Creative arts: risky doctoral research in a climate of fear

9 Jan

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For those of us in academia the challenge is to continue to contribute to the world of ideas, knowledge and to produce relevant and challenging content despite the risks. In the wake of the murderous attack on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo this week, we now more than ever have a responsibility to do just this – and not have our voices silenced in a climate of fear.

When gunmen stormed the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, killing at least 12 people, they put into sharp focus the risks those in the creative arts take. In her blog, Sharon Waxman, Founder and CEO of The Wrap, said that in the wake of the murderous attack on the editorial staff of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, there is really only one way forward: publish, print, draw, film.

For those who are pursuing a Doctorate in Creative Writing, it often feels we face an uphill battle in our academic study, starting with the fundamental anxiety of whether what we are doing matters and is worth the effort. Will anyone read our work? Will our research have any impact? What’s it all for, anyway?

It can be too easy for people to sneer that academics – and doctoral students – are stuck in an ivory tower. Yet there has never been a time when academic research and creative output was more relevant.  The threats of self gagging and self censorship in political, creative and social commentary that threaten to be a fall out of the appalling massacre in Paris means that the need for those in the academy to continue pushing boundaries has never been more crucial.

As a doctoral candidate, it can be too easy to become dispirited about future employment prospects and your relevance in the world. What is the point, anyway, of a PhD in Creative Writing? A PhD in the Visual Arts?

Society needs creative practitioners to take risks and push boundaries. And we need to believe in the value of our work and research when we, as doctoral candidates in these areas, do the same. It is not a case of STEM work being important and the creative arts the ‘soft option’. As the attacks on freedom of expression in Paris have shown the world, a line drawn in ink can have more power than a gunshot. 

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There needs to be more people – not less – who are skilled at high level research, and can interrogate information and challenge accepted ideas. The world needs those who have the ability to articulate and speculate and imagine futures and scenarios. We should salute those who are not afraid to raise their voices and pens, just as we must join those in France to mourn those who have been killed because of what they have created.

What we are doing with doctoral research is pushing forward knowledge one tiny piece. Maybe your work isn’t going to put you at risk of staring down the barrel of an assault rifle, but never underestimate that the pursuit of knowledge and the challenging of the status quo will inevitably anger many, no matter what form your research takes. It is easier to burn books than write them. Silencing ideas and knowledge through violence and fear is a trope as old as time.

As a writer, when you tackle your creative project this year, are you prepared to put in the endless hours required to bring your ideas to life? Australian author Markus Zusak rewrote best selling novel The Book Thief 200 times because he believed it made the writing stronger. This powerful novel is the result of imagination, hard work and a determination not to let past atrocities be forgotten. It is brave writing about a dark time.

So, as you embark on another year of doctoral study, never give up faith that by producing the words and doing the research, you are achieving, even if you are having a bad day. You have a responsibility to overcome your fears and do the work even if it is less than perfect, rather than keeping the knowledge locked in your head until it emerges as a polished gem. Remember, a PhD isn’t a Nobel Prize. It simply has to be ‘fit for purpose’.

Perfectionism – doctoral misery – fear of failure – panic attacks – all these need to be put into perspective, or they will paralyse us. One of the best pieces of advice I heard during my PhD came from a visiting academic who was praised by a gushing professor for all the publications he had produced – and how did he do it? “Never under estimate the quality of work you can do when you are exhausted”, he replied. “Work more, work harder, write more and publish.” Do not sit on your ideas, don’t hoard knowledge; be bold enough to expose your findings to an audience.

We all have bad days, days we struggle to get out the words, days when what we want to communicate seems to fall flat. Alan Percy, head of counselling at the University of Oxford and spokesperson for BACP UC (British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy Universities and Colleges) says that the fears, confusion, hard graft and sometimes feelings of despair that virtually all PhD students go through from time to time are part of learning to become an independent academic researcher. In his blog post “Studying a PhD: Don’t Suffer in Silence” Percy writes that “building up the resilience and skills to cope with the uncertainty of researching a new area of academic knowledge is a great strength for all future academics, researchers and very useful for life in general”.

Words and images may have been temporarily silenced at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, but the legacy of intellectual freedom and freedom of expression will live on – it must continue. That’s the thing about ideas, they are more powerful than a gun. That’s reason that academics and intellectuals, artists and writers and journalists are historically in the firing line. So pick up your pen, hit the keyboard, produce. And your New Year’s resolution is to celebrate the fact you are alive and able to contribute to an intellectual life. No matter how much you despair about your academic study this year, pushing forward with your work and contributing to knowledge is the most fitting legacy for those who have had their lives so brutally taken from them.

Do not get paralysed by illusions of perfection, or forget that whatever your doctoral research, it is a small step to the advancement of knowledge and, though yours may seem like a tiny voice in an ocean of indifference, all those voices and insights of doctoral candidates around the world count in the wave against ignorance, cowardice, and fear.

Words and the bravery of the voice and pen to carry them, these are the weapons against attacks on freedom of expression and the right to be provocative with our imaginations, ideas and our pursuit of knowledge. Go brave with your work.

 

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