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21st Century Scholar: When You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Evelyn Tsitas' chapter in the 2015 book New Human Fictions came from a conference paper and chapter of her PhD
Evelyn Tsitas’ chapter in the 2015 book New Human Fictions came from a conference paper and chapter of her PhD

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a person in possession of a PhD must be in want of an academic job. It is also a truth, universally understood, that academic jobs apart from sessional work are alas thin on the ground.

What do you do if you want a career in academia but you also need a steady and reliable income? If you aren’t willing to be sessional fodder and find your income dries up the moment face to face teaching contact ends?

What indeed.

My suggestion is to think outside the box. Or, in the words of the philosopher Mick Jagger, if you can’t always get what you want, you can find sometime that you get what you need.

I was wondering what to blog about after returning from overseas when I read Aleisha Ward’s timely post in The Thesis Whisperer “How to construct a DIY scholarly career”.

My own blog has been a little quiet as I have recently spent five weeks presenting at three conferences, travelling to four countries for my research, and on coming home, launching back into my full time university job and life as a single mother to two demanding teenage sons. Plus, I have been furiously busy writing a rollicking adventure story for an independent publisher and putting a book proposal together for an academic publisher. Both ventures which came about as requests for me to pitch, rather than the other way around.

diana huntress

My recent time spent trawling museums and art galleries around the world was with purpose – research for my creative and academic projects. I am interested in hybridity and the human animal relationship throughout history. Now, if you are reading this and thinking “research and conference trip and university job – being courted by publishers – what is this woman talking about – she obviously has an academic career, already, lucky her” I can tell you that I do not have an academic job.

My research trip and conferences were self funded. I used my annual leave and instead of lying on a Bali beach, chose to back my career. I see it as being an entrepreneurial 21st century scholar. Hot desking academia, as it were, without a university ‘home’ as an academic, but still at home within the university in a professional role.

I have made my DIY scholarly career work ‘outside the box’ – but only because I have treated an academic career the same way that writers and actors have always seen their careers. As precarious, patchwork affairs made up of many different strings to one’s bow. Some teaching, self-directed research, writing paid and unpaid, spending time promoting one’s work, networking, getting published or pitching to publishers – the writer’s equivalent of going on endless casting calls.

Not every job in a university is for academics, and not every PhD graduate working in a university has an academic job. But those who do have a PhD and work in professional roles in a university bring their highly developed research skills and scholarly way of seeing the world to their positions.

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Freshly minted PhD graduates want an academic job because of the research time. Yet these days in academia, if you are lucky you get one research day a week. I am always surprised by how little full time academics manage to achieve of this time allocation.

As a 21st century scholar, I have managed to published widely and present my research at many conferences in many different subject areas. Papers I wrote for conferences several years ago are being requested for use in teaching programs on the other side of the world. My ‘research day’ is on the weekend. Or time gathered together over a week’s worth of lunchtimes – just the way I did my PhD while working full time.

It takes focus and discipline, but we can all ‘save time’ like we can save money and get serious about our health. Just as financial planners implore us to stop buying take away coffee every day, saving up the money instead, I suggest those who want research days to save up half an hour every lunchtime and two hours a night and a day on the weekend for research.

The beauty of this saved time is that no one can take it away from you.

Like Ward, I take a long term view of my career, and am building towards standing out in a crowd while supporting my family. I work in a university art gallery, running the traditional and social media campaigns, as well as the education and public programs. Like Ward, I find the non academic work in the university very rewarding.

In fact, I was reminded of this while listening to radio interviews with the very articulate Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, as part of the promotion of his Australian tour.

I was inspired to track down a quote that aligned with an answer he gave in response to a query about how to become an astronaut. His reply really resonated with me, making me think about its application to my own career.

“Start moving your life in that direction. Look at who you want to be, and start sculpting yourself into that person. You may not get exactly where you thought you’d be, but you will be doing things that suit you in a profession you believe in.”

What great advice.

