Thesis for Ants

A few weeks back, the reddit user (‘redditor’) /u/FaithMilitant posed the following simple question to the subreddit, /r/AskReddit:

PhD’s of Reddit. What is a dumbed down summary of your thesis?

While the resulting discussion proved rather intriguing, for my interests here, and by using it as discourse, I formed the following thesis:

This discussion represents a particular bias, or rather, a particular discursive perception of the concept ‘PhD,’ and how the public might perceive of that concept as something more predominately associated with the sciences, rather than the humanities.  

Let’s begin with how this discussion has been disseminated.

Shortly after it took place on reddit, the ‘click-bait’ website,, published a collection of the top twenty comments.  While their version is easily accessible, I thought it might be best to list the one’s they’ve chosen here:

Does music express emotions or just elicit them? Read the next 200 pages to not find out. 

Girls take birth control. Girls then pee out unmetabolized estrogens from birth control. Pee goes to water treatment plant, estrogens not treated, male fish become female fish.

Nanoparticles are weird and I accidentally made a bomb and electrocuted myself.

People trying meditation for the first time get aroused.

When I get rid of this gene, it messes the brain up. A lot.

Computer AI systems can learn to operate a warp drive and automatically build an instructional system to train people how to do it. My dissertation is probably the only one in existence to reference the Star Trek technical manual.

My experimental drug does NOT cure addiction.

Making new magnets from old magnets because we’re running out of magnets.

Inpatients with schizophrenia are happier and socialize more in the context of a music listening group. It was obvious before we began the project and we learned nothing.

Little things stick together. Here’s a slightly easier way to calculate their stickiness.

There are amoebas living in volcanos, but I never captured Bigfoot on film (I tried).

We can take random pieces of bacterial DNA from beaver poop and put them into other bacteria to discover new things, like how to break wood down into biofuels. Yes, I had to dissect dead beavers and handle their poop.
/u/Geneius (account seems to have been deactivated, and the original comment has been removed)

This protein looks like it might contribute to asthma. Oh, turns out it probably doesn’t.

I crunch numbers using a supercomputer in the hopes of ensuring a fusion reactor in France doesn’t get fried on the inside.

Two proteins touch each other in a specific place in the developing heart. No idea if it’s important for anything.

I can make models of galaxies in a computer, but I can’t explain why they don’t act like real ones. Even if I bash them together or stir them around.

People sometimes think about animals as if they’re people. People like those animals a little more than regular animals. Except when they don’t. I can’t believe they gave me a PhD.

Sand washes away, don’t build important stuff on it

Why does a coffee stain looks the way it is, and how you can use it to make anti-laser glasses.

You can make antimatter move in strange ways if you set your equipment up wrong.

Aside from the interesting diversity of each of these ‘dumbed down’ Thesis topics, they all stand out as predominately science-based, from computer science, to biology, physics, engineering, mathematics, chemistry, zoology, psychology, and neuroscience.

So, then, how do these comments reflect a discursive perception beyond how they have been disseminated by this article?  To understand that, it might be necessary to explain a bit more about how commenting functions on reddit.

Most of these comments, chosen specifically by the author of the article (Zainab Coovadia), are what are known as ‘best comments.’  That is, within the context of a reddit discussion, since every comment made can be ‘down-voted’ or ‘up-voted,’ these comments have each amassed a large number of up-votes.

Now, if we keep in mind that each up-vote correlates to a single individual, as a user can only up-vote or down-vote a comment once (bearing in mind individuals might have more than one reddit account), then the number of up-votes for each comment equals the number of individuals who read that comment.  In the case of these ‘best comments,’ this equals out to a couple thousand individuals.  In fact, /u/Bear_Ear_Fritters‘ comment (“This protein looks like it might contribute to asthma. Oh, turns out it probably doesn’t.”) has, at the time of this writing, 8178 up-votes.

While the notion that over eight-thousand people have seen this comment points out the rather interesting manner in which the internet, and sites like reddit, assist us in presenting our research to the ‘general public,’ it also provides an intriguing discursive look at how signifiers, such as the term ‘PhD,’ are filled with meaning by large groups of people.  After all, while Coovadia may have chosen these twenty dumbed-down thesis descriptions based on their popularity on reddit, their popularity itself determines the fact that, in the context within which they exist, the notion of a ‘PhD’ is tied almost exclusively to the sciences.

