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How I stopped worrying, and learnt to love Lent Term March 1, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in life, uni.
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I don’t tend to do too well during Lent Term. It’s partly due to the lack of daylight, which by Australian winter standards is pathetic (10am to 4.30ish pm), and it’s partly due to the fact that Lent Term is when it starts to get serious, workwise. Last year, I went a little bit crazy, although it probably didn’t help that I spent about five weeks in the lead-up to Lent Term spending all my days alone in my room drinking various alcoholic beverages…

I spent most of this term being very tense. Every two weeks or so, I’d hand some work in to my supervisor, and every meeting she would say that it was not at a high enough standard. I started to despair, thinking that I was incapable of writing research at a level higher than an MPhil. At the same time, I was preparing for my first-ever conference paper, which caused the Return of Panic!Ronni, Now With Added Hysteria. My friends must’ve got very sick of me, as every time anyone asked how I was, I would launch into a litany of shrieking complaints about how terrified I was about the conference.

At some point, though, I realised I had to pull myself together. I had been having trouble writing in my room, so switched to working mainly in libraries and cafes, with excellent results. Every so often, I’ll get a psychological block about writing under certain circumstances (I’ll suddenly be incapable of writing on a computer, or in the University Library, or in the department common room), but I’ve found that if I simply change my writing circumstances (write by hand with a pen, move to a different library, try writing at a different time of day) I can unblock my writer’s block. That’s what I started doing. I worked in libraries in the morning, then came home, went for a run, ate lunch, and worked in cafes in the afternoon. I wrote everything by hand in exercise books, which meant a bit of extra work transcribing the writing, but it was worth it. I’m now sitting on 5000 words (as well as about 15,000 other words that aren’t really up to scratch).

But the best thing about those 5000 words? My supervisor said they were good, and that the new line of inquiry I’ve been following is a worthwhile topic. After she said that, I felt as if I were walking on air! The thing about my supervisor is that she expects a lot, and she’s fair but firm. This means that when she says my work is good, I can confidently expect it to need very little improvement. She reads everything thoroughly and won’t give empty compliments, so when she’s happy, I know it’s with good reason. She really gets what is meant by ‘constructive criticism’.

And what about the conference? Well, I was very frightened on the day. (My friend J and I, who were both giving our first papers, were sharing a hand-out for the talk before mine, and neither of us could hold the hand-out as our hands were shaking so much!) But the thing about me is that I have such a strong sense of shame that I’ll work hard to avoid being ashamed or embarrassed by anything. (When I was a child, it was even worse. It was fear that motivated me to study, because I was so terrified of making mistakes and having people think I was ‘stupid’. I managed to get through so many gymnastics competitions without a hitch – without falling or stumbling or slipping – because I would’ve been so ashamed to look bad in front of the judges.) It’s a handy trait to have, because although I’d prefer to be motivated solely out of love for my research, I think that fear is a stronger motivator. Thus, although I was freaked out about giving my paper, I was more terrified of giving it badly, and so I forced myself to speak with a well-modulated voice (having journalist parents is good training for this!), gesture with my hands, make eye-contact, make sure I was pronouncing the Irish words as correctly as I could manage and prepare for the sorts of questions that I felt people would ask.

Once I was done, I actually found I’d rather enjoyed the whole thing, and was looking forward to doing some more conferences. This chimes with my previous experiences of public speaking: I’m terrified the first time, but once I’ve done it, I rather enjoy it. I used to love giving tutorial presentations as an undergrad and high-school student.

[Look! Here’s my name on a real, live conference program! It’s in the PDF, and you can see me listed as one of the committee members for last year’s conference, when I helped organise it.]

I feel like I’ve jumped over a massive hurdle with this conference, and nothing will daunt me now until I move on from graduate conferences to conferences with a mixture of postgrads and academics. But that won’t be for a year or so.

My next big lot of work is my registration piece (10,000 words, plus my proposed chapter structure, plus an annotated bibliography, plus a report on training I’ve been doing, plus a mini-viva), which is coming up in just under two months. I’ve got all the necessary writing, but it’s not at a good enough standard yet. Oh well, that’s what the holidays are for!

Master of Philosophy? July 21, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in life, memories, uni.
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I can’t believe it’s been a month since I updated this blog! I feel incredibly guilty about that, since so much has been happening. My mother’s just left for Heathrow after staying here for six weeks, during which time we went to Spain, walked 22 miles to Ely, and ate way too much Indian food, but before I talk about all that, I’d like to fill you in on the biggest news: I graduated!

Me with my snazzy Cambridge degree.

Me with my snazzy Cambridge degree.

Like all things related to Cambridge, the graduation ceremony was poorly organised and highly ritualised. We were told that it would begin at 11 o’clock. We were to present ourselves for inspection (we had to be correctly dressed) at college at 10 o’clock, and our guests had to be at Senate House by 10.50. When we got to college, we were informed that the ceremony would actually start at midday. I had no way to contact my mother, as she had my phone, which was switched off. So I sat in the SBR with one of my housemates, watching appalling reality TV on the computer, agonising about my poor guests.

After an hour, we started our procession through town. This is a tradition for the graduation ceremony, and I’m certainly glad I am a member of a college that’s close to Senate House. I can’t imagine how awful it would be to process from somewhere like Girton, running the inevitable gauntlet of gawking, camera-happy tourists.

The ceremony itself was very quick: no long-winded, patronising speeches like at Sydney. You (I swear I’m not making this up) hold the college Praelector’s fingers, he says some Latin over you, you kneel down in front of the Vice-Chancellor (in our case it was the Vice-Chancellor’s representative), she says some more Latin over you (‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’ – non-Christian monotheists can opt out with ‘in the name of God’, but there’s no opt-out phrasing for atheists or polytheists, unfortunately), you walk away and someone hands you your degree. You then hang around outside Senate House until the session is over and then everyone swarms out to congratulate you.

