Research is like Making Sausages…

…you probably shouldn’t do it in public (with apologies to Bismarck)

When I started this research project, I made a deliberate decision to blog the whole thing. I’m six weeks in, and I thought it might be a good moment to reflect on what I’m learning.

This project is the first one of any size I’ve embarked upon since leaving the Academy, and without the forms of institutional support one can rely on in a University — such as grant funding or the expertise of colleagues — I knew I’d have to approach it differently. As I pointed out in my first post, the aim was to build a set of routines and structures that would keep me reading and writing — my weekly Tuesday night “Write Club” and my fortnightly Sunday “Side Project Sessions”.

Initially, I articulated the aim like this:

“I personally think best while articulating my ideas, so I’m going to try and force myself to do it at my weekly ‘Write Club’ — sessions where a group of use write for an uninterrupted hour. So aim one is to just get some output, out. To practice thinking and writing in a voice that is accessible, but also to ‘work through’ things I’m reading — to digest the theory, and to try arguments out. Sometimes they’ll work, sometimes they’ll fall flat. I won’t know until I’ve tried to write them.”

As I produced work, I began to think that making my reading strategies and thought processes visible might be of interest to a casual reader, so I deliberately didn’t self-censor the sorts of clumsiness and poor pacing ‘writing to think’ can produce. I also had a utopian dream that it might find a few interlocutors who might make up for the lack of institutional support, and allowing myself to unconsciously ‘trail my coat’ for such an interlocutor isn’t a terrible plan.

I figured that I’d use Twitter as a way to publicise the work I was doing, as well as connect with other people working in this space. It’s been very, very useful for the latter — especially in the Australian context, with organisations like the Centre for Future Work and academically-trained writers like Frances Flanagan providing valuable insight into what the public intellectual work around work might look like.

Probably the first shock came after publishing my post on “Bullshit Jobs and the Labourisation of Work”. I hit ‘publish’ at about 10pm, Australian Eastern Daylight Time, and went to sleep, not expecting anything much. I woke up to this:

When I wrote last week about the private as refuge from the scouring eyes of the public; that was in part a response to the shock of realising that a Google alert for a name could just as easily capture my little blog as it could any other site.

It’s apparently a fairly common thing for PhD students to take aim at big targets. Maybe they feel the need to make a splash, or maybe they haven’t quite calibrated their academic sense yet. I remember getting some readers’ reports back for an article years ago that talked about the need to soften my criticism of another author in my field. Given the weirdness of blind peer review in a small profession, there’s every chance the reviewer knew, or was, the author in question. When there are only a few hundred of you and you’ll all occupy pretty much the same jobs for life, you learn to be kind, or at least to find less obvious ways to be nasty.

I really ought to have guessed that Graeber might read my post, regardless of the difference in our readership and importance. In a world that includes Google, the anonymity of obscurity is not dependable. And I said some harsh stuff. Phrases like “does almost no work” and “uncritical acceptance”. The sorts of things one might say to a colleague in private, but one ought not say about a respected author one has never met in a different field. If you’re reading this, Professor Graeber, please accept my apology. The Medium post got about 360 hits out of it, so I was more happy than sad (even if I’d rather he became aware of me in a different way).

But then, it got selected by the Medium editors to be run as a feature. It’s now had 14,400 views — which is the largest audience I’ve ever reached by around 4,000 hits (the previous best was this piece I wrote on the ANZACs for Junkee). The views racked up awfully fast, and I pushed myself to write a couple more pieces in the hopes they’d get a bit of splashback from the featured article.

Probably the hardest part of writing without an editor is choosing the title of your posts. On my blog, I can call them whatever I want, because I sort of don’t care about clicks. On Medium, where I’m trying to figure out how to make money for my work, I’m learning how to tread carefully between clickbait and summary. The first post on my blog after my Bullshit Jobs piece got featured was titled “Is a History of Work a History of Everything?” Innocuous enough, right? It sure as hell wouldn’t do for Medium. So I rather rashly called it “Work is Slavery, Work is Violence” and whacked a bit of Soviet Propaganda on it as a feature image. Nuanced, hey?