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documentaries, Frankenstein, Marketing, Ownership of stories, Splice the Movie

Why ethics approval really matters – even in storytelling

As a storyteller who works across fiction, communications, journalism,  and marketing, I am interested in whether the participants of the new Australian documentary television series Struggle Street really understood what it means to give consent to their story being ‘sold’ by the media – not just ‘told’ by journalists.

Now that Struggle Street has aired in all its three part ‘poverty porn’ glory, the ratings are in. The series was a winner, but in nabbing such a large audience, who were largely tuned in for a voyeuristic peek into the underclass of the ‘Lucky Country’, it has caused the media to ponder issues of consent in the documentary genre.

The controversial documentary series first aired on Australian television station SBS on 3 May and was the focus of outrage even before it was first screened. Objectors launched a petition for SBS to suspend the broadcast.

Unlike those in the media, who need to use a standard consent form before entering the lives and minds of their subject and then broadcasting that around the country – doctoral students must go through a lengthy process to get ethics approval when using real people.

It is clear that Struggle Street’s phenomenal ratings appeal is the door being kicked open to a new and brutal form of storytelling and marketing when it comes to people’s lives. And one that should force all of us involved in any aspect of the media to pause and question exactly what informed consent really means when we ask people to expose themselves to public scrutiny.

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I did my PhD in Creative Writing so my subject matter – fictional scientifically created human hybrids – didn’t actually exist, so I didn’t need to get ethics approval to research them.

On the flip side, I was writing about fictional scientists in works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and director and screenwriter Vincenzo Natali’s Splice, which explores the fall out caused by people who really should have sought ethics approval before embarking on their projects.

Imagine trying to hand in a documentary like Struggle Street for your creative project without human ethics approval. In an excellent post in The Thesis Whisperer, Judy Redman writes “I’ve been told by a significant number of experienced researchers that completing the ethics application form helps them to clarify exactly what it is that they hope to find out.”

That’s not a bad thing, surely.

Saliently, Redman answers this following question in her article, which is at the heart over the media’s concern about what happened to the participants of Struggle Street.

Why do I need to do an ethics application?

“We have responsibilities towards our research participants. People are giving up their time (and sometimes also putting themselves at risk) to enable you to do your research. We need to ensure they can give free and informed consent to their participation and ensure their safety, particularly vulnerable groups.”

However, this matter of consent and whether real informed consent about the editing and marketing of the Struggle Street story was given by the participants is at the heart of the controversy about the documentary.

A television series like Struggle Street is aimed at garnering large ratings. To do that, the show must be constructed for audience expectations – tastes that have been weaned on reality television and sensationalism.

In this genre the audience wants to see excess, be it the voyeuristic and aspirational appeal of ostentatious wealth or the suffering and struggle of the underclass.  Participants may willingly let the media into their lives, but remain ignorant of how their stories will be shaped in the editing suite and in the subsequent marketing campaigns.

Yes, Struggle Street was a highly successful documentary. It attracted a large number of viewers. But is it enough to win a ratings war? Media analysis has now rightly focused on the issue of consent – specifically whether it is enough to gain written consent from people who may have no idea what happens once the cameras stop.

I suggest that consent can only really be given when participants are fully informed of the final campaign that will be used to sell their story.

In the communications business the client understands their story will be used to sell the product. In this case, the telling and the selling of the story are entwined. The client sees the final product and has been briefed on the marketing campaign, and is a part of all different stages of the process. They see the rough cut, the edited version and have the right to veto the story and steer the tone of the marketing campaign.

This is not the case in journalism, where the documentary filmmaker asserts control, obtains consent to film, and then the subject hands over their life and good will, not understanding that this is simply one part of the process.

According to SBS Chief content officer Helen Kellie, quoted here in Mumbrella, the role of the program-maker was to “make sure we’re not showing the story the participants wish they could tell…We are telling the story as it unfolded through the six months of filming.”

