Vice Chancellor’s Scholar

For a second consecutive year, I have qualified as a Vice Chancellor’s Scholar as a result of my academic awesomeness. By maintaining a GPA of 6.7 or above (out of 7.0), I have secured my place on the VC Scholar Honour Roll and will have this distinction acknowledged on my academic transcript. Along with forty other fellow VC Scholars, I also participated in a two-day workshop on Leadership Development held in Armidale. The workshop, ran by Kay Hempsall and Peter McClenaghan, was an opportunity for the scholars to get to know each other and spend time together while learning what leadership was all about.

The activities throughout the weekend focused primarily on group-based learning, with the Desert Simulation exercise being the clear standout activity for most, if not all of us. It was truly eye-opening to discover how utterly wrong we all were (as individuals) when attempting to survive a plane crash, but then to realise how dramatically our chances improved when we worked together as a team. Despite how obvious all this may sound, it was quite a revelation nonetheless! Especially for those few individuals with the ‘correct’ strategy, unable to wholeheartedly convince their respective teams that they had indeed the right answers all along.

Inevitably, questions of leadership emerged from this simulation exercise. Was there a dominant voice within the group or was leadership a product of multiple voices? Why is it that some voices could be heard more so than others? What attributes of so-called leaders made them stand out from the crowd?  Why were some voices ignored when their opinions were equally valid, if not more so? What made some groups outperform the rest?

After several more fun and interactive activities where we learned about ourselves and each other, it became clear that the underlying theme of the workshop was the notion of communities of practice. According to one of our handouts, a community of practice is “a group of people who share a common concern, a set of problems, or interest in a topic and who come together to fulfil both individual and group goals”. As VC Scholars with a passion for learning and a history of high achievement, what better way of putting leadership theory to the test but through establishing a little community of practice of our own? While consensus could not be reached as to the finer intricacies of #VCScholar_CoP by the end of the workshop, the wheels were set into motion, and I suspect that momentum will build once everyone finishes their exams. Personally, I’m looking forward to belonging to such a distinguished group of individuals who interact regularly in pursuit of even greater glory.

Apart from the attending the workshop, the VC Scholars were also in Armidale for another most prestigious event. We were in town to receive our VC Scholar certificates, in front of family and friends, and the academic community that was embracing us with open arms. Dressed in our best cocktail/lounge suit attire, we accepted our awards from Professor Annabelle Duncan, our beloved Vice-Chancellor and CEO. As our names were called out one by one, it dawned on me what an honour it was to be among such elite minds. And for those lucky enough to receive Academic Development (valued at $1000) and Engagement Awards (valued at $4000), it was like adding icing on the cake! Hearing my name called out for a second time, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face as I walked up on stage once again to pose with my fellow award winners.

“With his Engagement Award, Mark will attend the Royal Australian Chemical Institute National Congress held in Adelaide, and the Physical Biology of Proteins and Peptides conference in Mexico City.”

The ceremony came to a close with a final address from Dr Sarah Lawrence, the Charles Tesoriero Lecturer in Latin from the School of Humanities. Her speech was based, not surprisingly, on a Latin word; that word being inspiro or “to inspire”. Regaling us with tales of her academic accolades, previous shortcomings and future aspirations, she certainly made an indelible impression on me. I particularly enjoyed the metaphor she used about rays of light irradiating the night sky, which she premised with “I hope my colleagues from the hard sciences won’t jump all over me for my inaccuracy.” Speaking as a wannabe ‘hard’ scientist, I fell for it hook, line and sinker. With my certificate in hand and inspiro instilled in my head, my own rays of light shone through the darkness bigger and brighter than ever!

2014-10-04 12.01.30

Advertisements

Undergraduate Research Summer School

This blog is a recollection of journal entries from my time at the inaugural Undergraduate Research Summer School (URSS) held at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia on December 1-5, 2013. The aim of URSS was to inform, encourage and extend student understanding of research practice and possibilities.

