Highlighted Selections from:

Writing the PhD Journey(S): an Autoethnography of Zine-Writing, Angst, Embodiment, and Backpacker Travels


DOI: 10.1177/0891241614528708

Stanley, P. “Writing the PhD Journey(S): an Autoethnography of Zine-Writing, Angst, Embodiment, and Backpacker Travels.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (2014): n. pag. Web.

p.2: Doing PhD is a “black box.” While inputs, outputs, and milestones are visible, there is a sizeable gap in our understanding of candidates’ lived experiences. This may cause some academic advisors to erroneously assume their students’ experiences are necessarily comparable to their own, and to proceed accordingly. But lived experiences vary enormously, and this autoethnographic study aims to problematize and pluralize the PhD experience by offering a look into the “black box” of one mature-age distance-education student’s lived experience in Australia. Methodologically, the paper innovates by blending reflective, autoethnographic writing with critical analysis of contemporary, self-authored travel zines (akin to lowtech blogging). This exemplifies a suggested middle way between Anderson’s evocative and analytic dichotomy in autoethnography. While the candidate’s development of criticality and confidence are evident,the zines also document confidence-crushing anxiety and burnout as underexplored embodied effects of PhD study, and intersections of candidature and embodiment are also considered. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.3: All supervisors, I think, must consider the lived experiences, and the demons, behind the process. This is particularly true for candidates who may be quite unlike the “typical” academic (if such a thing exists anymore). Like many, I am an atypical academic: first in family, more people-ish than theoretical, and until my thirties I had honed an entirely different identity, as a shoestring backpacker and itinerant English teacher. Doing a PhD, for me, was as much an identity metamorphosis as it was a piece of research and writing; any journey depends on its starting point. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.4: While such texts proliferate around physical journeys, there is much less “travel writing” about the PhD “journey.” How does it intersect with “real life” (and what actually remains of real life when one undertakes a PhD)? How are we to find our way, and perhaps even find ourselves? -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.4: I want to show that this state of suspended messiness is normal, that getting lost along the way does not mean never reaching a destination, and that the destination itself may well be different from that which was imagined. My objective is to soothe but also to understand the transition process from one’s pre-candidature self to guided student to independent researcher; I want to open the black box flight recorder to make sense of the “journey.” -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.4: Specifically, I am writing to as many PhD students and potential students as needed to hear this: here is my raw, emotional, embodied experience. If you are feeling insecure or lost, angry or hopeless, bored or rudderless, read this. If you are a supervisor and your students are struggling, give them this. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.5: My second aim, rather more ambitious, is to establish a genre hitherto largely absent from the academic literature: accounts of non-expert students’ research experiences, akin to travel narratives rather than guidebooks. Like travel narratives, such accounts would offer insights into the intersections of diverse identities and “the” (ostensibly singular) PhD experience, so that supervisors might become aware of issues and challenges that may be entirely different from their own. Because experiences depend on who experiences them and their backstories, just as journeys depend as much on the traveler as they do on the place. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.5: The complexity and conventions of academic writing work, in part, as gatekeeper: if you don’t write like us, you can’t come in. But while complex ideas and exact terminology certainly belong in academic writing, and complexity may be (a more legitimate) gatekeeper, I resist the perpetuation of normative, traditional, conventional writing for its own sake (and for keeping the riff raff out). There are plenty of other ways of being, and of writing. I hope that, as well as showing readers what one PhD experience is like, this paper also shows that it is possible to write in ways that are evocative, holistic, embodied, and person-centered, and that this is nevertheless a useful, legitimate contribution to academic understanding. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.6: Addictions and PhD candidature are not often discussed. By bringing these issues to light I want to talk about how we cope with the pressure and how we may learn and grow as people as a result. I also want to acknowledge the embodiment that is easily sidelined when we discuss academic experiences: we are whole human beings and part of the PhD experience is, surely, a physical one (Ellingson 2006). -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.6: In this paper, I first discuss autoethnography as a research method before, secondly, reviewing literature on the PhD experience. This I critique for a major gap in its coverage: while analyses of learning, identity, and community journeys are common, little has been written on the hermeneutic circle of how the PhD affects candidates’ lives, and vice versa. In particular, very little has been written on the mutual interdependence of scholarly activities and human bodies: how do our bodies and PhD experiences interact? From there, in the third section, I explore literature specific to the analysis of my own PhD experience: literature on backpacker tourism and zines. Then, from the fourth section onwards, I present and analyze excerpts from my own zine texts as a way of making sense of my PhD experiences. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

Autoethnography as Method

p.7: Autoethnography is an introspective method used to access “hidden” data that cannot otherwise be easily observed; it provides a unique “window through which the external world is understood” (Wambura Ngunjiri, Hernandez, and Chang 2010, p. 2). -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.7: This results in the appearance of quirky, unconventional texts far from the “standard boring writing of the academy” (Sparkes 2007, p. 541). -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.7: In another genre-bending example, Ellis and Bochner present an article written as dialogue, about their emotional reactions to watching news coverage of survivors’ stories in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (Ellis and Bochner 2006). In contrast to this vivid, visceral experience, Ellis says reading scholarly analysis makes her feel like “a detached spectator. I become only a head, cut off from my body and emotions. There is no personal story to engage me” (Ellis and Bochner 2006, p. 431). -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.7: The experience I described in the opening paragraph, of rereading my PhD-years travel zines and having the visceral, angsty lived experiences spring back into life, is why I have cited these texts to produce my autoethnography of the PhD experience. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.7: But in the (worthwhile) pursuit of creative, experimental, evocative engagement with lived experience, autoethnography can also be critiqued: memory is flawed, experience is subjective, texts are constructed, and -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.8: narratives are performances of our chosen versions of ourselves. This is why the use of written-in-the-moment zines is so valuable, although, as texts, they are necessarily constructed, positioned versions of events. Because telling experience can be all too telling. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.8: Learmonth and Humphrey (2011, p. 104) critique the lack of criticality in what Anderson (2006) calls evocative autoethnography:

In all evocative ethnography, identity work gets done, versions of desirable societies get constructed, and so on. But the processes are occluded if the tales appear to be just about “what really happened. . . . [H]ad there been a concern to link [Ellis’s] text with theory, the author my have become more aware of its possible ideological dimensions.”

