“Foster child of silence and slow time”

April 16, 2011

“And then, of course, building in space for reflection …” I quite surprised myself a few days ago when that popped out of my brain during a discussion with participants in the Science Communication Masterclass about how we went about planning events.

Surprised, because when I was first introduced to reflective practice two and a half years ago, I struggled to see the point. But I dutifully plodded on, incorporating it into my work until, almost unnoticed, it’s become natural, important and something I’m now suggesting to other people.

Maybe I shouldn’t be startled. I love abstract art – Mondrian, Matisse, Hepworth. I love editing written work – getting as close as possible to that magical pivot between minimum words and maximum explanation. For me, reflection makes sense as mental editing – catching experiences, mulling over their qualities and weighing them against knowledge. Paring thoughts down, trying to capture their essence and express them pithily.

I haven’t yet reached complete pith; I rather tend to waffle and persiflage, although I have written one or two paragraphs I think are pretty good.

But effective reflection takes time. Integrating experiment into practice and thence to understanding isn’t something (for me, anyway) that happens quickly. I’m lucky; the last two and a bit years have offered me unprecedented time to develop my thoughts (I’m still not sure anything useful will come out of it but I live in hope). PhD research might be meagre on bread but it’s rich in time to feed the soul with hyacinths; I’m unlikely to have such space afforded me again.

Silence is equally vital. Tentatively unravelling the strands of my thoughts and knitting them into solid sense can’t be done against clamour. Fortunately, I’m trusted to work at home for most of my time, where I look over my laptop’s screen on to my garden and my house’s thick Edwardian walls block out most unhuman noise.

Time crops up a lot when I talk to interviewees. Time flies. Time is like an ever-rolling stream. Time is of the essence (rapid move from poetry to the law!). Researchers taking an Open Science approach could be in danger of releasing a deluge of data and information on to the world. Does anyone have the time to deal with all that … stuff?

As I pondered in a previous post, does all that information muddy the water, making it impossible to see beneath the surface? Does it put science in the way of becoming like modern governments, which have to create policy lines in the sand in the face of the relentless tide of 24-hour news?

Unless you’re one of the rare but admirable researchers who runs an open notebook, committing to an open approach can be seen as taking time “away from the ‘real’ work”. It takes time to think through what it all means, write up the notes, tidy up the spreadsheet, comment the program code … but hang on, aren’t these processes truly a vital part of the real work; taking time to analyse, to evaluate, to ponder, to categorise … to reflect? Apparently doing nothing isn’t not doing anything. By making us stop doing in order to make what we’re doing transparent, Open Science could slow things down a little but such procrastination might be the donor, not the thief.

PS: by coincidence, my supervisor recently pondered the virtues of slow science in his blog. An object lesson in how to be an incredibly busy person but still reflect effectively!