The Academic Ego: Memento Mori and Aiming for Humility against the Odds

I am sure I am not alone here.


This past week has been extraordinarily busy – and extraordinarily strange – for me. I have just passed the six month point in my PhD candidature and I was beginning to feel at home in academia, like I had earned my spot. However, a flurry of new successes assaulted me, unexpected, which left me anxious, panicked and unable to sleep for nights on end.

On Wednesday, I was advised of the success of my first academic publication. The same day, I attended a HDR Graduate Research Conference and enjoyed the success of my comrades, whilst strategically considering how I will encounter my impending Confirmation in late September. I also attended Supervision with my Primary Supervisor, a bright spot in my fortnight for the exciting back-and-forth of ideas and constructive criticism. He saw how hyperactive I was in our late afternoon appointment and in his infinite wisdom, offered me herbal tea (not coffee!) and avoided too much discussion about achievement and such things.


On Thursday, I tried to reflect on what I had gained and how hard I have worked over my life to get here, but the successes still felt hollow. Only fifty percent of peers, and other important people in my life, actually seemed genuinely happy for me. This struck me hard as I wondered what exactly I had done wrong. I struggle to maintain humility at times: could this be it? Did I gloat too much? Did I let the spirit of it all get to me? I could find no concrete answers. As with all subjectivity, all I could find were flawed suggestions that reflected positively upon me and my behavior; and negatively upon other people’s.

Across the weekend, as I conducted the requested amendments to the journal article and renovated my home for its sale, I continued my inquiry. It was in a physically humbling moment, with my arm down an old toilet trying to get it looking less disgusting, in which I realized that some people do not enjoy the wins of others and perceive them as threats. Perhaps I did crow, but it was warranted and successes need to be shared to be fully enjoyed. The colloquialism beloved in gaming circles for envy –  ‘butt-hurt’ – came to mind – amusing, considering what I was doing at the time.

I am beginning to appreciate the challenge of living the oxymoron concept: ‘humble academic’. It is what we should strive for – but in this challenge, we also must appreciate the limitations of humanity. The ego is a strange beast. Many social theorists and philosophers over modernity have mused upon this – and how egotism can overpower the best person. Lincoln perhaps said it best when he noted how power could destroy a man’s (sic) humility. To fully test integrity is to challenge it with the addition of power.

I won’t lie: I like how others perceive me when they think I am powerful. It fills me with confronting feelings of being admired – which is not wholly positive for a self-confessed ‘attention whore’. But I need to also temper these feelings with the Latin reminder of ‘you will die’: memento mori. As seen in Dante, Milton and also the beautiful works of Blake, earthly vanity is stripped harshly from one’s self after the material body expires. What occurs after death is unknown to mortals: but we can sure that what we have on earth is not taken with us. Personally – this is getting a little deep for my self-concept and general approach to life, therefore I will end the post reflecting on ATHF’s Dr Weird and his absurdity…




Abbott’s Brave New World: Let them eat ‘national interest’

I will say this upfront: in my undergraduate, I did three political science classes and one economics unit. I am not a ‘punter’ or an expert in stratification. My sociological interests in political economy lean towards the ‘commodity as congealed labour’ principles laid out so elegantly in ‘Das Kapital’ and as a means to explain how globalization emerged. This is a personal post, driven by current events and my own position to them.

Through the political economic undergrad units, I gained a solid grounding in my Marxist concerns about social inequality and labour exploitation. The neoclassically orientated Microeconomics class showed me how removed from reality neoliberal theory is.  At first, I struggled with this unit and then, thorough grit and hard work, I gained Distinctions on the two exams, resulting in an overall high Pass. The other three units were much easier as they were sociological, rather than ‘dismal’ social sciences (a Microeconomics text book seriously called Economics ‘the dismal science’; something I laugh about to this day).

