Slow Academia

It’s winter here in Melbourne; the kind of weather that calls for soup. My favourite soup is the sort which simmers all day on the stove. You know, where you fill a pot with a pile of vegetables and cook the crap out of it over a long, cold afternoon.  I’ve got a pot like this on at the moment and the smells are permeating the house. You never know how good this kind of soup is going to be until you taste it of course, but you know that slow cooking intensifies flavour and transforms humble ingredients into something special.

For some time now the ‘slow food’ movement has questioned the value of ‘fast food’ and called for a return to more authentic modes of cooking and eating. Like any catchy name will, the concept of Slow has been applied to other activities: Slow travel, Slow gardening, Slow fashion, Slow parenting. What these manifestations of the Slow Movement  share in common is an appreciation for the value of taking more time and care to make something – a dish, a dress, a garden on the assumption that it will be better than something put together in a hurry.

As regular readers will know, I am almost obsessed with Fast. I’m constantly after the next technique or process which will increase my output. This is because, much of the time, Fast is Good. One of the traps which thesis writers fall into is over thinking everything, which can be solved by Fast. But recently I’ve started to think about Slow and how it might apply to academic work, because there are aspects of it which just can’t be rushed.

If you think about it, a thesis or dissertation is the epitome of Slow. Even if you finish in speedy fashion you are unlikely to turn one out in less than three years. Over those years you have to do a lot of different things: talk to people, collect data, record observations or make stuff. At the same time you must absorb information and engage with other people’s ideas. In a way, doing a thesis is like a long, slow conversation with these ideas and things, during which you try to tease out what ‘knowledge claims’ you can make. The outcome of this ‘conversation’ is recorded in writing – a thesis or dissertation text, which is examined by others who decide if the quality of the conversation is good enough for you to take on the title of Doctor.

You are but one ‘speaker’ in this Slow Conversation which means, as Liz Thackray points out in her recent blog post, your control over it can be, well – tenuous. After making changes to her thesis outline, Liz tells us how she reread an early abstract, which had served to focus her thinking at the time. Now she realised that it didn’t ‘match’ her thesis anymore:

“… ideas which were central to the abstract a few months ago, are no longer there, but other ideas which either were not present, or were peripheral are taking centre stage. I am seriously beginning to wonder if rather than me owning my thesis, whether it actually has somehow acquired a life of its own.”

There’s an interesting similarity between this statement by Liz and those made by fiction authors who begin to ‘inhabit’ their characters. These writers report a similar sense of separation and otherness, along with a profound kind of connection. As Ann Marie Priest writes:

“I began to feel my character’s feelings. I began to feel myself responding to what the others were saying as though I actually was the person I was pretending to be … I knew, without even thinking about it, what my character was going to do next … when I came to write a monologue for her, it was virtually effortless. She wrote it herself.”

I don’t know about you, but I often feel like my fingers are moving across the keyboard while I take dictation from someone else inside my head. When I read my papers back I they seem to be written by this strange other self and not ‘me’. At least I feel like this other self is a much better writer than I am. Perhaps this ‘multiplicity’ – of selves and of things, is why so many people make the analogy between finishing a thesis or novel and giving birth. A thesis is of you, but it has many other parents: scholars, research participants, archives test tubes to name a few. Consciously thinking about this sense of writing ‘taking control’ of you can be helpful. Consider this quote from Bruno Latour:

“A paper that does not have references is like a child without an escort walking in the night in a big city it does not know: isolated, lost, anything may happen to it”

Latour alerts us to the fact that our thesis has to have relationships with other literature, past and present. If your thesis is a ‘paper child’ you are responsible for its welfare. To return to my theme of Slow, would you let your child wander around the city with any old person you met on the street? No – you would want to take time to get to know this escort before you trusted them.

Likewise, developing your relationship with the literatures who accompany your thesis takes time. While I can and do encourage you to ‘read like a mongrel’ (fast and furious), Fast reading is really a way of finding out which pieces and authors are worth investing time in. Deep understanding of literature needs repeated reading and thinking. as well as writing. In other words, a Slow conversation with the ideas. This process can be frustrating because, just like soup, you can never be completely sure the thesis you make from these Slow conversations will turn out as good as it can be. However, if applied correctly, a bit of Slow will ensure that your thesis has more flavour than most.

Speaking of soup, mine is just about ready, so I might leave you with this thought: What if losing control is an essential part of writing a thesis? Realising you have lost control forces you to slow down. When you stop talking so much, you can listen better. Maybe then your thesis will tell you what it needs. What do you think?

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35 thoughts on “Slow Academia

  1. M-H says:

    Inger, I think this is one of your Best. Posts. Eva. I think about the thesis process as ‘composting’ – you read lots of stuff, and make notes, and talk to people, and listen to people, and over time it changes and when you dig into it you find it has become something else. And the time component is the thing you can’t control. Your brain can only work as fast as it can work. And panicking or stressing doesn’t help.

    • ingermewburn says:

      Thanks Mary Helen 🙂 And I agree – learning to breathe through those feelings of panic is essential, because sometimes you just can’t force ‘it’ to happen.

  2. Salmah MY says:

    I just email my friend telling that I am thinking that my writing progress was slow….. hope it is a good symptom and makes me think more….

    • ingermewburn says:

      Sometimes it just stalls I think. Perhaps try doing something else for awhile? I found preparing presentations a really effective way to get me thinking about ideas without worrying about the order of words. Explaining it to someone else can help clarify the ideas.

  3. Vicky says:

    I think the idea of fast vs. slow thesis is also something becoming more important as F/T PhDs are tweaked to be expected to finish in three years. The problem with this is that it does force you to think fast, possibly to the detriment of your work.
    A professor at my university has been doing work into innovative PhDs with innovative design research methodologies. What struck me was that most of them (e.g. Tony Dunne, Catherine Dixon, Daria Loi) took a *long* time. I do wonder if the incubation period is something that we need to think about, rather than rushing.

  4. liz poirier says:

    This was great to read for so many reasons, not least because my thesis is looking at exactly these issues. I’m specifically exploring whether there is a need, a desire or the potential to approach information seeking and use in a Slow style. It so far seems that there is both need and desire but the practicality of side-stepping the constant flow of ICTs is elusive: knowing when to be fast, and when to be Slow, seems to be a tricky skill to pin down and not one that can be easily taught. Thanks for a great post!

      • Anonymous says:

        not yet – a bit too preoccupied with finishing the darn research and writing the darn thesis (papers are way down the list!). and i’m afraid i just don’t have the dedication to blog…

        i do (occasionally) post progress @slowinformation

  5. Kat says:

    I like these ideas. About half way through the actual time it took me to write my thesis I realised that instead of patching it and tweaking it around the edges and trying to get drafts redone as quickly as possible I needed to sit down and take it from the top again. I didn’t exactly re-write it, but I did work through page by page to try and carefully weave in the ideas I had come across since I wrote those first drafts, I ejected the ideas that were tired or not working or that represented and earlier point in my thinking that I had moved beyond.
    I also agree with Vicky’s comment above that maybe theses just take different amounts of time to finish, I feel I spent a lot of the 7 years it took me to finish working on my thesis pretty constantly. Having finished now part of me feels that maybe the project I set myself was always going to take a lot longer than three years.

    • ingermewburn says:

      I did something similar with my final draft. A friend pointed out that the end should be at the beginning. I took that as an opportunity to rewrite the first three chapters – which was quicker than editing in the end I think.

  6. jl says:

    I have the same experience when I am coding – my programs seem to write themselves. When that happens, I lose my sense of space and time. Very productive, yes, but with painful physical consequences later. Still, I cannot seem to be able to ‘enter the zone’ for my thesis writing.

    • Vicky says:

      You’re talking about flow state — from what I understand of it, you need to have a level of expertise in order to achieve it, so it could be that you just need to be a bit more further along before you get there!

  7. tseen says:

    This is very much on my radar at the moment, the need for academics to SLOW DOWN and think about what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and whether it’s actually where they want to be heading! All good research takes time. We’re all pressed for great gouts of output, but remember that quality (as with fashion…) counts in the long run.

    Your final point brought this to mind (am nothing if not an eclectic type these days):

    A wise old owl lived in an oak
    The more he saw the less he spoke
    The less he spoke the more he heard.
    Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?

    Many of us are familiar with this nursery rhyme, so let’s put “being a wise old bird” in our 5-year workplan projections?

  8. lizith says:

    Thanks for the mention of my blog. What you are saying makes so much sense and resonates with me. When I started my research, I imagined that, given previous knowledge and experience, it could be done and dusted in a couple of years. Now I am deliberately giving myself a full 4th year (should be final year given registration requirements) so that I have that time to reflect and enjoy. Yes there are techniques and ways of doing things that can speed things up, but there is also a lot to be said for meandering through the countryside rather than trying to find the motorway, even if at some point the destination needs focusing on. Looking forward to seeing what flavours my soup contains.

  9. Laura Servage says:

    Welluh this is all lovely, but, on a more cynical note, the thesis writing process hardly squares with the “publish or perish” that characterizes life once you become a prof. Too bad. Do universities reflect society’s wider impatience with anything that takes time and consideration?

  10. Sarah Stow says:

    I think this post provides some nice expansion of some of the ideas Peter van Onselen was talking about in the piece you tweeted a week or so back. Van Onselen places a significant value on the slow thesis because it gives the writer time to make professional connections and publish, putting themselves in a better position when it comes time to get a job. I’m not sure that this is really the ‘losing control’ you speak of but it is another dimension of the value of slow.

  11. Jean Rumbold says:

    It seems to me that there is not much time or space in our universities these days for conversations about ideas. Perhaps that is why we come to cyberspace for it? I enjoyed every minute of my own resaerch for an EdD, because my supervisor created a space and time for a group to have such conversations, and because a peer researcher and I engaged in cafe and postcard conversations. Now as a supervisor I am trying to create such leisurely moments and safe spaces for others to fly ideas, explore the not quite known, and debrief the thesis process. We are blogging too, with images and reflections, though so far only as a password protected conversation. The idea of ‘Slow academia’ resonates, and The Thesis Whisperer blog in general is an inspiration. Thanks!

  12. Samantha Dieckmann (@samatterings) says:

    What a fabulous post! Love the depth of reflection and the choice of analogy!! I will certainly try to keep the comparison in mind when frustrated with how long I take to write things. I can definitely relate as I have recently decided to drop one of my enjoyable part-time jobs to focus more of my energy and headspace on the full-time PhD. I realised I wasn’t able – amidst all the other things I had going on – to give it the attention that results in the quality and ‘flavour’ of the Slow.

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