fter a tough autumn and a tiring Christmas, in January I started to review the small changes I could try and make to improve my mental and physical health to get me through the final furlong of my PhD. I didn’t want to call them New Years Resolutions, as there was too much going on to confidently be able to start them on January 1st. However the beginning of February seems a good time to hold myself to these new promises. So this week, I started to work on my PhD fulltime and started to think about the goals I had set myself. These were in no particular order: regular bedtime, regular writing (its not realistic to write 7 days a week) and regular exercise.
So, here I am. I have just completed my first run in nearly 6 months and I am writing. I was lucky enough to go on a 3-day writing ‘retreat’ as part of my PhD funding and it transformed the way I approached writing and my PhD. The course tutors said that writing is like a muscle and in the same way that we have to exercise regularly to keep ‘in shape’, its really important as researchers to write everyday. We did a lot of timed writing (in 45 minutes) as well as 3- minute sprints. I soon appreciated that this was a much better way of approaching writing than how I had I worked previously, which was to dedicate myself to long marathons of writing and notching up some 6000 words at a time. This is physically and mentally exhausting and the mental preparation required organising my thoughts and ideas in advance to right in this way was taking up an immense amount of time. I also realised that I was procrastinating enormously before writing and becoming increasingly reluctant to commit any words to computer. Therefore, I started going for morning walks with a friend after school drop off and finding a coffee shop and writing for 45 minutes. In no time at all I had produced nearly 50000 words of draft format for my PhD. It felt really good. Then I got tied up in knots with my data and analysis went down a rabbit hole like Alice in Wonderland, forgot all about writing and stayed there - until this week.
Thinking time is valuable and allows you to contemplate and wrestle with any number of complicated or theoretical issues, particularly in a research project or PhD. Unfortunately, no one rewards you for thinking time and you can get as stuck thinking as you can writing or processing data, as I found out to my detriment so a balance that needs to be struck. One thing I have appreciated through doing the PhD is that allowing yourself time to think is valuable and that the most productive thinking probably isn’t done sitting at your laptop or at your desk. It’s doing something that frees your mind in some way – whether its running, walking, cycling, yoga, gardening, sewing, painting, cooking – whatever works for you that allows your brain to lock into its creative streak. Again it’s another ‘muscle’ that needs work. Unfortunately in the two sectors I work in – education and the museum sector – very little time is afforded to developing that creativity, as we are always so busy ‘doing’.
As I write about writing, I am mindful of what I set out to write about today and that is serendipity. Its one of the most beautiful words in the English language and aptly describes the situations in which I often find myself professionally.
As a consultant, a PhD researcher, supply teacher and employee, I juggle a lot of balls (that’s not counting home life and rugby). However, I often find there are often threads to this work that provide opportunities that aren’t immediately obvious. It might be the projects I am drawn to working on, or, as I prefer to say, its serendipity. It means that I am often able to switch intellectually across project and use experiences from the different projects to inform each other. This means that I am continually learning and developing, but importantly also means that I am thinking and making connections and looking for unanticipated outcomes.
Yesterday I was at the first event for a new AHRC network – Learning at the Intersection of Language and the Arts (LILA). I am part of this project in my capacity as an employee of the British Museum, where I run the ESOL programme. However the group I am working with from the University of Leeds has been influential in some of the thinking in and around my PhD. I am currently working on an Erasmus+ funded project on creative and critical thinking in school education and finishing a Creative Ireland funded schools project on intercultural dialogue. A case study I heard about at an academic conference in July is being used for this project. My train from London to Leeds was cancelled yesterday and I sat next to an academic from the Open University who has been working on a research project I have much admired. I am hoping to work with her for Refugee Week 2020 at the British Museum. Serendipity.
I was also struck about the common threads drawn from the programme of the day to some of the challenges we are exploring in the other projects mentioned – namely definitions, understanding and applications of creativity. The programme yesterday was all about ‘Making’. It had quite a broad scope and covered everything from physically making to meaning making and how the two are interrelated. In the plenary session, I remarked that anthropologists and archaeologists believe that the first ‘artistic’ processes were closely aligned with the development of language.
I am looking forward to the challenge of writing more about the projects I am involved in, in exploring notions of creativity, dialogical pedagogies and meaning making and other aspects of my current practice. I don’t know as yet how and where these pieces will find life. I might start publishing some on my website and Facebook. Some of it might end up in my PhD. Who knows, whatever happens it will serendipitous?
(Did I mention all the pieces have to be written in 45 minutes…)
Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe