Accichievement*

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*or accident-achievement, as Aneesah puts it.

Did you know, by the way? Aneesah and Zakwan are now happily married [est. 3 January 2014]. I met them last week, and they were utterly in love with each other. Moral of the story: If you decide to sign a contract of life-long partnership, you might as well find a cosigner that you like very much. May Allah shower barakah on their marriage and family forever after. Allahumma ameen!

Now, to business. I'm going to talk about an essay. (This blog is fast becoming a celebration of academic life isn't it? Ah well. Not enough of that in the blogosphere, I think. Here's my contribution.)

Some two weeks ago, a course tutor e-mailed me to say that he had marked my essay, it was excellent, and I could drop by to talk about it. This is routine in the HJS department, as well as in most Arts and Humanities faculties in UCL, I think. When the lecturer has finished with your work, you can get further feedback from them, even if sometimes the essay has not been second-marked yet (yes, written works are assessed twice. First the course tutor grades it, then another lecturer grades it. Like to get a second opinion, and to make sure that the grading is fair).

So I set an appointment to see him to find out what "excellent" meant.

I was nervous about this essay. I had to pick a topic for myself (this was the one sparked by my recollection of the London street urchins), which is always a gamble because if you failed to develop good answers and arguments in the essay, that probably was because you failed to ask the right questions in the first place. I only consulted the professor once (by consulting, I mean I said one or two lines about the proposed general subjects of the essay, he told me it was a possible essay subject), and he recommended a book I could refer to.

This book:

The topmost, slim white volume by Travis. It cost me £64.94 (Amazon).  
The book was so recently published that none of the libraries had it, so I had to buy one myself. 
I asked Waterstones if they had it, but the ladies at the counter told me that it's a print-on-demand volume (which wasn't the problem), and cost like, £80. Even the lady was horrified ("EIGHTY POUNDS?"). 
After that, £64.94 on Amazon did not seem too bad.

[To give you some perspective, that The Jew in The Text book right underneath it only cost me £4.80 including delivery -- okay yes, it was a second-hand copy...because I always try to get the cheapest I can. 
But I generally avoid buying books if they cost more than £20 apiece -- and even that, I think, is expensive.  
**Ohhh no. I checked my past Amazon purchases and actually, quite a few of the books I bought were £25-£40 each. Duit rakyat.]

I was also working on two other essays at the same time, so I only began looking through materials during the reading week (halfway through the first term), and when classes resumed, I only did research for it on some weekends. I knew nothing about the topic I picked for the Peace Process in Modern Israeli Politics essay, so I put in more hours into that one [this is why I like unknown subjects. They give me no choice but to fire up my game].***

Still, the Jews in English-Speaking Lands essay was to be the longest (6000-7000 words, the other two were 4000- and 5000-word essays). A longer word limit meant that I had more space to make mistakes, and more space lulls you (me) into not keeping the arguments airtight and sharp. And as I developed the essay [while time was running out -- six weeks after submission, during the meeting with the tutor, I found out that I actually didn't have to send it in until 3 months after the day I submitted the paper. Anticlimax, much? I Life-Evented that discovery on Facebook because it was so improbable...downright ridiculous, really], I was aware that if the questions I set out to answer in the essay were insignificant, or poorly thought-out, that was it. The course is assessed by an exam (70%) and an essay (30%). If I don't do well in this one, chances are I won't fare well in the course overall.

***The A for that essay was the first milestone, because the tutor said it was a first-class MA-level essay. I had to know that. That I don't write like an undergraduate.

To know, after your essay has been graded, that you actually could've had three more months to work on it, is not such a bad thing when the grade is satisfactory. But on the day I submitted it, I remember thinking that if only I've had more time to do it, I could've produced a much better essay. The one I sent in was not my best effort. I was super relieved and thankful that I managed to send it in on time (ha ha), but I knew that I could've done more, if only I slept less and made myself work more regularly every day. I couldn't even bring myself to re-read it after submission, because I knew I'd die from self-criticism when I get to the half-baked parts.

Now, accidentally finishing and submitting papers any amount of time before the deadline -- let alone three months before -- is uncharacteristic of me. But that was a Life Event because in my meeting with the professor, which I thought was going to be a routine tutorial about coursework, I found validation for my future plans (which, basically, is to stay in school until formal retirement, or death, whichever comes first). Here are some of the things I learnt during the tutorial/meeting:

  1. The essay was "superb", which I'm grateful for because it counts for a noticeable chunk in the course assessment, but it wasn't just about getting a Distinction-level grade (the essay still needed to be second-marked anyhow). The A, this time, was a milestone because the lecturer said that if I want, I could look for primary materials to augment the sources I've included in the essay, and get it published. This in no way means that I'll get a free pass at publishing it after I back it up with primary sources, but it does mean that the essay is beyond term-paper well-done.
  2. After I was done with asking about the essay*, the lecturer asked me about my future plans. We talked about my PhD options (after I admitted to being crazy enough to do something in academics). UK or the States, possible topics, possible funding (the more grants you have in your name, the more you'll get [the easier it is to convince people to grant you more], so his advice was to apply for everything available...which isn't that many, but still). The lecturer said that students regularly come and say that they want to (be an academic), but that you never really know how good they are until you see what they write. And apparently my Sherlock Holmes-inspired essay tells him that I have potential. This means the world to me because one very big question I needed to answer by doing this MA was "Am I good enough to pursue an academic career?" Now I've been told that I definitely am, alhamdulillah.
  3. He said "We'd love to keep you here", but "for a student like you, there's no reason for you to settle for anything but the very best", meaning that if I find a suitable supervisor somewhere else, he'd be happy to advise. I told the professor frankly that I intend to stay on at UCL if I can, partly because I want to continue studying Hebrew here. Ahhh imagine. 3 more years of Hebrew. Happiness.
*there were several poorly chosen words. Tome instead of book, public school instead of state school, and the Jewish race, among others. Every word counts, I kid you not. Also, the flawed idea of Jewish children getting "wholesome education" in Eastern Europe, but I'm pretty sure I never was under impression that Jewish education in 19th century Eastern Europe was ever wholesome, so I must re-read the essay soon-ish, to see if the problem was that I organised the argument shoddily. 