Indeed, the curation of content is contingent on more than just the filming, or collection and compilation of the images. It is in the editing that a political slant can be made, that references, relationships and dialogue are brought into focus. It is in the final ‘package’ of the story that the participants may feel their lives and views have been distorted to conform to an over arching narrative that is not their own.

In a comprehensive look at the issue of consent and Struggle Street, Denis Muller in The Citizen (7 May) asked: “Has SBS done over the people of Mount Druitt?” pointing out that the editing and of the series raised “questions about betrayal of trust, fairness of portrayal and the effects of stereotyping. But consent, as a cornerstone of professional ethics, is fundamental.”

Journalist Michael Lallo (Sydney Morning Herald May 9) reviewed the first episode of Struggle Street  more kindly than most commentators, writing that the show didn’t mock or degrade its participants, who mostly were portrayed as doing the best they could in circumstances of poverty, and drug abuse, with dignity and resilience. For Lallo, Struggle Street offered “a complex and nuanced look at how some people fall through the cracks”.

Brian McNair, writing in The Conversation (7 May)  also added, “Struggle Street was not racist, nor was it anymore voyeuristic than any reality TV show of the last two decades”.

Yet later commentary, after the massive success of the three part documentary, raised more serious concerns about consent. Michael Bodey (The Australian 18 May) noted that “the ethical issue of consent will be tested more frequently in the future after the success of the three part series”.

I would also add consent for the marketing campaign should be obtained before anyone signs off on giving over their lives to a documentary. Because when it is all said and done, the ‘success’ of Struggle Street is not about whether it effectively tells a story about the inequalities of Australian society but whether that story sold, and how well it sold, and how it was sold.

When success is measured in ratings and marketing spin, then consent must be given on this basis, and the residents of Mount Druitt should have been briefed on the marketing campaign, and allowed final veto of the end product or offered a say in the reediting, just as with any stakeholders in a communications campaign.

So, before you complain about ethics committee approval, think about the controversy surrounding Struggle Street. And then, ask the following question – should the media take lessons from academics about consent and the need for ethics approval?

An Edited version of this blog post was published at:

Online Opinion

RMIT Blog Central

Academic Study, creative writing, Creativity, Doctoral misery, work-work balance

Elvis Costello and Stephen Fry: the creative work-work balance

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I have a fading newspaper clipping taped to the wall near my computer. It might seem a strange motivational message because the title is “Elvis Costello quits recording Albums”. The article contains a quote that is alarming for those heavily engaged in creative work.

Costello tells music writer Iain Shedden“You can’t spend your entire life enjoying yourself in everything you do. You have to choose.”

Really? But I don’t want to choose! I want to know that when one door opens, there are endless possibilities.

The industrious English singer songwriter was referring to his decision to stop making albums. Shedden says it’s a declaration that reflects the shift in the way that people now consume music. The industry has gone through changes now hitting media and publishing, professions I have called home. Writers are wondering, like Costello and other musicians, how to make a living from what they do.

But while Costello might be chewing over how to go about recording or releasing new material, he hasn’t stopped actually making music, writing songs or collaborating with the likes of Burt Bacharach or the Brodsky Quartet.

The market place may shift under you, buckling from the seismic changes wrought by the Internet, but as a creative person you need to keep on producing material.

Be it writing fiction, music, academic articles, whatever, you need to be engaged in creating content. Because no matter what unforeseen changes there will be in the distribution of that content, one thing is for sure. Creative output will always be required.

I am a firm believer in the power of the narrative. Everyone needs a story – businesses, major corporations, politicians and children. They all need to read other people’s stories and have their own story told. And who writes, researches or sets these to music, these stories of our hearts and minds, the threads of our lives and the tentacles that connect us together globally? Writers do this.

The trouble is, creating, and at the same time trying to earn a living, comes at a price. As Costello knows all to well, the work-work balance is a bitch. Can you do everything? It’s a juggle that doesn’t get as much media coverage as the work-life balance. Possibly because there are less people trying to do work-work rather than work-life.

