The Long 2020 — in Review

A look back at the past year... and a half.

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I got vaccinated yesterday. Which marks, I suppose, a kind of official end to 2020. At least as it applies to me. Maybe it’s more like a birthday: something which everyone can appreciate as a joyous occasion for you, but ultimately one in which your private sense of gratification far outweighs what anyone else can feel on your behalf.

I’ve been out of 2020—the deep pit of despair version of 2020—for a while now. But still, I like milestones. I want a concrete signal that I’ve done the thing that I’ve set out to do, and that I can set my sights somewhere further down the road. Certainly the calendar end of 2020 didn’t bring that sense of accomplishment. England recommitted itself to lockdown on Boxing Day. In a kind of winter-long hibernation, no restaurants were permitted to open beyond take-away and delivery services. I didn’t have a meaningful engagement in the outside world between Christmas and Easter. I am become Couch, wearer of sweatpants.

And then, it was spring. The outside world existed not just in some theoretical sense, but as a manifestation which actually availed itself of empirical investigation. But it was a wet spring. In fact, it was the wettest May on record in England. Which is a bit like retailing the exact number of atoms in the universe or claiming that this French person is the most pompously assured of their nation’s cultural importance. It is to cite a magnitude of intangible quantity so large as to be functional unimaginable.

There was one day, though—it was a Tuesday, I remember that; perhaps in March?—when it was actually nice. This inspired, so it seemed, every household in Oxford to divest itself of any prepubescent youths which may have resided there in the previous months and distribute them liberally and without any apparent logic across every available open space. The out of doors was alive with the kind of delight that can only be brought on by the emergence of a sun which the local populace had begun to believe may have forsaken them. Young men shouldered case-fulls of beer down the street like yoked oxen. Women (girls, really) made scientifically significant advances in determining the minimal amount of clothing it was possible to put on one’s body and still be allowed to participate in Western society. There was a sense that fun, that ancient state of mind, recalled only dimly through the mists of time, was once again possible. And then, the next day, it was dark once more.

So you can imagine my delight when, on eve of June, it became warm. It seemed—as if this was unprecedented in humanity’s climatological records—that it might actually stay that way. It was not only permissible to go outside. It was desirable.

It was in this experimental and clumsy gambit into well-being that Her Majesty’s Government announced its intention to vaccinate all denizens who had been endowed with the good sense to be born in the early 1990s. The slots opened on Tuesday. I got my vaccination on Thursday. Now it’s Friday, and I find myself at a milestone in search of something to reflect upon. It’s a good question. What have I been up to in the small eternity that has been The Long 2020?

Well, glad you asked.

By far the most shocking development, which will confound anyone with privileged insight into how I actually spend my time, is that they might actually give me a PhD. I’m on track to graduate from Oxford this time next year. Ha ha.

The PhD has, for my entire adult life, taken on a kind of other-worldly promise. I’ve viewed it in the way a Christian might view heaven—as a state that I will most assuredly get to eventually, but not necessarily one that I should expect to attain in the very near future nor, realistically, while I remain in this physical form. It was always something I was going to do. Actually having to do it feels a bit weird, a bit conniving even.

Lucky for me, the English system asks mercifully little from its charges before bestowing them with the title of DPhil (that, for those of you in the peasant class, is what Oxford calls its PhD-equivalent degree). The basic timeline is to show up at the start of the program, having described an agenda of research which only vaguely resembles something one has the intention to do. A year and a half in, a pair of program representatives ask how it’s going. At the end of three years, a slightly larger committee asks how it went. If the answer is, at least, “pretty well,” they give you the degree.

Which isn’t to say that it’s gone uniformly well so far. I spent the first six months of my program studiously making progress on things that had nothing to do with my research—starting a podcast, drinking with friends—as well as reveling in the glory of future experiments I could do. This stage at least had the veneer of progress, as it was at least metaphysically plausible that I could convert all that potential into actual achievement. Then there was the next half-year, beginning around March 2020. I don’t feel it necessary to review just how little I accomplished during that period. But suffice to say that it comes so profoundly close to approximating non-existence that it may well be of interest to astrophysicists, say, those specializing in black holes.

In September, having returned to Oxford after an extended furlough back home in Seattle, I got back to work. Not on anything spectacular. But on the most achievable, straight-ahead project my advisor and I had agreed upon doing in the before-times. It was something. But a lumbering, the-last-10-percent-of-the-project-takes-50-percent-of-the-time something. It was progress, but without a sense of urgency.

Then came my transfer of status. This is the middle “how’s it going?” milestone. The answer going in, I thought, was “good enough.” But my assessors disagreed. In fact, they said, I was not doing nearly well enough. There were, in the indirect circumlocutions of the English, “concerns.” They failed me.

And God bless them for it. It took me all of about three hours of wallowing in dejection and embarrassment to realize they were right. I had not been doing well enough. But lo! There was still time to turn things around. I had a path to victory. I just needed to make a brisk jog down it, rather than a lethargic slog. It was really the first external feedback I had received throughout my first year and a half of the program. Afterward, I sat down to chart out that path to victory and to devote myself to it in earnest. There is nothing so reinvigorating as good old-fashioned dramatic failure.

For the most part, I’m on track. I succeeded on my second attempt of the transfer of status, three months later. As of last week, I completed data collection and analysis for “Phase 1” of my PhD research—which will be the majority of my thesis. This next phase, the more scientifically provocative phase, will take me into next year. I’ve got three chapters of material from Phase 1. Phase 2 will be another chapter or two. Slap an introduction and conclusion on there. Bada-bing, bada-boom. That’s my thesis.

