Sep 5, 2016

PhD blog 9/16: Introduction and mission statement

This summer, I applied to and was accepted into the Doctoral Programme in Gender, Culture and Society at the University of Helsinki, majoring in Political History. In practice, this means that for the next four years, I'll be attending postgraduate studies and writing a dissertation, with the eventual goal of receiving a doctorate in social sciences. I'm going to do my best to document this process in a series of blog posts, starting right here.

There are a couple of reasons why I want to do this. The first and most directly relevant is the very toxic public atmosphere in Finland right now. As part of their campaign of supposed "austerity", the current Finnish government has made massive cuts to higher education, resulting in hundreds of layoffs at the University of Helsinki alone. When these cuts were announced, the prime minister led his cabinet in a round of public mockery of universities and their staff. He told us that researchers are good for nothing; the then-finance minister claimed that the only reason anyone becomes a professor is the three-month summer holiday (professors in Finland do not have three-month summer holidays). The minister responsible for education attacked universities as overfunded, inefficient and complacent. The same rhetoric was echoed across the comment sections some Finnish media still bizarrely maintain: the universities are staffed by communists doing pseudoscience with tax money. In many circles, the university cuts were met with glee. Just last month, the universities were hit again with surprise cuts of millions of euros, for completely nonsensical reasons.

The various accusations made by our ministers were false, sometimes ludicrously so. The overall effect was still somewhat shocking. Finland had, supposedly, been a country that valued education and science; suddenly these alleged mainstays of our national success story were under vicious attack. The same atmosphere still persists: just last month, Finland's largest daily published a ridiculous editorial, claiming that Finnish academics hadn't reacted to the purges of Turkey's universities at all, because all we care about are ourselves. This was an outrageous lie; Finnish universities, several individual academics, the researchers' union and the student unions had all strongly condemned the events in Turkey. Rather than retract a blatant, offensive falsehood, the paper printed a rebuttal as a "counterclaim" and refused to admit any wrongdoing.

That Finnish ministers will lie without compunction, and that our major media aren't interested in calling them out but prefer to join in bashing our universities with false accusations is deeply worrying, but it's far beyond my abilities to fix. Instead, I've tried to take to heart what a Finnish historian said on the social media some time after the huge cuts were announced: have we really been this terrible at selling ourselves? This is not to say that the coördinated political campaign to attack the universities is somehow our own fault, because I don't for one minute accept that it is. Our current descent into a positively Trumpian world of outrageous lies was plotted elsewhere. However, the eager reception the news of the university cuts had does strongly suggest that there's a widespread ignorance in our society as to what it is that academics and universities actually do. That I can hopefully do something to fix. Hence these blog posts.

Even if this toxic climate hadn't been created, I still think that academics have a responsibility to be transparent about what we do. We are, after all, doing this on taxpayers' money. Not directly, since the majority of PhD students in this country don't get paid a dime for our work, but our teachers and supervisors do (mostly), and many of the facilities we use are publicly financed. So for that reason alone, I think we owe the public at large some account of what we get up to.

Finally, I believe there's also a sound academic reason to keep a sort of PhD diary. Not only is this a helpful tool for self-reflection, but it's also a record of my work. In other words, if three years from now I find myself wondering just what the hell it was I was thinking in October 2016, I can find out. Also, doing research in the humanities isn't just about gathering material and analyzing it; especially at the thesis level, it's also about creating your own way of working. Hopefully, this blog can also serve as a record of that. If I'm honest, this is the only part I really believe in.


One of the chief thrusts of the current government's assault on higher education has been their insistence that public universities need to serve business interests. In their rhetoric, the role of research is to produce "innovations", which the private sector can then monetize. Because I want to be as honest as possible, I freely admit that by these criteria, my dissertation is worthless. I think I can reasonably guarantee that no Finnish corporation will be able to make use of it to create a product they can sell. If the value of research is how well it serves the interests of corporate profits, then my dissertation has no value whatsoever.

My subject is the development of Finnish military doctrine, from the founding of the regular Finnish armed forces in 1918 to the outbreak of the Winter War in 1939. This has been studied before, in the way that military doctrine is often studied: the various field regulations and war plans have been read and summarized, and the ways they change have been tracked. Obviously this is valuable research, and I'll most likely be starting out by doing the same thing. The trouble is that this tells us what happened, but rarely why. For example, we know that Finnish army doctrine started out with a very strong emphasis on the offense, and had only gradually begun to come around to the idea that defensive battles might sometimes be necessary before the Second World War broke out. Hence the name of the previous study on Finnish doctrine is Hyökkäyksestä puolustukseen, from attack to defense. But we can't really convincingly explain why this happened. I intend to try.

In my Master's thesis, I looked at prewar Finnish armored doctrine as a sort of microcosm of this process. Finland was an early adopter of armor, buying 32 Renault FT tanks from France in 1919. However, by 1939, what started out as a fairly cutting-edge tank force had been largely neglected, and Finland went to war with no modern tanks and barely any anti-tank defences at all. I wanted to know how that happened. My starting point was Elizabeth Kier's thesis: to understand military doctrine, you have to understand military culture. In the case of Finnish armor doctrine, the key was understanding how Finnish officers saw Finnish terrain and its effects on military operations. Because of the particular importance of the forest to Finnish nationalism, this turned out to be intimately tied to nationalist thought. So what I took away from my thesis was the importance of seeing military doctrine as more than the technical problem-solving it's usually presented as, but rather as an integral part of nation-building. So that's what I'll be doing, only now with the whole army.

So from now on, most of my time will be spent taking classes, writing papers, working through a massive pile of literature, and reading field regulations and who knows what in the national archives. It sounds like it's going to be fun.


Leon said...

I detest that anti-intellectual 'research should only serve a profit margin'. It comes from people at the apex of society (and thus have no need to change it) and who completely forget how much of one's culture exists because of people with doctorates. Would these idiots like to destroy every fantasy novel written in the 20th CE because pretty much all of it came from the world creation of a stuffy English literature prof (and thus 'useless' to making a new widget).

Good luck with your doctorate studies.

Michael Halila said...

Thank you! It's not even just culture though; purely in terms of the national economy (and not even accounting for the impact of, say, fantasy literature on the national economy!), the focus on corporate bottom lines is horrible policy. So it's a little frustrating.