In January of this year, I passed my viva. During the final month or so of a PhD it is a common experience to, finally, start to see credible links between all the disparate threads that you have pulled together in pursuit of your research questions. In my case, an interdisciplinary, experimental doctoral project saw me unite literary theory, visual poems, and concepts lifted from cognitive science and visual psychology into something resembling – as my supervisors and examiners reassured me – a doctoral dissertation. The threads finally began to cohere, however imperfectly, into something that was starting to make sense. Yet no endeavour remains independent of the conditions of its production: once I took a step back, I saw that any sense that the project made upon completion was set against a backdrop of absurdity, of bizarre societal circumstances that months later, I am still parsing.
Having completed most of my PhD during Covid times, there was very little of my postgraduate experience that remained untouched by it, and what strikes me now as most significant is this absurdity of the context within which we all continued to operate.
Having completed most of my PhD during Covid times, there was very little of my postgraduate experience that remained untouched by it, and what strikes me now as most significant is this absurdity of the context within which we all continued to operate. As I plodded on in pursuit of complex, philosophical questions about the nature of reading and seeing, the epistemological quandaries of combining scientific knowledge with poetic knowledge, and the merits of applying quantitative and qualitative methods to the arts, there were other numerical values that were increasingly defining our conditions of existence. These were the fluctuating case numbers, the death tolls, the vaccination rates, all announced with reverent, mournful enthusiasm at the same time each day, like a perverse Angelus of the new normal. There were masked meetups capped at two or three people, while two metres suddenly redefined the acceptable distance between our face-to-face interactions. All these numbers meting out the terms of our existence were real, pertinent examples of how quantitative figures were curtailing our spaces. And, under the onslaught of these figures, I felt the bizarreness of these conditions more and more profoundly, as the pandemic (now so rarely spoken of in day-to-day life, itself a curious phenomenon of collective forgetting) along with the cost of living and housing crises, brought stark inequalities – societal, economic, and academic – to the fore.
The endeavour of a PhD is a singular experience in what it demands of the individual researcher. In my time I have had the profoundly good fortune to meet a series of extraordinarily gifted doctoral students who I can call some of my closest friends. Despite their brilliance – which to me seemed so inherent to their personalities as to be unquestionable – every one of them did daily battle with the same relentless barrage of self-doubt, setbacks, crises, wanting to quit. My friend and colleague Orlaith Darling has already written of the why it matters question that dogs each researcher’s trajectory: the pandemic and societal crises unavoidably heightened the degree of angst associated with each of our wholly unique endeavours. Starting my PhD relatively young and from a position of able-bodied, middle-class privilege meant that the remaining vestiges of my hitherto inchoate politics crystallised throughout the four years, as, even within the insulated walls of Trinity, the ‘real’ world began to interpolate, demanding my attention in an unprecedented way. A significant part of my doctorate concerned the very nature of interdisciplinarity itself, the breaking down of disciplinary silos by bringing together once paradigmatically separate concepts. Yet, in the wider world, other distances and differences were being reinforced even further: class divisions, lockdown regulations, the gap between immunocompromised citizens and ‘healthy’ subjects, the rise of the cost of living impacting working people more and more, the sinister accumulation of bright, bland, new hotels, the slow suffocation of Dublin’s creative spaces, the emigrating friends, the dwindling rooms on Daft, the frightening gas bills.
In tandem with my own intellectual investigation into the spatial distribution of words upon a page and how this might affect poetic meaning – along with the study of memory and attentional modes, and the increasingly digitally-mediated conditions of our anthropocentric existence – my renegotiating of how to read and see experimental artforms was paralleled by an increasing clarity of vision about the state of the world. I began to look not just upwards – towards improbable ivory towers and the outdated promise of one-day anointment to tenured professorships – but outwards: reading and seeing the struggles of my contemporaries, the class divisions systemically reinforced through the structural foundations of academia, the desperate need for a postgraduate workers’ union. All this awareness was set against the wider context of another absurd fact: that there are now no affordable rooms to rent in our country’s capital city. There is no space to be.
The wisdom – gained from not just having chased a question, however lofty, however esoteric, as far as it is possible to pursue it in four years; but also from simply persevering through years that also played host to a global pandemic, a housing crisis, a cost of living crisis, the tumult of my mid-to-late twenties and its discontents.
Post-viva, I have struggled to relax. I have been in Valencia for the past few months, where the scent of orange blossoms lends itself to the air with the acuteness of perfume, sunshine is ubiquitous, and I live cheaply while planning my next career step. Yet, there is a chasm underneath me since my viva, that sense of even bigger questions gone unsolved, the urge to make sense of something larger, more urgent. A therapist I spoke to described my experience in terms of the neurochemical comedown common to firefighters struggling to decompress on holidays. I laughed at the time, thinking it ridiculous that the stress of methodically churning out one hundred thousand words in pursuit of an intellectual question could ever be likened to the vocational pursuit of pulling people from burning buildings. Perhaps this sensation might be reframed in different terms: that maybe it is caused by the knowledge – and dare I say, despite it all, the wisdom – gained from not just having chased a question, however lofty, however esoteric, as far as it is possible to pursue it in four years; but also from simply persevering through years that also played host to a global pandemic, a housing crisis, a cost of living crisis, the tumult of my mid-to-late twenties and its discontents. Blinkered by the demands of doctoral studies, it is easy to look only upwards, when in actuality the promise of straightforward ascension within the Academy – or any hierarchy beyond it – is illusory. The past years have brought forth an unavoidable awareness of this fact, however uncomfortable: a clear-sightedness about the nature of inequality in all its guises, and a desire to make that make sense, from which there can be no return.
Amelia McConville holds a doctorate from Trinity College Dublin in Poetry Studies with Neurohumanities entitled ‘Reading Forests, Seeing Trees: Visual Poetry with Neurohumanities’, funded by the Irish Research Council. She currently lives in Valencia, Spain.