International Relations provided me global contexts and histories but attempted to explain why global inequality was, in fact, good policy. I sided with Wallerstein and other unorthodox political economists, agreeing that the rising tide of ‘global wealth’ clearly only lifted yachts. The other unit was concerned with Australia’s political economic history as both a social laboratory and a protected industrial entity that served British agricultural needs. It also gave a detailed examination of Australian poverty, poor houses and how bourgeois norms have always resulted in ‘invisible’ inequality. In this environment, Horne’s vitriolic ‘The Lucky Country’, which critiqued the vapid blue-eyed middle class urban Australian, only gave politicians a new warm fuzzy soundbite to silence the disgruntled community worker or chardonnay socialist in their academic ivory tower.

Since the budget, I have been actively avoiding news media. My usual routine of reading local then global news has been derailed by my fury over what is clearly the harshest and most inhumane political regime in Australian history. Abbott’s predecessors, Fraser and Howard, also fattened the rich and starved the poor. However, Abbott’s LNP and their foray into economic management is the worst by far. Now, I am forced to wonder: what of the regular Australian citizen?

In the nineties, the Howard era, my middle class family were punished by neoliberalism due to my younger brother battling five years of cancer. My nuclear family had been comfortable in the ‘breadwinner’ model previous to this, but as our ‘assets’ disappeared, so did our one income due to my father’s nervous breakdown as he attempted to juggle full-time work with caring for a seriously ill child. We watched in horror as cars and heirlooms were sold and the family home went under mortgage. I was 11 at the time, too young to contribute financially, but old enough to worry.

I now recognize that the neoliberal rule of social welfare only available to those who had liquidated all their sell-able assets is what caused my normal middle class family to sink into dire poverty. And now, with Abbott’s reign of horror, what will we now endure as a nation?

Right now, as a full-time PhD student on a scholarship, I am feeling the familiar sharp pain of worrying about making ends meet. A recent exacerbation of my chronic pain disease has necessitated visits to full-price specialists and new expensive medication. I have leaned hard on the first credit card I have ever had. My account is as bare as my fridge and cupboards:

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I am paid next Thursday and trying to work out how to live off what I have. Bitterly, I am wondering why I spent so much on coffee and lunches last week, why couldn’t I see the future? Note to Abbott et al: ordinary people do not have telepathic powers.

My medications and medical bills cost me a quarter of my fortnightly income. My specialist charges me $170 so he can put me on a surgery waiting list, ‘monitor my condition’ and prescribe painkillers. He drives a beautiful new Bentley with vanity plates and it sneers at me as I slink out of his practice, making a mad dash to Medicare to reclaim my measly, yet precious, $50. I spend $250 a fortnight on housing and try to squirrel away as much as I can to address utility bills and other costs. I am budgeted to the cent and I am only now realizing the utter absurdity of trying to live like this. Hopefully, an employment opportunity will ease the pressure but I am also aware of how paid work might affect my PhD…oh, what a double-bind!

In the media, the ruling elites tell me to ‘stop complaining’ and to compare myself to the world’s poorest people. The same individuals also inform me that student protests are undemocratic and notions like equality in childhood education are “pie in the sky”. Abbott’s dystopic vision of competitive federalism, winner-take-all individualism and no social safety net is the stuff of biting science fiction. I have always loved Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and Huxley’s scathing ‘Brave New World’. But, on this grey rainy Melbourne morning, these works chill me to the bone…and it is not just the temperature in my frugally heated drafty old house. It is because their harsh stories seem to be rapidly materialising before my eyes.

Huxley’s naive Miranda ironically cries “Oh Brave New World!” as the Savage (John) shows her what exists away from her sheltered island. Huxley’s world where the majority live is ugly, unrefined  – yet real, gritty, true. Even the sympathetic Bernard Marx, who anthropologically examines this space, embodies the bourgeois narcissism that permeates Huxley’s ‘utopia’ island. As with most critical science fiction, ‘Brave New World’ ends in an unsettling and Camusean existential peace for the protagonist yet little change in the grand order. Ultimately, the change the Savage sought became caricatured and in the final pages, the elite zealously participate in a vulgar drug-fueled sexual orgy around the Savage’s fall from grace. Suicide, thus, allows the Savage to reclaim his integrity and sense of self.

