On failure in academia

Oh boy. I haven’t been really good at updating my blog, have I? Nearly a year ago I was full of plans of how I will use it to document my amazing research trip to the UK, which I didn’t, and then I thought I would write about the process of applying to grad-school and writing my MA thesis, which also didn’t really happen. Applications have come and gone, and we are now in the middle of March which means that scholarship decisions are starting to roll in. As a result, I get a painful jolt of adrenaline every time I see the blinking green light on my phone that means a new email is waiting in my inbox.

A few days ago I found out that I failed to get a scholarship for international students at King’s College London. It is one of only two scholarships I was eligible for at that university. An hour ago I received an email notifying me that I wasn’t chosen for one of the scholarships I applied for in Cambridge. It’s not the end of the world, but in all honesty – I started crying. I have been under a lot of pressure lately – I’m trying to write a 120 pp. thesis in four months (one and a half of which have already passed), one of my cats has just been diagnosed with chronic renal disease, and anything after July is a hazy fog of uncertainty (will I be moving to the UK next autumn? This wholly depends on whether I get a scholarship; where will I live? When will my husband join me?).

It’s tough to get rejected – even though I know that I applied to a lot of scholarships, so it stands to reason that I’ll get a lot of rejections, it still hurts. I still wonder what I did wrong, and why I wasn’t good enough. But I know that this is a perilous path for my thoughts to take, because in academia you get rejected, A LOT. It’s something you have to get used to pretty early on. In order to achieve anything, you first have to put yourself out there – which means applying for scholarships, awards, and grants, sending conference proposals, and submitting articles, chapters, and books. Then you wait. I suppose that out of every 10 things you apply to, you’ll be rejected from at least half. Sometimes even 9 out of 10. But that’s the thing – that one thing you do get propels you onwards.

I’m trying to learn how to try things and fail elegantly. I am a very neurotic human, and I tend to really get in my head sometimes, obsessively roaming around in circles in my mind, lovingly grooming thought-monsters that distort my reality. Over the years I have come to realise just how much my fears and anxieties have been holding me back. It’s hard to fail, it’s awful to get rejected, and it’s crushing to get several rejections – but it’s impossible to get anywhere without taking chances, and when you take chances, you, inevitably, fail sometimes.

An interesting newish trend which has helped me put my academic “failures” into perspective is that of academics who publish a ‘CV of failures’. See for example this CV published by Johannes Haushofer. We are so used to seeing only successes and end-results, most especially with modern social media, that we either forget or are unaware of the processes that preceded these accomplishments – processes that often involved failures. This puts me in mind of Angela Duckworth’s theory about grit, and Carol Dweck’s concept of the ‘growth mindset’. Both of them believe that in order to succeed we must process failure in a different way – not as a be-all-end-all, but as a natural part of learning and progressing. According to Duckworth, the secret to success is grit, which she defines like this – “Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint”. While Dweck contrasts people who have ‘fixed mindsets’ with those who have ‘growth mindsets’. The difference is in their response to failure – those with fixed mindsets believe that they can’t improve, and that if they fail (say, at a test), that failure defines them and their intelligence and abilities. In contrast, people who have a growth mindset see themselves as constantly improving, and hence perceive failure as a challenge, or a mere bump in the road.

I tend to veer automatically to the fixed mindset, and it’s something that I really want to change about myself. For me failures tend to seem catastrophic and tragic, I let them define who I am, and who I will be. I am so scared of processes that I expect to either be a natural, or forever and hopelessly bad at whatever I do. I don’t want this grad-school experience to be tragic, and I don’t want to let these failures define me. I’m scared of hearing back from the rest of my scholarships, but I know that at least I’m trying, and that the worst case scenario is that next year, I’ll try again.

