Uncivilizing the PhD: For A Politics of Doctoral Experience

The Revolutionary's Library via RoarMag | by Bran Thoreau | December 2013

The road to a PhD is a common source of frustration. It is time to acknowledge and contest this experience as the outcome of a disciplinarian process.

As a faceless PhD student in a social science-y department, I repeatedly catch myself with the strangest metaphors to describe my research experience. The latest one is of academic work as a love relationship with a RealDoll: a lifestyle requiring sustained commitment and a rich (puppetry) skill set, to spin a tapestry of memories around an elegantly irrelevant act of masturbation.

The more I delve into this malaise, the more I become dissatisfied with the folk psychology of peer support inside a PhD community, with older students relating how their ideas got scrapped — sometimes beyond recognition — under the weight of what goes under the name of ‘constructive criticism’ (that, not unlike construction, requires a previous hollowing out of an organic soil to lay concrete foundations). These tales remind me a bit of stories of bullying in the army: we might all have been affected by it but, after the fact, end up looking back at it with some nostalgia, perhaps even a hint of gratitude, and rationalize it as a ‘formative’ experience. Lurking beneath the informal practices of peer support, however, lies buried a much deeper question of knowledge politics, and one that PhD students stupendously fail at engaging politically.

The PhD student is, essentially, a candidate for co-optation in academia. The mechanism is such that the PhD candidate is successfully co-opted upon favorable judgment by at least two other peers, an internal and an external examiner. In this sense, the process of becoming an academic is remarkably similar to that of joining a Rotary Club, or a circle of Freemasons (which, let’s face it, are not the most inclusive organizations in the world!). This somewhat paternalistic mechanism imbues a number of different aspects of the doctoral experience, down to the student-supervisor relationship, which in turn raises a number of political issues. Unfortunately, the failure to apprehend the structural constraints that are embedded in the very set-up for a PhD makes it so that any political points are simply driven underground, buried in the passing rants that PhD students share with one another in fleeting moments of bonding, with the secrecy and truth that accompanies anything shared in vino veritas.

In my tenure as a PhD student, I have possibly learnt one thing about what makes for a ‘good’ PhD. A good PhD is one that turns a captivating idea into a piece of writing that is so dry and mind-numbingly boring as to be utterly unpalatable to its author – who often feels estranged from the final product of his or her multi-year toil – and that is only read (if at all) by others who have an obligation to read it in a professional capacity. No one cares about PhD theses; in fact, even publishers routinely dismiss raw PhD dissertations. Instead, they request a ‘revision’ that amounts to the purging of one’s original idea from the ‘noise’ it has been drowned in, in order to get the academic title.

Such is the connection between doctoral work and boredom, that creativity has been formally fenced in a dedicated scheme: the PhD in Creative Writing. This is the academic equivalent of the nature reserve: somewhere where we are allowed to catch a sanitized glimpse of a normality that is so estranged and tamed as to have been put away in a display case. All writing should be creative, engaging with whatever it wants, in however form it deems appropriate. Anything else is like having a committee on ‘Good Music’, which — beyond the informality of a circle of friends — would probably amount to a fearsome dictatorial institution. And yet, the fact that there is a ‘special’ PhD to allow for an experimentation that should otherwise be everywhere is telling. It discloses a silent assumption that an ‘ordinary’ PhD should not experiment, and any attempt to innovate should be dutifully drowned out by pages and pages of literature reviews. To quote my ‘favorite’ bit from a book that lectures PhD students about what their research experience is meant to be:

The words used to describe the outcome of a PhD project — ‘an original contribution to knowledge’ — may sound rather grand, but we must remember that […] the work for the degree is essentially a research training process and the term ‘original contribution’ has perforce to be interpreted quite narrowly. It does not mean an enormous breakthrough that has the subject rocking on its foundations, and research students who think that it does (even if only subconsciously or in a half-formed way) will find the process pretty debilitating. [1]

Why can’t a statement of this sort be called by its name? The crowding out of political conflict, in typical neoliberal fashion. Conflict requires as a pre-condition the possibility of dissonant experience. This possibility is stifled when a process, whereby such dissonance can be articulated — like a PhD degree — is transformed into a realm of technical know-how. In the end, the creative process remains ‘creative’ and ‘original’ only in the same ironic sense as ‘love’ remains the concern of the Orwellian Ministry of Love.

One way to enforce the numbness that graduates one to the rank of doctor-in-boredom is through the imposition of a form that commands a literature review. The curious thing about literature reviews is that they are one of the central initiatory tools into this strange cult. It is at that stage, in fact, that a number of intellectual characters start entering one’s original literary plans. First it’s one or two. Then it’s fifteen. Then it’s so many that whatever came from you as a starting point has to go, in order for you to cover all the new ground. If a student has something they want to articulate through an extended piece of writing — I have always wondered — why can they not be trusted to choose the literature to draw into the narrative mix?

This is often an organic process, as authors are encountered while one wanders around with loose ends and half-formed ideas. Instead, the literature review typically authorizes a top-down input from one’s supervisor(s), with the injunction to engage with this or that ‘sacred cow’ of a field that is somewhat loosely related (and at times positively irrelevant) to the point one is trying to make. And yet, this is justified as providing a grounding for one’s analysis in the ‘discipline’ of choice. Forget the fact that those artificial partitions of human experience we call ‘disciplines’ become all the more thing-like, more institutionalized, the more people are forced to recognize their existence, through practices like undertaking a literature review.

The point I mean to convey is that — if one is serious about one’s doctoral research — then one is usually trying to articulate a particular personal or social experience and give it literary shape. What often happens, however, is that what comes from a student is inevitably a candidate for being shot down by academic ‘peers’ who end up taking the hierarchical, oppressive role of denying another person’s original articulation of a particular experience, to make it fit certain pre-existing schemas and habits of discourse. This can happen with even the most well-meaning of supervisors, often as a consequence of the unspoken and unacknowledged elements of hierarchy in a supervisory relationship, that gives the supervisor and the student roles which can be hard to escape when not confronted politically.

This is why it is time to address the doctoral experience as a source of political questions. The act of denying someone else’s experience is at the root of political dissent. Workers (including PhD students) feel alienated by the insensitivity to their own needs shown by employers that regard them as ‘costs’. Women feel alienated by the denial of their experience as whole persons, beyond the reproductive role they have been confined to in patriarchal societies. Migrants feel alienated when they are downgraded from human beings to slave-like things, whose worth depends on what they can contribute to what is assumed to be a mono-cultural society. Some might say that nature is equally alienated when it is only engaged as a sink for human activities, rather than as the living thing that it is, and that is why we are killing the planet and ourselves in the process.

The examples, of course, could go on. The point I am trying to drive home, however, is that there is something profoundly sacred and life-giving about having one’s personal, social and political experience recognized and validated by others. This, in fact, is possibly one of the reasons most PhD students embark on a doctoral journey at all. However, as one becomes embedded in an institutional setting that reduces you to someone that is there to be ‘lectured’ and initiated, rather than as a whole person, feelings of frustration and self-defeat can arise. My suggestion in this piece, to borrow a quote from Russell Brand, is “to engage that feeling,” in a way that our impressions can move beyond the lacrimonious ranting that thrives in every PhD community, and open up a political debate about the ‘civilizing’ drive and the patronizing elitism that weighs down on those waiting at the gates of academia, often in the form of this or that ‘technical’ requirement or panel. Perhaps, it is time we picked the lock and just got in.


[1] E. Phillips and D.M. Pugh, How to get a PhD: A Handbook for Students and Their Supervisors (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 5th ed. 2010), pp. 40-41.

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