Have a good research ride


I am now back from two weeks annual leave. Going on leave doesn’t mean leaving your research and teaching interests behind. As often happens, I had a thought or two during my ‘downtime’.

In fact, we had hardly begun our drive through the Highlands when we came across a large group of motor cyclists outside a café. And when I say large group, I do mean large – about forty bikes, many of which carried two people. Of course, it’s not uncommon to see such large biker groups gathered together on routes where it’s possible to ride very long distances without getting bogged down in traffic or villages. The Highlands are certainly one such place.

It was pretty clear to anyone ‘outside’ the group that this was a community. My experience of such communities is drawn from the camaraderie of dog walkers and the ease with which we can strike up a conversation about breeds, names and various canine doings. And I imagine something similar goes on with motor cyclists. Bikers have a mode of transport in common – and I’m guessing here – share the pleasure of the sensations of a physically exposed way of getting from A to B as well as the unwelcome experiences of suspicious glances and dangerous moments.

So it’s not surprising that groups of motorcyclists, whether they actually know one another or not, readily strike up conversations about the road and weather conditions, good places to stop, various kinds of bikes and accoutrements. That’s what we saw as we drew into the cafe car park.

On this particular occasion, I overheard the same phrase several times in as many minutes. As people got on their bikes to leave the café car park the ritual good bye seemed to be “Have a good ride.” Nothing about getting where you wanted to go. Nothing about arriving in one piece. Nothing about staying safe on the road. And nothing about seeing you at the next stop. It was simply “Have a good ride”.

Having a good ride seemed to be as much, or perhaps even more, the point of the ride than reaching your destination. Having a good ride was about the process, the getting there. You could get from A to B through either a good or bad ride, and not surprisingly, it was most desirable for it to be good.

So why did this strike me so forcibly?

Well, it’s probably obvious. But it goes to something that I often worry about.

When we teach people about research we generally focus on the end point. The point of doing research is to find something out. The point of reading literatures is to design the research that will help you answer the research question. The point of generating data is that it’s the stuff that gives you an answer the research question. The point of analysing data is so that you get to something that noone’s thought about in quite in this way. It’s all about the outcome.

But, and yes I know you can see my argument here, but let me say it anyway…  you can get the answer to your research question in different ways.  Research can be a process that you rush through – you read the literatures as quickly as possible, you generate the data as efficiently as you can and chaff at the bit all through the analysis. Writing the text at the end is just another time-consuming task that comes before you actually get to say proudly “Here is my research, here is my answer to this question, here is the contribution”.

This is the scholarly equivalent of riding a motorcycle without taking time to enjoy the experience of getting there. It’s as if the process of research itself is unimportant, is strictly utilitarian, has no particularly notable value of and in itself.

OK. Before you say it, yes, the bikers sometimes have bad weather, crappy roads and unfortunate encounters with other vehicles. But this is not what other bikers wish for each other. Their ritual goodbye was/is in fact that none of these things happen – that the ride  to come was/is an optimum experience, one the rider enjoys, where they just simply focus on the experience of near-naked travel at speed with the wind in their face …

So, I thought, while paused at the road side café in the Highlands, maybe there’s an equivalent wish for researchers, something that we could say to each other as we embark on our inquiries. Like.. Have a good research ride. Is that so impossible a community saying? It’s naff, but it does make the point. The process of research can be great fun and enormous pleasure.

Take time to enjoy. It’s not all about producing the answer to your question.

Relax into the project rhythm – it takes as long as it takes.

Find the moments to listen to the words of others in your ears.

Relish unexpected responses.

Delight in bringing order to an unruly mass of numbers and words.

Experience intense satisfaction in small steps completed.

Feel the joy in fleeting moments of clarity.

Thrill in the risk of following a hunch.

Play without inhibition on a theoretical road less well-travelled.

Understand the blessing of time available to play with the right words to express what the analysis might mean.

Indulge in the luxury of a space to think and write.

Yes, why not?  Have a good research ride. I’ll soon be trying this as a good wish to colleagues and students.