“Come back to what you know…

…take everything real slow.” 90s indie-music fans will recognise the pride of Brighouse there, Embrace, who go onto sing, “I tried to lose you but I can’t let you go.”

I started blogging not long after I started my EdD, now slowly transforming into a PhD for reasons of portability (and a working-class determination to get value for money). Both endeavours slowed to a halt around the same time, a time when I realised it was the endgame for my last – and most enduring – job. Unfortunately The Girl with a Steeltrap Mind blog remained entangled with an institutional email until it was too late to be rescued, though it’s still available here. But that’s OK. Three years later, I have to accept I’m not a girl any more and that it’s fine to be making a fresh start both on my research and blogging about it.

I’ve learned about myself that life gets a bit chaotic if I’m not keeping some sort of meta-narrative running somewhere. Maybe this is the thing that families have and I don’t, since my son left for university, that ‘Hi honey I’m home!’ that can be mindless, doesn’t have to be meaningful but still provides the sort of commentary that links a life together. Twitter largely provides that meta-narrative for me, running at low level in the background of my life, but as the focus of my shapeshifting PhD research settles into a new space, I realise I need to pick up the threads of something more intentional.

So I wrote a rough and ready little blog on the train home from my Edinburgh writing retreat last night and I’ll post that below. And I feel the need to make some sort of bridging statement. After all, what have I been doing in those three years?

Well I did take a year out. And I’ve ended up shifting the focus of my research quite a long way. That thinking took time, and it took rested time. And maybe that’s exactly why the ‘shortcut’ of PhD by publication wasn’t for me in the end, because postgraduate degrees aren’t just about writing, they are about thinking and in a regular life, a life that perhaps would benefit from slowing down a bit, that comes when it’s ready.

So here I am, at the point of pasting in last night’s train-time musings from the #Bowerbird Writing Rooms. I’ve read through the Girl with the Steeltrap Mind posts and they took me right back to who I was, then, which has invoked some emotions, as all good journalling should. I feel sadness that I wrote some I-poems and lost them (read about them here). Maybe I’ll try again with that. And in the meantime, here’s what I wrote last night:

I’ve been writing for three days…holed up in The Levels at Edinburgh Uni with my boy and his friend Connie. The best sort of writing bootcamp – the right space, the right people, the right time. I didn’t write 20,000 words (how the hell did I think I would) but I did manage nearly half of that and – even better – I’ve got chapters! I’m on the train home now, realising my connection is a nightmare (and considering the extravagance of a taxi home). I made myself a bit of a promise in the last few days to revive my Steeltrap Mind EdD/PhD blog so I thought I’d start here with a bit of gentle and undemanding reflection, wondering what I’ve learned about myself in the last few days. My previous entries (abandoned, funnily enough, around the time things were going tits up in my last job) were pretty erudite, but I’m definitely not expecting that of myself here and now. 

This is a photo of empty Neal's Yard blue bottles

My writing is significantly non-linear. I definitely feel like the bowerbird, hopping around my own brain and my bits of notes, picking up the blue shiny things here and there and working them into the pattern. It feels like a constant flex between writing and reading…I can get so far with one then have to do the other. And thrown into the mix this time is what I think of as ‘the practical stuff’, getting ready for the fieldwork. I’m standing by my decision to do a one-question mass observation thing, but that puts a sharp pressure on me to get the ‘right’ question (it doesn’t, but I’ve been applying that pressure to myself, if that makes sense). It has been an added bonus this week to pilot three questions, toy with the idea of randomly asking one of the three and then listen to the result of the pilot, which focuses back in on one. I’ve got a time frame in mind too – the question will go live on May 1st – next Wednesday – and close on the 31st July. I’ve got an aspiration of 1000 responses. We’ll see.

I’ve been working on getting the right question for nearly a year. I can remember going away to Utrecht at the end of last summer, determined to come back with the question and still drawing a blank. And I’ve been secretive about it, which is absolutely and emphatically not me. There’s still some fear around it, though I’m reassured that the pilot is coming back in favour of the question I came up with last Autumn. It needs to be something that opens up thinking, something that everyone can understand, even if (especially if) they have no knowledge of the sector. There’s no point in this question going only to community educators. On the journey to Edinburgh I realised that it was time to empty my head on this one. What am I assuming that’s stopping me getting on with this? And what do I already know, that I’m going to find out in just over three months’ time?

