Completing a master’s thesis and its aftermath

Welp, despite many assertions to the contrary, I have been thus far entirely unable to keep up with any kind of non-academic writing since I started my thesis, with very limited exceptions. I think I’m about done apologizing to myself for this, because it is only now with the experience of being devoted to a singularly focused project for a long time that I see how it can potentially sap one’s creative energies if one is not careful. I think most of the creative or non-academic ideas I had during the last year currently exist as point-form scribblings in a notebook that I keep with me everywhere with a particularly superstitious regard. Perhaps it’s time to revisit some of those ideas.

I’d love to talk to you about my thesis in detail now that it’s submitted and that I’m indeed on track to graduate this October, but I just defended it on August 23rd, and presented it at an international conference in Barcelona on September 1presented it at an international conference in Barcelona on September 1, and I’m still here, couped up in a student residence in the Gothic quarter of Barcelona, wondering why I feel so tired.

I make my way back across the pond tomorrow morning, and immediately after I land I go off to my PhD orientation at the program in Science and Technology Studies at York University. In the meantime, I’ve had to apply for conference funding, apply to attend a workshop on postcolonial and feminist science and technology at Harvard, and complete my initial applications for the Trudeau and Vanier Scholarship Programs. I am sure there was some way I could have planned this which would have avoided me feeling so drained at this moment, but such is life, and from what I’ve been told, the norm in PhD programs – so I’m seeing it as preparation for it. Sigh. I really need a nap. I’ll get on that now.


Masters nearly finished. What now?

So, my masters in environmental studies degree is nearly done. What does this mean for me? This is a question that has me simultaneously very excited, ambivalent, numb and generally horrified. Initially when I was finishing the thesis, I thought it was the stress of the thesis itself that felt like it was tearing me apart (yes, think of that scene from The Room), but I realized I was in fact responding to an earlier self-made prophecy about my career trajectory. This is kind of a big deal. There’s also the non-academic repercussions of the whole masters experience to process, which means I will have to contend with both the academic and the personal experiences that have passed. I want to say that I’m a stronger person, but I feel very amorphous in my ambitions and identity right now. I posted a status on Facebook the other day, which I think illustrates, what I mean rather well.

The closer I get to completing my thesis, the heavier everything feels. I was, at first, surprised by this, because the less work I had, the less stress I felt and the closer I got to the finish line, the more vulnerable I became. I went about my daily business as if nothing was out of the ordinary, but I eventually realized what I was reacting to was not finishing that one thing I need to graduate, but the culmination of experiences that led up to that point, and I was finally acknowledging the masters experience in its totality. 

In 2014, when I started, I felt a mix of naive optimism, self-consciousness about my limited and amateur engagement with social theory up to that point and a vague but overwhelming desire to sever ties with an older identity.

Throughout this journey, I’ve met scholars who went through a similar process of ‘conversion’ (in their words) from the STEM fields to the social sciences/humanities, and I know that I’m not alone in my Phoenix complex. I saw myself burning down, and I feel like I’m still in ashes, and it’s a peaceful way to be. I will go where the wind takes me, and one day, I’ll fly again.

This is to say that I feel all kinds of weird about what lies ahead, and that is not unusual at all. I remember feeling similarly when I completed my undergraduate, then left engineering and now. What is life if not a series of Phoenix-like transformations? It’s true that for some these transitions are far more gradual and less jarring than what has been in my experience, but with any kind of change, there is a sense of discomfort, and if one happens to lean into the discomfort, it can get really debilitating at certain times.

Despite the uncertainties and The Discomfort, there’s a few things that are certainly looking good for me. In August/September, I will be attending the Social Studies of Science Conference in Barcelona, and presenting my masters research on ‘The Naturecultures of Lyme disease in North America’ in a panel entitled ‘Biosocial futures: from interaction to entanglement in the postgenomic age‘. This is a great honour, as I will be surrounded by some very established scholars in my field, and I will get to meet many people who share my academic interests. Then afterwards, if everything goes according to plan, I will begin my PhD in science and technology studies at York University.

