Epitome of nerdiness

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I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.

After all, one of my favorite ‘games’ as a kid was to ‘play classroom’ where I would be the teacher bestowing knowledge and wisdom to my 6-7 year old peers in the playground. Going through my journals from early on, I seem to have believed becoming an English teacher/professor was my calling. There were also all these English tutoring/camps I thoroughly enjoyed, amidst occasional tears of frustration because these lovely kids couldn’t get the simple performance of the Beatles’ ‘Hello and Goodbye’ right. Above all, people I have come to admire and look up to in real life have mostly been teachers and professors, ranging from my favorite teacher Tom at the English Centre in middle-high school, the Peace Corps Volunteers who gladly indulged our teenage presence on a weekly basis, to professors in English Literature and at GSIS at university. (Although, considering the number of years I have spent studying/being at school, this should not be too unexpected).

Yet I can’t help but being pleasantly surprised at my eagerness and enthusiasm this semester. Truth be told, I was indeed very nervous to teach undergraduate students (*gasp* not kids anymore!!!) and I could definitely feel and hear my voice shake that first Friday at 9 am in my first class. I forgot half of the things I wanted to say in my second class at 10 am and was still a bit careful in my third and final class of the day at 12 pm.

But as I read articles and papers and textbooks by authors I have read over and over for almost 10 years now (!), it’s like I’m reading them for the first time under a new light, because I get to be the one explaining them and sharing my own interpretation of things based on everything I have learned so far. While most of my students (yes, MY students!) have just begun to carefully and hesitantly tread the vast and tumultuous waters of IR, just getting to know the existence of theories like Realism, Liberalism and Constructivism, I cannot help but feel like I have a responsibility and duty to tell them what took me years to learn. I know I’m going to impose a huge bias on my part, but how can you not want to share all these exciting things? Things like Constructivism is cool, Feminist IR theories even cooler, IR is not just about politicians making a difference but also about individuals like Brandon from HONY (Humans of New York) who help you change your perspective on the very misunderstood and misjudged continent that is Africa.

I read Alexander Wendt and marvel at the numerous possibilities students nowadays could have to deconstruct their own world. I skim Samuel Huntington and imagine the different ways to criticize and point out the (very) few relevant points he still has. I devour J.Ann Tickner and admire the vast spectrum of IR she has to offer us. IR is cool, man. There, I’ve said it.

I go over my emails three, four times before sending them out, put words in bold and italic and colors to make them more fun and say things like “Next week’s reading looks very exciting, Tickner and Wendt are personal favorites of mine ;)”. Personal favorites? I never knew the day would come that I would use those words to describe IR-related scholarly articles. Could I be any nerdier?

I go over the short bio/introduction they had as their first assignment and the constant cynicism I seem to have nowadays simply melts away as I inhale their excitement, their hopes and dreams, their promise of changing the world, and their goal to make the world a better place.

Yes, I was like that too, once, when I was a freshman at university.

But what I remember most about my experience with IR as a freshman and throughout undergrad is, disappointment. Disappointment that all we got to learn was theories that in no way seemed to explain what was going on in the ‘real world’, like the war in Iraq, or boring details of agreements and wars before, during, and after WWI. Although I do know now that these are the necessary steps one needs to take to understand and study IR (and these kids will certainly have to face the same music as well), I want my classes to give them something I didn’t have when I was their age.

I want them to know that IR is not just about theories and history. I want them to see that theories are impressive and intriguing tools they can use and manipulate to understand the ‘real world out there’ and find their own solutions to the problems. I want them to feel, always feel, that yes, they can, and should, make the world a better place.

I’m just fooling myself, aren’t I?

Made by moi! This is what I do with my 'free' time...

