as others, e.g. Tim Leary, have done).

In my 2013 blog post I picked up on the concept of free will – as a potential defining characteristic of humanity – and argued that our capacity for making moral choices (if that is what we are doing) is a characteristic that has presumably, along with our other characteristics, evolved over time, and the commonality of convergent evolution suggests that we are unlikely to be the only beings with this characteristic.

In From East to West: Odyssey of a Soul (2002), Roy Bhaskar posits that man is essentially God, and to gain our freedom we must realise this; that we are God, and we are already absolutely free. Being God is not as easy as it sounds; it also entails taking a stance of unconditional love for ourselves, other beings and the environment we inhabit; a state of ‘non-judgemental observation combined with engaged (but unattached) activity in the world’ (p.xi). Bhaskar implies, I think, that our godliness in this respect – our capacity for making moral choices – is what sets us apart from other animals.

While Kant (in the Critique of Practical Reason, 1788) argues that it is impossible to prove that we have free will, Sacks (in The Dignity of Difference, 2002) argues that we have to assume we do, as it would be intolerable to have no sense of responsibility for how our lives turn out.  The debate seems to hinge on whether free will, or lack of it, is the illusion.

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Some reflections on writing an autoethnography about psychedelic experience

I’ve been enjoying Leon Anderson’s 2006 paper on analytic autoethnography, plus half a dozen responses to it, followed by his concluding remarks. The entire exchange is published in a single issue of the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (Vol 35 (4), pp.373-465)

In his opening article (pp.373-395), Anderson traces the history of ‘protoautoethnographic’ research by realist ethnographers, documenting a heightening of self-reflexivity, a blurring of genres and an increased focus on emotion in social science research. He compares these developments with those of the postmodern/poststructuralist tradition championed by Ellis and Bochner, and their form of ‘evocative’ or ‘emotional’ autoethnography. In effect he presents the ancestry of autoethnography as converging from two branches; one from cultural anthropologists who turned their skills on their own cultures, and the other arising from a descriptive literary approach and a rejection of realist and analytic assumptions.

At first, I thought my own sympathies definitely lay with Anderson’s view of autoethnography as ‘explicit and reflexive self-observation’, which seemed to describe exactly what I have been attempting to do on my blog for the last few years. Denzin’s (1997, p228) description of an ‘epistemology of emotion, moving the reader to feel the feelings of the other’ does not sit as comfortably with me.

But, out of all of the pieces, I thought Ellis and Bochner’s (pp.429-449) was the cleverest; the ‘good cop – bad cop’ dialogue suggesting a range of reactions, one being that a conventional analytical framing violates the value and integrity of evocative autoethnography. However fictionalised (and charming) the view Ellis and Bochner gave me into their lives, I found their response the most truthful, and therefore the most persuasive. In his original paper Anderson acknowledges the postmodern skepticism of the generalisability of knowledge. If we accept that all writing is a construction, the type of autoethnography Ellis and Bochner write, which ‘acknowledges and accommodates subjectivity, emotionality, and the researcher’s influence on research’ (Ellis, Adams and Bochner 2011) is very honest, whereas more traditional forms of academic writing are perhaps less so.

What surprised me the most in the set of papers was Leon Anderson’s concluding piece (pp.450-465). It seems to have been Denzin’s response (pp.419-428) that upset him the most, but Ellis and Bochner clearly got to him as well. Despite Carolyn Ellis explicitly stating: ‘I haven’t felt attacked by his paper’ (p445), I think Anderson feels that they have painted his piece as an attack on the value of evocative authoethnography, its validity as a methodology and the integrity of its epistemological origins. Maybe he feels that the use of Art as ‘bad cop’ in their response is a sneaky trick – a means of maintaining one’s innocence while sticking in the knife – and to an extent I would agree. The use of the word ‘autopsy’ is obviously inflammatory, Bochner’s defence of it is obtuse, and Ellis’ acquiescence – given that the role of her ‘character’ in the story is a conciliatory one – does not ring true. Perhaps Anderson feels that in fictionalising their argument, Ellis and Bochner have given themselves an unfair advantage.

In any case, Anderson’s defensive response paints the whole exchange as more of a bun-fight than I think it actually was, and demonstrates a weakness of the ‘traditional argumentative’ or ‘one-two punch’ style of argument that Ellis worked so hard to avoid; his final word, especially when juxtaposed with Ellis and Bochner’s dialogue, carries a hint of facade; I feel that he is ‘trying to be more than what he is’ (Rogers 1967, p175).

