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?’

Cheaters never prosper. Well, that’s not true. Sometimes they do.

I like distractions.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m an ‘emotional writer,’ meaning that I have, like many I know, a certain method to my madness.  One necessity that I require is a good distraction.  Too much time, effort, and focus on one thing makes, in my opinion at least, for too myopic of a perspective.  Distractions are fun, and they break up the monotony of doing research.  It’s helpful, and I think healthy, to look away from one’s work from time to time.

Right now, of course, distractions are the last thing I need (or want, for that matter).

However, I came across something recently that I needed to discuss, even if only briefly.

One of my random sources of distraction is the inane and ridiculous website,  It’s not an easy thing to describe this website, what ‘up-voting’ means, or how it affects your ‘karma.’  So I won’t here.  The best way to understand what it is would be to just go there and make sense of it in your own way.

While browsing through the ‘all’ section, I came across this ‘meme:’


To explain this for the uninitiated, this is what is called a ‘confession bear.’  When you want to confess something, such as was done here, you use this meme to do so.  I should also add that reddit is, if you want it to be, an anonymous website.

This meme also came with a discussion, like a forum.  For anyone interested in its context and contents, see here:

In essence, this individual was admitting to having their PhD Thesis ‘ghostwritten’ for them.  While this is an interesting statement in itself, a good friend of mine sent me a link to an article ( written a few years ago by a gentleman who did this very thing for a living.

Published in the Chronicle for Higher Learning in November of 2010, it soon became one of, if not the most famous, articles ever published by The Chronicle.  In it, the author, who refers to himself as ‘Ed Dante,’ tells us about his job, citing the number of pages he tends to write during any regular work week, how he prepares his ‘research,’ and shares some personal insights about how he came to be a plagiarist for hire.  As well, throughout the article he repeatedly refers to his most recent client who has had the unfortunate circumstance of having an abstract that he wrote for her accepted, and who now needs him to write the dissertation.  The article is an engaging read, and likely (as it did) will inspire quite a flurry of emotional responses for those who read it.  It was so successful, that news agencies picked it up (like the ABC News clip below), and it was turned into a text, this time under the name, ‘Dave Tomar.’  Dave, if that is his real name, is now a ‘legitimate’ author.

My interest in Dave/Ed’s story is of course piqued by the notion that any sort of writing is ‘fictional’ in its ‘made-from-ness,’ as well as whether we should consider anything he says to be ‘true,’ because, like writers of both fiction and non-fiction, he lies for a living (“all constructed truths are made possible by powerful ‘lies’ of exclusion and rhetoric […] even the best ethnographic texts—seriously true fictions—are systems, or economies, of truth”[1]).  However, I’m also intrigued by the very nature of Dave/Ed’s description, and it’s here where I think I’ll conclude this brief distraction.

I think his story speaks to an amended version of what a colleague at last year’s British Association for the Study of Religions Conference called ‘indentured academia.’  Rather than an indentured perspective on ‘being’ an academic, I think it better speaks to the notion of ‘indebted academia,’ the idea that, because academia is becoming a ‘business,’ students have no choice but to treat their education like a transaction.

In this way, it begins to seem, at times at least, all about the money.  Alongside rising tuition costs, textbook costs, etc., Dave/Ed’s story appears very much like a product of that.  Of course, while I would immediately respond to my own argument here with the counter statement that even with this more ‘financial-based’ perspective, ‘cheating’ should never be an option worth considering, it’s still a discursive influence we can’t just ignore.

We might ask, then, as costs rise, and as academia becomes more and more of a business, does the ‘value’ somehow go down?  For me, that hasn’t been the case, and cheating isn’t anything new.  Yet, even if Dave/Ed’s story is a singular example, and even if it doesn’t account for the wider meaning of ‘academia,’ it is still something that I think must be considered when we begin to examine how ‘academia’ and ‘academics’ are perceived discursively within and without the context of ‘higher education.’

[1] James Clifford, “Introduction: Partial Truths” in James E. Clifford and George E. Marcus, eds., Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 7.

***I should mention that a good friend of mine, and pretty clever guy, Jonathan Tuckett just successfully defended his Thesis, and I swear this post is neither inspired by, nor is in reflection of, his achievement.  I swear.  Really.  Check him out, he writes fiction (the made-up kind, as well as the made-from)!***