Poster

[Click image to enlarge]

As a member of Get Published, a writing group of eight undergraduate volunteers (out of 50 participants in total) and Dr Adele Nye from the School of Education, we enjoyed Breakfast at Booloominbah every morning while sharing our thoughts and insights regarding the research process we were learning about during URSS. We also the discussed the reading and writing practices required for publishing the two academic papers we were working towards. As emerging student authors, we came from diverse disciplines, namely: biology, chemistry, music, psychology and social work. Four students focused on transformative learning (as an individual) while the other four examined communities of practice (learning in a group setting). I chose to be a member of the communities of practice quartet!

Article 1: Reflections on transformative learning as an emergent undergraduate researcher – This article will focus on the phases of transformative learning for individual students. It will reflect on the personal stories of individual learners incorporating their educational background and the impact of a week’s intensive learning and mentoring. The authors will consider their personal reactions to speakers and skills-based sessions. Theoretically this paper will draw from critical reflection and collective biography approaches.

Article 2: Communities of Practice: Collegial learning, writing and publishing as undergraduate students – This article will reflect on collegial and peer learning. It will focus on how we learn from collective exchange and shared narratives. This paper will ask; in what way do fellow students’ stories, questions and discussions resonate with my own and how does this assist me in the process of becoming a researcher? The theoretical focus will draw from Lave and Wenger’s notion of communities of practice and the liminal spaces of mentoring and coming into a community of academia and/or discipline.

Both papers have now been submitted for publication and are currently in review.

Nomadic Scholar

If there was one idea or concept that best describes my baptism as a researcher today, I cannot go past the Nomadic Scholar. When Adele first uttered those two words, I was both baffled and bemused. There is certainly no shortage of buzz words and phrases that roll off the back of researchers’ tongues, both in real life and in the literature, but this one had a strange, alluring appeal to me. However, due to the constraints of time (and an impending yoga class at 6pm which I simply had to attend), the opportunity to delve deeper as to what a nomadic scholar actually is, was unfortunately not forthcoming. At least not today. So faced with the dilemma of not knowing, I saw two options in order to resolve my uncertainty:

  1. Google
  2. Define it myself

I chose the latter. So what does a nomadic scholar mean to me? Why was I immediately drawn to it like a moth to flame burned by the fire? Am I a nomadic scholar? Is my interpretation of the term even a correct one and am I using it in the right context? Do I have the authority to challenge the accepted definition or norm?

I suppose the answers to these questions will require further thought and consideration, but one thing I ‘know’ (with high probability) is that I am indeed a nomadic scholar.

Looking back on my academic career at four different universities, with a bachelor’s degree in Economics at Sydney Uni, masters in Statistics from UNSW, a semester at UTS studying Creative Writing and now a Science degree at UNE, where I have found my true ‘home’ in the fields of Chemistry, Mathematics and Computer Science. Whether this place I call home is temporary or permanent, only time will tell. But never have I been more excited, motivated and engaged by my studies and research projects as I am today.

In the past month, I joined a professional body called the Royal Australian Chemical Institute for a nominal annual fee of $25 (student rate), took the day off work to attend a workshop on Macromolecules and Polymer Chemistry at UWS Parramatta (free RACI event) and was lucky enough to receive a UNE School of Science and Technology research scholarship valued at $4000 starting in February.

As Xanthe Mallett highlighted during her ‘Be Inspired’ lecture this morning, it is important to invest both time and money to maximise your potential as a researcher. Sowing the seeds early in your career truly does reap rewards and opportunities, having talked shop and socialised over a glass of wine with several heavyweights at the macromolecules conference was truly a memorable experience. It made me realise something I have always known deep down inside, but have been in denial about for many years. It was that this was the type of environment or community I desperately wanted to belong to. And oh how thrilling it was to read my name on the list of attendees, being the sole representative from UNE!

