Metaphors for the PhD

As part of a research training course, I have been tasked to consider what metaphors I would use to describe my PhD research. I don’t want to say it is a journey – a motif too cliched for someone engaging in children’s literature. I have kept this question at the back of my head for like a week and ideas keep popping up. None of them can be a perfect allegory, but each should highlight certain aspects how I perceive my PhD research.

 

PhD is an adventure in the Wonderland
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We were all probably first lured by an intriguing White Rabbit in the first place into the rabbit hole. Down the rabbit hole we have fallen into the Wonderland, an unknown land inhabited by incomprehensible creatures such as the Caterpillar smoking a hookah. We once again ask fundamental questions like ‘who are you’ / ‘who am I’ / ‘what am I doing’ / ‘why am I here’. We have to unlearn as we learn, and be prepared to abandon any preconceived ideas to acquire a new perspective of seeing things. The adventure is episodic, not necessarily linked by causality but rather a matter of serendipity (or randomness, for people who don’t feel too positive about it).  It is fascinating to wander in this new land but it can be confusing and frustrating at times. It is not a place without trouble and fear. The fear of having our heads off is always lurking there. It is an adventure without a fixed itinerary and we do not know the destination. We know when we arrive.

 

PhD is mining
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This time it is not the White Rabbit that led us into the mine. We probably are attracted by the possibilities of finding precious gold or diamond there, or at least some useful coal. Hence into the dark hole we went. Carrying the necessary equipment, we started mining. At times we might realise that we do not have the best equipment for this particular mine. After all each mine has its own unique landscape, for example with especially narrow tunnels or particularly hard rocks. So we have to get out of the mine and get hold of some more effective tools. On some days we dig out nothing despite all the effort spend. On some other days we might chance on some valuable minerals. It is a lonely process in a dark mine and we have to get out to bathe in sunlight for a balance sometimes. (The disturbing aspect: mining is a dangerous job and the casualty rate is high too.)

 

PhD is a rhizome
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Borrowing the metaphor from Deleuze and Guattari, the metaphor of the rhizome is best used to describe the process of picking up academic reading. From one scholar we go on to another because A has cited B’s work. From B we go on to C, then C to D, who might have also been referred to by A and who might also be quoting E. And so on and so forth. From one idea we are connected to another, seeing how different scholars are juxtaposing previously unrelated thoughts. From one discipline we glide to another discipline, almost another ecosystem, and yet the roots are so interwoven that we cannot completely sever one from another. Where will we end up? There is no end, unless we give up on the whole botanical system and go back above the ground – so yes we are in the underground darkness finding our ways without the privileged ability to oversee the entire network.

 

Although I tend to be dark with the above metaphors, I am rather positive that we will get something invaluable out of the adventure, or the mine, or the underground roots, that we cannot otherwise gain. After all it is not the destination that matters the most, but the adventure itself. And if we remain in the academia, this intellectual adventure will go on and on and on.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think!

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The Trump-Voldemort Analogy

It’s over eventually and like it or not, we have to accept the results now. What interests me is the Trump-Voldemort analogy that people made some time ago during the campaigning period. Now that Trump is about to rise to presidency (*despite the fact that he hasn’t yet taken his oath*), it’s perhaps time to review the analogy.

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Picture from The Guardian

I have to first say that I have not been closely following the whole US election so there are probably things that I will miss regarding Trump’s positions. I must say I know Voldemort better than Trump, and hence the following will be more like character analysis than political commentry, although the two can hardly be separated, whether in the Harry Potter universe or real life.

Similarities

This analogy was sparked off when Trump articulated his plan to prevent all Muslims from entering the US. This is when people started finidng similarities between the then-presidential-candidate and the ultimate evil in the Harry Potter series.

First of all, Trump’s speech reeks racial and religious discrimination. Many articles are also announcing that Trump’s victory is the victory of white supremacy. Although he will probably not deport the Muslims residing in the US, his hostile attitude towards the racially and religiously different is clear and undeniable. Here is a parallel to Voldemort’s determination to establish a new world order with only the pure-blood by exterminating all the ‘Mudblood’. Both spread hate speech and promote intolerance.

Another parallel between Trump and Voldemort is their support of torture. Trump openly declared that ‘torture works’ and that something stronger than waterboarding was needed. His stance is ‘directly and unambiguously a violation of the internationally accepted laws of armed conflict’, according to an article on The Register. This is not unlike how Voldemort loves using the Unforgivable Curses to torture (and kill) people who are against him. The fact that the curses are unforgivable points to an agreed humanitarian standard in the wizarding world, perhaps legally backed by something like the United Nations Convention against Torture in our world.

One more similarity between the two is their division of people into the successful/powerful and the loser/the weak. Rather than uniting people of different backgrounds, abilities, temperaments and beliefs, such kind of success/power discourse only serves to divide, because this discursive existence is dependent on the perpetual presence of a ‘loser group’ as opposed to the successful/powerful. Instead of empowering everyone and respecting differences, this only encourages people to strive to become the successful and leave others behind.

Differences

Rowling, in response to the Trump-Voldemort memes, wrote this on Twitter. Is Trump really worse than Voldemort? Perhaps.

One big issue with Trump that we can hardly be unaware of is his sexist attitude. It seems like he is so deeply rooted in sexism that even his daughter cannot rescue him. He just kept letting inappropriate comments slip. Voldemort, although a male, makes no gender-related remarks. This simply is not his concern. What we might notice, however, is that the Harry Potter universe is also very much male-centred. Basically all the important characters are male: Harry the boy hero, Dumbledore the male mentor, Voldemort the male nemesis, Fudge and Scrimgeour the two male Ministers of Magic. Females can at most occupy the deputy position: Hermione, McGonagall, Umbridge. It does look like a world in which Hillary Clinton has a thin chance to rise to presidency / minister position.

Another difference is that, in contrast to Voldemort, who possesses magical prowess and knowledge, Trump appears a lot more ignorant. If we take a look at Trump’s statements on scientific issues, we will be appalled by how anti-intellectual he can be: proclaiming global warming to be a hoax, and complaining there are no vaccines to cure autism (which obviously is not a physical issue but psychological). See here for more – I’m not sure whether everything quoted on this page is wrong, but some of them definitely reflect Trump being ignorant as any layperson can be, and yet he was speaking as a presidential candidate. Voldemort, on the other hand, knows what to do to resurrect to power, and has a very well conceived plan to take over the Ministry, the press and the school. (In this regard, I’m actually not sure whether it’s better that Trump’s ignorant than being knowledgeable and evil.)

Yet another difference which, once again, I’m not sure would make Trump better or worse than the Dark Lord, is his ability to inspire public support. Voldemort only attracts supporters because he is in power. The relationship between the Dark Lord and the Death Eaters is based on interest and fear only, with the exception of Bellatrix Lestrange, who genuinely admires Voldemort. A lot of the Death Eaters like Igor Karkaroff actually panics when their Dark Marks burn, indicating the return of the Dark Lord. Even Lucius Malfoy has no loyalty to him but only dreads avenge. Trump, on the other hand, has real public support. He has got at least half of the United States to back him, and unlike Brexit, there don’t seem to be people voting for Trump but not actually expecting or even wanting him to win. The problem with this is, if he is indeed comparable to the historical leaders like Adolf Hitler and Mao Zedong, who also gained wide public support in their respective countries, we might actually witness another historical mistake made by the mass. The mass might even carry out all the racist and sexist assaults without the actual endorsement of Trump’s government. All the worse, because Trump is going to be a US president in the 21st century, consequences can be direr and more worldwide. For a more detailed analysis, please read this.

I sort of think Donald Trump might not be as ideologically pure as Voldemort. My thinking on Trump is that he feels like more of an opportunist – I don’t know know how much of this stuff he’s saying he actually really, really believes.

— Daniel Radcliffe, video here

Compared to the extremely vague adjective ‘bad’ used by Rowling, Radcliffe gave a more detailed response, which I think is a very apt observation. Here is a super long list of contradictory statements made by Trump and we can never be quite sure what he will do in the coming four years. On an optimistic note, all the crazy things that are quite against the American (and indeed universal) values he suggested during the campaigning period might not be realised after all. He might just act along the realisitc and practical line. In contrast, Voldemort, as a fictional character, is flatly evil. As Radcliffe pointed out, he is ideologically pure, purely evil. He is the symbol of all that is undesirable, the externalised form of the darkness within everyone of us, the shadow that we fear: racism, intolerance, hatred and so on – to be vanquished at the end by our fictional hero.

After all, the reality is a lot more complex than the novel series which very much resembles the fairy tale genre. The real world is no fairy tale and there is no guarantee of a happily-ever-after ending. Yet, fairy tales (and children’s literature in general, if you like) teach us what we need in face of adversities. Instead of projecting the evil figure onto the president-to-be, it might be more useful to think of vanquishing the Voldemort within us. After all, if President Trump was indeed the Dark Lord, this would only be made possible because of the Voldemort residing in us.