Of course, I still have a lot to prove (in the other courses, in the exams), but alhamdulillah this feels like a healthy start. I have a long way to go ahead of me and I don't expect it to be easy, so please remember me in your du'as.
In hindsight, it's good that I finished the essay early, because

  1. I now have more time (in theory, at least) for the three essays and a presentation I need to do for this term, and let's not forget three exams that I'll need to revise for.
  2. I know (now, rather than later in May or June) that I should further my studies after this, which means that though I'm only in my second term here, I can already start narrowing down research topics for PhD because I could and should. Next term will be dissertation term, anyhow, so I can plan for that, too.
  3. It has been a powerful lesson in not procrastinating. I didn't mean to do the essay that early, but because I thought that was all the time I had, I did it. It's always better to do things today, not tomorrow. Lesson learnt, alhamdulillah.
  4. Now that I know where I stand, I can set my personal standards higher for this term inshaAllah.
Ya Allah, grant us not only knowledge, but also the hikmah and strength to derive benefit from what You allow us to know. Let our 'ilm serve us well in this world, and let it serve us even better in our lives after death.

(Sulayman 'alayhissalam) said [when the throne of the queen of Saba' was brought to him]:
"This is from the favour of my Lord, to test me whether I will be grateful or ungrateful.
And whoever is grateful, his/her gratitude is to (his/her own benefit).
And whoever is ungrateful, indeed my Lord has no need of anything and is the Most Generous."

Counting blessings

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In Israel and the Occupied Territories class this week, the lecturer asked our class, "How did you find the (weekly) readings?" The prep reading for this particular week was one chapter about the origins of the PLO, and another half-ish chapter on the Gush Emunim.

I was hovering between answering "(They were) useful" and "Helpful". I didn't actually finish the chapter on the PLO because of my I'm-reading-something-else-now-and-I-can't-stop problem, but the materials were like most everything else we (History students) have to read before and after every class (and all our student lives, actually). Which means that every bit that I'd read before the class helped me understand the lesson better, which is the whole point of prep reading.

What I didn't expect was many people (who were mostly non-Arts/Humanities students) in the class telling the lecturer that the readings were "Difficult", "Like a high-pressure water fountain", "Intense", and "Contain lots of assumed-information (as in the author assumes you know certain things)". During our extra hour for postgrads tutorial before the class, another master's student (he's doing a chemical-something degree) said that he found the reading rather lengthy (the lecturer was like, "But that one's only 30 pages"; to which I went, "Yeah, that was like a chapter (only), right?", and the chemistry student explained that in his discipline, he's used to reading like, "One page of chemical [something -- maybe compounds?], and that's it."). To be honest, I agree with all of the above complaints. History books, however readable, are often intense, contains endless assumed-knowledge bits, and are sometimes plain difficult to take in.

Until that class, though, I didn't realise how conditioned I've become to working with difficult readings. *high five all around with history and literature students*. Difficult texts are what we do. Difficult reading is normal.

Because academic life (and life, period) is hard, I've learnt that it's best to just (1) accept that it's difficult, and (2) get over it. And one very powerful way of getting over it is to find (or create, or imagine) fun out of the doldrums. Even if you (like me) like solitary work, the printed word, and strange worlds and dead people, the day-to-day of studying can still sap your funergy like anything. One time I was in the Senate House Library's Special Collections room, flipping page after page of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Alien Immigration report, and writing down notes from it, and at some point I got so tired that I cried. Not emotional crying, but the your-eyes-suddenly-tear-up-non-stop-after-you-reached-your-yawning-threshold crying. It was hilarious, tears were just dripping onto the table. I had to push away the manuscript because I couldn't let the tears spoil the volume.

To survive difficulties (of all sorts) with as little damage as possible, I think it's important to find every excuse to be happy. For me, happiness makes itself available in the simplest things and steps, and they go a long way towards making everything else easier in general. For example:

1. Animals in the city

Walking in biting cold and rain (I'm an absolute chicken when it comes to cold weather) is horrible, but if I get to see one or two dogs around, my walk is made. The pugs are the funniest. And there's a pair of very clean Golden Retrievers I see walking with a man by the Royal Oak station some mornings. The guide-dogs, I have so much respect for them. So well-behaved and focused. Once, on the bus home from Camden, I saw an urban fox scurrying into the darkness. And let's not forget the Tube stations' resident pigeons -- the stations that are overground, like Bayswater -- that sometimes hop on the trains to feed off the sandwich crumbs on the floor. They almost make up for the lack of cats hereabouts (though I can always pay a visit to the two cats at Word on the Water, the floating second-hand bookshop on the Paddington Canal).

 This is how it feels. Cold, rainy, and grey. 
That's (part of) UCL on the right, and Waterstones on the left.
And no dog in sight (at the time this was taken).

2. Packed lunch/brunch

I'm not a fan of cold lunches, but when I'm at the uni, I don't have many (quick) hot lunch options besides Subway and KFC. So it's always lovely when I manage to plan beforehand and prepare some food, or even just some snacks, to bring to uni.

Cherries, tangerines, (canned pineapple "in own juice", they were not sweet enough so I squeezed some honey on them, though I'll find excuses to put honey on anything; and bananas).
It would've been prettier if we had some green grapes at home. 
They could've sat to the right of the bananas. Ah well next time.

Then again, half the time I forget to eat the lunches I bring along. So I don't bother to do it as much now. But fruits I certainly will remember to eat, not least because they're good when cold, unlike sandwiches or nasi goreng (although I can use the microwave at the Graduate Hub pantry if I want to heat up food).

