On intellectual autonomy, bogs and jungles, or How I escape the bell jar

Doing your PhD is a solitary journey, I was told. And the intonation implied that it was somehow a bad thing.

Yes right, thought I. But I LOVE solitude. Please leave me alone and let me get on with the thing. Lock me in an office, better a bunker. Give me some books, better a plastic key to a library, and scientific database access. And then please don’t talk to me for a couple of months.

And this is pretty much what happens at the beginning of your second PhD year.

What I hadn’t been told however, is that it is not so much about solitude (which I do enjoy) as it is about ‘intellectual autonomy’.

‘Intellectual autonomy’, akin to ‘academic freedom’ and ‘ivory tower’, is a unicorn – something often invoked in discussions about the relationship between ‘academia’ and ‘society’, although no-one (I suspect!) has ever seen the thing. This creature features prominently in Qualitative Targets of the General Syllabus for doctoral education, notably points C: ‘demonstrate the capacity for scholarly analysis and synthesis… assessing new and complex phenomena, issues and situations autonomously and critically’; D: ‘demonstrate the ability to identify and formulate issues with scholarly precision critically, autonomously, and creatively’ (my hands grow cold); and I: ‘demonstrate intellectual autonomy, integrity and disciplinary rectitude…’.

Reading these Targets makes my hair stand on end. Because I suspect that, unlike academic freedom and ivory towers which are relatively harmless inventions, intellectual autonomy is a sophisticated torture designed by academia as a rite of passage for young researchers.

It’s like being placed under a bell jar on a table at the front of the room, so that everyone can watch you produce, by some sleight-of-hand, ‘a research problem worth solving’, and then expediently solve it in front of the mesmerised public.

(I am carefully avoiding here an allusion to Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar. Her metaphor is relevant for academia too, perhaps. It’s just that it doesn’t end well…)

And it’s not that the public watching the magical act is necessarily unfriendly. It is often supportive, at worst indifferent. After all, as a young researcher, you enter all these supportive ‘communities of practice’. Departments, centres, research networks, peer groups. They all serve the function of propping their members up, providing them with a sense of meaning and belonging. Preventing them from slipping into what Stefan Svallfors refers to as acedia – a deep kind of apathy which tends to strike those in intellectual and spiritual professions (Svallfors 2019).

But there’s nothing to breathe under the jar, and I am starting to feel a little dizzy. Things are a little unfocused. I can see faces around me, but dimly, and the voices are muffled. My supervisor is breathing on the glass and drawing some signs on it, which I am unable to decipher. They mostly consist of question marks. I have a lot of question marks, too. What AM I doing here? HOW did I get here? And how do I get OUT from under this thing?

Somewhere something went wrong. Academic freedom – a value most definitely worth defending – paves the path to the ivory tower of intellectual autonomy. The sense of apprenticeship, which (unless I’m fantasising) used to characterise socialisation into a research profession in the ‘golden days’ (if there ever were such), is somewhat lost in the PhD education as I experience it. Not only it is unnecessary; it is seen as undesirable. After all, our real task as PhD students is to demonstrate intellectual autonomy and try not to go mad in the process.

For that purpose (not to go mad I mean, not to demonstrate my non-existent autonomy from anything) I have created my tiny little escape routes from under the bell jar.

One is to the little piece of artificially created wetlands on campus, near the path which I take to get to my office. This is not the path most people take, as I belong to the contingent of researchers at our department who have been banished to the lowlands. In fact, most people don’t know the bog exists. I have never seen another person down there. (Ok, not true – my next-door neighbour, a senior lecturer, saw me taking pictures on the frosted path one morning, nearly sliding into the brook in my slippery Docs. I was on this side of the brook, and he on the other, on the asphalted path which senior lecturers with sense take, unlike the senseless PhD students. He waved at me and then kindly asked me later if I had taken any good ones, and that made my day.) So it is perhaps even more isolating to be there, but it is nevertheless very comforting; I commune with the artificially created piece of ‘nature’ at least once a day – on a good day.

(One of my supervisors dubbed my research topic ‘a quagmire’ – in plain English which he advises me to use, a bog. I go down to the bog to relish this wonderful metaphor. The other supervisor called my research topic ‘a jungle’, but that’s a bit hard to come by at our latitude, so I stick to the quagmire-bog where I feel quite at home. Besides, it is a much more peaceful metaphor, unlike the jungle which I always imagine as requiring a machete to cut through, and all I currently have is a pair of rusty scissors.)

The other is to a little study group that we created (on the ruins? shipwreck?) as a follow-up of our Political Discourse Theory course. ‘We’ are a group of three (originally four) students who wanted to continue fighting the windmills of ‘antagonisms’, ‘dislocations’, ‘constitutive outsides’ and the like. We discuss discourse analysis approaches and other methodologies, ontologies, theories – but above all, we talk about our research, our big battles and little victories. This has been by far the most precious, revitalising space on campus so far, and I am immensely grateful for it.

The third is to the kitchen. The school canteen being the terror of high-school kids, the university department kitchen, too, evokes some mixed feelings. But for me, after one year of Zoom-induced sociopathy, the kitchen offers comfort. It’s either the comfort of ‘the cushioned privateness, bought at an exorbitant price of my active noise cancelling Bluetooth stereo headphones’ while I brew my tea in the morning, knowing that the ‘privateness’ may be interrupted any moment – which is thrilling. Or the ever-increasing after the pandemic traffic of lunchtimes. Both are welcome, as this deficit of random human contact was, without me knowing it, a destructive factor of my first PhD year.

Finally, to our ‘other’ graduate school – the area studies centre where we spent our first (Zoom pandemic) year. Divorced somewhat from our environmental social science research interests, it has offered a more generic, warm and welcoming environment in which to get to know PhD students from other departments. But above all, our director of studies there has been a tower of strength and support, and it feels like returning home when we go there (they have French presses, too).

And outside the academic world (not counting the bog) – the dance class. I have written in previous posts on the value of this embodied, non-linguistic (although symbolic) domain, which offers a respite from the relentlessness of text. The insights I get in the studio can often be applied directly to research education. Just yesterday my dance teacher said: Don’t say ‘I suck at this’. Say, ‘I can’t consistently perform this step or pirouette – yet’. And this she said after the thousandth time we tried and failed both the step and the pirouette. I looked in the mirror at a distant black-clad figure hiding behind the more advanced students and said to myself: I can’t consistently perform the trick of pulling a research problem worth solving out of my sleeve, under the bell jar of intellectual autonomy – yet. But I have those I can learn from, and I hope they will continue supporting me along the way.

Have you ever felt like you were placed under the ‘bell jar’? If yes, what are your escape routes – unless you feel completely comfortable there? 😊

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Svallfors, Stefan. 2019. Kunskapens människa: Om kroppen, kollektivet och kunskapspolitiken.

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