I recently wrote about going to the International Arachnological Congress in Golden, Colorado over here on our lab blog. What follows here is a bit of mid-week catharsis so that I can get on with my life and stop moping.
I genuinely love writing. I haven’t done enough of it by a long shot to consider myself anything more than competent but regardless of the format I have always derived pleasure from writing. Now, I find this confusing given how awful I am at keeping up any sort of regular writing schedule. Every second drawer in my room has a journal stuffed in the back somewhere featuring two half-hearted entries followed by to-do lists which inevitably take over because I am a scheduling fanatic.
The problem now is that, as a science doctoral student, I am encouraged to communicate my science and/or my experience. As someone who values the role of media in shaping the way people see the world, I strongly believe in the importance of communication and as a behavioural ecologist I believe that this communication should be the primary output of fundamental science.
Yet despite all this cause for rapid and regular composition, I don’t think my extra-curricular writing practice is any better than it was when I was a teenager. I have no problem with scheduling in regular writing times for my doctoral work but for some reason regular exegesis about study and how much I love the burrito stall in the quad is still beyond me. I was recently (an hour ago) compelled to think about why why this might be when I tried to plan blog writing times and, horror of horrors, my scheduling abilities failed me. It wasn’t because had forgotten how to use a diary or lost all comprehension of time. It was because I sincerely do not know why I should write.
Now I am really really bad at doing things which I do not see the purpose for. When someone asks me to go for a walk my response is always “okay” but on the inside I’m asking “why?” I don’t even mean it in a spiteful way – I just want to know why we’re doing it. I think it’s the same with my writing except, rather than not seeing the purpose for doing it, I’m not sure which cause is more important to me and therefore which aim to plan for [warning: overthinking incoming]
- If my blog is a diary about my day-to-day as a PhD student then am I a) keeping a record for my own benefit or b)is it for other students in my field i.e. do I i) need to explain how I do things and/or ii) how I feel?
- If it’s a place for me to talk about my research or about other more academic topics, should I a) write more frequently to air out my reckons and try to workshop my own thoughts through the process of writing or b) wait until I have a clearer understanding [caveat: will that ever happen and will I still care?).
- Are my blog and twitter a) entirely personal or b) are they an extended CV i.e. can I talk about other things going on in my life e.g. the burrito stall in the quad.
If it sounds like I’m whining it’s because I am.
At the risk of going to far I also want to admit that I’m easily discouraged by how expertise is treated when it enters the public sphere, often through the media. There’s talk about living in a post-facts world (cf Brexit and the American election) and our very own science and innovation minister seems to view the concerns of scientists and of academics in general with disdain. There was a recent video showing Professor Brian Cox’s “smack-down” of a climate change denier and yes it is glorious but I can’t help but despair that this conversation is still happening. The success of Donald Trump in the States so far is a constant reminder that the hierarchy of influence in the world is not and has never been a meritocracy and that, in so many cases, the prevailing narrative within which people live their lives is enough to repel all evidence to the contrary and that the people who can massage and redirect that narrative have the greatest power in shaping the world we live in [deep breath].
(This is a topic for another day but I also find it distressing how willing some scientists are willing to disregard the public as illogical for falling at the feet of demagogues. If scientists are satisfied with shrugging their shoulders as if to say “we can’t help it if the world is full of idiots” then we deserve to be called “arrogant”. What is the value in what we do and how can we operate in the public sphere if we do not have basic empathy and understanding of how and why people at different socio-economic levels – and it is so often about socio-economic differences – live their lives and how they interact with information).
MY POINT IS, the meeting place between technical information and the public is complex and it is arguably the be all and end all of whether what we do as scientist is relevant and I find my relationship to this fact difficult to reconcile. Also I had a burrito for lunch and it was amazing.