Made by moi!
This is what I do with my ‘free’ time…

Bye Bye G1 (aka my humble guideline to other PhD students)

That’s right. I survived one year of grad school. Yay me.
As always, I wish I had found more time to record in details the ups and downs of my second semester, which was so much better than my first, and so much more leisurely as well. Unfortunately, with the little self-discipline that I have, I chose to spend the little free time I had to scout for new TV shows and binge-watch them (Tip to fellow TV fans out there: Justified, Orphan Black and Flashpoint. You won’t regret it) instead of writing down the multifaceted life as a grad student striving for excellence without, unfortunately, the necessary potential. Haha self-deprecating comments are always the best.

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As usual, I had so many “I need to write this right now!” things/moments…
Every class in Islam and Politics could have been a blog post.
The sinking of the Sewol ferry in Korea and the utter lack of professionalism and all the dirty political plays the government was throwing out daily as pathetic attempts were worthy of multiple enraging posts.
The annoying people I had to face, often daily, would have drained my allotted share of sarcasm and patience.
I stopped myself, in time, from writing a controversial post on the right to abortion because I was so annoyed by all these “It’s not a choice, it’s a life” signs held by Catholics outside the Planned Parenthood building. I considered going in the building just to piss them off a couple of times.

Oh well. Life goes on.

Lessons learned as I finish my first year:
1. Work matters, but people often matter more. I have formed wonderful friendships I had not even dared imagined a year ago. It is a truly beautiful and inspiring feeling to know that I can still meet new people and feel a genuine connection with them. Behind the laughter, drinks, meals, sighs, frustration, confessions we have shared, lies something we all long for, despite knowing fully well that those of us who will have it are the lucky ones. And I was one of the lucky ones.
And then you also have your ‘old’ friends who never miss a moment to remind you that “Out of sight, out of mind” is not true when it comes to lasting friendships. Whether it’s a tag on a FB picture you’re not actually in because they know that you’re there in spirit, or a simple text/message that is just not about asking ‘how are you’, but to share a funny Youtube video you would have definitely watched together and laughed; friends know how to warm your heart.
Friends and family keep you sane and human, so make sure to have a couple of them around.

2. Sometimes, unfortunately, people don’t matter AT ALL. Here comes my anti-social side, so beware. Sometimes, they make you feel that work is the only thing that matters because that’s one thing you know you can do better by yourself, all alone. People’s never-ending complaints about the littlest things in life can completely ruin the jolly day you were having. I don’t know if it’s a university thing, or a grad-student thing, or, simply, a human thing, but I am constantly reminded of how ‘busy’ everyone is. The first person to unleash those “OMG I only slept 4 hours yesterday” or “OMG I have three 20-page papers to finish” is also the one to unleash the never-ending competition of “Who has the worst life”.

Why don't people get this very simple fact of life?

Why don’t people get this very simple fact of life?

I always try not to talk about all the things I have to do (or at least, I think I do) because one, it’s nobody else’s business but mine, two, it’s my fucking job, and three, complaining about a 20-page paper won’t turn the paper into a 10-page one or extend the deadline. Unfortunately, most of the time, it seems that I’m the only one who thinks that way. Why doesn’t anyone realize it their job as students involves all this and that’s they way it is? I mean, you have food, somewhere to sleep, family or friends you can count on, isn’t that enough? Why this constant need to be validated by others that you are so, oh so busy? Isn’t knowing that you are spending your time doing your job enough? Do you really have to say “Oh, I only slept 3 hours and a half” to the person who just told you he/she slept 4 hours?
People feel so compelled to let the whole universe know that they’re busy that I think we are witnessing the development of a new modern disease. Really busy people don’t have the time or energy to advertise they’re busy.
Fortunately, most of these people aren’t usually your ‘friends’. Learn to feign concern and understanding, and then, go enjoy the nice weather, the sun, a good cup of coffee, a good TV show, a fun Youtube video. A marble pound loaf from Starbucks usually does the trick for me 😉

Talking about annoying people takes so much energy and passion out of me I almost feel I can’t go on with this list. (Maybe it’s time I get myself something sweet hehe)

3. No matter how much you know, there is ALWAYS something to learn, and there will ALWAYS be somebody who knows more than you. Be humble. Hopefully, sometimes, and at some time, you will be that someone who knows more for someone else.

4. There is ALWAYS room for improvement. Even if it’s making sure you don’t have typos in your paper. The same goes for your professors; the faster you know that your professors are not perfect, the less hurtful and disappointing it will be. That doesn’t mean that some professors cannot remain awesome.

5. Self-discipline is a necessary survival kit for grad students. Help is good, but if you’re confident enough to think that your achievements and successes are on you, then so are your failures and shortcomings.

6. Finding your field of expertise is fucking hard. You want something that is both interesting, exciting and that can somehow contribute to universal knowledge. Yeah, it’s hard. You’re expected not only to absorb knowledge but also produce your own. I know, it’s hard.

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7. You will never hear enough of depressing comments and advice as a PhD student. How difficult and almost impossible it is to get a job, and I’m not even talking about a tenure-track job. How depressing and exhausting it is to look for jobs. How all these ‘post-doc positions’, ‘adjunct positions’, ‘visiting assistant professor’, ‘non-tenure track’, ‘community college teaching’ are just pretty words to cover the nasty reality of basically, YOUR failure of not getting a tenure-track professor position at a ‘decent’ university. Ha ha… As a PhD student, you need to take those words seriously, as in seriously consider that YOU will not be the exception that you think you are. But at the same time, you also need a filter to get them out of your system if you want to remain sane. Find your balance. Remind yourself why you’re doing this. And if you can’t… well, maybe it’s not meant to be.

8. I know PhD students are supposed to have their lives revolve around their studies, but (and believe me, I never once imagined in my life I would ever say this) a good physical work out can make everything better. Or any other hobby that doesn’t require too much of your brain and grey cells. I have never been, in my life, an athletic person. I was always one of those kids that got picked up last in PE class and whose pathetic efforts to somehow help the team only got laughed at. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still far from being an athletic person, I don’t think I will ever be. I will still scream and run away if a ball gets thrown at me. I will probably drop a ball while trying to throw it at someone – this happened once, but in my defense, the ball got caught in my headphones.
But as much as I used to hate any kind of physical work out, one of the (many) good things life in Boston has provided me is the constant presence of runners, anywhere and under any weather. To the point that it made me wonder if I was missing something by not doing something apparently EVERYONE else is doing.
It’s a great feeling, something that I almost never get when writing papers or digging into books I will forget about the minute I put them down, to know that I can now run 5 miles when I could barely run 1 last year.

My first 5-mile run in May :)

My first 5-mile run in May 🙂

You only get one life peeps, whether it’s as a miserable PhD student whose idea of a good meal is free meal at a conference or as a miserable investment banker who never has to worry about money. Let’s enjoy it.

Why I hate Studying

Yes. Big surprise, I hate Studying sometimes. Actually, I hate Studying more often than not. Ironically, I have come to hate Studying at a time when I need to enjoy it the most. I’ve come to recognize and realize this sentiment more and more recently and have decided I am in a “It’s complicated” relationship with Studying.

We had something good going on, you know, until I made the foolish decision to push it a bit further, without realizing the consequences. Honestly, I think I’ve been having this feeling for quite some time, ever since it introduced me to Feminism, but I guess I was trying to ignore it, hoping it would go away, that things would get back to normal after a while. But I don’t know. I think I’ve put myself in a destructive relationship that I can’t get out of.  I do hope we’ll sort things out soon though. I do. I still hope.

But you see, Studying is forcing me to ask questions I didn’t even realize needed to be asked, and it refuses to give me clear answers. While I try to figure out right from wrong, it just sits there, probably concocting the next enigma and puzzle it’s going to haunt me with. Sometimes, it directs me to a certain direction, and when I’m trying to familiarize myself with it, it smiles and points to a different direction, often quite the opposite and I just sit there, confused and helpless. I want to ask, Is there ever a right or wrong answer? And all I get is a shrug, a sympathetic smile.