As well, though this somewhat stereotypical assessment is, of course, open to a great deal of interpretative questioning (such as, is the average redditor more science-minded than humanities-minded?), as pure data, it would not be unreasonable to hypothesise that perhaps this popularity reflects a publicly perceived notion that a PhD is something usually related to research in the sciences.  This is especially so when we consider that there are a number of humanities-based comments that did not receive the same level of up-votes/views.

As further evidence of this, we might equally cite the number of news articles published recently that share a common thematic headline: ‘the humanities is an endangered species.’

Here we find a discourse crystallising the reddit discourse, though perhaps not directly.

Where with the reddit one, the meaning of the term ‘PhD’ is determined by its research within the sciences, established by the fact that the ‘best comments’ are predominately science-based.  Then, with the discourse arising out of the articles cited above, that meaning is solidified by the fact that the humanities is ‘in crisis,’ thus perpetuating the notion that a ‘proper’ PhD has something to do with the sciences.

In this way, though they are thematically unrelated, the two discourses feed into each other, further establishing the idea that a science PhD somehow carries more weight, or ‘meaning,’ than its counterpart in the humanities.

While this analytical conclusion might tell us something about the relationship between the public’s perception of a concept and the way that perception is organised and determined by the language used by sources such as the news media, it also tells us something about the efforts we must take in both describing our research, as well as how the public’s opinion might change via that description.

This might, then, equally explain the growing popularity of humanities programs that are designed to look like science programs (the cognitive science approach to the study of religion, for example), in an effort to counteract the notion that the former is something easily dismissed when school budgets are cut.

Or, more than anything, perhaps it reminds us that though there are differences between these two fields, the level of importance between a thesis that tests the accuracy, or even existence, of a Higgs-Boson, and a thesis that argues that all writing, from ethnography to a novel, is fictional by means of its ‘artificial’ nature, is in itself a fictional differentiation established by our discursive perceptions, and perpetuated by the language of random sample data.

Understanding how that works will largely influence both the future of the humanities, as well as the future of education worldwide.  After all, how can we be expected to promote and describe our research, if we can’t even control how those descriptions fit into the discourse on what it means to have a ‘PhD?’


The Expert in the Room

In an attempt to avoid the rain the other day, I ducked into the Scottish National Gallery here in Edinburgh.  It’s a rather lovely gallery, neither too large, nor too small, with some rather impressive pieces.  Two of my favourites are “The Man of Sorrows” (1860) and “David in the Wilderness” (1860), both by the Victorian painter, William Dyce.

christ in highlandsdavid in highlands

I enjoy these paintings because they represent a change of setting, a perspective of the artist that contradicts the ‘historical record,’ wherein his subjects (Jesus and David) have migrated from the realm of the Biblical Holy Land to Dyce’s own: the Scottish Highlands.  I especially enjoy what these paintings tell us about an artist’s perception, about how a narrative might be adopted and amended to suit one’s own context.  Or rather, how as a Christian, Dyce has placed these individuals into his own geographical context, shifting them out of legend and into something more attainable.  He has, in essence, made his religion ‘Scottish.’  To me, this seems aptly similar to the way in which religious beliefs shift and translate, how they become nationalised and tied in with the civil religion of a central location, their discourses homogenised into something entirely new.

Dyce is also known, perhaps more famously, for his “Pegwell Bay–A Recollection of October 5th 1858” (1858-1860)

Pegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th 1858 ?1858-60 William Dyce 1806-1864 Purchased 1894

Renowned for its association with the genre of ‘Atheist Aesthetics,’ “Pegwell Bay” depicts a discursive shift, a narrative ‘sea change’ wherein the once predominate use of ‘religious’ imagery has been replaced with that of science.  Here, families gather shells and fossils on the low-tide shore as Donati’s Comet soars overhead.  A site frequented by novice and professional fossil hunters, as well as notable theorists like Darwin, Dyce’s use of Pegwell Bay as a setting allows the image to speak on his behalf, revealing a discursive commentary about the ebbing tide of religious belief and the reality of a more science-minded perspective on life, the universe, and everything.

