The Landscape Decisions Programme Coordination Team (PCT) have been running a set of writing groups to bring together researchers from across the network. These have been cross discipline working groups addressing some of the bigger picture topics the PCT identified coming out of the first whole programme level workshop in 2020. As this process draws to a close now the groups’ hard work is coming to fruition, Dr Beth Cole reflects on the process, the outcomes, and lessons learnt from leading these diverse writing groups.
Firstly, the rewards and the frustrations of interdisciplinary working were probably the main theme in all the lessons learnt. Our participants ranged from mathematicians to artists, with a mix of social scientists, natural scientists and members from the arts and humanities. All the pieces have benefitted enormously from the cross-disciplinary perspectives and conversations that fed into the documents, however even in an interdisciplinary group, with a focus on letting all voices be heard, most of the writing burden will fall on the few. What disciplines these few are from can really influence the final outcome.
We all communicate very differently. Each subject brings its own language. We talk about the same things in very different ways. It is not just the obvious acronyms and technical terms, it is the style of language, the assumed knowledge, the ways of expressing and representing things.
We need to translate between these different languages so we can appreciate different perspectives, however it is important that we understand the details and do not lose the depth. Nuances can be engrained in language, subtleties in an argument need to be explored and not just lost in translation. It is helpful to have a person in the group who pays attention to the translation aspect, who takes time to listen and interjects if meaning is being lost, or confusion sets in. This could be an organic process, or a more formalised role passed around the group.
Taking time to listen, and making sure everyone is heard is an obvious but important lesson. Drawing out people’s opinions and input, and not being dominated by the extroverts or the chatty members of the group is essential.
It is not only the language we use to talk to each other, but the writing style across disciplines is also very different. Trying to align the rhetoric, the way papers are structured, and the number of citations for example can be tricky. It is hard to ask people to write in a style they are not used to. To make sure the paper flows and has a coherent style, but yet still stays true to the differing perspectives. A fairly firm editing hand is needed, but one that is considered.
Interdisciplinary working takes time. This is something we have heard again and again, and it is true. The time taken to write across disciplines cannot be underestimated. We need to build relationships over time. Networks do not just happen, they need to be created.
However taking your time may not be a bad thing. The working relationships we have developed are strong, forged through regular contact over a long period of time. The consistent meetings can sometimes feel like certain discussions are going round in circles but they are necessary to gain the depth of understanding between the disciplines. The outputs, I think, are more considered, they are thorough. So don’t rush and stay realistic.
As we all know, one of the biggest lessons we have all had to learn from 2020 onwards is the ability to react and be flexible. The COVID pandemic forced us to change our plans, moving from in person writing retreats to taking everything online. We formed and have kept going through all the lockdowns, we quickly got used to Zoom, which has its own challenges in terms of making people heard and giving space to listen. But importantly we have kept in contact and developed an approach that is robust to the unknowns. Taking the whole process online has had some benefits, it allows people to devote small regular chunks of time, rather than blocking out numerous consecutive days. Therefore we have kept more people involved in the process, people that are geographically spread across the whole country.
Flexibility in the ways of working is a lesson I would pass on. Different methods have worked for different people and at different times along the process. Some prefer weekly collective writing slots, logging in at a set time, having a quick chat about what you were going to work on and writing at the same time as others in the same ‘virtual room’. This carved out writing time in people’s busy diaries. Others preferred to work alone. It became clear that having a series of deadlines to write to was needed for some. Enabling multiple ways of working, being flexible to the group’s needs and respectful of other commitments are tips taken from this process.
Having a person to oversee the whole process is essential. To arrange the practicalities of planning and hosting the meetings, to chivvy people along, to set the deadlines and keep an eye on the end product. A live online document that could be contributed to by all members was essential, but there needs to be clear guidance on when to write, when to edit and when to comment.
Leading a writing group also requires skills in chairing the discussions, listening to all the participants, taking control of the written work, deciding a structure, assigning roles, playing to people’s strengths and setting expectations. Ensuring a harmonious and supportive environment where tensions between different perspectives are diffused needs to be managed.
A rewarding experience
What this process has done is help build a network. Not just a list of PIs, researchers, stakeholders and project titles that all fall under the same funding, but a network of people who talk to each other, with common interests – if not always common views – who want to engage and who are prepared to put their time into a collective goal. One of our researchers commented “through the workshops and writing groups, you gave me a living, breathing research community to belong to again”. I couldn’t agree more, the exposure to a varied range of researchers in terms of, disciplines, stage of career, geographic spread and the introduction to new ideas and perspectives has widened my working experience, challenged my views, and allowed me to indulge in detailed thought-provoking discussions… and I don’t think I’m the only one. Although it has been a lot of work, and dare I say it frustrating at times, it has been one of the most rewarding writing experiences I have had.
Dr Beth Cole is a Senior Research Fellow on the Landscape Decisions Programme Coordination Team.