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October 30, 2012

My relationship with the dead

I have been absent from the blog recently. I’m sorry. It’s…inexcusable. I won’t do it again, I promise.

Anyway, I have been thinking recently about a group of people who are nothing less than crucial for my research, but whom I very rarely consider – my research subjects. For the most part, this is a bunch of dead people, although I do very occasionally come across a reference to a person whom I’ve met (at which point I often have to fight the urge to ask them why they’re not dead yet). Despite their lack of breathing, moving, fighting life, they’re certainly adding some pretty crucial life-force to my research, bless ‘em. Sometimes I just feel like a conduit (woah, fancy word alert!) for some people who once led somewhat more exciting, more important lives than me, and sometimes I feel privileged to give them a voice, to pick their ideas and anecdotes out of the ether and present them to the world. However, it is admittedly true that I very rarely look at my work and think, “Hmm…I wonder what my research subjects would make of all this? Is this chapter really doing them justice?”

What has brought on this sudden cri de coeur (ooh lala, French words alert!), I hear you ask? Well, something odd happened to me last week. I was sat in the archive (seriously, some of the best days of my life have been in that small reading room), and I came across an article by a social worker talking about her difficulties in helping an abandoned child. She talks about feeling ‘paralysed’ in her work, about realising that there was nothing more to be done, and, perhaps most importantly, that it was somehow simultaneously nothing to do with her, and also all her fault. She was just one women trying, and occasionally failing, to do her job.

I slumped back in my seat, and started into empty space (there’s a lot of empty space in that reading room). I knew, I just knew, that I could never do justice to this social worker’s experience. Yes, I could contextualise it, I could argue about why and how it happened, I could add it to the qualitative and quantitative data I had already amassed about a vast number of people alive in twentieth-century Britain. But I could not reply to this specific woman, I could not tell her that her plea had been heard, that someone in another century was moved by her words. She was to my PhD just a faceless character in an on-going story, but to me she was, for just thirty seconds on a grey Thursday morning, a companion on a seemingly never-ending journey. I could only guess at what she might have been through just so I could copy her words down and deploy them in supervisions, conference papers, casual banter over a pint. As melodramatic as it sounds, I felt like she might deserve a better researcher than me. But I’m all she’s got to pass on the message that, once upon a time, she tried to change a life for the better, and later felt disgusted by her eventual failure.

Wow. This all started out rather humorous, and then got pretty deep. You can see why I have been away. This type of experience is obviously not uncommon in the humanities, arts, and social sciences. We all have research subjects, and we all want to get at something nuanced, important, something worth telling to the world. Whether we can or not is a question we ask ourselves from time to time. As for the scientists, well, I don’t know. I wonder whether the researchers at CERN were spurred on by a desire to do justice to the Higgs boson, to allow it to tell its story of giving mass to generally ungrateful particles. Perhaps Newton just wanted to speak for falling apples everywhere and across time. Of course, all this goes a step deeper still, to the human stories behind the research.

I think I’ll stop here. Tuesdays should be for laughter, not self-reflexive soul-searching. Me, I’m heading back to the archive. There are some people I need to spend some time with. They don’t hear me, but I can’t stop listening to them.

September 15, 2011

Being in the moment – by Anna. Plus bonus smiling kitten.

The novelist Annie Dillard wrote, 'How you spend your days is how you spend your life'.

I saw this a few days ago in a book and it's been running through my head ever since. Haunting me a little, even.

Do I enjoy my days as a researcher? This seems like a different question from asking whether I enjoy research, or whether I enjoy being a researcher. Do I enjoy those long days spent sitting at my desk, deep in an academic book? Do I enjoy the hours I spend writing a chapter? And what about the other, 'auxiliary' stuff I do, like conferences and meetings with my supervisor and teaching and updating my webpages and all those other things I do besides the research itself?

In recent months, the answer to most of these, if I'm honest, has been 'no'. I've been so bogged down in where I'm going - finishing the thesis, what I'll do afterwards - that I never just sit in the here and now, fully absorbed in what I'm doing. I'm always thinking three, or a hundred, steps ahead.

And worrying. What a worrier I've become! I like to think of myself as NOT a fearful person - and I'm not, about most of the little things that get people freaked out, like whether your airplane will crash or whether this spinach is going to give you salmonella or whether you'll get mugged if you walk down the street alone late at night. I have a high fear threshold about these things - I try not to worry about them unless I have some specific, out-of-the-ordinary and hopefully rational reason to do so because I don't want fear to control my life. And yet I worry constantly about whether my chapter will be good enough, and whether I'll get an academic job, and whether I even WANT an academic job, and whether I want to stay in the UK or move back to San Francisco, and how I might make this work given the bottom has fallen out of the academic job market in California...

And yada yada yada. You get the point.

But with all this worrying, I rarely feel able to just sit in the present, to enjoy the process of the work I'm doing. Hell, I often can't even focus on it enough to actually DO it at all. For the past few months, every time I sit down to read, I realise after a few paragraphs that I've absorbed very little of what's on the page, too preoccupied by what's running through my head to notice what I'm looking at.

So for the past few days anyway, I've been making an effort to pay attention to the present, to notice what I enjoy about my work, and to lay other thoughts to rest (until later). This is admittedly helped along by the fact that I just got back from a 3-week holiday and am feeling very chilled out.

There are things I do that are difficult or unpleasant, and I often (I'm noticing) avoid these tasks, going on Facebook or taking a break or just staring into space to avoid having to do or even think about them.

So now, I'm finding it really good to simply sit with the difficulty or unpleasantness, to accept my own negative feelings rather than avoid stuff. Avoiding things only makes them worse in the long run.

And if I'm honest, I had definitely become pretty avoidant about my thesis over the past few months. I'd been slogging through it anyhow, but only with a fair amount of emotional pain. Which I really don't deal well with.

And I'm finding, so far at least, that the work is going much faster, that I feel more confident about doing it, and that I'm enjoying it.

Yay! Big smiles all around.

smiling kitten

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