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Nikki Kuper reflects on her honours year in anthropology

16 June, 2010

Nikki Kuper was one of our fantastic honours students in 2009.  She did extensive research on anthropological debates around the Human Terrain System and what it means for the ways that anthropologists think about ethics.  Bits of her work on this topic have been published here on Culture Matters, include an often-consulted annotated bibliography of publications on the Human Terrain System and similar anthropology-military-intelligence initiatives.

Now, non-Australians may not realize how the degree system here works, so let me briefly explain this.  While bachelor degrees in North America take 4 years to complete, Australians can get their BA in only 3 years.  The fourth honours year is optional, and usually the only students who take it are the best and the brightest, and those who are considering going on to do a PhD or other higher degree.  In Macquarie’s Anthropology Department, the honours year involves an intensive weekly seminar to read and discuss anthropological theory and ethnography and one independent research project.  It’s an amazing chance to learn first-hand about ethnographic research methods and write a thesis, thus gaining experience towards the future PhD.  But it can also be a harrowing experience to go from a highly regimented system of classes to a year of completely independent research and writing — not just writing a few 3000- or 5000-word essays for class, but taking everything you are learning and wrapping it up into one coherent, 20,000-word thesis.

Now that Nikki has finished her honours degree, she is off working in a remote Aboriginal community in the Northern Territories where, she tells me, the quiet and the community spirit and being close to the land are all good for the soul.  (She doesn’t say it, but I wonder if getting away from uni for a spell is also good for the soul?!)  But because she’s the kind of person who always wants to give back, Nikki has been kind enough to reflect on her honours year in anthropology and write some words of advice for how to get through it. Below is her account.

_____________________________

A month out from the new, new deadline for my thesis and I sat fretting on my back porch in a bubble of stress, numb to the beautiful sunset casting an orange glow on the gum trees. I had calculated and re-calculated how many marks I needed to get the only acceptable result (in my mind): first class honours. I was nervous, indeed petrified that if I did not get this mark, the last two years of abstemious behaviour, hours of research, reflective thought and writing would all have been fruitless. This thought circled around my head intermittently overwhelming my mind rendering me paralysed to any productive or positive thought for the next few days.

But I could not ignore how much my research skills had developed, all that I had learnt and all the positive experiences I had along the way. The hours of research, reflective thought and writing had paid themselves in dividends in ways that I had not foreseen when I decided to complete my honours in anthropology. I had thrown a pebble into a pond by undertaking honours and I was pleasantly surprised by the ripple effect it created.

The purpose of this little ditty is to share some reflections on my honours year; the perks and the pitfalls, the things I would change and the things I would do again with pleasure. I offer it in sympathy and as advice to other students stuck in their own ‘stress bubbles’ or who are just beginning their own projects.

As I see it there are 7 deadly sins when undertaking extensive research of this kind. They’re not mortal sins or even characteristic of immoral behaviour but when committed they are liable to deleteriously affect the outcomes of ones work. They include:

  1. Procrastinating: say no to pointless cleaning and facebook
  2. Overreaching and Overcomplicating: pick your battles. If it doesn’t add anything, isn’t necessary or requires a lot of effort with little gain to extending your ‘thesis’ then consider whether your time is better invested on other aspects of the research and writing.
  3. Under consulting: Establish a clear, critical and open dialogue with your adviser and other experts in the field in order to best learn from their opinions and insight.
  4. Losing sight of the question at hand: in line with sin # 2 make sure you go back to the core question/s that you are seeking to answer.
  5. Under researching.
  6. Underestimating time frames: writing, editing, and getting in touch with research participants takes a long time. Make sure that you create and stick to a timeline in which you are realistic about how long each step of the process will take, and don’t presume you can do it in a rush.
  7. Overestimating and underestimating your abilities.

We know of all these sins before we embark on research; after all we have already written far too many thousands of words throughout our university lives, moped to friends and had friends whinge to us about making the same mistakes, but when we (or maybe it’s just me!?) get truly involved, sleep deprived passionate and personal about an assignment, I can’t help but attach feelings of pride, conviction and unbridled hope to what I am doing and how I am doing it. For me this resulted in under consulting because I was too proud to show my adviser anything that was less than exceptional, overextending the field of research convinced that it was all related, re-writing things again and again to compensate for my lack of faith in my abilities and continuing to work night and day for weeks despite all of the above on the strength of my hope (which turned into knowing) that everything would be ok excusing me from looking at why things weren’t going as well as what they could have been. My point, therefore, is that while we may have the best intention to avoid being ‘sinful’ we sometimes fall unknowingly and unwittingly into any one or number of “sins.”

So what does this mean- will I perpetually commit the same mistakes because of the emotions that come along with committing myself to a project and a particular outcome so strongly? I don’t think so. Over time I learnt that by identifying why I was doing something correctly or incorrectly, as the case may be, I could better look at the situation rationally and assess it more objectively.  I realised that what mattered was the final product and for that I sometimes needed to put my pride aside, my fears away and my convictions under a microscope. I needed to take the time to breathe and reassess the situation every morning and continue to have faith that it would get done.

