Page is hard to write about. Despite working with her for over 4 years, she remains a mystery to me. She was my PhD supervisor, and we had a bumpy start.
To be fair, I was partly responsible for that bumpy start because I didn’t know what I was getting into when I applied to do a PhD.
Pressure to PhD
The community college I worked for began to have PhD degree holders as a Key Progress Indicator. Every semester, before the hardcore teaching kicked in, we’d have a staff meeting where the newly conferred PhDs harvested a round of applause. Their faces lit up after years of toiling through a thesis. Basically, some of my colleagues were doing three full time jobs at once: they had to teach 18 hours a week, to look after their family, and to produce a PhD dissertation. Each of these three in its own right could qualify a full-time job.
I knew very well that these colleagues sacrificed sleep, family time, and well-being in order to achieve what they had achieved. On these occasions, the rest of us (sans PhD) would be clapping our hands enthusiastically and enviously, nervously lowering our heads, conspiratorially eyeing each other, and feeling guilty as if we were failures. Guilty of not completing a PhD yet, or worst still, if one hadn’t even started. Pure peer pressure.
So when I applied to do a PhD, it was partly because of the guilt that the college has planted inside of me, but most importantly because I really needed a change. I think I shocked everyone when I quit my job, because I had a permanent contract and a promotion not that long before. At the time, I was a mother of a 2-year-old, so I told myself, I would never be able to finish it if I did it on a part-time basis.
Well, back to Page.
Arriving at the PhD Programme… no Page
We had 5 PhD students in our cohort, and I was the oldest among us. Hong Kong follows the British education system, so our PhD programmes are like apprenticeship: one is under a supervisor, and one starts researching and writing right away at the beginning of the programme. There are courses to take too, but not a lot. One has to finish within 3-4 years, so yeah, compared to the American PhD programmes, it’s a crash-PhD.
Everyone in my cohort began their studies expectantly and anxiously, but they were consulted and comforted by their supervisors before the first week of class. My supervisor, on the other hand, disappeared.
Attempts to Make Contact
Like a courter, I sent her emails and handwritten letters, asked around, and sought help from the department head and the graduate school, etc., but nobody knew where Page was. I began to feel a bit weird. The kindest professor I asked for help at the time said, “I am so sorry that you didn’t get a proper inauguration from your supervisor. Page is a very good teacher, but we don’t know what happened to her. The best thing to do is to wait and see.” The worst answer I got from another professor was, “What do you expect me to do? I CANNOT supervise you.” Basically, I was left in the void.
I freaked out and cried numerous times, and every time I commuted to school and researched in the library, the minibus would drive past the community college I had so proudly left behind. Ironically, I felt a bit nostalgic about having a mundane and demanding job, a structured and steady life.
I knew that I had my doubts about the PhD. Not only because my supervisor was not there, but also because I didn’t know what I was doing. I wrote a PhD proposal, yes. I knew I was going to work on poetry, yes. But I really didn’t know what I was supposed to do to complete a PhD thesis. I still had that typical Chinese student’s mindset: “Do what your teachers tell you to do, and you will be fine.”
So I prayed and prayed, hoping that my supervisor would materialize.
And she did!
Starting out under Page
In November, two months after I quit my job, Page appeared. It turned out that she had a major health issue and was hospitalized in the U.S. for over 2 months. A fellow PhD student made a joke during our lunch break, “Be careful what you wish for, Wen,” he winked, “when she is back, real work is back”.
He was right.
However, it wasn’t the amount of work that bothered me. It was scarier: I COULD NOT UNDERSTAND WHAT SHE SAID. Her discourse went over my head. I would go into her office for 2 hours, nodding and smiling and noting, but when I came out of the office, I would be like: “What was she talking about?” “What exactly is the next step?” “How can I ever finish this?” “What have I done to myself?!”
After every visit to her office, I felt that I had to start all over again.
We began with exegeses on individual poems, then theory classes, then historicizing exercises, then she would be like: “No biographical criticism please.” “No single author thesis please.” “No, don’t just use one theorist or one approach. Establish your own theory. Find your own voice!” “No, you can’t write like that. It is not academic writing. It is not argumentative.”
