Cake & Collaboration

The last line of my academic bio ends with the sentence “Siobhan believes the path to good research is paved with cake”. It’s an attempt to bring some lightness to the all too serious world of academic research, but more importantly, it’s a values statement. Because cake – unlike Freud’s cigar – is never just cake.

Brought into the tea room of a University, cake tells my colleagues I value their company, their contribution, and their compassion. Brought into a meeting with industry partners, cake tells community organisations that I value their time and their expertise, and I can be trusted with the vulnerable people they represent. Brought into interviews with research participants, cake tells carers and people with dementia that I value their stories, that I’m a person too, and that I understand how nerve-wracking it is to share your darkest thoughts with a complete stranger.

Of course the cake must be home-made. There’s no value in a store-bought cake. The value comes from having spent my own time and energy to create something just for my colleague, my partner, or my participant. That’s how people know I care.

And I care because I recognise that I cannot do good research alone. We often think of ground-breaking researchers as single entities – Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Neil deGrasse Tyson – but all research is the product of collaboration. My own collaborations span departments, universities, states, countries, disciplines, languages, and sectors. And my research is richer for it.

But in the early stages of a research career it can be hard to build collaborations, and part of my goal with this website and Shut Up & Write Tuesdays is to support emerging researchers. Which is why I recently became a Social Media Correspondent for Piirus, an academic networking website that helps to facilitate research collaborations across the world. The team at Piirus share my values and have good research – not profit – as their primary goal.

As part of my role at Piirus, I’ll be using my own social media and online presence to encourage researchers – particularly those in the early stages of their careers – to join Piirus. You’ll see that I’ve added a link to Piirus on the sidebar of this website and in my Twitter feed you’ll see the occasional Piirus-related tweet or retweet.

Piirus doesn’t offer cake, but it certainly offers collaboration. And when it comes to good research, that’s the next best thing!

Artisanal Academia

In a recent post about the nature of academic work, Zen Faulkes described his research as “hand-crafted”. It was a term I’d never seen associated with academia before, but one that made instant sense.

As I thought about it, my brain started doing word association, generating a list of words that describe hand-crafted things. I scribbled them down as they came to me: organic; one-off; skilled; time-consuming; precious; valuable; lost art; expensive; beautiful. And as I wrote, I realised that good research is all these things. It is an organic process in which progress is sometimes fast, often slow, and the best ideas come from having time and space to think, explore, experiment, and discuss. Every piece is unique and makes a valuable contribution to humanity. It is time-consuming and the people who do it are highly skilled. It is expensive, but the outcomes are precious and beautiful. And I fear it is becoming a lost art.

In the current academic model (where universities are businesses first, and places of learning & understanding second), research and the people who do it have become commodities. The word association list would include terms like metrics, output, impact factor, H-index, benchmark. The focus is on quantity, not quality. Researchers are judged on how many papers they publish and how much money they bring in, not whether they’ve made a meaningful contribution to the world. They are seen (as Sharon McDonough has so beautifully described) as pieces of machinery; viewed as a disposable means of production rather than people.  In this model there is no time for ideas to develop, no interest in the process. This model does not produce research that is unique and valuable; it produces masses of papers that no-one has time to read or contemplate, let alone translate into action. In short, this model forces talented, skilled, and passionate people to sacrifice their craft in the name of productivity.

My home is full of things that are hand-crafted. A loaf of bread from my favourite artisanal bakery, a hand-woven blanket I bought while in the US, a hand-coloured lino print by Evelyn McGreen. I understand that the price ($8.50 for the bread; $300 for the blanket; don’t ask about the print) is a reflection of the time and skill involved in making them. I recognise that although it would reduce the cost, rushing the creative process and cutting corners with ingredients and materials would make for an inferior product. I also value the people who crafted these things and the journey each product has taken on its way from their home to mine – I can see the baker kneading bread out the back when I stand at the bakery counter; the blanket came with a hand-written thank-you note from the weaver and a picture of her sheep; and I have fond memories of the time I spent in McGreen’s home town.

My research is also hand-crafted. The studies of suicide risk in family carers of people with dementia, for example, were a world-first. No research had ever been conducted on this topic before and our work opened up an entirely new field of study and highlighted a host of additional issues that needed to be explored. It also required a unique combination of high-level scientific and interpersonal skills, and had significant and immediate implications for practice and policy. Despite this, I have spent the last 5 years on a series of short-term contracts and each time a contract ends I am made to wait until the 11th hour while the university decides whether I am worthy of their money. (While I wait I look around my home and wonder which hand-crafted beauty I’ll have to sell to make rent if they decide I’m not.) The pressure to produce is also constant. Most recently, for example, the university offered me an ‘interim contract’ of just 2 months’ duration which came with the condition that I had to have three papers submitted for publication in that time. (The fact that I had published double the expected number of papers during the previous contract was, apparently, immaterial.)

So when I walked into the artisanal bakery just before Christmas and saw the Help Wanted sign, I was definitely tempted. But I’m passionate about research and determined to be a force for good in academia, so I resisted the urge to fill in an application form. On Twitter, the #circleofniceness hashtag is used by academics seeking to bring a bit of humanity back to universities. But perhaps we need another hashtag – #artisanalacademia – for those times when we want to remind the world that research, just like good bread, woven blankets, and great art, is hand-crafted. And as with all hand-crafted things, the people who craft it must be valued, respected for the contribution they make, paid what they are worth, and never forced to rush the creative process or sacrifice quality for quantity.