A taste for (academic) danger

This post is by Lara Corr, a research fellow from the Centre for Health Equity at Melbourne University

With three months to go before completion, I found myself watching a YouTube presentation of a scholar I deeply respect and admire. Queue thesis meltdown #476. My heart raced and my chest constricted as I listened to her rattle off all the theorists and scholars that influenced her work- I hadn’t read most of them.

I sensed potential thesis failure and it felt suffocating.

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 10.19.49 amBut then I remembered that I was not trying to be her- a post-humanist educational sociologist. I was instead drawing on a wide range of disciplines and approaches that were demanded by my thesis aim and objectives. Her research was just one facet of the diamond I was revealing through my endeavours.

However the questions lingered. What was I trying to be? Where do I fit in? Whose rules do I abide by and what happens if I break them?

Identity work has been a big part of thesis production for me and has been written about by Pat Thomson, Barbara Kramler and on the Thesis Whisperer. Interdisciplinary theses present a range of challenges and identity work is one of them. We are confronted with having to break rules and make our own thesis creation out of different academic pieces that are relevant to our research.

I was a kid who excelled at not breaking rules, always coloured in the lines and was brought up to meet unspoken expectations and not to cause a stir. Most of us who have done well academically have learnt to follow written and unwritten rules to the letter. This socialisation made the necessary rule breaking of interdisciplinary work particularly confronting, but held promise of bringing something fresh and vital to problem solving and a bit of liberation. A noble pursuit!

On the tail end of recovering from thesis meltdown #476, I happened to watch the Lego movie and as fate would have it, it helped me bring together and begin to resolve these issues of identity and rule breaking in interdisciplinary research.

In the Lego movie universe there are worker bee type citizens, who meticulously follow the construction and social rules set out by the ruler, Lord Business. Then there are an elite group of renegade ‘master builders’ who conceive and construct incredible creations from their imaginations using any Lego pieces in the vicinity.

The messiness and creativity of the master builders are a threat to the evil ruler, ‘Lord Business’, who seeks perfect order, predictability and obedience. Lord Business sets out to prevent creativity and rule breaking forever.

Enter our accidental hero, Emmet, a construction worker who feels anything but special when he is chosen to fulfil the prophecy and save the Lego universe from Lord Business. Emmet admires but never dreams that he could become a master builder.

You can see where this is going.

When thinking about theses, some projects more than others demand that you become a master builder. They ask you to consider, but throw away, the plans and dare to mix disciplines and methods. Dare to be creative. We don’t imagine when we set out to do a PhD that we will be able to become master builders, but just like Emmet and the other Lego people, it might be in us all along!

My friend Dr Gemma Carey often remarks that no one talks about the creativity involved in thesis production. Maybe that’s because this creativity is hard to articulate. It involves much discomfort, self-doubt and head banging but is ultimately exciting and inspiring as it can help answer questions of the world in rich, innovative and satisfying ways.

If you have found yourself evolving into a master builder, whether dragged kicking and screaming like my (former) rule loving self, these tips may help sustain you in your journey:

  • Give yourself permission to play with breaking the spoken and unspoken rules. Exploit the disciplines you are dipping into and exploring; acknowledge, but ignore, the boundaries that constrict your research unnecessarily.
  • Find other apprentice and experienced master builders. People who are open to go where research takes them and are not bound by traditional rules of methods and disciplines.
  • Start to view your thesis production as a creative process and one of becoming.
  • Think- ‘What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?’
  • Learn to sit with the discomfort of working across areas.

If you are lucky enough to have a thesis topic that wants to drag or propel you through many different world views and fields, and you are able to follow that path, you might just end up with a thesis that is more rich, risky, alive and useful. More than that, you may end up more inspired and energised than when you enrolled and with a taste for academic danger!

How about you? Are you colouring inside the lines or outside of them? Does academic danger make you uncomfortable, or do you relish it?

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33 thoughts on “A taste for (academic) danger

  1. Lynne Kelly says:

    I felt like I was reading my own biography. Made me feel slightly nauseous raising memories of the old fears.

    The lack of identity still worries me. What field do you work in? I don’t have an -ist. I’m not a sociologist or archaeologist or sociologist or … And ‘interdisciplinary scholar’, as was suggested at uni, sounds a tad pretentious. The self-doubt nearly destroyed me. Plus I felt isolated. There was no-one in my field and as I was being rather radical, stumbling over a new theory for the purpose of Stonehenge in the early stages – and I’m not an archaeologist. I had some archaeologists turning their metaphorical backs when I approached desperate to find out if I was talking rubbish. I would have happily gone back to my original topic.

    I now have the PhD and the book is coming out with Cambridge University Press on May 31. I now have a contract offer for a mainstream book. It was all worth it!

  2. Jodie says:

    Lara, this was absolutely the post I needed to read write now. It’s very encouraging to hear that others are going through similar doubts, and that people like yourself and Lynne, one of the commenters, have come out of it at the other end and survived (and by the sound of things, thrived!). Will have to go watch the Lego Movie now 🙂

    • Lara Corr says:

      Good luck, Jodie! It is hard but it’s worth it. I worried a lot while I was writing as the articulation part is so challenging, but eventually, close to the end, things become clear and it gets exciting. It helped me to have people from different backgrounds read my work to make sure that it made sense to anyone with tertiary education. *The Lego Movie is a great thesis break 😉

  3. Rebecca says:

    I’m going through this right now, as I write what I expect to be the meatiest theoretical chapter of my thesis. I’m certainly not conforming to any particular theory, instead drawing on everything that looks good and then arguing for its inclusion.
    The challenge I’m finding is not that I don’t have new ideas – I do – but that I won’t be able to articulate them convincingly, especially when I’m still working out how to articulate them to myself.
    Or that they’re not really new and that I’ve just completely missed a major subsection of the literature. It probably doesn’t help that I realised only in the last few months that I want to be truly interdisciplinary – rather than being an applied linguist who skirts around the edges of policy theory through language policy, I want to be in the middle of policy theory too! The identity shift is a bit challenging, and I’m experiencing imposter syndrome more than ever, but it’s pretty exciting nevertheless. (Plus I figure multiple fields = more employment options.)
    So I say, leap in! If I’m doing completely ridiculous things my supervisors will let me know, so I might as well take advantage of their presence while I’m in the PhD, and follow my theoretical advancements through to their shaky conclusions.

    • Lynne Kelly says:

      Rebecca, all you write is so very familiar. The ‘Or that they are not new…’ bit was a huge issue for me. That horrible little voice in my head yelled really loudly: “Obviously someone smarter than you would have thought of this before and it’s been dismissed because they’ve so obviously flawed and you’re going to make a complete idiot of yourself.”

      So my supervisor, who was a gem, but not qualified in the field I’d suddenly launched into, sent me to the faculty librarian. Over a number of sessions the librarian did all sorts of citation searches and key word searches that I would never have considered. She was simply amazing. It was when she reported that she was sure that it was original and not already dismissed, that my supervisor and I decided to take the risk and pursue the new ideas.

      Imposter syndrome. I address an archaeology conference for the first time this weekend. Imposter syndrome is in full flight. I remember the first time I met a Stonehenge expert. We’d gone to the UK in 2010 because my husband felt the self-doubt was going to destroy me and the trip would be cheaper than the psychiatrist bills. The archaeologist does everything she can to avoid yet-another-Stonehenge-theory, but because the request came through a university, she had to grant me an hour. I have never been so nervous and was physically sick. The hour stretched to four. She asked me back the next day. We spent more time with her in 2013. She didn’t treat me like an imposter at all. But this weekend is the first time I go public with the theory at an academic conference, just before the book comes out. Scary!

    • Lara Corr says:

      Hi Sunshine,
      Congratulations on submission! I often felt the same way. I hope it comforts you to hear that the examiners really liked the way I combined disciplines, theories and bodies of work, so all that gnashing of teeth and mind-bending work was worth it. I hope you have great success!

    • Lynne Kelly says:

      All the very best for the report, and congratulations for getting there. Theoretically, your supervisor wouldn’t have let you submit if he/she didn’t think that you’ll pass. Hope my theory is correct.

      • Sunshine.Kamaloni says:

        Thank you Lynne! I have heard that theory many times 🙂 But then again you hear of other horror stories of students who failed even though they had supervisors who said “all good”. Is that a glitch in the theory?
        All the best for your conference and I’m sure it will be super.

  4. Kate says:

    This is so useful. The ‘daring’ is just awakening in me (about half way through History PhD)
    I feel sure it will get smashed down again shortly, as is the way of things, and will emerge reformed and stronger, somewhere down the line.
    Your point about creativity too – this has been in my mind a good deal lately. The long, slow, steady creativity. Knackering.
    Thanks for the post.
    *goes away, humming ‘Everything is Awesome’…*

  5. davidavien says:

    That is the entire point of the Lego movie – the reconciliation of the apparent opposites, the balance of yin and yang, childhood play and adult collectible. Broadly, this division holds true everywhere, and none moreso than by people in cars on roads. I see this as a wee bit different from syncretism (although I tend to be a magpie syncretist by nature), and I try not to forget the holistic – in the Lego movie, the man and the boy love each other and love Lego, differently, and driving in traffic (however closely you follow the rules), we’re all trying to get to our destinations. Peace. Love the blog and this post bigtime!

  6. Barbara says:

    Amazing post! Sometimes we are so attached to the bauplan of our research that we forget that this is OUR research, our chance to exploit new methodologies, new points of view and new results of a situation that will improve not only our final results but our own curriculum too. May be we feel grounded by our advisors or by ourselves (what is more severe), but the most important thing is to go through the fear, the despair and insecure and risk with new things!

  7. PrayThroughHistory says:

    A chronic frustration during my college years was seeing connections between disciplines, or being blocked from even discussing what I believed were true insights. We can’t mix Subject A with Subject B; it may explode into conversation?!

  8. Sue says:

    Great post and exactly what I need as I approach the final six months of my PhD with a supervisor that has vowed to challenge an assertions she sees. I’m struggling with being interdisciplinary in a program that claims to be interdisciplinary!

    Supportive supervision is important when pushing boundaries!

    Thanks for the post.

  9. Andrea says:

    Thanks for this post Lara. I finished my PhD some time ago but I think you have described very well the dilemma’s of the interdisciplinary PhD – bringing into conversation ideas and theories often held apart. My PhD supervisor gave me some good advice – “Don’t write a defensive PhD” I knew what she meant and it gave me permission to be creative. I felt at times like an alchemist – combining theoretical worlds that occupied different ontological zones. It does really help to think about the PhD as a creative piece in which we must at times take a risk but also stand behind the work – not defensively but as an artist might…this is my vision, I believe in it. By the way I wrote a very conceptual/theoretical thesis!!!

  10. Andrea says:

    Oh and I think I should also add – like Lynne I have a book coming out with Routledge that is basically the thesis…that’s where breaking the rules and becoming an alchemist can lead…so conquer the fear and forge your own path.

  11. Carol Mills says:

    That you for the inspiration! A few weeks ago I e-mailed my supervisors to say “I don’t know who I am”, so glad that I am not the only one experiencing this or (or has). So understand the imposter syndrome, my PhD involves aspects of human geography, literature and law (with others). I’ve had other students tell me I can’t possibly be in the same school as them because my thesis is way too different! So inspiring to know that you are being published…given me renewed energy to keep going. Congratulations and thank you …..

  12. the édu flâneuse says:

    Thank you, Lara! Wonderful musings for those of us who blend (love the alchemy metaphor, Andrea) and transgress disciplinary boundaries and thesis conventions.

    I have thought about my thesis as a sculpture – https://theeduflaneuse.wordpress.com/2015/05/16/phd-thesis-as-sculpture/ – but I haven’t yet tried to articulate how I feel about the creativity aspect of the thesis. Not only does my research weave together multiple threads and theories (which can make it hard to parameterise) but it is also somewhat experimental in the way it is written (I’ve had the same moment as Lynne – surely someone has done this before?). Sometimes I feel like people will think I am totally nuts with my approach, but my supervisors are supportive of my out-there approach which has grown more imaginative and less traditional as time has gone on. I’ll be interested to see what examiners have to say about it!

    In the meantime, perhaps I will remember not to be limited by what others build with their LEGO sets, to dare to be playful in my construction.


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