On Lab Journals And Craft Journals

ford model T cut paper and watercolors illustration

I have a pile of red, soft cover spiral notebooks I bought at the beginning of my postdoc. The first ones became lab journals, and now I’m using the rest of the pile as scrap-, sketch-, and whatever-notes-I-need-to-take- books. I could just have grabbed notebooks in the supplies cabinet of the Physics Department, but I was rather specific about how I wanted my lab journal. I wanted spirals so I could open it full, fold it back and stack it on the corner of a lab bench, occasionaly tearing out any pages I wanted to get rid off. I wanted it to be my very own. And I really liked the red covers.

When I was first explained what a lab journal was as a young student, I felt invested of a very serious mission. The progress of Science was basically lying on my shoulders. I was responsible for writing down everything anyone would need to reproduce a successful experiment. Later I learned that writing something that would still make sense to me after a few years was a much more reasonable goal.

I secretly delighted in carefully trimming and gluing plots and tables here and there on the pages of my precious notebook, a craft I undeniably excelled in in elementary school but had been deprived of as more and more ring binders appeared in my aging student gear. I used the good old fountain pen I was carrying along in my pencil case since high school. People would be impressed. “Is this your lab journal? Whoa! It’s spotless!”.

It was. Nice and clean. No crossing-outs. But besides my beautiful handwriting, undeniable talent for page layout (and shameless use of erasable ink), I guess it also had to do with the fact that I kept trial and error stuff on additional lose pages of scrap paper. I felt that I had to keep these separate because I didn’t trust that I would be able to discriminate established facts from guesses I had made when I would come back to the notes I made a few months earlier. I guess I also naively thought that my lab journals would eventually be passed on to and used by the next student working the same experimental setup, so that I should refrain from cluttering them with my personal ramblings.

It was a bad idea, because I’m sure that to some extent, it simply prevented these ramblings to even happen, and the process of research is largely about these ramblings. So, as a postdoc I finally started allowing myself to write down everything that came to my mind with whatever pen happened to be available. I used carelessly teared tape instead of glue and crossed out whole sentences without scruples, trying to let the ramblings happen. But it quickly became clear that virtually no one had any interest in them until they could be turned into something that sounded publishable, as very often opposed, I felt, to genuinely interesting. The pitiful state of my neglected lab journal reflected my own state of mind: I felt lost, bored and frustrated.

Around the time I had made up my mind to leave academia after the end of my postdoc, we had our annual group meeting. Besides the appointment of volunteers to organize the Christmas party, “a new routine for lab journals” was on the agenda. Our university, following the popular European tendency and ensuring compliance with the nowadays popular paradigm of intellectual property, had decided to set up a strict lab journal policy that involved distributing and keeping track of calibrated, institution-owned notebooks in which we, researchers, were responsible for writing down everything we did in predefined boxes: date, title of the experiment, description of the procedure and results, signature, signature of a witness. Everything you wrote in here became the property of the university, and everything you had to write had to be written in there. If you were allowed to keep a copy of your notes when leaving the institution, the original notebook had to be handed out for archiving.

Everyone agreed that such a rigid procedure was completely disconnected from the reality of the researcher’s work. But the protests were only about the form. Some found it obsolete to have a paper journal when they were usually keeping all their notes electronically. Even the paper lovers like me unanimously found the dimensions of the book and its rigid cover very unpractical. And of course the exigence of having every single page countersigned by “a witness who understood the content” made everyone roll their eyes in exasperation.

But we didn’t talk about the intellectual property thing and its meaning for the future of fundamental research. “You know, this is how it is, now”, our group leader said. “We have to follow the new rule”.

So I was left with these extra red, soft cover spiral notebooks and now I use them to record my new creative endeavors. I’m gradually realizing that they are truly mine. I do hope I can still understand these sock-knitting instructions in a few months.

I think that applying a vision of intellectual property in which knowledge is a good with an economical value to what academic research produces is wrong for many reasons. First, any honest researcher knows that it its extremely tricky to attribute a research result to a single person, a single research group or a single institution. Second, this process slows down the diffusion of knowledge to a wide audience, who incidentally also often coincides with the tax payers who funded the research. And third, it promotes the harmful idea that research is only about results.

