What’s your yellow duck?


February 25, 2018 by Kate Bowles

But questions, I’ve learned since, can be like ocean currents. Wade in a little too far and they can carry you away. Follow one line of inquiry and it will lead you to another, and another. So a yellow duck dropped atop the seaweed at the tide line, ask yourself where it came from, and the next thing you know you’re way out to sea, no land in sight, dog-paddling around in mysteries four miles deep.

Donovan Hohn, Moby-Duck (2011)


Screenshot 2018-02-26 09.59.37Welcome to 2018!

I’ve just been given Donovan Hohn’s lovely book about how things get lost at sea, and where they end up. As with most stories of an intensive research project that got bigger and bigger, it’s really a story about the writer.

In the prologue, he explains how he first heard about the story of a shipping container of plastic bath toys that fell overboard in 1992. It was in a piece of student writing in an assignment in 2005. Hohn had asked his students to practice an “archaeology of the ordinary” — to think about an everyday item in their lives, and write something about its meaning, its story.

(He gets this idea of the value of studying an ordinary or overlooked thing from the writer James Agee,** but it’s now quite a common one that is behind a whole lot of professional ethnography into media user experience, for example. So keep an eye on this idea.)

One of his students wrote about a rubber duck he carried for good luck. The story of this student is important in itself (go read the book), but what matters is that as Hohn was grading his essay, something stuck. The student had come across the story of the ducks that had been lost at sea and a year later were washing up on beaches in Alaska, and 11 years later in Maine, and Hohn was hooked.

It was well after midnight by the time I finished marking his essay, and because I am prone to nocturnal flights of fancy, I sat there for a while at my desk thinking about those ducks. I tried to imagine their journey from beginning to end. I pictured the container falling—splash!—into the sea. I pictured the ducks afloat like yellow pixels on the vast, gray acreage of the waves, or skiing down the glassy slopes of fifty-foot swells, or coasting through the Arctic on floes of ice.

So the story of this book starts with that moment, a work of the imagination and a question that needed answering. Along the way he travelled on many ships, met many environmentalists (and beachcombers), thought about factories in China, and learned about himself.

This is a great way to think about research. What is it that you don’t know, that you really do want to know? What detail is sitting there in the archaeology of your everyday life that will help you get started? And who are you, and what is going on in your life, that this project will become important to you?

In 2018, we’re focusing our research thoughts on the university student experience. Background reading on this is everywhere: in academic journals, in the news, in forums, in what universities say on their websites (and don’t) about student life. There’s plenty of government data to help you understand whether Australian universities are different than universities in other places, or to understand how and why different governments fund (or don’t) university, and for whom.

But above all, you have expertise in this. You have questions, and insights, and the capacity to find your own yellow duck in the whole ocean — the question that you really want to follow up.

Good luck!

Photo credit: the yellow duck featured image is ‘Cuac‘ (2009), by Flickr user Marc Jordana, generously shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


After posting this I ended up more curious about James Agee’s phrase, so I looked for it online. To my surprise, the only source that connected this phrase to Agee was Donovan Hohn himself. Still searching, I stumbled on a PDF of the original 1939 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and sure enough this term isn’t in there, although I can see exactly the principle that Hohn is referencing, that appreciation for ordinary things. And I also found a lovely link to an art project called “Archaeology of the Ordinary” that came out in 2011, the same year Hohn published his book. There will be more to come from this, I think. Research: it’s a journey.


One thought on “What’s your yellow duck?

  1. […] a quick update on the rabbit hole I fell down last week. In the 1930s writer James Agee, left New York and accompanied the photographer Walker Evans to […]


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