3. Getting to pick your own essay topics

Usually MA students can pick from a range of questions or choose any other subject they want (with the tutor's approval), which is great because we get to work on something we're actually interested in, but this isn't as easy as it sounds. If the subject is generally unknown to you, you would need to do a fair bit of reading before you can even know which topics are do-able. But like bad weather and lunch decisions, there's also a fun element to deciding essay topics. If there are several questions (that the tutor has determined) that I have to choose from, my personal rule is to pick the subject that I know least about...like the Jordanian track of the peace process, or the 1982 Lebanon War. Sometimes one point or statement in a class discussion can trigger enough interest in me to find out more about the event, or phenomenon, and I'll then base my essay topic on that initial idea. 

It could be even more random. When I started out looking for a topic for my Jews in English-Speaking Lands paper, I was really stumped, so I drew on the little I know about 1880s (and thereabouts) London...which isn't much at all -- English history is not my strongest point. But I do know something about it...vaguely...from literary fiction (of which I only read the easiest). The least vague of these recollections happen to be of late Victorian London. Sherlock Holmes and the London street urchins, to be exact. The professor was telling us about the poor Jewish immigrants in Britain, and I wondered if any of those street boys that supplied information to Holmes (in exchange for a shilling or a guinea) were Jewish children...although Baker Street is in Northwest-Central London and the Jews mostly lived in the East End. And then I wanted to know what children's literature (of that period) said about Jewish children and Jewish life, and what Jewish children thought about what those books said about them. Next thing I know, I have an essay topic.

And this, you see, is how 4000 to 7000-word essays can develop out of hobbies and plain curiosity.
In my books, this is a very real cause for happiness.

4. Owning a book that you need

I cannot emphasise just how important it is to be able to hold on to a book freely and indefinitely, without having to worry about getting that book from the library before someone else does, or receiving a recall notice from the library because someone else wants to use it too. Having your own copy also means that you can underline and scribble in the margins whenever you feel like it.

So alhamdulillah for second-hand bookshops, brick-and-mortar or online. And thank you MARA for giving us decent monthly allowances. Thank you Allah, ever so much, for letting me afford to buy books at all.

(Rasa terpinggir) Cannot take it out of the library, even.

On the whole, this the-fun-is-in-the-hardship approach to my studies works rather well, I'd say, because I never feel like I'm doing an MA. I just feel like the rakyat is paying me to experience 12 months of Hebrew and Jewish history awesomeness. I feel very lucky and privileged, so alhamdulillah for these hardships of learning.

Bloomsbury Farmers' Market

On a completely unrelated note, and to make up for the lack of dog-in-the-street pictures, here are three photos I took of the farmers' market:

Probably not halal.
Bloomsbury farmers' market, in front of Byng Place every Thursday

Baked goods

Quite a range or porky (pork-based?) food here
I took several other pictures of carrots and leeks and more bread and pastries, but the composition of the photos are so disturbing, I can't put them up here. I need to spend time getting to know my camera. Anyhow, I'm sure you've seen soil-encrusted carrots before.

Sorry for the mashed up topics. I could've put the market photos in another post, but if I did, I'd feel obliged to write another story entirely about markets, food, and whatever the photos prompt me to talk about; and if I started doing that, there's no knowing when I'll actually publish these photos at all.

Until then!

Curiosity management

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I've realised that my life now has become a conscious effort in curiosity management. I want to know many, many things, and most of them are accessible here alhamdulillah; but to be able to acquire a lot of useful information and retain them and be time- and energy-efficient at the same time actually takes a lot of planning.

Last term, my biggest problem was compartmentalising the different subjects I was learning. For example, after 2 hours of discussing the suburbanisation of New York Jewry, I'd have to unwind before I can start taking in information about why the Israeli Labour Party lost out to the Likud in 1977. The mental "stop that here, now start this" exercise was even more difficult when it came to essays. In theory, I could just divide such-and-such amounts of weeks to research and write every essay, in relation to their different deadlines, but once I was deep into the childhood experiences of late-Victorian Jews in London's East End (and how related, or not related they were to British children's literature of the period), it was impossible to simply put aside those journal articles on Jews in English lit (of which a lot were not directly related to the essay topic, and therefore a waste of time but not really) and begin looking up the political ramifications of the 1982 Lebanon War. I had so many books on the war lying around in my room but I can't even open one of them, I was so engrossed with turn-of-the-century London Jewry. Not to mention the female Jewish immigrants to New York essay that kept getting pushed closer and closer to its deadline because my brain/imagination refuses to "stop this and do that". Yep. That was challenging.

Still, with Allah's help, and your du'as, I pulled through that...with some rather pretty colours, I think. Not firework-brilliant, but okay-excellent. Alhamdulillah. I don't know how that happened, but alhamdulillah. I think the sheer joy of learning a new language has been helping me cope with the tediousness of mental subject management...or maybe Hebrew has nothing to do with surviving last term, who cares. The problem was not that the subjects were boring (at all!), but that they were all so interesting. Therefore, I had a happy problem. It's a problem, in real practical terms, but the cause of the problems make and keep me happy. I welcome happy problems.

My class schedule this term is slightly different from last term's. I have classes from 9am to 7pm on Mondays (with a break from 11am-2pm), and on Tuesdays to Fridays, 11am-1pm only. And the Introduction to Talmud class on Thurdays, 2-4pm. On a more disappointing note, having the Israel and the Occupied Territories class on Monday evening this term means that I can no longer sit in on the Hasidism and Modernity class...and I know so little -- nothing! -- about Hasidism.

Talmud classes I can still attend, though. Alhamdulillah, I find that I can now follow the Aramaic/Hebrew text much, much quicker and more naturally than I could two months ago. I used to be able to only instantly pick up the masculine plural nouns in the (Hebrew) text, and find other sounds I heard the professor mention (as he reads the text) in relation to where the plural nouns are in the passage, because of the yod and mem letters in the plural form's endings! Back then, I was still scrabbling around mentally to identify the alphabets (most of which looked similar!). Now, alhamdulillah, my visual reading skills have improved.