Setback after Setback
I felt that nothing I did was right, that I was never on the right track, and that I was shifting gears all the time. I was seized with an overwhelming sense of powerlessness, as if my feet were no longer grounded anywhere. My English was no longer any good. My writing was no longer good. I didn’t understand the reading I was reading. Even worse, a day could pass without me feeling achieving anything worthwhile. If you got me connected with GPS at the time, I would have been a stationary dot on Google Map at the university central library. Every day. Stuck.
I was tearful and whiny all the time when I chatted with friends, “I was so silly, really. I just love English and literature, and I didn’t know it would be so hard to do a PhD; if ever I knew, I would never have started.” I was like the nagging Xiang Linsao who lost her son to the wolf in Lu Xun‘s “New Year’s Sacrifice”.*
Throughout the process of writing the thesis, I have always had mixed feelings towards Page.
A Typical Dissertation Chapter
Our work pattern was as follows: she assigned me work; I researched for a month or so and wrote on the topic and submitted the work to her; she wrote back with a Word file full of track changes; we talked about the work and the next moves in her office for 2-3 hours. I’d revise the chapter while starting a new chapter; the cycle went on like this.
Every time I came out of her office, I would be deeply frustrated and highly energized. Her words were always encouraging, warm, and inspiring: “Don’t worry. I see a beautiful thesis coming!” “Of course you will finish it!” “Wow, that line of argument is so good. We only need to add some examples as evidence.” “I think we are going somewhere now…” Yet, the Word files are always full of corrections, comments, questions, doubts, and suggestions. The chapters I submitted would always return to me looking like a different person, grilled, tormented, beaten out of her body, and bloody red with track changes.
There was a time that we were on an edited chapter for the 5th time, and Page was asking me to revise it one more time with a smiling face. Tears gushed out without me knowing, and I totally lost it. “I honestly don’t know what I am supposed to do, Page. Please tell me how I can finish my PhD.” Page gave me a hug, a smile, and a firm “try the chapter again.” And I remember there was no tissue in her office or in my bag.
I once Googled “Academic Bullying” to see if there is such a crime a supervisor could inflict on a supervisee, but Page is simply too adorable to be a criminal.
Not Just Any PhD Advisor
If you have met Page, you would see what I mean. She is always beaming with a lovely smile. It is very hard to tell her age because despite having some wrinkles, she always carries the innocence of a little girl with her. She is always wearing a beautiful dress, looking like a blooming flower. She did not frequent departmental seminars. But when she was there, she was fully engaged in the conversation. She directs a creative writing programme, produces interesting plays, and writes poems. I often wondered how she managed to achieve so much. When I talked to people about her, there were two types of responses only: “Oh, I don’t know her very well.” “Oh Page! She is such a wonderful person! You are so lucky to work with her!”
She has this air of other-worldliness that is both enviable and annoying to me. When I worked as a teaching assistant for her for the creative writing course, I witnessed students mesmerized by her words; I also witnessed her editing students’ creative pieces like no other. “It was like entering another world each time you start grading a new piece”, Page said, as she spent hours on one short story. At an exam board meeting, she insisted on upgrading a B+ student to A, arguing that it would save her life. It turned out that the girl was suffering from depression, and the creative writing course pulled her out of suicidal thoughts. It was very moving, what Page did.
Writing is Editing
If I have to pinpoint one thing that I have learned from the PhD programme I survived, it is that we academics do not write, we edit. Page’s meticulousness and thoroughness are admirable, and they drove me mad too:
Two days before I was to bind and submit my final thesis for the oral defense, Page called me urgently. It was Friday afternoon. She asked me to edit the thesis for the LAST TIME. “The more work you do, the less work the reviewers do, the better your thesis”, Page asserted. Then I opened my mailbox: here it was. The 250-page thesis with hundreds of track changes and comments in one Word file. I did not know to laugh or to cry at the time.
The thesis won me an award for Outstanding Research Student in 2019.
It is going to be a book too.
* A classical story by the Chinese Modernist, Lu Xun. In his story, Xiang Linsao lost her son to a wolf. She told the story of the day her little son was taken and had a lot of sympathy from the villagers. However, as her tale grew old and repetitive, people lost interest and patience. She became the “mad woman” of the town. She usually began her story by saying, “I was silly, really…”