It may seem bizarre that I feel sometimes very depressed about my prospects in the world given all of this, and the fact that I just came back from France after completing a prestigious internship at the United Nations Environment Programme. Somehow, I am plagued by the thought that I am not doing enough, or the right kind of enough, that I am at the wrong place, and should have tried harder. I have long been upset at the prospect of prolonging my stay in Toronto (frankly, world cities like Paris, New York and even Bangkok seem like a better fit for me as a person, and there are no long term attachments here in Toronto that are keeping me here) because I feel constantly stifled here. I realize that a PhD is by no means another sentence to stay in Toronto indefinitely, but part of me wonders what other opportunities await me elsewhere in the world and whether I would have achieved them had I tried harder. I’ve been living in Toronto without break (unless you count summers) since 2002, and I’m itching for bigger things that take me places. I realize that it’s already happening, but somehow I want more, I want something different. Maybe things will be different once I’m in a PhD program. Maybe I should chuck it all and move to New York and fulfill my lifelong dream of training at the Upright Citizens Brigade, get a TV show like Broad City and just make it (if only it was that easy). Perhaps I’m impatient, perhaps it’s academia that I’m tired of. I don’t know. I don’t know anything.

I’ll be over here watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Drop me a line if you have any advice. I surely am in need of some.


A brief primer on “feminist glaciology” and the climate and feminist culture wars

Last week, something truly bizarre happened.

The internet had a meltdown over a paper on environmental humanities in a prestigious geography journal.

It seemed that those skeptical (and some that are actually not at all skeptical) of climate change, and those who find feminist research methodologies largely a “waste of time” and just “PC bullshit” found something that brings them together. Indeed, for an academic paper, even more so in the area of human geography/posthumanist research, perhaps nothing in recent memory has attracted so much wrath and ridicule both within and outside academic spheres. I’m of course talking about the “feminist glaciology” paper.

Now, I realize that climate skeptics and anti-feminists are groups that exist in the real world, and there may even be a large overlap in their ideologies. But in the case about the outrage about the feminist glaciology paper, these two groups found common ground to bitch about things like how such studies are federally funded, among other perspectives completely disregarding the merits of study based on the title and abstract only, creating culture wars very reminiscent of the 1990s Sokal Hoax. Nonetheless, this was a weirdly exciting time for me. This is perhaps the first time that the environmental humanities have achieved mainstream coverage.

On a more personal level, I was shocked, baffled and appalled by the way many have reacted to the paper, and those defending it and trying to explain it in context over social media. Just by tweeting about this paper, I have had people attack me and tell me to “go find [my] safe place”. It’s truly weird to see anti-feminists trolls take time out of their busy schedules to target environmental humanities scholars and their proponents, all of a sudden. It’s even more disappointing to see the resistance to feminist-oriented research and epistemologies that exist even amongst well-established academics.

On the other hand, the reaction to this paper is also very illustrative of the gaps that exist in the current academic environment that the field of environmental humanities and cultural studies have long tried to address, as well as the general nature of the Eurocentric heteropatriarchal academy and its resistance to feminist pedagogies.  Among people for whom the feminist orientation of the papers were not the source of their ridicule, the understanding of the basic claims of the paper seemed to be something difficult to grasp. I had a few Twitter conversations with folks who didn’t mind the feminist epistemology, but failed to see why such a paper is anything beyond mere intellectual masturbation on the part of the authors. Indeed, there is a critique of similar postmodern rhetoric for being simply the jargon-intensive fluff that scientists are wary of, but in the case of “feminist glaciology”, I found this was not the case. To me, it seems like a standard, high quality paper in feminist science studies that seeks to make the larger field aware of the intersectionalities in which they are implicated. I’m sure to those who are unfamiliar with the field, or even science studies in general, any suggestion to theorize the social context of scientific knowledge may sound like bullshit. I cannot help those with this prejudice in any way other than pointing out why this kind of research is important. As the first author of the paper, science historian Mark Carey himself said to Science:

“Professional research is published in journals for specialists in a given field. When removed from that context and described to nonspecialists, the research can be misunderstood and potentially misrepresented. What is surprising about the brouhaha is the high level of misinterpretations, mischaracterization, and misinformation that circulate about research and researchers—though this has, unfortunately, been happening to scientists for centuries, especially climate researchers in recent decades.”

In the case of feminist glaciology, this is no different, and is perhaps exacerbated by a lack of scientific literacy and awareness of the history and sociology of scientific practice.

I am writing this as an attempt to correct some of the biases against such pieces of scholarly work, as part of my larger project of situating science amidst its social, cultural AND historic context, and these things could not be more relevant that in the study of arctic glaciology. I’ll explain why.

Firstly, this is not the first work of its kind. Canadian anthropologist Julie Cruikshank has an ethnography of “human-ice interactions” in the context of Canadian arctic inhabitants, in particular the indigenous peoples of Northern Canada in her book Do Glaciers Listen?: Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters and Social Imagination. I don’t remember anyone raising hell about the state of the education system and tax dollars going into this research, so I was quite taken aback when I realized this was the case with feminist glaciology.