Joanne Leore

P.S. – Because it’s also important to remember and celebrate the successes (which tend to get swept aside in the consternation over the failure), here’s a #tbt from two months ago:

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My North American adventure, part 1

Last April I saw a call for papers for the History of Science Society conference in Toronto. I decided to try my luck and send in an abstract – I’m an MA student but my research is pretty advanced – I figured that the worst that can happen is that I’ll get a ‘no’. It was just after all sorts of academics started posting their CV of failures online – detailing all the jobs and grants that they didn’t get, all of the papers they have written that have not been accepted. It made me realise that my fear of failure can only hold me back in academia, that in fact, in order to achieve anything I will need to try and try and try, and fail a lot, in order to succeed, and I thought that there was no better time to start than the present. I was very surprised when I received an email several months later congratulating me on the acceptance of my paper.

And so, I was going to Toronto, to a four-day conference, and it seemed a shame to travel all the way to North America without visiting my sister who lives in New Jersey, on a little street facing the famous skyline of New York. I spent five days in New Jersey, though it felt like more, and I had such a good time spending time with my niece and nephew, and with my sister and her life partner. Here are a few snippets that I wrote in those few days.

2.11

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It was a day flight, but all the shutters all over the plane were pulled down. I pulled mine up every once in a while to gaze at the tiny mountain tops and lakes below, blinking at the sun reflected by the clouds. Most of the flight I passed in the darkness, with the harsh yellow reading light above trained at my kindle screen, furiously reading the first volume of Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust. I started reading in the line for the check-in, and finished after eight hours in the air. I read like I did when I was a child, in wild abandon, completely lost to the world. It is hard to put into words what it felt like to be back in Lyra’s Oxford, to come back to the world Pullman painted in His Dark Materials, the first book of which, Northern Lights, I read when I was 12, falling madly deeply in love with that world, and it, and its characters, have been a part of my life ever since.

4.11

Woke up this morning to a sliver of light peeping through the curtains, so that I knew right away that I had finally slept the night away, as dawn begins to break at seven. My eyelids felt heavy and painful with sleep, so I opened the bedside lamp and read a few pages on my kindle before going out of my room. In the living room, on the royal blue sofa, sat my niece and nephew, with wild bed-hair and glistening eyes, and watched an animated movie on the gigantic screen as the sky outside slowly turned a lighter and lighter blue. The atmosphere in the living room was slightly gloomy, but cosy at the same time. Two childish faces gazing at their own private wonderland in that dark, half bewitched hour, in which the skies slowly open, and the grownups are not yet awake. I never had that, since my mother was always up at six. Maybe that is why I curved out my own space at the witching hours, between 23 and 2 in the morning. Though my father was still awake, he remained in his study upstairs, and the rest of the house was mine, asleep, and bewitched, to read, watch Hallmark films (the magical king – Legend of the Leprechauns, Merlin, and so on, not the sickly-sweet dramas), and mess around on the internet, building my own website, and spending hours in book lovers’ forums.

I put the kettle on to boil and made myself a breakfast of a tortilla smeared with peanut butter and apricot jam, and a soft blueberry cereal bar stuck in the middle. I sprayed it with salt, and made a cup of spicy cinnamon tea, grabbed a banana, and sat down to eat and read. I am continuing a book I started on the plane, ‘Just One Damned Thing After Another’ by Jodi Taylor. The strong tea fortified and warmed me as the sun kept rising outside, and the blue skies started glowing at the edges with gold. I’m not sure what to think about this book, it is not especially good, but also not glaringly bad. It uses the same premise as Connie Willis’s – time travelling historians – but treats the subject in a completely different way. There is none of Willis’s depth of historical details or evidence of painstaking research, instead it is more of a series of episodic adventures.

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When I go to London I always visit Foyles, when in New York I’ve started forming a tradition of going to The Strand. The Strand is a beautiful and gigantic bookshop, that boasts having 18 miles of books. I was walking around this shop of wonders, the floor boards around me creaking with the steps of dozens of people. They sounded like a ship, screeching and cracking around me. I felt so soothed and curious, ensconced, with the floor creak-creak-creaking around me. I spent hours browsing books in the history, photography, fantasy & sci fi, and graphic novels sections, letting images and ideas wash over me and inspire me.

