Monthly Archives: February 2016

Interview with Jen Smith

Jen

This week, we interview Jen Smith, a Masters student pursuing her studies in Philosophy.

Hello Jen, fantastic to meet you. Could you give us a little introduction about yourself?

Hi I’m Jen! I’m 22 and studying an MA by research in Philosophy.

You mentioned you originally did your undergraduate in Australia before having your final term in the University of Exeter. What was it like for you coming over?

Coming over was both incredibly exciting and terrifying.  For me, it was my first time living out of home and while I was fortunate enough to travel with a girl from my home university, I really didn’t know anyone.  However, this soon changed!  I lived at the Printworks with other international students, began working casually at the University and started going to events held by the Sociology and Anthropology society.  I still consider some of my closest friends those who I met on exchange.

Academically, the exchange experience was invaluable.  I got the chance to study a range of different subjects that weren’t available to me back home and also learnt a variety of new ways to approach my studies.

Personally, coming over and living in the UK gave me a great sense of independence and confidence.  I had such a positive experience living and studying in Exeter that it definitely led to me choosing to do my masters here as well.

What would you say are the main differences between the higher education systems of Australia and the UK?

Generally speaking, I think Australian universities are a lot more relaxed.  Not only are wearing shoes to class optional but universities are more accessible and very flexible in terms of degree structure.  For example, I studied a Bachelor of Arts which allowed me to graduate with a double major in Sociology and History and minor in Philosophy.  This was hugely important to me, as I was able to use the flexibility of an Arts degree to select subjects uniquely tailored to my own research interests and gain an interdisciplinary perspective on a variety of different social issues.

While Australian students work hard, perhaps one of the biggest differences for me was British students’ attitudes towards studying – a lot more seems to be expected of you here in terms of the amount of reading you are required to do per module and the constant emphasis on graduating with a 2:1 or above.

Could you tell us more about your experience so far with your MA in Philosophy? 

So far, my experience has been great and I am fortunate enough to have an excellent supervisor.  However, it has also been very demanding.  Due to the fact that my masters is solely research based, I have no classes or general structure to my week so it requires a lot of self-discipline and motivation!

Could you tell us more about your dissertation topic?

I am particularly interested in exploring how normative practices in Western societies shape individual moral perceptions concerning the permissibility of sexual violence towards women.  While there is a strong social and legal consensus that rape is morally wrong, there has been little philosophical research that has sought to articulate the nature of its wrongfulness.  While it seems both obvious and intuitive that rape is morally abhorrent and harmful to both individuals and society, current statistics on rape and sexual violence reveal an inherent contradiction between the grave manner in which rape is perceived culturally and the sheer prevalence with which it occurs.

How do graduate studies compare to undergraduate studies?

So far I have only handed in the first chapter of my thesis, so I don’t feel as though I can make any big comparisons yet! However, so far I think the biggest differences have been learning how to study completely independently and also adapt to working at a higher academic standard.

What are your plans upon graduation? 

I am hoping to secure a PhD position in the next few months and then pursue a career in academia.

Finally, what’s your favourite read in Philosophy?

My favourite read in Philosophy would have to be Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.

Why Study Sociology? Because it’s more relevant than ever.

One of the most frequent questions I get asked as a Sociology student is, ‘why study a Social Science?’ Shouldn’t I be studying something like a hard science, economics or business management if I want to get a “serious job”? Why should employers be interested in a social science degree? I must say, I find these assertions a little disingenuous. Quite aside from the benefits which come with any degree – research and analytical skills, an increased ability to work independently etc – I believe that Sociology is one of the most applicable degrees available.

Boiled down to its simplest elements, the word Sociology means the study of society, which makes it a discipline grounded in an ever-changing social world and one which is always relevant. The close relationship the subject has to everyday life and current affairs makes it an exciting one to study, prompting its students to look at the world around them anew. As well as this, this relationship makes the discipline a very important one, with those working within it tackling such problems as the refugee crisis, urban deprivation and crime.

While society has always been subject to upheaval and unrest, I do believe that we are currently experiencing a particularly tumultuous period, the gravity of which people are only just beginning to understand. It would seem that the consensuses established after 1945 are being undermined at an alarming rate. Since the financial crash, we have seen an unprecedented rise in nationalistic, anti-egalitarian movements which no one could have really predicted. From UKIP’s rise in the UK, to the Front National’s in France and the PVV in the Netherlands, nationalist, anti-immigration, anti-EU parties are surging. Even in Germany, the anti-Islamic PEGIDA movement has rapidly grown in popularity – particularly after the attacks in Cologne. In no small part, the growth of these sentiments has been fuelled by the refugee crisis putting pressure on European border policy, and the expansion of ISIS and renewed threat of Islamist terrorism.It is clear that the very foundations of European co-operation and liberal democracy are seriously threatened for the first time in the postwar era.

A protest against the ‘”Islamisation” of Europe, by the German far-right street movement ‘PEGIDA’. (Photo Jan Meyer/AP)

Coupled with this are seemingly ever-increasing divisions between social groups. Only last week, the so-called pick-up artist and anti-feminist ‘Roosh V’, a more grotesque example of the growing ‘Men’s Rights Activist’ movement, had to cancel a series of meetings of his ‘neo-masculinist’ movement. This was largely because of threats he had received as a result of his stance on legalising marital rape. Thankfully, such extreme views are rare, but it cannot be denied that the climate of debate in general has become more toxic – especially with the advent of social media. Debates between left and right have become increasingly polarised, with personal insults, censorship and threats now commonplace – a state of affairs which should worry anybody who values democracy and debate.

All this being set against an increasingly insecure job market, a hacking back of the state and revolutions in digital technology makes the future very uncertain, even rather dangerous. We have made the mistake of assuming that ‘progress’ is something easily defined and linear, and we forget that society is able to fall back into darker times far easier than progress to brighter ones. If our present is marked by anything, it is uncertainty, and it is the job of sociologists and anthropologists to try to both understand and explain what is happening. In my opinion, we are experiencing a backlash against rapid social change which has left an increasing amount of people ontologically insecure and in need of something to stake their colours to.

For my part, studying Sociology has led me to the thought of Émile Durkheim, and I believe his belief in social solidarity and collectivism in preference to the individual has great pertinence for our age. However, I realise there are plenty who would disagree with me, and it is this that makes Sociology a stimulating subject to study. In 2015, Exeter was ranked as one of the top 10 Universities in the UK for Sociology by both The Complete University Guide and the Guardian newspaper. Coupled with the broadness of the course and specialisms of the academic staff, studying Sociology at Exeter can equip you with the skills and knowledge needed to help combat some of the most pressing issues of our time.