Trust me, there is nothing like learning a new language to remind us of the joy of discovering, and to realise -- to really feel the progress -- of acquiring new information; and to remember that it is Allah who allows all of this to happen in our brains and memories...subhanallah. Sometimes I regret not being able to take in the bald trees or sky or the mold on the sidewalk or where the sun was in the sky because I can see its rays but not take the few seconds to locate the sun in the sky (because I'm usually busy thinking about something else while walking -- usually what I was going to do in the place I was headed to), like I used to when I was small. But having the privilege of learning a new language, a new culture, and so much disputed history -- these experiences, in some ways, compensate for the obliviousness I've been getting used to in (not) absorbing the ordinary and unusual things in life. Adulthood: lose some, win some.

Anyhow, aside from the 2.5 hours of lecture (average) four times a week, and having an intense listening-and-discussing blast on Monday, I basically have plenty of time for the other part of doing an MA -- the actual reading and preparing for lessons and researching for term papers.

In practical terms, this means that the first decision I have to make every morning is "which library today?". The Senate House Library is my favourite for lepak space; SOAS's Main Library wins for Israel-related materials but has the worst study space options ever [which is not good because as an external borrower, I can only take out three books at a time, so if I want to refer to 7-12 books at once -- all of them bersepah around my writing pad -- which is my usual essay-research behaviour, I have no choice but to stay in the library; and if I want a decent (large) desk, I'd have to be there before students start pouring in, which means before 11am generally]; and the UCL Main Library (Hebrew and Jewish Studies Reading Room) is convenient because most of what I need is there, plus the library is open 24 hours, and is therefore accessible at times that the other two aren't. But again, if I'm not already in a chair before the entire student body camps out there [and the HJS Reading Room is for some reason always packed with students], there'll be no space for reading, so I have to arrive at the library early.

I don't actually do all of my work at the library, though. The Kindle I use on the Tube and before bedtime, and the books I have on it are background-reading, "classic" books on a given subject. I find that this makes reading much easier, and because the physical feel of a Kindle versus a real book is different, it helps me do the "compartmentalise" thing better. Like "you've just finished 5 percent of that American diplomacy-peace process book (the Kindle has this annoying display of how much of the book we've read so far, and how much longer it'll take for us to finish that chapter), now you can flip open that Israeli Policy in the Territories (real) book. Or download an article and read it on the laptop". Ugh. How I hate reading journal article on the laptop. I think quite a lot of my allowance went to topping-up my photocopy/print account because I just had to have hard copies of the essays, to scribble on.

My point is, having several different mediums of reading materials has helped me plod through the endless reading with less stress. Once, when I suddenly realised (a couple of weeks before my personal deadline) that I needed to read Oliver Twist if I wanted to understand the period better, I panicked a bit -- because seriously? I was in the middle of sorting and thinking through the journal articles and my notes from the scholarly books and now, NOW, I have to pause and read a whole novel before I can move on? [again, my stop-this-and-do-that issue] -- then bought the Kindle version on Amazon, and proceeded to finish the book in 5 hours. The last time I finished a whole (fictional) work in one sitting was probably when I was 12...or probably 10 or 15 (you know, when you had nothing else to do in your life but curl up with a book and some food for as long as you please). And that was the first time I finished anything by Charles Dickens (not a fan. But Oliver Twist was a good book, though -- all those colourful characters and almost cerekarama-like dialogues probably helped me read faster -- very readable; I remember some novels that are so slow and pointless that I had to struggle to finish them. Like Lord of the Flies. I hated that one, sorry if you don't.) Conclusion: that Kindle Paperwhite was an excellent investment, alhamdulillah.

If I can borrow any books out of any library, I will, so I can refer to them at home, at leisure. That's 10 from UCL, 10 from the Senate House, and 3 from SOAS. As much as I love spending time at the libraries, though, working at home is sometimes more convenient because (1) I can just pause anytime for solat, which matters a lot especially now that prayer times are so close together, so if I were at the library, I'd have to leave my stuff and the library practically 3-4 times (zuhr, asr, maghrib, isha', all of them. Not because I'm that hardworking, but because 4:20pm is already maghrib, so you can imagine how quickly the day ends); (2) I can eat while working. Still, what is 23 books? You can skim through 20 books and note down scores of this-is-probably-relevant bits of information, but the truth is you'll only use 15-20 percent of those notes for that essay.

Another happy problem is feeling the need to finish a whole book before moving on to another. It is good, and necessary even, to finish (at some point) the book, any book you're reading. But I read non-fiction more slowly than I read fiction. I also have a lifetime habit of reading fiction (almost exclusively), so I take for granted that every book I pick up, I must finish. Closure is everything, in fiction. But this practice is no longer sustainable, now that I have to look at multiple works that have been published on a given event. This means reading one or two chapters from this book, and another from that, and then the journal articles and news reports and so on. For example, if I was done with Nixon and Kissinger's strategies in the Arab-Israeli peace process, I should pause there and start reading up the Israeli and Jordanian sides of the story, and resume learning about the American POV later. But how do you just stop at Reagan's administration when the book offers to tell you about diplomatic policies of Bush Sr., and after that Clinton? The stories are there, beginning on the next page. How do I just stop? I still haven't resolved this problem.

It only makes obvious sense to read juuust one chapter (or two or three) if the book in question is outrageously thick. Like 1120+ pages thick. (What did the authors do to know that much about what they were writing about?)

At risk of ending this post rather abruptly (as life can end sometimes), I want myself to remember that life is short and not easy. Even if you've found something or someone (a cause) that you love and you think is worth spending your time for, it will still be difficult sometimes. May Allah help us occupy our time on earth with things that we will not regret in our other life, after death.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Accichievement*

*or accident-achievement, as Aneesah puts it.

Did you know, by the way? Aneesah and Zakwan are now happily married [est. 3 January 2014]. I met them last week, and they were utterly in love with each other. Moral of the story: If you decide to sign a contract of life-long partnership, you might as well find a cosigner that you like very much. May Allah shower barakah on their marriage and family forever after. Allahumma ameen!

Now, to business. I'm going to talk about an essay. (This blog is fast becoming a celebration of academic life isn't it? Ah well. Not enough of that in the blogosphere, I think. Here's my contribution.)

Some two weeks ago, a course tutor e-mailed me to say that he had marked my essay, it was excellent, and I could drop by to talk about it. This is routine in the HJS department, as well as in most Arts and Humanities faculties in UCL, I think. When the lecturer has finished with your work, you can get further feedback from them, even if sometimes the essay has not been second-marked yet (yes, written works are assessed twice. First the course tutor grades it, then another lecturer grades it. Like to get a second opinion, and to make sure that the grading is fair).

So I set an appointment to see him to find out what "excellent" meant.

I was nervous about this essay. I had to pick a topic for myself (this was the one sparked by my recollection of the London street urchins), which is always a gamble because if you failed to develop good answers and arguments in the essay, that probably was because you failed to ask the right questions in the first place. I only consulted the professor once (by consulting, I mean I said one or two lines about the proposed general subjects of the essay, he told me it was a possible essay subject), and he recommended a book I could refer to.

This book:

The topmost, slim white volume by Travis. It cost me £64.94 (Amazon).  
The book was so recently published that none of the libraries had it, so I had to buy one myself. 
I asked Waterstones if they had it, but the ladies at the counter told me that it's a print-on-demand volume (which wasn't the problem), and cost like, £80. Even the lady was horrified ("EIGHTY POUNDS?"). 
After that, £64.94 on Amazon did not seem too bad.

[To give you some perspective, that The Jew in The Text book right underneath it only cost me £4.80 including delivery -- okay yes, it was a second-hand copy...because I always try to get the cheapest I can. 
But I generally avoid buying books if they cost more than £20 apiece -- and even that, I think, is expensive.  
**Ohhh no. I checked my past Amazon purchases and actually, quite a few of the books I bought were £25-£40 each. Duit rakyat.]

I was also working on two other essays at the same time, so I only began looking through materials during the reading week (halfway through the first term), and when classes resumed, I only did research for it on some weekends. I knew nothing about the topic I picked for the Peace Process in Modern Israeli Politics essay, so I put in more hours into that one [this is why I like unknown subjects. They give me no choice but to fire up my game].***

Still, the Jews in English-Speaking Lands essay was to be the longest (6000-7000 words, the other two were 4000- and 5000-word essays). A longer word limit meant that I had more space to make mistakes, and more space lulls you (me) into not keeping the arguments airtight and sharp. And as I developed the essay [while time was running out -- six weeks after submission, during the meeting with the tutor, I found out that I actually didn't have to send it in until 3 months after the day I submitted the paper. Anticlimax, much? I Life-Evented that discovery on Facebook because it was so improbable...downright ridiculous, really], I was aware that if the questions I set out to answer in the essay were insignificant, or poorly thought-out, that was it. The course is assessed by an exam (70%) and an essay (30%). If I don't do well in this one, chances are I won't fare well in the course overall.

***The A for that essay was the first milestone, because the tutor said it was a first-class MA-level essay. I had to know that. That I don't write like an undergraduate.

To know, after your essay has been graded, that you actually could've had three more months to work on it, is not such a bad thing when the grade is satisfactory. But on the day I submitted it, I remember thinking that if only I've had more time to do it, I could've produced a much better essay. The one I sent in was not my best effort. I was super relieved and thankful that I managed to send it in on time (ha ha), but I knew that I could've done more, if only I slept less and made myself work more regularly every day. I couldn't even bring myself to re-read it after submission, because I knew I'd die from self-criticism when I get to the half-baked parts.

Now, accidentally finishing and submitting papers any amount of time before the deadline -- let alone three months before -- is uncharacteristic of me. But that was a Life Event because in my meeting with the professor, which I thought was going to be a routine tutorial about coursework, I found validation for my future plans (which, basically, is to stay in school until formal retirement, or death, whichever comes first). Here are some of the things I learnt during the tutorial/meeting:

  1. The essay was "superb", which I'm grateful for because it counts for a noticeable chunk in the course assessment, but it wasn't just about getting a Distinction-level grade (the essay still needed to be second-marked anyhow). The A, this time, was a milestone because the lecturer said that if I want, I could look for primary materials to augment the sources I've included in the essay, and get it published. This in no way means that I'll get a free pass at publishing it after I back it up with primary sources, but it does mean that the essay is beyond term-paper well-done.
  2. After I was done with asking about the essay*, the lecturer asked me about my future plans. We talked about my PhD options (after I admitted to being crazy enough to do something in academics). UK or the States, possible topics, possible funding (the more grants you have in your name, the more you'll get [the easier it is to convince people to grant you more], so his advice was to apply for everything available...which isn't that many, but still). The lecturer said that students regularly come and say that they want to (be an academic), but that you never really know how good they are until you see what they write. And apparently my Sherlock Holmes-inspired essay tells him that I have potential. This means the world to me because one very big question I needed to answer by doing this MA was "Am I good enough to pursue an academic career?" Now I've been told that I definitely am, alhamdulillah.
  3. He said "We'd love to keep you here", but "for a student like you, there's no reason for you to settle for anything but the very best", meaning that if I find a suitable supervisor somewhere else, he'd be happy to advise. I told the professor frankly that I intend to stay on at UCL if I can, partly because I want to continue studying Hebrew here. Ahhh imagine. 3 more years of Hebrew. Happiness.
*there were several poorly chosen words. Tome instead of book, public school instead of state school, and the Jewish race, among others. Every word counts, I kid you not. Also, the flawed idea of Jewish children getting "wholesome education" in Eastern Europe, but I'm pretty sure I never was under impression that Jewish education in 19th century Eastern Europe was ever wholesome, so I must re-read the essay soon-ish, to see if the problem was that I organised the argument shoddily. 

