Communications grad ASTRID LORANGE tells us about the thrill – and total despair – of pursuing a PhD, the importance of having support networks, and finding the pleasure in wrestling with things you don’t quite understand.
Tell us about your background, and how did it bring you to where you are now?
I started my degree [Writing and Cultural Studies] and in many ways, it was exactly what I wanted. It gave me this really vibrant social context, and I became instantly politicised and aestheticised in these ways that had previously been impossible to imagine. I wrote my Honours thesis with Martin Harrison on Gertrude Stein, and she was a really important figure for me in understanding the potentials of language in a poetic context, to be the philosophic catalyst for thought. I’m an Associate Lecturer at COFA now, in a kind of art theory and history context, from which I have to reimagine all of my language studies and literature background.
When you were at university, were there any experiences or styles of learning that you found useful in terms of your professional development?
I would say the most important thing was my peer group. We had such a solid support system and we did a lot of stuff that was outside of the organised constraints of our assessments, which was complementary to the study we were doing. Just things like little exhibitions and performances, poetry reading groups. It set up a group of people who could work together – who still work together now.
I [also] did Vertigo in 2004 with a group of people, to whom I remain close. We knew nothingabout what we were doing and we produced these weird, mostly entirely unread or hated entities. But we learnt so much and it was such an incredible experience of immersive, really collaborative and exciting labour.
For anyone that wants to be an academic, what kind of advice would you give them?
Increasingly, it’s important to have a PhD if you want to be an academic. It’s a good way to see if an academic is something you want to be, because PhDs are difficult, exhilarating and often very troubling things to take on. You inevitably have all these moments of total despair, and moments of flight, where you just say, “I don’t want to do this.” If you get to the other end and say, “Yep, give me more” – then you’re probably the right type of masochist to be an academic.
If I could give any advice to someone, it would just be: try and read the world as a daily, habitual practice, and try to respond to yourself or in a journal, or in some sort of ongoing writing project – however you can do it. And teaching – it drives research. Having to stand in front of a group of people and wrestle with ideas in this strange performative way is the only way you learn how to think critically.
What would you say to your first year self?
Don’t ever feel like you have to understand something in one class, or one week, one semester, or one year. This is a lifelong project. You read something, you take it away and it lives with you, and you have to read it again and again, or maybe never again. But you cannot learn everything there is to know about an idea or concept or a theory, writer, movement, or aesthetic regime, instantly. You just have to embrace that total confusion and unknowability, and the sheer difficulty of conceptual work – and that’s the pleasure.