Posts Tagged ‘actor network theory’

A short while ago, I applied to do a PhD at the University of Cape Town. Yes, you read that right, I actually sat down, did some careful introspection and decided that I was equal to the task.  You see, where I come from, you are considered to be of very respectable stock if you have a title other than the standard mister or miss. I wanted to distinguish myself in society and this seemed like a good way to try and do it.  I guess this is true of most places.

I therefore set out to get myself a new title, already imagining what my business card would look like when I got through the program and started flaunting the credential.  In the back of my mind though, I did not believe that anyone would take my scribblings in answer to the interrogations about research questions, funding, etc. that you had to answer in the application process seriously. If I’m really honest with myself, I think I just wrote out the application because I had nothing better to do at the time.

Once the applications had all been completed and sent off, I settled back to wait happily in my normal routine of scouring the web for the mundane nuggets that I’ve become very skilled at ferreting out. I was very confident that I would never hear anything about the application again and it was just going to be yet another story that I would add to the ones that I normally use when trying to impress.

“I’ve applied to do a PhD at UCT you know” makes the perfect rejoinder to conversations about things like fluid mechanics that I have recently found myself in the middle of. It brings the conversation back from those heady levels to a place where you can comfortably bluff your way through by saying things like “I’m not comfortable with the traditional methodologies and tend to lean more toward the Actor-Network Theory” which you spent the morning memorising how to say.

A month or two later, however, I was surprised to receive a letter from the chap in charge of PhD applications at UCT. This must be the letter of regret, I remember thinking.  Anticipating the bad news I tore open the envelope and was shocked to discover that it was actually a request for more information about the research area and not the standard letter which usually ended with “we wish you the best in your future endeavors”.

My response, I must confess, was not immediate because I was going through a phase at the time and I had spent the morning repeatedly watching this very nice YouTube video about githeri and could not bring myself to focus on how I might contribute to the knowledge pool for a while after. Githeri, if you do not know it, is a luxurious blend of maize and beans that is the staple diet of the people of central Kenya and it is to this bane that I grew up big and strong. It had been a while since I had had some and a whimsical melancholy had descended on me rendering any serious thought impossible. I eventually did, however, get over my nostalgia and managed to craft together a response to the unanswered questions that had sat on my desk for a few weeks. An acknowledgement of receipt followed the dispatch and back to the web I went.

The date by which a response had been promised came and went without a further word from the venerable professor of screening and admissions but I continued using the fact that I’d actually applied to do a PhD as a social crutch and I imagined that it gained me respectability amongst my peers. “The activity theory is not all that it is cut out to be”, I would be heard injecting into conversations that I knew nothing about before promptly moving on as if in search of someone who could engage me in intellectual debate about it.

I would have quite happily gone on doing this but then I again entered another silly phase. This time it was the desire for feedback on anything and everything that I did or said. Prompted by this new and very strange urge, I decided to write to him and force him to send me the standard letter of regret to which I had already started formulating a scathing response demanding feedback.

Once again I was surprised that the “bugger-off” letter did not come immediately as expected and I even considered sending off the email again, sure that it might have escaped his notice or fallen foul of his spam filter. Surprise, once again, turned to shock when a response requesting a few further details was sent and this shock to incredulity when an acceptance was later offered. All this in the same morning.

They had the wrong chap was my first thought, but then they started sending me additional stuff that soon convinced me that they indeed thought that they had the right chap, but did not really know who they were dealing with.

A few days later and as the process continued, they had already started heading the letters with “Dear PhD Associate”, and the reality slowly started sinking in. So much so, that vanity soon took over and my CV for January 2012 was quickly updated with a bold “PhD Associate” under the education section. Yes, me, a PhD associate and with it even written in black and white on my CV to boot.

“I like the cut of your jib” I already imagined them saying when I introduced myself at the many high society  gatherings that I was sure to frequent as my social standing soared ever higher on the wings of my new title. I might even learn what all the theories that I had been flaunting about in the past few months were about, I remember thinking.

The bubble burst, as it was bound to, when I was later asked to expand on my research statement as a precursor to a two-week intensive induction programme that was to be conducted by a much revered professor being flown in all the way from west Africa to whip us into shape for what promised to be a grueling academic slog of at least three or four years.

“What you have done is not acceptable. It gives the impression that you are not ready to embark on PhD studies.” This was the opening statement from the Nigerian purveyor of knowledge that finally put paid to my ambitions of ever achieving that oh-so-very desirable pre-nominal.  His keen eye had sifted through all the stuff that I had not-so-meticulously put together and saw it for the formless jumble of words that it really was and with one sentence, he stopped that idle pursuit indefinitely. “If you don’t have the time or serious attitude for PhD studies, why enter the program now? You can wait until you are ready to put in the effort.”

I now have my sights set on a Knighthood. Where can I get an application form?


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