Search, and search again

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March 4, 2018 by Kate Bowles

The Twitter feed on this blog searches without much care or discrimination for anything that includes the word “research”. The resulting timeline is pretty incoherent, and it gives you a sense of how often we turn to this word, while meaning quite a wide range of things. You can research a holiday, or research a PhD.

As I’ve spent quite a bit of time today searching for a lost earring, I got interested in the origin of the word “research”. This comes to us from Old French, and it brings with it ideas of seeking out, but also of wandering and circling. Here it meets up with the origin of the word “circus”. If you’ve spent time clicking links online, you can relate. After a while, it does feel like you’ve joined the circus.

OK, so each week I’m going to do a little round up of four or five blogs I’ve enjoyed, for different reasons. We’re really liking the blogs so far — the writing, the blog design, and the ideas. Thank you all!

This week I loved the blogs that sent me searching for something myself. Here’s Kajol in “Scenes from an Ideal Marriage” using Google image search to track down a painting that’s also connected to Harry Styles. Worlds collide! This sent me on the hunt for more information about American painter Cy Twombly, who was an associate of other painters I like a lot, and along the way I fell over a whole lot of stuff about Harry Styles as an art collector. Of course he is.

What came up in quite a few blogs this week was the motivation for research. Do we search when we’re bored, when something’s tugged at a memory, or when we have to? Callum set off on a project to figure out how to code a Twitter bot, and while that didn’t happen exactly, a whole lot of other things did, proving that the generosity of the online search is that it’s open to surprise. Does this happen browsing the shelves of libraries in the same way?

Meanwhile Emily Rodgers faced one of the more urgent circumstances that can send you to the internet searching for new ideas: losing your job. You’d think we’d be really efficient in these circumstances, but it turns out that browsing is browsing. You can easily lose track of time, and before you know it: Cinderella Carriage!

Millie took a detour from watching Matthias Gruber’s TED talk to search out more about how brains operate in anticipate of reward, only to get back to find Gruber himself explaining it. There’s a key point from educational literature in this useful detour: we probably do learn better when we’re actively searching for information than when it’s being delivered to us.

And Paige makes the same point, in a lovely post where she starts out by thinking of herself as not at all curious, and ends up remembering a fact she didn’t set out to learn. Is Matthias Gruber right after all?  (Spoiler: the dog’s name is Figaro.)

Speaking of Figaro, here’s the tweet of the week from Zoe Hollis. It’s so tiny I nearly overlooked it, and then I couldn’t stop thinking, and I might know what she’s on about, but I’m not sure. Check it out, post your reply.

And 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 study the lives of Alabama sharecropper families riding out the Depression. He was 27, well educated, and frustrated with life in New York.

James Agee, US writer

James Agee in 1937. Source: wikipedia

When they came back, their commissioned book was initially not published, then published, and then withdrawn after selling only 600 copies. Agee was filled with rage. It was republished in 1960s after Agee died, very young.

In the 1960s edition, there is a beautiful short essay by Walker Evans about his troubled travelling companion, and the relationship Agee built with the families he had been sent to analyse. Agee evidently hated those who had commissioned the research, and felt a strong bond with the families he was living alongside.

Walker’s description of Agee’s way of working has a lot to do with what we’re thinking about this week. He both tried to hide his privileged background (“I think he felt he was elaborately masked” writes Evans), and revealed himself in the way he engaged with others.

In Alabama he sweated and scratched with submerged glee. The families understood what he was down there to do. He explained it in such a way that they were interested in his work. He wasn’t playing.

Walker Evans, ‘James Agee in 1936’

Good research: sweaty, collaborative, vulnerable, and not a game.

You can read a whole lot about James Agee’s short life online. Go look him up!

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