My Organised Chaos

The intention of this vlog is simply to walk you through my organized chaos when it comes to research and structuring my thoughts. While I have my moments where I heartily envy other peoples’ organisational process and structured thoughts, I think that, at the end of the day, we all have to work out a research strategy that works for ourselves – and ourselves specifically.

I have just started a postdoc at the Institute for Humanities in Africa at UCT, exploring the social impacts of artificial intelligence on health – hence the book you see in the video. For me, it is a slow process of decapsulating myself from my PhD work on dating apps, which had truly acquired the status of something I was living and evolving alongside with in my life. Weaning myself away from it towards a related-yet-different aspect of coded technologies is not something that happens overnight for me. Especially given that my thesis is based on ethnographic fieldwork and the stories it tells will never simply be filed away.

Similarly, wrapping my head around a new topic or vantage point takes time. I try to read all the things that tease my curiosity further, meaning I surround myself with loads of books, and virtual heaps of articles, blogs etc. Especially at the beginning stages, I struggle to explain my thoughts in a way that is coherent. There is simply too much I find interesting, and I need to take my time to simmer all the input down to a more tangible focus – the question that will help me navigate a complex social phenomenon. In the meantime, you will find that my notes are all over – in different word documents, in my various notebooks (which I’m very fond of; I need to be able to physically hold on to my thoughts at times!), sticky notes and so forth.

The compulsion to make triple sure everything has been noted down properly and securely probably also comes from a bad previous experience I had. Just before the submission deadline of my Bachelor of Social Science Honours thesis (many a moon ago), my laptop was stolen in a house break-in. This was before I knew about ‘clouds’. I didn’t have a proper internet connection at home either and only made occasional copies on my hard drive. Alas, never again will I rework an entire project based on some earlyish drafts last minute!

Back to the video. It only reveals the surface of what looks like pure madness. However, as time passes and I develop a clearer train of thought (for which, of course, I have a special notebook), things become much converged and my notes more cohesive. Perhaps not for everyone who might be able to decipher my handwriting, but for me. And I then start introducing discussions around the topics with people around me, which helps giving the developing story in my head a more distinct motif once again.

I do have moments when I’m fed up with all of this along the way. This is when I clean up my documents, make sure they are labelled and sorted in a way that still makes sense to me and that my latest notes are readily accessible to me. To-do lists always make me calmer, too. Every now and then, I’m trying out something new, like Microsoft OneNote, which I mentioned in the vlog. I do still need my handwritten notes in addition, though – they also have the advantage that one can cross off completed tasks off with real vigour.

Whatever the process that you have found to be working in your scholarly career thus far, I’d encourage you to focus on that and refine it in a way that makes sense for you. Value it, cultivate it, and – most importantly – acknowledge that there are times when nothing works and you just need to take a step back and do something fun!

Stop, take a breath and celebrate your achievements

If you think about it, people are achieving all time the time. They are just not always achieving ‘what they set their minds to’. This is so me! Go on and do this, then that, achieve! Achieve! Achieve! That is all I ever think. How about taking a second to just celebrate what I have already achieved? My greatest weakness is the inability to celebrate. When I obtained my honours degree, acing my mini-dissertation which has inspired my forthcoming journal paper, I could not celebrate. It felt like a very small achievement. I thought to myself, almost everyone has an honours degree these days, probably with a distinction too. I felt I needed to achieve more before I could pop a Champagne cork, pat myself at the back and celebrate.

I went on to register for my Master of Arts shortly after that. Get this, I aced my dissertation with a distinction. I do not want to give the impression that I cruised through the whole process, I would be lying. It was never a smooth ride. I spent sleepless nights in my supervisor’s office and the days in the library. I had moments of self-doubt, and emotional breakdowns. When I finally got my results that I had worked so hard towards, I still felt somewhat unfulfilled. I had the same feeling I got when I obtain my Honours. And I still could not celebrate.

My inability to celebrate has to do with my inability to acknowledge myself as a hard-working, persevering and determined student. Before I even graduated with my MA I got myself a job as a part-time lecturer at a university. Exciting, right? Given the state of the economy in the country currently, I should be celebrating, but oh boy, I am thinking about a permanent post. I keep telling myself that maybe my 5th journal paper, a PhD, NFR rating and a permanent job will be fulfilling and worth a celebration. Chances are when I do get all these, I will have my sights on something more. Perhaps, a professorship and being a head of a division or department at university perhaps.

The truth is I know for a fact I have achieved so much. However, because of the pictures I have created in my mind of what success is, I am unable to celebrate my actual milestone successes. Now I wonder, is that all there is to life? Is this an academic’s whole life? I can literally feel all the other aspects of my life suffering because of my inability to celebrate my successes which fuels the need to do more, cutting off the rest of my life. To do more in just one aspect – professional growth, while all the other aspects are suffering. Our lives are made up of bits and pieces, building blocks and these needs a proper balance.

I hope I do not become unfulfilled and depressed with a PhD, a permanent academic job and NRF rating. Really! I need to stop, take a deep breath, look where I came from and give myself a pat on the shoulders and, yes, a round of applause and perhaps even whisper into my own ears that, I am, as the urban youth would say “GOAT”- Greatest of All Time.