Thursday, 24 January 2019

The Disintegration of Tertiary Relations

Hey all! Heh, time for my apparently once-monthly update! Well, it's been quite an eventful couple of weeks indeed. Firstly, I'm back in Perth, having returned about 2+ weeks ago. Flew in on Tuesday the 8th and got right into PhD mode, checking out lots of research books, doing as much reading as I could and making copious notes. And then I sent my supervisor Helena an email updating her on my progress, as well as explaining why I found her approach challenging and different to Jenny's.

Cut to: Monday, when my scholarship was officially revoked, my money stopped, my PhD candidacy officially withdrawn. It's a long, long story, but I think the text below, which I have copied and pasted in full from an email I sent my co-supervisors and the Dean of Graduate Research, tells it all. Johannes/Jos and Leo are my co-supervisors; Helena was my primary supervisor; Jenny was my original primary supervisor and supportive mentor; David is another PhD supervisor who, sadly, was undergoing health issues; Ingrid is the Dean of GR. Enjoy this lengthy piece, and pardon my language (which I eventually emailed them a one-liner apology about). Suffice it to say that nobody from the university has bothered replying, which, apparently, is typical.

Dear Johannes and Leo,

I don't wish to come in to discuss any further about this as I am currently in the midst of packing and leaving, and I no longer have a car.

Suffice it to say I am disappointed by this turn of events. When you first proposed Helena to be my principal supervisor, I actually asked you if we could consider David Moody instead, since Helena is not a practitioner, whereas my understanding of my approach to a PhD would be that it would be practice-based. (This was before we knew David was undergoing health issues.) You said you thought Helena would be the better choice. When I met with Helena in July last year, she told me I had to get rid of the autoethnographic methodology and figure out something new. She also told me, straight away, that there was no shame in quitting.

As of July last year, I had already planned to throw in the towel because it didn't seem like I had any real direction with PhD, no real topic to tackle, no creative project that I could create that could be backed up by a thesis. This was after my failure to effectively write about my musical The Edge/mental health as part of an autoethnographic approach, and my failure to get ethics clearance because by this stage Jenny had already exited the picture and I wasn't being effectively supported in my supervision. The autoethnographic route had seemed like a good methodology, and I had made copious amounts of personal notes and journalling and reflections; did quite a lot of reading; but again, I hadn't done any formal thesis writing because the more I remained "in my head" reflecting on my process and, later on, my mental health, the more discomfited I felt about the whole thing - did I really want to write about this? Would anybody really want to read any of this??? So it ended up being unhealthy and wrong for me.

In July when Helena said I needed to refigure the PhD, I was discouraged and thought I would quit, going so far as to make all the inquiries into what I needed to do to withdraw. Then the [REAL-LIFE EVENT, ON WHICH I WOULD BASE NEW MUSICAL IDEA] happened, and I thought about creating a musical about that topic - and when I spoke to PhD friends/staff about it, they said, "It's a shame you're quitting because wouldn't that make a fascinating PhD topic?" The notion of truth-telling - reenacting real-life events in a non-realistic medium such as musical theatre; questioning "authenticity" and accuracy; defining "documentary musical theatre" which doesn't formally exist as a genre and has not been written about as a PhD thesis, was tremendously exciting for me. FINALLY - a topic I could sink my teeth into!

I met Helena in September to propose this new topic, and while she liked the idea, she began to tell me shit like "it's not about musical theatre", "you have to forget musical theatre theory", "you need to link it to something bigger". And so I was confused once again - why did I have to do this? Why did I have to think about how this project would be a way of exploring "ethics" or "social media and empathy"? WHY WASN'T IDENTIFYING THE GAP IN RESEARCH, THAT THERE HAS BEEN NO PHD-LEVEL WRITING ON VERBATIM/ TESTIMONY/ DOCUMENTARY IN MUSICAL THEATRE, ENOUGH? After all, my colleagues were writing about more "superficial" topics like "the role of lyrics in musical theatre", "the role of dance in musical theatre", "science fiction in theatre" -- why did my thesis have to discount/disregard musical theatre and look at some bigger picture that I had no interest in exploring?? OH, because that's Helena's understanding and approach to a PhD. She's a theorist. She's not a practitioner. She wasn't right for me. 

And that fucked things up, because suddenly I had to wrap my head around the idea that, after 2.5 years of being told that it was about musical theatre, and that my PhD would be practice-led and draw on my expertise as a composer, I'm being told that it's not. And so suddenly I was tasked with coming up with some bullshit research question about "something bigger" when I already proposed what I, and several other PhD colleagues (not students, but STAFF of the university as well), thought was a solid question to start with: How do you translate a real-life event effectively to the non-realistic, disruptive musical theatre medium? It is a topic that hasn't been explored as a PhD. It's a gap in research. But that wasn't fucking good enough for Helena. Even when the three of us met to discuss it, I remember both of you - Leo and Jos - being enthusiastic about the idea and talking about "truth", and Helena would contradict you and say we had to look beyond that. The fact that a principal supervisor was contradicting co-supervisors already set off red flags - but I chose to ignore it, thinking you guys are the experts, you must be right.

The non-PhD project I had to work on at the end of last year became a distraction, true, but I firmly believe that if we had been able to agree on my exploring documentary theatre as my thesis topic instead of some cockamamie "bigger theoretical framework" that effectively rendered musical theatre nonexistent, I would have been able to handle both at once. I would have delved into the Phd readings and writing on documentary theatre/musical theatre, and preliminary creative work on the [REAL-LIFE EVENT] with gusto and enthusiasm. Instead, I was left confused and stressed out by Helena's demands, and this affected my non-PhD project, and both suffered. 

