“You know,” someone once said to me, “What really tells you they want you to be here?”
“What?” I asked, as we walked out of the Centre for Gender Studies, a rather drab building on the Downing Site of Cambridge University.
“If you have funding. I don’t want to offend your socialist principles, Chris, but let’s face it – if they want you and your research, they pay you for it.”
Snarky little bugger, that person, eh? Perhaps made more so by the fact we were both on the same masters course, but I was self funded through a loan and illicit work (illicit by virtue of the fact that Cambridge, in its infinite wisdom, prevents students from getting paid employment) and she was funded by one of the University’s most prestigious scholarships. I presume she had a lovely view from her high horse. Oddly, the way I remember the difference between us was the fact that we both smoked and both drank large quantities of caffeine. For her, this was a very large black coffee from Espresso Library (a coffee shop in Cambridge where hipsters go to, briefly, when they orgasm) and smoked fancy slim cigarettes from a London boutique. I, on the other hand, sipped from a battered flask filled with Sainsbury’s own brand instant coffee, and smoked roll ups with Drum tobacco, which, for the non-smokers out there, is a bit like trying to smoke your own pubic hair.
Her point, however, stuck in my mind, this year as I applied for a PhD. I applied to five exceptionally good Universities (Sussex, Leeds, Manchester, Oxford and Edinburgh). I received unconditional offers from all of them. I was told that my research was “original”, “timely,” and “could open up a new rich field within masculinities studies.” So, it is perhaps not boasting to say that I felt an immense sense of academic value. For all my considerable faults (egotism, pessimism, and a tendency to withdraw from people when I most needed them), I was at least damn clever. This feeling continued until the results of my scholarship applications came in. “We regret to inform you that..”, “Your project, while exceptionally interesting, was one of many fine applications we had to reject,”, “I am deeply sorry to tell you that…” until, in the end, I decided to go to Leeds because they were willing to offer me a pittance of cash.
(Leeds is also a damn good University, but that’s not my point here).
If my work was so good, why couldn’t anyone support it financially? I asked myself this time and time again, as I watched friends post ecstatic Facebook statuses about getting full scholarships. I have a good academic record; solid feedback on my masters; teaching experience; a grounding in the radical left that many researchers would kill for; and yet…And yet I knew, logically, that I was being silly, devaluing myself because I did not get funding. Successive governments have torn HE funding to pieces, and getting funded is as much about luck as it is about anything else. Yet I felt deflated; I pictured myself at a conference in the future, maybe after presenting a paper, and people asking me how I was funded, to which I’d say “mostly, myself” and then be greeted with sympathetic gazes. In my more pessimistic moments (which, sadly, are most of my moments) I began to see myself as an imposter. Did I even have the right to a PhD when those powers that be in academia didn’t see fit to give me financial support?
What was I even doing with my life?
Spend half a moment working out how to value something and you’ll inevitably end up using financial analogies, or the language of monetary commerce. In his series of short documentaries about debt, David Graeber reiterates that debt is much a moral concept as it is a concept of how much you owe someone else. It is considered immoral to not pay your debts, yet there is also a morality in forgiving debts (the original Lord’s Prayer, for instance, contains the words “Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven those who have debts to us” as opposed “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” One for the prosperity theologians to think about there). Thinking about debt means we also need to think about value, and what value we place on things, including ourselves. Valuing yourself is a fairly typical part of having a healthy mental attitude and caring for yourself. Yet I can’t help but shake the feeling that valuing yourself in an emotional sense can easily conflate with valuing yourself financially. Those of us who have that little something get the funds, and the rest of us suffer what they must, which I my case will be 40 odd hours of research a week, 10 hours of teaching, and 20 hours of part time work before I’ve even had time to remember if I’ve done my laundry. Perhaps it is foolish to think of one’s value that way, and so to my well funded friend (who I understand is now swanning around the Indian subcontinent, a white saviour in a sari), fuck you. You got under my skin in a way I really don’t like.