Of course, I still have a lot to prove (in the other courses, in the exams), but alhamdulillah this feels like a healthy start. I have a long way to go ahead of me and I don't expect it to be easy, so please remember me in your du'as.
In hindsight, it's good that I finished the essay early, because

  1. I now have more time (in theory, at least) for the three essays and a presentation I need to do for this term, and let's not forget three exams that I'll need to revise for.
  2. I know (now, rather than later in May or June) that I should further my studies after this, which means that though I'm only in my second term here, I can already start narrowing down research topics for PhD because I could and should. Next term will be dissertation term, anyhow, so I can plan for that, too.
  3. It has been a powerful lesson in not procrastinating. I didn't mean to do the essay that early, but because I thought that was all the time I had, I did it. It's always better to do things today, not tomorrow. Lesson learnt, alhamdulillah.
  4. Now that I know where I stand, I can set my personal standards higher for this term inshaAllah.
Ya Allah, grant us not only knowledge, but also the hikmah and strength to derive benefit from what You allow us to know. Let our 'ilm serve us well in this world, and let it serve us even better in our lives after death.

(Sulayman 'alayhissalam) said [when the throne of the queen of Saba' was brought to him]:
"This is from the favour of my Lord, to test me whether I will be grateful or ungrateful.
And whoever is grateful, his/her gratitude is to (his/her own benefit).
And whoever is ungrateful, indeed my Lord has no need of anything and is the Most Generous."

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Counting blessings

In Israel and the Occupied Territories class this week, the lecturer asked our class, "How did you find the (weekly) readings?" The prep reading for this particular week was one chapter about the origins of the PLO, and another half-ish chapter on the Gush Emunim.

I was hovering between answering "(They were) useful" and "Helpful". I didn't actually finish the chapter on the PLO because of my I'm-reading-something-else-now-and-I-can't-stop problem, but the materials were like most everything else we (History students) have to read before and after every class (and all our student lives, actually). Which means that every bit that I'd read before the class helped me understand the lesson better, which is the whole point of prep reading.

What I didn't expect was many people (who were mostly non-Arts/Humanities students) in the class telling the lecturer that the readings were "Difficult", "Like a high-pressure water fountain", "Intense", and "Contain lots of assumed-information (as in the author assumes you know certain things)". During our extra hour for postgrads tutorial before the class, another master's student (he's doing a chemical-something degree) said that he found the reading rather lengthy (the lecturer was like, "But that one's only 30 pages"; to which I went, "Yeah, that was like a chapter (only), right?", and the chemistry student explained that in his discipline, he's used to reading like, "One page of chemical [something -- maybe compounds?], and that's it."). To be honest, I agree with all of the above complaints. History books, however readable, are often intense, contains endless assumed-knowledge bits, and are sometimes plain difficult to take in.

Until that class, though, I didn't realise how conditioned I've become to working with difficult readings. *high five all around with history and literature students*. Difficult texts are what we do. Difficult reading is normal.

Because academic life (and life, period) is hard, I've learnt that it's best to just (1) accept that it's difficult, and (2) get over it. And one very powerful way of getting over it is to find (or create, or imagine) fun out of the doldrums. Even if you (like me) like solitary work, the printed word, and strange worlds and dead people, the day-to-day of studying can still sap your funergy like anything. One time I was in the Senate House Library's Special Collections room, flipping page after page of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Alien Immigration report, and writing down notes from it, and at some point I got so tired that I cried. Not emotional crying, but the your-eyes-suddenly-tear-up-non-stop-after-you-reached-your-yawning-threshold crying. It was hilarious, tears were just dripping onto the table. I had to push away the manuscript because I couldn't let the tears spoil the volume.

To survive difficulties (of all sorts) with as little damage as possible, I think it's important to find every excuse to be happy. For me, happiness makes itself available in the simplest things and steps, and they go a long way towards making everything else easier in general. For example:

1. Animals in the city

Walking in biting cold and rain (I'm an absolute chicken when it comes to cold weather) is horrible, but if I get to see one or two dogs around, my walk is made. The pugs are the funniest. And there's a pair of very clean Golden Retrievers I see walking with a man by the Royal Oak station some mornings. The guide-dogs, I have so much respect for them. So well-behaved and focused. Once, on the bus home from Camden, I saw an urban fox scurrying into the darkness. And let's not forget the Tube stations' resident pigeons -- the stations that are overground, like Bayswater -- that sometimes hop on the trains to feed off the sandwich crumbs on the floor. They almost make up for the lack of cats hereabouts (though I can always pay a visit to the two cats at Word on the Water, the floating second-hand bookshop on the Paddington Canal).

 This is how it feels. Cold, rainy, and grey. 
That's (part of) UCL on the right, and Waterstones on the left.
And no dog in sight (at the time this was taken).

2. Packed lunch/brunch

I'm not a fan of cold lunches, but when I'm at the uni, I don't have many (quick) hot lunch options besides Subway and KFC. So it's always lovely when I manage to plan beforehand and prepare some food, or even just some snacks, to bring to uni.

Cherries, tangerines, (canned pineapple "in own juice", they were not sweet enough so I squeezed some honey on them, though I'll find excuses to put honey on anything; and bananas).
It would've been prettier if we had some green grapes at home. 
They could've sat to the right of the bananas. Ah well next time.

Then again, half the time I forget to eat the lunches I bring along. So I don't bother to do it as much now. But fruits I certainly will remember to eat, not least because they're good when cold, unlike sandwiches or nasi goreng (although I can use the microwave at the Graduate Hub pantry if I want to heat up food).