The biggest reason why feminist glaciology was not out of the ordinary or unusual for me and many others like with similar academic backgrounds is the steadfast acknowledgement that the development of the ecological and earth sciences as a field has almost always been a site of colonialism, and thereby rich with racial and gendered elements. Modern ecology as formulated by western academies owe a lot to the history of colonialism in the Americas, Oceania and Asia, and therefore is mired in racialized and gendered hierarchies and knowledge systems that are sometimes appropriated by or dismissed by the Western academy. I cannot stress this enough. This fact, is, or at least should be, completely transparent to those engaging with the natural sciences and their history. Thus the idea of a “feminist glaciology” is nothing at all to dismiss, if we are to look at the history and the factual context in which glaciology as a field has developed and continues to do so. In fact, not taking into consideration these elements of scientific knowledge production is what would create lousy science and arguably, bullshit.

Some facts to consider:

  1. The circumpolar people of the Arctic have a special environmental and cultural relationship with ice, snow and H2O(s) in many forms, and their livelihood and food acquisition is very much tied to these notions.
  2. When talking about gender and climate science, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that women around the world, whether they are living near glaciers or not, are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
  3. Feminist epistemology in science has been a relevant topic of conversation in the practice of science, and is gaining momentum because of the exposure of widespread discrimination and hostile work environment for women in the sciences, even in 2016.
  4. If you are not aware of the inherent and subconscious biases in terms of gender and race in your scientific research, your research is deeply incomplete. Papers like the one in question help address these shortcomings within contemporary scientific practice. You can either get with the program, or be rendered obsolete in a couple of years. Because it’s 2016, and a cis-het-white male view of science is far from comprehensive, even in the name of “objectivity” and “rationalism”. In other words, if you are ignoring the larger historical, sociocultural, economic and political context of your scientific work, you’re doing it wrong.

It’s time scientists owned the part their establishments have played in oppressive regimes around the world. Considering themselves as instruments of objectivity, inquiry and impartial judgement does not inoculate them against the biases and prejudices of society at large. Perhaps a deeper awareness of present scientific institutions and hierarchies will help students of science understand the continued follies of scientific positivism and ahistoricism, and we are no longer in an era where the scientific establishment can afford to keep operating in such a way.

The biggest takeaway from the entire #FeministGlaciology debacle is perhaps the extent to which working scientists and academics remain oblivious to the history and power relations of their own fields, and thereby risk perpetuating the same errors as their predecessors in producing not only biased and flawed results, but an exclusionary epistemology, and by extension work environment. In 2016, this will simply not do.




I’m off to the UNEP!

I’m very happy to let you all know that I have secured an internship position with UNEP in their Sustainable Public Procurement Programme in Paris, France, which is due to start at the end of this month! This has been a dream come true, and after a few months of uncertainty as to whether this will be possible or not, I’m off to Paris on the 25th of this month.

Now, dear readers, if you are out there, I could use a huge favour right now. You see, I live on a shoddy student budget, and this means that what I am earning now will not be able to cover the entire expenses of this internship. My school has helped me out a bit in terms of paying the tuition I owed them for this term and with a few hundred bucks in travel grants, the majority of the internship is still unaccounted for. While I’m happy to go into debt for such a pursuit, it would be nice to reduce the amount of said debt by whatever help I can get. And, that’s where you come in.

I have set up a GoFundMe Campaign, where you can donate whatever amount you are comfortable with. Please share this widely. Thanks in advance for whatever you can help me with!

Academia as storytelling: the intellectual process, narrative theory and #realacademicbios

Recently, I have not been writing or tweeting much original content. This is because I feel so focused on my thesis that I feel like most other kinds of expression are just going to take creative energy away from me. Of course, I have been proven wrong, time and time again, mostly because I failed to understand my own creative, and thereby, my intellectual process.

Since about October 2015, I have written about 3 solid chapters for my masters thesis. I thought I’d be able to race through the whole project by December, but then I hit a wall. I had already done significant reading to formulate my hypotheses and arguments, but the more I looked at the blocks of texts that inspired these ideas, the more immobilized and powerless I felt when trying to organize them. I spent a couple of days just editing quotes and trying to find some structure to them that I could impose, so I could correctly illustrate my ideations.

