This set of reflections concludes this series of “five minute honours theses” produced by members of the 2017 Political Economy Honours cohort. The motivation for running this series emerged from the desire to see our research and ideas reach a broader audience than a couple of markers and members of the department. The role of the intellectual, after all, is not to engage in hyper-specialised debate through little-read and less-cited journal articles, but to cultivate ideas and arguments that can take root in society. This series also, I hope, proves a useful resource for current and future students in Political Economy, whether at the Honours level or not.
These reflections share an agreement on two things. First, the Honours year is challenging. Second, it is immensely rewarding. I hope that it provides something of an argument for the value of an extended undergraduate research project.
Before I sign off, I wish my luck to the 2018 Honours cohort and hope they follow our lead and run a follow-up series of “five minute honours theses.”
As I handed in my final undergrad coursework essay, I knew that I wouldn’t be satisfied unless I completed a major piece of research that would challenge me, extend my abilities, and hopefully consummate the past (very diverse) five years of study.
I was not disappointed.
Certainly, I hold regrets about euphoric flights of research that should have been jettisoned sooner, and conceptual amibitions I should have tempered before they overburdened my initial proposal. To that end, my final work was marked more by a frenzied passion than a sober investigation.
Yet, despite the deadlines and stresses, those eight months were the some of the most free that I’ve experienced. Free, because I learnt that (given some material relief such as receiving Youth Allowance) ultimately, I set my own limits. This was invigorating, and has imparted me with a new sense of my capabilities.
Moreover, I was nourished by the warm (and gently competitive) co-dependencies that emerged within our cohort. We challenged each other, but also supported each other. This was more than mutual respect, and is unfortunately rare in the day-to-day of working life.
I would really recommend the experience to anybody undertaking study in humanities or social sciences!
Every university student has experienced the unbearable awkwardness of a silent undergrad
tutorial and sat thinking “this isn’t what university is like in movies”. On the screen university tutorials are small classes of passionate students who engage with each other as much as the teacher.
This is what honours was for me. I will always treasure that time of my life where for four hours a week I got to sit in a room having fascinating conversations with other people who were just as passionate about political economy as I was. Often those classes felt more like a reading group of researchers than an undergraduate class. I made lifelong friends and discovered what I wanted to do for my career. During undergrad I had always ruled out a PHD because I thought life as a researcher was a life of isolation. Honours showed me I was wrong, that the most important thing as a researcher is to be part of an academic community. I would encourage any undergrad who loves or excels in political economy, whether they plan to go onto a PHD or not, to consider honours, if for no other reason than to experience university at it was meant to be experienced.
Throughout university and most people’s professional careers, you seldom get the opportunity to luxuriate over pieces of academic literature on the same subject for an extended period of time. Even in my Arts degree, by the time I got to grips with an essay question and experienced a eureka moment in which everything clicked, the due date had inevitably arrived. Though honours wasn’t an open-ended exercise, it did provide me with the time and academic support that I had craved throughout the rest of my degree.
Initially, I erroneously thought that my honours year would be a ‘break’ before the dreaded penultimate year of law. While this was a serious miscalculation on my part, I cannot be more glad that I did it (although the 2,000 word limits I am currently faced with seem grossly inadequate). Though I didn’t feel it immediately at the time of submission, my honours thesis is something that I will cherish and look back on with a sense of achievement and pride. Honours nurtured a sense of academic curiosity and independence in me that I would not have had the chance to develop otherwise and for that I am truly grateful.
The honours year of Political Economy at USYD was particularly perilous to me. I chose a topic predominantly untouched by ECOP coursework or academics, meaning I ran the risk of plunging into highly theoretical nonsense. The supervisory and personal support the department and ECOP peers was invaluable in this regard. Political economists, old and fledgling, can grapple an incredible scope of topics because ECOP teaches us conceptual frameworks we can apply to pretty much anything. This is a roundabout way to say: choose a topic that interests you deeply, one that you find yourself ruminating on in flights of fancy. You will find the department surprisingly accommodative.
Then we arrive to the meat of my perils – writing the thesis. For whatever reason, I’d conjured this image that it would be like writing any other essay. Read a bunch of literature, write a structure and then draft up a series of arguments. In reality, I spent months reading literature I didn’t even use and countless nights perfecting paragraphs that were cut out of the final manuscript. I wrote about seven to eight drafts, each one requiring mounds of new research. Rather than being a straight journey from A to B, writing a thesis was like growing an unwieldy plant, one that needs a lot of sunshine and regular trimming (maybe also the occasional chainsaw).
At the end of 2016, I knew I wanted to do Honours and I wanted it to be in Political Economy. There was one problem: I didn’t have a Political Economy major, just a handful of subjects.
I begged letters of recommendation from Mike Beggs and Adam Morton (my former teachers). With their support, Liz Hill shepherded me through the bureaucracy till I was approved for Honours. That let me pursue my interests in political and economic research, without which I would have languished in the abstract dens of analytic political philosophy. I remember Luciano asking me: “Do you think you’ll be able to handle Honours without having done political economy before?” (He put it far gentler than that!) I am happy to report: Yes. Yes, I did.
That’s not to say I didn’t struggle: I did. I planned four chapters for my thesis and never knew what the fourth chapter would say until about eight weeks out from the end. I got lost in continually expansive reading until my supervisor, Damien, reminded me to just focus on what I needed to mount my argument. I worried over whether my argument was yet another indistinguishable salvo in a long-running academic debate or, worse, just bleeding obvious. I fretted over the word count. I threw my books at the wall. I hit myself over the head with books. I stuck my fingers in my mouth and screamed a muffled scream.
In other words: I enjoyed it.