In his Faith and Its Critics, David Fergusson contends that this painting depicts a type of ‘wistful’ and ‘nostalgic’ Atheism, a longing for days gone by, which matches in tone the basis of certain theoretical definitions of Atheism by scholars such as Hyman and Buckley: ‘Modern Atheism’ (that which arose out of and within the Enlightenment) appears as a ‘re-emergence’ of the classical ‘rational-naturalism’ that defines our notion of ‘Ancient Atheism.’  Likewise, this is an Atheist discourse that is equally expressed in textual examples, such as Thomas Hardy’s “God’s Funeral,” or Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.”  The latter even evokes a sense of tidal retreat, a poetic mimicry of “Pegwell Bay” via signifying terms like the ‘long withdrawing roar’ of the ‘sea of faith:’

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

While this is all very interesting, and is definitely worth a bit more discussion, my point with this post is actually about something else entirely, inspired by a humorous exchange that I witnessed in the ‘Impressionist’ room of the Scottish National Gallery.

I was enjoying one of Monet’s ‘Haystacks,’ standing off to the side, and a ways back.  Two gentlemen, perhaps in their late fifties or early sixties, approached the painting.  The one on the right, the taller of the two, drew his companion’s attention to the canvas.

“See this brushstroke here,” he said, “that’s indicative of the impressionist’s style, that heavy use of paint, and the way he dragged it up, and to the left.”

“Yeah, I see that,” his companion replied, a slight hint of angst in his voice.

“He had a remarkable eye for colour, and for distinguishing simple tones within the palette, most notably for his use of blue.  You should see his ‘Nymphéas’ at L’Orangerie, in Paris,” the first man said, his voice adopting a velveteen accent.   

The companion smirked slightly, then responded, as if pulling a sandwich out of his pocket and presenting it as evidence:

“I have a minor in Art History.  I’ve seen it.”

The expert is an odd character, mostly because he or she can appear anywhere.  We are all experts at one thing or another, from the utmost banal and prosaic to the select and specific.  Likewise, the expert might not only appear in the most unexpected times and places, but from the oddest of origins.

One of the great myths of the PhD is that achieving one will make you an expert.  Even I fell into this trap years ago when I stated I wanted to be ‘a world’s expert’ on Atheism and Ian McEwan.  In retrospect, I now think of that as a rather silly goal.  This is especially the case now that I’ve learned that after years of isolated study on a particular topic what you really become an expert on is the realisation that you’ll never actually know everything there is about that topic.  Or, in more colloquial terms: the more you learn, the less you know.

There’s a useful ‘illustrated guide’ for what I mean here, that I’ll happily steal from Matt Might:

When we imagine all of human knowledge as a circle, by the time we finish our Bachelor’s Degree, we’ve accumulated a rather slight ‘specialty.’  That looks like this:

With a Master’s Degree, that specialty grows a bit:
By the time we’ve reached the PhD, that specialty begins to push against the boundaries of known human knowledge.  This creates a darling little bump:
phdSo now, given that the circle on which our little bump has protruded represents all human knowledge, it’s important to acknowledge where our expertise exists within this context:
phd all knowledge

While Matt Might’s illustration here is rather useful (it’s also available for purchase, for those interested), it also quite poignantly illustrates the oddities of the ‘expert.’

Moreover, it serves to remind us, just like my story of the two ‘experts’ staring at Monet’s canvas, that as we’re all experts, then perhaps none of us are.  As we come to realise that the more and more we know something, the less we actually know in general, and therefore further accept that the expertise we’ve accumulated isn’t a substitute for the world’s knowledge, then we’re all rather ignorant.  Does this mean we’re in denial, or that our attempts at proving our expertise to people who seem to have similar expertise is a means of pacification?  Are we trying to claim ownership?


Or maybe not.  After all, clearly i’m not ignorant about Atheist discourse.  Just look at what I said above.

Clearly I’m an expert.

The Malaise.