While this was happening, I also went on a date with a professional musician. This guy, despite his successes, seemed intimidated by me (!), and my perceived academic merits, but when he asked me about my research project and the kind of questions I was trying to answer, I was the one who stumbled, and felt like I was not conveying myself very well. When my date talked about himself, I admired the way that he could communicate his story to me. He talked about the ways he used emotion in his work in musical productions. It was as if he was speaking a different language, a language very different from the academese I am so used to — I could never figure out exactly the role of emotionality in academic projects, but I felt so lost anyway, it got me thinking. I knew that it was the approach I really needed in my academic work.

Instead of finishing my thesis as I had hoped to by the end of December, I instead threw myself into what I’d now like to call “narrative research”. I watched hours of TV, movies and documentaries, and I got in touch with my literary sensibilities through Patti Smith’s new memoir M Train. I really wanted to know how I could get out of this creative dryness, and as a result of general winter blues and lethargy, all I could really do other than spending time with people was consuming a lot of Netflix and read for pleasure. It didn’t have an immediate or even a noticeable effect to get my gears turning. It is after I had completely left my academic projects — given up, at least temporarily, that I had any kind of breakthrough.

Before the holidays in December, I had told my supervisor about how I felt stuck. She said that perhaps I was writing my thesis in somewhat of a premature state, that I needed to do a bit more reading, thinking and meditating to give final shape to my writings. She suggested I read a little bit about Arthur Frank’s methodology of dialogical narrative analysis. Frank uses insights from literary theory, as well as his own experience dealing with medical patients, and his recovery from cancer, to understand how illness narratives function. In my work dealing with cultural understandings of Lyme disease, I have been reading hundreds of accounts of people’s experiences, but was really looking for was a comprehensive means to speak to the essence of these stories, these experiences and these persons behind the illness. Dialogical narrative analysis provided exactly that. Frank explains the basic rationale behind the method:

  • First, what multiple voices can be heard in any single speaker’s voice; how do these voices merge, and when do they contest each other?
  • Second, what makes stories distinct from other forms of narration; what counts as a story, and what does not?
  • Third, why is someone choosing to tell a story, among other expressive possibili- ties? What particular capacities of stories does the storyteller seek to utilize?
  • Fourth, what stakes does the storyteller have riding on telling this story, at this time, to these listeners? Or as I prefer to phrase it, How is the storyteller hold- ing his or her own in the act of storytelling? By holding one’s own, I mean seeking to sustain the value of one’s self or identity in response to whatever threatens to diminish that self or identity. Groups also hold their own by means of their stories; thus, how do stories create group identities and boundaries.

I was excited to be using this methodology because it gave me an improved framework of understanding stories, and using affect and emotions as tools to examine the multiple voices (which Frank later characterizes as heteroglossia and polyphony), not unlike what a writer, playwright, screenwriter, actors or any kind of auteurs may use for their creative productions. Finally, I had made a connection between my academic work and the kind of “emotional work” my musician date had talked about.

Fast forward to yesterday: I found a real-time use of dialogical narrative analysis through the voices of academia in large. Through the hashtag #realacademicbios, plenty of academics on Twitter explained their struggles through real and sometimes fictionalized versions of themselves. The hashtag was originally started by one Eve Mroczek, an assistant professor of religious studies at UC Davis with the following tweet.

What followed was the outpouring of stories of academics, including many that were women and minorities.

If I were to use dialogical narrative analysis to understand these voices, it would appear that the majority of the experiences of academics, regardless of where they are in their career, diverges significantly from the archetype of the well-commensurated white male with a supportive wife and 2.3 kids in tow, living in a bucolic New England university town. Indeed, most academics experience precariousness in their jobs, but those coming from racialized groups, especially women, face numerous unique challenges. I cannot claim to experience too many of these, as I am still very low on the academic rung, and I think I am quite privileged to work with academics that value me as a person and I am not in great financial stress due to my studies. Sadly, for a large number of graduate students and even working academics, this is simply not true

It is my hope that we understand what we are doing through the exercises such as the communal catharsis brought on by the #realacademicbios hashtag. Through my interactions with a number of fine and performing artists, my own experience in academia and my current engagement with theory, I believe I have come across something that binds academics together with the rest of humanity. That is, academia is simply a specialized form of storytelling. Our research involves finding new ways to tell old stories, casting stories through different perspectives, contexts and times, and finding completely new stories altogether. However, while we are doing this, in the interest of our community and our own well-beings, let us not put aside our own stories, deny our own experiences of difficulties in securing well-paid and good jobs in our fields, and standing up for ourselves in any way that we can. The status quo of the lone wolf genius white male academic can only be subverted by bringing our divergent stories into light. Let us not ignore this call to contribute to the narrative of academic life, so that ourselves and those who come after us can experience better living and working conditions.

