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?