2021/2022

Hello again!

I told you that I’d try to write before two months passed, and this time I managed to keep to my promise. Since I last wrote, I finished my first trimester at UCD and am now preparing for the next. It’s been a wonderful journey so far. Really, the whole year has been. From graduating from U of M, to applying to graduate school, to actually getting to study in Ireland- it’s been a very busy year.

If I learned anything this year, it was to plan, plan, plan, and then be ready for life to go in a completely direction. My general plan- graduate and study history at the Masters level- hasn’t changed, but the details sure have. From managing applications to making plans with friends, this year sure presented me with many twists and turns, even in seemingly the most straightforward plans.

This is not to say that those twists and turns were all bad. I have a deep and abiding appreciation for the spontaneous. Some of my best moments this year have started with a simple text from a friend, asking whether I’m free. I’ve had some wonderful conversations and adventures that started this way.

This has been a great year for my academic career, too. The transition from undergraduate education to graduate has been difficult, but rewarding. Everything from the subject material to the pacing has changed, but I like to think I’ve taken it in stride. I’ve had so many amazing opportunities to connect with my fellow students and professors in new ways. Some of my favorite experiences this trimester have been post-seminar outings where we all get together and just talk.

As I look to 2022, I can only hope for more adventures and experiences. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world right now, but also a lot of opportunities. This will be the year that I do the bulk work for my dissertation, something which I am already excitedly anticipating. This will be the year that I will get to see more of Europe. And perhaps the most exciting: this will be the year that I will have many more unplanned experiences, good and bad, that I can’t even begin to predict now. I can’t wait to have them!

Happy New Year,

Hannah

Happy Winter Break

Here are some winter break reflections:

I’m able to count how many times I’ve stepped into a car since I flew in. That’s because I bike everywhere I can’t walk, and I walk anywhere less than 30 minutes. I bike to class, I bike to groceries, and I bike to distant friends’ houses. Everyone else bikes too: children, other students, office workers, and even professors that happen to be very old. I live by two daycares so when I bike to class I see adults not waiting in a car line to drop off their children, but a bike line instead (apologies, a queue). One of my hobbies is seeing all the different ways young children ride on the bikes of grown-ups, and each time I think I’ve seen it all I learn a new way.

I learned how to politely ring my bike bell to tell pedestrians to get out of my lane.

I learned that I need to buy the oldest, rustiest, looking bike on the market so that it doesn’t get stolen.

I learned that ‘quid’ is slang for a British pound.

I learned within the first few days (but I’ve gotten used to it now) that everything is smaller here- the cars, the streets, the sidewalks, the hallways, the rooms, the stores, the food packaging, the food servings. In the midst of my culture shock, I felt very claustrophobic but now it feels normal. I’m sure that when I return home everything will feel big.

I learned to say football practice instead of soccer practice. I was invited to play for the Eagle’s, The 2nd University Women’s Football team for the University of Cambridge! I’ve been playing for the men’s team for my Hughes Hall since we don’t have a women’s team, but I’m very excited about the Eagle’s. I’m going to try to play for both if I can manage the time and workload.

I learned to say trousers instead of pants because when I say pants my friends think I’m talking about underwear. Also, sweaters are called jumpers.

I learned that grass is not to be walked on. The landscaping here is pristine, absolutely beautiful, but if you dare to step on the grass you may get chased down by a porter. I’ve never been chased, but I’ve heard stories. My room window looks onto a sports field and I see how many hours it takes them to keep it beautiful. I do get sad though when I see a football pitch right in front of me but I’m not allowed to play on it for fun with friends.

I learned how to take a Lateral Flow Test, the take-home COVID test. Did you know the government (NHS) mails them to you for free?

I learned how to enjoy a homemade Chinese Hot Pot with friends in their kitchen. I thought I could decently manage my spice but they proved me wrong. It was fun when they laughed at how red my face turned.

I learned that I love homemade Indian food. Stove-top pressures cookers are some kind of witchcraft, chai is divine, and CTM (chicken tikka masala) is not a real Indian dish. (Edit: I was corrected and it actually is, sorry, my mistake)

I learned to always keep a grocery bag with me anytime I leave the house because you never know when you want to shop for groceries. It’s awful to have to buy another plastic bag when you already have five at home. Don’t tell my Poppa that I’ve made pesto noodles for the third week straight.