The graphic novels section was the biggest one I have ever seen in a bookshop, and had many tables on which specially recommended volumes were arranged. I read two books on the spot, and leafed through dozens of others, eventually choosing three to buy. It was a delicious experience.

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5.11

Woke up in the dark again. I like it. The jetlag is adding new timescapes to my life – the magical hours between four and seven in the morning on a quiet Sunday. Just me, and the computer, writing and writing and writing. Looking at the schedule of the upcoming conference and dreaming. Inhaling my pumpkin tea, luxuriating in finally wearing long sleeves and socks indoors, and looking at the bluing sky outside.

 

6.11

I could spend hours looking at maps, thinking. Reading place names, caressing rivers and lakes with my eyes, trying to imagine what lives are led there, what the atmosphere feels like, what are these hills and oceans dreaming of.

I am performing open heart surgery on my writing sample for the PhD applications. It is lying, dissected, spread-eagle on my screen, innards poking out in disarray. I am poking and prodding, rearranging organs and limbs, trying out different variations, until finally I connect all of the right veins and arteries to each other, and the paragraphs and chapters begin to pink with the healthy vibrance of a well-structured argument.

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Today I worked until noon, and then decided that being so near New York and only visiting once is heart breaking, so I threw on some clothes and caught the bus to Port Authority. I spent the afternoon in the Met, mostly in the Modern European section.

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Seeing paintings I know and love felt like meeting old friends, but I had one uncanny experience, when I walked into a room and a full length painting loomed before me like a ghost from my past. I realised that I bought a postcard depicting this painting 13 years ago, and it used to hang on the wall of my bedroom as a teenager. It was eerie and spooky and lovely.

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Walking home from the Met I was surrounded by squirrels. Silvery-grey ones, and small ashy-black ones. I saw two squirrels with short tails, which I found out a few months ago happens when a predator grabs hold of their tail – they can break it off, like a lizard, and leave the frustrated hunter with a useless piece of fluff in their mouth. Central Park was darkly and glossily green, with castles rising in the background, and orange leaves strewn on the ground between jutting brown-black boulders, and curling tree roots that looked like sleeping squirrels with red fruits in their mouths.

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As the bus left Port Authority in the direction of New Jersey I opened my laptop and starting working on my application materials again. I raised my head to see New York standing before me, black and blue and yellow, wet from the rain, full of whispering promises. I’ll be back.

Joanne

Everything at once

(This post, and the next several posts, are from my backlog)

I am overwhelmed. I tend to get overwhelmed easily, I always have. By happiness, sadness, memories, my senses. Any of these can fill me and leave me overflowing. Right now I am, at the same time, happy, sad, scared, and excited. I am happy because we’ve just moved to a new apartment and it is perfect, and makes me feel both proud and at peace. I am sad because I have been thinking existential thoughts again, feeling bewildered with simple facts of life, such as the fact that I will never be 27 again, it is a very strange thing, when you think of it, a part of me is still my 27 year old self, how come she will never truly be alive again? I am scared because in one month and two weeks I will be sending my PhD applications to universities in the UK. I am excited because in two weeks I will be travelling to New York to visit my sister, niece and nephew, and then on to Toronto, to a gigantic history of science conference in which I will be presenting a paper.

I really like this song by Lenka, because I often feel that I am everything at once, and I am often wanting to be everything at once. This sense of totality can be very productive, exhilarating, and sort of addictive. But it can also be overwhelming, causing one to stay in one’s tracks, simply staring like a deer in the headlights, unable to move, just letting feeling after feeling, thought after thought, wash over you. I want so much to be alive, to enjoy the moment, to do everything, that it has the exact opposite effect – I get so scared of not being here anymore, so scared of dying, of growing old, of not being perfect, that I miss out on so much.