A few days ago, it introduced me, first to Samantha Power, and just when I was about to get her know better and perhaps be friends with her, because I did like her, it brought along another friend, Mahmood Mamdani. Mamdani brought one of his kids, “Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror” and I’m not sure  I liked it, or what it was trying to do to my relationship with Power.

Mamdani is very critical about the international ‘buzz’ around the Darfur issue, and mainly the Save Darfur Coalition that worked hard on the lobbying for humanitarian intervention in Darfur because of the ‘genocide’ that was going on. To him, the international community’s stubborn decision to give the name ‘genocide’ to what was NOT a genocide represents: an effort to redeem itself from the colossal mistake it made in Rwanda, an excuse for a military intervention without understanding the context of the conflict, a reincarnation of Western colonialism and imperialism accompanied with the binary distinction of evil versus good, another facet of the anti-Muslim discourse, a pathetic proof of our stupid tendency to simplify complex issues and forego the historical legacy, a pet project, among many others, of self-righteous celebrities and privileged people with the savior complex; well, you get the idea.

Although my heart is still with Power and the need (and now this word sounds totally wrong too – I’m being ripped off of my vocabulary as well) for the ‘international community’ to take interest in atrocities around the world and somehow contribute to the lessening of individual suffering, I cannot help but nod alongside Mamdani’s arguments. Of course, it’s not that Mamdani is denying the massacre of civilians in Darfur or the severity of the situation. His critique is rather directed at how the international community uses these issues as a way to brandish their so-called morally high values without really trying to understand the history and background that led to these conflicts, which inevitably results in the prescription of the wrong ‘cure’.

Darfur and other conflicts in Africa are often used as ‘shows’ to reassure the non-African bourgeoisie that we are still human, that despite our inability to actually be in the field ‘to help’ and despite our real current focus on the next Hunger Games movie, we can still feel compassion towards starving African children and feel good about ourselves for feeling that compassion. We can be proud to have donated money to charity groups and NGOs without so much knowing about what is really going on, or without even finding out the details of these organizations, because, well, George Clooney and Angelina Jolie told us to, and how could they possibly be wrong?

George Clooney in Darfur

George Clooney with the ‘poor innocent’ children in Sudan

Angelina Jolie's Charity Work3

So now, after having had a 30-dollar meal of oysters and other delicacies, I can sleep at night in peace, with my 5-dollar contribution that will most certainly feed five children in Africa.

The world was so much simpler before Studying.

I felt so good about myself after donating money to the Kony 2012 project (which was a disaster in many ways, I later learned).

I would have shed a few tears at the pictures of starving children and admired them for keeping their smiles despite all their hardship! all the while enjoying some singing by U2 and Mary J. Blige.

I would have considered the fact that Ben Affleck talked about the Democratic Republic of Congo at the Senate another good reason for me to like and admire him (and fangirl every time I saw him with Jennifer Garner). I would have applauded him for his effort to let the world know that there are other things going on beside the Oscars or internet cats (as much as I like both of them). But now I have to ask myself, Does he really know what he’s talking about? What does his organization do exactly? Where do the funds he gathers really go? Is he really genuine? Will his efforts do more good than harm? Has he even considered the political implications and ramifications of this conflict? Is he aware that his argument for increasing “US leadership” in the area can vaguely sound neo-colonialist and imperialist?

I still love him though...

I still love him though…

And then, I think about how we all like simple things. Reading about the very complex history of Sudan… I’m sorry but who has time for that? Is there nothing we can genuinely do, without any other ulterior motives, to really ‘make the world a better place’ and prevent another genocide if -God forbid- we ever put in such situation? Or is that too pretentious of us? Is the international political apparatus, with the UN, the ICC, and others, ever actually useful? Or are they and will they always remain pawns of the more powerful states?

