This post is by my twin sister Anitra Nottingham. It will not surprise you that Anitra is an academic too and supervises people doing masters of fine art in communication. In the past she has told us how her thesis was a cupcake, not a dragon and about her experiences learning Derrida. In this post she reflects on the importance of finding your rope.
Students are far more likely to not complete a thesis than to fail. Part of the reason for this is what I like to call the swamp of sadness. The swamp of sadness comes from the kids book The Never-ending Story. In which a boy reads a book about another boy riding a horse around a mystical world to save a pretty girl.
It’s very post-modern.
Eventually, as things tend to go in kids’ books, the world ends, and then begins again, because a boy believes in the impossible. Despite the questionable gender politics, it is an awesome book, and, despite the dodgy special effects, so is the 80’s movie.
The Never-ending Story is, I think, something like a thesis journey. You read stuff, and then you create something out of nothingness. Your supervisor is the giant talking turtle who knows how to complete the quest, and at the end someone in a robe will hand you a “magic seed” of your degree, and a whole new world is revealed for you to explore.
But to get to the good bits, you have to get through the swamp of sadness.
The swamp appears about one third of the way through the book. The hero, Atreyu, and his horse Artex, have to cross it to speak with the giant turtle. Atreyu knows that the swamp of sadness will only suck you down if you stop believing you can walk through the swamp. He’s a hero. So while he is not happy about the swamp, he keeps walking, he’s muddy but moving.
Somewhere along the way though Artex just stops walking. By the time Atreyu realizes this (spoilers!) the horse is stuck. First Atreyu pulls on his bridle, then jollies Artex along, but it doesn’t work, the horse starts to sink. Atreyu then freaks out, he calls Artex stupid, he tells him he loves him, he tells him it’s all in his head and to just keep walking, but it’s no use. Eventually, (sniff) the horse is… just… gone.
Atreyu trying to drag Artex out of the Swamp of Sadness. Dammit, I loved that horse!
What gets you about this is that Artex doesn’t even struggle. He just stands there! Atreyu yells a lot of stuff about caring and trying and believing in himself, but I don’t think that’s the horse’s problem. He stops believing in Atreyu, and when that happens he stops listening to advice, and he is goop.
Now, every thesis journey, like any good hero’s quest, has some kind of swamp.
The swamp is usually a period where everything seems too hard, and to just moving forward is a struggle. The swamp is in your mind, but that is of course the worst place for it. Things in your mind don’t have to be real to kill you.
If you stop walking at this point, you will sink.
Even heroes struggle with the swamp, but they are awesome at everything. So their swamp is shorter, shallower, and less muddy. For most of us though thesis work is not easy, so our swamps are bigger and muddier. The danger is that the longer it takes to walk through a swamp of sadness, the muddier it is, the more likely we are to stop believing, stop walking, and start sinking.
So what should you do when you figure out you are in the swamp of sadness? Because it isn’t always easy to know when it starts, it’s usually only obvious when you are halfway through and you are good and stuck.
My extensive knowledge of fantasy books tells me that when you start to sink into a swamp one of three things will happen:
- You will panic, and thrash around and make a lot of noise and just make yourself sink faster.
- Or you will freeze and sink quietly, with no one noticing you are even in trouble
- Survivor types, however, tend look for a rope.
The last point shows that you don’t actually have to be a hero to survive the swamp. It’s always possible to be rescued, because even if you stop believing in yourself you can still believe in the rope, and the rope will help you keep walking.
What’s the rope? Well, it could be anything. This blog, a conversation, a paper to read… Often though it’s just some timely advice from a teacher. Now the best teachers can make you believe that are throwing you a rope, but not if you don’t let them convince you. (Which is why the people you surround yourself with in your thesis journey are crucial. Cultivate those who can throw you the best kinds of rope, so you can more easily believe in their rope.)
I like the idea of believing in the rope because the idea that you can “just believe in yourself” and everything will magically be ok doesn’t actually work. This is what the book is actually trying to say I think: you still have to do the work.
Even with Arteyu pulling on his bridle, Artex still had to start walking and keep walking to survive, and so do you. You have to pull yourself out of the swamp. This sucks, because it’s difficult, slow, hand-over-hand, gritty, horrible work, and you will end up very muddy. But I think the muddier the swamp, the better the learning really. I suspect the best kinds of teachers have themselves walked through very horrible swamps.
So if you survived the swamp what was your rope? For me it was my Thesiswhisperer sister sitting by my side for nine hours straight and showing me patiently how to “mix the lumps into the batter” of my data analysis despite me telling her the whole time that I didn’t think it would work.
If you are currently sinking in the swamp, is there a rope somewhere that you haven’t noticed yet?