What Do You Research?

In all honesty, I should be meditating or falling asleep at the moment. I am writing this piece late on a Saturday evening. The only reason I am giving myself a ‘pass’ is because since this afternoon, writing has been the only thing on my mind. It is incorrect to say this afternoon, since the seedling for today’s frame of mind comes from earlier in this week. During a Law Research and Training programme, the Professor on the course recommended we set small writing targets ahead of every supervision meeting we have, and very nicely put my thoughts of reading forever, in “an attempt to do a literature review” aside. My conversation this afternoon, however, was centred around film-making. A good friend brought up how popular Western films and media follow a formulaic approach for success: setting-conflict-resolution. Instantly, I was taken back to my adventures watching Casey Neistat, and thinking about daily blogging as a phase of my life where I was motivated by the sheer passion Casey had for story-telling and film-making. It dawned on me then that I had not written on the blog for a while. Naturally, I had to write tonight.

What about, though? Where do the words come from when the world is spinning?

The past month has seen me settle into the PhD program. All at once, and then slowly. Some very good advice I have been following is to take things a lot slower than I have in the past; to allow me to enjoy and savour every moment of the program I have. As someone who is researching on an active project with a deadline (it is scary to label oneself a researcher, the adjective more frightening than the verb), a frequent question that has emerged in the last four weeks is: what do you research?

It is asked in all sorts of ways. There’s the “first-time-we’ve-met curiosity”, the “oh-someone-says-we-should-meet fascination”, the “why-do-you-teach-family-law-quizzicality” and the “so-why-are-we-talking-disappointment”, I suppose. I am, thankfully, yet to run into the latter. Then there is the internal question I ask myself each time there is a web profile to create. How do I describe what I am interested in? What language shall I use?

It would be unfaithful to say that my brain did not do a consequential analysis each time the question emerged. In what I now consider a commodification exercise, I found myself initially asking: what is the signal my language will give? What will people infer from the vocabulary I use to elaborate what it is I do? I suppose that is but natural with the market that academia and research is. It was, however, a pattern of thought that caused me deep irritating.

On the contrary, speaking about the project I work on to people who are outside the bubble and without a vested interest gave me the opportunity to use similar language without it being “coded” or having an “acquired/adopted meaning”. It has been those conversations that has allowed me to figure out what I do, really – and moved me a little bit away from my earlier habit. I am now of the opinion that with the open texture of language, people’s inferences about my work are not something I can control for – and the way I articulate the field I query is a sequence of words that I hold a precise definition for, but that definition will vary across people I speak to.

That realisation has brought a lot of freedom with it; a larger freedom to express.

These thoughts came up this evening again from a different trigger.

Chris Hilson has a piece in the Journal of Environmental Law, Trends in Environmental Law Scholarship: Marketisation, Globalisation, Polarisation, and Digitalisation, which I thought was really insightful in the way it presented a flaw with studying trends within the discipline by doing an empirical ‘language search’. I highly recommend the read, and I will pen my thoughts about the article more fully at a later time, but what stood out to me is how this pattern of query; and really reflecting on the language we use in response to “what do you research?” has emerged out of digitisation. One of my colleagues and I have frequently debated the harms and benefits that Twitter has brought into academia, but perhaps the thing it has done most in the context of the article is pushed us further into the pit of using “trending” language. The other interesting bit is on Impact (and I particularly appreciate the emphasis on the capital I, with the market definition taking centre-stage) – and I am left wondering – to what extent is Impact influenced by the language of our research? How much SEO should we be putting into academic writing in the modern market of consumption?

Among the web of buzzwords that now accompany me, hanging over my head as a protective cloud sheathing my work from some quarters of criticism by allowing me to seek refuge in ‘schools’ and ‘methods’ (ah, don’t we love the Humanities): “political economy”, “international law”, “the environment”, I sometimes wonder why my response to the question “what do you research?” isn’t “people” – since that, at it’s very core, is what I am investigating.

Kannada Academy: Week 2

Although it was only my third class, my teacher feels more familiar. There is a pattern that he has managed to establish for our classes. It’ll commence with a short reading test, where I will struggle with some words, and then move toward fresh things.