Gawd, I hate Studying sometimes.

And I also hate it for making me love the fact I wrote about it in terms of ‘relationship’.

PS: I am aware this mildly sounds like a #humblebrag and maybe also a #firstworldproblem. Oh well, I sometimes lack humility and live in the ‘first world’. I’m only human.

Words and pictures – a genocide

Pictures are worth a thousand words, is the popular saying, and today, with the vast array of videos, web-based material and what not, none of which I know how to use unfortunately, that could not be truer. Who would want to spend 30 minutes of their precious time reading a paper when a 10-minute, well-edited video could efficiently and more interestingly, deliver just about the same message?

Yet there are some things that cannot be conveyed through images and interviews, there are some things that do need the power of words and well-written inspiring sentences for us to fully grasp the intensity and severity of the issues at hand. And more importantly, words do have the ability to move us beyond images.

The article “Bystanders to Genocide” by Samantha Power is the very first (academic) article/paper, I can say, without hesitation, that made me cry. It will probably be the last. (Indeed the path towards a PhD is filled with surprises – who the hell cries reading an assignment for class?)

(She later developed this article into a 600-page book, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide”, which I hope to read some day)

In my defense, Power’s account of the world’s blatant disinterest and of a few individuals’ sincere efforts and frustration as they saw these efforts disappear into thin air after hitting the walls of “national interests” without so much leaving an echo, is quite powerful. Maybe it was her purpose all along, to instill every one of us with a pinch of guilt for not understanding, not doing anything, not being interested in what happened to be one of the most horrible tragedies of the 20th Century.

Reading about a genocide involves many elements, each one more heart-breaking than the other: its development, the meticulous planning of it, the stories of individuals with names, faces, families and friends disappearing under other individuals’ gunshot, machete, finger, the annihilation of humanity crushed under the excuse of “national interest”, the lack of care, the drowning efforts of a few individuals who did want to ‘make a difference’…

It is sad that in the face of the worst crimes humanity can commit, Realist theories remain unabated in the world of international relations and politics; and human lives are calculated in terms of how much resource/capital it would cost a country.

Aside from Romeo Dallaire and a few other individuals, the Rwandan genocide leaves us with only bleak sides of humanity, including the unchanged stereotypes and general ignorance we have towards Africa and our reluctance to engage in global action (because governments often naturally presume military intervention is the only option) despite sufficient information. And two decades later, it doesn’t seem we have made much progress.

And for those to whom pictures still convey a stronger message:

http://www.hrw.org/video/2009/02/13/confronting-evil-genocide-rwanda-featuring-alison-des-forges

 

Second semester

I don’t know how my first semester here ended, but it did. Was it satisfactory? Overwhelming? Challenging? Boring? Disappointing? Up to my expectations?

Frankly, all of the above, and to be even more frank, I didn’t have much time to really digest what was going on and to find the right description. My goal was to survive day by day and finish most of the readings I was assigned to. Some were eye-opening and superb, while I did seriously wonder why on earth I was reading some others. Just like everything else in life, pretty much.

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… or a Lijphart reading about the differences between political systems

After a short winter break (too short compared to the two-month winter break in Korea), I’m back for my second semester and into my third week already a month has already gone by. Maybe it’s just the beginning, or maybe I’ve become more phd-tuned, but this semester is revealing itself to be much better. For once, I love all of my classes (okay, the word ‘love’ might be a bit too strong for some), I like my schedule, and somehow I don’t have as much reading as last semester (which still seems terrifying and I feel like there’s something I’m missing). At least I can finish about 95% of the readings I have planned for every week. My schedule also allows me to attend the Monday lunch seminars at the African Studies Center, which I was not able to last semester. Learning about the challenges, changes and future of most African countries is depressing more often than not, but also fascinating, if this word is appropriate to describe it. To be surrounded by all these professors studying and researching about diverse parts of African history, politics, economics and culture is also quite invigorating and it is my small hope and dream that one day I too, will be able to join the ‘cool gang’ of ‘Africanists’ (and maybe diversify the “old white men” club I’m seeing here, like everywhere else…)

