Academic Skills Post: NEVER be “Realistic”

study overload

I was at a workshop for post graduates; where keen masters and PhD students made the effort to come to hear some “gems of wisdom”, perhaps a secret or two about how to publish and get your work out to an interested audience. I sat and listened attentively to all the well meaning talks by people who were “experts” in the field giving very sound and reasonable advice. The result? A heavy spirited audience that I felt was completely discouraged. The only glaring exception to this was an incredibly inspirational talk from an academic who handed out examples of many unconventional publications she had spent the last 20 years engaged with.

This made me go back to all the workshops and seminars on what it would take to do a PhD. I remembered that along with the absolutely useful information I took away with me, there was this huge misconception communicated through repeated phrases such as “doing your PhD is an incredibly lonely pursuit”, “your family and loved ones are very likely to become frustrated and angry at your disappearance out of their lives”, “often, a PhD is an incredibly depressing journey”. I wasn’t sure where this was all coming from and as I took what I was hearing as gospel – it was, after all, coming from the mouths of experts – I prepared for doom, a decease, a journey into darkness… but then, I discovered the most incredible thing!! That doing this PhD, was not walking into a tomb, contrary to expert advice, in fact, quite the contrary. The three years of my PhD so far have been the busiest, most challenging, most stimulating, most sociable years of my life – and this is coming from the loudest girl in the class from nursery to high school!.

I once spoke with someone very dear to me and I told her that I wish someone had told me about mailing lists when I was an undergraduate. I would have gone to conferences, presented papers, networked etc. and I went on to recommend a conference she should attend. She started, “I can’t, because…. ” and she went on to convincingly present a logical list of all the reasons why is was absolutely inconceivable for her to attend, let alone present, at this conference. This made me so angry! I was so frustrated for her and for myself and for the thousands others who are so restricted and limited by what professional, reasonable, experienced people tell them about the limitations of everything! Unwittingly, and I know this is done with no sinister intention, these people have helped generations stifle their curiosity, their hope, their drive for achieving beyond their dreams, or even dreaming itself, for fear of being ridiculous in their over ambition.

It was then that I discovered something new about myself. I was unrealistic. It was perhaps my greatest asset. If I had been realistic, I would have stopped at first year university when I failed. I failed because I did not have the skills and tools to take me through university. I struggled through my entire undergraduate degree – yes, I started over, and through various personal problems and limitations, I passed with a not so great honours degree. Again, if I had been realistic, I would have said, “Well done Nelly, you’ve done well to get this far, now pack your trunk and off to the circus, it’s a miracle you’ve got this far, now go and do something suitable and in line with your achievements and skills”. Did I do that? Not on your Nelly! I went right back to uni, to the one professor who believed in me and signed up to a Master in Laws degree (which meant I would have to sit more exams than I had to if it were a MA or MSc). and guess what, I got a distinction in my Master’s dissertation!

Now I’m doing this PhD, the same thing happened. During the first year, where YES, I admit I had to put my head down and just get on with the literature review, meaning lots of libraries, I made friends there every time, invited and got invited by fellow students, in the same and different fields and even got asked out twice by fellow geeks 🙂 – and this was the loneliest part!! Three years on, I am teaching, for the third year, in three different universities, I’ve been asked by a university in Germany to guest lecture. In terms of publishing, I have a paper in a journal and a book chapter in an academic book to be published later this year, putting in a book proposal to publish my literature review and a quite a few other things in the pipeline, including being a guest editor on three special edition journals. Conferences, where I encourage you all to go to as many as you can, have also been important and I’ve been invited to be a key note speaker at a few events, including one for the United Nations, in a panel at the AAG (the Association of American Geographers Conference), presented papers, organising sessions all the way up to the end of the year. I declared this year in my PhD, after coming back from my fieldwork, the Year of Academic UnRealistic Activities. I also write in a blog that has reached the hearts of many (50,000 readers) and I couldn’t be enjoying myself more in this academic sphere.

