So. It has been awhile since I have posted anything here. Over six months to be exact. I have a handful of excuses that I could pull out as to why this is the case, namely hauling my life to another country and back again twice, but the reality is that these things – whilst impactive – are not why I haven’t been sharing and caring here. That is a much more complex tale about how I began constructing an island in the stream. About how I started to percieve the impact being PhD student in an emerging discipline, the changing role of research in academic departments and, in many respects, the academy in general. This is going to be another one of those very personal and long posts, written mostly for my benefit, in the hope it will solidify my abstract bus thoughts into something personally actionable. Also because I actually want to open up a discussion with other people about making cool things and doing cool things and making academia in this crazy-wild-world work for us in fun ways.
I entered into the PhD with a great deal of enthusiasm, energy and love for archaeogaming as a field of study in academia. A naive kind of conviction that academia was a resplendent bastion of knowledge, creativity and belonging, that by contributing to it I could help be part of something wonderful and exciting and important. I would have a place and feel fulfilled by creating and thinking and sharing things that other clever people were also creating, thinking and sharing on.
That fire dwindled for some time, but was extinguished fully one freezing cold Danish day as I travelled home on the bus. For the first time in my life I sat there, in the depressing 5pm darkness, and realised that I felt nothing – absolutely nothing – about my research or the academic system anymore. I searched for something – resentment, hate, disgust or fear – but nothing came. Just the sound of silence.
This nothingness had not stemmed from the research itself, but from a shift in how I saw my future (and myself) unfolding. How my imagination of my position in a system had shifted. A vast eternity of blank bus-rides, white-washed offices, publications made to increase impact alone(and not because it was important, interesting or enjoyable), conferences (which I walked away from exhausted and unsure how to actually turn what I presented, networked and learned into action) and meetings for the sake of meetings seemed to stretch infinitely out in front of me.
CLARIFICATION: I don’t actually hate white offices, conferences or publishing. There are lots of brilliant ones that I love. I just dislike doing it to not lose the game. Its a personal perspective thing, not a deep commentary on these institutions.
What had at first seemed like an opportunity, an exciting way to explore and affect change through making cool stuff, talking passionately and giving it my all had turned into a hamster wheel of self-doubt and terrifying isolation. Toeing the line of acceptability (stop dressing that way and having blue hair and trying to do crazy things), perpetually turning to churn out papers (do it for the impact score!), conferences (do it for the networking!), symposiums (do it because it says so on the forms!) and meetings (do some more paperwork so we can check that you are not straying from the path!). My life had become a strange, imagined, disembodied game – aiming to make an avatar that conformed to get a highscore to ensure I kept my options open at the end of the PhD. Trying to forge a path when there was no path to forge. Research was not about research anymore, it was about playing an arbitrary game well enough to not be eliminated. In these restless dreams I walked alone.
I had been involved in creating games to test intelligent agents on for a computer-science thingy (super cool project that hopefully we will be writing up soon) and when we were testing I kept having this recurring nightmare that I was the basic AI we laughed so heartily at as it walked left and right into walls and got stuck up trees for 3 hours at a time. Bumping around in the dark of a constructed system that I had no idea how it operated, trying to scrape together a few imaginary points to eek out my competitors and win the competition. In my living-nightmare-played-out-before-my-eyes these competitors were NLP bots, equipped with skills and talents to tackle the maze intelligently and learn as they went [spoiler: they won]. When my research got re-framed to this bizarre zero-sum game I started to see everything as a dichotomy, good enough to progress in the game… or not good enough. And given my isolation and lack of a solid grounding, I would never be good enough.
In this zero-sum game I was trying not to lose, rather than playing because I enjoyed it and found it meaningful… Like a bad mobile game I wasn’t finding it fun – I was pouring money and time into it and getting a few imaginary points back that may or may not keep me afloat and secure me access to the next level (where presumably I would grind and grind and try not to lose again).