The key shift in mindset on this journey was, I believe, my decision to stop trying to be a good graduate student and instead to accept an appropriate level of mediocrity. Graduate school (and academia in general) lures you in by asking only for your brain. Once irredeemably committed to the process, you find out what in fact it actually requires is your soul. To be a good graduate student is to allow The Academy to take it.

This is an argument I developed at length in a piece called “Actually Against Academia.” In short, it says: look, you’re not going to get that ideal academic job you may have initially envisioned. The best case scenario, in which you get everything you’ve been told to want, is that you end up with a lab in an A1 research university, where you spend 70% of your time filling out grants, 50% answering emails, another 30% instructing undergraduates, 20% of your time advising your graduate students (never, mind you, as adequately as you would like), and about -150% doing actual research. Don’t play within the system. Transcend it.

Anyway, I could complain about all that in much greater detail, and in a future post I’m sure I will. But for now the upshot of all of that is that I’ve been doing just enough graduate school to earn the degree. And it looks like I will. So what, then, is all this other stuff I’ve been up to?

Well, mostly it’s been watching TV. I sincerely believe I have watched more television over the past year than any other human being has at any point ever in the history of our species. I may in fact have watched more TV than there were actual minutes that transpired, as I not infrequently would stream live sports on my laptop as a supplement to my primary entertainment on the main screen. But besides that, what has filled in the cracks between televisory experiences is writing and podcasting.

If I’m transparent with you—God help those who take anything I say at face value—my plan for the “what else?” besides academia has always been writing. I came into this program with the goal of getting a book deal by the end of it. The PhD was going to be my “platform” for establishing the credibility to secure a book contract. I’ve always known I want to write books as a part of my career. This seems like a reasonable way to do it. Or rather seemed. Not that this isn’t a way to do it, but just that I’m no longer sure there is a “reasonable” one.

Anyway, for many years now, I’ve been working toward that goal. Writing book proposals. Querying agents. It’s a whole process. Last May, I finally got to the point of convincing an agent to represent me. We sent off a round of proposals to editors at the major publishing houses. That was the closest I’ve ever been. But the idea still wasn’t quite there. No contract.

And so I spent six months developing another book idea. This one was a kind of intellectual history, a retelling of the history of cognitive science in a way that accounts for something I think we’ve overlooked. Really, putting that proposal together (about 40,000 words, mostly in the sample chapters) was the only writing I did for that period (as opposed to, say, writing newsletters). And having gotten that far, allowed myself to take a step back and evaluate it, I realized that the project was much more academic than initially I wanted it to be. It wasn’t a good candidate for the major trade publishers. It would have been better suited for an academic press. I’d like to think it could’ve gotten picked up by a good one. But, as we’ve established, I don’t want to be an academic. I don’t feel that it’s my burden to rewrite the history of cognitive science. So what if cognitive scientists have misinterpreted their own history? Fuck ‘em.

At any rate, it would’ve taken me years to get that project right. And as with all truly academic pursuits, the number of people who would have found the end result interesting in the sixes or sevens. Maybe the eights. Eight and a half tops.

So I scrapped that project. (Though these endeavors do have a way of insinuating themselves back into your life, after you’ve had enough space to put your finger on what you were actually trying to do and how best to do it.) And now I’m onto a new one. One that, as ever, I feel is truly exciting, truly a thing that I can do well that someone else might see value in. This current project is about psychology and travel. It is about what psychological science can tell us about how to travel better. It is about what travel can tell us about nuances and idiosyncrasies of our own inner world. The proposal is currently in the works. I look forward to keeping you updated on it.

All of which is to say that I currently feel in a transitionary state. The history-of-ideas book was, in a way, really the last thread tying to me to the academic world. For many years now, I’ve known that it doesn’t care about me. For the first time, I really feel like I no longer care about it.

Which is confusing for me, because my podcast has, until now, been about talking to academics about the “personal side” of their “intellectual journey.” Is that really what I still want to do? I’ve been at it for almost a couple years now. I’ve had the freedom to explore, to try stuff without having to worry about whether it will pay off. But now I’m a year from graduating. I’ll have to make something of myself. I have to think about what I need to do now in order to have something worthwhile to do then.

So I don’t know. Writing. Podcasting. They’ll still be in the picture. I’m excited to see what form they take. Let’s see how this new book proposal goes. If I finally get the book contract I’ve been after, then I can start to build my auxiliary projects around that. If not, then I’ll have to take a more bottom-up approach. It’ll hurt if this new proposal gets rejected. But then again, nothing inspires like failure.

The other thing I’ve been up to recently is learning Georgian. Or at least taking Georgian classes. The extent to which those have allowed me to attain anything resembling comprehension or fluent production of the Georgian language is sketchy. Next week is the final week of the academic years. I will have taken a year’s worth of courses in Georgian. Which is kind of funny. That’s exactly one year’s more worth of courses than I’ve had to take for psychology.

I also got a dog. Her name’s Zora. She’s the one in the basket.

So, yeah. If you’ve read this far, thanks. It’s nice to have someone to unload all this on. Human contact has been in short supply recently. I’m still getting used to it again. I’m bullish about getting back out there into the world, about having The Long 2020 behind me. I’ll hopefully keep this channel alive and to begin to say things again in the hope of discovering that I actually have something worth saying.

Anyway. That’s enough about me.

What’ve you been up to?