I am also taking a class titled “Islam and Politics”, which I love just as much as my “Human Rights in Africa” class (taught by none other than my beloved Professor L. :D). I realize that there really is nothing that I know about Islam in general. Somehow, having grown up in Mauritania and having spent the next ten years in Korea, where I was probably the most knowledgeable person among my peers about Islam and Africa, I had come to believe, I guess, in some pretentious way, that I actually did know something in this field. Well, among professors and students who actually do study it here, I realize how pompous and mistaken that was on my part.

And in a way, I’ve come to ‘blame’ (not really, but kinda sorta) people who simply ‘assumed’ I knew something about Africa and Islam just because I grew up there. I mean, I was a teenager. Much of the growing up in Mauritania had to do with reciting lyrics to BSB, N’Sync and Westlife songs, giggling about boys with my girlfriends, trying to do ‘cool’ things like going to the beach with my friends after school and nearly drowning, studying, laughing at teachers. I wasn’t trying to understand the gender dynamics of Muslim women as seen in Mauritania or distinguish the linguistics of all the dialects spoken there. Unless that’s what teenagers usually do… then, okay, my bad.

As always, I digress every time I find the tiniest opportunity to complain. Well, the point being, I am glad that two decades later, I am finally learning something about where I spent 15 significant years of my life.

The class in Political Theory is also quite awesome, if I may say so. The reading may be dense, but short, and the tiny number of people in that class shapes a certain coziness, all the while being intellectually stimulating. It’s also quite intriguing to see how much I actually enjoy philosophy, when, back in high school, I thought it was the lamest subject because it was so ‘out there’. I thought philosophers were people refusing to get out of the material comforts of their home and environment all the while pretending to bear all the emotional and intellectual burdens of the world. In a way, yes, it’s true. I’m getting paid to study, having my three meals everyday (and sometimes more), with a decent place to stay, and trying to debate what it means to be just and the higher moral grounds we as human beings should be aspiring to. And yes, it’s true that when you’re trying to tend to your family’s everyday needs without a decent job and with a mortgage to pay, trying to figure out what Aristotle meant in his books and how his thoughts can be applied or interpreted today may not be among your priorities.

Digital-Aristotle-Thoughts-on-the-Future-of-Education-by-CGPGrey

 

And yet, somehow, I persist in naively believing that people are more than beings that need to be fed and clothed. Yes, those are basic needs that certainly should be met, but an intellectual pursuit on some level should also be conducted in parallel, for those primary needs to be fulfilled in a better and fairer way. Or maybe I’ve finally reached a point where I’m blindly believing in my illusions.

So, all in all, my semester is going great. 🙂 – is the point of all this blabbering.

Also, it's quite awesome I can understand this.

Also, it’s quite awesome I can understand this.

PhD: How to be a successful extroverted nerd

What does a PhD mean? 

A door I should probably not open, or that I should have opened way before I actually applied for one and came to do one. My first motivation when I decided I wanted to go for a PhD was simply and purely, my love of studying. Yes, I know it sounds extremely nerdy, even for a phd student, or too vague, but the simplest answer is often the most obvious. There is nothing more exciting and invigorating than reading a paper about a topic of your interest, or discovering new areas of potential research, or comparing different countries/cultures/populations/systems.

Like many others I guess, my idea of a phd program was spending most of my time in my special spot and reading on my own, taking notes, going to classes, engaging in debates that made me feel smart and stupid at the same time with other fellow students and brilliant professors.