Daylight Saving

This is the first time I’ve experienced ‘daylight saving’, a practice that has a history of a century but whose effectiveness in its purported aim of energy saving is suspicious, as revealed by some recent studies.

The UK clock was moved back for an hour yesterday (Sunday), following the ‘spring forward, fall back’ pattern. To be exact, we have just returned to the ‘normal’ time. (Just as the school where I worked would call the winter timetable ‘normal timetable’, and hence we would joke that we prefer the ‘abnormal timetable’ – earlier off!) We had an extra hour of sleep on Sunday. I read that this is affecting the sleeping schedule of some people, especially children, as this is creating a jet lag effect. But for me who is never quite a regular sleeper, and as a cross-continental student, a one-hour time difference is nothing compared to the real jet lag I experience when travelling between the UK and Hong Kong.

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The period between March and October when the clock is one hour ahead is called the daylight saving time (DST), which has just ended for 2016. There is a whole history behind the practice which can be traced back to Benjamin Franklin and later the First World War! Supposedly this is to make better use of the long day time during the summer: by moving the clock forward, there will be one more hour of light during our activity hours – and hence one less hour of artifical light needed, saving candles in Franklin’s time and electricity now, supposedly.

See the Telegraph article for details – where I’ve just learnt all about this daylight saving thingy.

However, for me, who will not enjoy much of the DST with my summer away, I will probably just blame it for an earlier nightfall at around 5 now, which will be even earlier later. You may say, but you get the sunlight earlier in the morning, so it’s not exactly a loss. Hm, yea, my bad to waste that hour of morning sunlight in bed.

Introverts and Classroom Participation

[This post is inspired by and written in response to an article entitled Teachers, Quit Telling Introverts They Should Participate More’ I read on Introvert, Dear.]

The author of the post is a school teacher, and so was I. She identifies herself as an introvert, and so do I. Perhaps I was too much of a goody-two-shoes in primary and secondary schools, but I do share a lot of her anxiety as a student in the university classroom myself, and agree with much of her advice for teachers.

During my undergraduate studies, as English majors, we often had to discuss in tutorials, but it usually took me minutes to formulate my opinion in my mind, carefully rehearsing it, and waiting for the right timing, perhaps waiting for that girl sitting opposite me to finish her point first, before I could anxiously make my comment. After making the comment, please gosh don’t stare at me. Don’t come back to me – I’ve made my contribution. Not that I’m not interested in the topic. I’d love to hear different people’s opinions in tutorial discussion, but please don’t pick on me and ask me to say something when I’m not ready.

Then I did my MPhil. All research students in my university have to be teaching assistants. I actually like teaching and I enjoyed being a TA. I was then the one holding tutorial discussions, having to ask my students to express their thoughts. Perhaps I should have been more compassionate about those who was anxious as I was as an undergraduate, but I seemed to have internalised the notion that verbal communication and participation are essential for students to make the most out of their literary studies. The most important (and inconvenient) reason was that, since I was not the assessed but the assessor, I did not feel the same anxiety.

But then we also had research student polemics where we got together and discussed scholarly articles with a professor, and I shrank back into the nervous anxious student. We actually had a debate in one of the polemics over whether polemics are constructive in academic training. I tend to stand on the negative side with a few of my peers, believing that carefully constructed and researched arguments are probably more valuable than on-the-spot debates, though we all have to acknowledge that verbal exchanges are a necessary part in scholarly activities in reality… conferences and viva!!!

After that I became a secondary school English teacher. The PGDE training tells us to increase classroom interaction and encourage student participation. Of course I’d agree that if it’s all chalk-and-talk, quite a lot of students will just drift off and not learn much in class, but we must also acknowledge that there are introverts in the classroom who would just be discouraged from learning if constantly required to speak in front of the class, or even just have their work displayed. It doesn’t mean they aren’t attentive or interested in the lesson, but the mode of learning doesn’t suit them.

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The boy is well liked by teachers because he is actively participating in class, but look at the anxious face of the girl… She probably isn’t disinterested in learning, but just feels uncomfotable about the way teachers recognise students’ effort in class.