My motto is you can sleep when you’re dead – there’s nothing decent on television anyway. Besides, I believe for creative people, there is no downtime. Everything is an inspiration and everything engages our rapacious curiosity. I am reminded of Stephen Fry, whose latest autobiography The Fry Chronicles  details this restlessness and engagement.

Fry works, works, works. For him, work is more fun than fun. If there is a work-work balance, like me he hasn’t found it. He works like someone is chasing him or he is chasing something. He has a writer’s desire to find out why – why people do what they do, why they feel what they feel, and why they create what they create. And that’s because, as he reveals, he finds other people more interesting than himself.

I also find work more fun than fun and prefer spending time around people who push their comfort zones and stretch themselves beyond what they think they can do. I am fortunate in that my work puts me in touch with people who are more interesting than me. Apart from my blogging, fiction writing and the impending deadline to hand in my doctorate, I have a full time job in arts communication working with Australian and international visual artists who never fail to inspire and a weekly evening stint of sessional teaching that sees me nurture focused and driven post graduate creative writing students. I believe we learn from everyone if only we stop to listen.

So then, how do we find time to do all the things we want to do creatively? Well, here is the thing. Alas, Costello is right. You can’t! Sometimes you just have to say no. Just as Costello has decided to say no to making more albums, I have reluctantly said no to several additional projects until the looming doctoral deadline is over in May. The idea that women can “have it all – but not all at once” equally applies to the creative life. I don’t like saying no, but there are priorities.

My mother gave me good advice early on about time management. She graduated from two different universities on the same day so knows a thing or two about the work-work balance. She taught me there are As, Bs and Cs and that they must be shuffled around. If she calls and I’m stressed about a project, she’ll ask “is it an A?” That is – is it a main priority right now? No? Then drop it, and concentrate on the A.

Only you know your personal A, B, and Cs. But I would suggest that in the doctoral journey, while there are periods of intensity that mean your research is the A in your life, there is much to be said for the engagement with other doctoral students over the four or so years. The Bs and Cs are part of the process, too.

Joining reading or writing groups, attending workshops, going to conferences, actually meeting other people and talking about your work – and more importantly, finding out about their work – are all part of your doctorate.

In The Fry Chronicles, Stephen Fry says when he was at Cambridge, it was the people at university and those connections he made that were his education. It doesn’t hurt that the roll call included Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie.

If you are lucky enough to find your creative other half –a collaborator and muse to spur you on, a Hugh Laurie to your Stephen Fry – then never let them go.

And if you haven’t found them yet, keep searching, but look in the right places. Get up from your computer, go to a conference, and talk to people. Listen to them. They have the same frustrations about their research, the same anxiety about their ability and the same dreams about their future.

Of course, it isn’t always easy to do, especially if you are an introvert. But there are tips you can use. A recent post in The Thesis Whisperer by  Julio Peironcely, a PhD student in Metabolomics and Metabolite Identification at Leiden University, The Netherlands, provides good advice about advance preparation for conference attendance and dinners, so you won’t sit there resolutely chewing a bread roll and wishing the ground would consume you before you have to try and make small talk. I highly recommend this post, it may be about science conferences but it applies to everyone, and as a creative writing student I am going to make sure I try all of Julio’s tips before my next conference dinner. A career in journalism means that I always heed to advice to talk less about myself and ask questions and listen to the other person, however, I am pleased Julio deems questions about your new friend’s journey through the infamous valley of shit (the ultimate in doctoral dispair) acceptable for dinner table conversation.

Knowing how to make the most of meeting like-minded people in structure environments like conferences is essential, as the people you want to share your creative world with are unlikely to be found in the pub on the weekend slumped in front of a large screen TV, or dozing like an inert kipper on a tanning bed. For a start, it’s really hard to read – or write – in either of those environments.

creative writing, Doctoral misery

Doctoral despair: what to pack for the bear hunt

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Doctoral misery and deadline pressure love company. So I have to say I was somewhat relieved to hear from a fellow traveller on this journey that she too was having completion issues.