But a PhD program, just like any “Job” (yes, no matter how much others don’t want to buy it or accept it, it IS a ‘real‘ job), involves more than just yourself and your own, personal work. Worse, you have to spend as much time ‘networking‘ and ‘out in the real world‘ as any other ‘real job‘ and still manage to find time on your own to come up with your creative idea that apparently generations of much smarter people and scholars before you somehow managed to miss. Considering it’s mostly nerds that go on studying for years and years, it is quite surprising how much of extroversion is needed from the academia.

Don’t mistake me, I do enjoy going out, meeting new people (to a certain extent) and ‘having fun’ in general. But when it comes to ‘selling/marketing myself‘, engaging into small talk with people to whom I feel obligated to look and sound smart, all the while looking and sounding totally confident, outgoing and easygoing, pretending to be genuinely interested in someone’s area of research I just have no fucking clue about, it’s just… EXHAUSTING.

Discussing topics outside my field  (source: http://whatshouldwecallgradschool.tumblr.com/page/10)

Discussing topics outside my field
(source: http://whatshouldwecallgradschool.tumblr.com/page/10)

The idea of finding myself alone at a reception, even for the few seconds you ‘shift from one group to another’, or of having nothing to talk about with the one person I somehow found myself with from the beginning, even for seconds, is daunting. Have you ever stopped yourself from going to get some food at the buffet when your stomach is clearly sending you signals and when the cheese and dip have never looked more inviting, just because you were genuinely scared of finding ‘your’ group scattered to different places when you came back with your food? And then, god forbid, you would have to eat by yourself while appearing completely at ease with yourself, when you’re simply dying inside, wishing somebody would come and talk to you and save you from misery.

Even though I may be all smiles (which I usually am), these are the thoughts and fears going through my head all the time in these situations. Two hours end up feeling like an eternity and I’m emotionally and physically exhausted until the next day.

But I know that’s what I have to do. I have to let my petty existence on this earth and at this university be known to other students and professors. I somehow have to come up with a clear research idea I am forced to ‘pitch‘ every time I’m in such a setting. One positive side of that is that I end up saying aloud my very vague research idea to so many people with as much ‘smart bullshit’ as I can muster that I actually start believing in it, and above all, in its feasibility. I have to go to professors and ‘talk’ to them, tell them the kind of research I would like to do in an intelligent manner when really, all I want to tell them is how awesome I think they are, and that’s about it, so could they please allow me to do any work for them, pretty please?

Engaging a professor (source: http://academicats.tumblr.com)

Engaging a professor
(source: http://academicats.tumblr.com)

And these are the good ones. Most of the time, they’re just professors I am plainly scared of, but that I have to talk to because they’re ‘important’ and to let them know I’m still here, hello, and yes, I’m dead serious about this whole thing (which I am), so please tell me how to live my life.

I mean, yes, it all makes sense in a way. I study because in some weird narcissistic and egomaniac way, I believe my ‘research’ and my thesis, which only a handful of people on this earth will end up reading, will contribute to making this world a bit better. So although I would like to spend most of my time being inspired on my own, I have to tell other people, especially those who will buy into the lie I tell myself and tell them, so that they can fund me to save the world.  And this is all before I actually write my dissertation and go into the job market, which is apparently worse than the Hunger Games.

And of course, this has to be done all the while I convince myself and others that really, when I have humanity’s stake in my hand, how could I possibly think about getting married and having a family of my own? That would be so selfish, psht.

The human element

One of the things I regret not properly ‘documenting’ throughout this semester is how my classes went.

On the one hand, they were classes like any other I took in undergrad and grad school before, boring at times, entertaining at some other, with tons of reading I wouldn’t always complete on time. Sometimes I was facebooking more than paying attention to the lecture, and sometimes I was simply at loss and wondering how and when on earth knowing how to do matrix calculations by hand, for instance, would ever come in handy in my life. So it was quite a relief, for the lack of a better word, to know that classes, even at the PhD level, and even in the States, were not exceptionally different. There were times I thought I had actually invested myself more into these classes at GSIS, especially preparing for group presentations. I honestly missed those presentations. Spending hours with my friends and peers brain-storming (and I often had the best co-presenters in every sense of the word), trying to figure out a compromise between the time limit we had and our passionate academic minds, laughing at the crazy ideas, listening to others during class. Good times, they were.