Towards a natural history of infectious disease

For my thesis research, I came across a fascinating article by Australian physician, poet and medical historian on the subject of the study of infectious disease throughout time, but in particular the 20th century. While my area of research does not interest itself too specifically or in depth with medical history, Anderson’s approach to medical history is of import not only because he traces the development of ecological and environmental thought in cognate disciplines but also does so through a postcolonial lens. Unlike much of medical history that does take a Eurocentric approach to natural and medical history, Anderson’s orientation to the field is one that is acutely conscientious of social and historical context not simply for scientific thoughts but also geographies and culture. As such, many with only tangential interest in medical history would find his work compelling, especially due to the postcolonial undertones.

Anderson’s project in “Natural History of Infectious Disease: Ecological Vision in Twentieth-Century Biomedical Science” is one that seeks to find roots of contemporary environmental thought in, as well as examine the increasing molecularization of the medical sciences.

In the 20th century, on one hand, there was the trend in molecularization of infectious diseases, which Anderson aptly terms “microbe hunting”. Microbe hunting is driven by the belief that the key to curing and managing these illnesses is to find the organisms directly responsible for the ailment, and find a “magic bullet” or antibiotic, vaccines, what-have-you to directly combat it. It treats each aspect of the disease as distinct from the context of the disease, that is, the human body, situated within an ecosystem among other living beings. This trend is juxtaposed and contrasted with that of medical geography, and subsequently disease ecology, which sought to formulate a more comprehensive, complex and dynamic models of infectious disease. The former approach is likened to physicochemical reductionism of complex symbiogenetic living systems, while the latter is analogous to Hippocratic philosophies of holism and holistic care. The scientists he mentions were largely involved in work in colonial settler societies of Australia and United States, and thus had many racist interpretations of ecology. Anderson does not shy away from these idiosyncrasies, but uses them to caution readers about oversimplification of ideas coming from a very different timeframe than ours.

Nonetheless, many of these pioneering scientists, bacteriologists, physicians, epidemiologists and the like were interested in an ecological account of infectious disease, one that did not separate the human body as an innate distinct system from the rest of the natural world. According to these group of scientists, microbial infections had to be put in the context of overall evolution of living beings. Chief among these scientists, “Smith described health and disease as consequences of a struggle for existence between living things, predatory and parasitic. He reported on the life cycle of parasites, host-parasite conflict, symbiosis and mutualism, cell parasitism and phagocytosis, and variation and mutation among parasites.” For Anderson, this is a way to move to more contemporary ideas in ecological thought and environmental health.

I recently attended a book launch by STS scholar and anthropologist of science Prof. Natasha Myers for her book Rendering Life Molecular which deals with similar trends in molecularization, but specific with attention to protein crystallography and how practitioners use their own bodies in the process. I have been interested in the trend of molecularization of the life sciences, but I had no idea that the schism between holistic, environmental thought and “reductionism” went so far back within the history of medicine. I had this notion that the separation of “nature” and “society” was indeed something that was mostly a product of modernity, but I guess I knew the likes of Agamben and Latour would contest that.

In the next few weeks, I have many readings related to this to complete, and I hope to check back in here for more thoughts. Stay tuned.

There’s too much to do and I’m losing my mind

What I have done in the past month:

  • Returned from Asia to Toronto,
  • Moved within Toronto.
  • Sorted out financial aid/schorlarship bureaucracy.
  • Submitted my final proposal for thesis research.
  • Asked for extension on the submissions for my summer reading courses that involve reading about ~17 books.
  • Completed one paper for one of the two reading courses.
  • Dealt with the hassle and bureaucracy of having to officially register for thesis while you are at the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York.
  • Had somewhat of a spike in social activity probably as I moved closer to city centre.
  • Multiple heartbreaks (just kidding, but stress isn’t good for relationships, romantic or otherwise).
  • Corrected my sleep cycle.
  • In the process of weeding myself of SSRIs.
  • Sent inquiries about PhD programs to…oh, I don’t know…20 people?
  • Achieved intermediate proficiency in German.
  • Studied for the GRE.

What I have to do this upcoming week:

  • Submit an annotated bibliography for my thesis.
  • Attend a conference.
  • See some Important People in My Life in group and one-to-one sittings.
  • Write the GREs.

I could really use your blessings and thoughts right now.

See you on the flip side.