Annika, long time no see! Where have you been?
Watching TikTok. Mainly chinchillas.
How is the PhD?
Going good actually! Would you like an update?
Ok, give me a bit of time. I am watching TikTok.
Ok. We will wait.
Annika, long time no see! Where have you been?
Watching TikTok. Mainly chinchillas.
How is the PhD?
Going good actually! Would you like an update?
Ok, give me a bit of time. I am watching TikTok.
Ok. We will wait.
I was just looking at my blog posts and in Feb 2018 I said that I think I finally know how to do a literature review. You would have thought that I would have done it now and my next blog post, one year later, would be about my amazing data analysis chapters or such like.
Well, here I am on 1st March 2019, writing my literature chapter at 10pm on Friday night for a deadline on Monday. However, it is not all bleak, I think I have actually finally cracked it. I do not know what version of the chapter this is. I don’t like to keep count any more.
What helped this time was some particular guidance from my supervisors that seemed to finally strike a chord. I think it is difficult for them to understand why I can’t understand how to do/organise a literature review. But now I think I understand it as something that you as a writer are in control of rather than having to provide ‘a review of the literature’ which to me sounds like listing the literature which I am very aware of, is the number one thing you don’t do. Rather, you organise it and use it in a way that is shows how it is useful for your thesis. You are sort of explaining what job the literature is doing for your own project. At least that is my understanding and what I am doing. I found this article helpful from Pat Thompson ‘Getting ready to write about ‘the literature” as she can explain it much better. These questions in particular from her article are very helpful:
I actually have hardly any memories of the past year in terms of my PhD, but even so, I am surprised that it has been 12 months since the last post. This last year is just one big blank…. oh actually, last year I remember starting my new job which I like, oh and that also involved finding a cafe right near work that I didn’t know about. I also remember there was a heatwave. What else, oh yeah, it was the year I had to change the toner waste box in my printer which was a right hassle (only cos I kept putting the old one back in and couldn’t understand why it wasn’t working). But, soon, this chapter will also be a distant memory and I can finally get onto my analysis! I am still excited by the PhD even after x number of years (I actually can’t remember how many years it has been).
Well, better get back to it!
Since I started this blog in 2014 I see that a common theme is my lack of belief that I am capable of doing intellectual work. In particular I have struggled with the literature review. I don’t know how to read the literature effectively, don’t know how to take notes, don’t know how to bring it all together and write about other people’s research etc.
I have read all the books on how to do a literature review, attended training courses, sought advice from various people. However, 4 years into the PhD I am still struggling. However, this week I’ve had a bit of an epiphany. I finally feel that I have some control over how I am going to write one of the literature review chapters and I suddenly feel really light and relaxed and confident. There are two specific resources that helped me. First this mind map:
And secondly the book ‘The Literature Review: A step-by-step guide for students by Diana Ridley
But these resources aren’t the magic bullet, it’s not like I haven’t been told or read about how to do a literature review a million times, rather something shifted in my mind. I want to share with you the thoughts I have been having for 4 years and how these have stopped the advice in the books, and from other people, sinking in:
Out of the above, I think the main thing I needed to stop thinking was that I can’t create my own technique to read, manage and record the important things from the literature. But I can. It was just having the confidence to give my own technique a go. After 4 years of struggle, it only took me 1 hour I’d say to sort out how I am going to manage and record the important things I have found in the literature! It’s really simple. Just some headings in an Excel spreadsheet, but the key thing is, they are my headings, bespoke to my project and needs. I will share with you how I am going to approach this task in a future post as I better make sure it actually works for me first.
So my advice to you would be to read the books on how to do a literature review, but also remember that you can create your own bespoke method too by drawing on what you have learned from your reading and through trial and error. If you are thinking the same negative thoughts as me you probably don’t believe me. You may even be thinking that I am more organised, disciplined and intelligent than you…….but I am not of course. Just relax, have confidence that you are becoming the expert and finally, keep it simple, stupid!
