The Return – Going back to school

Click on the link for a thorough explanation of Archaeologists’ beards. Source: My Cartoon Version of Reality

Words like ‘university’, ‘tutor’ and ‘final year’ have started to become unearthed again in my life, as though one of the soft voiced, shockingly bearded denizens of Archaeology departments the world over has been assigned to my brain.

Carefully, his dusty toothbrush traces the outlines of forgotten notions, creatures buried deep in the morass of full time work: commuting, assignments, inductions, cake, meetings, trainings, email after email after email. I’d let myself think I’d buried them forever.

One more brush and, there, a face. Two, three, four-  more than I expected. Their little eyes open and they say things to me,

“Remember, in the before times, the long long ago, back when you wrote things for educational attainment rather than to appease your overly networked ego?

“Yes, I think so,” I reply, looking up from my Hootsuite app on my phone.

“Those days are returning.” I stare at them. They continue to emerge,

“Remember when you didn’t have a lunch allowance? You lived off carrots and pasta for weeks.”

“8.30 lectures.”

“And 9.30 lectures.”

“Seminars on Friday afternoons.”

“Seminars on Monday mornings-”

“Yes, I think we’ve covered the horrors of higher education. It… It doesn’t sound that bad.”

A mistake. A particularly gnarled, rotten little creature grabs me and, with fetid breath, spumes a horror (the horror) right into my face,

“Remember how often you were corralled into going to ‘Revs‘? You’re going to go back.”

“But it’s awful! The music is terrible, it’s too loud to talk and the drinks are way too expensive.”

“It doesn’t matter if no one actually likes it in there – you go because that’s what STUDENTS do. There’s an inexplicable attraction.”

“No! I’m working, I have a job. I’m a worker.”

“Don’t pretend to us – we know what you are. And you’re coming back.”

“When?” I splutter, images of coffee and dead-eyed deadline day revisions seething there way into my attention. I had almost forgotten.

“All too soon.”

“But… It can’t be, I’ve still got a few months on my contract-” they cut me off, shaking their heads,

“You’ve already completed the assignment. 30 weeks have come and passed, long ago.”

It’s all a bit overwhelming.

Yes, dear readers, the shuddering revelation of a return to University life has happened. I got an email the other day from academic staff asking me to start thinking about my dissertation. Helpfully, they included several attachments with various outlines on preparing and researching a massive great big essay. Just writing about it is making my vision go blurry.

Now, I know that lots of development people recommend taking time off higher education to work in between getting your promotion baiting degrees. I’ve written about it before, see the previous link. I also know that there is a serious divide between academia and field practitioners when it comes to international development. So I have a few questions:

How do people adjust their brains sufficiently to jump back and forth over that divide? How do people go from daily work to semi-structured bursts of activity? What is a good way to feel like you’re still vaguely connected to ‘real world’ development while you research a suitably specific dissertation?

Most importantly, how do people do all these things without having strange fantasies about mind creatures tormenting them?


Earning The Right To Be In The Wrong

Image from: NYU Development Research Institute blog

The ridiculousness of ‘aid’ in Hollywood shouldn’t be replicated in the real world (or, as in this example, vice versa).

The Development Blogosphere was abuzz a few weeks back when this very well written blog post started getting a bunch of attention. This was a post about ‘the aid bitchslap’ or, as SEAWL put it, “the strange, ugly and enlightening time of moving from idealism to realism.”

It spurred a fair amount of hand wringing and debate over the whys and wherefores of the aid sector in general, with particular reference to US policy decisions – check out the Reddit discussion on the post. I have to admit, I found myself underwhelmed. It reminded me of a post on Aidsource a few months before in which a student who ‘figures out aid is messed up’ was met with a firm rebuttal. Here’s a telling extract:

There are two widely known, but rarely spoken (and never written down until now, so far as I know) rules in the full-time practicing professional humanitarian world that I inhabit:

1) Aid is messed up. Everyone knows it. It’s not a surprise. Seriously – everyone knows it. That aid is messed up may be just the latest soda-machine-crisis for Karen [the writer of this blog post], but it is old, old news in the aid real world. You don’t impress us by telling us what we already know.

2) You have to earn the right to get all angsty about how messed up aid is. Yep, the truth is out there for anyone to see. But as unfair as it perhaps is, we don’t really respect dissenting voices from those who have not actually “been there”, whether “been there” means having spent the last 10 years running distributions that went nuts, being tasked with making impossible decisions, or simply clocking some hard time as a cubicle-farmer in an NGO HQ.