I would like to give this whole blogging thing another try. As you (my as yet nearly inexistent readers) may have seen I have written here sporadically over the years, but have never really turned it into a habit. I used to have a blog in Hebrew, between the ages of 16 and 25, in which I would write consistently, but ever since I closed that blog, I lost the habit. I think one of the reasons for that was that I didn’t know what kind of blog I wanted to write. Should it be a blog about books? A blog about art? Should I keep it professional in case anybody from the academia ever read it, or can it also be a place for unleashing thoughts, anxieties, bits and pieces of my every day? All of this uncertainty caused to procrastinate, because that is my pattern – I want things to be perfect from the start, I find it very hard to accept that there is usually a period of adjustment, the sketching before the painting, and when that happens, when the thing is not perfect from the start, I back away.

So now, on my 456787 try, I am thinking that why choose? Why not do everything at once? So welcome, yet again, to my blog. This is my space, my world, in which I will write about books, clothes, academia, the history of science, cats, and my thoughts. My name is Leore Joanne, but I usually go by Jo, I love books, fantasy and sci-fi, history, the north, all animals and cats most especially, and although I am often happy sometimes I get pretty depressed, existential, and even slightly nihilistic.

This blog is meant to help me cherish and enjoy the moment.

Joanne.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street / Natasha Pulley

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Yes, yes, I know – I have been a terrible blogger. All my dreams and plans of documenting my amazing research trip in real time so as to save all of my impressions for posterity, and giving you all a little window into the life of a beginning researcher, went out of the window once I actually landed in England and became so preoccupied with my day-to-day reality there. The trip was amazing, and I am still harbouring a little hope that I will recap it in a couple of photo-heavy posts in the near future (just as soon as I finish this really stressful deadline-filled stretch of time that I’m currently in). In the meanwhile, here’s a little book review on the last book I’ve read.

From the description I was sure, for some reason, that this was a detective mystery book, so I was a bit surprised when it veered off in other directions. At first I was completely drawn into the world of this book. It had a Sherlock-y vibe – slightly dusted with charcoal, Victorian, taking place in Scotland Yard. The ‘feeling’ of the book – its setting, atmosphere, details, ideas, and language, are its best qualities. Its worst qualities? the narrative, which was overly twisted, and its internal logic. I am completely willing to suspend disbelief and delve into a world that works according to different natural laws, I only ask that it will be consistent and logical (the king of this sort of thing is Brandon Sanderson, who takes after the legacy of world-builders such as Tolkien). Here I felt that there was no such logic with the special powers of one of the characters who can “see” the future. I did like the inventiveness of Pulley, who based the science in her book on the Victorian notions of physics, and among them the idea of ‘aether’ an element that supposedly permeated all the spaces in the world. and was responsible for gravity and the travelling of light. I also liked the descriptions of Mori’s clockwork shop – cosy and whimsical, a combination of the British and the Japanese, it was one of the highlights of the book. One last thing I highly disliked was the way that Grace’s character developed; I really liked her at first since it is a tendency of mine to adore female scientist characters, especially in historical novels, but she quickly devolved into a weak and annoying character.

L. J. G.

P.S. – am I the only one who was really shipping Mori and Thaniel? At one point I was sure the writer was hinting at that as well, but I’m not sure if I imagined it

Day 1 – Flight and Arrival:

Everything went more or less in the most perfect way possible. Yiftach stayed and worked from home on the morning of my departure, so we had some more quality time together. It was really calming to have someone else there help with cooking lunch etc. while I was attempting to finish packing my suitcase for a month-and-a-half-long trip. An hour before we had to go out we ate the pasta with tomato sauce and chestnuts Yiftach prepared and watched John Oliver wax poetic about Brexit and odd British politics (have you ever seen the political candidate Lord Buckethead? No? Well, look here).

For once in my life I have packed the bulk of my suitcase the day before, and this saved me a lot of anxiety on the day of the flight, and instead I could devote myself to more important matters – such as washing my hair, and deciding which books I would like to buy for my Kindle.