Yesterday’s class started off with:

“ನದಿ – ನದ”ದ ನೆಲೆ
ನಾಲೆ ಅಲ್ಲಿ – ನದಿ ಎಲ್ಲಿ?
ನೀಲಿ ನೂಲು 
ನವೀನ ನೂತನ ದಿನ
ಲೀಲಾಲೋಲ ಲಲಿತ ಲತಾಂಗಿ
ನಾನು ನಾವು ನೀನು ನೀವು 
ದೀನ ನಾನು – ದಾನಿ ನೀನು
ದೇವ ದೇವತೆ
ದೆವ್ವವೋ – ದೇವರೋ?
My test

While I was able to identify the words with his help, especially on this one: ಲೀಲಾಲೋಲ ಲಲಿತ ಲತಾಂಗಿ, I realised I am really struggling with letters that repeat in the same sentence. I will overcome. There’s a real logic to the way we are moving forward in letter-identification at the minute. I’m learning the twelve forms of the same consonant together: the consonant itself, the consonant with a glottal stop, all of the short vowels, and the long vowels. If I write these out, surely they’ll imprint in my brain. Hopefully that will make future tests easier.

The pop culture references also continue. Today, I was introduced to ಆವು ಈವಿನ ನಾವು ನೀವಿge ಆನು ತಾನದ ತನನನ – da. ra. Bendre

While we embarked on a conversation about the Jnanpith Awards, I learned that it was not possible to decipher the deep meaning of Kannada poetry on the first listen – so another helpful explainer was provided to me. This is arguably the best part of class.

While I struggled with reading out tanana, I was reminded to say the word as if I would say it while speaking (which makes complete sense, since I know how to speak the language to some fluency). That’s inspiring some confidence in this journey.

Then I learned a lot of consonants. I had to cancel today’s class, but I already have an assignment waiting for me on WhatsApp. Next week should be super fun too, I’m looking forward to it.

15 May 2022

I celebrated my birthday this morning with a group of close friends. If you are reading this as quickly as I’m typing them out, you will note that I did not celebrate too much on the day. I was keen to explore something different from the parties I had been to, and thought of visiting a board game cafe that recently opened up. It worked a treat. Not only was it economical, it gave me an opportunity to assess how competitive some of my closest friends here are (very!), and produced some moments of deal-making (we played Monopoly) that will live long in my memory. I’m hopeful of visiting again – and hopefully for longer – where I can explore more board games. We chose to play Monopoly since everyone was familiar with the rules, so we really got value for our time.

When I was reading Law as an undergraduate student, especially closer to our final year, several friends and batchmates gathered in the night-mess area to play cards and board games. I enjoyed them too, but back then prioritised a different set of things that meant I never really went out to play board games with them. I wish I had done that a little more. I noticed nobody used their phones while our game of Monopoly was on. While video games have become a principal source of my entertainment since the pandemic started, the simple joy of a boardgame is incomparable. My best guess is that it evokes nostalgia – even when you play a new boardgame. The market is also massive, there’s so many new ones I haven’t heard of I really need to get around to.

The afternoon chunk was spent on phone calls and FIFA. Writing and research has used up the evening. I will therefore go to bed very content with the weekend, and looking forward to next week.

14 May 2022

It was a lot of people’s birthdays today, so my morning went in conveying happy wishes to people. That reminded me I had to reply to wishes posted on my Facebook wall, a number that decreases steadily year-on-year (this is commentary both on Facebook as a medium, and the number of people I am in-touch with via Facebook).

This afternoon a friend and I listened to the spiritual journey of a doctor. The past two years have been really exciting in that respect. There’s always a ton to learn from people’s stories – and the diverse ways in which people in the world confront similar situations and grow from them always leave me with things to reflect about. After a quick dinner, I had Kannada class (more on that will be in a separate post), and I slept almost immediately after.

Earlier this week I made comments about how the longer summer nights in Cambridge were beautiful to look at. That’s still very true, except I must add, I am sleeping a lot more these days. The late evening appears to hit me harder.

13 May 2022

In the vlog I am watching at the minute, Casey turns to the camera and says that his days are super consistent – which caused concerns for him about the sustainability of his daily vlogging endeavour. Yet he pulled it off. My days are very inconsistent. They throw up surprises. Although I spend some time writing e-mails, e-mail writing takes place during a chunk of my day, with meetings & active research taking place throughout the rest. Hopefully that means the blogging isn’t unsustainable. I have broader concerns about the blog as a medium. As my own attention span declines and I become more of an auditory learner who enjoys listening to podcasts/videos as I write/work, I find that I read blogs a lot lesser – and frequently not at one go. Since the newsletter will incorporate all the visuals and audio, I’m hoping the blog can continue as a text-only space. I will continue to keep at this because I find joy in daily storytelling.

