useless ideas

Frida Kahlo diary-sketchbook

Sometimes I read a something that resonates. It doesn’t necessarily have an immediate application. The something is not useful. It just speaks to me. And I want to write out the useless reading-thing. As a quote. So I don’t lose it. So it will sit there as a reading-thing that seems to possibly be worth doing some more thinking about. Maybe.

I’m sure you do this too. In fact, we urge doctoral researchers to develop a noting-things-down habit. Even if the reason for choosing the quite or thought is not immediately obvious.

Academics are not alone in writing down apparently not useful but perhaps interesting fragments. Lots of people and professions do the writing-the-reading-thing down. Writing about reading not as organised notes that fit in a predetermined template or a set of questions. Simply making a note of something. A note by itself, of itself, for itself.

So I hear you ask, who else writes down stuff that is not apparently useful? Well. For a start, artists often jot down quotations as well as making doodles, squiggles, random images and notes of ideas. You just have to look at a collection of artists’ books to see how they notice and then record what they notice. Who knows what these idle and purposeful noticing notes might turn into? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps they are just part of a process of observing, listening, tuning in. Maybe some of these scribbles are a long percolation of a something. Something that emerges but doesn’t necessarily have a straight line back to the original, although you might be able to find the traces if you look hard and long.

It’s interesting that we don’t give researchers’ notebooks the same status as artists’ books. Our academic notebooks – analogue or digital – aren’t a defined genre. Even where there might be a genre-like text, as in ethnographic field notes or experimental records, we generally don’t share them around. We don’t see these texts as part of a creative practice of thinking, in the way we see artists’ books as integral to artists’ practice.

Researcher field notes tend to be private, or used primarily for teaching others how-to-do-it. ( Although there are a few published field note texts in the humanities and sciences, usually because their makers were significant). But the occasional blogger does use their posts as a way of recording snippets of thinking, and as a way of thinking in public. Would more of this making notes public be something worth doing? Should we start to make our researcher notebooks more widely available? There’s a research project about researcher notebooks in waiting here too…

Enough of that for now. To the topic. What was the quote that piqued my interest? Just for the record, and for those of you interested in words, you understand. Those of you not interested in words stop now. 

I’ve been reading about experimental encyclopaedia, and alternative word lists. And this is the passage I paused on. The writers are suggesting that it would be ideal if the word list they constructed was read in parallel, rather than one entry after another.

In this word list, or lexicon, words figure not as solid entities but as living things, animated in the break of the gesture of their performance, whether in speech or on the page of writing. Like the characters of a play, every word has a history and a personality of its own, and a story to tell. … our words perpetually strain beyond the limits of their conceptual referents. Words, like worlds, are always in flux. In conversation, they carry on their lives together, as do matters in the world, They touch, and sometimes mix.

The writers wanted a text where words could make contact. But the linear printed page made this impossible. While their text was written for a standard journal, subsequent lexicons and encyclopaedia using hyperlinked cross -tabs (a la Wikipedia) still have the same problem – the distance between words works against serendipitous and more calculated connections. Works against the words and their stories coming together.

The difficulties of linear text are not unknown. Not new. But that wasn’t what caught my attention. What I liked most about the passage I’ve noted down was the idea that words themselves might be active partners in making associations and new meanings – if we writers could only sort out our textual arranging to let them. Like the toys that come alive at night, maybe words even get together and tell new stories without us lifting a finger or being aware of what is happening.

OK – this quote and the idea may be a bit eccentric. Or mundane, depending on your point of view. But if, like me, you are interested in thinking about academic writing and its genres, and how academic writing genres might be different, then this little quote does capture the frustration with current forms. And…

I’m still musing.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in field notes, notebook, words and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to useless ideas

  1. In light of the above, you may appreciate this comment in my draft PhD thesis: “As with so many elements of procedural justice there is substantial overlap, and it is only for purposes of providing a linear narrative that they are treated separately where possible. Writing in a linear structured fashion about issues which intertwine is problematic. To my mind, it is akin to describing a pot scourer using a straight piece of wire.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anarkali says:

    Dear Pat

    I enjoyed your post on words… if you’ve not read it, you might like The Waste Books by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Full of this kind of stuff.

    At the University of Exeter, where I am based, there is also the Index of Evidence (an online words and concepts speaking to each other database/research project): [] Index of Evidence Welcome to the Index of Evidence. Find our how ideas of evidence and fact are changing

    I keep meaning to contribute but so far I have not.

    As for the creative side of writing, I guess we must use our words in the fullness of their meanings and allow them to speak to others, in ways we may not yet have completely understood ourselves. And also place them in contexts where they may be able to speak more productively. But I also suggest that what you possibly mean is using more metaphor? Metaphor is what makes words speak to each other in new and illuminating ways, and i think could be productively used in academic writing, though it’s not generally highly thought of now.

    Best wishes Rebecca Johnson Bista


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Claire SWYZEN says:

    Dear Pat Thomson,

    That’s a nice piece (as so many others) -useless ideas are indeed so important, and so is loosing time while working (I used to work as a dramaturge for 12 years before getting into academia, where ‘inefficent’ moments are so important, and taking time, but now I’ve been finishing my PhD for about five years, though now I’m really nearly there and therefore haven’t taken any notes for the last years, which is something I really miss –

    Unfortunately, the links didn’t work for me – could you please send me the reference to the article(s)?

    You may, in this context, also be interested in my article

    Swyzen, Claire. “‘The World as a List of Items’: Database Dramaturgy in Low-Tech Theatre by Tim Etchells and De Tijd, Using Textual Data by Etchells, Handke and Shakespeare.” Etum – E-Journal for Theatre and Media, vol. 2, no. 2, Dec. 2015, pp. 59–84,
    Or just the first 7 pages if you are short in time.

    All best and thanks for your posts and their particular voice,

    Claire Swyzen


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