But why did I want to be a part of this? Was it my unending quest and burning desire for knowledge? Did I want to change the world? Was it to fulfil my grandiose plans of immortality? Am I motivated by the betterment of society? Or simply the betterment of me? Is there a specific person or cause I am doing this for and dedicating my life’s work towards? Who or what are my catalysts? Is the force that drives me have something to do with my nomadic lifestyle and travel aspirations, to see the world and meet new people from every corner of the globe? As a new card-carrying member of the Nomadic Scholars Society (NSS), I would have to say yes to all these questions. But does my membership to this community necessarily invalidate my homelessness and nomadicity, by definition?

Postmodern Stress Disorder

When I first heard Adele say Postmodern the other day I shuddered and gasped out loud. “Oh! That WORD”, I exclaimed. Nobody else in the group seemed particularly bothered by it or even noticed my comment, as Adele moved on to another favourite of hers, Poststructuralism. I was relieved she decided not to delve deeper, choosing not to peel the proverbial onion skin layer by layer.

Once upon a time I had immersed myself in all things deconstructive. On my 22nd birthday party, which is but a distant memory now, Jeff, my accounting lecturer at Sydney Uni gave me two books as presents. When I flipped through the pages I discovered that they were comic books. One was called ‘Introducing Foucault’, or as Jeff liked to pronounce it, “Fuck-oh”. The other was ‘Introducing Postmodernism’.

That dreaded WORD again.

Jeff’s dedication reads:
Dear Mark,
Keep entertaining and being entertained!
Jeff

It is these two comic books that sends me spiralling down the path to insanity! I won’t go into the all the gory details about my descent into madness, that’s another novel altogether. Needless to say, it was the end of the world as we know it. This nihilistic view is encapsulated by the following two poems of mine from ‘Tales of Informative Uncertainty’.

Lithium Daze
Our mind adventures,
Such devoted companions
Until euphoria no longer a dream.
Sanity entices the question,
“Asylum in reality?”

Universal Blues
Fearing continuity,
A dejected spirit awaits
Higher enlightenment.
Sensing calamity,
This gifted soul
Denies shelter bliss.
Bereft of all
Worldly endeavours,
A will to discontinue.

It took several years until I fully recovered from the trauma that was Postmodernism. Many meltdowns and two trips to hospital later, my sanity has thankfully been restored. But now that it has reared its ugly head once again, I wonder how long until PMSD strikes back with a vengeance?

Framing The Images

The unique beauty of Armidale can be found in places you’d least expect. Like at the train station early in the morning, as passengers eagerly await departure time.

Armidale

As the coffees slowly arrive at our tables at Booloominbah and each careful sip leaves white froth on our lips, we become united as a community. We are the ‘Get Published’ community, a group of eight student authors with the unique opportunity to publish an article collaboratively in a peer reviewed journal. This community is a creative and supportive learning environment that will record our individual and collective stories during our time at URSS through critical reflection, writing as a form of inquiry and collective biography. But not without copious amounts of coffee, of course!

Get Published

From the moment our shoes and socks came off, each person in the room was free! Free to be silly, playful, naughty. Free to make funny noises and strange body movements. Free to be a child again. Oh what a spectacle! As we relaxed and became comfortable around a roomful of strangers, we also wondered what was the point in all this? Except to liberate our stinky feet from the shackles of footwear. I’ll let the picture below speak for itself.

Group Learning

After preparing a short speech about my newly acquired identity as a ‘nomadic scholar’ during our Breakfasts at Booloominbah, I decided to throw it all out the window on the morning of the Get Published presentation. As I sat and listened to the many words of wisdom and inspiration from our learned panelists that day, it was clear to me that there was another story I wanted to tell. A story I had not yet shared with many people, let alone the URSS community, or even my ‘sisters’ at breakfast. So I started the speech again from scratch during the morning tea and composed the following. About two months ago I received an email from UNE saying that I’ve been recognised as a Vice Chancellor’s Scholar. At first I thought it was just another Spam email from the uni. But just when I was about to click on the Delete button to send it to Trash, the following line caught my eye, “You have achieved an outstanding result with a GPA of 6.7 or above.” So I read on. It turns out the Vice Chancellor’s Scholars Program acknowledges the top 150 on-campus and off-campus students with an awards ceremony in November and placed on an Honour Roll. VC Scholars can be of any age and at any stage of their degree. I thought WOW! I’m so glad this didn’t go straight to Junk Mail. But apart from the recognition for a job well done, the program entitled me to apply for scholarships. As VC Scholars, we are eligible to apply for three different scholarships: 1. Engagement Award valued at $4000 2. Academic Development Award worth $1000 3. School of Science and Technology Special Project, which is a 4-week research traineeship in Armidale valued at $4000

