A Tale of Two Catholicisms

Living as I now do in the UK, I have noticed that religious people here are very different from religious people from my homeland of Ireland. The various forms of Christians I meet here seem to have a very positive perspective on their chosen faiths, even the Catholics. This has puzzled me for a while, but I think it is down to two primary factors. But first, you may be wondering why I am puzzled. It rests in the fact that these people are around my age and are true believers, and I would normally expect people my age and younger to be more tepid in their faith, if not agnostic or atheist.

Onward!

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How to Survive a PhD

I hate the word ‘listicle’, I hate the idea of ‘listicles’, but a ‘listicle’ is, I admit, a convenient and effective way of conveying information. Listicles are, however, rarely used to convey useful information; they seem to inhabit a region of overly positive and superficially thoughtful word-vomit. But here I hope to offer some advice on how to undertake a PhD, and presenting it as a list seems the most effective manner. There is no hierarchy to this list; if anything, no.5 is the most important thing to remember at all times, but it wouldn’t make chronological sense to put it at no.1. My experiences are based in undertaking a PhD in History, and so the advice here may not be immediately applicable to the Sciences, but I feel the general principles apply to all.

1. Choose your supervisor carefully

This person will be the most important individual in your life for the next few years, so choose wisely. It’s all well and good to want to work with the best person, but it is more important to work with the best person for you. I know many a PhD student who struggled with their PhD because of conflicts with their supervisor. It is a very important working relationship, and every one is unique. I, for example, had a very critical and thorough supervisor who challenged my ideas, which I enjoyed because that’s just the way I work, while I know of other students whom the very same supervisor made cry because of ‘harsh criticism’ (I found the criticism constructive, not harsh). I know of another supervisor who has a very hands-off approach, and so some students happily work away while others feel adrift and unguided. It is critical that you speak to your (potential) supervisor about how you work and what you need, because it is all about you and your work.

2. Find a work habit that works for you

Tied to no.1 is work habits. Some lists will tell you ‘treat it like a job, work 9-5’. This did not work for me. I tried, but just didn’t. This might be more viable for the Sciences, but in the Humanities, it seems unreasonable. I worked fairly random hours. I would go in to the office for 9am and stay for as long as possible, but I wasn’t always working on my PhD. I might have read adjacent material, caught up on teaching related work, worked on translations, read comics, watched YouTube, chatted with people, stepped out for an unreasonable amount of coffee… I might not have arrived home until 10 at night, and I might not have worked on my PhD, but I was still productive. I might not have worked on my PhD for a week, but when I got back to it, I was fresh and, more importantly, interested. I needed to do other things almost to remind myself of how fun and interesting my topic was. This is how I worked; it seemed to verge on madness to some. I know people who schedule every minute of every hour of the day, but I see this as incredibly inflexible – what if inspiration strikes at 11 at night? Or at 3am? What if you just can’t think between 11am and 3pm? Find what works for you, and just work. I wrote from Day 1, some don’t write until the final year. You will see listicles saying ‘nothing you write from the first year will make it to the final cut’; I did have work that survived unscathed from Year 1 in the final text. Everyone is different, find the best way to work for you.

3. Admin, get used to it

One thing they never tell you is how much admin is involved in the PhD. It feels like bullshit, but it actually isn’t. You may think that all admin is down to a pencil-pusher, somewhere in the recesses of University Administration, who needs a box ticked and a file filled, and they will put your academic life on hold until certain requirements are fulfilled. But this isn’t really the case; I mean, I think there is too much admin, but some of it does serve a reasonable purpose. Admin is basically a way for everyone to cover their arse: here is on paper something you agreed is factually accurate, so if anything happens, we all know where we stand. Now, I am of the opinion that one should never give Admin more than they need: a student came to me once confessing a health issue which impeded their work so I had to fill out a form for an extension. I simply said that the student needed an extension. Admin happily filed it away. I later learned that another lecturer had included the reasons why the student needed an extension in great detail. I felt this was a bit weird: Admin, unless they specifically ask, does not need to know anything, especially about students. This is a specific scenario as it is within my remit as lecturer to grant extensions, I was simply informing them of the situation. It is somewhat different when you are a PhD student, but don’t feel like you have to be defensive. Just tell them, “this is the situation, this is the consequence”; never apologise (unless you actually have something to apologise for!) and cut to the chase. Do the paperwork in a timely fashion because it will take Admin longer than you think to process your paperwork. And you might have to remind them from time to time.