I’d initially intended to discuss the notion that ‘work is slavery’ because there are a few people who talk about it as such — chief among them Arendt (who talks a lot about the ancient Greeks and the ways that Labour was ‘slave work’), and Graeber (who, as an anarchist, is politically opposed to anyone telling anyone what to do). It was just sort of stuck in my head.

A big part of research is being able to digress, to go down the rabbit hole, to be clumsy or gauche, in a safe space, in service of finding the most carefully constructed, rigorous, and precise ways to talk about your subject. You need space to make a mistake, and a caring interlocutor to pull you up on it, gently or otherwise. I remember, for example, in the third year of my PhD, writing something about a women’s protest being “stillborn”, and not figuring out until my supervisor read it that it was a really terrible phrase to use.

The thing about having colleagues is that they catch you before you make mistakes like that. An imagined reader can’t call you on your purple prose, and the thing about Twitter and Medium is that you have no idea who is reading it until you attract comments.

The penny really dropped when I logged into twitter later that afternoon. I follow a few people of colour, such as Dr. Tressie Cottam, Professor Megan Davis, and Evelyn Araluen, as well as my ex-colleague Clare Corbould, who is a historian of black experiences in the US. Seeing unrelated posts of theirs, I realised how fundamentally egregious such a comparison was. There is a complex and deep history of unfree labour and slavery, covering thousands of years, and arguing that contemporary work has anything in common with from the subject-position of a middle-class white man with a PhD is exceedingly tone deaf. Hence the tweet about hangovers.

There’s a real sense of solipsism about researching in a vacuum. An errant Google alert isn’t really the same as a critical eye being passed over your work. But confronting my own ill-advised term slippage pushed me to consider another blind spot in my research thus far: the problem of over-identifying with my subject matter.

I had the same problem during my PhD, of identifying too much with the protesters I was reading and writing about. An early reviewer called me ‘credulous’ of my sources. Not a bad term for where I’m at now. Just because I don’t really love my job, I can’t afford to forget that there are plenty of workers who would kill for the security of a full-time paycheck with benefits like sick leave.

Part of the reason I got such tunnel vision was, of course, work. I have at least two side hustles (a fencing club and this research project), so time is more valuable to me than money. I’d recently asked to drop to 0.8FTE to grab back a day a week to work on this project, or to do the washing that working on this project all weekend prevents me from doing. My boss came back with an offer of 0.9FTE, and it threw me into an unexpectedly black spiral. Rather than getting a day back, It felt like I was negotiating for my life. It felt like I wasn’t free. But that’s not the same as being a slave, not by a long chalk.

It got me thinking about how this feeling of unfreedom is gendered. Tim Dunlop talks about the capacity of a universal basic income to free us from work as securing ‘personal liberty’. The choice of the word ‘liberty’ rather than ‘freedom’ feels significant for its relation to Liberalism. I can’t shake the feeling that this is a very white bloke way to think about work — as if your days are your own until someone comes along to put strictures on them, and as if the mere fact of not being able to choose what you do with your time is an unbearable imposition. And to be clear, Google alerts, I really like Dunlop’s work — it’s measured, accessible and built on considerable reading and thinking. Anyway, I can’t imagine people of colour automatically feel the same way about paid work, or for that matter women, with the exigencies of the ‘biological clock’ and the domestic division of labour to contend with.

There are real consequences to doing research in public. When you try on a new framework, or experiment with a new vocabulary, there’s no caring hands to help you up. When you make a gauche misstep, there’s no safety net. The internet is rarely a kind place, but it’s always a critical one.

I think after I finish reading Arendt, it’s definitely time to move away from middle-class writers, or writing about full-time work. There’s a whole world of work out there, and many of the people in it are assailed by worse things than an argument over a nine-day fortnight.

Header photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

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