So while such autoethnographic writing is engaging and evocative of lived experience, and while it may offer unique insights borne of witnessing or testimonio (Chavez 2012; Warren 1997), there may be a shortage of critical, analytical engagement with positionality, assumptions, and partiality and this, in turn, may result in a questioning of its academic legitimacy. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

Zine Writing and Backpacker Communities

p.11: Ware (2003) describes the genre of zines as a blend of personal and public writing: somewhere between a letter and a magazine. Usually photocopied in booklet form and bound with staples or hand stitching, zines are low-tech and low cost, distributed among friends and “zinester” (creative, participatory) communities without reference to or distribution by the publishing industry. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.11: Despite the appearance of online spaces for personal writing, notably blogs, zines remain popular as a form of life writing. As Ware notes, the focus of many zines is identity work: the performance and negotiation of identities. Many of these are somehow “other,” such as queer, marginal, and youth identities. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.12: In this sense, zine-writing is not unlike autoethnography: in both, writing is as much a process as a product. Writing perzines and autoethnography allows for catharsis, for exploration, for emotional disclosure and rawness, and for a bridging between “what happened” and “how I felt.” Writers of zines may find a sense of “belonging” among other zinesters much as autoethnographers flock together within the humanities; both enjoy creative, participatory communities. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.13: I distributed my zines—almost all travel-focused perzines— through zine fairs, zine stores such as the Sticky Institute in Melbourne, and through a network of writer friends. Most of my initial readership would likely have been fellow zinesters, friends, and acquaintances. Each publication ran to about two hundred copies. I wrote them as Word documents that I printed into A5 booklets on a cheap photocopier at a stationery store; I then bound them by hand with a long-arm stapler. Both zines are now available in abridged form as eBooks on smashwords.com. This medium allows a wider distribution and although I still call them “zines,” this transition is a corruption (or perhaps a creative hybrid?) of the hard-copy zine aesthetic. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.15: My (PhD) Journey(s): In the Moment -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.15: digging through boxes of treasured ephemera, the two travel zines that seemed best to “tell the story” of my PhD experience were A Zine of a Trip (2008) and Travels with Facebook (2009). The first of these documented fifty days spent in Japan, China, and Mongolia in 2008, doing fieldwork in China, taking trains around Japan, staying in city youth hostels, and hiking in the mountains of Western Mongolia. The second described a Canada/USA visit of 2009, in which I reconnected with friends from different phases of my life. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.15: The zines were written from travel journals, and between the various texts there is a progression from raw note-taking (journals) to constructed recounts (zines) to curated and analyzed findings (this autoethnographic paper). The zines, then, provided a stepping-stone between the experiences themselves and the way the story is later told. Notable is what is said, what is emphasized, and what is elided. Rereading the zines, the first thing I noticed were the moments of gleeful exuberance, and this is the finding discussed in this section: travel was, and is, for me, a “pure” form of enjoyment, unmediated by the (over)analysis that dogged my PhD “journey.” Throughout, I used backpacker travel as an escape. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

My (PhD) Journey(s): Travels with My Angst

p.19: The key words and phrases from the above excerpts are:

agonize, can’t afford, angst, fret, time with myself, frustration, mindchatter/ internal monologue, struggle to switch off, burnout, yearn to be at my desk, wracked with doubts, no idea what I felt, exhausting, always there, intensive, long drawn-out deadlines.

These are the phrases to show to anyone considering doing a PhD; these are the dark places, the badlands. In this section, I consider the anxiety and loneliness that traveled with me, the emotional “journey” of the PhD.

-- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.19: As I wrote, I internalized the voice of every potential critic. I felt their nagging—is that right?—is it good enough?—am I good enough? It was exhausting (hence the pressure I felt to get the damn thing done and dusted as quickly as possible, I realize now). -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

My (PhD) Journey(s): In Search of the Self

p.22: Looking back, I understand that doing a distance PhD is probably unwise unless you have a good support network. I also realize, looking back on my zines, that part of the purpose of travel, for me, is the distance from “real life” that allows for such transcendent moments as those described above: free time for leisurely breakfasts, the feeling of playfulness among friends in nature, and unstructured time in bookstores and reading newspapers in cafes. These are small luxuries that can be found almost anywhere and while I still adore traveling and find it restorative, I am making an effort to seek out these experiences here in my adopted home city too. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

Conclusion: Writing into, and out of, the “Black Box”

p.23: But I hope that readers will nevertheless bring to my texts what Willis (2004) calls “compassionate listening,” particularly when I write about anxiety and difficulties but also when I suggest that, as privileged as my own PhD journey certainly was, it was no cakewalk. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

p.23: Certainly, the conversations that drafts of this paper have sparked with PhD students, other academics in my department, and academic reviewers for the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography suggest that this paper is both a starting point for discussion and also a road talisman: even though the journey may be hell at times, the destination can be reached. -- Highlighted apr 18, 2014

The entire bibliography, for more zine research

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