Now, the first point is why I was underwhelmed by this story of heartbreak from Haiti. You’re entering a flawed field which plenty of people think is pretty much morally bankrupt anyway – you should have done your research before you went and the failure of your project might not have been so demoralizing. Not that I want to seem too cynical or dismissive about this post: he seems like a genuine and thoughtful guy and I hope he continues to want to help people.

Point 2 highlights why the reaction to this post in the blogosphere got on my nerves – it’s the double standards of it all. Because Quinn figured out Part 1 while ‘in the field’, it’s more legitimate because he’s earned it by getting his hands dirty. This is ridiculous. In fact, his having spent two years on a project he feels like is a failure is MUCH worse than figuring out that aid has problems while still at University or while doing some low-impact internship like Karen. His learning was linked to a bunch of money being spent on ‘helping’ people that didn’t work. Even worse, at least in his estimation, the project went some way to worsening relations between humanitarian groups and Haitians.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely do not think this is Quinn’s fault. Everyone ends up in a crappy project or organisation in this field, it happens and people do learn from those experiences. I also think that the more people who haven’t ‘been there’ who realise this kind of work is messed up are just as worthy of praise than people like Quinn. First of all, it could save potentially damaging community good will towards other, more successful projects. Second, if less people are willing to work their arses off trying to do these projects and, therefore, less of those projects.

A lot of aid is bad and broken – knowing this as an industry is pointless if it allows new people access to that knowledge only by repeating mistakes. That just means everyone has to go through the time/money-wasting, demoralising experience that Quinn did – and for what? So you’ve earned your stripes? So you can talk in dark, measured tones about your rock solid field cred?

Give me a break. Aid is macho and ridiculous enough in Hollywood, nobody needs that infiltrating the real world.

Finding Funding For Masters Degrees

I have been writing this blog for a little over 2 months now. In that time I have veered fairly wildly between various different subjects from journalism to social media to celebrities to aid work and a variety of other things besides. To date, my most popular post has been one on the issue of picking the right Masters course for aspiring global development do-gooders. It very quickly spawned several comments and has been receiving substantial numbers of hits (in proportion to the other posts on this blog) fairly consistently since it was published.

The related discussion I started on LinkedIn has also been quite active, attracting 33 comments from 13 different profiles. Take a while to peruse the full discussion, there’s some really interesting observations on there – I am planning on doing a full follow up to that post some time soon. For now, I’m going to jump ahead a little.

Assuming you’ve now decided what you want to study, you take a little browse of the ‘fees & admissions’ section of the website/prospectus. After the inevitable cold sweats, shaking, vomiting and prodigious weeping you’ll come out of your haze, unfurl from your safe foetal position on the bathroom floor and start to scheme about ways to get money.

At this point, I should point out that there are various different ways of getting enough capital to invest in a Masters but I’m only really interested in the one that most appeals to me: grants and scholarships. This appeals to me most because a) it involves the least amount of repayments and b) it’s much quicker than earning the money yourself. Personally, I want to get into my graduate studies as quickly as possible so I can start getting out into the world and earn money doing something actually enjoy (yes, I know there is no guarantee of this).

With this in mind, today I started pulling together a list of scholarships and grants that a reasonably low-level do-gooder might be able to win. These things tend to filter people out geographically or in terms of education/work experience. I found this out after trawling through seemingly purposefully convoluted websites to pull out the salient information – eligibility, how much, how long, what etc. Irritatingly, not all of them apply to me. Rather than simply throwing away this research I was reminded of Patrick Meier and stopped myself.

At the end of November, I came across Mr Meier through a crowdsourcing project of his:

Verifying Crowdsourced Social Media Reports for Live Crisis Mapping: An Introduction to Information Forensics

Take a look at the link here.

This paper (in draft form) allows anyone to give feedback via comments on the paper. It is, to some extent, a crowdsourced paper about crowdsouring, which is pretty incredible usage of the internet! It’s a remarkable idea and a very interesting way of highlighting the interactivity of the internet, particularly in this social media dominated world – note the ‘social’. As I once heard someone say at a conference: “If you aren’t exchanging information, if you aren’t conversing with people, you’re using the internet wrong.”

Here is my version.

It’s pretty low on content at the moment (I work full time!) but I will be updating it as and when I get a chance. I’m hoping to build it into a really useful resource – it will become a major part of the currently developing ‘Resources’ page I hope to add to the site in the next few months.

What I want you to do

  • Check my research: if you don’t think my facts and figures are right, call me up on it.
  • Alert me to other scholarships/grants: send me a link on Twitter or just put it in a comment on the page
  • Approve my framework: is there other info that you want on these items? What else do you need to know? I can add new columns if you give me a good reason to.

Hopefully this will become a really useful little document. If anyone is particularly interested in contributing to it leave me a comment/email/tweet (my contact details are in the ‘Submissions’ page).