The author of the article has given some good suggestions for teachers: trying to get them talk in small groups where they feel a bit more at ease, and allowing writing as an alternative way to share their ideas. I’d add that multi-modal assessments should be encouraged especially in the secondary school classroom, where the diversity in learning needs can be large. A mix of written assessments, oral presentations, creative assignments, or even video production, if the students are tech-savvy enough (with tablets and apps this shouldn’t be difficult), would probably make learning more stimulating and at the same time help develop the different skills which will be really useful in the future too. This is also fairer because I supppose no one is good at everything, and where they aren’t good at, they should be given the opportunities to hone those skills.

It might actually be the teachers who aren’t very comfortable initiating such changes due to their unfamiliarity with the various modes of teaching and learning. This is understandable. Schools should allow more room – not only the freedom, but actually releasing their workload (instead of asking teachers to add new things to the plate while keeping up with everything already there – for experimentation. At the end of the day, we just want our students to love, instead of fear or hate, learning, and schools should help teachers achieve this mission.

A Story of Children’s Literature Researchers

I’ve read an amazing story about children’s literature researchers. Not me, sadly.

The reason why I got to read this story is that one of the Glasgow lecturers here is in the story – Evelyn Arizpe, director of MEd in Children’s Literature and Literacies at University of Glasgow. She gave a guest lecture yesterday which I attended, and we were shown the following, in addition to a lecture fused with zeal.

These are historical items! An 18C chapbook and a doll with letters and words on its body – probably one that would have been sold by John Newbery back then?

It’s exciting to be able to touch these, but what is more exciting is a story in which she was a part. She told us a little bit in class, but for the full story, please do go and have a read of the Prologue of a book entitled Reading Lessons from the Eighteenth Century by Evelyn Arizpe and Morag Styles. (There’s one in CUHK University Library – though on loan at this moment. That might be the only copy in Hong Kong!)

That’s a fascinating story of some children’s literature researchers inspiring one another, joining at different stages of the project, in the search of the history of a mother writing for her children in the 18th century, Jane Johnson.

Let me summarise a bit for people who don’t get to read it. Styles, one of the authors of the book, was first inspired by an American researcher Shirley Brice Heath, who brought to her knowledge a precious collection in Lilly Library at Indiana University – that of Jane Johnson’s. Fascinated by Johnson’s works, Styles was determined to pursue further in collaboration with her colleague Victor Watson.

The two of them, together with the visiting scholar, immediately went on a trip to London to study the wills of the Johnson family, and then to Witham-on-the-Hill, where Johnson lived. It was a small village and the people there were somewhat surprised by the visiting of the scholars. With the kind help of the people there, they got to see what Johnson’s house would look like, and also read a book related to Johnson’s daughter.

This is just the first part of the story, but I fear that any longer description will lose your interest. The scholars continued with the project, with a lot of coincidences and help of interested people (including Evelyn Arizpe, of course), a lot of trips and a lot of research on online archives, they got to dig up a lot of old documents (!!!) and unravel the obscure history of the eighteenth-century reading household.

The burning passion scribed into the book can hardly be missed. The prologue was clearly written with great enthusiasm and the excitement they felt must have been hundred times greater than what pops up on paper. (Read it if you have the chance!)

How I wish I could have the opportunity to do research like they did!

Educational Managerialism

These days I’ve been reading a book entitled Educational Leadership: Ambiguity, Professionals and Managerialism, by Eric Hoyle and Mike Wallace. (Warn you, not a leisure read – I read it for research purpose.) It seems to have summarised some of the problems we teachers face in the workplace under the climate of increasing educational managerialism.

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The following excerpt will probably generate some resonance if you are a teacher:

Meetings are particularly rich in opportunities for finding problems. Meetings have now become a major leadership and management tool. In many schools, attending meetings has become almost a way of life. They occupy time during the school day and also after school hours, contributing to the high number of hours worked each week by teachers. … Such meetings exist to enable staff to solve problems and make decisions. But they also fulfil many other functions, including reporting, mobilizing, motivating, reinforcing group identity, impressing colleagues, or parading grievances. …

But meetings have increasingly become opportunities for generating problems. Constructing an agenda often entails a search for problems … Some committees and working parties are dumping grounds for ‘problems’ that are not resolvable at a particular point. Managerialism thrives on meetings. To reduce the number of meetings may be to reduce the number of ‘problems’ that unproductively absorb staff time. But to do so would be heretical to the managerialist mind. (98-99)

To simplify, there are two types of meetings – meetings that solve problems and those that generate problems. The former is necessary and purposeful, while the latter is exhausting and demoralising.

No one really likes meetings, I suppose, not even the school administrators. Yet, why are we teachers still pestered by all the meetings big and small, eating up time for lesson preparation and generating problems and work that do not always relate to the benefit our students?

