About a year ago now I had a phone conversation with @bjkraal who showed me his excellent and funny “Brown car blog”.  I got nerdishly excited about the potentials of using a photo blog like Tumblr to do crowd sourced research. My HTC Android phone has a  great camera in addition to 3G access and apps which allow me to upload straight to Tumblr. This makes it the ideal data collection instrument – hello ethnographic fun!

@bjkraal and I started to toss around around some ideas for a photoblog theme and came up with a research question to drive it:

Is there any evidence to support the idea that the presence of senior professors and VC’s at university events is co-related with a higher quality of catering?

Exhibit A: tray of snacks at the 2011 AUQA conference, Melbourne.

Of  course it’s a rather silly question, but that wasn’t the point of the exercise – plus there was the added bonus of not having to seek research ethics approval because that food was at risk of being eaten anyway. So as soon as I got off the phone I started a blog called “Refreshments Will Be Provided”. The blog is (and will continue to be) open to contributions from others. Quite a few people, mostly PhD students, have been so kind as to submit photos. As a result I was able to develop a bigger and more interesting data set which doesn’t just reflect my own corner of the academic world.

Now I have been collecting data for a year I think I am in a position to state that the answer to our research question is Yes – the more lofty the company, the fancier the snacks.

Consider Exhibit A on the left, a plate of petit fours at a rather high powered conference about quality assurance in higher education. The conference was full of ex VCs and professors as well as assorted government and union types. The snacks were almost as intimidating as the company (at least to this early career researcher, who is constantly on a diet – or anyone with a food intolerance, as this picture sadly shows).

While collecting this data on food I found a number of interesting things, which probably need another post. However the most immediately fascinating observation was how much of my own academic work gets carried out in cafes. I write, read, take notes, think and meet people in cafes on and off campus on almost a daily basis. I am such a regular at one on campus that it’s really my second office. I like this kind of ‘free form’ academic practice so much that I take a lead role in organising the weekly “Shut up and write” session at RMIT university (9:30am, Friday mornings at the bench table at ‘Pearson and Murphys’ cafe if you are interested).

Dueling laptops at RMIT's friday morning "Shut up and Write" session.

It seems I am not the only one to love a cafe, in fact @KathrynPaterson sparked off the idea for this post by recommending it as the remedy when I complained about how distracted I was in my home office. Isn’t it odd that these noisy, busy spaces seem conducive to research writing and reading? Especially when you consider that the primary reason academics resist open plan offices is that the presence of other people is distracting. What is going on?

I wondered aloud on Twitter why it sometimes is preferable to work in a cafe than at one’s desk and got a number of interesting replies. @LizDobsonUoH pointed out that such a practice has a proud heritage; JK Rowling famously wrote the Harry Potter series in a cafe. @RebeccaRDamari sent me an extremely funny and interesting article called “Destination: LAPTOPISTAN” where a reporter describes his visit to a particularly famous cafe where:

“Laptops had colonized every flat surface. No one uttered a word; people just stared into screens, expressionless. It felt like that moment in a horror movie when the innocent couple stumbles into a house filled with hibernating zombies, and they listen, in terror, as the floorboard creaks.”

It seems the motivations described in the New York Times article are similar to people on Twitter. @idreamofcodiene, described her motives for occupying cafes as stemming from “a desire to appear studious to those around you”. @orientalhotel expressed similar motivations and added: “I think cafe time allows me to focus on just one thing w/o pressure to feel I should 10 books/websites at once”.  @shannonej summed this up nicely when she remarked: “As a social person a cafe is a social setting but I’m not interacting so work gets done. In a quiet office I get distracted @ misskatielow agreed and pointed out the importance of caffeine in this process.

@ai1sa pointed out that you are ‘off the grid’ when you are in a cafe – unless you take a call, no one has to know you are there.That is unless, like @levis517, you can’t resist ‘FourSquare’ (” I couldn’t STAND to have ANYONE ELSE be mayor of MY cafe it’s MINE ok no I don’t own it but it’s still mine.”)

@sannapeden sent me off on an interesting tangent when she remarked that working in cafes is “equivalent to the inflated cushions fidgety or ADHD kids sit on to get them to concentrate in school… ..except, you know, with cake.” (I had never heard of such devices, but apparently they do exist). @jazzlinguist added an interesting twist when she told me about studies of kids which found that they concentrated better when they had diminished sensory input.

I started to wonder about the complex relationship between noise and distraction. I talked to a friend of mine who has adult ADHD who told me how much working in front of the television helped her to concentrate. Looking up the symptoms of ADHD on wikipedia was a bit confronting I have to say – I could certainly tick off a few, especially a few of the ‘inattentive’ ones:

  • Easily distracted, miss details, forget things, and frequently switch from one activity to another
  • Have difficulty maintaining focus on one task
  • Become bored with a task after only a few minutes, unless doing something enjoyable
  • Not seeming to listen when spoken to

There’s no room to outline all the distraction literature here – definitely a post for another time as I am running out of words in this one. If you feel so moved to contribute to Refreshments Will Be Provided I would be delighted of course, but maybe there’s the possibility for another crowd sourced research project here? I wonder if we could compile a worldwide google maps mashup of thesis writer friendly cafes? You know – so we can share the cafe love (if you don’t know what I mean, look at this one for fast food restaurants in the USA).

I declare the nominations open! What is your favourite cafe to work in and why? Tell us in the comments or enter it in the Thesis Whisperer google map (if you need instructions on how to add a location to it or start your own, go here)

Related Posts:

Shut up and Write!

A visit from the procrastination fairy

%d bloggers like this: