7 surprising things I learnt completing an honours thesis

Recently I completed a thing I had told myself for too long it's boring, that I couldn't do.

Now it's done. Finished.

Sylvia Plath's wrote her timeless novel, The Bell Jar in 1963. Sadly, just months later she committed suicide in her London home. In reading The Bell Jar, I came to appreciate that a scientific vocabulary is radically insufficient for describing the lived experience of madness. 

Sylvia Plath's wrote her timeless novel, The Bell Jar in 1963. Sadly, just months later she committed suicide in her London home. In reading The Bell Jar, I came to appreciate that a scientific vocabulary is radically insufficient for describing the lived experience of madness. 

It's like when you book a holiday. You imagine your future self sipping coffee from little china cups on the streets of Paris, wandering The Lourve, kissing your beloved on the cobblestone streets, thrust against some ancient stone wall. You imagine and hold out for all those juicy experiences and then when it finally does come the time for you to board that plane, it's not like you had imagined. It's, well...it's just like living life, only your somewhere else, eating different food, more present to the world's sensations, a bit more excited and inspired. But still you. Same hair, same nose, same fear of flying.

That's what finishing honours was like. I've got the same hair (though it's a bit longer because I was too busy to get a haircut), I sleep in the same bed and the view from my desk hasn't changed. But, like any good overseas (or interstate) jaunt where you are pried out of the familiar and urged to call on something within you to cope with an extended lay over, the diarrhoea and vomiting inflicted on your from eating some nasty shit at a wedding, or waiting in the desert for ten hours for help in the form of a non English speaking local to scoot past in his farm truck, something subtle in you does shift. You're never quite the same you. 

During these past nine months of reading and writing and writing and reading and not sleeping in, I grew up and into a being that is a tiny bit more confident in her abilities. 

1. I can do it.

It's cliched, but being on the very edge of my courage every day, forcing myself to write when I felt like sleeping, read when I felt like walking and defend my position when I felt like cowering, showed me that I can do and create tangible things in the worth of immense (personal) value. When I'm disciplined and committed to seeing something through from end to end I can make great things happen. I can produce. I can do it. 

2. Universities can be brilliant, inspiring places and can grow me in ways I never could have conceived, but it's important to be critical about what people say, to form my own ideas about what I think and feel as a result of independent research and inquiry. 

University is esteemed as a place where one can develop their OWN opinions, ideas and thoughts about the world. Not simply digest the popular political direction of the day. While the political stance taken by the university was overwhelmingly left wing, that doesn't mean that it was or is right, absolute or that it should be taken as gospel. A whole nine months to independently research and formulate my own ideas about what I thought and felt about my research topic gave me the resources and the confidence to disagree, to question authority and to not be afraid to assert what may be an unpopular viewpoint.  Diversity of opinion is a rich thing and not something that should be eradicated.

3. Deep Work is where it's at.

I handed my final thesis (21,000 words) in one month early, and that included four rounds of revisions with my supervisor. I didn't work weekends, or after 5pm and I worked two full days of the week in a part time job for the duration of my second semester. Seriously. If I had not had the deepus workus strategies of Sir Cal Newport, I couldn't have done that. Focusing on one thing at a time for a prolonged period of time, checking out from social media and scheduling in plenty of down time with friends of an evening and over the weekends enabled me to write quality academic prose FAST. (Oh, and I had the best housemate ever. She refrained from playing her Metallica CD at a thousand decibels all day everyday and for this I am grateful.)

4. Deep Work is fulfilling, nay Deep Work is the most fulfilling thing EVER.

This Honours year taught me that I need a career where my gig is centred around plenty, nay, tonnes and tonnes of deep time. And I guess I'm lucky that I have created that here, oh and that I converted my boss in my part time role to Cal's philosophy...now we both keep Deep Work tallies.

5. Creating this project within an institution was helpful.

I fought and fought against doing such a thing within an institution for the first three or so months of my course. I repeatedly told myself that I should have been able to write alone, off my own back, no supervisor, no coursework requirements. But... the deadlines, the personal one on one critical feedback sessions with my supervisor and all of the other student resources including the library database (and discounts) that were free for me to milk contributed to my success; they didn't detract from it. The structure of the course enabled me to refine and refine my ideas and to improve exponentially within a short space of time. Every day was uncomfortable, but every day was structured and I knew what had to be done by when. I had comrades who I could confide in about the stress of the assessment tasks, compare brutal feedback with and enjoy a good ol' belly laugh at the end of semester poster session; this sense of community in itself was pivotal. There is also A LOT to be said for being held accountable to someone else when attempting something bigger than you've ever known. The fear of my supervisors wrath should I fall short of what was asked of me, was enough to propel me to put in my best effort. 

6. Rigour is my friend

In the final seminar of the semester I had a curly question hurled at me from two of the academic faculty staff. They were questioning my use of a term. To them the term 'madness' was derogotary; 'had I not thought about the connotations of such a term?' Fortunately all I had done for nine months was thing about connotations, denotations and the way in which language is used and to what effect. In short, I had an answer for them because I'd been methodical in my research. Academic research is rigorous, but a lot of what we read online and in the news isn't. It's based on opinion, which is ok if the article or piece of writing is addressing someone's preferences for washing powder but no good if we want to know which washing powders are safe to use if your child has Eczema. Rigour is good and I want to strive to be more methodical and thorough in all I do.

7. My personal (private) motivations for wanting to pursue something in life aren't separate from my professional motivations. 

Let's go back to that final seminar of the semester.

The request of myself and my classmates in that final session was to present for five minutes to a room of students and university staff about our chosen research topic. All semester, members of the academic faculty had visited our humble honours classroom of twenty five to speak about their research. The intention was to both give us a clear sense of the research direction of the faculty should we be in need of an expert in a particular area; and to inspire us-to glimpse what we too could be pursuing in a few years time if we did a great job of our Honours thesis. Not one of these members of faculty spoke about WHY they were interested in their topic. Not one. And the topics were obscure. Like what zombies have in common with modern day labour exploitation; empathy and domestic violence in women's fiction and 18th Century Erotica-when did the first condom appear? The absence of any such airings, and revelations of one's personal motivations for pursuing what they pursuded seemed to me to be linked to the fear of not appearing 'rational' or objective, or of somehow losing credibility in the eyes of one's peers if one was to admit, "well, I visited China and was devastated by what I saw...the standard of living in the poorer quarters, the factories, this young girl, just eight years old that I met who was working for Foxconn... I felt I had no choice by to dedicate my life to this."

So, in my final presentation I told the room a story about why I had chosen to compare  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to Sylvia Plath's novel, The Bell Jar. And I think they hated it a bit, or hated me, or thought that I was not being rigorous or whatever. In doing that, in not giving an objective, emotionally removed overview of my topic, I made the decision there and then that my work will always be underpinned, informed and motivated by my personal experience and values and that revealing that is OK, even in a university setting, nay especially in a university setting because it is what aids connection. I know it does.

So, now that Honours is done I feel a small hole in me. But I'm working on not being too hasty to close it up because perhaps it will reveal what's next needing my deep work capabilities.

 

xx

Jess

 

P.S If you're interested to read more about what my actual project said, Overland recently published a small written piece about my thesis. It's very readable :)