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If the school administrators aren’t sadistic, then there must be reasons for them to believe that such meetings are necessary or meaningful for the school (not necessarily the students). Such is the force of the governmental management which wants to tighten its grip over schools.

Yet, Holye and Wallace also point out that ‘there is room to manoeuvre over how far to enter into the spirit of these tasks, as opposed to doing the minimum required’ (91). Administrators ought to exercise their professionalism and decide what is in the best interest of their students, and this should vary from one school to another.

Another point worth noting is that while many activities or programmes could be beneficial to students, a question to ask is ‘whether these improvements have been of a magnitude that justifies their heavy costs, financially and in terms of sapping the energy and lowering the job satisfaction of teachers’ (95). And of course, to view the issue on a macroscopic scale, the same logic applies to governmental directives at the cost of school administrators’ burnout.

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Schools should always put the interest of students at the first priority, but in order to be effective, the working conditions and job satisfaction of teachers must not be overlooked. At the end of the day, who are there to teach the students? Would passionate and enthusiastic teachers inspire students better, or would overworked and unhappy ones do a better job?

Umbrella Movement 2nd Anniversary

Two years ago. The day that we shall not forget. We demanded a genuine universal suffrage. We didn’t get it. We got violent repression. We experienced injustice. The day when the government threw tear gas bombs to the ‘armed protesters’ – armed with umbrellas. Umbrellas that people used to protect themselves from pepper sprays and tear gas bombs. Umbrellas that certain lawmakers said were offensive weapons, as we could see in Chinese fiction.

I was, and still am, so proud of all the Hongkongers who contructed the Admiralty Village, creating an area for students to study while occupying, decorating it with cartoon characters holding yellow umbrellas. Totally amazing and touching. And the Lennon Wall. I posted on the wall too. I could smile, because it was before the day that we shall not forget.

Apology for not putting any picutures of the night two years ago, as I don’t own any. Please visit here – a wonderful recap for all of us.

I wasn’t there. I was in front of my computer. And I had classes to teach the next day. I let my kids do listening exercise on some BBC reports on what happened.

I wrote two poems. Just so that I won’t forget. Orginially published in Cha the September 2014 issue.

THE FOOD PARADISE

‘Hong Kong is a paradise,’
says the English teacher.
The simple present tense indicates
it simply was,
it presently is,
and it will be…

We had a Governor known for
his love of authentic
Hong Kong-style egg tarts.
In the good year he left
but the handover promise is kept
and Hong Kong is still
a paradise, where an ICAC
Commissioner is addicted to
pricey Chinese wine.

The euphoric masses
after seventeen years still make
out of their pink cloud the cake
of fantastic prosperity
and a tea party
of ignorant frivolity, not remembering
the won ton noodles
devoured by golden bracelets and brandname handbags.
We wish to smile
without our heads, but this is
no Wonderland.

We imagine we were handling
Zhu Yuanzhang’s mooncakes, but there
are only unequally small
egg yolks embraced by greasy
lotus paste. There is no dragon inside
chain-store box-set mooncakes.
Hong Kong has no fortune cookies.

One day, they will take away
our egg tarts and milk tea.
But we will still have pineapple buns
made of gutter oil and
without pineapple.
‘Doesn’t matter,’ a sixty-four-year-old Papa
says, ‘we have survived
and will survive
for another fifty years.’

Hong Kong is a paradise
aloft
for dreamers.

LESSONS ON 29 SEPTEMBER 2014

good morning class
you sluggishly stand up
good morning Mr Chan
in monotone everyone chants

today –
lessons as usual
so hand in your journal
and countless reply slips
monitor please give me some clips

now –
a period of silence
to offer condolence
but how many are thinking
of the quiz in the second lesson?

could we just keep calm and focus
on our lessons lessons lessons?

could we learn from Chemistry anything
about the composition of the spray?
too much too much too much pepper
the Home Economics teacher may say

do map reading skills inform us
where the teary firework was displayed?
the alleged violence of the imaginary mob
was simply vertical exaggeration

could we possibly conclude the casualties
by solving a quadratic equation?
but nothing can stop the people from
flooding the land in geometric sequence

a spontaneous Music lesson
in the streets with no musical instruments
but voices of people in unison
dispersing beyond the skyline

all these will be written
into our History curriculum
narrating the events in past tense
and creating them in the future

so keep calm and focus
on our lessons lessons lessons

Just don’t forget. The beauty and resilience of Hongkongers.