This morning was an uninterrupted work-session. The afternoon brought a few meetings, including with a faculty member I enjoy checking-in with once a Term. My biggest takeaway from today’s meeting is that I need to avoid running before walking. I love multitasking and being a multitasker, but this past year I have overstretched myself far too much. It is not just taking on too many projects and being unable to deliver high-quality work on all of them (one or two have suffered). It’s also the continuous feeling of looking to the next thing at all times rather than being able to enjoy the present task without worry/fear of what was to come. I do not think I will stop multitasking (insofar as I will have videos on while writing for example), but I do think I will live/work a little closer to the moment. All of this emerged in a specific context. I said I needed to think about the post-doc while doing my PhD research, which is when I received this advise. I do need to do a good PhD for anything to happen after that. I need to remind myself of that continuously. With all projects. It is only if I execute one project to a high-level of diligence that the next-project will come. It always comes. I can’t let standards drop now.

I was able to video-call my family from the centre of Cambridge, near the market, and speak with them with King’s Parade in the background. When the sun’s shining, it’s idyllic. From there, I went with Kannadiga friends for a dinner filled with dosa and good conversation about Karnataka politics and cinema. These are two subjects I know very little about, but I have become more interested in since I moved to the UK. Alongside my efforts to learn Kannada, which I am documenting under the “Projects” section of this website, I am really hoping to learn a lot more about the history of the State and its current circumstances. This crowd really helps with that.

A sweet chai (quite literally) later, I was back home to respond to messages, watch Friends, and crash.

12 May 2022

It took a while for me to decide on the appropriate nomenclature for this edition of daily blogs. I’ve done the numbers (X/365) in 2017 and (X/181) in 2018. I’ve spelt out the post number (Three Hundred and Sixty Five) in 2019. In 2020 and 2021, I wrote blogposts that had titles that were descriptive of the text. I think henceforth unless I’m writing a clearly descriptive post/breaking away from the posting convention, I will likely title essays with the date. That should ideally make them easier to search for as well.

Today was another good day. Our event went off smoothly and I was able to enjoy a nice dinner with colleagues from the event right after. While work tires me, executing events to a good standard satisfies me. It was also nice to walk home at 10PM and be caught in the twilight. Late nights in the Cambridge twilight make for marvellous viewing.

Twenty-Four

It has been two years since I wrote anything on my birthday – or around my birthday. When I wrote more frequently, I’d add a snippet about what the day presented and what I hoped it would mean for the year to come. I skipped reflecting on my twenty-third birthday and as the Earth traveled around the Sun twice-over, it feels appropriate to think about what’s changed.

In the two days that have passed since I started down with this piece, I’ve experienced procrastination and writer’s block. As I sit to write this piece, I’m watching Casey Neistat’s vlogs in the background. A betting person would argue nothing has really changed at all. In the piece from 2020, I say this

I want to be more mindful of everything I do, and everything that happens around me. I want to wake up each day feeling nothing but gratitude. Not stressed, or worried about exams, or upcoming deadlines – just immense gratitude in my heart for everything. I’d like to make gratitude and mindfulness the two central pillars around which I live my life. I’m not an ungrateful person, but I’d like to increase how much I prioritize looking for the thing to be grateful for. I’d like for it to be second-nature to me, so while I experience sways in emotions and in circumstances, I’m always centered around this.

Me, Reflections on 21.

I do not think I’ve attained this. I’ve instead come to the realisation that being mindful of things and feeling this gratitude is a journey that you embark on consciously – and like all journeys/habits – it is one that takes repetition till it becomes subconscious. With my work, and with the goals I set myself personally, I still wake up feels very stressed/worried about deadlines & exams. However, because of how I’ve changed around my night-time routines, I go to sleep each night acknowledging the way the day has panned out. That makes me less stressed in a sense.

So this day feels as good as any to reflect on where I’d like to be in a year. First, I’d love to write daily again – that hasn’t happened for two years either. A friend of mine commented that maybe this means the time for writing has gone, and it’s passed me by. I don’t think so. Writing never came to me easy, nor did it ever happen unless I made time for it. I’ll be doing that. Second, I’d love to re-evaluate where I am on this journey of mindfulness and gratitude. That is all.

Today was a really happy day. I woke up very unsure of what the day would look like. We are preparing for an event tomorrow, which demands flexibility of us all. I accepted that early on and scrapped the idea of making plans. Instead, I messaged a close circle of friends to request them to drop me a text if they were free. Several did, which I was happy about, and we managed to get lunch together. One of them brought pastries and sweets along, which allowed an impromptu pastry-cutting celebration too. I ended the night printing at the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law. No space feels better suited to wind down another year.

