Popular or Scholar?

I’ve been thinking a little about writing style lately, as a paper I presented at the BASR conference has been getting some attention and I’m working it into a publishable piece.  My supervisor hasnt read the expanded version yet, but he read the conference paper (as rough as it was) and his position is that it isnt scholarly enough – that its more like an after dinner discussion point (ouch!).

This of course challenges me to rework it into something suitably scholarly, but it may well be that the argument itself is just not scholarly enough.  And my supervisor, knowing that I will be applying for fellowshios and postdocs, is warning me against publishing for publishing’s sake and not getting quality work out there that committees can judge me on. I understand his concern, but there is also something very nice about being ‘popular’.

What I do, the areas I research, almost always make people say ‘Oooh, how interesting’. Last night we had a welcome back returning grads dinner in my college and I spent a fair bit of time explaining to other grads what an Indigo Child is, how many Jedi there actually ARE, and debating the merits and demerits of the Church of Scientology (I did also find out more about nano-bots, the current trends of thought in the study of Classics, and admired rather some lovely artwork, so it wasnt just me rabbiting on!

I also think however, that working on a popular subject is a little like having your religious beliefs inspired by pop-culture.  However serious you are, and how ever seriously you take the subject, the nature of the origins of what you do can trivilise what you are doing to other more serious academics (not including my supervisor in that comment, and he may well be right!).  So maybe I need to x amount more serious and scholarly than the average academic Joe to counter balance that.  But my natural inclination is towards public accessibility and communicating what is going on in these fields in an appealing way.  My presentations often have visual jokes in them, the titles to my papers are often attention grabbing or pun-ish (e.g. my new paper is called, “See Mom it is Real”: The UK Census, Jediism and the Problem of Really ‘Real’ Religion”…). 

I may have a problem…

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Enough is Enough

My lovely childminder is taking the next couple of weeks off and heading to the crazily hot climes of Turkey.  I really dont resent her having this time off.  I’ve looked after my son. I cant imagine looking after him and four toddler clones at the same time, with the same demands, nappy changes and tantrums x 5.

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But this does mean my days are about be all about the mum part of being a PhD mum.  And the PhD? Well, I’m going to try and work in the evenings.  No seriously, dont laugh.

Anyone who knows me knows that my evenings since Henry was born have mostly involved sitting down with an exhausted sigh and falling asleep in front of the Mentalist or Game of Thrones.  I’ve tried working in the evenings, I really have.  For one week before a conference when Henry was 7 months old I was writing in half hour blocks between cries as he REALLY slowly learnt how to stay asleep.  (By the way, why are human babies the only creatures who need to learn how to go, and stay, to sleep!?!).

I will have to start drinking red bull again, just like I did during exam term as an undergraduate. 

But the biggest problem I have (apart from trying to stay awake) is all the paragons of work ethic I have as examples to beat myself up with.  First there’s my mother. Three kids, on her own, part time job, then a full time one, and a clean and tidy house.  My mother in law, two kids and a husband, factory job working 18 hours a day, exceptionally clean and tidy house (not sure if I entirely believe this one, or the denials from my husband that she had family help. 18 hours! Really?!?!). My aunt and uncle, two masters/one PhD, two children WHILE renovating a house. When my single/no kids cousin complains about working for an MBA he gets reminded of this.  When I cant work out when I can possibly do a PhD, look after Henry around his childcare, AND be the kind of mother who makes fresh organic meals in an immaculate kitchen while wearing full make up and lovely hair.  I have examples to measure myself up against and find myself wanting.

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I read this article recently, which resonated for me:

‘We live in a culture with a strong sense of scarcity. “We wake up in the morning and we say, ‘I didn’t get enough sleep.’ And we hit the pillow saying, ‘I didn’t get enough done.'” We’re never thin enough, extraordinary enough or good enough – until we decide that we are. “For me,” says Brown, “the opposite of scarcity is not abundance. It’s enough. I’m enough. My kids are enough.”

The Imposter Syndrome that seems endemic amongst PhDs is really a part of a wider feeling of Not Good Enough that society has been sucked into.  People have argued that social media compounds this problem.  We’re never doing as much as our online friends, we are never having as good experiences, our hobbies arent as alternative or quirky, our social life as active.  Maybe, but I’ve also found a lot of honesty online as mothers (mostly its the mothers) admit that its not EASY, they do struggle to be everything to everyone.  I particularly like this blog by a friend of mine taking on motherhood and its issues from a religious angle.

I just want to keep on top of everything.  Which might mean a few less naps on the couch in the evening and a bit more of the old tappity-tap on the laptop! Though this seems more likely:

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Yesterday Was a Good Day…

I spent a good few years working in the film industry as a screenwriter and script editor with only a mere modicum of success. Occasionally I would get a good commission only to be disappointed by the unprofessionalism of the person hiring me (a moan for another day…).  But it would be all too easy to blame them for me never reaching the stellar heights of the industry.  Instead I try to bear in mind the phrase I often heard at networking events: “You’re only as good as your last script”, and maybe mine werent as amazing as I hoped.