I learned that pres means pre-drinks before a party or a night of dancing.

I learned that some academic buildings in Cambridge are older than the US itself.

I learned what it’s like to experience my first major holiday (Thanksgiving) away from my family, it’s a deep ache that I’m not looking forward to again for Christmas. I have time now to prepare and plan with friends, though.

I learned what it’s like to get less than eight hours of sunlight a day. It’s hard to keep working into the afternoon/night when the sun sets at 4pm.

I’m proud of learning how to read very difficult texts. A few days ago I reread works by Donna Haraway that felt impossible in the first few weeks of classes, but after the first term, I can skim them and easily understand what she’s trying to tell me.

I learned what it’s like to meet someone who despite growing up across the world from me, holds inconceivably similar life values. The time spent learning about and caring for each other feels heavier because only this one year together is guaranteed. At the same time, I remind myself to enjoy the present.

I love how my views of the world, which I thought were decently open considering I grew up in the US, are challenged not only by my coursework but by new people I meet from different backgrounds.

I am happy here. I feel very inspired by my research and everything else I’m learning/experiencing. I am also homesick. It helps that I am making meaningful connections with friends.

Greetings from London!

Hi all!

I’m John Gearig, a Roger M Jones fellow from 2020, who decided to defer one year. I studied as an undergraduate and master’s student at Michigan in electrical and computer engineering, and am excited to have the chance to study a topic that’s long interested me— philosophy.

As an undergraduate I declared a minor in philosophy, taking a variety of courses and solidifying my interest in the subject. Now, I’m very fortunate to study at the London School of Economics (LSE) in their master’s course in Philosophy of Science. I’ll live in London through August of 2022 while working on my dissertation over the summer. Generally, I’m interested in where machine learning and philosophy overlap. Recently, there’s been an exploding interest in machine learning ethics and algorithmic transparency, which I hope to study further and write my dissertation on.


So far, my life here has felt like a blur. I landed in London 36 hours before school started, as my student visa was delayed and I went to NYC to track it down and try to expedite it. Thankfully, I was able to attend my classes in person from the start of the term, but there was no time buffer to get settled in and explore. I had to enroll in 4 units (where each unit spans both terms and a half unit is a 10-week course). I’m living in East London, in the Borough of Tower Hamlets, in the district of Spitalfields. I chose to live in one of the University accommodations. It’s a beautiful area– close to the biggest skyscrapers in the city, but proximate to a number of cute markets, quiet lanes, and cool alleys. I have great views from my room and kitchen.


The cadence of graduate school looks like this. Each of my courses has a 1-hour lecture early in the week, which is generally recorded or taught synchronously via zoom. For each class, we’ll normally get assigned 3 readings which generally are journal articles of analytic philosophy, chapters from books, or encyclopedia articles. The majority of the time and effort is spent reading (20 pages of analytic philosophy takes a long time to read). Then, we’ll have a 90-minute in-person seminar with the professor, where we’ll talk about the reading, argue and ask questions. In the meantime, we’re supposed to explore and do independent reading for topics that interest us.


Thankfully, in the middle of the term, there is a reading week. A bit like thanksgiving break and fall break combined, it’s a week of no classes to allow students time to catch up in courses, write papers, and have a break. I went to Lisbon, Portugal with my girlfriend, and spent a few days exploring London. This was my time to finally catch up, slow down, and enjoy the city.

Now, it’s time for the second half of the term!

As Time Goes By

When I wrote my last post I told myself that I’d try to post every two weeks or so. Now, over two months later, I can only be thankful that I didn’t include that promise in my last post. Best laid plans indeed…

In those past two months, I feel like I’ve done so much and yet not enough. My classes started in mid-September and things have been nonstop ever since. I’m only enrolled in two classes this semester but it feels like my workload is so much bigger than in previous years. I suppose that’s grad school for you.

So what have I been up to these past two months? Schoolwork and seminars, club meetings and day trips, the list goes on and on. I’ve met so many wonderful people here. University College Dublin is a welcoming, yet challenging academic environment. I like to think that I’ve thrown myself headfirst into it, or perhaps more accurately, I challenge myself every day to do so.

In my time here I’ve seen a lot of Dublin and its surrounding areas. I’d like to share some of my experiences with you now. While you might not be able to join me here in Dublin, I can at least share some of the pictures I’ve taken.

This is a picture of one of the lakes at UCD, although the actual water is hidden by plants. Here you can find swans swimming around and seagulls lurking, waiting for a student to drop a piece of food for the seagulls to snatch up. As you can see, UCD is quite spread out, which is lovely for a casual walk and incredibly stressful when I’m late for class.

This is a picture that I took on a tour during Culture Night in Dublin. Culture Night is this really fun event that occurs all over Ireland where galleries, museums, theaters and more open their doors to the public for different free events. This year it happened on the 17th of September. I went with a group of friends from school. This is a photo that I took in Marsh’s Library, which was built in the early 1700s. This is one of the cages (yes, cages!) that the librarians used to lock readers in so that the readers couldn’t steal the valuable books. I know some librarians from my childhood that might have liked to do that to me.

Finally, a picture from my trip to the seaside town of Dún Laoghaire. This is one of the day trips that I’ve gone on while here in Ireland. I hope to do more in the future. While international travel is a bit difficult at the moment, there’s plenty to see in Ireland! I have preliminary plans to visit Cork in early December and Galway… sometime. I’ll keep you posted on my travels here.

I’ve had a great time so far in Dublin and I look forward to more new experiences. I look forward to sharing them with you. Hopefully, it won’t take me another two months!

See you in one month and three weeks,

Hannah

“Fresher’s Week”

I’ve lived here in Cambridge for exactly 8 days (edit: 16 now) and I still ride the “I’m abroad!” honeymoon high. I say this to others often, but I’m a big nerd and I love school environments. I feed off of shared enthusiasms for learning and intellectual thought, which is very, very, abundant here, so I am almost always enthralled.

Something that I ask people when I get to know them is what they wish to get out of their time here at Cambridge. I ask this because I genuinely wish to understand their goals, so when it was first asked back to me, it took me a moment to think about my answer. This isn’t a main goal, more of a “parallel personal goal,” but I hope to gain more confidence defending my ideas. Even when challenged. I have plenty of practice vocalizing my opinions, but I’m realizing that I mostly tended to be in rooms of like-minded people. There was a moment on campus, last Monday, where I explained my motivations for choosing gender studies. The person I was talking to made a counter point. Instead of continuing the conversation naturally, I felt stunted and struggled to not only gather my own thoughts, but to actually hear what they were saying as well. I assumed that this happened because of my self confidence, so one of my goals this year is to gain the vocabulary and the self-assurance to express my thoughts even when opposed.

Also, I hope to develop meaningful relationships with others. I meet so, so, so many people, and instead of starting with small talk and staying there, I intentionally lead up to personal questions. I think it works well, because I focus less on the social aspects of fitting in or being included, but instead on the people themselves.

I am thankful for being here, and I get emotional when I think about how much work it has taken to reach this point. I am very lucky that the stars aligned and that I had a wonderful university to send me here. If I am already baffled when thinking about my current journey up to this point, I have no concept of how I will feel when I graduate this year.

Edits: I am reviewing this post a week later, and the “I’m abroad!” honeymoon has faded. Classes are hard, the reading never ends, and my classmates challenge me in a good way. However, I created a plan, I still take fun breaks, I just need to put on my “Megan serious pants” now. This is still an great experience. 🙂

14,471 words later

After a summer of note-taking, rearranging, deleting, and breaking down in frustrated tears, I’ve finally submitted my Creative and Critical Writing MA thesis, an exploration of my family history that blends personal memoir with critical theory.

And with that, my time at Birkbeck is over.

Putting together this thesis was a learning experience, to put it mildly. After realizing that my initial choice of topic (the farm my grandmother grew up on in Maryland) didn’t feel as compelling as I’d hoped, I had to pivot. I ended up using the farm as just one guiding element of a broader piece on honesty and communication in relationships and with the self. Once again, I was reminded that good writing emerges from trusting one’s gut rather than trying to force a conclusion or topic.

While I don’t feel 100% satisfied with my thesis – there’s room for further development – writing it taught me about writing, which I suppose is the point.

At the end of August, I was able to take a short trip to Europe, during which I touched the outside of Birkbeck (the school I would have attended in person, had it not been for Covid). Seeing the actual building, the weight of what I missed out on really hit me – but in addition to acknowledging this sadness, I had to remind myself what a wonderful, strange experience this MA has been, despite the circumstances.

Over the past year, I’ve had the chance to explore magical realism and autofiction, two bizarre territories into which I thought I’d never venture. I’m looking ahead at magical realism short story contests and other opportunities to keep my work in these genres going.

And I’ve read so, so much. Thanks to this MA, I have a much broader library of theory and reflection to draw upon in shaping my thoughts and processing my experiences. The more material I consume, the more meaningfully I feel I can engage with others and with myself.

As I’ve come to appreciate over the past year, interacting with the world as a writer isn’t just about putting words on paper. It’s about reading, talking, and listening, and then contributing to the dialogue in turn. This feeling of interconnectedness is what I love about the humanities.

With all this in mind, I have no choice but to keep writing. I’ve relocated to D.C., where I’m working as a reporter at The Cancer Letter. Even though I’m a lot more focused on fact-checking, honorifics, and short, punchy ledes than I was during my MA, I hope to carry the curiosity I fostered during at Birkbeck into my work as a journalist.

Thank you to the RMJ community for supporting this year of incredible growth and learning. The Fellowship is an experience I’d encourage any soon-to-be engineering grad to pursue, no matter where you stand career-wise.

And to all those engineering kids who think English class is ‘easy’ – you’re doing it wrong.

Megan’s first post

I would like to start off by congratulating myself for my first journal entry! Secondly, I think this is a good opportunity to introduce myself. My name is Megan, I recently completed my undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering from University of Michigan, and this fall I will pursue a MPhil in gender studies from University of Cambridge. The year after Cambridge I will return to University of Michigan to pursue a one-year MEng in aerospace engineering.

I still cannot believe that I’m leaving in four weeks, it hasn’t sunk in yet, but at the same time I daydream about the future. For example, (and this exposes how much of a nerd I am by saying this) I imagine how I will do my assignments. I daydream about walking through the city center on my way to a fancy library, hearing city bells ring around the corner, passing by groups of students hanging out and chatting, but on the way to the library finding a shady patch of grass to read there instead. I have already been working through my summer reading list like a happy camper. At first I felt overwhelmed because, honestly, who wouldn’t be when looking at a list of about twenty books, but after it washed over me I remembered that this is what it is like to be in graduate school. I am proud to say that I already read Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life, and whenever the overwhelming feeling creeps in again I remember to frame the reading as a fun, explorative process.

In my research proposal for the Cambridge application I described trying to make STEM more inclusive, that goal is still very strong in my heart, and since it is still early in the school year I purposefully keep my options open. I’ve also noticed a recurring question that I’ve struggled to answer: why did I choose gender studies? This was asked by the Roger M Jones interviewers, my peers, and by Sara Ahmed. I have my prepared response about inclusion within STEM, but now I’m reflecting on why I chose inclusion within STEM. Oddly, this was not asked by my family nor my closest friends. I assume this means that I talk about social justice often enough to the people closest to me. The next question to myself is: what makes me talk about justice in the first place? Was it how my family raised me to stand up for myself and others? Was it how I may have experienced an injustice? Did something external inspire me?

I started speaking out at a very young age– I have memories of approaching bullies on the playground in elementary school and telling them that it’s not ok to treat people disrespectfully. Of course, just like how we’re all human, I also had moments where I wasn’t brave, but it is part of life to forgive oneself and learn how to stand up for others better in the future.

I hope that this year I may reflect on my past and present to figure out why I pursue gender studies. I understand the logical steps like how I first applied for this fellowship to make STEM inclusive, then I completed my undergraduate degree, but instead I now look for more of a self-awareness and “internal reflection” answer. We shall see if I strike gold through one of my summer reading assignments, or maybe later as I choose a research topic, or maybe even later as I research and write my heart out.

Even if I never figure out what motivates me at my core, I am genuinely excited about this year. I want to learn more about myself, meet amazing people, and be better equipped to make space for those historically marginalized.

Hello From Dublin!