VC Scholars

I was lucky enough to receive the third award. Here’s a picture of me with Jim Barber, our beloved Vice Chancellor, along with Jacqui who received the Engagement Award and Josh who won the Academic Development Award. With this scholarship money, Jacqui will be going to York in the UK for an overseas placement working alongside historians and curators to learn about heritage management and interpreting Viking archaeology to the public. Meanwhile, Josh will be travelling to Japan to attend a linguistics conference as part his arts/languages degree. I, on the other hand, will be working with Dr Erica Smith of the Chemistry department to work on computer modelling and simulation of biomolecular systems, in particular the structural and thermodynamic properties of proteins. But these awards and scholarships weren’t just handed to us on a silver platter. It was A LOT of hard work and dedication to achieve these results. Not to mention how much I agonised painstakingly over filling in the scholarship application forms. In the end though, the blood, sweat and tears were certainly worth it. It has brought me here to the Undergraduate Research Summer School, which has been a wonderful and eye-opening experience, and I’m sure everyone in this room will agree. So on behalf of all of us, I’d like to thank our organisers, Jennifer, Adele and Sarah for hosting such a fabulous event which, not only has enlightened me on what it means to be a researcher, but has enriched my life in ways I never thought imaginable. On the last day of URSS, it was cheesy smiles all around… Smiles

Seachange

I have taken the plunge, a leap of faith, a giant step forward. I am moving to Armidale next year to become a full-time student again. After much soul searching, I have decided to give up a 10-year career in IT and gave notice at work yesterday. It was really sad but everyone was really supportive and happy for me. I’m really gonna miss everyone but this is something that is now beyond my control. After the events of last week at URSS and the many wonderful people that I’ve met, I no longer feel at home here in my 9 to 5 job in the city. My official last day at work is Friday 24th January 2014.

But the hardest thing about my decision was telling Mum. To say that she was shocked and worried when I first broke the news to her would be an understatement. Eventually she came around and I managed to convince her that this decision was for the best. Now that she’s on board, she can’t wait to help me relocate to my new home and see the beauty and wonder of Armidale with her own eyes.

I’m now in the process of finding accommodation so I thought what better way to settle in to my new identity as a ‘Nomadic Scholar’ than by living in College! As I filled in my online application form on the StarRez Portal, Step 4 required a Personal Statement which asked the following question.

What do you expect to gain by living at College and how will you contribute positively to College? (maximum 800 words)

I only managed 324 words but I reckon what I’ve written so far is enough to get me over the line. Here is what I submitted…

I would like to experience college life and take advantage of the many opportunities that collegial learning has to offer. By living with fellow students and peers, I hope to make long-lasting friendships and relationships, and share my knowledge and experience with others. Conversely, I aim to learn from other people by exchanging thoughts and ideas in a social environment and outside the classroom.

I am a keen sportsman; living an active lifestyle by playing tennis socially on a weekly basis, as well as recreational running, swimming, yoga and gym. I hope to continue these activities and meet other sports-minded individuals while at college.

I am also a musician; I play the piano and would like to join a music choir this year, to fulfil my love of singing and the arts. My other interests include chess, creative writing and philosophy. I wish to develop these interests by engaging other college students and getting involved with various clubs and societies at university.

As a second-year Bachelor of Science student, I can provide academic support and guidance to first-year students who might be struggling with their studies, particularly in Mathematics and Chemistry. I have also been offered casual employment as a tutor in STAT100 in Trimester 2.