To be clear, I intend to liken Abbott’s vision of what Australia could be with an Orwellian order of some animals being more equal than others. The current elite live within blissful confines, blind to the struggle of the regular Australian, who has more claim to citizenry than the rulers, because the new rich physically reside off-shore in sheltered hedonism. The playgrounds of the rich are both geographically and ideologically alien to the masses, almost on another plane of reality. Piketty’s wonderful magnum opus seeks to challenge this order, yet the right-wing battleship of corporate media seeks to question his painstaking statistics and empirical arguments. Students and others protest the furthering of neoliberal brutality, yet are greeted with crude slurs in mainstream press.

My main question, however, is whether we can continue such a totalitarian regime under the title of ‘democracy’. Further to this, if money and politics are value-free, as we are repeatedly told, why is there an outpouring of hate and anger whenever the rich or politically powerful are critiqued by the public? Is this truly the ‘liberalism’ in which democratic ideals were built upon?

Thanks for reading my ramblings (and hopefully not laughing too hard at the material outcomes of my student poverty!). I would love to hear your thoughts about my post in the comments 🙂
















All Too Human…

So I am going to begin my first post with a depressing cliche: “I learned the truth at seventeen; that love was meant for beauty queens” (Janis Ian, At Seventeen).

Why begin this blog with a 1970s pop song that is heavy with the special brand of angst best known to teenage girls? Because, deep down, we all are battling our child selves…look at me, Mum, do you like my painting, Dad…you don’t answer because you are battling the hell inherent with caring for another child with a deadly illness? Well, that is OK, that is understandable…and my painting isn’t that good really, not to show to a professional illustrator…

Here, you can see my anxieties about why, a writer of almost twenty years, has never shared a blog with the world. I tried social media and it was for beauty queens – the overt attention whores with flocks of friends, family and admirers. I was never that girl and have plaintively begged the world for the wrong kind of attention all my life. Yeah, I am an over-sharer…in reality and everywhere else…and just recently, I have accepted this. As a writer, whether I was crafting a jingle for a milking technology company or writing an old man’s biography, I always shared myself between the lines. And as one who has kept a journal since 11, I know the release of sharing what wells inside. Only now do I realise that my feelings of alienation are not strange, individual or pathological.

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My venture into social science and philosophy gave me formal, respectable qualifications – not like my art school diplomas and writing degree that both employers and social norms scorned. From this, new opportunities emerged. My grades were rewarded with entry into Honours and first class Honours with entry into a PhD program with wonderful colleagues to assist me in creating an academic self. I felt authentic, fulfilled, enriched with life…but somehow, I was missing an inexplicable piece. I have found it. It was my own acceptance of my enormous and unbridled creativity. Since I was twenty, I suppressed it to become more employable, more practical, more of an adult…and this is what underlies many issues I continue to face in my life.

The exploration of creative social research methods, like Geertz’s ‘thick description’, auto-ethnography and other approaches are only beginning to gain mainstream respectability with the academy. However, my own acceptance of such methods has just been found. Supervisors and colleagues identified repression in my initial attempts at thesis outlines and plans. Like a patient with a crippling –  yet undiagnosed – disease, I sought their feedback hungrily. What was I doing wrong? What was wrong with me? Did I deserve my position in the academy? It felt so familiar, like my continual attempts to impress my parents and my other desperate attention seeking behaviors…

My fears that I did not fit in with the intellectually beautiful echoed my lifelong anxieties and exacerbated my obsessiveness. If I only worked harder! If I only was louder, more audacious! It is only within the last months that I found the dark frightening road that veers towards self-acceptance. It was with the assistance of some very special colleagues that I found the directions to this place and also, the important advice that nothing humans can do can be perfect. Life is cavernous, challenging, amazing, daunting, maudlin, fantastic and rich with contradictions. I can be both an existentialist who seizes life and pursues gaudy dreams…and a nihilist who sees only empty landscapes and dark motivations….

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It does not make sense.

But like the academic journey and the profession I hope to enter, it is not meant to.

Thank-you for sharing my thoughts…I would be honored to hear your reflections in the comments section.