By Sam Grinsell |
Think of a lawn.
It is simple, clear, smooth, uniformly green. It soaks up a lot of energy through watering and mowing. If you do not mow it regularly, rogue flowers begin to appear. You are expected to expunge these. Only grass is permissible.
Think of a rainforest.
It is one of the most diverse habitats on Earth. The towering trees support life at every level from the sunlit canopy to the murky soil, and the air is thick with the calls of birds, frogs, monkeys and insects. There is no one place where one can stand and see the whole tangled mess.
After two-and-a-half years of research, reading and writing, the final stretches of my PhD are in sight. And I am struck by the scholarly relationship to mess.
Our notes are vast tangles of intertwined ideas, sources, statistics, images, letters, jokes, songs, newspaper articles, and so on and on. In composing (decomposing? composting?) all of this into a thesis, a compelling argument with the clarity of the flat green lawn, how much do we distort our material? As a historian, to what extent am I distorting the past?
Our lives are messy. We have friendships we have neglected, dishes waiting to be washed, bills that make us nervous and unfinished projects. We know this was also true of people in the past, indeed we spend a lot of time sifting through the detritus of their lives before we can hope to present something clean and simple. There were loose ends and unrealised dreams in every life or set of sources that we meet.
So this post is not advice but a series of open questions:
How can you compose a thesis with the clarity of the lawn and the complexity of the forest?
How can we keep the mess without simply reproducing it?
What kind of landscape design has gone into your thesis, and what life is nurtured at the decaying edges of your ideas?
How does academia stay fertile and complex if we all mow our lawns?
Sam Grinsell is a third year PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh and deputy chair of Pubs and Publications