To put this in perspective, I am not talking about some mythical PhD slacker who spends the days on a scholarship playing Solitaire on the computer. Though I have heard they exist…

No, this woman a motivated self-starter who presents at conferences around the world, publishes and teaches. So when she sends me an email saying that she is in the last two months – and too scared to count the days – and things are not moving as swiftly, or as smoothly as she would like, I know that feeling.

Yes, I am having what she’s having. And that’s the fear of the last part of the journey. It’s no longer about formulating ideas, drafting version of the thesis, reading and commenting on journal articles – it’s not even about writing articles or conference papers.

Hell no, this is the real thing. This is fear. This is what sports stars must feel just before the race begins.

It has nothing to do with competence; it’s all a mind game now, in the same way that writing fiction is actually a mind game. This is what internationally best selling author Douglas Kennedy has to say about it about it:

“Writing is a confidence trick you play on yourself… and one which you must perpetuate on a daily basis.”

I’d recommend reading Kennedy’s blog: “left handed writing, right handed thoughts” for an insight into so many aspects of the writing life – confidence tricks, completion, and the curiosity with which he observes people and the world and weaves that into his books. No, he isn’t in my doctoral bibliography – no mutants here, just an acute skill at rendering the complexities of the human condition. Sometimes a little respite from the Gothic is called for….

As for my friend? She writes, ”I shall look forward to seeing you all on the other side of the PhD, although I can barely imaging what that place might look like!”

I had her pinned for an effortless finish and am now somewhat relieved I am not the only one tearing my hair out. At the moment, nothing I write seems profound enough or sounds scholarly enough…yes, it’s the inevitable descent into The Valley Of Shit. This is something that Dr Mewburn wrote so eloquently about in her Thesis Whisper blog entitled – The Valley of Shit.

The Thesis Whisperer is a newspaper style blog dedicated to helping research students, and is edited by Dr Inger Mewburn, director of research training at the ANU.

I met Inger when she was working at RMIT and she asked me to contribute some blogs to her site, which I was more than happy to do – you can read them here.

I have a theory that any time spent reading The Thesis Whisperer is not procrastination, but actually a thinly disguised therapy session….

Inger writes: “There are a few signs you are entering into The Valley of Shit. You can start to think your whole project is misconceived or that you do not have the ability to do it justice. Or you might seriously question if what you have done is good enough and start feeling like everything you have discovered is obvious, boring and unimportant.”

Indeed, the photo that accompanies today’s blog was taken on a visit to my father’s village in northern Greece. It seems to sum up this state of mind perfectly. Because I cannot speak a word of Greek, the signs didn’t really help me as we started to trek up the mountain. If I got lost, I couldn’t ask for help. That’s what The Valley of Shit feels like – you can see from the signs that you are there, but you don’t know what they say, and don’t know how to get out.

If you too are in this dark and smelly place, you just have to do what I am doing, and believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps because I am a fiction writer, I am well-used to walking through The Valley of Shit, and know there are only three things you can do – do not lose your nerve, keep on working, and believe in your ability.

As Douglas Kennedy says about being a novelist:  “Even when you’ve hit the twenty year mark, are you also willing to accept the fact that, even when others think you have arrived as a novelist, any truly good and serious writers knows one central truth of this calling, this profession: you never arrive.  You just keep on working.”

That’s right – just keep on working. That’s all you can do when you hit The Valley of Shit – take comfort in knowing everyone completing their doctorate probably ends up here, and probably gets out alive. You just have to keep on working through it.

I am reminded of a book I used to read my boys when they were little – We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, by Michael Rosen. I loved this book even more than they did, as it seemed to sum up the very meaning of persistence so perfectly. I’d bounce the kids on my knee and sing along with the team on Playschool:

“We’re going on a bear hunt…we’re going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day, we’re not scared! Uh oh, a river – a deep cold river! We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it – oh no! We’ve got to go through it….”

Who needs the philosophy according to Pooh? I’ll take Rosen any day. Good luck!