Posted in Academia

March for Science

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Did you join the March for Science last weekend? Blogger Nadya Karimasari shares her thought on this first-time event.

Some of my friends in Wageningen, like Suzy Brandon, Lea and Tabi, went to Amsterdam last weekend to join the March for Science. This event was a protest against Trump’s administration in the US that routinely shows a blatant disregard for science.

Looking back, I would like to scrutinise what kind of science I would wholeheartedly march for. Will I march for science? It depends. Just using the word ‘science’ is not specific enough for me, because there are awful, unethical and dangerous forms of science – and I do not mean the subversive type of dangerous, but the lethal type of dangerous. I will share my personal experience on this matter.

When I finished my master’s degree, I was asked to assist in research on the social-economic recovery of disaster victims in my hometown, where a mountain had just erupted. I was shocked when during my first meeting, the scientists of this research team – mostly economists – complained mercilessly about how stupid and lazy the disaster victims were. ‘They have a beggar mentality! They are too dumb to understand our intention to help them!’ said these economists.

According to them, this was the reason why their business plan to recover the economy was rejected by the community. My blood was boiling when I heard them loudly scorning, condescending and blaming the disaster victims. I wanted to pour lava into their filthy mouths and minds. And they said they were scientists.

In disbelief, I wonder what kind of science allows them to behave as such. How their label as scientists could let them get away with such an attitude that does not hold the slightest spark of empathy. What kind of science buries them in such ignorance of their own scientific flaws and limitations. What kind of science makes them perceive themselves as know-it-alls in their narrow-mindedness. What kind of science restricts them from comprehending that actually, the problem was their faulty business plan, and the community was too smart to let their economy be wrecked by another, not any less destructive disaster.

I wouldn’t want to march for such science.

Posted in Academia

Social Science @ WUR

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In the spirit of New Year’s celebration, blogger Nadya Karimasari looked back on what she thought Wageningen University and Research was and compared it with what she has experienced so far.

After completing my master’s degree in Den Haag, the Netherlands, I always wanted to come back, but I never thought that it would actually happen. And I never imagined that I would return as a PhD candidate at Wageningen University and Research. As an agricultural university, WUR is a famous place to study natural science, but it is not traditionally associated with social science.

That impression no longer lingered after I experienced first-hand what it’s like to study social science at WUR. I came to know that social science in Wageningen is famous with its distinct ‘Wageningen style’ or ‘flavour’: a strong tradition of actor-oriented approach, pioneered by (Em.) Professor Norman Long. I am still trying to understand what it entails, especially from the numerous social research it brought about, but of course, WUR hosted several other approaches too. I’ve also started to recognized that some of the literature that I’ve read for my master’s syllabus were written by great social scientists based at WUR.

Although the grade of social science at WUR is lower than that of natural science, it does not matter to me. What matters more is the interaction that WUR stimulates, not only between social scientists, but also between social and natural scientists. This interrelation and multidisciplinarity are what WUR is currently striving for.

It is also funny how,­ whenever I bump into someone, it seems like that person is always doing some form of fascinating research that relates to my own research in various ways. But maybe it has something to do with the fact that my research topic is agricultural and environmental issues, a topic that is the specialisation of WUR. Sometimes, I am still in awe and disbelief when I casually meet legendary social scientists at the bike rack, the photocopier, the coffee machine, the lift, or in the canteen. I feel incredibly lucky to be in Wageningen because it gives me the opportunity to learn as much as possible from the people I admire academically.

I came to WUR at the right time, when a lot of exciting events were taking place. I’ve met important yet humble social scientists from around the world. ‘Emerging’ is the word I would use to describe social science at WUR, not ‘hip and happening’. It’s great to be part of the process in which social science at WUR is still trying to find its shape and identity. It’s the sign that social science is developing and growing, not stagnant nor declining.

Posted in Academia

Masochistic PhD

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‘Why are most PhD candidates unhappy?’ blogger Nadya Karimasari was asked by a student. In today’s column, Nadya reflects on the culture in academia that unintentionally encourages unhappiness.

‘The ability to constructively deal with criticism is one of the most important traits for a scientist,’ said professor Jan-Willem van Groenigen during a general PhD course last month. Being critical about oneself is a good sign for a PhD candidate. It means she is aware that her knowledge and capability are limited. This great quality would encourage her to be open-minded, stay curious and learn deep and wide. Jokingly, Jan-Willem gave an example of one of his best students who was almost masochistic in the sense that when she didn’t receive enough criticism on her paper, she thought the reviewers had not read it well enough. ‘However, I am not like that and neither are most people,’ he added.

Unfortunately, sometimes unintentionally, there is a culture in academia in which professors discourage PhD candidates who do not seem to be unhappy enough. It is as if something is wrong when the PhD candidate is not agonizing over how lost, confused, and incapable he is. Perhaps it is a pedagogical approach to remind PhD candidates to be humble. But it suggests that you distrust and underestimate the ability of the PhD candidate to judge his own research capability in a balanced and proportional way. When taken too far, it contributes to bringing PhD candidates to the brink of mental depression. It also normalizes the general aura of unhappiness among PhD candidates.

Of course, Jan-Willem was not advocating for academic masochism to PhD candidates. Jan-Willem himself is a very positive and exuberant person. But it is quite widespread among professors and peers to give students the impression that a good PhD candidate is very self-critical and treats themselves as if undeserving of any good comment on their work.

