A first attempt to become a proper academic

When I came back from my first international conference as a PhD student, I was feeling good. There had been a lot of interest in my Fronteiras Explorers project and the research that would ensue and I enjoyed talking about it all academically. This motivated me to apply to deliver a short series of lectures to college students through a research lectures prize promoted by the University of St Andrews, the institution which validates my degree (yes, that’s right, peasants – I am a St Andrews postgraduate student). Granted, it may have been a bit bold for someone who had been a doctoral candidate for a few months to apply to this and – spoiler alert! –  I didn’t get it.

I have recently written about boldness for the PhD Women Scotland blog, which you can read here, but I have come to realise that my own blog is largely about the rejections I’ve faced in the past few years and looking back to that first attempt at applying for an academic job might be useful just now. As I said above, I wasn’t too far into my PhD so I had to look back to my journey and propose to lecture about things that I already knew instead of the things I was yet to discover. So here’s the full pitch:

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Theme: A step beyond transculturalism: syncretic theatre/performance

Lecture 1: From multiculturalism to syncretism

An introductory lecture analysing the development of the concepts of multiculturalism, transculturalism, and syncretism applied to theatre/performance throughout the 20th century to the present day within the respective postcolonial contexts.

Aims: to gain understanding of how the different concepts of fusion in theatrical performance have evolved together with changes in the political context of the world; to identify the differences between multiculturalism, transculturalism, and syncretism.

Lecture 2: Three case studies

Looking at previous research and two practical projects undertaken by the lecturer as foundations for the current investigation into syncretic theatre, a discussion about potential strategies and threats found in this kind of work. The case studies to be analysed are:

  • The Kuarup funeral ritual of the Kamayura tribe of Brazil: religion or performance?
  • Fronteiras Explorers – a three-week artistic residency in South America
  • La Niña Barro – a devised physical theatre piece based on a collection of poems by a Spanish writer, using folk music from Zimbabwe

Aims: to discuss the points of intersection between ritual and performance in a non-European culture; to look at and challenge concrete examples of fused theatrical cultures and techniques.

Lecture 3: Afro/Scottish theatre

Presentation and discussion of a survey of Scottish theatre productions with a connection to African culture staged since 1999.

Aims: to contextualise the object of the research and its relevance in contemporary Scotland.

Statement:

The proposed series of lectures will further the mission of St Leonard’s College by contributing some new research pieces to Arts and Anthropology scholarship, fostering students’ creativity by encouraging them to draw inspiration for their artistic endeavours from a wide range of sources, and inciting discovery by bringing all this information together in a way that enables them to view their own context from a new perspective.

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If you’re still reading, thank you for staying. I don’t think this was too bad a first attempt to put a wee series of lectures together and I only got generic feedback on the rejection – the usual, “there were too many applicants, the level was very high, etc., etc.”. My research has taken a slightly different turn since and I though I would still like to do it at some point, I have never concluded my survey of Afro-Scottish theatre (which was highly motivated by working with the wonderful Mara Menzies). In any case, the ideas are here now and if anyone reading this is interested, I am more than happy to revisit and negotiate a fee with you. 😉

 

 

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Nothing useful

3 months into my PhD, I got the chance to attend my first conference as a doctoral student, TransCultural Exchange in Boston. Though my paper had been accepted almost a year prior, I was chuffed to have received support from the RCS to help with my travel expenses. Getting funding and presenting a paper at an international conference made me feel like this whole PhD thing was actually not a bad idea. I had sorted out my USA visa before moving back to Scotland, I had my accommodation sorted (staying with a good friend, US citizen, and a letter from her to prove it), I had a letter from the conference organisers to show at immigration. More importantly, I had a UK visa to allow me to come back. As always, I took care to book my connecting flights via somewhere in continental Europe, avoiding Heathrow like the Plague. The fear was there, though. This was months before Donald Trump got elected, but it’s not like the USA ever had a reputation for being nice to Latin Americans arriving at their shores. Additionally, this Latin American in particular had been refused visas to the UK and been branded for at least the next decade. The trauma has spread across my group of friends in Edinburgh, too – I can feel them holding their breath every time I leave the country. But a successful academic career hangs on going to conferences and disseminating research, so I had to brave it.

I flew from Edinburgh to Paris, and from there to Boston. It was February and I’d been checking the weather reports telling me to expect temperatures as low as -20°C! I packed my thickest winter clothes and set off.

It’s a good thing that I don’t actually remember much about going through immigration in Boston. What I do remember is the officer asking me what me PhD was on, and my reply being an apologetic and giggly “nothing useful”. Unmoved by the joke, he stamped my passport and let me through the gates. I collected my suitcase and made my way to meet my friend. It was snowing.

In hindsight, I get angry at myself for that reply. It just gets drilled into us that the arts aren’t useful, and although almost all of my peers will disagree with that, I often wonder whether they have to be. Surely they are valuable in many aspects, but do they have to be useful? It reminds me of a cartoon I saw doing the rounds on the interwebz some time ago (I am not entirely sure about its origin, but it has been attributed to the College of Humanities of the University of Utah):

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I have seen some scientist blogs being offended by this, but my own bias quite likes it. Perhaps this is where the utility (if we must) of the arts lies, in complementing the sciences in a fun and humane way. Of course, I wouldn’t have time to have this discussion with an immigration officer, and although I understand that my reply was also charged with feelings brought about by immigration policies not putting the arts in a place of usefulness or value in society, that conversation would be less to do with arts vs sciences and more to with arts vs business (mainly in the US and the UK).

It’s also good that the immigration officer didn’t have the time or inclination to ask me what my paper was about. I can’t imagine that a chat about a site-specific theatre piece exploring ideas of borders in South America with a multicultural cast would have gone down very well.

I had a lovely week in Boston, a city I had never visited before. It was great to visit such iconic institutions as Harvard University and the MIT and to meet interesting new people. It was also fab to catch up with my friend and collaborator Sophie, a talented musician and puppeteer that I had met and worked together with in Edinburgh.

My first post-visa nightmare entrance back to Scotland was smooth. The immigration officers at Edinburgh airport were kind as they always have been with me, but my possession of a Tier 4 visa card still raised the question on arrival: “what are you studying?”. I always feel like I have to crack a joke in these situations, but this time, I proudly said “I’m doing a PhD in theatre at the RCS. Formerly known as the RSAMD, as taxi drivers in Glasgow will never let you forget”. The officer giggled, stamped my passport, wished me all the best, and let me through.

P.S. In addition to the link posted above to a summarised version of the paper, I did a video interview about my project for Black Sheep talks when I was in Boston, which you can watch here.