A new course and a new blog


I first had the idea for this blog last September whilst teaching a new course called The Mindful Researcher. I wanted to offer research students a course that would bring the principles of mindfulness into conversation with the research process. Based on my previous experience as a PhD student and observations drawn from my current work as a Postgraduate Learning Advisor, I could see common themes and problems emerging around the experience of doing research.

Doctoral research is challenging in and of itself - the sheer volume of reading and writing, designing and carrying out experiments or fieldwork, and the pressure to publish, present at conferences, gain work experience and develop networks. But an aspect of this task that often gets overlooked is the mundane, everyday experience of sitting with one's work and oneself. This can sometimes be the hardest part of a research degree. A colleague of mine recently pointed out that a 3-4 year PhD is roughly 1100-1400 days spent working on a single project. And as much as we might engage with friends, peers, supervisors, collaborators, etc., much of the time spent reading and writing for a dissertation is solitary. Put bluntly, that's 1100-1400 days of sitting with yourself. It can be quite a monastic experience. And just like the practice of meditation, the research process inevitably brings students face to face with themselves - with their habits, thoughts and feelings.

The Mindful Researcher course was divided into four main topics: 1) an introduction to mindfulness and its relevance for research, 2) time and the research environment, 3) attention and distraction in the research process, and 4) cultivating balance. Each week, I took the lens of mindfulness to a different aspect of the researcher's life (institutional, personal, and life outside the university). A major unifying thread of the course (and perhaps its primary methodology) was asking students to pay close attention to their lived experiences - to actually live, feel and be in their experiences, whether pleasant or unpleasant. This meant getting students to slow down and to shift their focus from the future-oriented perspective of outcomes (How do I publish more? How can I read faster? How do I get rid of writer's block?) to being present and attentive to the process (What is happening right now? What needs my attention? How do I feel?).

Throughout the course we discussed some of the common challenges that students face, including writer's block, time poverty, lack of work-life balance, procrastination, perfectionism, distraction and self-discipline. But rather than diagnosing these as problems needing solutions (pathologies of the writer), I suggested that these experiences are vital parts of the research process. Instead of resisting, avoiding or anxiously trying to fix these difficulties, we explored what could be learnt from sitting with them and becoming interested in them. For instance, what goes on in the mind when we procrastinate? What thoughts and feelings underpin this experience? And what can it teach us about our expectations and ideas of success? Or, what happens when we sit with the experience of feeling rushed, rather than desperately trying to catch up? What does being time-pressured feel like, in the body and the mind? And how does this sense of time (of never having enough time) relate to the broader research culture?

Over the four weeks, students discussed their research practices and offered accounts of their experiences engaging with peers, supervisors, academic staff and the university administration. These rich conversations produced more interesting and important questions than I had the opportunity to answer during classes, or that I simply needed more time to think through. I began documenting these questions and some preliminary responses, but realised something more sustained was required. A blog seemed like the perfect platform.

I'd like to use this blog as a tool for reflecting on aspects of my teaching, research and life, as they connect around the general theme of mindfulness. I'll be exploring:
  • Mindfulness and education - especially doctoral research
  • My experiences of teaching research students
  • Mind-body research - especially relating to health and medicine
  • Mindfulness and meditation practice
  • My daily life experiences
I hope you enjoy reading and I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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