Other professors practice daily criticism on their students in order to train them to perform convincingly. Being able to have a ‘convincing performance’ is a useful skill to survive in academia. By treating PhD candidates in a way that encourages her to doubt herself, it is expected that she could develop the reflex to push back and be convincing.

‘I never read her comment on my paper before I sleep, because I know I wouldn’t be able to sleep afterwards. I would rather sleep and read it in the morning,’ said one of my PhD friends about her professor.

Peter Tamas, a professor of qualitative research methodology, mentioned the common personality traits of PhD candidates and scientists in general, in which they tend to be internally insecure and are in constant need for external validation. PhD candidates who are prone to identity crisis would look up to an image of the good PhD candidate. It is a pity that the image provided is often of a somewhat masochistic PhD.

Posted in Readings

Methodology Notes: Fieldwork and Reality Construction

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This month I am following a Master course, “Fieldwork in Conflict and Post-Conflict Setting” with Gemma van der Haar and Peter Tamas. It is very good and gives me a lot of imagination to handle the practice and methodological thinking of doing fieldwork. I would recommend to do this course especially if you already had a fieldwork in mind. In each session, we discuss the delicate and intricate dilemmas based on experiences of other researchers, which is why it open my mind in a good direction. This is perhaps the only Master class (with big credits) that I will be taking in the course of my PhD and I am happy that it is very interactive, not a one way lecture loaded with cognitive material, but it deals with our emotions etc. The point is to put the study materials into a dialogue with our own thinking and research.

Today we study about what are we able to research? We encountered the “social construction of reality” line of thought that shows us how it is perhaps not enough to study hard facts. My own interpretation of today’s class is we are able to study three “layers” of research object: the first is the action or practice, the second is what people say about those action (what they think is knowledge or knowledge claim), and the third (the constructivist approach) is the “structures that enables some societal knowledge to be possible”, it means doing a historical study or an “archaeology” of the knowledge (claim). The implication of our discussion is the question of whether or not is it important that the content of the knowledge claims is true in the sense that it objectively tells the factual reality? Or does it matter more to see what are the frames within which such claims are possible? Does it matter so much that what people say has to be the real truth, or does it matter more to see how their claim, regardless of its “objective accuracy”, implicates their action?

I am a very beginner on this, it seems like the course is persuading me to study the third layer and not taking the first layer for granted. But I am not sure if I would be able to study the third layer, it seems very difficult. So for now, for my own research I would still stick with the first layer, at least initially, you can call me a positivist, it is okay for me. I would still need to have the concrete, material, practices and action, that is something I can research. Then only I will think about the next layers. And I think also each layers are interactive and constitutive of each other. As we discussed in class, it is a process (between the three layers), one does not exclude the other. Constructivist is studying the process of how knowledge comes into being, including within ourselves. We also problematizes how “representation” of realities are often seen as different and separated from “the reality” itself. But it is not separated, it has a dynamic relation. People act based on the representation of realities. “Representation is what informs action, not the brute reality but what they think is real,” said my lecturer.

The second thing that I will be following this week is a workshop on how to write an abstract. It is going to be more informal and intimate, I guess. I will let you know how it goes. Another thing that I am doing this month until December is a reading group on Marx’s Kapital. I am happy to do it together with friends and also a lecturer, Kees Jansen. It is a biweekly reading group and this week we are reading the third chapter about money. I am not doing this because it is trendy or cool to read Marx, but because the labour theory of value is very core in my theoretical framework. But I am also simultaneously struggling to learn the methods and how to do the research in practice. How to study labour relationship? Should I train some households to keep a diary of activities like what Michael Dove did in his research? Well, I am still in the search of different options.

Posted in Academia

Life after Deadline

‘Life in academia is a life of catching up,’ said a professor of blogger Nadya Karimasari, which is why people in academia have to get used to the feeling of being behind.

As a first year PhD candidate, I was often told ‘you still have plenty of time!’ But I am wondering: why has it never been my case?

It seems like PhD work has been intense from the very start. My schedule is comprised of deadline after deadline. I tried hard to work efficiently and meet all the deadlines, but sometimes I just couldn’t make it. Having a young child with only two days at day care that sometimes gets sick and needs extra care, and a husband who is also writing his dissertation, made me absolutely aware that I have to be protective of my time. I have to figure out ways to be smart in using my time, but sometimes I am still feeling behind of my schedule.

Other PhD candidates told me that we all have to get used to the feeling of being behind.

I am not alone in this. Other PhD candidates told me that we all have to get used to the feeling of being behind. Not only being behind on schedule, but also being behind on the current developments in our academic field.

One of my professors in the Sociology of Development and Change chair group, Rob Fletcher, said ‘life in academia is a life of catching up.’ It instantly makes me feel less alone in this. He said he always has so many things to do. Things will only get done when he makes them into a priority, which means a lot of other things could never be done. ‘I have been working on my next book for years and it’s still not done yet.’

Life in academia is a life of catching up

Another professor at the University of Amsterdam, Laurens Bakker, told me how much he loves cooking, ‘because cooking has a start and a finish, and we can eat our result at the end of it. While in academia, the work never ends. You thought you’ve finish a paper, but you have to write another paper, and then your previous paper needs revision, you need to do more research, more reading, things completely change, and your work … it’s never finished!’

At this point, I wonder how would life be after deadlines. Maybe it’s going to be beautiful, but it could also be boring.

featured photo: aesthudent