P.s. Thanks also to the UCL institute of Education Academic Writing Centre for some advice given to me on a private forum about taking ownership of my writing.
It is now almost a year since I returned to my PhD after my 6 months interruption of studies to have a break after 2.5 years of little progress and anxiety. Now one year on, at the next supervision meeting, we are going to review my progress since returning a year ago.
In the last post I described how from January 2017 I was tasked with trying to write Chapter 1. Well I still haven’t finished it and kind of abandoned it for now. But on the plus side, I have completed Chapter 2. It took I think about 4 or 5 months to write and has gone through 4 versions and now I am on the final (for now) version 5 which needs to be submitted by January 8th. It is the first time I have submitted anything with a beginning, middle and end! My supervisors said it was interesting, the right length and structure and:
“We both felt that you had immersed yourself in the substantive material and it was better located in the literature, we even felt like you make have enjoyed writing it!”
I was so happy to receive this that I collapsed for a couple of weeks in an exhausted state in the run up to Christmas. But on 26th December I re-started and began to make the changes for version 5. This has been terribly slow – it’s hard to restart and in hindsight perhaps I should have just leaped into incorporating the feedback rather than collapsing on the settee watching back to back episodes of Homes Under the Hammer. On the other hand, I also got the cold that everyone had been having, so watching daytime TV is more than justified and almost mandatory in those circumstances.
However, one good completed chapter in one year is probably not exactly great progress. I have started fretting a little bit that my next supervision meeting will involve a bit of a serious discussion on how my progress needs to speed up and this anxiety paralyses me in actually doing the work I need to do. I worry about what hasn’t yet happened. I also feel jealous/envious of many of my cohort who have actually submitted their theses now and I feel that I am still at the beginning, at least in terms of chapters written.
So I still feel the underlying anxiety, but this can’t get in the way of my writing which currently is lovely and joyous as my supervisors commented – by the way Chapter 2 is all about 30 years of statistics on mature students, a topic some may think could be boring and dry – but not when I write about it though. Quite a talent I’d say (smug face).
So for continuing and future success I am going to follow the following rules:
So 6 months ago returned to the PhD. So how has it gone I hear you ask? Well first of all let’s start with the bad news. In the last post I boasted about how clean and tidy my desk is, well… that is all in the past because now it is worse than ever. It also has lots of snotty tissues strewn about…. but the good news is, these tissues are not a result of crying over the Ph, they are just the result of annoying hayfever).
My task for my return was to complete Chapter 1 – The Introduction. unfortunately version 1 was not very good when I submitted it in March and when I re-did it for May, version 2 was also not very good. So again alarm bells started ringing for my supervisors and for me because yet again no substantial progress was being made.
My supervisors sent me an email after version 2 to express their concern and how it really should be so much at a higher standard by now.
What was my reaction? Well after the heart stopping disappointment, I recovered and my sadness turned to anger.
So I wrote them a firm email in response. I explained why I thought it was impossible for me to be at the standard they expect because the last two years are a write off, how I felt that although it was quite poorly written that the ideas in there were good and that my thinking HAD moved on and a few other things. I pressed send and off it went.
A week passed and I went to London for a supervision meeting. I was a bit nervous because I wondered if I had overstepped a line. So I opened the door, went and sat down and we began the meeting……
And what did they say….
Do you want to know?….
They said something along the lines of: ‘Annika, your email was fantastic, we are delighted that you have shown some passion and that you are angry and that you are protective of your PhD! At last!’
Well that’s a turn around for the books. So after that meeting I think things have changed. They want me to take control of the thesis and that is what I shall do.
So I would advice any timid mouse PhD students out there to take control and show your passion as it helps you feel in charge. This is what your supervisors want!
I keep getting phonecalls from my family asking if I am okay now that I have started my PhD and am I really ready to go back. I think ‘what on earth are they on about?’ But then they tell me that, the last time they knew anything about my PhD status is via my blog posts and the last few have been a bit grim, oh my!
