The Dissertation Is My Olympics. The Olympics Is My Dissertation

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Thank goodness for the Rio Games. Just when I was falling into a rut with my doctoral work, the Summer Games begun. It’s early to feel burnt out considering I just started the dissertation journey. Perhaps defending my proposal only a few months after giving birth and then moving to the other side of the country have a lot to do with my premature burn out.

A wise auntie of mine told me recently that quitting on my PhD now would be like training hard for a marathon and stopping at mile three. She had me at the sports analogy.

With my auntie’s guidance, I gave myself the much needed permission to take this summer off with the promise to register for fall. In hind sight, I should have taken a break, A REAL BREAK, from school much earlier in the year. Instead, I inefficiently attempted to chip away at my work.

To my surprise, in the past eight months I managed to submit an abstract to the NWSA conference (which got accepted), teach a brand new (new for me) 400-level course, submit an essay to two medical humanities journals, conduct and transcribe a 90-minute interview, read a few books, analyze this FIVB video, and start a resource website for postpartum women. It’s not the most productive amount of work, considering the amount of time passed, but it’s something and I’m happy to have something.

Unfortunately, not giving myself a break—after two significant life transitions—has taken a huge toll on my ability to persevere with the dissertation. It’s work that requires so much delayed gratification and has uncertain professional and economic promises—a tough investment for a new parent. It also doesn’t help that people often find my work too abstract to sustain a genuine conversation, making it hard for friends and family to relate to why I continue down this solitary path that tests even the most resolute among us.

And just when I contemplated throwing in the towel (you like what I did there?) the Rio Games descended upon us in the most unrelenting way. I couldn’t be happier with the bombardment of Olympic news from EVERY SINGLE MEDIA OUTLET. Few people doing their doctoral work are inundated with so much “stuff” related to their research.

For the academic side of me, this Rio Olympics is especially interesting because it’s the first Games in Latin America, and it’s in a country that glorifies multiculturalism, hybridity, and mixed races as part of its national identity. Also, beach volleyball is a huge featured event partly due to its growing popularity around the world especially in regions with significant beach cultures like California and Brazil.

beach-1210567_1920The iconic Copacabana Beach, where the beach volleyball competitions are taking place, seems to be the epicenter of the sexualized representation of Brazilian women and fashion. This makes for fascinating observations on how the sport seamlessly blends into the beach/surf/bikini culture, naturalizing the heterosexiness of the players and drawing in a spectatorship different than those of other sports. (I’m talking about official beach dance entertainers.) Other really interesting things are happening in this Olympics that just scream for academic analysis include: the refugee team, the first American to compete in a hijab, commentary on the women’s Turkish beach volleyball pair competing fully clothed, the near banishment of the entire Russian team (doping related), Gisele Bündchen in the Opening Ceremony, the Opening Ceremony’s performative story of slavery in Brazil, Obama’s commentary on the cultural and political significance of the Games, the commercials celebrating diversity…There’s sooooo much!!

Really though, at the end of the day I’m binge-watching the Games because I’m so totally sucked into the glamor, excitement, and lure of the Olympics. I can discuss the inequalities of sports until the cows come home, but it doesn’t take away from my appreciation and awe these athletes and their mental and physical capabilities.

We don’t see the hours, days, weeks, and years of training that go into performing at such a high level of physical movement. We don’t always see the aches and pains or know about the athletes’ personal sacrifices and obstacles. Despite my critiques of the Games, their clichéd narratives and their unapologetic commercialization, I can’t deny (EVER) the Olympics’ amazing display of physical human accomplishment. I just can’t. Having played competitive sports through college, I only have a tiny glimpse of and resounding appreciation for what it takes to be an Olympian.

As the Rio Games continue, I’ll be glued to the TV and Internet hoping that this global event sparks the motivation I need to keep on keepin’ on with my dissertation. In a similar way these athletes trained for their moment on this global stage, I busted my ass these past several years intensively reading, researching, and writing to show my dissertation committee that I have what it takes. My “training” would be for not, if I stopped now. So let this dissertation be my Olympic debut.

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Using Pinterest for Thesis Inspiration

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Social media is usually a productivity deathtrap. This is especially true when we’re trying to write.

Too often I have to turn off the Internet as a safeguard against checking Facebook for the 17th time, that day. When I was prepping for my qualifying exams I deactivated my account.

But social media isn’t the enemy of our productivity. How we use it really matters.

Our relationship to social media is both parasitic and symbiotic. I’m sure you can come up with a decent list of how Facebook ruins your writing routine, so I’ll leave the loathing up to you. However, I do want to tell you about my new fascination with Pinterest. More about Pinterest here.

I’ve been using it to inspire ideas for my chapter on body politics and sport migration. There are several online articles about athletes who represent nations other than the ones they call “home.” I’ve started pinning ones about women who fit this bill (especially American women) on a private Pinterest board titled “Migrant Athletes.”

Am I going to use these articles in a chapter? Probably not. But collecting these stories are helping me on my dissertation writing journey in several ways.