You inevitably make an emotional investment in your work.  The trick, I think, is to make that emotional investment work for rather than against you. Use the passion to inspire others and keep yourself motivated; use your pride to seek help rather than dismiss it and your fears to kick start rather than stunt action. Moreover, consider this: when will you have as much support and resources behind you to improve your research and writing skills? Push yourself to learn relevant new methods and extend your intellectual understanding of things. Most of all have a little faith- you’ve gotten this far. Break the task down and take the time to celebrate all the small successes along the way. Be proud of how far you have come. Taking this simple step will make the task more manageable and enjoyable.

On the flip side there were also many wonders in my thesis-consumed world:

  1. Being able to interview and engage in conversations with anthropologists across the globe that not only had a strong interest in my area of research but also had a lot to teach me about the world of anthropology, applied anthropology and academia.
  2. My reading of anthropological theory changed as I began to experience, beyond just reading the difficulties and inadequacies of anthropological writing so clearly illustrated in Writing Culture. Because I was better able to see the limitations of my own work I was better prepared to read others works critically.
  3. It also humbled me because I finally realised how large the body of knowledge for our field really is.
  4. I was able to contribute back to the field I had fed from for so long.

When I started my honours year, I wanted to not just get the mark, I wanted to meet people within the anthropological community, learn more about what the discipline of anthropology was all about (having only done my first units late in my degree), and investigate an area of research where I thought I would later like to see myself placed (the mitigation of violent conflicts). The topic that I chose, the HTS debates within the anthropological community, and the methodology I employed (interviews and surveys) ensured that I was able to achieve the goals for my honours which I had initially laid out. Sitting on my back porch that evening I had forgotten about these goals. When planning your research I think it is important to consider what exactly it is you want to get from your honours years beyond it being a stepping stone to somewhere else or a confirmation of exemplary grades. This is because it is an opportunity to study something, of your own choosing, in depth. In doing so honours has the potential to open your eyes and open doors in so many other, often unanticipated ways.

I wondered more than once whether it would have been more prudent to jump straight into a masters as they seem to have more prestige in terms of employment opportunities. But, it was a very rewarding year for me, I grew as a person and as a researcher, I established good links within the anthropological community and learnt a lot about how I can continue to improve my writing and research skills. Undertaking honours should therefore not be solely motivated by employment purposes but because you want to study something else in greater depth.

I wish every student reading this the best of luck and the best of experiences for their research.

Nikki

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 26 June, 2010 11:39 am

    I just wanted to thank you for this article. I’m about to commence my Honours year in 2012 and am therefore trying to get myself as prepared as possible so as not to waste any time. This article gives me a lot to think about, and also a lot of motivation and inspiration.

    Thanks🙂

  2. Michele Marshall permalink
    28 June, 2010 10:28 am

    Hey Nikki – great read and motivation. I am doing a 2 years, part time, Master of Education (Research) degree. I am only in the 1st semaester of the 1st year though! I was feeling a bit down and out last week and my dearest cousin sent me this. I can relate to much of what you have written, especially the cleaning and face book comment. But I have re-grouped my thoughts, and came back tot he real reasons I want to do this research – to learn how to research to help others in the future. Good luck with your future study and work.

  3. 30 June, 2010 2:59 am

    I’d like to add my thanks to Nikki/Lisa for posting on this. Your thoughts, Nikki, really took me back to my own time doing Honours. I could certainly recognise the uncertainty and anxieties, but also the intense satisfaction the Honours year brings.

    At the same time, your points aren’t necessarily specific to Honours; these are perennial issues that face us as we do research and writing. Procrastination and the other “deadly sins” you have listed are things that I think most of us face on a regular basis and in some ways are an integral part of writing. It’s helpful to identify these pitfalls, but I think it’s also worthwhile realising that you probably won’t always avoid them. In fact, I think that some of the “sins” might also be virtues to some degree, or under some circumstances. For example, losing sight of the question at hand. It’s of course nice to have a concrete sense of what you’re doing and the question your asking. At the same time I think a certain amount of uncertainty about just what “the question” is belongs to anthropological research. Sometimes, having a too-concrete sense of what the research is about can lead to excluding important insights. One of the things fieldwork taught me is that you can’t always be in control of things. Sometimes you need to allow yourself to go with the flow and see where things lead you. Of course at some point you need to make decisions about what belongs and what doesn’t, but there are other times when it’s good to keep things fuzzy.

    Likewise with writing. As much as we try to discipline ourselves and rationalize the writing process — both necessary pursuits if you want to get anything done — there is still a certain amount of mystery to “the process”. Some might find that an overly mystifying thing to say, but I think it’s true that there are so many drives, passions and unconscious processes bound up with writing that we have to admit we’re not completely in control. Who knows? Maybe chewing over things while you vacuum the apartment yet again actually helps you move forward in some hard-to-define sense.

