Family and Personal Influences

At Royal Holloway yesterday I unwittingly intercepted both the arrival of a summer school contingent and the proud aftermath of a graduation ceremony. It was a poignant combination since it was summer school work that ‘prevented’ me from attending my own BA graduation.

Scuttling through in casual wear felt both embarrassing and alienating, much as the thought of graduating did. Summer school work actually proved a useful excuse not to go.

I believe in reward for effort. It’s a very basic but effective principle, and one that in teaching or mentoring roles I have always tried to impart to my charges.

If you go the extra mile, you want that dedication to have meaning and result. In recent years, it’s a belief I’ve been losing faith in.

Pride of place

I’ve never been to a formal event that celebrated milestones.

I was the only one not to attend my school Prefects’ Ball in 2002. Though it was a regrettably exclusive event, I had a tough responsibility of managing school registration and maybe deserved something to celebrate from the year.

The BA graduation was ruled out by summer school work. My MSc graduation was a shambles on the part of Edinburgh, who only awarded the degree seven days before the ceremony (with apologies, of course). It was too late to register. Would I have wanted to go anyway?

Seeing all the proud snaps of graduation ceremonies this week, I think of the graduation pictures that will proudly adorn walls and mantelpieces and wonder what kind of inhibition removes the will to attend and celebrate the years of graft.

Perhaps it boils down to something else: I want these things to mean more than just to me, otherwise it’s nothing but vanity that tempts me to honour my own achievements.

My parents have never shown an interest in attending a graduation ceremony. They are not achievers, and their attitude to achievement is a stoic one. I’m coming to understand. It has started to become increasingly difficult for me to celebrate others’ achievements – they’re accelerating away in their own world of success that seems a million miles away.

I’ve read acknowledgements in doctoral theses to parents who are librarians and scholars, to wives and children. I’ve long thought fondly of writing the acknowledgements page. Now, I’m ruefully pragmatic about the idea.

My folks have a small handful of O-levels between them. They don’t know even the title of my thesis. And there’s part of me that’s content with that. They remind me how much of an unlikely candidate I am. It’s about soaps and reality TV at home. And sometimes, that’s just great. What’s the world without curry, coffee, football and synth-pop after all?

The great shame is that the more my solitary pursuit comes to means to me alone, the less I will value it.

When this is done, I hope some of the family might consider attending the event. Plenty in our lives seems a million miles away, but Leicester is not. If they don’t, I don’t think I’ll ever want to be referred to as doctor. What they don’t find pride in, perhaps I shouldn’t either.

Written in the Stars
KaM: Written in the Stars, or Starry-Eyed?

4 thoughts on “Family and Personal Influences

  1. “What they don’t find pride in, perhaps I shouldn’t either.”

    That’s an incredibly defeatist attitude. You should take pride in yourself and what you’ve achieved and what you will achieve. If you don’t take pride in it who else will? Soaps and reality tv may be something to talk about now, but later on will it be something worth remembering? Something to mention in passing to friends and family? No.

    I shouldn’t be such a hypocrite, I too find it hard to take pride in my studies because I get little family support. However I know that I have worked hard to complete this, and when I graduate I will deserve it. There is little point looking for hope in others and no point in being guided by their pride. Be your own source of pride, there really aren’t many people who can do what you do. Isn’t that worthy of reward?

    1. Thanks for reading, and for the comment. I can understand your frustration with my attitude just as I get frustrated with other people’s sometimes. Unfortunately, there’s something downwardly competitive about this frame of mind, and I try to explain my bouts of bleakness as carefully as possible. But isolated posts never tell a full story.

      This PhD project gave me a great opportunity at the age of 23: an excellent job, a good salary, a move abroad, a future for a long-term relationship. By 25, all that had gone. Well over two years later, none of it was recovered. A PhD crawls along with no job prospect at the end. I hold my expectations to the level of what I had, which is unwise, but it’s difficult to be one’s own source of pride if one doesn’t see a lot to have pride in.

      There was a conversation recently on Al’s blog about the starving artist; passion over pragmatism. That’s the dilemma of many postgrads: do we love our subjects enough to make the necessary sacrifices? My fascination with Marvell grows with life experience, and even matures in its dourness. But reality has changed so much since 2007 when I started. My parents, I’ve come to realise, are pragmatists. They’re not anti-study; they just expect that it will lead to a good income, and that a PhD of any description should see me walk into a high-salaried job. That’s really not likely. As I’ve grown older, my increasing pragmatism has been laying waste to my passion of old. What use is a PhD if it’s not enough?

      But the situation has changed since writing this post. I should commend my folks for their faith (which does not come in the form of attending graduations, but in many other ways). I got a job opportunity out of nowhere, which I’m massively grateful for, and things are subsequently brighter. Reward for effort is not a flawless theory, but I’ll accept a small measure of pride for finding feet eventually.

      Thanks for a comment that surpassed frustration to speak positively and constructively. Best of luck with your studies.

  2. Watching the WordPress snow fall across the upper photo gives the appearance of a dandruff issue.

    I would like to think that the hope you shared at the end of this post now seems a little less tentative; that there are stars visible above you that you mightn’t have believed were there before; that those stars help you to recognise where your achievement puts you relative to many others: [insert name of renowned anti-dandruff shampoo] above.

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