Thinking about Madiba and the lessons he taught us
I was only 9 years old when Mandela was finally released from prison. Watching on television Mandela walk triumphantly out of prison and listening to his forceful words condemning apartheid was a moment I will never forget. I remember asking my father what was happening and what apartheid was. I was stunned to hear that there was a country where racial violence was endemic. I was happy to see that this man was finally being given the opportunity to fight and to restore justice.
What I cannot stop thinking about right now is how Mandela’s release from prison, which soon led to the official dismantlement of apartheid, occurred a few years after the EDSA revolution in the Philippines, the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was perhaps too young to fully understand the societal transformations taking place. That said, I intuitively grasped that ‘something big’ was happening around me. Why were the adults around me so excited? Why were they lulled out of their everyday complacency? Why did everyone seem so hopeful? I absorbed through osmosis the conviction shared by the adults around me - that finally - finally! - a just world can emerge.
In the years since then, I cannot help but feel that such optimism has given way to crass cynicism and to petty politicking. The promise of hope generated by the EDSA revolution, the rise of democracy movements in China, and the fall of the Berlin wall has respectively succumbed to unaccountable forms of government and endemic political corruption in the Philippines, increasingly violent crackdowns against government dissidents in China, and a world order that pays lip-service to democracy but actually prioritizes neoliberal ideology.
It depresses me to think about how the optimism of the late 80s and the early 90s has all but disappeared. Now, we have less democracy and more human rights abuses. Attempts to institute alternatives to existing power structures, such as the Occupy Movement, did not appear to result in tangible improvements. The 2008 economic crisis, the effects of which are still being felt today, has not led banks to be more accountable but has instead resulted in greater protectionism. The rise of neoconservatism, particularly in European countries, naturalizes racial discrimination in the name of ‘national sovereignty.’
The lessons imparted by Mandela on the importance of changing the world, of obliterating unequal power structures, of love, need to be heeded now more than ever.
"You write that thesis!"
Today, a friend of mine linked a picture of Ryan Gosling, with the words, “Girl, you write that thesis!” on Facebook. A discussion ensued on whether Ryan Gosling was really deserving of such adoration and whether he can in fact inspire my friends to write. Because ‘tis the season of giving, I very generously spent 10 minutes of my time coming up with inspirational photos of hot men encouraging people to write their theses. For those of us who don’t really see Ryan Gosling’s appeal, maybe this will help:
When seeing your friends kick ass professionally
The same week I got my doctorate, my friends also….:
1. Became partner at their law firms - at the young age of 31.
2. Successfully defended their dissertations and became ‘doctors’.
3. Published their books.
Their successes feel all the sweeter because it’s been a long, hard slog trying to find their footing in these different fields. I’ve heard so many harrowing stories of setbacks, of people underestimating their abilities, of multiple rejections, and of the constant fight to be recognized. Being women/people of colour/women of colour in fields that are loathe to see you as one of the group, combined with experiences of structural forms of discrimination, frequently make it hard to see the light. And don’t get me wrong - these battles continue. The adage that you’d have to work twice as hard to get the same amount of recognition has never rung truer. But every once in a while, you achieve what you’ve set out to accomplish. The lesson to be learned here, folks, is that unlike the piranhas that oftentimes populate the treacherous waters of law and academia, you don’t need to be a jackass to get ahead.
What Happened During My PhD Defence and How I Felt After
My PhD Defence itself was…fine. It went really well, actually, though there were moments when I had to fight unexpected Death Eaters in the form of challenging questions and bring my A game:
The most nerve-wracking part of the entire experience was being asked to leave the room so my examiners can vote. My supervisor already told me that he expected that I’d “pass with minimal revisions” so it was, in a lot of ways, anti-climactic. After a mere five minutes deliberating, my supervisor opened the door, called me in, then told me that I passed as it stands - no revisions needed!
Joy, relief, and exhaustion all hit me at once. It is over, I am done, and I don’t ever have to look at my dissertation again - at this point, I can’t even fathom touching it - though I will surely go back to it in a few months to see what publications to get out of it. And yes, I did cry in front of my committee and my examiners when they called me “Doctor” for the first time; it was my Drama Queen moment:
In the days since, I’ve been feeling fucking fantastic. I feel like how Beyonce must feel when she’s strutting her stuff as Sasha Fierce on stage:
Today, though, I was brought quickly down to reality. I walked into a revolving door, hitting my forehead. I spilled hot coffee down my shirt. I stepped into dog shit. I almost dropped the donuts I was going to give to the students I am teaching. I checked email and realized I have a pile of marking to do. It’s the universe’s way of keeping me in check.