Greetings from across the pond! My name is Hannah Kempel, newly arrived in Dublin, Ireland. I am one of this year’s Roger M. Jones Fellows and I look forward to sharing my journey with you over the course of the year. I graduated last year with a major in Electrical Engineering and a minor in History. That minor is what pushed me to apply for a program studying history here in Europe. Well, here I am, enrolled in the History of Welfare and Medicine Masters program at University College Dublin.

I’ve always had an interest in history, especially medical history. I was lucky to have access to a variety of amazing classes on the subject and related ones at Umich, and these classes only increased my interest. I applied to several different history programs, from modern to ancient history, but this program at UCD stood out to me from the beginning. It’s an area of interest of mine but also unfortunately very topical in 2021, with the pandemic continuing to rage around us.

The pandemic has and will continue to affect the parameters of my stay here. From having to wear a mask all through a 6.5-hour flight (an experience I wouldn’t recommend to anyone) to the extra documentation I had to show at Passport Control, I’m already having different experiences than those of previous RMJ Fellows. I’m lucky to have in-person instruction this term, but who knows what will happen next?

All I know is that I’m very excited to see what this year has in store for me, to meet new people and learn new things. I move in to my apartment on Monday, a side unit on a larger property that I am renting from a local family. It’s bright, cozy, and 10 minutes from campus! Until then, there’s plenty to do, from setting up an Irish phone plan to getting acquainted with the city that I will call home this year. I can’t wait to share my experiences here with you!

Until then,

Hannah

Looking ahead

Hi all,

It’s been a few months since I last checked in. I’ve finished my Spring term and am now onto Summer – which means attending a couple very interesting lecture series and working on my dissertation (AH!). As I procrastinate, I’d love to share a few updates about the upcoming months.

First of all – England! While Birkbeck never opened up for in-person classes, I’m planning a trip to the U.K. so I can go work on my dissertation in a new setting and hopefully meet a few of my vaccinated classmates. I’ve mainly been focused on school throughout this MA, but I know the international aspect of the RMJ fellowship is really special, and I want to be able to benefit from that as a writer and a person. I can’t wait to share updates as my plans solidify.

In other exciting news, I’ve just accepted a science journalism fellowship at an oncology publication in DC – the job will start in September, right after my MA ends. I’m absolutely thrilled. I’ve been trying to figure out how to blend my writing and science backgrounds, and this job feels like a step in the right direction. (And without RMJ, I wouldn’t be here.)

Most importantly, I’ll be a ‘fellow’ for a second time!

Until the next post,

Alice

Writer’s craft and talking cats

I once had a writing professor tell me that writer’s block is a myth. Feeling stuck, and needing to constantly re-draft, are natural parts of the writing process, not some kind of anomaly. The more I think about writer’s craft, the more I agree.

This semester has, so far, been all about the writing process. In the fall, I was absorbing; reading multiple books a week, digesting critical material, writing source-heavy pieces. And now, I’m producing. My classes are less structured, more about workshopping and experimenting than about responding to critical material. While I do miss having lengthy, challenging reading lists for my classes, I’m learning a lot from this more freeform approach. My ‘homework’ is just to write. And that’s hard.

Over the last few months, I’ve been challenging myself to write as much as I can every day. At first, my fingers felt stuck – I was so concerned with the quality of my writing, how it might be perceived by others, that I couldn’t relax. But I’ve been learning how important it is to just write, no matter how bad the writing is. Some days, my writing stagnates; other days, it flows freely. Some of my ideas stick, some of them don’t. That’s just how it works.

In this spirit of free writing, I’ve been allowing myself to experiment with genre. I’ve always considered myself a nonfiction writer because I love memoir and journalism and creative-critical writing, but I’ve realized there’s a lot to be gained from the intersection of nonfiction and fiction. For my assignments this term, I’m playing with fictional elements. Sometimes, autofictional writing actually feels ‘truthier’ than the strictly nonfiction stuff. Working in a looser genre allows me to draw out emotional significance without feeling tethered to a specific timeline or sequence of events. A year ago, I never would have guessed that I’d be seriously invested in a story about a talking cat, but here I am.

My writing is evolving, and this makes me feel so grateful for the RMJ fellowship – I have the time and money to experiment. I’m not just learning how to write, but how to think like a writer, deeply and fluidly. Hopefully I can carry this mindset with me, no matter what I do next.