A Mystical Strategy for Research Projects

Back in the mists of time, when my research field was medieval mystical literature for laywomen (alright, so not exactly what my school careers adviser would have wanted for me), two of the key concepts I would encounter in the accounts of those fourteenth-century mystically inclined writers were The Cloud of Unknowing and the Dark Night of the Soul. To make spiritual progress towards divine union, one must let go of one’s preconceived, limited notions of knowledge, thus challenging one’s very identity and sense of self, which frees one up to embrace a Higher Truth and all that. This process understandably leaves the hapless mystic floundering for a while. However, as these medieval writers would stress, it is a natural and necessary part of the process. The parallels with the research process are striking, for me (see? medieval mystical literature does have vocational value!). One of my very wise supervisors put it like this: “If you don’t despair at least once during a research process, then you haven’t really thought about it properly.” And in my experience, it’s far better to get this phase out of the way at the beginning of the process than at the end…

There’s a moment in a research project when something triggers the switch between the divergent phase of research, where ideas are developing and running away from you in all sorts of enticingly creative directions, and the convergent phase, when It All Comes Together. And for me, that trigger is usually a very fundamental, seemingly simple question. Discussions with students and colleagues have raised many such valuable, challenging and perceptive questions, ones which have highlighted the fundamental assumptions which need unpicking, the arguments and justifications which need to be made, and the perspectives which need to be taken into account. Thinking through the answers and trying to articulate what I’m doing really helps me to begin to bring together a research project in a coherent way. Unlike the medieval mystic, it is not solitude which brings about this flash of revelation, but company; it is not necessarily a Higher Being or senior colleague who might trigger a perceptive question or insight, but equally a student, a friend, or a peer. We often think of the research process in the Humanities as being a solitary endeavour, but working together as peers is for me a vital part of the process. It’s therefore odd how little time we spend in the Humanities actually talking to other Humans – collaboration is rare, and there is little space for genuine peer discussion (as opposed to presenting and defending our ideas to those at the same grade as us).

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