I’ve been asked in recent weeks what my life is like now that I’ve submitted the Thesis.  I myself asked this very question of colleagues and friends as they too entered the stage between submission and the impending viva.  One answer that seems to always come up, and one in which I, again, have agreed with, is that my life is now defined by an odd sense of ‘malaise.’  While others might not agree with my wording here, I think this term perfectly sums up this stage for me.

Here’s why.

First, the term’s lexical definition, the definition you might find in a dictionary, seems to fit this stage quite nicely:

1 :  an indefinite feeling of debility or lack of health often indicative of or accompanying the onset of an illness
:  a vague sense of mental or moral ill-being <a malaise of cynicism and despair

Spending years obsessed with writing a long paper takes it’s toll on a person.  That’s years of feeling guilty for ‘taking the afternoon off,’ or, as a good friend was once advised to do, ‘take the full weekend.’  That’s years of thinking about the weakness at the end of chapter three, how the conclusion needs to be a bit more nuanced, how you should ‘unpack’ your term usage throughout.  That’s years of feeling like everything you write is terrible, that your ideas are too simplistic, that you aren’t saying anything truly unique or different.  Then, finally, there’s that feeling that someone, somewhere, will point out how you didn’t read that one obscure text related to your subject, and, of course, that person will be one of your examiners.

This sort of life is a disease in itself, so the malaise that follows is very much a side-effect of replacing these symptoms with those associated with the equally obsessive curiosity about how what you have written is being read.  This is a very special kind of malaise, like a bizarre liminal stage, just this side of the threshold that defines us as ‘finished.’  Which also means, it is a different sort of stage than that which defines the post-viva mindset.  This, again, is why I think this term is perfect.  The viva is like the impending ‘illness,’ so that the malaise felt at this stage is like the ‘lack of health’ indicative of the onset of that illness.

Second, because other people have used this phrase to point out (even metaphorically) similar issues, my usage seems like a good comparative adaption.

Of those ‘other individuals,’ Jimmy Carter is perhaps the most memorable person associated with ‘malaise.’  Thirty-six years ago this week, and in regard to the looming energy crisis, he took to the airwaves with his ‘Crisis of Confidence’ speech.  In this address, he pointed out and discussed what he referred to as a “fundamental threat to American democracy,” an erosion of the nation’s confidence in itself:

I do not mean our political and civil liberties. They will endure. And I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might.

The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.

The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.

He went on to describe what he felt were the precursors to this crisis: the assassinations of President Kennedy, his bother Bobby, and Martin Luther King, Jr; the violence and defeat in Vietnam; the distrusting results of the Watergate scandal; and the decreased value of the American dollar during a long and arduous inflation.  He described much of this as symptomatic of “paralysis and stagnation and drift.”

Here’s a video of the speech, for those interested:“>

This address became known as the ‘malaise speech,’ a critical association because it eventually came to negatively effect his presidency, ultimately leading to his re-election loss in 1980.  Moreover, the term was associated with what he said because, as many critics argued, it merely pointed out Carter’s own criticism of the American people’s mood, his notion of a ‘crisis’ based on his own perception of the despair, ill-feeling, and cynicism emanating from the nation’s public.

While there is much to debate here about Carter’s language use and how it influenced, and was influenced by, the discourse of the American public at this time in history, the terminology is still quite poignant, especially in its association with the ‘crisis’ we might feel in our post-submission confidence.  Which leads me back to my own usage.

To conclude, the malaise that I associate here with the post-submission mindset is in its own way indicative of a ‘crisis,’ not only in our confidence of what it is we have written, but in the loss of the obsession that is writing a thesis.  It is a malaise defined by this double loss, a horrific perfect storm bolstered by a separation from that which has defined us for years, and the ultimate concern that the typo on page 137 will be the deciding factor in our inevitable failure.

So, in answer to the question, ‘what is life like after the submission,’ perhaps the best response is: not much, emotionally at least.  Which is also why I felt it might be useful to write about this malaise, not only for myself, but for others who might have equally experienced this same sort of emotional tempest.  That, and because the malaise has taken quite a strong hold on my current perception of the world, and created for me a distinct crisis of confidence in my own work, I really had no idea what to write about this week.