Table Tennis and the PhD

NEW POST by Desiree Arbo
I am a second year PhD student in the Department of Classics and Ancient History, but co-supervised by History (which means I get to enjoy the perks – as well as extra work – of being in two departments, i.e.: free coffee and tea in the History common room). Broadly speaking, my research focuses on the reception of antiquity in 18th-19th century Latin America, specifically, Paraguay. When not translating obscure Latin texts, I like to play the piano and sing, or play table tennis with my friends. My New Year’s resolution is to go swimming twice a week – so far, a great success.

I have got two problems in my PhD life at the moment. First, I am currently being defeated by a chapter, a monster of my own creation that refuses to allow itself to be finished. Secondly, I am a bad loser when it comes to sports. The first problem is perhaps more urgent, although in fact related to the second one. The chapter mocks me, taunts me and finally bashes my brains blank every time I stare at the screen. Where has my inspiration gone? The frustrating feeling washes over me, soaking me (cue, it starts pouring with rain outside and my laptop decides to install fourteen updates). It is 9pm in the evening, I’m starving, and I’m sitting in the silent office imagining what would happen if I banged my head hard enough against the desk – surely the cleaner will sweep away my remains in the morning before putrefaction sets in?

Of course I might be exaggerating (only a bit). This particular section is nearly finished; I’m sure only a few more paragraphs, some little tweaks in the introduction and fleshed-out footnotes would do the trick. I can hear both supervisors cheering me on with a slightly desperate ‘It’s good stuff, just get it done!’ So what exactly is my problem? I should perhaps clarify that I am mostly my only competition, and that I can berate myself until the whole world seems gray and gloomy. Also, I thought I had left my bad loser traits behind when I successfully applied at Warwick and somehow got a scholarship. I thought I was finally something, someone. Today though brought it all back.

I have lately started playing table tennis with my officemates, and I even thought I was a decent player. But today, to my horror, I lost five games in a row. I don’t mind being beaten by a better player, but today I just kept hitting the ball into the net, and worse, I masochistically insisted on playing more. The cumulative effect was a phenomenon which I cannot describe in English. In Paraguayan Spanish we call it ‘pichado’. ‘Upset’ is not accurate enough a term, and ‘annoyed’ is too tame. It is a combination of both, a rage that can express itself violently, hysterically, or in sulking fashion (I have fortunately grown out of the first two and mostly indulge in the last form – the last time I stormed out of a basketball court was in my first year of uni, and I clarify, because the other team had cheated). It is a despondent and angry attitude, mostly against one’s self, that grows until it engulfs the whole world.  Amazing, isn’t it, how one unruly chapter can affect the colour of the sky?

Today I wrote many sentences and then erased them, hitting myself into the net every time with accusations of uselessness. I snapped at some officemates, fled to the common room for cups of tea, and finally dove headlong into facebook procrastination. By the time I surrendered to the joys of the bus ride back to Leamington I was labeling myself a failure. And I was so very ‘pichada’ with my thesis.

Still, things were not as bad as I thought, now that I look back. I did win one table tennis match. I hadwritten an acceptable paragraph by 8pm. Is there a lesson here for me? Yes, I am not a complete failure, thank you. A wiser, third-year PhD friend also reminded me that us PhDs should be able to accept failures when they come, such as having papers rejected by journals. It took some humility to admit he was right. Failure in fact is part of life and success lies in how we deal with failures. Similarly, I cannot reasonably expect to win every table tennis match, or hope that inspiration alone will feed the writing-process of my thesis. But if I manage to not hit myself into the net, rather to calmly persevere, I might actually get this chapter finished. I’ve done the reading; I’ve got my notes. There is no reason why I should not come out of this victorious. It is rare that one wins a set six-love in tennis, so maybe I should, in the words of a jolly, inspiring tune that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers sang back in the 1930s, ‘pick myself up, dust myself off, start all over again!’

Photo credits: “Ping Pong” by Frank Ritchie/ Creative Commons

9 thoughts on “Table Tennis and the PhD

  1. This morning I was told I am not going to get funding for next year as I wasn’t a good enough candidate. I have been sulking like hell, but this helped. thanks.

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