Mathias Poulsen

Play Activist & Researcher @ Designskolen Kolding

Recovering from the PhD

It’s been a few weeks (well, more like a month, if we’re counting) since I handed in my PhD thesis at Design School Kolding. The final title is this:

The Junk Playground as Agora: Designing for Playful Democratic Frictions

The very careful observer may notice that it changed a little from my long-standing working title, ‘Designing for Playful Democratic Participation’. I still talk a lot about participation, but I just became obsessed with friction as a concept, in both research and participatory processes. I will return to this in more detail, I promise.

And yes, I actually did submit the rather oldschool, printed version on the photo, six copies and all. I’m still in limbo regarding the PhD itself, awaiting the verdict of the assessment committee. If things go well (🤞), there will be a public defence sometime in April, and you’re all invited (though I might call it something else, as I’m not really in the business of defending things). While I usually share everything as soon as possible, I have a feeling I should hold my horses a bit longer before I make the thesis widely available. After all, it may still change quite a bit.

Into the void

Finishing the project sparked numerous unfamiliar and ambivalent feelings that I cannot really compare to anything else.

At first, there was a sense of relief and accomplishment, of enduring, climbing the mountain, making it this far, finally. I doubted myself many times along the way, and regularly considered the possibility that I might simply never finish. I mean, why would I do that to myself? It has been an intense, demanding experience, where I often didn’t know what I was doing or where I was going. There has been a few big crises and many days of overwhelming frustration and despair, but those days have been vastly overshadowed by the invigorating sense of adventure. The past three years have indeed been a wonderful adventure, where I kept asking questions I could not – and cannot – answer. I have taken great comfort in Jack Halberstam’s claim that:

Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world

Jack Halberstam

While the thesis is far from perfect, I am happy with how it turned out, flaws, inconsistencies, personal idiosyncrasies, silly experiments and all. I know that I did my best, and stretched my limited capabilities as far as I could.

However, finishing also left me in a void, like something was missing, as if I was not quite done yet.

But I was. I am. That was that (for now, at least).

Then came the ’post-PhD-blues’, where I was completely exhausted, drained, and I could not really get excited about anything. This has been especially frustrating, because energy and excitement are usually the two ingredients that get me through most predicaments in life. After a month, I’m still struggling to find my bearings, still slow, my mind still blurry. I keep asking myself: why is it so hard?

There are probably lots of reasons, but I imagine it factors in heavily that the PhD became much, much more than ‘just another project’, it was a deeply transformative journey, also and not least on a personal level. I have kept asking myself this question:

How could I see what I could not see if I did not change enough to see differently?

I have relished this rare opportunity to so fundamentally question and challenge underlying assumptions about my own place in the world, but it has nonetheless been both intimidating and exhausting.

Between finishing a project I worked on intensely for three years, and the wet, dark weather, it feels like I have been coping with something akin to a mild winter depression. Nothing serious, but the long (if not exactly cold) Danish winter always takes a toll on me. In any case, the situation requires me to be patient and gentle with myself. I have tried pushing through, forcing myself to move faster, to work harder, but it doesn’t really work. If anything, it makes matters worse. Instead, I recall the words of Audre Lorde, when she suggested that:

We can practice being gentle with ourselves by being gentle with each other.

Audre Lorde

Strangely, it often seems harder to be gentle and patient with oneself than with others. I always stress the importance of care, vulnerability, and kindness in our relations, yet I tend to be too hard on myself, demanding efforts I would never expect from anyone else.

But look, spring is coming:

The next few steps

I’m fortunate enough to have been offered a new position at Design School Kolding (probably a post-doc for now). Among a lot of other things, it means that I am now transitioning from my own somewhat solitary and esoteric PhD universe to joining new projects with lovely colleagues.

It’s a paradoxical experience. On the one hand, I have longed for closer collaboration with more people, where we share the ownership, responsibilities, frustration and excitement. Where we are in it together. Laughing and crying together. When all is said and done, the PhD has been a more lonely experience than I would have preferred. As I wrote in the thesis:

They say a PhD project is a solitary affair, and as someone who love and live for the encounter and the spark of connection,
I have certainly been suspended in solitude for longer than I like. There were more than a few moments of deep frustration and
utter despair, where I was daydreaming of becoming a woodworker by trade.

However, on the other hand, the PhD offered me the immense privilege of spending three years on the most exciting project I could possibly dream up; a true labor of love. With some trepidation, I wrote about exactly that in my conclusion:

I realize that love has been the ultimate catalyst, if I am only now ready to call it by its proper name. I want to end by pulling these threads together and point towards the contours of a more loving research practice. What better way to do that than to repeat bell hook’s bold encouragement for us to draw upon ‘love to heighten our awareness, deepen our compassion, intensify our courage, and strengthen our commitment’ (hooks, 2015, p. 27). If all I take from this whole endeavour is a slightly lower threshold for talking about love, then I could wish for no more.

In addition to the concept of love, there’s just so much in the PhD that I’m still wildly excited about, so much I wish to carry with me on my journeys. I like to think out loud about these things, so I’ll start writing a series of short posts to explore the themes that I hope to keep exploring in new projects. In the best of worlds, those posts can spark new conversations and entanglements, sending us on new adventures together.


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