Working and swiping my way towards a guiding thread

At the age of 32, it feels like a very long time ago that I worked as a journalist in my early 20s. It is the profession I saw myself growing into when I was younger and the one that I approached with vigour after school through various internships. My ongoing freelance work next to my first-year university studies at a local newspaper in Germany offered me a glimpse into the politics embedded in conveying stories through this medium. Realising its limitations made me pursue my anthropological studies even harder, which, unlike the form of journalism I had encountered, permitted a long-term, in-depth approach to analysing everyday phenomena. At the same time, it allowed me to cultivate my passion for writing. My university studies also led me to permanently re-locate to South Africa 10 years ago.

Fast forward: currently, I am a PhD candidate at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Cape Town. Here, I have spent the past three years doing research and writing my thesis on the behavioural use of the dating application Tinder. This involved using Tinder to recruit study participants and grappling with how – and with whom – intimacy is cultivated in Cape Town, starting with right and left swipes on online profiles. The focus of the ethnography resulting from this lies on how individuals perceive themselves and others in a partially cybernated process of relating and the ways in which these perceptions are reflected in interactions. Identity formation as well as the interplay of structural influences and individual behaviour also played a crucial part in my ethnographic studies on male refugees in Cape Town and on suburban neighbourhood surveillance. Both were awarded with a distinction and published as monographs with Langaa RPCIG. I am also currently contributing to a research project on professional identity formation among first-in-family students at the faculty of engineering at UCT.

My journey thus far writes itself rather easily. However, it is only now that I feel I can draw out a consistent, guiding tread across it. For the most part, things seemed topsy-turvy and very much characterised by unknown factors, including visa issues and concerns about securing financial support. What I discovered relatively early as a theme and as fuel to keep me pursuing my studies is a passion to engage with the lived experiences of people. Looking back, I can now claim this to be evident in my endeavours to date, just like my profound interest in facilitating dialogue across and beyond disciplines. Yet, these things only filtered through more clearly with time. I consider myself lucky in having developed a genuine desire to immerse myself in study contexts in an engaged, enthusiastic manner. It is even luckier that I had the opportunity to nourish this desire throughout my scholarly career so far. This includes my studies at UCT and my work as a Junior Research Fellow at the Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division (HEARD) at the University of KwaZulu Natal. The most interesting moments have been the ones in which heads were conceptually bumped. Working on and with digital technologies for my PhD got me involved in the Digital Humanities (DH) community and I am among the founding members of the Digital Humanities African Network (DHAfricaN), which is a needed extension of DH scholarship towards perspectives of the global South. I also started regularly contributing to workshops and conferences across the globe, which the ongoing global pandemic has rendered more accessible in an online format. These engagements have been particularly exciting, as they opened up a lot of ground for discussion and, thus, for me to spin the proverbial ‘guiding tread’ of my voyage further.

I am still eager to extend discussions even further and make them accessible to a wider audience – not specific to disciplines and not even necessarily limited to the academic ivory tower. This is why I started writing my own blog (The Junck report), which is my way of marrying my love for social anthropology on the one hand and my persistent devotion to journalism on the other. As I am typing away on my thesis and thinking about how my many years at university (mostly at UCT) have shaped me, I want to share more of my experiences and, through them, connect with people on a similar or perhaps rather different journey. The SAYAS blog is a great opportunity to do so.

Of writing

What did I learn about getting a dissertation done?

By the time this piece is published my dissertation will be sitting in the hands of my examiners and I will be moving on to my PhD. The last two and-a-bit years have been the most intense learning experience of my life, professionally and personally, and in the brief moments of peace between franticly making the last few edits of the final draft there has been much reflection about what this degree meant to me. This is a quick reflection about one (significantly important) aspect of that journey: Writing.

I have always been bookish. My childhood was a stark contrast of feral adventures exploring the natural world, and having my nose buried in one of the thousands of imaginary realms hidden behind yellowing pages and rigid text. Reading is, in my opinion, the basis of all writing because it exposes you to different styles. Finding your own style is crucial if you want your work to come across as authentic. My reading has always had a distinct lean towards the natural sciences with significant influence from the recommendations of my Dramatic Arts and AP English teachers (and in more recent years my friends of jurisprudential flavour). This has led to a somewhat unconventional style, particularly for a career in STEM.

Reading widely also exposes you to new ideas. It allows you to blend disciplines and gives opposing thoughts time to marinate in the mind. This is certainly important for developing ideas, but I think it is also largely because of my obsession with reading widely that writing came easily to me. Essays and assignments at school, and well into my undergrad, flowed from pens without much planning and I tended to edit as I write instead of after. Writing a dissertation is, however, an entirely different beast to wrestle with.

Despite writing coming easily to me, I am incredibly critical of what I write and never enjoy actually reading my own work. A dissertation requires you to go back, re-read, reflect, and correct. I’ve had to learn that sometimes it’s better to just write, get some points on paper, and keep it moving even if you’re not entirely happy with the immediate output. I usually prefer to tackle large chunks of writing in one-go, but this isn’t possible every day. Don’t underestimate how quickly daily additions of even short pieces can add up and help you finish a chapter, particularly when you’ve hit a low patch and aren’t feeling productive. A dissertation is also an ever-evolving piece of writing, but it will also never be perfect. As we’ve reached the final stages I’ve had to learn that a dissertation is, after all, just a submission for a degree. It’s never meant to be a career-defining piece of writing, but a step towards a qualification. As much as there is always a better way to structure and word a paragraph, and I’ve had to learn to leave things as I’ve written them if there’s no real reason to change things.

For those of you thinking of doing, or who are just starting, a Masters I think the only real advice I can give you is to read outside your discipline, and to just write. It’s a fine balance between developing your ideas and getting it down on paper, and your approach will be unique to who you are, your style or writing, and the subject of your research. Write in a way that is reflective of who you are, but see the piece for what it is: a stepping-stone.