So… what did this exchange make me reflect on, thinking about my own autoethnography?

On my relative comfort with the genre
On reading Burnier’s response (pp.410-418), I realised that I’m actually quite comfortable blending my personal and scholarly stories – I’ve been doing it all along on here. In fact, I’m so committed to this as a means of personal and educational development that I teach my students to do it and have even used it to assess their learning.

In Anderson’s comeback he proposes that ‘all ethnographic writing should have evocative aspirations’ (p459). I wonder at my ability to write evocatively. In my own autoethnography I have tried to capture and communicate my experience in the form of epiphanic fragments. David had us do a ‘Pathic Writing’ activity in the first year of the EdD where we wrote about a memory of a significant event; simply recalling it and how we felt, without analysing it. That was an interesting thing to do, and, in the long run, very valuable. The non-analysis stimulated a kind of slow-burn reflection; every time I returned to it I had to ask myself afresh ‘how do I feel about this?’. I’ve tried to use the same technique in my autoethnography, keeping the analysis out of the fragments themselves.

On my ‘white, masculine, heterosexual, middle-class, able-bodied perspective’
I can see where Ellis and Bochner are coming from with this one, about those who ‘advocate and insist on canonical forms of doing and writing research’. I am constantly, openly questioning myself and my motives. This blog, for example, is pretty far from a canonical form of research. Considering the topic of my autoethnography, it should be noted that openness to other ideas and perspectives is a mindset that psychedelics have been shown to promote. Recent research in this area ranges from the psychological study by MacLean, Johnson and Griffiths (2011) on psilocybin and the personality domain of openness, to the neuroscientific work by Muthukumaraswamy et al. (2013) on cortical desynchronisation. The results of studies like these correspond with the reported psychedelic experience, including not only an enhanced openness to one’s own experience, or ‘mindfulness’, but also the sense of being part of a collective consciousness.

On the existence and nature of truth
I recognised my own ambitions in Anderson’s call to make inferences beyond the data – to ‘transcend’ the data. I feel I naturally lean towards the analytic; I like to abstract and explain. What does this say about my epistemological standpoint? I guess it supports the idea that, despite my numerous psychedelic experiences, I am a realist – I believe the truth is out there. We can’t expect to know it completely but we can at least have fun trying, using a range of tools and approaches.

On the meaning of life
You might find it odd that I see truth-seeking as ‘fun’, rather than some kind of moral duty. I’m a curious person, and I’m increasingly feeling that it’s our moral duty to have a nice time. I recently discovered the works of Alan Watts, who presents a worldview that is primarily playful:

‘We thought of life by analogy as a journey… which had a serious purpose at the end. And the thing was to get to that end. Success, or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you’re dead.

But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing, or to dance, while the music was being played.’

The above quote is from a lecture titled ‘The Human Game’. Watts’ audio archives are vast and insufficiently labelled and the full reference has so far eluded me. Another Watts quote that has resonated with me recently is from his 1971 talk ‘A Conversation With Myself’:

‘You’re only making a mess by trying to put things straight. You’re trying to straighten out a wiggly world, and no wonder you’re in trouble.’

Over the last twelve months my reading and thinking have taken me through a shift, from someone who waves banners to someone who asks, listens and thinks. This has affected the way I view my doctorate as a whole and my thesis project in particular. It’s a hard circle to square; taking on the responsibility of furthering human knowledge and believing in my heart that we’re just here to enjoy ourselves. But… perhaps knowledge doesn’t need to focus on straightening out the wiggles. What about simply illuminating their beautiful wiggliness?

On reaching beyond self-experience
psych reading
Like Anderson, I also see myself as a relative newcomer to the culture I am ‘studying’ (psychedelic culture). That’s one reason why I do feel the need to bring voices other than my own into my autoethnography; there is plenty of literature and thought out there that warrants me reaching beyond self-experience. I don’t want to write one of those ‘pseudo-scientific personal reflections’ that Sessa (2012, p7) finds so dull, but maybe this is inevitable. I’m certainly keen to avoid what Atkinson describes in his response to Anderson’s paper as the ethnographer becoming ‘more memorable than the ethnography’ (p402). Some might feel that writing openly about my personal experience with psychedelic drugs is professionally risky. My aim is not to gain infamy but to present a perspective that I believe is both important and unfamiliar to many.