I spent a lot of last year soul searching why the hell I was doing this to myself. What was the point. What was anyone getting out of this system. Why I would keep walking left and right into walls and getting stuck up trees for imaginary points that I couldn’t see a tangible pathway to real-world gains. Each week it seemed that the price of entry to this system was going up whilst fewer winners (ie: research positions, grants, etc) were going to be crowned. Ultimately it seemed that the area I was playing in might not actually even have the possibility of having a winner (wooo emerging interdisciplinary fields). This feeling is probably not unique to me, if I was a betting person (which occasionally I am) I would put a £10 down on the predicted 7/2 odds an expect a healthy payout of £45. But I digress.
This whole time my wonderful supervisor, friends, editors, colleagues kept saying everything is great. Better than great. Wonderful. The word inspiring was thrown around once which made me recoil in embarrassment and horror, there is no room for inspiring on the great hamster wheel of imaginary points I had been constructing and trying to navigate, only room for not losing. Only room for imaginary points.
Mah Perspective and Framing were all out of whack.
Finally on a bus ride (in a only slightly warmer winter day in York) I realised that I was probably the problem, or more specifically how I was thinking about these things was. That whilst this hamster wheel will always exist externally to me it didnt control anything. The imaginary points will also always exist as a strange metric of my worth and effectivenss as a researcher to other people, but likewise this was only part of the picture. We are about to go full circle back to being in love with research, because like a gamer it also occured to me that these things can be counter-played without sacrificing my love of research or my sense of self. I do not have to go gentle into that good night. I can rage. Not through angst and complaints or burning the system to the ground, but by making, doing, sharing and by insisting I operate in a non-zero-sum game. By shifting my perspective back to what I love and enjoy.
The value and enjoyment of my research is not dictated and measured by something external and constructed. The value is creating and researching and doing the thing itself and your position within that (ironically part of the argument my research is trying to make, should probably follow my own advice at times I guess). I mean, the system still exists right, but my participation in it doesn’t have to be a depressing trudge down an uncertain path. I will not go gentle into that good night.
The hamster wheel will continue to spin.
Imaginary points will continue to be assigned.
But I will research things.
And I will make things.
Horrible, ugly, wonderful, uselessly useful things.
I will break things.
I will fuck up and fail.
But I will also (sometiemes) succeed.
And that success will not be measured by impact points.
Nor will it be measured by how fast the hamster wheel turns.
Those things will need to turn and be measured, sure.
But those measurements are not THE metric for defining value.
Or, in the words of my favorite movie:
“You know what? Fuck beauty contests. Life is one fucking beauty contest after another. You know, school, then college, then work, fuck that. And fuck the air force academy. If I wanna fly, I’ll find a way to fly. You do what you love, and fuck the rest.”
I’m not saying that we should literally give the finger to the system. Or that the state of things external to me is ok. It’s not. Being a PhD in an emerging discipline in this system is isolating, exhausting and has very little probability of paying off in any really tangible, direct way. But I can play a fun game in that system, rather than the depressing isolating one it tries so hard to default to.
I do this because it is fun and awesome and cool and great and wonderful and interesting and I do it because I want to share that. And that, that is the research I will do from now on. That is what I will work to construct and that is what I will support others in doing. Not because it means ill get some points to try turn into bartering chips for a job in a strange zero-sum game, but because I wanna. A PhD is just a pretty piece of paper awarded by an institution, my enjoyment and passion and inquisitiveness are not. Boxes have to be ticked to get pretty paper but they don’t get to define how I imagine myself, my life or my work or my collegues or friends or what I will do with that pretty piece of paper in the future as I try find a way to make money to feed myself pizza.
There are other awesome, inspiring people out there who are already doing this and I take the lead from them and ill focus on that good that is being done, rather than the constructs that try pull me back to sadness.
So as I sit on more busses in the future I will keep pushing my thoughts to how I make and share cool things, for the hamster wheel and points, sure, but more importantly, for the love of the research and because I wanna. And I want to talk with all you fine folk who have felt this sound of silence and have / are / wanna do something different.