“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!


March 30, 2011

I think I’m becoming horribly critical, which is not a nice thing to think about oneself. Or perhaps more intelligent. Yes, I think that must be it.

A few nights ago, I went to an event with a fairly feeble speaker. I won’t tell you where, what, when or which sex (English could do with a neutral pronoun; I could only resort to the slightly awkward ‘they’ or the completely irritating ‘he/she’*). There was muddle, bad logic and general steam-coming-out-of-my-ears-ness but that’s not what I want to write about. I’ll just say “?!*&$#~/”. No, what interested me is that I seem to be developing a confidence in my critical faculties. A few years ago, I’d’ve known there was something wrong but doubtful why and certainly hesitant to say how. Now, unconsciously, I’ve developed an ability to question and criticise, absorbed from the environment I’ve luckily found myself in.

Yes, I think that must be it.

*English could also do with a new orthographic mark to indicate ‘this isn’t really part of the argument, merely me dribbling on for a bit; serious-minded readers might want to jump straight to the other side of the closing parenthesis’. We all have our favourite punctuation; I easily drift into being parenthetical (although I also scatter semi-colons liberally). Likewise, I have a friend who’s a great dasher – editors emerge from his work prickled all over like porcupines!

And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche

February 28, 2011

This really has nothing to do with either open science or public engagement. I hope no one minds!

A conversation I recently had with a friend threw up – in the random way email exchanges do – Chaucer’s description of the Clerk of Oxford. The Clerk was new to me but I have a fellow feeling for him – I’m definitely not right fat, never held high office, spend all my spare pennies (and a few unspare ones) on books …

But what struck me was the last line. I left teaching without a backward glance some (aargh!) twenty-two years ago. I was no loss – although I might have been a reasonable teacher, I was an absolutely rotten lion-tamer. Recently though, I’ve been doing a little teaching as part of my researcher skills training. Not a lot – nowhere near enough data points to make a line – but some. And – to my pleased surprise – I’ve really enjoyed it. Some of it’s gone well and some not so well but it’s all been so interesting. Not just the actual standing in front of students but the whole devising, preparing, planning, reflection, thinking about how I could do it better. Why? The past has no glow on it that can light up the present. Age? Possibly. University students, rather than school pupils? Very likely.

Another surprise has been how much of the educational theory is as it was in the late 70s. This intrigues me. Is it that (a) nothing has changed, (b) I was very well-trained at teacher training college or (c) I’ve been away from educational theory for so long that the cycle has come back to where I was?

Gladly learning has never been a problem. The good thing about being released from the classroom all those years ago was the time it gave me to learn. Until the last couple of years, all by myself but the last two years, I’ve been like Peter Rabbit in the Mr McGregor’s vegetable patch. I hope I don’t lose my jacket and shoes; I’ll settle for the camomile tea.

A Clerk ther was of Oxenford also,
That unto logik had long tyme i-go.
As lene was his hors as is a rake,
And he was not right fat, I undertake;
But lokede hollow, and therto soberly.
Ful thredbare was his overest cloke to see,
For he hadde nought geten him a benefice,
Nor was so worldly to have high office.
For he wold rather have at his beddes hed
Twenty bookes, clothed in blak and red,
Of Aristotil, and his philosophie,
Then robes riche, or fiddle, or psaltery.

But although that he were a philosóphre,
Yet had he but a litul gold in cofre;
But al that he might gete, and his frendes sent,
On bookes and his lernyng he it spent,
And busily gan for the soules pray
Of them that gaf him money to scolay.
Of studie tooke he most cure and most heede.
Not one word spak he more than was need;
Al that he spak it was of heye prudence,
And short, and quyk, and ful of gret sentence.
Sowndynge in moral virtu was his speche,
And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche

how do I open … let me count the ways

November 30, 2010

Does it matter that definitions of what the ‘open’ in open science means are many and various? Naturally, I’ve asked everyone I’ve interviewed (that’s around 25 people) what ‘open’ means to them. Naturally, I’ve had 25 subtly different answers.

Within the community of scientists, a delicate structure of rules has grown up that sustains our trust in ourselves. We trust each other to cite references properly, to attribute thoughtfully, not to jump each others’ claims and knock down small children in the rush to publication.

Thing is, the rules are largely implicit and maybe you have to be a fully-paid member of the academy to get them. But as the furore over the leaking of emails from UEA (which I won’t cheapen by referring to as Climateg*t*) showed, in the light of common day, expectations can be very different.

The Russell Review – one of the tribunals that investigated the issue – found that while there was no reason to doubt the rigour and honesty of the scientists involved, there had been a ‘consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness’.

What exactly is the proper degree is a moot point. Does it matter that – as my 25 replies show – definitions of what the ‘open’ in open science means are many and various? I don’t think it does; the important thing is to be open in the first place – as open as feels comfortable. As the leaked emails saga shows, it’s easy to confuse ‘normal process’ with ‘deliberately secretive’. Openness can help … open things up. Humans have evolved pretty sophisticated ‘oops that’s not quite right’ detectors over the millennia but we need something to work with. We need the whole picture; the photograph, the list of other publications, the funders, the research question, the blog. It all helps build the narrative; even the twitter post about the particularly nice cup of tea they just had.

what I should have said was …

November 25, 2009

The full house on the 376 from Bristol to Wells tonight might well have appreciated my bonnes pensées. They didn’t get them. But then, neither did the workshop on universities and public engagement that should have. Don’t you always  have your most intelligent thoughts on the way home?

One thing that struck me was the fixation on public engagement as being ‘standing up and talking about your stuff’. In front of … eek! people! That’s scary, of course – takes a lot of courage. The fear of looking them in the whites of their eyes was high on the list of ‘things that put people off getting involved in PE work’ (there were lots of others). But surely there are other ways? Lots of academics have blogs, social network pages, twitter accounts, personal web pages; aren’t they public engagement? Don’t they count as engagement activities?

Fear works in the other direction too. Universities are big scary places — it takes all the courage I can muster to get myself to a public lecture. But I feel comfy on my sofa with my laptop, looking for information on … Engagement with science on the web is very much engagement – and with a potentially enormous public.

This was all so much better in that traffic jam …