Painting a giant fence

2015-09-15

After Daniel waxes all of Mr. Miyagi’s cars, late in the evening, he is allowed to go home. But then next morning, when he comes back, shoulders aching and all set to learn karate, Mr. Miyagi takes him around the back of the house and shows him how to sand the garden’s wooden walkway. This task, too, takes him all day and give him muscle pain in his upper arms. Still he happily comes back the day after, thinking he is finally going to learn karate. But to his disappointment, Mr. Miyagi has bought paint and a brush for him.

“What about my karate?” Daniel demands.

“First you accomplish paint-the-fence,” Mr. Miyagi answers. “Wrist up, wrist down, long stroke, up, down. Don’t forget to breath.”

Daniel resigns himself to his fate and slowly picks up the paintbrush. He starts to paint the long and winding fence, knowing it is going to take him all day long. Mr. Miyagi watches him and says, without emotion, “Small board left hand, big board right hand. All the fence, Up, down.”

“Small board left hand, big board right hand. Up, down,” Daniel repeats, like a mantra.

A doctoral student can, at times, feel like she is painting a giant fence. Every term there is another essay to write, or a contribution to make to a funding application, or sometimes even a chapter for an anthology to work on, and most of these things seemed mildly important in and of themselves, but one really wonders when one was going to start working on The Dissertation. That is, after all, what one is supposed to do, right? Write a dissertation. Learn karate.

On the fifth day, after Daniel had waxed the cars, sanded the walk, painted the fence and painted the other side of the fence, he comes back to Mr. Miyagi’s house early in the morning thinking now, finally, he’s going to learn how to fight karate. Especially since time is running out and the championship is coming up soon. But instead, he sees that Mr. Miyagi has bought more paint and a ladder. Daniel’s task is now to paint the house.

Frustrated, and short-tempered like only a teenage boy with too much testosterone can be, Daniel starts screaming out his frustration at Mr. Miyagi. “When am I going to learn karate?” he yells. “When am I going to start learning how to punch so I don’t get killed at the championships? Aren’t you supposed to teach me how to kick???”

(Blog post 3 of 8 about being a PhD student in Sweden. Adapted from: Johnson, E. (2005) ‘Learning Karate, a metaphor for Ph.D. training’ in Mellström, Ulf (ed.) Kunskapens vägar och forskningens praktik Lund: Arkiv pp.87-96)