Updated: Apr 18, 2021
I grew up in a family where classical music and The Arts were king. In fact, my first attempt at a university degree –while secretly dreaming of becoming the next Cecilia Bartoli– was in the humanities (Music, Philosophy and Italian)… I failed, dropped out in first year, and only went back to Uni for Science, 5-years later. But that’s a whole different story. The idea I wanted to discuss here was the place of art and performance in STEM careers.
In music and the arts, there’s a very clear distinction between what constitutes the work (the practice) and what constitutes the Art (the performance). Normally, years of deliberate practice are a prerequisite for any measure of success in the performance. And, there’s no Art without performance. To be called ‘Art’ the results of your practice need an audience. In our careers, we also talk about performance. But what does that mean? I’m toying with the idea that we think of our performance in the same ways it applies in the Arts.
My music training started with violin lessons from my father (1). That was as fraught as such things mostly are. My Dad was known for ‘putting on a bit of a performance’ for dramatic effect. In one memorable lesson, he yanked the violin from under my chin and hurled it up at the ceiling –a long way up in the historic home I grew up in... I can still hear, as though it were yesterday, the crack-twang of impact, and see, as if in slow motion, the bits rain down... It was not funny in that moment, but years later when confronted with it not actually having been OK, Dad laughed and said that he’d checked that it was one of the cheap Chinese ones before doing it… He had a terrible temper and the violin wasn’t the only thing he broke because of it. As the responsible parent for my sister and my hair, more than one hair-bush was hurled and broken. I adored him anyway.
The incident with the violin was in response to my not having done the work of daily practice, faking that I knew the pieces I was meant to have learned over the previous week. Only a child could think it possible to fake anything about playing the violin... But, having since that time experienced that clash with my own daughter (over the failure to do homework; where the temptation to throw things has been intense!), I can see now that there was likely also an element of his own frustration at not having done his end of the work either. In this violin story, it was all performance, no work. Hands up anyone who’s NOT seen a version of that dynamic play out in academia?
The Circus OZ 'Fanatics' under the big-top (2018) in performance mode after a whole lot of practice. My daughter is the flyer on the right-hand side. She is clearly not yet fully trusting either her balance or her base, and yet, because she was with friends, this performance ranks up there with one of the best days of her life.
The reverse is problematic too. There’s no point in doing all the work, if what you create never sees the light of day. Well, maybe you can get away with that if you have no ambition and an independent income. But as I discussed in the previous blog, we get paid for the value we create, and that part involves communicating the results of the work. How much research has been as-good-as pointless because it was never shared?
There are multiple dead-end projects in my lab where there are some solid data but not enough for a standalone story. I can make legit-sounding excuses for those results not being out in the world: the funding ran out, more important work took priority, the people doing the work didn’t do their job (were hopeless, slow, sloppy, or any one of the many ways I’ve abdicated responsibility by blaming others)… But the bottom line is that me knowing the results of the research is not enough.
The entrepreneur Seth Godin calls our work Art, and says, ‘if it doesn’t ship it doesn’t count’. By which he means that all of us doing important creative work –work where there’s a risk of it not working, of it not being liked, of it not being perfect– need to be solely focussed on getting our work out (shipping it). Do the results from those incomplete projects in my lab only count then, once I share them? I suspect so. I’m more knowledgeable for having them in my head, but they would be more valuable out of it. Thinking about it in this light changes my relationship with the work. Given that there’s a good chance that my lab will never go back to those studies, maybe I should just give the data to someone out there in my community who could actually use it. Almost certainly that would be of more value to me, and them, than leaving knowledge buried. And yet, I hadn’t seriously considered that option before writing this blog (2).
Is performance in STEM then, the sum of private practice and public art? It feels like it might be. I’m not sure I’ve ever thought through what performance might mean. Like so many of the women I coach, I have worried that I might somehow be underperforming. A conclusion reached by nebulous thoughts about metrics and comparisons to other people (3). But, is another reason that this comes up for us, that we’ve done a whole lot of work but have held back in the performance?
Lots of people have told me that I need to publish more. Obviously. But, as I write this, I’m wondering if the ‘publish or perish’ aphorism might be apt in a way I hadn’t considered. Not because publishing is somehow a necessary evil of keeping my job; but instead, because publishing is the only reason for having that job. If I were really to think of my work as Art, it would only count, only really exist at all, once it was out in the world... I know; as appealing as it is to think of our work ask Art, this is all a bit crappy. And you might say, what about scholarship, and quality and the scientific process? Don’t those things hold intrinsic value? I’d say yes, our performance will definitely be better for paying a lot of attention to those, but they are not enough, and I'd argue many of us spend too much time there.
So, if like me, you’ve been doing all the work, all the practice, but secretly you know you're holding off on the public, ART side of the STEM-performance equation, it’s time to stop with that.
1) Edmund Beilharz, OAM (1932-2009), a beloved (and to be fair, sometimes also loathed) classical music teacher, chamber musician, conductor & mentor in the Bendigo region.
2) I have thought about a different option that would be awesome; a collaborative research repository where all those orphan experiments, written up as detailed one-page ‘papers’, are digitally curated into a highly connected resource for people to ‘use’ for building new research projects/collaborations/papers. I'm hoping to one day convince a publisher that this would be worthwhile.
3) I’ll talk about why such comparisons are irrelevant in a future blog.