I was also recognised as a Vice Chancellor’s Scholar in 2013 for outstanding academic performance and was fortunate enough to receive a School of Science and Technology scholarship, valued at $4000. With this scholarship money, I will commence a research project with the Discipline of Chemistry in February 2014, entitled ‘Computational Analysis of Biomolecular Systems’.

With my diverse interests in sport, music and the arts, in addition to my strong academic record, I hope to make a positive contribution to college life and in doing so, learn about myself and other people.

Happiness

A few years ago I attended a lecture on the ‘Philosophy of Happiness’ during my lunch break at work. The main quadrangle opposite Fisher Library, with its sandstone walls, freshly mowed lawns and ever blooming jacaranda tree always makes me feel like I’m at Hogwarts every time I enter its hallowed halls. Inside the General Lecture Theatre, I sit down on the very last row, overlooking other graffiti-stained wooden benches. Looking around I see the usual flurry of undergraduate students rummaging through bags, preparing their notepads and pens, chatting to their friends.

The lecturer walks in. She is tall, slender and spunky. Her long, blonde hair is straight but seems longer on one side than the other. It frames her face asymmetrically. I suspect she is in her mid-30s but her cheerful disposition and sunny outlook could be hiding her true age.

“Hello everybody, my name is Caroline West and I will be teaching PHIL2647 this semester…”

Her voice is pleasant, confident and assured. I listen intently as she talks about how we all want to be happy and what it means to live a worthwhile life.

“What is happiness? Why should we want it? And how do we get it? These are the most fundamental questions of philosophy. In this course, we will be evaluating the answers of the greatest thinkers from ancient and modern, eastern and western traditions; and consider the implications of current psychological research into the causes of happiness, and how to live well as individuals and as a society.”

The screen reveals her first PowerPoint slide. It shows pictures of faces, both men and women, young and old. The next slide displays the same faces, but showing only their mouths.

“Can you tell who is happy and who is sad?”

The students whisper quietly amongst themselves while she moves on to more abstract notions such as absence of pain and subjective well-being.

A half-length portrait of a woman with her arms folded, is projected on to the big screen.

“We have all seen this famous painting before; indeed it is the most famous painting of all time. It is of course, the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. Or in Italian, La Gioconda”.

I feel my phone vibrate, alerting me of a text message. I ignore it.

“One of the most interesting features of this painting is Mona Lisa’s smile. It has been described as enigmatic, secretive, faint. Do you think she’s happy?”

My phone vibrates again. This time I decide to read it.

Please come back to the office ASAP. Got really busy, need all hands on deck!

I walk out of the lecture room with a dejected look on my face. Annoyed with my boss, with myself and with life in general.

“Not happy, Jan!”

A week later, while pondering the nature of happiness, I decided to put pen to paper and composed the following:

Mum is sitting next to me as we listen to Taylor Dayne belt out “someday you will find me again, it won’t be long” on the radio. I signal left to turn into Copperfield Drive, an all too familiar routine this year, en route to Campbelltown Hospital to visit Pa. It’s his fourth stint since his heart attack in January and stroke in September. Poor guy!

Round the corner a vintage convertible with its top down cruises on the other side of the road, in second gear. A middle-aged woman with brown hair, tied back away from her face, draws a long breath from her cigarette, left hand on the wheel. I watch her exhale a plume of smoke as I finish my own left turn.

Song changes to ‘Young Hearts Run Free’. Looking at the rearview mirror, I can’t help but give myself a Duchenne smile.

Broken Wings

I’ve been unwell with Postmodern Stress Disorder for over a month now and my road to recovery is taking longer than expected. I’m still not at my best but thankfully I feel as if I’m finally on the mend, slowly but surely. Before getting sick I had started my first draft for the ‘communities of practice’ paper, which I was affectionately calling Sky High. Reading it now a month later, things have changed slightly, particularly my personal circumstances and how this has affected my work/study plans this year.

