Surrounded by nebulae

Last week I attended a pan-London meeting of researcher developers. My opposite numbers, so to say. It is actually one of my favourite meetings. There I heard a colleague saying that researcher development is not a profession for life. “We have come from different places and we are on our ways to different places”, she concluded. This remark was meant to be a positive one, and I did understand the point she was making. Nevertheless, my heart literally ached a little when I heard that, and I have been pondering since about where that pain came from.

I took on my role at my current institution five years ago. Besides how the role has evolved, the way I see it is that I wear two hats. When I wear the researcher developer hat, I help students grow into researchers themselves. When I wear the researcher hat, I contribute to the scholarship of researcher development while also carrying on with my usual research in digital sociology. This three-way split of identity has been posing challenges, and I have been asked by different colleagues if I am going to ditch the researcher developer hat anytime soon.

Perhaps that is a strategic thing to do, as a recent anonymous article in the Guardian seems to suggest, and last week’s meeting got me wondering whether I am being unwise. Then I recalled this following quote that a PhD student shared with me last year. The words were from her son.

The process of forming a new idea — be it a dissertation, a book, a work of art — is similar to the process by which a star is formed. In the beginning, it is just a cloud of particles — a nebula — floating in space. Slowly, over time, these particles are drawn by gravity toward the centre, coalescing into a more solid form — the first semblance of the star, of something new. As these particles continue to amass, the energy of the centre of the nebula builds and builds until finally, after crossing a critical point — after absorbing a critical amount of information — the cloud ignites and the new star — the new idea — is born.

I am eyewitnessing the births of stars everyday. In a courtside seat, no less. I guess that’s the privilege I can’t quite give up.

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