Hence the 3-month leave of absence I took - to buy myself more time to finish my non-PhD project and to further try to understand what Helena wanted. I checked out over 20 books from the library in this period - on Ethics, on Tragedy, on Social Media and New Technologies, on various topics that were "the bigger picture", ignoring books on theatre and musical theatre and performance because apparently that wasn't what Helena wanted my PhD to be. I made copious notes and readings in the months of November and December, and by the time I came back to Perth just two weeks ago, I was still trying to figure out what this research question would be that would satisfy Helena, not that would satisfy me as the researcher. Hence my recent  email about the readings I had done, ending with my explanation of why this was difficult for me. I thought  that by demonstrating where I was with the readings, my supervisors would be able to provide assistance and guidance into helping me mould the research question more concretely. I also thought I would provide some context to why things were moving so goddamn slowly - especially when the clock was ticking on my scholarship - hence my honest explanation about why I found Helena's approach challenging.

Can you imagine how furious I was when Helena chose not to address any of the readings but instead said I should look for a new supervisor? How quickly she washed her hands of me, when I'd worked hard over the past couple of months to satisfy her requirements, and put myself through the stress of trying to figure out what the hell she wanted over the past six months? It seems to me that "Nick Choo has become too difficult to deal with, so fuck it" seems to be her (and your) response. And that was highly disappointing, and made me lose respect for her (as much as my Public Relations responses seemed to say otherwise).

I had emailed David  to update him on all this. David, as a practitioner, sympathised and said he would come back to uni at the end of this month and speak to Ingrid and work out a plan. But he said the university had forbid him from taking on new supervisions because of his health, "but there might be loopholes here. Don't lose hope" was his response. He didn't seem to think my topic of the Phd was, as you put it, "impossible". He wanted to support me and help me achieve as much as I could in the remaining time frame, which would be 7 months + 6 months extension. That's still a year remaining that I could have delved wholeheartedly into the Boys in the Cave/documentary musical theatre topic, accomplished as much as I could, and then see where I was at since the scholarship would have run out. I have zero distractions. I was ready to devote 200% of my time and energy doing this, which is something I'd not done before. But then you guys told me to withdraw.

Telling me that "achieving a phd in the time frame remaining is an impossibility" is not support. Indeed, once Jenny retired, the School of Arts/University has been unable to provide me with adequate supervisory support. Why wasn't there a system in place to make sure a suitable supervisor could be identified upon Jenny's retirement? Why did it take 6 months after Jenny officially left (after she'd stayed for longer than she'd intended) for Helena to come on board, during which time I and my Phd colleagues were left floundering with no primary supervision? Why isn't the School of Arts taking measures to fill the lack of adequate staff who are qualified to supervise? 

ALSO - why was it OK for Helena to tell me to look for a new supervisor just because I had questioned her approach, without providing any specifics as to what I could do next, without providing recommendations? What sort of fucking "support" is that? And why the hell would you think it appropriate to tell a PhD candidate to withdraw because it's "impossible"??

The real shame here is not my failure to do any thesis writing in 2.5 years. I recognise that. I own that. I struggled - with not being accustomed to academia after more than a decade of not engaging with it; of being alone and isolated; of being subject to depression; of being challenged by distractions; of not finding the right topic and the right methodology. No, the real shame here is the University and School of Art's failure to be able to provide adequate supervisory support once my initial principal supervisor left. The School of Arts does not have enough people on staff who are qualified to supervise. You have a staff member who is undergoing health woes. So you have to nominate people whose approach do not gel with what the candidate wishes to explore - because there's really no other choice. Nobody has talked to me about whether supervision from outside the university could've been an option - someone who is passionate and whose expertise lies in musical theatre. The real shame here is how my enthusiasm and excitement for a research topic was effectively dampened, and my ambition in accomplishing as much as I could in the remaining timeframe of 7+6 months was shot down with the directive that I should withdraw. It seems that the lesson here is that "if it seems undoable, don't do it. Don't even bloody try."

Well, good news. As of yesterday, I have withdrawn as a Phd candidate. I have deleted every single bit of Phd-related writing - personal reflections, notes and the like - absolutely nothing remains, because as of today I have zero interest in pursuing this further. I have returned all my research books. They have cut off my money, and I am due to leave in under 30 days.

Thank you. Thank you for your exemplary support. I no longer wish to have any further discussion on this.

Wishing you all the best for 2019 and beyond.

And that's how I left it. I've begun packing up and selling my stuff (today, I sold the big dining table, so now there's a gaping hole in the middle of the dining room). Housemate Bren was initially very unhappy about all these developments to the extent that it got a bit heated between us today, but we've since reconciled and are back on good terms: best to leave on a happy note and not a bad one, especially when I really do value our friendship and adore the guy. I'm not entirely unhappy about the way things went down; I think to some degree, I'm happy and relieved that the decision was effectively made for me.

So I'm leaving Perth on 4th February morning, and that will be the end of my Aussie adventures (at least for the foreseeable future). No regrets! Well. Maybe some, but I think there has been a lot of growth experiences, and though it didn't end the way I'd anticipated, I like to believe I'm all the better for it. Only time will tell, I guess.

I'll come back soon (fingers crossed) with more updates.... probably when I'm back home. Until then!

Tuesday, 1 January 2019


Happy New Year, everybody!!!

A quiet New Year's for me, which is all well and good. More updates to come!