  1. It reminds me that people outside of academia are also interested in migrant athletes in global sports competitions.
  2. I get to see the kinds of issues and debates that concern spectators about these athletes.
  3. I learn more about the way these athletes negotiate their public identities as ambassadors of a given nation.
  4. It grounds my research by showing me the lived manifestations of my theoretical thinking.
  5. It keeps me motivated and inspired to be part of this conversation in both the public and academic spheres.
  6. It’s helping me figure out my “so what?” for the chapter.

Pinterest is also a practical tool. Up until recently, I’ve been using bookmarks on my browser or Pocket to collect internet articles and videos. The problem is that I’m a visual learner and organizer.

I like the way most media on the web is set up to be pinned. Once pinned, I have my articles and videos in one aesthetically pleasing space, which I’m more likely to return to and update.

I know there are other tools to help with research organization like Evernote and OneNote. They’re useful for other aspects of my research. But for collecting online content, going back to read them, and getting inspiration from them, I like the simplicity and aesthetics of Pinterest.

Crowdfunding Your PhD?

fundzDoctoral work is a privilege. And PhD programs are saturated with people of privilege. Despite the increasing rate of student diversity (in all manners of the word), a vast majority of us PhDing come from relative degrees of privilege. It seems oxymoronic to consider oneself an underprivileged (and I’m writing largely in terms of SES) PhD student.

Because no one needs to have a PhD to survive in this world.

Yet, having no money is the crying call for us “struggling” grad students. Unless you have a cushy trust fund or won the lottery, grad life is a hard economic lifestyle regardless of marital or parental status, age, or other categories of “need” people foreground when trying to garner financial sympathy. (This is a phenomenon I’ll probably explore in a future post. I find it fascinating.)

So when I stumbled upon this article about crowd funding dissertations, I was intrigued. The author cites kickstarter’s less than 50% success rate, but that’s hardly grim compared to the odds of getting a major scholarship that can significantly alleviate financial burdens.

Another U.K. student wrote about crowd funding his doctoral studies (including course tuition). Both articles stress how challenging this path can be, which I don’t doubt.

It also seems like science or engineering projects with everyday application, or social philanthropic projects may be more appealing to potential supporters. I don’t know how humanities dissertations would fair considering how they lean toward abstract theoretical conceptions, which can be esoteric.

Could this strategy actually work? Are students heading in this direction?

Writing About My Friend, the Olympian

UntitledThere’s nothing like signing up for a writing course to kick my ass into writing gear. Some people are self-motivated and determined to pump out pages without externally imposed deadlines and accountability.

I’m not that type of person.

I respond well to external pressure and deadlines, especially from an authority figure or someone scores smarter than me.

Before I get to write my book (dissertation), I need to write a proposal and my committee need to approve it. This is a significant milestone in my PhD journey not only because I’ll be that much closer to the end goal, but because I’ll have permission to start my research for a book I’ve been conceptualizing in my head for the past two years. As much as I love(d) taking courses and acquiring knowledge, I’m looking forward to contributing to an intellectual community. (The actually contributing part may still be a few years from now.)

I’m about 95% certain that I want to write a biography about my childhood friend Elodie Li Yuk Lo who is one of the first beach volleyball Olympians to represent Mauritius—a small African island nation. I feel so fortunate to be in an academic setting where I’m encouraged to use my personal experiences, knowledge, and connections to inform my research and writing. It still feels strange to think that personal topics can have a legitimate space in academia. Coming from a science and social science background, I’m still working on rethinking what constitutes “valid” or “authentic” scholarship.

Untitled1As I move forward with this class and program, I hope to use this blog to share my progress with the biography. To give you a little snippet of the vision, below is what I wrote for an in-class writing exercise attempting to explain (in plain language) what my project is about. Here’s an initial stab at describing the grand vision (which will most definitely change and evolve):

About fifty years ago during the Cold War, the International Olympic Committee started making a concerted effort to include and encourage newly independent African nations to participate in the world’s largest sporting event. Several sports governing bodies began introducing new rules to accommodate and encourage diverse entry of athletes from these less developed nations. About half a century later an ethnically Chinese beach volleyball player (Elodie Li Yuk Lo) took advantage of what is now known as the African Continental Trials to represent a tiny African island nation, called Mauritius, in beach volleyball. The book I’m writing examines Elodie’s journey to and participation in the London 2012 Olympics. Through Elodie’s story I explore how some athletes from developing nations struggle to compete and participate in the most elite sporting arena, demonstrating how the Olympics is an inherently unequal playing field. But Elodie’s story is more than her Olympic journey. As an ethnically Chinese woman, a fourth generation Mauritian, and a first generation Canadian, Elodie’s story is also about Asian and African migration in the 20th and 21st centuries, shattering many ideas of what we think we know about Asian or African immigrants in North America. Her story also shows us the politics of representing a nation and continent (where she is a racial minority), and how she navigates her multiple identities on a very public Olympic stage. But at the story’s core, this biography is about an athlete’s arduous journey to the Olympics fraught with roadblocks, close calls, pushing through self-doubt and injuries, media scrutiny, racial politics, lack of resources, and long training hours all culminating into one women’s experience of a lifetime.

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