Research trip reflections

I have written about a recent research trip I undertook to London – my post is up at the University of Sydney Department of History blog: Archival adventures in London. Enjoy!


Desk stress

One of the key features of this year, the first of my PhD study, has been the inability to secure a comfortable place to study and write. Not a struggle I anticipated. Not something I had even given much thought to prior to starting at the University of Sydney earlier this year. I remember vaguely assuming that things would work like they did at my previous university, where as an undergrad I remember seeing small groups of PhD students sharing offices with their own permanent desks. I now understand that this is not at all a standard arrangement, and that postgraduate students at different institutions around the country work in many different settings.

A first year USyd PhD in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences wishing to study in a designated postgraduate space on campus has two locations to choose from. One is a fitted-out basement – no windows, harsh lighting, often many desks free. The other is also a basement of sorts, but above-ground (has windows) and often a reasonably pleasant place to work, and thus not so many free desks to be found. Both are “hot desk” spaces, which means that no desk is permanently allocated and students need to remove all their things from a desk after finishing work for the day. (Spaces with assigned desks are available to students in the later stages of their PhD. Details of all spaces here).

Simply finding out about these spaces did not happen easily, but poking around the university website led me to information eventually. I had a clearer idea of where to find the windowless spot than the other, so that has been home base for the year to date. I have been productive there through sheer force of will. Many people don’t mind that kind of space and can work there well, but in the past few months I have finally admitted to myself that I am not one of these people.

Having no point of permanence for study combined with a poor working environment has had a strong psychological impact on me. My already-existing anxiety is at a constant hum well above normal levels. I take a remarkably long time to settle down enough to concentrate and do meaningful reading and writing. No windows in my study space means a bizarre relationship with time of day, and regulating my work into productive sections becomes difficult.

I find stoicism an admirable trait and seek to cultivate it in myself where possible, but these efforts sometimes become misplaced. Directing myself to stop being so precious and just do some fucking work is not a sustainable strategy for the three-plus years that this PhD will take me. I find nothing admirable in me forcing myself to put up with a situation that is detrimental to my mental health, to my will to learn, to my passion for writing, and, moreover, that has been imposed on me by a university that has severely mismanaged its intake and provision of facilities for postgraduate students.

I am providing a short personal account of my difficulties here, but I wish to be absolutely clear: this is a structural issue and one that the University of Sydney has created and must solve.

USyd has over 900 arts postgraduate research students and provides about 300 desks for them – I don’t have exact numbers to hand. Some students study at home, others are often away on research trips, some study at uni only on certain days of the week. There are lots of cases of students not requiring permanent desks. This does not explain or mitigate the fact that USyd has enrolled far, far more postgraduate arts students than it can provide facilities for – facilities that it is obliged to provide under its own guidelines and that of the Tertiary Education Facilities Management Association.*

I fail to see what can produce this set of circumstances other than the university blindly pursuing a path that is profitable and ignoring the pressure-cooker conditions intensifying as, I can only presume, more and more students have been enrolled and the number of desks has stayed the same. There is a new building on the way with more spaces, due to open in 2019, and while I have heard varying reports about the number of desks this will house, all reports are under 100. A little larger than a drop in the ocean, but not by much.

I have been working with a group of other postgraduate students to try and tackle this issue through collective action. This has been important in bringing together people with similar concerns, and in showing me that there is a history of student action around postgrad study space issues and that many current students share my concerns. Until I made contact with these students I felt like I was shouting into the void. Thankfully I have also had invaluable support from particular staff members who have gone above and beyond in responding to this issue, and I believe that some extremely good news will be delivered shortly about some new spaces.

I don’t and can’t regret coming to Sydney to pursue a PhD. I have found many wonderful welcoming people at USyd, including my excellent supervisor and some great new friends in the postgrad cohort. I am able to pursue my interests easily in the rich cultural and sporting life of the city and in its beautiful natural environment. This said, I can’t help but wonder what life would be like at a university that took its postgraduate research students seriously as valuable members of its academic community and showed this through actions, not just words. I moved to Sydney, and away from family and friends and places I love, to be a part of the academic life of this university. I want to work at uni every day in an environment where I can be comfortable and productive. I live in a small shared flat and have no luxuries like space for a home study, and I carefully live on the federal government “research training programme” scholarship of about $27,000 per year in Australia’s most expensive city. I rely on my university to be a calm and pleasant place to work – nothing outside the bounds of reasonable expectations in my position as a PhD student.

