curiosities of academia – autoethnographic reflections

I have a cold. Nothing uncommon about that in early February in England. We are in the grip of an icy spell of weather that has left even we soft southerners grappling with temperatures that have struggled to get much above freezing for a week.

However over the years I have observed that colds and similar minor ailments arrive after periods of intense pressure – either at work, academically, domestically, or in my case, after a time of mood instability. We are all familiar with the minor illness that offers irritation at the beginning of a long anticipated holiday. No holiday for me, but rapid succession of several weeks of depressed mood with little sleep, Christmas, and writing two 3000 word assignments and the proposal and application forms for a PhD studentship before the end of January just might be sufficient explanation for my immune system to be a bit depressed.

I want to reflect on the academic contributions to the stresses that I’ve had (after all, Christmas is always there, and is a pleasurable stress, and my mood state is something that I live with and accept).

I love academia. I have no trouble arguing that education for education’s sake is entirely laudable. I hold no truck with league tables based on exam results – they tell us a lot about who is good at exams (something that I never have been) and nothing about how well a student has been educated. After my final fellowship exam for anaesthetics (an exam that, at the time I took it, had traditional times essay questions, multiple choice questions, and clinical examination) I remember clearly telling anyone who would listen that I would never again take an exam that relied on writing timed essays from memory. I never have. Writing my first non-medical M-level essays was a revelatory experience. The pleasure in researching a subject, organising my thoughts, putting forward my argument – this was like having a lively discussion on paper.

The enjoyment that I have derived, and the extent to which I have been educated, by writing academic essays in different specialties has continued. The contrast with my medical undergraduate and postgraduate experiences could not be greater. If I look back now to those times it surprises me that nobody (including me) spotted the anomaly of a student who consistently scored very highly in all clinical assessments, but who struggled to pass formal written examinations. (Obviously I did pass, but not at first attempt for any under or postgraduate basic science papers).

I have been struck by the maturity of approach to postgraduate taught courses; a lack of doing things for the sake of it, an encouragement to challenge the status quo or the academic traditions of whichever specialty I studied. I am not positivist/ realist by nature, although having worked in medicine for several decades I can understand the security that working within the framework of a single truth offers. In spirituality, psychotherapy, fine art, creative practice the framework is always interpretive, an acceptance that there are multiple truths. This is not to say there are no boundaries, no academic frameworks – of course there are. There are guidelines for submission of academic work, guidelines for referencing, deadlines for submission of work, and so on. A taught postgraduate course should (I think) offer a balance between nurturing students, giving them the necessary structures that offer a solid ground from which to explore and develop their own ideas.

My big ‘but’ has been building up. I have been reflecting on what it has been about this latest set of academic stresses that has been difficult to deal with. I am no novice to postgraduate education. I do not struggle with writing – in fact I enjoy it, and the reading and research that precede it. The volume of work – two 3000 word assignments and the PhD application – was significant but not unmanageable. I think that, as so often, I find myself being frustrated by bureaucracy. How does one application form justify a request for ‘10,000 characters, including spaces and punctuation marks’ whilst another asks for 2,500 words to give the same information? Why does the same information (on slightly different forms) have to be given twice in application for the same studentship? I know that these are standard irritations found in most walks of life, but that makes them no less frustrating. It makes me think of the tick box forms that are now standard practice for referees to complete in medicine – utterly pointless.

The assignments felt slightly like being in Alice in Wonderland. No guidelines were given for what was expected, which left me researching what I should present via Google. Not surprisingly I found several answers with quite differing opinions. These varied on both content and presentation, and I felt that all would require more than 3,000 words to do them justice. I found myself back in secondary school: ‘Read the question carefully at least twice, and then make sure you answer the question – the question that is written down, not the question you’d like to answer.’ All very well, but I didn’t have a question, just a heading. Faced with such an unsatisfactory situation I wrote what I felt was appropriate, and then cut each back to 3,000 words. This felt very frustrating – should I have cut out entire sections and left the rest unedited? Had I missed the point entirely? Then there was the perennial bugbear of referencing. My current university doesn’t seem to issue students with handbooks detailing the in-house referencing style, nor does the school that I’m studying in. Many UK universities have readily available (online) referencing guides, but not ours. I opted for ‘standard’ Harvard (although I don’t think there is such a thing) and admit that I was not as meticulous as I should have been, but this was not a final thesis or book chapter (and in the case of the latter someone else smooths out any minor wrinkles).

Reading the feedback I felt that I had definitely fallen through the looking glass and was on a giant chessboard where I had no idea of the rules. Worse, I felt that the academic language that I was reading belonged to a different discipline – rather as if I had written my work in English but had a response in Arabic.

I know from my medical days that there is nothing more frustrating (and often despair-inducing) for a patient than when the doctor’s response to him or her demonstrates that the patient has not been heard or understood. The patient is ushered out of the door – there is no comeback, no opportunity to explain. The patient leaves dissatisfied at best, despairing at worst. The doctor is often none the wiser. I think that I am in the same position as the patient, and settling for dissatisfaction is definitely stressful!

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