Kannada Academy: Weekend 1

I have waxed eloquent on this blog about my desire to learn the Kannada script before. My ambition in the past two years has remained unchanged. The unfortunate part is that I have done nothing about it. That is not entirely true. I have tried. My mother and my chikkamma taught me the script briefly in 2019 winter. There was a brief window where I could write out the script from memory, but could not read anything. Since then I’ve been start-stop with the copywriting books. One of my second cousins tries to motivate me, but I lose this pretty fast. It hurts when you can’t really read anything. Since I’ve come to Cambridge though, my sense of identity has heightened. While this is a bit of a joke now at home (I’ve watched more Kannada films in the UK than I have in India), the Cambridge University Kannada Society, and colleagues here make me really want to learn everything I can about the language and the people.

Realising that my attempts (modest ones) were not going to get me anywhere, in March, I started hunting around for teachers. It was around this time I saw the Kannada Academy website. With my current income, I live a relatively frugal life. Ambitions I have are added onto my ever-expanding bucket-list, and become goals I save toward. I knew I had a pay day in the week after I first noticed the website, and so, I saved it to Pocket, and set a phone reminder to return the weekend after. So I did and sent through the fees – explaining clearly what my ambitions were with the course, and being fully aware that the course outlines seemed to teach the spoken Kannada before the script, knowing I needed help with the script predominantly.

It took just one nudge, but fifteen days later, when I was about to ask for a refund, someone from their team got through to me. We exchanged a brief call over WhatsApp, and I was set up for classes this weekend. These classes took place yesterday and today over Google Classroom.

What a joy they have been. Easily the best two hours of my weekend. I do not say this lightly, it has been a particularly wonderful weekend: some golf was played, friends were met, excellent food was consumed. I have been unable to contain the smile on my face while being taught these concepts.

Here is what I have learned so far: the five main sounding vowels (this has a corresponding Kannada word I am forgetting now), and five consonants with their forms (short vowels & long vowels both + the glottal stop).

While this may sound dry, the Kannada script is so unique to my eyes (although I’ve seen it before), that the shapes becoming familiar to me has been a very fun process. Today at the start of class, my teacher asked me to read some words aloud (they mostly had no meaning), but the heart suddenly gaining the knowledge and appreciation that the brain could recognise the script – phenomenal.

The last bit that I think deserves commendation and is noteworthy is that my teacher is a pop-culture machine. Several of my colleagues here have a deep appreciation for Kannada pop-culture. I’ve heard lots of new songs and stories of the film industry from them. My teacher is adding to this growing knowledge, and I’ve now got a new Spotify playlist where I am documenting the different songs he tells me about. My notes jot down where the references come up. I will share that maybe when it’s populated.

Now onto keeping this momentum by practicing through the week. I am motivated now by the external accountability these classes present, but equally by the absolute fear of embarrassment. My teacher’s very kind: in some struggles today, he laughed along and commented, “that’s what learning is all about!”

I tend to agree, but not putting in the practice to learn, and having to go over things again in class – that’s where the real embarrassment lies.

GloPoWriMo 2022: 9/30

Weekends are apparently meant to be used for more writing, and NaPoWriMo is taking advantage of that to suggest some form-based prompts. Today’s is the nonet! A nonet has nine lines. The first line has nine syllables, the second has eight, and so on until you get to the last line, which has just one syllable.

Raven

From my bedroom window, a raven
sits steady on a spring-time tree,
his velvet tones romancing
a long distance lover.
This secret language
melancholy,
is desire,
is love,
hope.

GloPoWriMo 2022: 8/30

Today’s prompt comes to us from this list of “all-time favorite writing prompts.” It asks you to name your alter-ego, and then describe him/her in detail. Then write in your alter-ego’s voice. Maybe your alter-ego is a streetwise detective, or a superhero, or a very small goldfinch.

These are rough prompts. I’ve never been one for imagining myself as anything other than the human I am, so I’m struggling with this. Instead, therefore, I am writing a haiku. Although it’s spring, this one feels a lot like autumn.

Autumn

birch tree stamps kindly
bleakly, fervently, acorn
quibbles, darkening

GloPoWriMo 2022: 7/30

 Today, the prompt asks me to write a poem that argues against, or somehow questions, a proverb or saying. They say that “all cats are black at midnight,” but really? Surely some of them remain striped. And maybe there is an ill wind that blows some good. Perhaps that wind just has some mild dyspepsia.

I struggled with this immensely and could only come up with the one stanza, that I am hopeful will lead to a more cohesive poem some time in the future.

Absence Makes The Heart Grow

Absence makes the heart grow flabbier,
Losing musculature, it fattens in its forgetting, 
Straining, feigning remembrance of
Blocked off, walled memories.