A few weeks ago I had to attend a session with the student support team. In the room there was a proper professional psychiatrist with an NHS lanyard! This made me a bit worried because I didn’t think I had a proper serious condition that needed a psychiatrist and I suddenly felt stigma like that Goffman fella went on about. However, they were very impressed and satisfied with all that I had achieved to prepare myself for my return. The psychiatrist said that sometimes they have students coming to the ‘back to work’ meeting who say they want to come back, but have not actually done any work to reflect on what their issues were or make sure they have support in place to stop their stress or anxiety or whatever ruining their experience again.
I was really happy that all that I had done was the right thing and celebrated my official stamp of approval to return with a suitably branded new rucksack so that I feel like a proper legitimate member of the UCL IOE community. Also, it is a great bag because I can fit two, yes two, flasks in for coffee and another one for homemade soup for my London days:
So what did I do to ‘recover’? Well I am not sure exactly. Mainly I suppose it is just taking time out to reflect, listen to other people’s advice(thanks everyone!) and just be more open and honest about one’s feelings. I did have counselling for 7 weeks leading up to the interruption, so I just continued building on that. I now see the PhD as a task. And I can do this task. Just like I am amazing at tasks such as tidying, cleaning, organising my haversack and creating magnificent art sculptures for my new clean and tidy study (see photo below).
This probably isn’t handy advice for other PhD students struggling as not everyone is as amazing at cleaning and organising or art like I am (see how my self-hatred has turned into the opposite! Oh dear, have I developed a disorder to whatever that turnip Donald Trump has). But you must be pretty amazing at something – just try and apply that skill to the PhD.
I would also recommend also reading this book: Your PhD Coach. It has some handy exercises.
Additionally, my university has an online and telephone counselling service, so I feel like there is support there if I need it and that is comforting. I almost messaged them last week (my first week back) because I was in procrastination to the max mode. But I have decided to wait a bit because it is only week 2 and this is probably just the normal settling in process. I have a new temporary part time admin job (for Luton International Carnival) and need to settle into that, plus I need to get back into the swing of things in general.
So that’s all okay. I am not scared or embarrassed to admit I need help nor to ask for it. In fact I am quite intrigued to see how the online counselling session works. Can I just message them and say ‘help! I can’t stop cleaning my toilet’ when I have a procrastination attack? I’ll let you know.
Finally I have support of my writing chums and a Saturday study buddy. At least once a month I’ll join in our ‘Shut up and Write’ marathons which are 4 days of intense writing. I have booked them all in my diary and will use them to structure the rest of the month.
I think the key really is focus, a bit of planning, a tidy organised workspace and working on one’s self-confidence. Instead of spending a day or two recovering from when my demons attack me, now if they come, I just bat them away and it might only take 5 minutes or sometimes an hour, to recover from the negative thinking. I am still quite bad at procrastination and really need to work on that. However, right now my toilet is filthy and I don’t have an urge to clean it. Now that’s pretty good progress.
In June 2016 me and my supervisors agreed that I should take an ‘interruption of studies’ for six months on the grounds of health and wellbeing. The reason being that I had stopped making any PhD progress in what was my third and final year. We wanted to try and break down the negative pattern of submitting pieces of work that were always incomplete or not quite making sense in terms of my research focus. My supervisors were confused and worried that my perfectionism was paralysing me, I was tired, frustrated and depressed, so we decided to stop and break the cycle in its tracks.
So now it is October and I only have 3 months left of my ‘sabbatical’ which is worrying me a bit because what if I am not ‘cured’ now, what if the same patterns return. But thankfully I am actually also looking forward to going back. I have decided to return part-time to take off the pressure and am putting other strategies in place which I may discuss in another post.
This break has had a little pattern of it’s own. First of all I love that delicious feeling of lying down and watching trash TV with no guilt. Or going on a day trip to Margate with no pressure to read an academic book on the train.
I enjoyed joining in briefly with the Pokemon Go! craze.
I have been playing in my band at fantastic summer events with no other stress apart from how to drain the huge puddles of water out of my pan.
