Skip to main content

Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin

Trinity Menu Trinity Search

The PhD Diaries: Identities in Transformation

The PhD Diaries is a series of pieces written by PhD candidates who work in areas associated with the Identities in Transformation research theme. Over the course of several weeks, they will examine their relationship with their research and how it has changed them. The first piece is from Carlos Oliveras, the postgraduate representative for the Identities in Transformation theme and creator of this series.

Am I the same person going to bed as the one who arose this very morning, the sunlight draped across my duvet, the birdsong prying open my eyelids? Who or what is it that dresses in my pajamas, dares to extend his legs under the covers and press his head against my pillow? I’m sure that it’s me, but where does that certainty come from? After all, the “me” from this morning isn’t the one who sat on the upper deck of the bus next to the strawberry blonde tapping her Kindle every minute and 22 seconds (give or take). He’s not the one who tripped over the curb on his way into the office where he sits every day and stares at the squirrels jumping branches in the provost’s garden. He’s definitely not the one who was starving at 7:38 p.m., who tightened in anticipation as the microwave dinged ready the leftovers from Wednesday night. The minutes of the day had conspired to force difference upon each moment, to separate the morning’s version of myself from the evening’s.

And yet, somehow I know that it is me sliding into my bed, my head on my pillow. The same, yet not the same.

Among popular thought problems, the trolley problem has typically gotten the bulk of the press (and the memes), yet I have always found the ship of Theseus to be a much more engaging thought problem. The premise is that Theseus’s ship has been preserved and exhibited in honor of his exploits, but since it is old and used, it continues to deteriorate with time. The boards rot, the sails wear and the mast falls, and each piece needs to be replaced one by one. The question is, at what point does it cease to be Theseus’s ship? Or does it ever cease to be the ship? Does it become something different at some point, thereby losing its value? Or are the changes superfluous and the ship is still Theseus’ ship? The problem is often put forward as a prompt to help in determining the root of identity and the role that human consciousness plays in constructing and maintaining such an identity. Indeed, I would argue that the concept of Theseus’s ship, this ephemeral thing, exists just beyond the physical structure, and it is this concept that makes it Theseus’s ship and not just a replica. The same goes for a person: our personhood does not end at the extent of our blood, bone and sinew, but exists above and beyond our physical selves, encompassing our memory and our personal narrative, an amalgam of images and constructed meanings that reside in no concrete location but rather as a rapid series of synapses firing off in our mind.

What the problem of Theseus’s ship does not take into account, at least in the way it is traditionally presented, is that change is an integral part of identity. True identity, in the sense of a static whole, is not easily found in the world around us. The assumption is that change is a challenge to identity, or that only a thing that is whole, unedited, and untouched can be said to maintain the integrity of being that commonly implies an “identity”. But if change is assumed, then the problem of Theseus’ ship is not a problem. It’s just a ship, and ships rot and have to be repaired, and sometimes they rot so much they can no longer be used. What makes it Theseus’ ship is not physical continuity nor utility, but rather the contextual elements that define it (its having once been used by Theseus, the stories of its use, and the belief that it is of distinct cultural value) and the expectation that it will have to change or be repaired or replaced, whether wholly or in part, and be transformed into something new and different. Not the same, yet somehow the same.

While reading for my own project, I noticed the growing influence of a particular scientific theory on linguistic study, one that is used particularly in applied linguistics and the field of second language acquisition: complex systems theory. Essentially the theory rests on an ecological view of the world in which everything is related in some way to something else, and that it is these relationships that ultimately prove definitive. In discussing the relationship of a person to the languages they speak, researchers (e.g. Kramsch, 2002) quote the final line of the poem Among School Children by William Butler Yeats in providing a metaphor for this theoretical viewpoint: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” They argue that in language learning and development, it is difficult to extricate the learner from the process of learning, and they extend this line of argument to suggest that both the language and the learner are transformed by a learner’s use of the language. This transformation is a continuous, relational, two-way process. Now, it is clear that the “learner” is not just a learner of languages but is a complete person with other interests, duties, hobbies, and so on, but insofar as the learner is learning, both the learner and the thing being learned are changed by mutual participation in the process of learning. To return to Yeats’s metaphor, there is no telling the dancer from the dance, for they are part of one contiguous whole: the dancer belongs to the dance, and the dance to the dancer. In the act, the identities of both are irreversibly changed, and yet each of them, the dancer and the dance, remain. The choice of the metaphor of dance is telling, for what is dance but change and movement personified?

It was in light of reading these ideas that the existence of such relational processes became more vivid. I began to see language learning not as an additive process, where you’re just pouring in linguistic knowledge with the hope that it will solidify and become easier to use, but rather as a transformative process, where the links between words and concepts are being fundamentally reshaped by the presence of new mental connections and new combinations of lip, tongue and lung movements. Or maybe they’re the exact same movements you’ve already known but now, surrounded by other sounds and said to other people, they have taken on a different significance. The air in front of me became thick with cords binding concepts together, it sparked purple and white when those cords were snapped and refastened in myriad new ways, and I could not turn away.

This short collection was inspired by Trinity’s Identities in Transformation research theme, which engages in interdisciplinary research to explore the ways in which our multiplicitous identities (personal, social, emotional, national, global…the list is endless) find their stasis in perpetual fracture and fusion, movement and change. The pieces that will form the collection have been written by early career researchers who, like myself, feel they have been affected in some way, large or small, by their research. This is our dance, and when the music falls silent both dancer and dance will have been changed. We will not be the same, and yet somehow, the same.


Carlos Oliveras

Hailing from New York City, Carlos is a PhD candidate in Applied Linguistics at Trinity College Dublin. He has two masters’ degrees, one in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and another in English Literature. His research focuses on students’ experience and perception of foreign language learning in secondary school, and how this bears on their motivation. His research interests also include multilingualism, language policy, and language pedagogy. He currently serves as the postgraduate representative for the Identities in Transformation research theme.