After some firm self-interrogation, I realised I was assuming that ‘people’ would think my question was stupid. This being an untrue limiting assumption (is it true that…? well no not really) I dug deeper. It seems I still assume that hard work is my talent…rather than any other attribute. This was quite literally a sobering moment. I have worked myself to a standstill in recent years and already my body had forced me to slow right down. In recent weeks I’ve noticed that by moving at a different pace, I’m actually getting more done – or at least prioritising the things that need to be done, and doing them well – giving less of myself away for free*. Connecting my fear around the question to this set of assumptions gave me pause for thought – and encouraged me to get the questions out there.  And what do I know that I’m going to find out in three months’ time? I know that although questions can be ‘wrong’ (leave or remain, anyone?) I do know that I know how to write a question which is open enough to invoke responses. And that people will tell me stuff, if I make it open enough. So I’m going to find out that lots of people will respond, and that whatever they write I’ll learn stuff I didn’t already know – and that will feed my imaginary. So, I’m happy and by next Wednesday the die will be cast. 

So I read (a little) and I wrote (a lot). It’s fair to say that, although this was my first massively concerted effort in a couple of years, the rest of my (working, thinking) life also feeds my research in a meaningful way. I’m always reading stuff – often diffractively co-reading and co-writing with others (a practice I love, whether it’s here noticing who else is in the room – hello Adam! – or literally entangling with another’s words in a googledoc). I’m always pushing my thinking further, having new ideas. I tried in the early days of EdD to systematically keep neat, searchable notes and I’ve got an Evernote store of that early stuff but truthfully? Those good practices don’t work for me. Read, write in the margins, and if it’s important enough to be used, I’ll find it again at the right point.  So at various times in the week I reached the limits of reading and the limits of writing and I loved the ebb and flow between the two. 

And finally – it has to be finally, we’re approaching Doncaster and I can’t be typing in the taxi I finally did give in and order – I met a friend, the lovely John Field, for a non-caffeinated beverage today. He asked what my research was about and I told him. “I’m re-theorising community education,” I said. “I’m going to present what I find as a posthuman imaginary. And I’m finishing next summer.” It’s taken me six years but I’ve bloody nailed it at last.

*One of the readings I did this week was Jasmine Ulmer’s Slow Ontology – brilliant. 

I-Poem on falling back in love with my studies

I tried to lose you – I can’t let you go – I realised it was the endgame – I have to accept.

I’ve learned about myself that life gets a bit chaotic – I don’t have that ‘Hi honey I’m home – I realise – I need to pick up the threads of something more intentional.

I’ve read through the old posts – I was, then, who? – I feel sadness.

I wrote last night – I’ve been writing for three days – I didn’t write 20000 words – I think.- I would – I’ve got chapters!

I made myself a promise – I thought I’d start here, wondering what – I’ve learned about myself in the last few days – I’m definitely not expecting too much of myself here and now.

I feel like the bowerbird – I can get so far with one then have to do the other – I’ve got a time frame in mind – I’ve been working on getting the question right for nearly a year.

I realised that it was time to empty my head – I am assuming – I already know – I realised – I was assuming ‘people’ would think me stupid.

I dug deeper – I still assume that hard work is my talent – I have worked myself to a standstill – I’ve noticed that by moving at a different pace – I’m actually getting more done.

I know how to write a question – I’m going to find out that lots of people will respond – I’m happy and by next Wednesday the die will be cast.

I read (a little) and – I wrote (a lot).

I’m always reading stuff – I’m always writing – I’m always loving – I’m always pushing my thinking further – I’ll find everything again at the right point – I love the ebb and flow.

I met a friend – I told him – I’m re-theorising community education – I said – I’m going to present what I find as a posthuman imaginary – I’m finishing next summer.

I’ve bloody nailed it at last.