After coming home from URSS in December, I made some pretty big decisions about my future, which in hindsight may have been rash and premature. I probably should have recognised that I wasn’t my usual self when I made these decisions, given my mind was overly active and my thoughts were constantly ‘racing’ at the time. This was especially true, given my prolific writing on this forum, posting a new journal piece almost daily. Thank you all for indulging me back then, dearly beloved readers!

Having not written a word since being sky high last month, I would like to put pen to paper once again (or in my case, finger to iPad) to organise my thoughts and calm my mind so that it’s no longer in a state of flux. But curing my writer’s block is a double-edged sword. Despite the apparent benefits of reflective writing practice and reflexivity, for someone with a mental illness, I fear there are many hidden dangers, particularly, excessive introspection and inward thinking. At least that’s been my experience! We don’t want a repeat of Manic Meltdown ’08 or the Lithium Daze ’00, do we now?

So for the sake of my sanity, I’ll try not to overdo it by writing more objectively from now on. Sadly, this means the long-awaited sequel to ‘Tales of Informative Uncertainty’ is no longer forthcoming, my dearly beloved readers. Rather, expect ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Objective Truth and Absolute Certainty’ to hit the shelves instead. It’s destined to become another bestseller, don’t you think? But in all seriousness, I’d like to start posting on the forum again, in order to get my mojo back and in the process, submit my section of the paper as soon as possible. I feel compelled to write, about everything and nothing all at once; to clear my weary head of all its restless thoughts and ideas, so that hopefully I can find a cure for whatever it is that ails me. Until then I cannot rest.

Broken Wings
A cluster of black wings
Appear amidst the gloom of rain.
Hanging in dispersed unity,
They glide back and forth
Showering in synchronicity.
Disappearing into dry shelter,
The injured bird wonders
When will he be ready to fly?

Rhinos, Rhizomes and The Ideal Scientist

Despite the absurdity of this connection, the moment I laid my eyes on these rhinos scattered randomly all over Sydney, my immediate thought was that of the rhizome. I discovered these cute and colourful works of art while on walkabout from Hyde Park to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Royal Botanic Gardens and ultimately Circular Quay. These rhinos were commissioned by Taronga Zoo and in spite of the “Please do not climb on it as this could result in injury” sign, countless tourists were unable to resist picking up their little kids and taking happy snaps of them riding this out-of-place creature. I myself was insanely jealous of those children, that I possessed an adult body and my best efforts in capturing the moment would only amount to a pathetic selfie.

Rhinos1

Looking at these images again now, the less absurd my original connection with the rhizome becomes. Just as “a rhizome can break away, exist on its own and lead the researcher toward another site of thinking” (St Pierre, 1997a:405 cited in Nye, 2008:28-29), these urban rhinos are separated from their tribes, have attained independence and are occupying new places outside their natural habitats. As a pilot scholar/nomadic researcher, I am then drawn to this rhino/rhizome representation of myself, struggling to de-territorialise space and refusing to settle on a permanent home. I prefer to live on the fold or on the slash while constantly seeking new ‘lines of flight’.

Rhinos2

A student of both the sciences and the arts, my identity is blurry. As a mathematician I use the language of logic and the rules of probability and statistics to reveal certain scientific ‘truths’. The problem with mathematics however is that its beauty and elegance are often hidden under many layers of abstraction that it can no longer be understood by most people, let alone be admired or appreciated. Despite the many miraculous gifts it has brought humanity, mathematics (especially pure mathematics) will remain an elusive mystery beyond intellectual grasp. While understanding the scientific laws of nature is my primary endeavour and one which I will ultimately strive for, I am also blessed with an artistic and creative side. This part of me was reawakened by the Get Published community of practice and is now flourishing, thanks to my sisters at Booloominbah.