3. Getting to pick your own essay topics

Usually MA students can pick from a range of questions or choose any other subject they want (with the tutor's approval), which is great because we get to work on something we're actually interested in, but this isn't as easy as it sounds. If the subject is generally unknown to you, you would need to do a fair bit of reading before you can even know which topics are do-able. But like bad weather and lunch decisions, there's also a fun element to deciding essay topics. If there are several questions (that the tutor has determined) that I have to choose from, my personal rule is to pick the subject that I know least about...like the Jordanian track of the peace process, or the 1982 Lebanon War. Sometimes one point or statement in a class discussion can trigger enough interest in me to find out more about the event, or phenomenon, and I'll then base my essay topic on that initial idea. 

It could be even more random. When I started out looking for a topic for my Jews in English-Speaking Lands paper, I was really stumped, so I drew on the little I know about 1880s (and thereabouts) London...which isn't much at all -- English history is not my strongest point. But I do know something about it...vaguely...from literary fiction (of which I only read the easiest). The least vague of these recollections happen to be of late Victorian London. Sherlock Holmes and the London street urchins, to be exact. The professor was telling us about the poor Jewish immigrants in Britain, and I wondered if any of those street boys that supplied information to Holmes (in exchange for a shilling or a guinea) were Jewish children...although Baker Street is in Northwest-Central London and the Jews mostly lived in the East End. And then I wanted to know what children's literature (of that period) said about Jewish children and Jewish life, and what Jewish children thought about what those books said about them. Next thing I know, I have an essay topic.

And this, you see, is how 4000 to 7000-word essays can develop out of hobbies and plain curiosity.
In my books, this is a very real cause for happiness.

4. Owning a book that you need

I cannot emphasise just how important it is to be able to hold on to a book freely and indefinitely, without having to worry about getting that book from the library before someone else does, or receiving a recall notice from the library because someone else wants to use it too. Having your own copy also means that you can underline and scribble in the margins whenever you feel like it.

So alhamdulillah for second-hand bookshops, brick-and-mortar or online. And thank you MARA for giving us decent monthly allowances. Thank you Allah, ever so much, for letting me afford to buy books at all.

(Rasa terpinggir) Cannot take it out of the library, even.

On the whole, this the-fun-is-in-the-hardship approach to my studies works rather well, I'd say, because I never feel like I'm doing an MA. I just feel like the rakyat is paying me to experience 12 months of Hebrew and Jewish history awesomeness. I feel very lucky and privileged, so alhamdulillah for these hardships of learning.

Bloomsbury Farmers' Market

On a completely unrelated note, and to make up for the lack of dog-in-the-street pictures, here are three photos I took of the farmers' market:

Probably not halal.
Bloomsbury farmers' market, in front of Byng Place every Thursday

Baked goods

Quite a range or porky (pork-based?) food here
I took several other pictures of carrots and leeks and more bread and pastries, but the composition of the photos are so disturbing, I can't put them up here. I need to spend time getting to know my camera. Anyhow, I'm sure you've seen soil-encrusted carrots before.

Sorry for the mashed up topics. I could've put the market photos in another post, but if I did, I'd feel obliged to write another story entirely about markets, food, and whatever the photos prompt me to talk about; and if I started doing that, there's no knowing when I'll actually publish these photos at all.

Until then!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Curiosity management

I've realised that my life now has become a conscious effort in curiosity management. I want to know many, many things, and most of them are accessible here alhamdulillah; but to be able to acquire a lot of useful information and retain them and be time- and energy-efficient at the same time actually takes a lot of planning.

Last term, my biggest problem was compartmentalising the different subjects I was learning. For example, after 2 hours of discussing the suburbanisation of New York Jewry, I'd have to unwind before I can start taking in information about why the Israeli Labour Party lost out to the Likud in 1977. The mental "stop that here, now start this" exercise was even more difficult when it came to essays. In theory, I could just divide such-and-such amounts of weeks to research and write every essay, in relation to their different deadlines, but once I was deep into the childhood experiences of late-Victorian Jews in London's East End (and how related, or not related they were to British children's literature of the period), it was impossible to simply put aside those journal articles on Jews in English lit (of which a lot were not directly related to the essay topic, and therefore a waste of time but not really) and begin looking up the political ramifications of the 1982 Lebanon War. I had so many books on the war lying around in my room but I can't even open one of them, I was so engrossed with turn-of-the-century London Jewry. Not to mention the female Jewish immigrants to New York essay that kept getting pushed closer and closer to its deadline because my brain/imagination refuses to "stop this and do that". Yep. That was challenging.

Still, with Allah's help, and your du'as, I pulled through that...with some rather pretty colours, I think. Not firework-brilliant, but okay-excellent. Alhamdulillah. I don't know how that happened, but alhamdulillah. I think the sheer joy of learning a new language has been helping me cope with the tediousness of mental subject management...or maybe Hebrew has nothing to do with surviving last term, who cares. The problem was not that the subjects were boring (at all!), but that they were all so interesting. Therefore, I had a happy problem. It's a problem, in real practical terms, but the cause of the problems make and keep me happy. I welcome happy problems.

My class schedule this term is slightly different from last term's. I have classes from 9am to 7pm on Mondays (with a break from 11am-2pm), and on Tuesdays to Fridays, 11am-1pm only. And the Introduction to Talmud class on Thurdays, 2-4pm. On a more disappointing note, having the Israel and the Occupied Territories class on Monday evening this term means that I can no longer sit in on the Hasidism and Modernity class...and I know so little -- nothing! -- about Hasidism.

Talmud classes I can still attend, though. Alhamdulillah, I find that I can now follow the Aramaic/Hebrew text much, much quicker and more naturally than I could two months ago. I used to be able to only instantly pick up the masculine plural nouns in the (Hebrew) text, and find other sounds I heard the professor mention (as he reads the text) in relation to where the plural nouns are in the passage, because of the yod and mem letters in the plural form's endings! Back then, I was still scrabbling around mentally to identify the alphabets (most of which looked similar!). Now, alhamdulillah, my visual reading skills have improved.