The situation I’ve briefly outlined indicates that there is something extremely wrong with the University of Sydney’s approach to long-term management of its postgraduate student body. It is clear that the university does not take seriously its need to provide decent facilities for these students and in adequate volume, and this in turn means that it does not – it cannot – truly value its postgraduate students. I know that the many passionate supervisors and all members of staff who work with postgraduate students across many areas of the uni absolutely do care about us and have our best interests at heart. It is the university-run-as-corporation and its acolytes that is to blame. This post is a way for me to let out some of my pent-up frustration and to provide a very short overview of this issue for anyone interested. To do the issue justice would require more time than I have right now as my confirmation looms and thousands of archive pictures wait to be sorted through. The battle continues.


* University of Sydney policy – Essential Resources For Higher Degree by Research Students Policy 2016 (link opens a PDF). Also see the Tertiary Education Facilities Management Association’s “Space Planning Guidelines” (link opens a PDF).




Lately I’ve been thinking about my own thinking, and specifically about how my education has created some unfortunate infrastructure in my mind that I’m now examining, pulling apart, rearranging, and sometimes throwing away.

One of the more bizarre experiences of my high school education was taking English Extension in Year 12. I tried to find the 2008 syllabus online but no dice. I think it’s maybe more fun to reflect on it using just my memories, rather than delving back into it all in a more concrete sense. The subject was primarily about getting students to produce readings of texts – so, pick a book or a film or whatever and pick a theory and do a reading of that text through the lens of that theory – in a more sophisticated way than was being taught in regular English classes. Barthes, Derrida, Kristeva, and Foucault, among others, were presented to us with minimal background information, really just as tools of sorts. Impose this over the book you’ve chosen and you will have your reading.

I have always been the kind of person who needs to know more and needs to know why, so the way this subject was taught was extremely disorienting. I can’t just read a bit of theory and take it at face value and dive in to applying it. I need to really understand who wrote it and what they were doing in writing it, and then I need to be able to correctly place it on my mental map of thinkers and ideas and history and so on. I need to understand what I’m doing.

This subject and my difficulties with it became deeply upsetting, and I turned to trusted teachers from other courses to help me. One pointed me down the path of “lit crit is a sophistic scam”, which was extremely reassuring at the time. For a while I was someone who would quite seriously cite the Sokal hoax as proof of the failings of academia. I certainly didn’t know any better. I was seventeen, an overachiever who was becoming lazy and complacent, feeling the pressure of needing to do well in my final exams, and bewildered by my inability to understand this material.

I had been given things that I didn’t know what to do with. Last week I opened The Archaeology of Knowledge and had to smile as, for whatever reason, Year 12 English Extension came rushing back. I don’t mind the idea of introducing post-structuralism or whatever to high school students, but I hope the Queensland education department has scrapped whatever they were doing with it in 2008.

My undergraduate years were messy and featured a few strange changes in degree. I strayed from and returned to political science, eventually completing an extended major and honours in this field. A particularly strong memory is of a course that seemed to be built around the core idea of universalism vs cultural relativism. I don’t remember details but I have a feeling it was a course about human rights, which would make sense. Students were heavily encouraged to view the topics and events in the course with u vs c.r. in mind. Tutorials were basically footy matches: we all chose sides and debated forcefully. This all had an enormous impact on me, and I think quite a damaging one. The way that the course was framed simply did not and could not encourage much in the way of creative and critical thinking. It took much effort to move beyond the dichotomy presented. For some time I didn’t have the knowledge or the tools to do so.

In my final semester of my undergrad degree I was introduced to contextual intellectual history through two avenues: one, by an academic in my school who had agreed to take me on to do a research project, and two, in one lecture in the last weeks of the capstone course. I soon wondered why I wasn’t handed “Meaning and Understanding” the day I began my degree. Later I understood, but still. I felt like I’d somehow been waiting my entire degree to read this stuff. Training myself to think as an intellectual historian is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever undertaken, and it involves radically updating or completely jettisoning many of the ideas I absorbed during undergraduate courses. Not everyone taking those courses wants or needs to be an intellectual historian, of course, but an understanding of the history of political thought is vital for a student wishing to coherently discuss that thought as it exists and can be used today. The ubiquitous “intro to pol sci” course (a week for liberalism, for conservatism, for whatever else) really is an absurd kind of survey that sets the unfortunate scene early on. How else to proceed, though?

In one of our early meetings, I asked my research project supervisor (later my honours supervisor) if he might help out with a political economy reading group that I was trying to set up. He politely declined, explaining that his research required him to think about texts in a historically-informed way that made it difficult to then think about them and teach them as relevant to the present day. I was immensely intrigued – no one had ever said this sort of thing to me before. That incident folded itself up and sent itself deep into my brain and has lived there ever since.

Unsurprisingly, I find myself now similarly afflicted. Sorting out the relationship between my academic work and my political ideas and commitments is often difficult and causes me a not insignificant amount of worry and anxiety. Something to write about once I know what to write.