It reminds me of book by French writer Daniel Pennac called Comme Un Roman, an essay about reading. Pennac starts by pointing out that the verb “read”, just as “love” or “dream”, doesn’t make any sense used in the imperative form. Well, the same could be said for any creative endeavour. And in my opinion, it applies to research, too. I don’t think you get the best out of researchers by ordering them to find, find, find.

 
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On Photography And The Tragedy Of The Good Student

bokeh

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I think I’ve just realized that there was nothing morally wrong with semi-automatic camera modes. Of course, my embarrassment lies less in the realization itself than in the now blatant fact that I apparently thought there was.

For some mysterious reason, I’ve suddenly started using my camera in aperture priority mode. It could be something I ate or the effect of sun exposure on my vitamin D levels. Or, more probably, the higher than usual number of sunny days inspired me to fiddle with my camera and gave me the brilliant idea of listening to some photography podcasts. Needless to say, I’ve had a couple of aha! moments these past few weeks, and after discovering this week’s photo challenge, I had to format my prehistoric 512 MB memory card a number of times. Playing with shallow depth of field is decidedly a lot of fun.

To think that I’ve spent so much time studying physics, including optics, without ever giving photography a serious try – just for the sake of developing some intuition of what a lens does – is in itself regrettable. What is much worse is that once I actually decided to give photography a try for its own sake, I remained stuck with the idea that as long as I didn’t master the full manual mode, there was no point stopping to shoot in automatic. This is what I call the tragedy of the good student.

All the way throughout my long curriculum I’ve been what everyone agreed to call “a good student”. You might very rightly want to point out that this is nothing to complain about, and I am the first to recognize that I was clearly on the right side of the system. Being the daughter of two teachers, I was particularly well equipped, from a very young age, to understand the expectations of the educational institution. I also tend to think that my social origin placed me practically a priori in the category of students – good students – for which the said institution has a particular liking. Some like to call this “cultural reproduction”. I am one of those who think that this is probably the biggest fault of our educational system.

That said, I’m gonna play spoiled child and whine a little about the good student condition. Please bear with me.

I think that in the very way the educational system defines, selects and treats good students, it makes them a great disservice. And if my own mental block with camera modes certainly has causes that appertain to my particular psychology, I tend to think that it is also a symptom of a dysfunction of the educational institution.

I went to school and university in France in the 1990s and 2000s. Good students, like myself, were students who could cope with a large number of hours spent sitting in classrooms without being guilty of too much fidgeting or chattering. And there is really no merit here. It’s easy to sit and listen to a teacher who doesn’t look very different from your mom or dad, when you know what you are doing here – you’re here to learn, your parents told you – and when you’re lucky enough to easily understand whatever you’re being taught.

This is precisely where the problem was. Since you usually understood the lectures, and since understanding per se undeniably brings some satisfaction, you willingly accepted to be deluged with facts without noticing that you were actually never given a chance to want to know something. And in case you did, you didn’t have time anyway. You were too busy taking in one lecture after the next, dutifully doing homework, and perfecting your student file in preparation for a bright future. When it came to course choices, you were told that science would open every door – so, science it was. Who wants to discard opportunities?

While praising curiosity and sharp-mindedness, the school system actually encourages good students to keep or adopt a passive attitude towards knowledge that drains out creativity and encourages a form of submission. And while pretending to open all doors and maximizing choice, it authoritatively puts them on tracks without giving them the chance to protest.

Good students were also those who got it right the first time. It still puts me into a cold sweat to think about the optics tutorials I attended as an undergraduate physics students ten years ago. We had these express tests, which consisted in executing a classical optics calculation in ten minutes sharp. Either you got it right the first time, or you realized that you had made a mistake only to see your paper snatched out of your hands before having time to rectify it. The point was to get it right the first time. This is how you turn good students into submissive, timorous beings who become convinced that they have to know before even trying.

As a PhD student, I would often hear professors complaining about the rising disaffection of students for scientific subjects. “Even the best ones, now, turn to economics and stuff like that”. To some extent, I share this concern. In particular, I deeply regret that the opening of job prospects has to come before sheer curiosity when it comes to course choices. But looking back at my own curriculum, I think it’s also worth wondering what really happens to curiosity as students go through the school system.

It probably wouldn’t do any harm to give all students a break. To let them breathe and experiment. To let them try and fail. To give them plenty of time to really ask themselves questions. To encourage them to play with a camera before they learn optics. Why the hell should anyone want to study optics for its own sake if they’ve never been fascinated with the beauty that light can produce, after all?


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