Trust me, there is nothing like learning a new language to remind us of the joy of discovering, and to realise -- to really feel the progress -- of acquiring new information; and to remember that it is Allah who allows all of this to happen in our brains and memories...subhanallah. Sometimes I regret not being able to take in the bald trees or sky or the mold on the sidewalk or where the sun was in the sky because I can see its rays but not take the few seconds to locate the sun in the sky (because I'm usually busy thinking about something else while walking -- usually what I was going to do in the place I was headed to), like I used to when I was small. But having the privilege of learning a new language, a new culture, and so much disputed history -- these experiences, in some ways, compensate for the obliviousness I've been getting used to in (not) absorbing the ordinary and unusual things in life. Adulthood: lose some, win some.

Anyhow, aside from the 2.5 hours of lecture (average) four times a week, and having an intense listening-and-discussing blast on Monday, I basically have plenty of time for the other part of doing an MA -- the actual reading and preparing for lessons and researching for term papers.

In practical terms, this means that the first decision I have to make every morning is "which library today?". The Senate House Library is my favourite for lepak space; SOAS's Main Library wins for Israel-related materials but has the worst study space options ever [which is not good because as an external borrower, I can only take out three books at a time, so if I want to refer to 7-12 books at once -- all of them bersepah around my writing pad -- which is my usual essay-research behaviour, I have no choice but to stay in the library; and if I want a decent (large) desk, I'd have to be there before students start pouring in, which means before 11am generally]; and the UCL Main Library (Hebrew and Jewish Studies Reading Room) is convenient because most of what I need is there, plus the library is open 24 hours, and is therefore accessible at times that the other two aren't. But again, if I'm not already in a chair before the entire student body camps out there [and the HJS Reading Room is for some reason always packed with students], there'll be no space for reading, so I have to arrive at the library early.

I don't actually do all of my work at the library, though. The Kindle I use on the Tube and before bedtime, and the books I have on it are background-reading, "classic" books on a given subject. I find that this makes reading much easier, and because the physical feel of a Kindle versus a real book is different, it helps me do the "compartmentalise" thing better. Like "you've just finished 5 percent of that American diplomacy-peace process book (the Kindle has this annoying display of how much of the book we've read so far, and how much longer it'll take for us to finish that chapter), now you can flip open that Israeli Policy in the Territories (real) book. Or download an article and read it on the laptop". Ugh. How I hate reading journal article on the laptop. I think quite a lot of my allowance went to topping-up my photocopy/print account because I just had to have hard copies of the essays, to scribble on.

My point is, having several different mediums of reading materials has helped me plod through the endless reading with less stress. Once, when I suddenly realised (a couple of weeks before my personal deadline) that I needed to read Oliver Twist if I wanted to understand the period better, I panicked a bit -- because seriously? I was in the middle of sorting and thinking through the journal articles and my notes from the scholarly books and now, NOW, I have to pause and read a whole novel before I can move on? [again, my stop-this-and-do-that issue] -- then bought the Kindle version on Amazon, and proceeded to finish the book in 5 hours. The last time I finished a whole (fictional) work in one sitting was probably when I was 12...or probably 10 or 15 (you know, when you had nothing else to do in your life but curl up with a book and some food for as long as you please). And that was the first time I finished anything by Charles Dickens (not a fan. But Oliver Twist was a good book, though -- all those colourful characters and almost cerekarama-like dialogues probably helped me read faster -- very readable; I remember some novels that are so slow and pointless that I had to struggle to finish them. Like Lord of the Flies. I hated that one, sorry if you don't.) Conclusion: that Kindle Paperwhite was an excellent investment, alhamdulillah.

If I can borrow any books out of any library, I will, so I can refer to them at home, at leisure. That's 10 from UCL, 10 from the Senate House, and 3 from SOAS. As much as I love spending time at the libraries, though, working at home is sometimes more convenient because (1) I can just pause anytime for solat, which matters a lot especially now that prayer times are so close together, so if I were at the library, I'd have to leave my stuff and the library practically 3-4 times (zuhr, asr, maghrib, isha', all of them. Not because I'm that hardworking, but because 4:20pm is already maghrib, so you can imagine how quickly the day ends); (2) I can eat while working. Still, what is 23 books? You can skim through 20 books and note down scores of this-is-probably-relevant bits of information, but the truth is you'll only use 15-20 percent of those notes for that essay.

Another happy problem is feeling the need to finish a whole book before moving on to another. It is good, and necessary even, to finish (at some point) the book, any book you're reading. But I read non-fiction more slowly than I read fiction. I also have a lifetime habit of reading fiction (almost exclusively), so I take for granted that every book I pick up, I must finish. Closure is everything, in fiction. But this practice is no longer sustainable, now that I have to look at multiple works that have been published on a given event. This means reading one or two chapters from this book, and another from that, and then the journal articles and news reports and so on. For example, if I was done with Nixon and Kissinger's strategies in the Arab-Israeli peace process, I should pause there and start reading up the Israeli and Jordanian sides of the story, and resume learning about the American POV later. But how do you just stop at Reagan's administration when the book offers to tell you about diplomatic policies of Bush Sr., and after that Clinton? The stories are there, beginning on the next page. How do I just stop? I still haven't resolved this problem.

It only makes obvious sense to read juuust one chapter (or two or three) if the book in question is outrageously thick. Like 1120+ pages thick. (What did the authors do to know that much about what they were writing about?)

At risk of ending this post rather abruptly (as life can end sometimes), I want myself to remember that life is short and not easy. Even if you've found something or someone (a cause) that you love and you think is worth spending your time for, it will still be difficult sometimes. May Allah help us occupy our time on earth with things that we will not regret in our other life, after death.