4. Teach

If you don’t understand something you can’t teach it. And, if your students don’t understand, it’s not them, it’s you. You are, for all intents and purposes, the expert in the room, so if someone doesn’t understand, it’s probably your fault. Teaching helped me to understand how to explain things better in my thesis, how to engage with my audience and keep them on-board for 120,000+ words. After all, what is the point of all that research if people don’t understand it? Teaching may be a pain, it may not be your thing, it may seem like a waste of valuable time, but you can learn from it. Teaching is a two-way street: you can learn from your students, you can see how people interpret things, or how you might refine your method to deliver information more effectively. Plus, for me, it was a nice distraction from the thesis!

5. You are not alone

You are not alone; you are never alone. You may feel alone, but you are not. A PhD can be an isolated and isolating experience, but know that everyone feels the same way. We all work away in our own quiet little corner of research, which might make you feel like you are working alone, but this isn’t really the case. You are working in a community of people who are working on unique projects; you are not, strictly speaking, alone. You may think to yourself, “oh that person really has it together, why don’t I?”, but believe me, they don’t. I found out after I had submitted that some people saw me as the has-it-together type, but I really wasn’t – I just seemed like it. Depression is rife among postgrads. We have a terrible habit of not talking to one another about this, but self-medication is a serious problem. And by ‘self-medication’ I mean alcohol. Postgrads drink a lot, and it seems to me to be a result of the stresses they endure. Not that anyone ever really admits this. Depression, anxiety, and stress seem woven into the PhD process. It’s like an open secret that nobody talks about, and worse, nobody warns you about. Universities seem to celebrate how well they treat their undergrads and offer counselling services, but hardly anything is said of the postgrad experience – I can’t help but wonder if it is because they are afraid that potential applicants will discover how difficult it can be and how many fail to reach the end. I often felt isolated during my PhD, but I slowly learned to deal with it through societies and friends and teaching, and I found others often felt the same way I did. You are not alone, you are never alone. Reach out and talk to someone, they are probably feeling as alone as you are, and you might be able to help each other through.

I have many friends who have been embittered by the PhD process and have fled academia; I know people who stopped because it all became too much. I don’t mean to dissuade you from considering undertaking a PhD – I really enjoyed mine, all things considered – but you have to go in with your eyes open. The University wants your money, professors are under pressure to sign students up; the system is tinged with a capitalist deceit, but go in with your eyes open and you can achieve your goals. In spite of all of the negatives, I really do feel like I have contributed to my field, I have aided in the better understanding of our history. I found the work fulfilling, and I don’t know what else I really could have done.

The listicle has its limitations, but I hope that this one is, in some small way, useful. But, the most important thing to remember is:

You are not alone, you are never alone; talk to someone.

Fwuzzerip, a ‘proof’ of Faith

I was hanging out with some Christian friends recently, and, as expected, we spoke about belief, and I get the feeling they want to convert me. They are genuinely baffled as to why I do not believe in ‘God’ (I doubt they put the quotes around that word though). And I am deeply puzzled as to why they do. One told me the story of his conversion; it was touching and clearly important to him, but I couldn’t help but think to myself “you don’t need God, you need a counsellor”. As they were going on about Jesus and miracles and stuff, my mind wandered.

Miracles amuse me. I study them, they are fascinating. But, basically, if one removes faith from the equation, they are basically fairytales and fantasy. And this is how people of one faith categorise the miracles of another. For a Christian, the miraculous deeds of Muhammad are either blasphemy, literary flourish, or fantasy, but the miraculous endeavours of the Christian sky-god and his son (as if that isn’t weird) are true. The intervention of a god is impossible in any other religion except the one they hold. How do they not see how incongruous this is? But this is only one logical flaw among many. I tried to figure out a simple way of summing up all of the issues in one neat example.

I can’t help but think of the arguments like this:

Believer A: According to my God, 1+1=1.

Believer B: Blasphemer! My God affirms that 1+1=3!

Believer C: Oh you silly people, my God holds the undeniable Truth: 1+1=fwuzzerip.

And the atheists sit on the sidelines and say: It’s 2, what is wrong with them? It’s so obviously 2. And why do we have to structure our society, laws, and social mores around their patently ridiculous assertion that it is 1, 3, or fwuzzzerip? This is holding back science and technology and human rights. We get that it helps you in some strange way to believe in 1, 2, or fwuzzerip, but do we all have to suffer for it? Can’t you just keep it to yourself? Seriously, people are dying, you are impeding the advancement of the human race.

Believer A: Ah, silly atheists, it is a miracle how my God makes it 1. Because God.

Believer B: Don’t be an idiot. Your religion is false. Only my God performs miracles. The truth of 1+1=3 says so.

Believer C: Ah, no, duh, fwuzzerip?

Atheists leave, stage left, exasperated, leaving A, B, and C to their curious argument.

***

Of course Believers don’t think that what they say is so strange. They really do think that 1+1=1, 2, or fwuzzerip. Sure, some toe the line, they agree to the answer fwuzzerip because their parents and society told them to. It’s called indoctrination. This should be stopped, obviously. Some believe that they have personally seen the ‘truth’ of fwuzzerip. Fair enough, but keep it to yourself? I love Samurai Jack and van Gogh and the Sandman Chronicles, but I don’t think we should re-model society based on them.

Sorry, dear Reader, no great diatribe here, no anger, no vitriol. Just bafflement. I really just don’t get why my friends want me to believe. When they talk about god and miracles like they are real, it literally makes no sense to me. And I imagine that they are thinking the exact same thing but from the opposite side.

It’s like as if they think Batman is really real and the movies and comics are factual recollections of his life and deeds. And praying to Batman to save you will have as much effect as praying to ‘God’. So yeah, Batman is as real as ‘God’ to me. But not to them, one is really real.

It make as much sense to me as 1+1=fwuzzerip.

(It’s so obviously 2. I mean, you get that, right?)

The Tedium of Skyrim

I recently finished one of the main quest lines in Skyrim. I say ‘one of’ as there is some confusion as to whether the dragon plot or the civil war plot is supposed to be the main quest. I had finished all the side quests, thoroughly explored the DLC, built houses, adopted kids, defeated the dragons, spared Paarthurnax… but totally forgot about the civil war. I only realised I hadn’t finished the game when I was bored one night and decided to revisit Skyrim with new character. It was only because the game opens with your character about to be executed for being associated with the rebel Stormcloaks that I remember I had never finished that plot. So I loaded up my old character and decided to join the rebellion.

Dear gods, it was boring. My character was basically a god, and I crushed all opposition before me. Which is to be expected in a game like this, it is the nature of an open world game. Sure the main quest is in that direction, but over there is a ruin and necromancers and somehow they have picked a fight with a dragon and oh my god is that a fricking giant and a mammoth…?? You spend so much time doing the side-quests that, by the time you return to the main one(s), you are basically a god. And, of course, victory was meaningless. Just like when you defeat the dragons.

Don’t get me wrong, there is much I like about Skyrim. It is gorgeous. I study medieval history, and I want to use the game as an educational tool to show my students Norse architecture. The detail and design are brilliant. I quite liked the Thieves’ Guild and Dark Brotherhood (Hail Sithis!) quest lines. The world felt more full and detailed than previous games. Yet, as a game, it felt hollow. Maybe that is why I never completed it: I just didn’t care.

I began my adventures into Tamriel in 2002 with Morrowind and its expansions. It was startling. You are left abandoned in the world with little direction. I, honest to god, wandered around Seyda Neen baffled by this weird game where men fell out of the sky and people got annoyed when I stole things. As I moved out into the wide world beyond, I enjoyed the efforts to create distinctive architectures and cultures for the various peoples in the game, the alien landscapes and mushroom houses. I haven’t played that game in years, but I remember struggling against cliff racers, the super creepy last of the Dwemer, traipsing around the Ashlands, and, way too far into the game, discovering you could ride the stilt-striders. The quests were hard to find and hard to finish (did you find the Two Lamps?). The final climax of the game had a weight to it, or at least it did for me: my character was too weak to fight all who stood before her, so I ended up leaping to the final section, dashing around and avoiding fighting as much as possible, in a desperate attempt to defeat the evil within the Red Mountain. I was small, out numbered, and had no health potions left. It was epic. I still remember this.

Oblivion was amazing. The graphics were such a leap forward. The story was epic in scale. Cities were being destroyed terrifying monsters were invading the land. The Dark Brotherhood quests were brilliant. Fighting in the arena was brutal. Sure, by the end, your character is god-like, but Bethesda still managed make you feel small, to make the climax epic, by making it a showdown between two gods while you run around under their feet. I loved that twist: you aren’t really the hero, Martin is. You just get him to where he needs to be. And then the Shivering Isles comes along and makes you an actual god. Where Oblivion itself had strayed into a more ‘realistic’ or ‘normal’ depiction of the world, the Shivering Isles was beautifully bizarre. There was just something about Oblivion that made it feel like a lot of thought went into the game and what one could do in a game (I mean, who doesn’t remember that painting?).

