28 February 2017

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The front lawns of Sydney University are bustling with activity today, as the campus readies itself for O Week (short for Orientation Week, even though it only lasts 3 days), setting up stalls and tents as best they can amidst the rain (don’t be fooled by the beautiful blue skies in the photo, they were extremely fleeting). For the last few months the campus has been quiet, largely devoid of students and even of many academic staff – although the tourists have been out in full force. O Week begins tomorrow to officially welcome a new crop of students to the university, although the campus is already getting busier, as international students arrive early to begin to get their bearings, and academics return to their offices. Today there’s a feeling of anticipation, as we prepare for the campus to overflow once again.

Looking over my blog posts for the past 9 months, I can see that many of them are marked by the comings and goings of staff and students around me, and the rhythms of the academic year. These rhythms have to an extent defined my time throughout my PhD research, and yet I’ve also felt somewhat detached from, particularly in the semesters when I haven’t been teaching. Staff and students come and go around us with the schedule of lectures and study breaks and exams and holidays, but in our little corner of the campus, we research postgrads are still here, day after day. Although soon, that too will change – just as thousands of new students are preparing to begin their degrees, I’m coming tantalisingly close to submitting my thesis to the university where I first enrolled almost exactly 11 years ago.

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2 February 2017

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A temporary reprieve today, from what was apparently Sydney’s hottest month on record. I’m enjoying the cool (which is what 26 degrees celsius feels like at this point…) and the breeze and the rain, before the heat and humidity return in full force just in time for the weekend.

It’s an unsettling, and unsettled, time for me at the moment, for a range of reasons. I’m about to provide my faculty with my ‘notice of intent to submit’ for my PhD. That leaves me with three months more of frantic writing and editing. Three months of attempting to coax and cajole the disparate threads of my research over the last three years, trying to persuade them to coalesce into something resembling cogency. And of course, three months of trying to discern what lies beyond submission.

The temptation at the moment is to retreat from the outside world into my thesis – but of the course the world also lies within it. Writing about quarantine and racial politics and immigration control is not much of a retreat right now. And so my writing often morphs from the intended academic arguments into impassioned missives to politicians.

There is some consolation in small kindnesses though – like the frangipanis gifted by a smiling stranger, who has apparently observed my furrowed brow as I sit hunched over my laptop in a favourite cafe.

8 January 2017

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At this late stage in my PhD, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of the days. It’s Sunday, or so my calendar would have me believe, but the day is spent working on my literature review – editing, rewriting, shifting paragraphs about, and adding all of the research that has appeared since I wrote my last draft. Soon I’ll need to declare that enough is enough, and stop with the additions, but for now I continue scrambling to keep up with the endless cycle of publications. At least the constant heat and humidity leave me with no question of what time of year it is, if not the specific date.

There is a little respite today though – not from the heat, which is ever-present, but from the work. Instead, in the evening, there is jazz, and gin (which may account for the slight tardiness of this post…). And then, at home, there is the scrambling for a pen to desperately try and capture the ideas that have appeared while I was briefly away from my desk. A good reminder that sometimes a little gin and jazz is exactly what my research needs.

 

15 December 2016

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After a scorching start to summer, today Sydney is cold and wet. The weather is only serving to emphasise the deserted feeling around campus. Semester ended a month ago, and it will be another two months before students return to class. The annual holiday shutdown of the university begins at the end of tomorrow, so academic and administrative staff alike will also be absent until the new year. Soon, the normally packed campus will be mostly devoid of people, with the exception of the PhD students, tucked away in our attic workspace in an otherwise dark and empty building.

22 November 2016

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I had plans for what I would post about today but, as is the way of plans, they were derailed by a late trip to the emergency room last night. So today is mostly being spent writing at the kitchen table, so that I can keep an eye on a certain someone and make sure they don’t dislocate any more joints. The upside is that I can also spend this unseasonably hot day sheltering in the air conditioning – although if the heat is making me think its already summer, my sinuses are certainly reminding me that spring is still here. Looks like it’s pain killers and antihistamines all round (and no, the irony of my chemist’s name has not been lost on me…).

31 October 2016

It’s a sad day for the University of Sydney community. The famous jacaranda tree which graced the University’s main quadrangle, in the corner by the Latin and philosophy rooms, was found uprooted over the weekend. There are many jacarandas spread across the campus, and indeed across the city – at this time of year all of Sydney is blanketed in purple. But this tree was special. Planted in 1928 by Professor E.B. Waterhouse, a linguist and camellia expert, the tree has been a constant backdrop to study (or procrastination), to graduation ceremonies, and to the constant flow of tourists through the quad. In 2005 the importance of the jacaranda was recognised when it was listed on the City of Sydney’s Significant Tree Register.

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The quadrangle today, where the jacaranda previously stood.

Perhaps most significantly, the tree has been the source of a long-standing superstition within the university community, with students believing that if they haven’t commenced studying before the jacaranda begins to bloom each year, they will fail their exams. In their official statement, the university was quick to point out the tree was already in bloom when it died, and to wish students luck in their assessments – perhaps a reaction to the many on social media questioning if the jacaranda’s death meant the cancellation of exams.

 

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Flowers laid in memory of the jacaranda.

Walking through the quadrangle this morning, the space feels strangely empty. Within four hours of the tree’s discovery, garden staff had taken to it with chainsaws, so that all that remains today is a wedge of mulch (some of it perhaps from the tree itself?) where it had stood just days ago. It seems strange to be so affected by the loss, and yet I’m clearly not alone. Many, like me, pause to take photos. A stranger stops me to commiserate. Flowers have been laid in memory.

The space will likely not be empty for long, however. And it won’t be filled by just any tree. Several years ago, in anticipation of this day, the university grafted cuttings of the jacaranda onto the base of two others, creating ‘clones’ which allow them to replace it with a genetically identical tree. And so, perhaps, the tree, and the superstition, live on.

10 October 2016

This was the first day in a long while that I walked through this particular part of campus – in fact, searching now for the centre photo I realise it’s been exactly 8 months – and I’m struck by how much it has changed. Previously home to one of the university’s so-called ‘transient buildings’, hastily constructed to cope with the influx of students after World War II, the site is now open space.

Contrary to their name, the transient buildings continued to be occupied far beyond their intended use-life. For many students they were viewed as the ugliest buildings on campus, while others called for them to receive heritage protection (admittedly for their social and historical, rather than aesthetic, value).

My own first encounters with the transient building come from my primary school years, when I would spend afternoons in my mother’s office in the building across the road, where she worked in the Sociology Department (or occasionally sneaking off to the Nicholson Museum to stare at the mummies, or explore the main quadrangle in search of the elusive kangaroo gargoyle). The building was always an imposing presence, somehow looking simultaneously like it had been (and would be) there forever, and like it could fall apart with the slightest gust of wind.

Initially intended to serve only as a stop gap, the transient buildings instead served many generations of students. It’s only now, 70 years after construction, that they’ve been allowed to live up to their name.