Rhinos3

Two months later, my imagination is in full bloom and I have an overwhelming urge to reconcile the left and right hemispheres of my brain. I wish to transcend disciplinary boundaries, exercise my mind muscles analytically and creatively, and play the notes of science and the arts in harmony, to uncover ‘threshold concepts’ and explain any ‘troublesome knowledge’ that may arise as a consequence (Meyer and Land, 2003). By mapping the contours of each discipline’s landscape methodically and artistically, I strive to be the ideal scientist that Edward O. Wilson describes in his book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998).

“[He] thinks like a poet and works like a bookkeeper, and I suppose if gifted with a full quiver, he also writes like a journalist.”

Finally, Bertrand Russell summed it up well when he said this about the study of mathematics.

“Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty–a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as in poetry.”

Autarky and Economic Abstraction

“The purpose of abstraction is not to be vague, but to create a new semantic level in which one can be absolutely precise.” – Edsger Dijkstra

While studying a third-year economics subject called ECON3006 International Trade many years ago, I encountered a word that I found aesthetically displeasing. Its surface exterior lacked elegance and beauty; its tonal qualities harsh and unsubtle; its overall character and personality missing a certain joie de vivre. That word was Autarky.

As I learned more about this troublesome and alien word however, the more fascinated I became. Despite its conceptual difficulty, which Meyer and Land (2003) describe as an inherent characteristic of a ‘threshold concept’, it is the ‘line of flight’ that I took in discovering the true meaning of autarky that I wish to document here.

Regular lecture and tutorial attendance taught me that autarky is the quality of being self-sufficient. In economic terms, an autarky exists whenever a state can survive or continue its activities without external assistance or international trade. Furthermore, if a self-sufficient economy refuses all trade with the outside world then it is called a ‘closed economy’. Now in all my years as a student of economics, I knew from the outset that such a regime was destined for failure. Political considerations aside, if there were two things that made sense to me at the time it was that:

1. Trade was good.
2. No trade was bad.

Despite the commonsense simplicity of this argument, its foundations are based on abstract notions of comparative advantage and opportunity cost, threshold economic concepts that guarantee countries (or individuals) that exchange goods and services will secure net benefits or gains from trade. So within the confines of traditional neoclassical economics, autarkies are nothing more than idealistic theoretical constructs that have no place in the real world. To reassure myself of this conclusion, I wondered whether autarkies even existed anymore? Can economies truly be self-sufficient? Are we better off as islands or an archipelago? John Donne would surely choose the latter, no doubt. Interestingly, Wikipedia cites Nazi Germany, North Korea and the Taliban as modern examples of autarkies, to name but a few.

But just when I was about to dig the grave of this conceptually difficult and unrealistic utopian word once and for all, I celebrated the birth of a new poem.

Equal Eyes
Political spectacles with views uninformed
Gaze sternly upon a closed economy,
Soaring selfishly over oceans abroad.
An armchair flight towards infinity
Beyond the tyrannous terms of trade,
Escapes destination degree zero.
From island villages and kingston towns,
She unwillingly forgoes equilibria while
At last he screams autarky!

Inspired by the lines “autonomy sufficiently inadequate” and “independence forgone in an instant” from a different poem called Casualties of Sex, the word autarky is likened to both autonomy and independence. Both ideals are clearly viewed negatively in the contexts above and this sentiment is carried forward in ‘Equal Eyes’, particularly in the final two lines, where the female is “unwilling” while the male screams the word agonisingly.

Fourteen years later, ECON3006 is but a long-forgotten credit on my colourful transcript and the only surviving memory of that subject is that word. That ugly, troublesome word that inspired me to travel on an unconventional line of flight, using poetic abstraction and intertextuality to help me decipher a difficult threshold concept. Equal Eyes, along with other poems I wrote in Tales of Informative Uncertainty, not only serve as relics of my struggle to grasp the ‘truth’, but also provided me with an alternative way of thinking and practising within my discipline through creative writing. As St Pierre (1997) explains, “Writing is not only inscription but also discovery. It is a kind of nomadic inquiry in which I am able to deterritorialize spaces in which to travel in the thinking that the writing produces. I think, I learn, and I change my mind about what I think” (p.408).