Being part of a research mosaic: finding purpose at the end of the world*

I have not written a full blog post in ages. I had to take a sabbatical from the blog at the start of this year: 2021 was Hard and starting this year, I needed to trim down the number of things to focus on in a sort-of work-life triage. Having taken some time away, though, I have started writing bits of new posts in my head and find that I would quite like to finish them, and share them. So, here I am.

I have 5 blog posts in various stages of being written and completed, and 2 research papers in similar states of disrepair. They’re not finished partly because I feel like I need more time to think (more on this in the next post), and partly because there’s a voice in my head that tells me there’s no point right now because the world is on fire. School and other mass shootings, natural disasters, warming oceans and species extinctions, asshat politicians that want to turn back the clock on reproductive, sexual, and civil rights, a war that doesn’t seem to have an end, alarming rises in the costs of living and more people struggling to feed their families… I mean, seriously? If you watch the news at all, it’s just an endless stream of stress and misery, and it really does feel sometimes like we are at the end of the world. So, really, what’s the point of writing anything? Of researching what I research?

I want to pick up on the part about there being a point – particularly feeling like there is no point – to the writing and research work. I know that there are probably (more than) a few of us feeling like this right now: if you are researching something that is not directly contributing to saving the planet, averting war, aiding refugees, curing a serious illness, saving a species or ending poverty you may wonder from time to time – perhaps more lately – what the point of your research even is. I wonder this from time to time, and have found myself thinking more often lately ‘Who cares? What difference is another paper on doctoral education or writing development really going to make?’ And if you are struggling to see a point to your work, it is that much harder to carve out time for it, feel excited about it, and want to share it. The more time you spend away from it because you doubt that it even matters, the harder it is to ever get it finished. And that would be a real shame because, underneath all this present pessimism and worry, I do believe that my work matters, that the work all of us are doing on our different problems and questions matters. The world needs all of it, and all of us.

I saw a post recently on Instagram by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that made me stop and think about the work I am doing, the research I am doing, and my role less pessimistically. In the post, she uses the analogy of a mosaic to counter the idea that, by ourselves, we are too small or powerless to really make anything different, so why should we bother – isn’t it all futile in the face of so much awfulness and when others (like those politicians) have so much power? She says:

“When you have your eye pressed all the way up to the single tile of a mosaic, it can look quite meaningless. A single piece of shattered glass could look worthless. Or perhaps a piece of small painted porcelain could seem beautiful, but too small to “be” anything. Or maybe a stunning rare slab of stone may think itself as the biggest piece when it is really a corner tile. The secret is, it’s all significant.

The two secrets of mosaics are: 1. Each piece (us + our small actions) is far more powerful and meaningful than we know, and 2. Each piece (we) need each other far more than we realize”.

Image by LoggaWiggler from Pixabay

What I take from this is that I am, in my more pessimistic moments, too focused on my small tile, my small contribution to the bigger picture, so much so that I lose sight of the fact that there is a bigger picture and I am not called upon to draw the whole thing. I am only called upon to add my small tile. While it may feel pretty small and not that important, if I take it away there will be a gap in the mosaic that will mar the overall effect. If more and more researchers start removing their tiles too, how many more gaps will there be? And what effect will that have on our knowledge of ourselves, our present, past, and future; on our ability to create a different future for ourselves, our societies, the environment, and the planet?

It is sometimes easier, for me certainly, to see what I can’t do rather than what I can do, especially when I have talked myself into believing that my work is too small to make a real difference. But, what counts as a ‘difference’, and to whom does that need to be significant? Does all research need to be world-leading or internationally recognised to count as meaningful, as making a difference? Surely not. That is neither possible nor desirable, and thinking on such grand levels probably makes it harder for some researchers, especially those starting out or starting something new to see what their piece of the mosaic is and why it matters – that it *does* matter regardless of how far the reach of its influence or impact. Creating something that is locally impactful, or that makes a difference to or adds to our knowledge about ourselves and the world we live in is meaningful; it is a piece of the mosaic that helps to create the bigger picture, and that picture needs to be – must be – diverse, vibrant, multicoloured. Some pieces are bigger and some are smaller, perhaps, but they all add up to a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

This may sound a bit overly optimistic in the face of academia that is less and less supportive, overall, to researchers, where funding is increasingly competitive and scarce, where the ‘high impact’ journal and journal article (or book) is the pinnacle of achievement in scholarship in many disciplines. This environment – especially as regards precarity and time/funding for research being squeezed or even eliminated from workload/paid time – can make research feel even less possible, especially research that wants to make a difference or have an impact in ‘non-conventional’ ways, ways that are outside of narrower definitions of ‘impact’ and ‘success’ in most universities. But, and I do truly believe this, there are ways to work within this system to use the research/practice you are engaged in to say something, and mean something to you and to your audiences. My current work is not ‘mainstream’, and I’m exploring new and very different ways of both doing and sharing this research. I know I am going to get push-back and ‘encouragement’ to ‘tick the boxes’. But I am going to try really hard to stay the course; to show the naysayers and discouragers that what I am doing might actually mean more and have greater impact if I do take a few risks, if I don’t just ‘tick the boxes’.

I’m not arguing that we all have to do this; you need to work out who you are speaking to with your research, where those audiences are, and how best to reach them. Each field has different ways of doing this – some more overtly creative than others. But I am arguing – and I acknowledge as I say this that I am no longer an early career researcher and have a bit of a track record, which does help my case – that systems are built by humans, and that humans can rebuild, remake and reimagine them. But to do this, we need to keep working on our own small tiles, but with an eye on the bigger picture we are adding to via our different, valuable contributions, looking for ways to encourage, celebrate, support, and boost one another. While we are doing this, we can also look for chinks in the system’s armour where we can argue for different understandings and realisations of impact, of ‘outputs’, of worthy questions to ask and answer. All the questions, all the research, all the collaboration, all the writing (and drawing, making, speaking, doing) adds up. And if we focus on what we are contributing to the bigger picture and remember we are not alone in either our struggles or the work we are doing, maybe we can find a way to keep going.

Image by FelixMittermeier from Pixabay

*I was inspired by the title of Denise Cuthbert and Robyn Barnacle’s edited book: The PhD at the End of the World: Provocations for the Doctorate and a Future Contested (Springer, 2021).

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