New Year – seeing anew


You’ve heard of Lego your research method and Dance Your PhD. But now Bake Your Thesis is getting to be a thing. There’s a hashtag #bakeyourphd and active competitions in New Zealand, Canada and the UK.

One of the Canadian thesis baking competition represents their research on immigrant communities through a cinnamon bun – a complicated and lengthy bake which mirrored the complex experience of trauma. In Otago, the 2018 winner made a poppable “cyst” cake, which sounds truly disgusting  but probably tasted delicious once you got over the idea. In Canterbury New Zealand the winner made an Imposter Syndrome Cake which featured lots of blank pages.

What next, we might ask? The Thesis Jumper, a bit like the Christmas jumper, made to be worn on the day you pass and for the following week? The PhD on a postcard? – send it to everyone who’s put up with you during the process. The Thesis as …  do add your ideas in here.

Now is this all just a bit of silliness? A major distraction from writing? A cheap trick cooked up by Graduate Schools to create a bit of social levity and togetherness? Is it simply about “adding a dash of extra flavour to what can be a dry intellectual meal” as the University of Otago puts it? Do cooking and dancing and building things accomplish anything at all?

Well, I guess the answer is probably yes and no. There’s certainly a way to take any of these activities at face value and approach them very literally. But there’s also a way in which taking your work into another medium can help you think about what you are doing and/or what you have done. And this is not because you are working metaphorically. No, it’s because you are working materially.

Take baking your research for instance. You have to first decide on a core idea – is your cake about a process, a theme or a result? Can you translate that core idea into an baked object in a way that is immediately communicable?

And searching for the key idea can be very helpful to your thesis for instance. That’s because finding the Big Idea that will make your thesis work is a challenge. During your field work you necessarily drown in detail and it’s hard to step away. In the writing phase, the task of reducing what you’ve done to a small set of claims or a single claim is often really tricky. Answering the supermarket queue question – what have you found in your research – in one or two minutes, is really hard.

So playing with something other than words, playing with materials such as dough, bricks or images, can be helpful. You have no choice but to eliminate detail and get to the big picture. You can only use a minimal number of words if you’re dancing or baking so you can’t fall back on them as you might do if you are talking as usual about your work. Doing something like baking or dancing or poster-ing can be a very helpful way to sort out what you really think, what you actually mean, what you want other people to know.

When you move into another medium, translate from words to something concrete, something magical may happen. You may find a new way to think and focus. Concrete processes such as drawing, building or making can produce new ideas. As you work into another medium you might just make a new connection or association. (That aha, that new insight is what happens when little people play with blocks for instance, and learn about shapes and relationships, patterns and volume etc. But Froebel and Montessori can work for us big people too.)

Translating your thinking into ‘stuff’ can be a good way to revisit your research and your writing. You don’t need a competition to experiment with different ways to imagine your process and/or your analysis and/or your ideas.  You could in fact bake, draw, sculpt, knit, film your research any old time – particularly if you are feeling a bit stale.

( I was tempted to say here that maybe you could bake your next supervision, and use the cake as a conversation starter, as explaining the cake can be helpful too – but that would be entirely inappropriate. BTW do remember I’m gluten-free.)

Seriously, though. Playing with and through “stuff” can be a very helpful exercise. Of course it can also be meaningless – you only get something from these kinds of exercises if you give them a serious go, suspend your disbelief.

And really, what have you got to lose? What better time to experiment with ways of seeing things anew but in a new year?Go on, Reach for that flour. Get out the icing sugar and the lurid colours. Bake on. Lego on. Dance on. See your research anew.