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In academic writing I think that phrase holds true to a certain degree, in terms of publications at least.  But in terms of day to day writing I find that having a good day yesterday and producing something workable if not refined can actually be a hinderence to getting started the following day.  There’s an element of laurels resting, but also academic writing can be so draining that getting going again, for me at least, can be hard.

Yesterday was a good day.  I finished off a rough draft of one of my conference papers.  It still needs a lot of work, as I was mostly freewriting it and forcing myself not to edit as I went.  But its there, on ‘paper’, so to speak.  And today I need to tackle the second conference paper almost from scratch.  I have some rather random slides, but the structure’s not working, my argument’s not clear, and I have to start walking up that mountain AGAIN after just ‘finishing’ one paper.

So, I dont actually feel like I am AS good as my last piece of work.  My ‘goodness’ comes from determinadly taking those Sisyphean steps back up the writing mountain.  Here we go then…

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Roughing it

One thing I am forcing myself to do lately is to write things almost freestyle without much consideration of sentence structure, grammar or spelling (some people might say that I have always written like that…).  I’m trying to get into the habit of getting it written rather than getting it RIGHT.  I’m the kind of person who will go over and over the same introductory paragraphs till they gleam (or are really boring…) and still not have a middle or an end.  But my i’s will be dotted, my t’s will be crossed…

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I’m about half way through the rough first draft of a paper on New Age Bio Medical Conspiracy theories for a religious studies conference in September.  I KNOW that there are parts that dont make any sense yet, I KNOW that I’ve still got some things in bullet points that need expanding, but today I want to get to the end of that first draft and finesse it all later.  Likewise with the Powerpoint presentation for the paper, I KNOW that I havent got quite the perfect picture for slide 6 yet, or the right font size and layout all the way through. But I need to charge on to the end to get it done, then get it GOOD.

Likewise for this blog post.  Usually I will stop after a paragraph and mooch around the internet to look for an  amusing picture to stick in to show of my wit and intelligence (yes, I am one of those people…).  This time I am just barrelling through with very little editing and I’ll stick some pictures in once I am done. Like this cute kitten:

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Changing my work style is necessary I think.  In part I think this is a more productive way to work, I have 80,000 words to get written for my thesis.  They cant possible be all individually handcrafted little gems, even if I hope the overall argument will be! I do feel a little like I have hit the mid-PhD slump Patrick Longston writes about here, and his tips are very useful.  But freewriting about the problems you are having was one of the techniques I was shown at the Writing Summer School I mentioned before, and I do think its extremely useful to get you into the writing action when you get jammed up by procrastination and anxiety.

So today…. I’m going to finish that rough draft of the conference paper, even if I write it in a very  slapdash way for now. A key phrase from the Summer school: “Give yourself permission to write badly”.  What a relief THAT is….

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Thoughts arising from the Writing Summer School

After spending all my four working days last week at the Summer Writing School I am now waaay behind… But I do genuinely feel like I have learnt some useful skills for dealing with writing issues, as well as making lots of new PhD friends who are in the same boat.

A couple of phrases kept repeating that are worth having a quick look at before I write myself this week’s to-do-list:

Kill Your Darlings: Great advice and something I always told the writers I worked with when I was a script editor.  But, as a huge geek, I tend to think of my darlings as potential zombies… there’s always a chance for resurrection.  When I cut a larger piece of text I put it in a ‘spare notes’ document, one for each writing project.  But what I have noticed is how rarely those darlings make it back from the grave… there is usually a reason why they had to die in the first place and no black magic is going to make them stagger back into my main document.

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Imposter Syndrome: Lots of people I spoke to at the Summer School were definitely displaying the symptoms of Imposter Syndrome: here’s the well written definition from PhD Confessional:

“Suffering from Impostor Syndrome.  For those unfamiliar with the term, here is a definition:

Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.”

Many hadnt come across the term before, but I think at Cambridge its almost an endemic disease.  Cambridge can be a hive of supersmart people who never quite think that they fit in, and that the bee over there is doing so much better than them, and the one over there is coping so much better and being so much more productive than they are.  We constantly measure ourselves against each other, when really, when it comes to our PhD’s, we are all Queen (or King!) bees.  Some might realise that a PhD is not really for them, or an academic career isnt a good fit, but the actual work of getting a PhD is measured against what we can do, not what others can do.

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Two Body Problem: For some of the coupled up PhDs this can be a major problem.  Academia is a transient field these days and maintaing relationships and a career seemed to be problematic for a few people I spoke to.  I wish I had the answer. I have a husband and a son and I know there is going to be a crunch time when I have to choose between the awesome job and the right location for all of us.  Unless of course someone wants to pay me the big bucks and I can be the breadwinner for a while!

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Just some thoughts… 🙂

Learning How to Write (I Probably Should Have Done That a While Ago!)

I have been a little quiet on here for the last couple of days as I’ve been attending a Summer School on writing skills for grads.