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As I listened to experts speak today I wondered whether it was the bitterness of their experiences, rejections, failures over the years that made them feel they were doing a service to others by cautioning them so much. They wanted the students to do well – that’s why they were there. But it was a replica of a situation where parents would try to discourage their children from taking risks. It’s well known that other parents, who do give their children that space to take risks and make choices, support them through the consequences, often grow to achieve great things. This made me think of my incredible supervisor Karen Wells, who guides me from afar, always there to give advice, but allows me the space to explore, make mistakes, take up every opportunity and sternly reminds me of my “practical” deadlines before they swoosh past me. That’s what I’ve needed.

So my advice to you, if you are an academic and you are still reading this, is as follows – the most important thing about doing this PhD is that you enjoy it! It’s an incredible time to research something you are passionate about, in the length of time you have to research it. A PhD is NOT the final stage or destination, it is simply training for a career as a researcher and so this makes it a space where you develop an academic identity and just like other aspects of identity, you can only form one as you make choices, celebrate achievements, feel the agony of things that haven’t gone so well, blur all the different you’s together, etc. If you aren’t enjoying it, then stop. Stop and find something better to spend the valuable heart beats that you’re giving away. It’s not a cliche, our time here is limited, no one has yet been able to trick life and stay alive for ever, and so while you’re in the game, be a happy winner, or be a cheerful loser, but don’t be a bystander waiting to hear what you can and can’t achieve from others.

Just before I leave you, I want to highlight the value of positive thinking. When someone puts forward an opportunity, or a suggestion, don’t start by saying “I can’t” and justifying why. Instead, say “Sure! How can I get it done?” This is what I’ve been doing, and you know what? It’s worked! I noticed the one speaker today that inspired me said she used her students for skills that she did not have the time to develop. Her language was different. She could have easily said “skills I don’t have”. But she respected her ability to do whatever she wanted if she dedicated enough time to it and we should be just the same!

Good luck! If I can do it, you sure as hell can!!

If you need any ideas on giving yourself a push to be unrealistic and want to know some of the things I did to publish, get in touch: nelly.ali@gmail.com

Personal Post: Diary Entry for my Trip to Lebanon

I was amused at the gates boarding the plane to find that the Lebanese were more eager to get on it than were the Egyptians on my familiar Egypt Air flight. As soon as the gates were opened every single Lebanese got up rushing towards it, despite numerous requests by staff to remain seated till our rows were called for. Another major difference were the menus the stewardesses gave out, in 3 different languages, as they walked by with their drinks trolly that had an array of different types of alcohol to the layman economy class traveller I was. Perhaps if I wasn’t so ill I’d have indulged in the luxury. But, feeling under the weather as I was, I made do with the roasted peanuts that came with the pineapple juice- joining the tens of passengers with no personality who chewed away at nuts they probably didn’t want to eat, simply because we were handed them!

It’s the first time I’m not excited to travel, a mix between feeling extremely ill, not being well enough to go to teach my classes this morning, being behind with my work for the first time, being without Shariff for the first time since we’ve moved in, and being confused about my academic identity. But, with one hour and a half to go, I’m making a promise to myself not to be ungrateful. I am on am all expenses paid trip to Lebanon, to attend the Arab Council for Social Sciences conference, chosen from 120 candidates, I had a chance not only to speak about the street kids role in social movements, but to talk about the incredible work Manadeel Waraq gets up to for the children in egypt.

We’re landing now… Outside the window, the different colour flickering lights feel like its a country having a party – not one divided by war or ideology…

There’s something about airports, something universal about these completely different countries… I wonder what Margaret Mead would have made of that universality? Of the fact that there are the same tears and smiles and the same eager run-ups along the corridor, hugs and kisses and proclamations of how much each child had grown. It didn’t matter what country I was in, airports were the same.

