When asked to respond to a new book produced by an interdisciplinary group of researchers at the University of Sheffield I initially found myself shocked by the apparent proposition that a clear research remit might be something to be avoided or disregarded. However, closer inspection uncovered an inspiring message about fluid and opened approaches to research, which not only reminded me of good practice in my own research but has surprisingly also resonated with my previous experiences of teaching the literature of the eighteenth century.
The book in question is a fascinating artefact, produced by an even more imaginative and outlandish undertaking. The project, which was originally called ‘Sandpit’ but became ‘No Picnic’, saw a group of artists and researchers explore each other’s work over a ten month period. This manifested itself in their mutual exploration of a wasteland in Sheffield. The wasteland was named ‘Furnace Park’ after the 19th-Century cementation furnace that looks over it (and has subsequently become the site of the 18th- and 19th Century Garden Project which you can read about elsewhere on this blog). The book, which describes itself as an ‘art publication’, resists the generic tropes and constraints of academic writing to attempt to become a more indicative, immersive, and perhaps even “authentic” representation of the experience shared by the project’s participants.
It opens with a series of glossy photographs of the wasteland (some of which are compellingly abstract and wilfully left with annotative explanation). The photos provide the canvas for a progression of pithy sound bites, similarly left unexplained and unattributed. On first reading I actually found some of these quotes quite shocking:
‘I don’t think we came up with any deep questions at the end of the day.’
‘There have been moments of conversation that have had huge resonance. And I don’t know – I don’t care – how I’ve applied them.’
‘I don’t think this project has actually helped me.’
Furthermore, this is apparently a project which brazenly didn’t do what it was supposed to do, and then celebrates this resistance.
When explaining, upfront, that the project didn’t do what it was going to do the anonymous author of one quote confesses that ‘I don’t think we’ve solved a problem for liminal spaces in the city. But there’s something quite radical about that.’ Both as someone who regularly chases research funding and as someone who has always considered the impulse to constantly assert the value and significance of my research to be an expectation of university research, I at first found some of these statements physically painful to read.
The book troubles notions of what research is, how it is carried out, and how its ‘productivity’ is determined. It suggests that regimented goals and the markers of ‘value and success’ propagated in academia today can suffocate research – or at the very least, contort it. Most of the book’s authors speak to an over-emphasis on goals, frameworks, methodology and a frantic impulse to find ‘something’; to somehow fashion an answer. All of these impulses, the book suggests, actually serve to distance the researcher from the topic or object of their study.
On first reading this can come across as a frustrated response to an all pervasive and ever expanding bureaucracy, but on closer inspection this book actually enacts a resistance to something far greater: a more internalised pressure to discover something worthwhile. And this pressure can get in the way of a researcher’s primary engagement with the material under analysis. By the end of No Picnic it seems that the most powerful outcome of this project is that the researchers involved managed to transcend this initial pressure and experience something new and exciting.
In the book we are told that after the project’s enforced blogging came to an end its participants began to ‘hang out together in coffee shops and pubs’ and through ‘vague and inconsequential talking’ became ‘exposed to the novel ideas and concepts which opened their minds.’ The truly interdisciplinary discussion happened in the pub after the ‘the blog had come to an official end’ – when the pressure was off. This, for me, is the crucial point that this book endeavours to make. After the proposals and the funding and the goals comes the ‘time [to] develop a personal relationship, sit back and let ideas grow and mature, instead of rushing and doing something just for the sake of doing it.’ You can’t force results to happen, and in doing so you can run the risk of missing the whole point of what you’re doing.
It is a classic trap: accidentally trying to force research to fit a hypothesis.
At this point in the text it struck me that I’ve seen this happen before. In fact, it has happened to me before: in undergraduate seminars. Oftentimes, if you present a student with a poem they will subject it to every form of stylistic, contextual or critical analysis you can think of before they actually read it. I’ve been there, I’ve done it myself. It is incredibly hard to just read a poem, and then look for clues. My advice in seminars, (which I give all of the time) is, in the first instance, to take a step back, breath out, relax, and then just read the poem.
This isn’t something restricted to undergraduate students either. A couple of years ago I was involved in the running of an Eighteenth-Century Reading weekend for post-graduates at the University of Sheffield. The text we were discussing was Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759). The book is hilarious. It is gold. It never gets old. But it is incredibly difficult to get a reader encountering it for the first time, with all of the expectations which come bundled up with the idea of approaching a ‘historical’ novel, to see the jokes. They’re there – in every single line, but if I had a penny for every time a student gives me an overly earnest reading of the excessively pardoic opening paragraph I’d have about 10p by now.
However, on this reading weekend, when we took everyone to a barn in the middle of the peak district and plied them with wine and beer and food, suddenly everyone had thought it was hilarious. Away from the class room – away from the trappings of academia and the ivory tower – away from the pressures of having to say something clever – suddenly people who had read Tristram Shandy countless times were really reading it for the first time. I was one of them.
I think this is analogous for what it is that No Picnic is trying to say. Funding, structure, aims, methodology are all vitally important – of course they are, but your primary relationship with the topic of study has to come first. Good ideas work. Good ideas attract support and attention. To try and tailor an idea to speak to the infrastructures that sustain support and attention is a tempting but potentially unfruitful route into research. The point of No Picnic is to remember not to become fixated with those very infrastructures.
As one anonymous commentator poignantly observes, you can find yourself asserting that ‘“[t]his is a jewel, this is a jewel,” but people don’t want to see the jewel; they want to see the museum case and the little brass thing that says, you know: “this is a jewel.”’
No Picnic has reminded me not to lose sight of the jewel.
This piece was adapted into a short essay published here in the following book:
No Picnic: Explorations in Art and Research, ed. by Matt Chesseman (Sheffield and London: NATCECT & AND Publishing, 2014)