Skyrim felt normal. And that is the major flaw, I think. It is humdrum, realistic. Somehow a world filled with dragons and magic and dark gods is dull. Sure, some quest lines are fun, there are some nice touches of world-building here and there, but where is the story, what is the point of saving this world? Maybe I am just suffering from nostalgia, but Skyrim just didn’t grab me the way its predecessors did. I forgave the old games a fair amount because of the limitations of the technology; or maybe I just expected less of them. But now games are so complex and detailed, the lack of detail in Skyrim is jarring. I could have kitted the whole Stormcloak force out in dragon armour, but that is not an option. The amount of gold I stole from that annoying Belethor chap should have bankrupted him. I dumped so much magical materials and weapons into the shops of Whiterun that every guard should have been decked out in far better armour. Why was my character never made Jarl or King? I really expected the story to go that way, that my character would become a ruler of some kind, she was clearly better. ‘Better than who?’ you might ask. Literally everyone. She was a god. She sucks the souls out of dragons. She has a pet dragon and is followed by the ghost of a dead assassin. Her voice is a weapon. She has been to heaven and back. To hell with Talos, why aren’t the Nords worshipping her? Why was she not made de facto ruler of Skyrim? That would have been a fun twist, stabbing yer man in the back and taking the high-kingship for yourself. Or imagine the moral force of the Dragonborn herself swearing alligence to the Empire? Or making a third faction based around the cult of the Dragonborn, binding the dragons to your will, sweeping out of Skyrim and uniting Tamriel like a new Reman Cyrodiil or Tiber Septim.

Morrowind was hard. You got lost all the time. Surviving was a struggle. There were quests you might never discover if you didn’t speak to the right person. You cure a plague, change the face of the land. In Oblivion, sure you were an awesome warrior, but you weren’t the hero of the story. And sure, you became a god, but only in the Shivering Isles. You close the gates to Oblivion, you help invoke a god-avatar. There is a sense of investment in the worlds. I have finished both games twice. Beginning a new character in Skyrim, my first thought was ‘why?’. There is no challenge, the story has no bite, no consequence. There are still dragons at the end, the civil war has basically zero consequences. My character, basically a god, is still treated casually by commoner and jarl alike.

Bethesda made a beautiful world, but gave me no reason to care about it.

Reflections on St Patrick’s Day

This Saint Patrick’s Day, in a world where weak-willed politicians looking for an economic leg up court flaxen-haired fascists rather than stand up against tyrannical behaviour, I thought it might be informative to reflect on Patrick, since his day is so widely celebrated.

Patrick, patron saint of the Irish, was a slave. He was ripped from his family, his home, his way of life and forced to live on an isolated mountain to tend sheep in a land where he knew nothing of the culture or language. He escaped his servitude after six years and eventually made his way home.

Patrick was born into a wealthy background. His family owned an estate and had servants. His father was a senior member of the local council and his grandfather held an important position in the church. Patrick gave all of this up and undertook a life of hardship.

Patrick was an emigrant. He left his homeland to serve in another where he was constantly under threat and had to hire bodyguards.

Patrick challenged authority. When the warriors of a distant king took some of his converts as slaves, Patrick wrote to that king demanding their return. When this failed, he wrote a public letter demanding the excommunication of those warriors if they did not do as he demanded.

The Irish, a nation of migrants and refugees, took Patrick with them wherever they went in the world. St Patrick’s Day is a global phenomenon born of the tragedy of Irish history. The curious irony of St Patrick’s Day is that it is an expression of both persecution and community. A diaspora scattered to distant lands clung to ancient traditions and invented new ones to create and reinforce their sense of identity. Their perseverance and success fueled the celebration of the symbol of their identity.

Patrick, the slave who became the saint of emigrants and refugees, is celebrated on shores he never knew existed. The children of the nation that calls him patron are scattered to every corner of the earth. I hope they remember their history and their homeland on this day above all others, in a world where so many minorities are persecuted, where migrants are vilified, and refugees callously turned away. I hope they reflect on how their identity was wrought in the hardships so many now suffer and on the fact that Patrick has more in common with the family being turned away at the border than those who raise a pint of Guinness in his name.