Doctorate doom? Don't forget the PhD's moment s of 'orgasmic' pleasure

October 29, 2009

It should be a time of pleasure gained from feeling one's knowledge expand and the anticipation of a fulfilling academic career. But instead, most accounts of doctoral study are typified by a "passion for despair", with the PhD cast as a period of gloom, loneliness and uncertainty.

This assessment is made by Christina Hughes, professor of gender studies at the University of Warwick, in a paper that calls for the academy to change its ways and embrace the pleasure inherent in becoming an academic.

Pleasure and Change: Class, Gender and Value in the Doctoral Process argues that the PhD is usually constructed in academic discourse as a "fundamentally negative experience", with many accounts focusing on feelings of isolation, loneliness and anxiety about direction and completion.

According to Professor Hughes, the pleasure of learning is rarely mentioned.

Her paper, presented at a seminar titled Happy Talk: Researching, Learning and Pleasure at Goldsmiths, University of London, on 16 October, notes that in pedagogic discussions, "pleasure appears to be the poor relation of desire", possibly because the latter is more strongly linked to our notions of motivation.

"Pleasure, if it is considered at all, carries with it concerns that it leaves the individual unchanged," Professor Hughes writes. "It is predominantly understood as an emotional moment that occurs when desire is met."

Despite this, she writes, rare moments of intense "orgasmic" pleasure in intellectual achievement are possible, for example when the PhD student realises that becoming a fully fledged academic is an achievable goal.

Professor Hughes suggests that these moments of jouissance explain why doctoral students persist with their work.

"Perhaps it does have a drug-like effect, in that having tasted its heady pleasures, we continue to seek moments of jouissance," she writes.

Rather than fleeting emotions, these moments of intellectual pleasure "leave a more profound mark to counter the fraughtness associated with being inadequate and incapable in intellectual work", she argues.

Professor Hughes told Times Higher Education: "That 'Oh my God' moment when you read something extraordinary is a moment of change. It changes your conception of the subject and its possibilities."

Jocey Quinn, professor in the Institute for Policy Studies in Education at London Metropolitan University, and chair of the seminar, said: "In the face of the grey and negative atmosphere pervading higher education, we wanted to focus on the importance and complexity of pleasure, love, happiness and joy in creating knowledge."

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