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My confusion between being an activist an academic became even more serious being surrounded by 70 other academics that I couldn’t easily start conversations with. A lot of the time it felt like a competition with how many big words you could string together in a sentence to be worthy of conversing with. But maybe that’s unfair, I was very ill, feeling unsociable and also trying to coordinate help for a 3 year old girl that we were told about who was in hospital in Egypt, burnt, tortured, broken boned, hurt very severely by her parents who got arrested after taking her to hospital claiming she had fallen from the second floor building. We were trying to work around a system that provided no foster care for abused children – we only have orphanages and shelters for street kids, but nothing for abused children. It was hard to keep up with papers on theoretical frameworks of inequalities and revolution when I felt I was so acutely helpless affecting real change.

But as the second day came about, I got some help for the girl, the rest of the Manadeel Waraq team got other help, following the “saving one child at a time” method, I eased up, started talking to fascinating academics and realised I could keep up the battle of bridging academia and activism, but I learnt how much the former was dependent on the latter for me. It was an amazing event in reality, bringing together so many disciplines in the region and discussing where research in the Middle East was going, and a refreshingly honest admission that it wasn’t the intellectuals bringing about change, but almost everyone else…

By this time I was well enough to go out for a walk… And I did………………….

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I waited for them to come out of the sea and as they dried up and got dressed, I found my self making all sorts of assumptions about them, quickly trying to categories them in every box I knew, I hated myself for it. But I couldn’t stop smiling; the boys were radiating fun and enjoyment it was contagious… They were different to the boys fishing, the ones on roller blades, different to the boys here for an afternoon stroll with their parents. I couldn’t place them. It was only after they pulled out some stock from under a parked car to sell that I recognised them. They were so polite, so cleaaaan, so clean in fact that I heard myself saying, “7adretak tefl shaware3?” There was no other option for me than to address the child than that way! As we all laughed and started talking about and they told me that he and his friends lived on the street, but they got up to work early every day so they could afford this play time in the sea.

It was amazing watching the women run and do press ups in tight Lycra along the beach and though some men would stare, they were left to do their thing with no one invading their space, it was exactly at this point that I thought my earlier comparison and declaration of similarity with egypt become totally invalid. The fact that there wasn’t a cigarette butt on the street rendered me comparison invalid too.

I got lost on my way to “down town” that I never reached in the end. I ended up on the hills in roads parallel to the Qornish and immediately the vulgarity of poverty and decay was apparent, a painful contrast to the beauty of nature that the sea, just less than a 100 steps away had emanated. Homes made of cardboard and cloth and other cheap materials, but still, like the street boys I’d met earlier, so superiorly clean; something that made poverty itself vulgar, but not the homes, and definitely not the people.

I didn’t take any photos of the homes because I felt it would be a huge invasion of their privacy, these tucked away manifestations of struggle, though I would have been trying to capture this cleanliness I could not explain. Why were the poor on Lebanese streets so squeeky clean and not the Egyptian poor on the street? It threw up so many questions about dignity, valuing life and the self, having self esteem, perhaps… Or was it hope, hope that things were definitely going to get better so one had to look their best to greet good fortune when it came to them.

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I’m sitting now on the Qornish writing this, I’ve decided that there is no way you can “travel the world” if you don’t stay in each place at least a few months, enough time to make friends, need to go to its hospital, pick up a friends child from its school, enough time to get to know you’re way around, to deconstruct all your previous notions of that place. I know so much has been written about this, so much analysis on space and culture, on deconstructing normativities, but each persons experience of it is different, each one of our consumption of space is unique, and at each destination I faced my own revolution and self discovery in relation to that space. I had to question too why I was far more comfortable talking to the street kids here in Beirut, than I was the academics in the conference I was supposedly more associated with..

I definitely want to come again, come back here as a person and not an academic, a distinction that has recently become very painful to acknowledge. The hills I can see in the distance are enchanting, something about them calls you to emerge yourself in them, even the air here is full of resilience and resistance, and a paradoxical calm… A city that could have fallen apart as a result of earthquakes, floods and civil war, it’s people’s ability to enjoy song and dance, perhaps like the Egyptians ability to joke, after each catastrophe, is perhaps what held this city together, keeping it clean, keeping it ready to embrace a change of fortune when it came.