  4. 12 July, 2010 3:00 pm

    Just a little comedy relief for those hard at work on their PHD’s..!

    Professor I M Upitty signed off from the daily grind of endless discussion groups, countless working lunches and headed off in his Audi roadster to the airport for a rush trip into the field research part of His huge departments responsibilities. He was being pressured by the incumbent government’s budget restraints committee to actually come up with some positive actions in response to their massive financial contribution to His work. After a brief stop off at the Aero Ritz Bar and Grill to fortify himself for the hard yards which lay ahead, he boarded the private jet service flight to the remote location where he would have to walk all the way to the waiting helicopter. Just the thought it all was giving him a massive migraine, so he popped maybe one to many Vallium and managed to pass out for most of the gruelling three hour journey.

    On arrival, the prearranged team of co-ordinators met Him with a small fleet of 4WD’s laden with all the provisions needed for an overnight stay in the potentially hostile territory referred to in His research as Problem area No:27b. This area had come under the spot light of all sorts of government research because it was unique in the sense that all the previous Aboriginal residents had move out because of the strict application of an alcohol cordon and now only poor white kids resided there mainly because of a lack of transport. Small outposts of lean-to’s scattered over a large area was going to make the documenting of their current pathetic state difficult to say the least but because of previous incursions into the area Professor Upitty had it covered. He would make his base camp high on a ridge overlooking the creek which the little ferals tended to gather around because of their need for water and the occasional yabby.

    All had gone well up until the time they began to switch on the satellite surveillance grid and wouldn’t you know, it was down and a manual override had to be put in place before night fall; as the telephoto lenses didn’t have infer-red. The professor tended to stay inside the air conditioned environment of the Hummer but as all the facilities of a fully operational field lab kicked into place and they settled down to observe the night time activities of the target groups, He positioned himself into the command chair ready to document anything that moved for the next twelve hours and had left word with his secretary not to be disturbed.

    As the heat of the heat of the day subsided and night began to fall, all the occupants of the lean-to’s began to move about. Crime was about to erupt and the Prof. was feeling as hard as a Cobra. Soon the little perpetrators were brazenly picking the buds of their illicit crop in full view of the high tech surveillance devices and their conversations could be plainly heard via directional recording equipment aimed in their direction. Little fires began to erupt all along the banks of the creek even though there was a total fire ban covering the whole area. Before the night would be over, underage sex was bound to happen.

    The morning light putt an end to the operation and Professor Upitty thanked his team for a job well done and headed off back to the waiting helicopter to rush his findings to the sitting committee that was meeting for lunch at the Hyatt. As he walked from the rooftop helipad into lift he commented to His aids how tiering field work was but His findings would prove beyond a shadow of doubt, it was all worthwhile. As he took the floor to point to the evidence proudly displayed on the overhead projector, the professor’s demeanour changed to that of a highly concerned moral campaigner and everybody agreed that more money was needed to fight this grave injustice to human rights and law and order. His recommendations for more research and a higher police presence were well received and everybody felt sorry for these underprivileged kids when it was finally reported;

    “There just wasn’t enough money to relocate them and the facility was designed but not yet built.”

  5. NKuper permalink
    22 July, 2010 10:36 am

    ‘WayneSword’, thank you for your humorous yarn – displays unbelievably close parallels with my own research experiences!

    Ainslee and Michele, I’m very pleased to hear that my note was of interest to you. If you have a chance, I suggest you read Jovan’s comments because they extend well on what I said (or tried to say). Wishing you all the best with your respective research.

    Jovan, I really appreciate your comments – they provide a valuable addition to my note. On reflection, the tone of my note did not adequately reflect my firm belief in the importance of ‘taking time out’ and remaining dynamic and flexible. I agree that certain ‘sins’ (e.g. keeping things ‘fuzzy’) can be beneficial in certain circumstances. I think the key is to:

    (1) Maintain an efficient balance between structure and responsiveness – keeping your eye on the goal posts while remaining open to stimuli which may contradict your previous research and/or ultimately lead you in a new direction.

    (2) Identify and remain conscious of your own ‘sins’ and learn to get the best out of your own particular work style. For example, if you’re not a ‘morning person’, try to do something that you enjoy during that period and commit to working efficiently during other times of the day. Work with and around your body’s natural periods of heightened concentration.

    My writing style is definitely a mystery to me. But like the mystery of how a computer works I don’t need to know how it works but I’d like to know how I can use it. In order to understand how I can best utilise the skills I have I feel I need to be conscious of the things which help. The little CPU I call my brain requires breaks at certain times of the day and often does produce its best work when I’m indulging in some guilt free procrastination e.g. vacuuming. Maybe we should sell the idea to uni students: ‘cleaning helps you think.’ There will be happy housemates and mothers everywhere.

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  1. An inspirational article for those considering doing Honours in Anthropology

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