It felt a bit more anticlimactic than when I graduated from Sydney, simply because I graduated with college people rather than my friends from my course (although two of them were at my session). Somehow it’s more meaningful and more poignant and more significant to graduate surrounded by those who went through everything with you.

Prior to graduating, I’ve been having a grand time. Mum got here just before I handed in my dissertation, and it was a great relief to have her there during the final stages. Hand-in was followed by May Week, Cambridge’s traditional week of debauched excess. My May Week kicked off with the John’s May Ball, which was absolutely insane. Imagine the most over-the-top funfair+formal+barbecue+bar+al fresco dining+dance party+rave+jazz club+indie music street festival and you still haven’t quite encompassed all that the May Ball was. I had a fabulous time, but the not-quite-closet socialist in me felt a bit outraged at the excess of it all. I probably wouldn’t go again unless I was taking someone from home to show them ‘the Cambridge lifestyle’.

I followed the May Ball with several more sedate May Week activities: a couple of garden parties, which were all about the Pimm’s and the finger food. At these I caught up with the ASNaCs, which made me a little melancholy. So many of my ASNaC friends are third-year undergrads, and won’t be coming back next year.

After May Week I disappeared to London for a bit with Mum, where we stayed with friends. She did a few interviews for work and I caught up with one of my oldest friends from Canberra and her boyfriend. She was in the UK for a conference and they’d decided to make a bit of a holiday of it. I hadn’t seen her for nine months, so it was amazing to catch up.

Then it was time to return to the ‘Bridge for my viva, a nerve-wracking experience akin to being dragged across a bed of nails while having your hair pulled out strand by strand. Nothing about it was pleasant, and the examiners’ comments were interesting, to say the least, but I must have done acceptably, because my marks were good enough for me to continue for a PhD. Funding, however, remains elusive. Fingers crossed.

After the viva, Mum and I went off to Spain for eight days. We went to Madrid (where we visited three great art galleries: Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Reina Sofia and the Prado, as well as unexpectedly finding a fantastic Annie Leibovitz exhibition). We spent a lot of time walking around the Retiro park, where Mum got some hilarious footage of people rowing around a tiny pond, and even paying money to be taken around said pond on a little steamboat. If I can, I’ll upload it here.

After Madrid, we spent four days in Barcelona, where we mostly hung around in the gothic district of the city, apart from one day when we walked to Parc Güell, the crowning glory of Gaudí’s architecture in Barcelona. (I was hoping to see people with glowing eyes running around, à la Röyksopp’s ’49 Percent’ but alas, it was not to be.)

I’d never been to Spain before, and was most impressed at what good food you could get for basically nothing. Most places had a breakfast special (coffee, pastry or sandwich and orange juice) for about 3-4 euro, and a lunch special (three courses, drinks and bread) for 8-16 euro.

After Spain, we came back to the ‘Bridge for a few more days, then went to London, where I caught up with yet another visiting-for-a-conference old school friend (we’ve known one another since we were 11) and went on an excellent walk around Hampstead Heath. It’s amazing that such a beautiful place exists within such a huge, noisy city.

Then it was back to Cambridge for graduation and various admin-related tasks. I’m about to head off to Ireland for a Modern Irish language course, and I’ve been trying to organise that. But the whole thing was tinged with sadness. Over the past six weeks, I’ve unlearned all the independence that I gained over the nine months I’ve been away. Having my mother here was wonderful beyond words. For all I love my new friends, there’s nothing like having someone around to whom you don’t even have to explain yourself, who gets you on a level beyond language. I coped before, and I will cope again, but the initial stretching of the umbilical cord is going to be painful.

A portrait of the student as a young procrastinator October 21, 2008

Posted by dolorosa12 in uni.
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5.30am: What’s that noise? Oh, that’s right, it’s my housemate in the kitchen, fuelling up before rowing training. *back to sleep*
7am: What’s that noise? Oh, that’s right, rowing housemate has returned. MUST HAVE SLEEEEEEP!
8.30am: *staggers out to the shower*
8.40am: *staggers out of the shower* *gets dressed*
8.50am: *realises the only food she has is rice, broccoli and bacon*
8.55am: *heads off to Sainsbury’s*
9.05am: Oooh, bagel and coffee and Indigo Cafe sounds like a good idea.
9.30am: *finally arrives at Sainsbury’s*
9.45am: Where oh where might they keep the salsa.
9.57am: *finds salsa right next to burritos, tacos, etc*
10.10am: *staggers home laden down with three bags of shopping*
10.25am: *unpacks shopping*
10.35am: Well, maybe I should check my email to see if my supervisor’s replied about my dissertation ideas.
10.40am: Oooh, Livejournal. Snazzy.
10.50am: Oooh, new QC’s up.
11am: Oooh, two friend requests on Facebook.
11.15am: Oh dear, Mim’s having an essay crisis. *sigh*
11.45am: *finishes editing Mimi’s essay*
11.50am: *supervisor still hasn’t replied*
11.51am: *starts Latin homework*
Noon: *hears flatmate in kitchen* *goes to investigate/talk*
12.15pm: Now, about that Latin…
12.45pm: I feel hungry.
12.50pm: Oooh, Facebook chat. Snazzy.
1pm: *resumes Latin homework*
1.30pm: *finishes Latin homework*
1.31pm: *supervisor still hasn’t replied*
1.32pm: *begins posting blow-by-blow description of the day’s procrastination on WordPress*
1.58pm: *finishes the post*