We drove to the airport and stood together in what I think was the longest check-in line I’ve ever been in – at least an hour and a half long. But the wait was made sweeter by having Yiftach with me, and gave us plenty of opportunities to hug, kiss, and say goodbye languorously, and not in a short, traumatic gesture. I was a bit worried of there being insane lines at the security and passport control – but I sailed through both in five minutes flat, and before I knew it I was on my way to my gate. It was exhilarating. Until now I’ve only ever flew abroad on my own once, when I was 19, and even then it was simply to meet my family in New York. I have never been out of the country on my own, and it has been quite a few years since that solitary flight. Everything felt new and exciting, being the Mistress of my own self, and I smiled as I settled down on the chairs besides the gate, pulled my kindle out of my handbag, and started reading ‘The Professor is In’ by Karen Kelsky.

I was extremely lucky in that on a chock-full plane, in the middle of July, I somehow found myself sitting next to an empty seat. It was a daytime flight, so I didn’t use it to curl up and sleep, but it did make the flight much more comfy since it gave me more space and wiggle-room, and allowed me to sit in all the odd (and quite flexible) ways I usually prefer. I spent the flight nearly finishing the aforementioned book, which is a sort of guide to PhD students on how to transition from the PhD to full-fledged academia. Those of my readers who are not familiar with the academic world are perhaps not aware that the job-situation is pretty dire – in the humanities many hundreds of qualified PhDs compete for every single opening. Unlike the 20th century, tenure isn’t at all a given, and many people spend years adjuncting in several places at once, while being paid a measly pittance. This book was written by an anthropology professor who decided to quit academia, and instead became a coach and adviser to academics. Her background as an anthropologist gives her a unique outlook at academia – she explores it as one explores a foreign culture and shows how things work beneath the surface. Although it will be years before I am on the market, I think this kind of knowledge is essential and powerful, and will perhaps help me plan the rest of my journey throughout academia. A lot of the knowledge about the inner workings of academia is nebulous, unwritten, and mostly you happen upon it by chance, or collect it painstakingly through conversations with mentors and those above you in the academic food-chain. It is quite unusual to get it all organised in a printed book.

The flight passed fairly quickly and comfortably, and even the food was great. I ordered the vegan lunch and it was surprisingly delicious! Lots of yummy tender tofu on rice, with sweet potatoes and sun-dried tomatoes, and beside it a tub of hummus and a small pita-bread.

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I’ve been a little apprehensive regarding passport control when entering the UK, worried that perhaps Brexit brought about more ill feelings towards foreigners, and stricter questioning. In fact there were signs all the way up the line warning of the new and harsher methods of interrogation, and asking passengers to be patient. I shouldn’t have worried. I filled my immigration card properly on the airplane, and when it was my turn and I stood nervously in front of the man examining my passport, he asked me what I was researching and suddenly I lighted up, and told him about my female entomologists with shining eyes, throwing words into the air such as ‘gender’, ‘imperialism’, and ‘social networks’. He smiled earnestly back, and waved me right on through.

From there I caught a train on the Piccadilly line, and spent my ride to Gloucester station reading ‘Strange the Dreamer’ by Laini Taylor. The train was hot and stuffy and smelled of stale sweat. It was a mercy every time it stopped and the doors opened, letting in a waft of fresh air. I had a short moment of elation when I made my way out of the station – all of a sudden I was out on the street, a very obviously London-y street. I walked for about 12 minutes to my hotel, which is actually one building of dormitories at Imperial College which is run as a hotel during the summers. By the time I entered my room it was nearly midnight, I was bone tired, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I saw the room. It had no shower nor toilet, and the window was stuck.

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It was stifling. I went down to the desk, where I was told that there was nothing they could do about it until morning. I went back up, turned the fan on, and curled into bed with my book. Once upon a time I would have probably cried, or at least felt completely hopeless. But now, although I was slightly worried, and very annoyed, I knew that tomorrow would be another day, and that I will take care of this situation, one way or another. It felt very powerful to have that certainty, that things will be ok.