I’ve always assumed that I am a pretty okay or even a good writer as I’ve been paid to do it for various mediums over the last ten-ish years.  But I do find academic writing tricky.  I think in part its because I presume that there is an authoritative, neutral academic ‘voice’ to emulate.  Doing this course has shown me some of the fallacies of that voice.  Its unclear, its unnecessarily mystifying, it might even be a bit elitist (“What, you dont know what I mean by ‘detraditionalization’! You ignoramus! Please do get out…”).  I am now aiming to bring some clarity, and some elegance (!) to my academic writing… wish me luck!

Which brings me to the other aspect that this course has helped me with (so far, two days still to go).  We’ve been discussing some of our problems with just sitting down and writing the bloody thesis.  There seems to be a common thread of anxiety running through the participants, whether they are first years or fourth.  A PhD is a BIG thing to do.  But writing it doesnt have to be if we tackle a little at a time, or warm ourselves up by writing small chunks of texts regularly.  That’s what I am hoping to do with this blog: practising writing regularly as well as drawing out ideas and themes from my research.

Oh, and the course is being held in this awesome location I’ve never been to before.  They do maths here:

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Current Projects (Apart from PhD Thesis):

Right, now for a bit of work planning and summarising.  I find writing out lists like this reminds me to get on and write the darned things!

  • BASR/EASR Conference Papers (to be written for September 3rd-6th Conference):

Big, Bad Pharma: New Age Biomedical Conspiracy Narratives and their Expression in the Concept of the Indigo Child

5.7 million American children aged 3 to 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD. Approximately two thirds of those diagnosed have been prescribed amphetamine based drugs such as Ritalin as a treatment. Diagnoses and prescriptions are also increasing exponentially in the UK. Diagnostic checklists include: fidgeting, answering questions before they are finished and being unable to stick at long and tedious tasks.

In this paper I will explore New Age conspiracy narratives which accuse the pharmacological industry, or Big Pharma, of collusion with schools to turn naturally active children into compliant drones. In particular, I will describe the category of the Indigo Children: allegedly a special, intuitive, spiritual generation appearing since the 1980s. This category celebrates the inability of some children to fit into mainstream systems while actively attacking the commercial machinations of ‘Big Pharma’ involving children: over-medication, but also harmful vaccinations and genetically modified foods.

Blame Sheila: The 2011 UK Census, ‘Other Religion’ and the Rhetoric of Narcissism

This paper will consider the 2011 Census question on religious affiliation, specifically responses under the category of ‘Other Religion’ where the public was able to write down a choice instead of box ticking. Answers included, ‘Jediism’, ‘Scientology’, ‘Wicca’, ‘Spiritual’, ‘New Age’, ‘Heavy Metal’, and ‘Own Belief System’, amongst others.

Parallel with an overview of sociological approaches to new religious movements and spiritualities I will discuss how the numbers in this category of ‘Other Religion’ have been reported on, including their changes from the 2001 census results.  I will explore how reactions to this part of the census have replicated a rhetoric of narcissism and individualism, such as seen in Bellah’s (1985) definition of ‘Sheila-ism, while they have also dismissed answers voluntarily made as cynical parodies or ‘spoilt papers’.

Bellah, Robert (1985) Habits of the Heart, (California: University of California Press; 3Rev Ed edition (7 Sep 2007)

  • Harvard Conference Abstract for October Graduate Conference (Submitted, waiting to hear, end of July)

The Indigo Child as Other, the Indigo Child as Self: Forms, Categories and Experimentations within a Contemporary Online Spirituality

…today’s children are different – more challenging, more intelligent, more confrontational, more intuitive, more spiritual, and in some cases even more violent – from any generation we have yet seen”.[1]

The Indigo Child is a category that has emerged within the New Age Movement that expresses several important religious and spiritual themes and scientific speculations.  Indigo Children are considered to be an especially psychic, sensitive and innovative generation which first appeared in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Interpreted variously as psychic warriors, revolutionary trouble makers or messianic heralds of the New Age, Indigo Children are both a source of celebration and of parental concern.  The category has been used to explain behavioural issues in children, including those that the mainstream would consider biomedical in origin, such as autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and the therapies advised by Indigo experts represent technologies of the self and a way of employing scientific discoveries which has its origins in the broader history of metaphysical religion in the West.

However, the category can also be a description that individuals choose for themselves.

This paper introduces my PhD research into the Indigo Children as a contemporary spirituality, or New Religious Movement, and will problematize the distinction between self-labelling and the labelling of others, a distinction that is often unremarked upon by the community itself.  I have explored this issue through fieldwork with New Age groups, interviews with Indigos and their parents, and through a historical consideration of the origins of the concept from both New Age and scientific, secular source material.


[1] Virtue, Doreen (2001). The Care and Feeding of Indigo Children. Pub. Hay House UK Ltd.

  • Book Chapter: New Religious Movements, the Internet and Legal Pluralism: Scientology and Jediism (Title to be worked on! And it needs a new Abstract): Rewrites due end of September
  • Rewrite of journal article on Pro-Ana based on MPHil research for resumbmission (I have a writing course next week I am going to be using this project as a sample to work on, so hopefully that will get this project going again!)

PHEW!

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