However within this luxurious feeling I sometimes spend dark nights up late into the early hours (or as soon as I wake up, or just in the afternoon, any time really) feeling like a loser and my inner critic alter ego starts bullying me: “Other people I started with have finished or are close to finishing – you’re a loser”. “Other people have got some magnificent findings – your work is shit, you’re a loser”. “Other people are just all round better and more successful – you’re crap at everything and a loser”.
However coming out as a ‘loser’ has been quite good because lots of other people have also said they have had similar experiences. But you know what it’s like when you are feeling full of self-hatred, you only focus on the ‘other’ people you are envious of, not those others who are the same as you. It can take a whole day to get rid of my nasty alter ego voice. So days and days of my luxurious holiday feel wasted.
Much of my holiday has also been worrying about money. I am lucky to have savings and my mother is giving me pocket money for these 6 months (“you’re 36 and your mum is giving you pocket money, you’re a loser”). I now have to pay fees when I return as my ESRC funding has run out – another thing my inner critic likes to remind me of – ‘what a tosser you are, wasting all that time and money. Idiot loser.’
So most of this holiday has also been spent working or trying to find suitable work for when I return. I have been experiencing all sorts of casual jobs which has been useful in remembering that the PhD isn’t everything. I spent over a month doing some transcriptions which was interesting and reminded me of the work I used to do pre-PhD as a research assistant. But it also reminded me why people pay other people to do it.
Babysitting was fun but scary. I have limited child experience. I was worried her mother would be disaproving when she saw her 2 year old naked and covered in felt-tip pen (I like to let children be free!).
I am on a list of casual bar staff now too. I forgot how fabulous I am at customer service and banter with the general public, but I did not realise how much bar work results in getting alcohol all over yourself from head to toe. Also in a loud environment Fosters and Vodka sound exactly the same which results in some mixed up orders. However, I did see some very interesting patterns regarding the drink choices of different demographics (quick quiz – a punk’s fav tipple is: a) Red Stripe b) Newcastle brown OR c) Malibu and Pineapple – – – answer at the bottom of this post).
Tomorrow I have to get up at 6am (omg, I’ve been waking up at 10/11am (maybe later) for weeks now!) for the selection day for Royal Mail Christmas Temp job. That’s kind of being a magical Christmas Elf isn’t it? And I am also meeting someone at Luton Culture to discuss being on their casual bar and front of house team.
So I think things will all work out in the end. Once I get some jobs sorted, I am going to get back into PhD reading in the last few weeks of my sabbatical and hope I can kill the inner critic.
Final fun fact – Did you know Paul Willis of Learning to Labour fame used to sell icecream to fund his PhD – well, I am hoping to be a casual for Gelato Heaven during their peak summer season – it’s all a sign!
ANSWER – A punk’s favourite tipple is Red Stripe! Well done if you got it right. You win…. a can of Red Stripe!
“I go through spells where I don’t do anything. I just sort of have lunch—all day.”
Writing is not my natural forte, I like the Nora Ephron quote above about her writing process, so similar to mine. I go through long dry spells where my motivation is on the floor, my focus too caught elsewhere, and I’m not entirely sure I’ll get a PhD at all – the guilt creeping in for every day off, or trip out for coffee. Secretly I feel abit like a dilatant, who if they can look and sound the part someone will eventually give them a PhD. Like Annika’s earlier blogpost, I have the “swishy wool coat and smart leather bag that makes me appear intelligent”.
The truth is I probably work far too much, and am anything but a dilatant. I am a part-time PhD student, with a full time job, who would eat, sleep, and breath my discipline if I could. This shouldn’t be confused with a recommendation that a PhD student eat, sleep and breath what they do. However, I honestly don’t know how I would be able to write, and maintain my energy, without this passion for what I do.
The barriers I have to writing are multiple; I work full-time, in a job that I love but no one day is the same; I take on voluntary roles; I try to maintain an active conference presence, trying to do all the extra things a good PhD student is suggested they should. With work and study I traveled between December, and April nearly 6,000 miles alone. Across April I spent nearly every Friday half way across the country, delivering presentations which consumed my attention the weeks before. Add to this the perils of trying to have a personal life, and sleep, and good grief – I need a dry martini and lie down, which neither aid not abet the writing of 90,000 words.
But also I am Dyslexic, a fact which more often that not I have hidden by omission. When I write everything takes longer. It is also heartbreaking sometimes to be able talk with such confidence, and articulation, but then sit down to compose a paper, or write a chapter and feel my mouth crammed with cotton wool, that spills out on the page when I try to speak. If I could give a purely voce viva PhD I would.
I have tried many approaches before the one which has lead me to be invited to this blog. I wrote my Masters by Research like you would build an ice sculpture – I poured my thoughts into chapters far too big, and chiseled away at the big blocks of ice they created to craft the message. On starting to write my PhD I tried very much to do the same, to little success, it was part of the process, and helped shape my thinking, and gobbets of this drafting do appear occasionally in my current work, but in very small amounts.
Thus I feel I should give you a word of caution, my method of writing is yet to have been proven effective. I don’t have my PhD firstly, I wish I could tell you that I am now 50% through to the finished piece as a result of this plan, but I’m not. However I am more confident that it will come with time. But my approach to writing has been organic and grown unique to myself, and my life style, and I’d encourage you most of all to develop an approach in a similar way, which works for you, and responds to your needs, and helps you get the job done.
So how do I write now? I have spent months and months refining my arguments and thinking through a written thesis plan with my supervisors, during a period of no chapter based writing at all. This was a hard, and not over yet, but this was important as it weeded out a number of areas that made the thesis too broad, and unfocused, and have been put to one side, or recycled, as presentations or alternative projects and papers in the future.
My latest approach has been far slower, and is focused on writing very deliberately, purposefully. My supervisors regularly suggesting a good rule of thumb being that a tight argument should be traceable, in broad terms, from the first line of each paragraph. Each paragraph moving the argument forward one step at a time.
At one point, and very unlike me, I did the math and established that the average 10,000 word chapter is composed of about 34 paragraphs between 300-350 words. I don’t believe my final chapters should or will follow these rules religiously but suddenly if a chapter becomes 34 first lines, rather than 10,000 words, it is far less intimidating.
So I mapped the argument each chapter should try to make on one page of A3, and used this to then slowly and deliberately write the first line of each paragraph. This didn’t work at first, when I went back to my supervisors each line was at first too broad. One line alone could be 10 first lines. So cue my current position where I am going through the second round of first lines, distilling the essence of the points I want to make.
It becomes like planning each paragraph as though they were individual PowerPoint slides; as though my thesis was actually a presentation, playing to my strengths. This is where the storyboarding approach comes in, during the week which is when I’m at my busiest, and exhausted after a long day at work, I can plan each paragraph of a chapter using post it notes. Mapping out the first lines and points I want to make as I go along. Reordering and reworking them as I go. My wall starts to look like a murder investigation, pinning evidence and possibilities across the wall trying to work out how things fit together.
As I progess it becomes more and more apparent when a first line is not actually strong enough to from a paragraph of its own, but a line within a stronger paragraph, or when it should be removed altogether, because it just doesn’t fit when you line the post-its up. No matter how often I re-order and move them, it becomes clearer what moves the argument forward, and what doesn’t.
Then comes the weekends, and bank holidays. These are the times when I can sit down and spend a solid, extended period of time writing. But the work during the week, with post its make it easier, the process of writing becomes more a painting by numbers exercise, and at first is focused on taking the first lines from my post-it wall, and pouring them into into a table.
Yes, I write my chapters into a table. I number each row, both with its paragraph number in the chapter as a whole, and the paragraph number in the subsection of the chapter I’m writing. There isn’t a rule about this, but if these numbers get too high am I still being focused?
If as I complete the paragraph the row of the table is suddenly spanning 3 pages, is this chapter trying to do too much or being too long? This process doesn’t provide answers to these questions; some paragraphs will be longer than others, as will some chapters. But the process keeps this in my mind, and reminds me to keep these things in check. My dyslexia means I really could write a 90,000 word sentence if I was want to do so, and sometimes even when I don’t want to. My longest sentence to date was one and half pages with nothing but oxford commas.
Cue the return to the wall, every time I reach a natural break, the end of the weekend, or the end of a particular writing focused day, I print the table, and pin it up on the wall. Taking the original post-it notes, I re-trace the argument I’m trying to make. Reading back the points I wanted to make, and seeing if the paragraphs do this. Again it is not a problem if they don’t – there might be a very good reason for this – but increasingly they do, and my hope is that this lends to the tightening of my argument across my thesis. I don’t know if this argument is right yet, but going to see my supervisors for my next meeting I think I have a clearer grasp on what I want to say.
A question from Pat Thomson, whose books I’ve also found incredibly useful when writing. But in relation to this approach the answer is I don’t know! – Maybe I’ll be Dr Dent in the next year as a result of this approach. That’s the dream. But this way seems to be helping for now at least.
My other tips are superficial, but they are vital to my process of working, and shouldn’t be under estimated. Every chapter has a sound track – One song or group of songs played on repeat. Chapter one is being brought to you by Hamilton;
Don’t ask me why this is important but, sitting at my desk, listening to the same music, focuses my mind – I know I’m writing chapter one when I listen to this. Things seem to come back to me far quicker as a result. If I try and write somewhere that’s not my desk, in cafes, restaurants, libraries, hotel rooms, and trains, listening to the same music wherever re-focuses my mind.
Finally, while I don’t have the time to, I always try to read something non-academic as I write; increasingly this has been things by other writers. Returning to Nora Ephron, my current choice of non-academic reading, taking an hour out, every couple of days or so, to read something that isn’t academic seems to help. Academia is not the only forum where people write, edit, and compose, I don’t think we shouldn’t underestimate the value their experiences can bring. Ultimately I think I have to get to a place where I walk into my viva I feel like the editor-in-chief of my thesis, confident to defend my argument and the choices I’ve made. Anything that can inspire me to do this is to be welcomed with open arms. And hey, some days its ok to just have lunch all day – you deserve it.
Find out more about Samuel Dent via https://samueldent.wordpress.com/
Follow him on Twitter where you can see more photographs of his post-it-note technique @SRDent89
You know when you are little and you bravely climb a wall, but then you get paralysed with fear and have to shout ‘help I’m stuck!’ for someone to lift you off. In hindsight the wall was tiny, the distance and danger was all in your mind, but there was no way you could get over your fear by yourself. Well, this is how I feel about my thesis and have done I think probably for many months, but did not really know it was a big problem until another supervision meeting started with ‘Annika, this work doesn’t make sense to us. Are you OK?’.
A couple of weeks ago the supervision meeting started liked that. Which was very disappointing for me because every meeting of late has started with concerned looks and questioning of why my work always seems to be off on a tangent, why my supervisors can’t see where I am going and why I never seem to actually do what I said I would do in the previous meeting. It is quite obvious that I have some sort of anxiety problem but I sort of thought this was normal, but it has started to affect my progress so badly that I haven’t really achieved much and I am 2.5 years into the 3 year PhD.
So finally I have accepted the help of someone to take me off the wall. I saw a woman at my university who deals with students who need advice – normally for things like changing supervisors, extensions on assignments, financial worries – but she was recommended to me because she was lovely – and indeed she was. One thing we spoke about to try to boost my confidence in my abilities was to remember that I won a prestigious and competitive scholarship. This is some evidence that someone at some time saw that I had potential and thought I was capable of doing the PhD. Not everyone has this, so it is something I need to use to help boost myself. Grab what you can! Also I was reminded that my upgrade was really good. It was agreed by two eminent professors that I am capable and that the project plan was at a doctoral level. So after this meeting I felt much better. It is not arrogant to remember that you have achieved some very good things.
Secondly I booked an appointment with a counsellor. I went to an assessment meeting where they ask you open questions about every aspect of your life which is interesting but emotionally exhausting! I am not sure I want to go back – but know I probably should and would benefit so I better I suppose….
Finally, I have been making sure I exercise more and look after myself physically – which of course can positively affect mental health. My going to the gym has been so erratic that my favourite yoga instructor said ‘where have you been, are you OK?
Everyone is asking if I am OK. They have always asked this, but perhaps I never wanted to admit that I wasn’t OK (I don’t think I knew I wasn’t until this crisis). But now I feel like I am becoming OK again and that my thesis will be OK and OK is good enough!
I asked my sisters what social class they thought they belonged to. I was surprised that our conversation lasted over an hour because I assumed they would say quite bluntly ‘we’re working class’ because this is what we were always brought up to feel by our father and it is a position I now feel comfortable saying, particularly over the last few years, as I view it as a political position rather than a simple objective category.
My father studied sociology and was quite into Marxism, so in fact we were more often we were ‘not the bourgeoisie’. Our childhood was punctuated with avoiding bourgeois things, like holidays, certain types of furniture, types of food and certain leisure activities. Upon reflection, I think a lot of this may have been due to lack of money. So rather than say we can’t do or have certain things because we can’t afford it, my father instead say it was bourgeois. For example, we had a massive dampness problem due to poor quality housing but my dad said that mould was good for us and it is bourgeois to think otherwise (we later got rehoused and our former flats demolished).
My parents were hippies and mother Swedish so our idea of nice home furnishings for example, was very different to the traditional English working-class ‘chintz’, which I yearned to have and one birthday got my dream of a pink floral lamp on a little wooden corner shelf. But over time as a family we had a higher income we could then afford nicer food, go to cafes and restaurants, discovered opera, experienced a bit of travel and I even got a proper bouncy (bourgeois) mattress to match my pink lampshade (although sadly I had to throw the lampshade away as it was damaged by mould).
My father was also anti-school (in terms of the way it is run), but not anti-education. So my father gained his degree in 1993 at the age of 44, my mother followed soon after and only around 5 years later did I and my older sister do our degrees and then Master’s degrees.
I always felt it very difficult to categorize my social class in objective terms (e.g. father’s occupation) because my parents were unemployed for a lot of the time I was growing up in the 1980s – although my mother did work on the Vauxhall assembly line when pregnant with me which I like to think boosts my Lutonian working-class credentials. My friends parents had proper working-class jobs like builders, so easier to define – they were working!
Then after these unemployed years, my parents were students – taking in turns the role of the housewife/househusband whilst the other studied, only getting professional type jobs later in life. Until his death in 2005, my father was a counsellor and project worker for people with drug problems and my mother now works in a university as a web editor. We all went to our local university, the University of Luton (now Bedfordshire – rebranded due to a merger as well as to disguise its connections to Luton to improve its rankings), following a typical working-class pattern of staying at home.
Going to this local post-1992 university meant that we did not feel like ‘a fish out of water’. We did not have any of those difficulties in fitting in or coming across people from other backgrounds. We were among a majority of working-class students and often mature and very ethnically mixed, too reflecting the local population. Only when I came to UCL did I for the first time ever hear in the corridors ‘posh’ voices from students who were younger than me – ‘posh’ voices on older people or lecturers was fine, expected, reassuring – but on young people, I really felt suddenly out of place and inferior.
On one of my first days I had to present a quick overview of my project and I looked up the other students to check them out. I had a mild panic attack when I saw some had gone to Oxford and Cambridge and then a massive sense of inferiority came over me, but I am dealing with this and do not feel bothered by it anymore, probably something to do with my age. Also, all the people I have met are lovely!
And although I can’t pass as middle-class, nor do I desire to, I can certainly do and participate in middle-class things with pleasure. I think mixing of cultures is the best way to be.
What social class are you? And has education helped or confused your class identity?