Saturday, October 01, 2005

Infernal Puzzle

A friend I did my honours year with contacted me recently. She works for the British Library now and wanted to ask me about zines in relation to an aspect of her job. I did my Master’s research on zines in Australia, so I was able to help her out. We had lost contact over the years; she went on to complete a PhD and, since I always go the long way around, I decided to do a Master’s and even managed to find some further detours along that circuitous route. That’s not to say her road has been exactly easy. In our email conversations, one of the things I learned was that someone had attempted to sue her for something she had written in her doctoral thesis. She didn’t go into detail, and that’s probably for the best, especially since I’m writing about it here. You do your best to ensure anonymity in a blog, but I’m sure, like those smudged and pixelated faces that appear on the news, if you know the person in question, then their identity is all too apparent. Clearly, for whatever reason, the threat was not acted upon, nevertheless it must have been a traumatic experience.

As I finalise my application and research proposal for the PhD I intend to do, L___’s experience is yet another occasion to reflect upon the motivating impulse to pursue an academic career. It’s not an easy route, even without being threatened with a law suit (or indeed a ‘blowhard asshole’, which is the worst thing I was ever called by a zine publisher.) It’s certainly one of those professions mentioned in Money that ‘require a great deal of time and money in graduate education, offer working conditions that only passion can excuse, and there may be such a long run for the roses that you forfeit prime working and child-bearing years just to achieve a salary that college peers were earning a decade earlier.’ I’m not worried about having children (I have an adorable niece) or a large salary (I’d rather have an ongoing income with holiday and sick pay), but I do have qualms about the investment of time. It isn’t enough to be good at teaching in universities; there are no rewards, in terms of career advancement, for the time spent preparing and presenting lectures and tutorials, and marking assignments with carefully worded feedback. If the students even recognise the amount of effort you put in, and decide not to tick all the lowest boxes on the teaching evaluation forms for their own amusement, then the university still expects you to secure the renewal of your employment contract by promoting them and attracting funding through the delivery of conference papers, successful grant applications and a prolific publication record.

Every time I mention to my doctor that I’m going to do a PhD, she says ‘Hmmm’, and last time she said quite pointedly that I’d have to work out how I was going to balance the various aspects of my life to ensure ongoing mental health. In view of the demands of academic life, the doctor’s advice is more cause to hesitate. Is there a fledgling academic who hasn’t been advised to abandon any semblance of a social life in the pursuit of their higher degree? (I think those who offer this advice should read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein again, and ponder the consequences of Victor Frankenstein’s pursuit of knowledge to the exclusion of all else.)

I suppose, while I’m apprehensive about beginning a PhD, I almost feel as though I don’t have a choice about this career path. For all the agony of academic life, I would rather be in pain than numb.

If anyone has wondered about the fate of the wooden puzzles after the Evil Star debacle, the next one in the series was the Infernal Pyramid, pictured here. As you can see it’s comprised of six pieces, which interlock to form the pyramid. This one proved to be more of a challenge, occupying me for a couple of hours as I half-watched television. The guidelines for this puzzle expressly warned against studying it too closely while you first dismantled it, thereby proving to be much better advice than offered previously.

I picked up the next puzzle today. This one is called the Mysterious Ball and the object of the puzzle is to dismantle it, rather than assemble or reassemble it. I’ve looked at it a bit, and I haven’t solved it yet. Stay tuned for updates!

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