I fell asleep pretty quickly, and dreamt of libraries and blue gods.

J.

A week and a half to go!

With one week to go the trip seems very far away and way too close at the same time. There are still so many things to do! I need to return books to the library, and photocopy chapters to take with me on my trip. I need to buy toiletries, get a haircut, and finish buying all the various train tickets I am going to need. I also need to go to an archive in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. This one is not for my research, but rather a part of my work as a research assistant for a historian I work with. This will actually be the first archive I ever step foot in, and my task for the day would be to find information about a female botanist who worked as a professor in the Hebrew University way back in the first half of the 20th century. I am rather looking forward to it and hope it will make me more at ease when I go to archives in England.

In addition to all of these I need to finish grading my students’ essays from the last semester. I want to go on my trip with as little on my mind as possible, and right now, with only fifteen essays left to grade – it seems that it may indeed happen.

There are two more preparations which I have not yet really began – books and movies to bring with me. The books one chooses to take on a trip abroad are a very serious affair, as they will set a lot of the tone and atmosphere. I am thinking of creating a mixture of non-fictions (mostly guide books to dissertation writing), fantasy (my favourite genre), and a few children’s books. The reason for the children’s books? First of all, a lot of children’s books are awesome and one need not have an excuse for reading them! But in this case there is a reason for my wanting to bring a few British children’s books with me, and that is the fact that I grew up on these books, and they had a great influence on my development, and on my love for England, which brought me to where I am today and to my research subject. I grew up reading a lot of Enid Blyton, Edith Nesbit, Arthur Ransome, Roald Dahl, Frances Hodgson Burnett, etc., and a lot of my nostalgia is made out of bits and pieces of these books. What can be more perfect than revisiting Arthur Ransome’s books about children exploring the Norfolk Broads whilst doing so myself, on my days off in Norwich? What will be more magical than reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising chronicles in front of a fireplace in Wales?

As to movies, a year and a half ago I had a sudden yearning for period dramas set in 18th to early 20th century Britain, and I downloaded a lot of movies and tv shows, but never had a chance to watch them. They all remain, dormant, in my portable hard drive, and I thought that the trip will be the perfect opportunity to start delving into them. So said hard drive will be coming with me (also to act as a back up for the gazillion photos I will be taking in the archives), and perhaps I will keep a record here of the movies I’ve went through.

I need to go and get ready, because we’re going out with friends to eat vegan burgers (which are supposed to be really good).

Joanne

Off to the archives, or – my British summer

In two weeks I will be making my way to the airport to board a plane to London. I am travelling to England and Wales for a month and a half to do research for my MA thesis, and thought it might interest my friends and family, and maybe some other people as well, to see what I’m up to in my British and archival adventures. This blog will also document my adventures (if they might be called so) in applying to grad school in the UK and US for the autumn of 2018.

My research is focused on British women in science, more specifically on women entomologists (insect researchers), around the period of 1870-1940. In my work I try to determine how some of these women managed to enter the scientific community and take part in it, at a time in which women were largely excluded from science. I am going to do that by studying the women’s social networks (yes! there were social networks before Facebook), and in my PhD I will be using social network analysis (SNA) which is cool and uses coding and graphs to track social networks in a visual way. I am very interested in the role class played in these networks, and also in how imperialism got into the mix.

In this blog I will tell you of all the archives I’ll go to, but also of the other sightseeing, hiking, and shopping that I’m planning to do. I may use it to write a bit about my extracurricular reading (I mostly love fantasy and sci-fi), and my art (I draw, and paint). Besides that I am thinking of writing a bit about my research and how my thesis is developing, and about making my way in academia as a beginning scholar (i.e. conferences, grad school applications, etc.).

Hope you enjoy the ride,

Joanne Leore Green

 

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