On risking one’s academic and professional reputation
The first time I attended a talk by Professor David Nutt, a fellow member of the audience asked him what we, the people, could do to assist the cause for sensible, evidence-based drugs policies (e.g. legal classification based on relative harm). Nutt said something like this (I’m paraphrasing from memory):

‘Well, you all look to me like intelligent, successful people. One very important thing young professionals like you can do is start to be more open about your own drug use. The general public needs to realise that most people who take drugs do so for pleasure and are not addicts.’

This exchange affected me deeply. I also think it was relatively easy for me to take his advice on board, having only started taking drugs in my mid-30s, for what I consider to be the ‘right’ reasons; i.e. pleasure and personal development rather than rebellion and peer pressure. Nutt has always argued that we need to understand the personal value of drugs (including alcohol and tobacco) in order to identify appropriate actions to reduce harm. He was involved in initiating the Net Pleasure Index – part of the 2013 Global Drug Survey – which explores the balance of positive and negative experience for users of different drugs. When ranked by net positive effect, MDMA comes out top, followed by LSD and psilocybin, which have the lowest perceived negative effects. Alcohol and tobacco come last.

To my mind, there is nothing shameful about consciously choosing to engage in educated psychological exploration. It is an unfortunate peculiarity that LSD and psilocybin are illegal, given the range of risky, dangerous and downright harmful activities that we are all free to engage in any time. For example, how many people have avoided injury while training for a marathon? Is it even possible to run for 26 miles on tarmac without causing any damage to the muscles, the tendons, the soles of the feet? No, it is not. And yet, as a society we applaud those who do so. We hold them up as paragons of virtue, we actively encourage them to harm themselves. I have never understood the link between charity giving and long-distance running. Why would I give money to encourage something to do something genuinely harmful? I can see the rationale in sponsoring someone to stop smoking, or to join a choir to improve their mental health, but to run for miles and miles on tarmac… no.

This quote in Denzin’s response to Anderson accords perfectly with my motivation for writing about psychedelic experience:

‘Ethnography is a not an innocent practice. Our research practices are performative, pedagogical, and political. Through our writing and our talk, we enact the worlds we study. These performances are messy and pedagogical. They instruct our readers about this world and how we see it. The pedagogical is always moral and political; by enacting a way of seeing and being, it challenges, contests, or endorses the official, hegemonic ways of seeing and representing the other.’ (p422)

On reading this, I realised the critical pedagogic role of my own autoethnography, my aim being to disrupt cultural understandings and ultimately contribute towards a more just society. The legal status and social taboo around the use of psychedelic substances is something I care deeply about. Sewell’s (2006) article on personal motivation for and the ‘realities’ of psychedelic research indicates that many academics and students feel the same way. As Anderson argues in his concluding response; ‘caring and theorising are not mutually exclusive’ (p462).

References

Denzin, N. K. 1997. Interpretive ethnography: ethnographic practices for the twenty-first century. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Ellis, C., Adams, T. E., and Bochner, A, P. 2011. Autoethnography: An Overview. Forum: Qualitative Social Research. 12 (1), Article 10. Available at: http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095 [Accessed: August 2016].

MacLean, K. A., Johnson, M. W. and Griffiths, R. R. 2011. Mystical experiences occasioned by the hallucinogen psilocybin lead to increases in the personality domain of openness. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 25 (11) pp.1453-61

Muthukumaraswamy, S.D., Carhart-Harris, R.L., Moran, R.J., Brookes, M.J., Williams, T.M., Errtizoe, D., Sessa, B., Papadopoulos, A., Bolstridge, M., Singh, K.D., Feilding, A., Friston, K.J., Nutt, D.J. 2012. Broadband cortical desynchronization underlies the human psychedelic state. Journal of Neuroscience, 33 (38), pp.15171-83

Rogers, C. R. 1967. On Becoming A Person. Constable.

Sessa, B. 2012. The Psychedelic Renaissance: Reassessing the Role of Psychedelic Drugs in 21st Century Psychiatry and Society. London: Muswell Hill.

Sewell, 2006. So You Want to be a Psychedelic Researcher? The Entheogen Review. 15 (2), pp.42-48. Available at: https://erowid.org/psychoactives/research/research_psychedelic_article1.pd [Accessed: August 2016].