On the other hand, there were true moments of revelation, to the risk of sounding cliche. I once had a whole week of excitement and giddiness because I had gone through Feminism theory in IR, reading Fiona Robinson, J. Ann Tickner and Annick T.R. Wibben, and I was simply in love with them and their ideas, and Feminism in general. And everything in the world seemed to make sense.

But above all, it was my class in “Politics and Government in Contemporary Africa” that was the most inspiring one of them all, week by week.Through this class, I was able to realize the prejudices about Africa I didn’t even know I had in the first place.  The fact that it was taught by an amazing professor was the cherry on top of the cake. The class had everything a student could ask for: organization, knowledge, interesting lecture and discussions, and, above all, a contagious inspiration and passion from the professor. Looking back, I had a professor I absolutely fell in love with, in every academic sense possible, every time I went to school, and I think it was that connection (one-sided, I admit) that helped me get going. Feeling, first-hand, the passion and dedication of the professor is the best source of motivation for a student (and the fact that they are directed at an actually interesting subject also helps). This first semester at BU was no exception. If I thought I could not respect Professor L. more than I did throughout the whole semester, the little ‘story’ he left us with on the last day proved me wrong. I hope it’s not something too personal (there were about 20 of us who listened to it, so I wouldn’t think so) and that I can tell it again here in my own words.

“A friend of mine was a teacher at a local school in a small village in Rwanda when the genocide broke out. Her being Tutsi, she was caught during an attempted escape and was to be shot there and then. One of the Hutu men present thought it was a better idea to ‘take her home with him’ and she was kept in his house for months, where she was raped, by him and others. When she was finally let go, she returned to her village and found out that all her family, close and extended, a total of about 300 people, had been killed and only two distant younger cousins had survived. She took them with her and went to South Africa where she built a new life for herself, until the day came she had to go back to her village for some sort of registration. Scared to go back and face her past, she asked me to accompany her, and we went there, after an hour hike in the hills. When we went up there, a woman came running to us, recognizing her, and told her she had kept some of the things from her family and from her house, kitchen utensils and others, in the hopes she would come back. My friend told her she did not need these things anymore, that she had a new life, and told the woman to keep them for herself, and to look after the land her family had once owned. On our way down, she turned to me and said “You know, her sons are among the ones that killed my family… But what can I do? What use is there for me to hold grudge against her? I have my life now and I’m content.” – And to me, my friend and her words, that’s what Africa represents. When scholars and so-called experts are talking about numbers and about the little development and progress the continent has had and is having, I see my friend and how she overcame it all. Africa is not just a number, whether that number be the rise in GDP or the number of deaths. It’s people like her, individuals, who learn to live day by day and overcome whatever misery and misfortune has happened to them.”

How do you not cry when you hear this story on your last day of class? Well, you try hard not to, because you would just appear foolish… Fortunately, even for the cry-baby that I am, I was able to hold back my tears. But this is one of the ‘last class’ I will always remember, for teaching me, among others, that Political Science, and Social Science in general, is actually about ‘individuals’. We are so often told that numbers and statistics, concrete data in general, are what matters, what is real, that we forget that at the center of every “science” there is the human element. We study and research because we believe what we do will somehow contribute to the improvement of human life, our life. It’s not about finding the right numbers that will help us publish papers in renowned journals… even if, unfortunately, you kinda need to do that as well. It’s about understanding people, individuals, and feeling compassion and empathy, and using them to connect the invisible dots that are not there to separate us, but to bring us together.

It may all sound idealistic and utopian, and ‘un-realistic’, but I don’t know, I often think ‘realism’ is overrated anyways.