So, you know, life returns to normal. Post-defence highs aren’t meant to last. But now the euphoria has given way to a deeply satisfying feeling of accomplishment.
Let The Games Begin (T-16 hours before my PhD Defence)
In the hours leading up to my PhD Defence, I am trying not to be too plagued by self-doubt on how to get my examiners to like me and my work:
I keep exhorting myself to remember the wise words of Haymitch:
And am putting on my game face:
Let the (PhD) Games Begin! May the odds be ever in my favour!
How NOT to answer your examiners’ questions during your PhD Defence
Last night, MOTL started asking me questions from a list of ‘common defence questions’ he found online. This was a useful exercise because it helped put my mindset on the defence itself - that it is a PhD defence and not a benign Q&A session was important for me to remember. After answering a round of questions, the two of us started laughing about what would happen if I decide to commit an act of self-sabotage and answer my examiners’ questions in a way that would provoke their outrage:
Q. Is there anything you would have done differently during the research process?
Me (smirking): No, everything I did was perfect.
Q. In what ways does your work respond and differ from research in your field?
Me (again with a smirk): I respond to their work by showing their deficiencies. Mine is different from their work because my research and my findings are without flaw.
Q. Who are your competitors in the field?*
Me: everyone in this room, especially if you fail me.
Q. Whose work do you derive most inspiration from when crafting your research project?
Me: No one. I took inspiration from myself.
* I found this be an extremely odd question but it appeared in a number of lists. I suppose this question comes up in the most competitive departments. I sincerely doubt whether this would be a question any of my examiners would ask.
What I Hope Will Happen v. What I am Afraid Will Happen During My Defence
What I Hope Will Happen
Me entering the defence room
My committee while listening to me speak
My committee after I finish
Me leaving the room
What I Am Afraid Will Happen
Me entering the room
My committee while listening to me speak
My committee after I finish
Me leaving the room
Yes, *I* wrote a dissertation and am about to get a PhD - why is that so hard to believe?
This just happened.
Me (typing, scowling, working).
Woman next to me, sipping tea and checking her manicure: Wow. You’re working really hard.
Me (turning, pauses, smiles): Yes. I guess I am. Is my typing disturbing you?
W: No, not at all. Am impressed that you’re working so hard.
Me: Yeah, I am defending my dissertation in 7 days.
W: Your what?
Me: My thesis. My dissertation.
W: Oh. You’re a masters student?
Me: A PhD.
W (tilts her head): Interesting. I’m surprised.
W: Yeah. I can’t see someone like you writing a dissertation. What’s it on?
Me (wanting to end this conversation asap): The migrant care workers’ movement.
W: You mean “immigrant”, right? You’re using the word wrong. It’s only for birds. Birds migrate, people immigrate.
Me (sighs inwardly, tries to change the conversation to less hostile territory, notices her manicure): I like your nails.
W: Thank you! I got it done at M Nails down the road. The next time you go, ask for Ling!
We then smiled at each other and I kept working.
A lot just went on there. What did she mean that she couldn’t see “someone like me” writing a dissertation? On what basis is she forming her judgement? Is it gendered? Racialized? Am I (mis)interpreting her comments and attributing negative intention when there is none? And what suddenly makes her the expert when it comes to the proper use of the terms ‘migrant’ and ‘immigrant’? Also, “ask for Ling”?! I know it’s a genuine referral but it just makes me feel…uneasy.
Grrr. No time to dwell on this now. Will file away and process this later.
Sending the feminist bat signal to my peers when stumped by questions of agency, resistance, and structure
While going over the comments made by my external examiner, I faced an analytical conundrum. Specifically, my external observed that there were moments in my dissertation when I conflate “agency,” “resistance”, and “politics.” Stumped, I pressed the ‘feminist bat signal’ and summoned my collective of brilliant peers. Within hours, I was directed to the works of Saba Mahmood, Barbara Cruikshank, Diane Coole, Pheng Chea, Leslie T. Chang, and Carisa Showden. A friend reminded me to return to Bourdieu and revisit Foucault, which reminded me of Butler’s writings on agency and subversion. More thinking and more digging followed, which meant that at least for now, I know how to answer one of the criticisms coming my way. Folks, this is exactly why you have a trusted community of peers around you.