Watts, A. ND. The Human Game. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8h-_MF0Gx4 [Accessed: August 2016]

Watts, A. 1971. A Conversation With Myself. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8aufuwMiKmE [Accessed: August 2016]

 

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Writing the PhD Journey – the need for balance?

Stanley, P. 2013. Writing the PhD Journey(s): An Autoethnography of Zine-writing, Angst, Embodiment, and Backpacker Travels. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 44 (2) pp143-168

While I find autoethnographies absorbing, I tend to react to them in a not entirely positive way. It’s not that I don’t think they have academic legitimacy – I do. I like the honesty of autoethnography; the foregrounded acknowledgement that memory is flawed and experience is subjective renders the genre more trustworthy to me, not less. What irks me is the angst. While Stanley feels there is a dearth of writing on the emotional and personal experience of doing a doctorate (compared to the more common focus on learning journeys and professional/academic identity), I feel like I’ve seen quite a bit of it, and it all tends towards the negative. At least Stanley apologises for painting her PhD as ‘a type of purgatory’.

But… my own autoethnography is currently underway and there are some useful methodological pointers here for me. In blending reflective, personal writings with critical analysis, Stanley has taken a approach that draws on both the evocative and the analytic ends of the dichotomy presented by Anderson in his 2006 paper (notes on which will follow).

I am taking a similar hybrid approach in my own autoethnography (on psychedelic drugs and doctoral study), using memories from my own lived experiences in conjunction with other literature to generate theoretical arguments. I am calling my documented memories ‘epiphanic fragments’ in a nod to David Aldridge’s 2013 article on educational epiphanies. I liked Stanley’s call for ‘textual playfulness and experimentation’ (p148), though I wouldn’t describe her or my approach as particularly experimental – compared to some pieces I’ve read recently.

It is interesting, this focus on doctoral study and how it intersects with life. One could say, this is life. In life we challenge ourselves. We encounter things; ideas, perspectives, that are strange to us. We place ourselves in new environments and encounter new problems that disclose aspects of the self and previously unseen connections between the elements of our lives. Sometimes we embrace the challenges we set ourselves, and sometimes we get scared and avoid them. Life is an identity metamorphosis.

I find metaphors most telling at their breaking point. What is the difference between a true, geographical journey, and the metaphorical doctoral journey? One is that when our embrace of the doctoral challenge happens to loosen, we find ourselves surrounded by a range of comforting alternatives (the sofa, Facebook, the contents of the fridge). Compare this to the task of purchasing a train berth from Goa to Kochi. I found this task challenging in so many ways (if you know anything about me, and if you’ve ever travelled by train in India, you will understand why), but I did it because it was the only way of getting home. When we consider that a similar driving force enabled Aron Ralston to cut off his own arm in Between a Rock and a Hard Place (2004), we understand that it is not the doctorate itself that is causing us difficulties; it is the presence of alternatives that seem more rewarding in the short-term.

Procrastination was not an obvious cause of Stanley’s angst; she completed her thesis in good time and claims to have maintained 16 hour daily writing marathons (N.B. this doesn’t sound very sensible). But stress-eating comes from the same place; the need to comfort ourselves when anxious. A very wise person gave me some very simple advice for those moments when I am tempted to look down the Facehole, or make yet another cup of tea: Take a deep, slow breath. Hold it in. Let it out slowly. It works.

Essentially, I don’t want to read about how difficult it is to do a doctorate; and I don’t think it’s always helpful to frame the experience in those terms. I think it manufactures angst. Maybe I am in what Rogers (1967, p132) would describe as a ‘fixed’ state; failing to recognise my feelings and personal meanings, and unwilling to communicate the self (incidentally, a lot of the patients Rogers quotes in ‘On Becoming a Person’ are graduate students; and their accounts in my view summarise quite effectively the negative emotions doctoral candidates experience). Maybe I just think we have a responsibility to ourselves and our readers to present a more balanced view. 

I’ll close with the words of Mary Schmich, immortalised in the Baz Luhrman song ‘Sunscreen’:

“…worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind.”

Aldridge, D. 2013. Three Epiphanic Fragments: Education and the essay in memory. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 46 (5).
Ralston, A. 2005. Between a Rock and  a Hard Place. Simon & Schuster, UK.
Rogers, C. 1967. On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. Robinson, UK.
Schmich, M. 1997. Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young. Chicago tribune, 1 June.

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