The Living Heart Of A Research Project

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Sunday, 9.41pm

Sheffield, U.K.

‘Research,’ for me, is a big word that encompasses a lot of different activities, all of them based around curiosity. Research is traveling to places, or studying snowflakes with a magnifying glass, or excavating one’s memories. Research is walking around Hamburg with a notebook. – Anthony Doerr

I came across the work of Lynda Barry at the start of the year and got very excited. I ordered all of her books and started to try out the ideas in there. And then I got stuck.

One of the reasons that I got stuck is that she asks you to slow down, to spend time. Time is what you need when you’re creating something and you need even more time when you’re trying to find out what you are meant to create. That kind of knowledge doesn’t come fast, you have to work and work and work and if you keep working you’ll stumble across something and realise that it’s your thing.

I work fast. Computers work for me – it’s easier to create images digitally and type on a computer than it is to work things out by hand. But there’s a realness to physical creations and I could argue that the way I use computers is as close to the physical experience as possible – hand-drawn images and prose as poetry. But what makes it out on this blog is a fraction of what comes in, and that stuff piles up. I’m on my third notebook of the year and have a lever arch file full of notes. When you have that much stuff how can you process it all?

I suppose the only way you can do that is by becoming more selective about what you read and write and think about. Today, for example, I came up with the idea of post-Western thinking and found there are a few papers out there that use that term. It makes sense because the way we think has been shaped by the tools we had. In the West, the printing press was the way people got their ideas across. It’s easy to print words and so people started to use words. Now, if you look at an academic paper, you can see the results of “word” thinking – and it’s easy to assume that this is the best way to think rather than consider that perhaps it was the best way to think when your only option was to use a printing press.

Lynda Barry’s idea is that a notebook can be at the centre of your research, the thing that pulls in everything and lets you work with what you have. The heart of the work. You have freedom in a notebook – freedom to use words and draw and colour and frame and point. Freedom to make sense of things in whatever way works for you.

But once you think you have something that’s worth sharing you’re not limited to a printing press to publish your ideas any more. You can use a blog and mix drawings and words. And of course there’s audio and video and everything else. And what this lets you do is tell stories that are more than just words. But what does that mean?

I was thinking about using a journal as a place for research and remembered coming across art journals earlier in the year – the kind of thing that Lynda Barry’s students do. If you search for art journals and research you then come across videos on using art based methods for research like this one by Dr Helen Kara. Dr Kara also talks about indigenous research, which is summed up in the phrase “nothing about us without us”, and talks about how you can include more than just words in your thinking – using artifacts, stories, song, tattoos and so on. You’re not limited to the traditional approach any more – and this is what sparked the idea that there might be this thing called “post-Western” that seems to capture what’s going on here.

Now, of course, you’re not going to change the system – not in academia, not in teaching and not in any other ingrained system that has a purpose. You may not agree with its purpose but it is what it is. You can do all the arty stuff you want to do in your notebook but if you want to be published you have to do what the journal reviewers want you to do. That’s the system and you’re stuck with it.

A lot of people who want to change things get stuck at this point. They don’t like the system and want it to change – not realising that the system is a living thing – a giant that is perfectly capable of swiping back at you when you try and sting it. And it will make you retreat under the sheer power of its blows. There’s no point trying to fight it. Not if you want to make a difference.

I’m too new at the whole research thing to know what is the “right” thing to do – but I’m pretty sure that the world is divided into two kinds of people – those that think there is a right answer out there and those that are right that there isn’t. You will make life easier for yourself if you do what is convenient. But I’m also too old to conform to a way of thinking that’s now a couple of hundred years out of date.

Here’s the takeaway. Your notebook is your happy place – the place where you do what you want the way you want. Don’t fight the system – give it what it needs and try to change it from within. But remember that the system is always the old way – and what you’re working towards is the new way – the post-whatever-is-now future.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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