One of my husband’s favorite reminders of his culture versus mine is that the Spanish work to live, while Americans live to work. I cannot really argue the point with him. It’s true. We Americans are a culture of doers. And in such a culture, that harmless Monday morning question between colleagues – “So, what did you do this weekend?” – takes on a slightly more competitive and sinister meaning. As one old proverb states, idle hands are the Devil’s playthings.
But what about loafing? Daydreaming? Being lazy as my dad used to chide me? It seems that recent studies are showing that downtime from doing boosts creativity. And creativity is absolutely necessary for good science. A group of researchers at Leiden University found that meditation helped people come up with creative solutions to experimental problems, even when people didn’t really have much experience meditating. In the experiment, people meditated for just 25 minutes – practicing either open monitoring meditation, letting their minds wander and being receptive to thoughts and sensations in the moment, or focused attention meditation, where individuals concentrated on a particular thought or object. Open monitoring meditation assisted with divergent thinking, or coming up with multiple solutions to a given problem; focused attention meditation had no effect. Chilling out in the name of creativity backed by science. Breathe in.. 2..3..4.. Breathe out.. 2.. 3.. 4..
Being bored has its creative upside too. I could have told you that by age 10. I spent a lot of boring snowy no-school days making artwork or writing stories after a couple hours sledding or skating. Scientists at Penn State looking into why boredom is good for creativity found that people get creative because they’re bored. In the study, people watched video clips that influenced them to feel relaxed, bored, elated, or distressed. Then the researchers gave people three words and asked them to come up with a fourth that linked the first three words together. The bored study participants did the best at this convergent thinking task to find a single, correct solution to a problem.
So why the focus on being? It is a topic that came up in recent conversations with a friend of mine. We were talking about how the mad rush to produce as a non-tenured assistant professor leaves me feeling empty and ultimately unmotivated. However, over the holiday break I didn’t work. Well, okay I did about 4 hours worth of work over a 2 week period in reviewing graduate applications for our department. But back to the no-work. I hung out with my husband. I watched Spanish TV without subtitles – they have some very interesting talk shows that skewer politicians and make fun of dating. Pequeño Nicolás! I drank good wine and ate amazing bread and cheese. I connected with real people in a non-work context – family members and new friends. I enjoyed being. For the first few days, I was chomping at the bit to do stuff. Anything. By the end, I was extremely reluctant to come back to the United States and jump back into work. I was relaxed, maybe a little bored, and my creativity battery felt recharged.
This spring term, I have been given an opportunity. A semester without classroom teaching. In the past I’ve funneled my creativity into student learning but now I need to focus it into my research program – research, grant writing, and article publishing. So now, as my friend reminded me, the challenge is to continue this relaxed feeling while forging ahead productively.
- Knight, Anamaria (2009 October 27) Doing and Being Cultures. Small Planet Studios blog. Retrieved January 14, 2015.
- Leiden University. (2014 October 28). Meditation makes you more creative, study suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 14, 2015.
- Colzato, L. S., Szapora, A., Lippelt, D., & Hommel, B. (2014). Prior Meditation Practice Modulates Performance and Strategy Use in Convergent-and Divergent-Thinking Problems. Mindfulness, 1-7. DOI: 10.1007/s12671-014-0352-9
- Burkus, David (2014 September 9) The Creative Benefits of Boredom. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved January 14, 2015.
Mann, S., & Cadman, R. (2014). Does Being Bored Make Us More Creative?. Creativity Research Journal, 26(2), 165-173. DOI: 10.1080/10400419.2014.901073
Gasper, K., & Middlewood, B. L. (2014). Approaching novel thoughts: Understanding why elation and boredom promote associative thought more than distress and relaxation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 52, 50-57. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2013.12.007
by Maria Sharova
As the end of the semester draws to a close, I am once again sitting down to try to map out my progress and figure out next steps. Over the course of the semester I have had meetings with a variety of amazing faculty who have told me about their research, I have selected my own methods for comparison, and I have selected my photos.
My methods for comparison include change in land use, change in sea level, erosion, and industry development. These speak to visual changes in environmental processes. Additionally, many pictures in the African photo database I accessed have descriptive metadata that provides, specific dates, photographers, and locations that could be further researched to locate a more specific modern photographic example.
I will compare the 8 historic images to pictures taken within the last 5 years to assess environmental change. My project will explore the applicability of using images collected from social media sites like Facebook, Flickr, and Instagram for citizen science of environmental change. Pictures posted online could be used in a variety of manners in future research endeavors. For example, there is potential to link social media to remotely sensed images or ground truthing. If changes in sea level could be tracked in pictures taken by tourists and supplemented with remotely sensed images taken over time, this could provide a more accurate and holistic view of change occurred. The potential to use photographs as a dataset in citizen science research projects is realistic, cost effective, and could provide valuable information.
Before the start of Spring Semester I will also need to finalize a list of committee members that will proof read my thesis, be present at my thesis defense, and finally provide final suggestions for edits that I will make to my paper.
I’m feeling really excited (and nervous) about my project! It’s coming together nicely, and I have to credit Dr. Shaffer with being the most amazing advisor ever! She’s been so patient with me and I definitely would not have gotten as far as I have without her expertise. I still have a lot of work to get through. I have to finish selecting my modern photographs, complete my background research on each photograph, actually write up my findings, and start thinking about future directions for the research (is there potential to use Landsat images of erosion and coastlines to study visual change in the environment over time?) Here’s to health, happiness, and getting this project done in the New Year!
Maria submitted this on 15 December 2015. My apologies for the late posting. ~J.Shaffer
by Sarah Strada
This week in our research lab we worked a lot of analyzing the data we have been coding. I am working on the Agency Project which is looking at the relationship between the government and the community on the issues of malaria and wildlife conflict. I quickly realized that analysis is a lot messier than coding! I started by pulling out major themes and separating those on an excel spreadsheet. Then I broke those themes down into more specific themes. I felt like I could have gotten even more specific but then I realized that 3 hours had pasted and I had 3 more codes to analysis. It is really easy to get lost in the analysis but I felt like I noticed things about the data I hadn’t seen before and I felt like I was really beginning to understand it. It was a really rewarding feeling.
After the agency team had gone through all their data once we met to discuss some of the themes we saw. As far as wildlife conflict goes, the overall theme was: fence. The government built a fence to deal with wildlife conflicts, the community felt this fence was of really low quality and it was pointless, and the community thought the best way to solve the wildlife problem was to build a fence . . . fence, fence, fence, so many things about the fence. It really made me want to organize a service trip to Mozambique to build them one the best fences this world has ever seen.
Anyway, after we met we all went through our codes again and started to combine them all onto a single excel spreadsheet for each issue (one for malaria and one for wildlife conflict). Now we were all separating the codes into the same themes so they can be easily combined later. Going through the codes this time, I left a lot more out because at the end of the day I just had to accept that not every interesting thing said adds to the purpose of our paper. This analysis has been difficult but I often found myself unable to pull myself away from it. It felt like a puzzle that I had to finish solving.
Setting boundaries in research is one of the toughest things to learn to do, and not easily teachable. There are all sorts of fun and interesting ways to look at data, and analysis is supposed to generate more questions. However, if a researcher doesn’t narrow down their topic the analysis and final writing can get unmanageable and frustrating. Sometimes the best way to learn is just to dig in and see. ~JS
by Donald Warner
I’ve officially reached the point of semester that my life is being held on by a single string ready to collapse the balance I have been trying to make of school, work, sleep, food, extracurricular activities, and the occasional “fun” activity (I know, what a concept!) With the looming smell of stuffing and sweet potatoes in the near future, and lowering temperatures that are perfect for just sleeping all day, I thought I’d post some tips to help fellow researchers, as well as students on how to make it through the November drag.
1 . Schedule, schedule, schedule
What?!? Plan ahead?!? Don’t procrastinate?!? What is this?? The concept of actually sitting down and planning out when to balance all of your responsibilities has always seem foreign to me. In fact, the concepts of procrastination and improvisation should really be tattooed on my back in fancy Shakespearean lettering because they are such engrained concepts in my mind. However, as my improvisation turns into “hell, I’ll just lay in bed” I’ve realize that this already flawed strategy is definitely not going end well. Something as simple as just planning out homework, sleep, meals, and even fun can help tame the overwhelming feelings of distraught and doom that are likely arising at this time. If you are one of those people who already do this, and have been doing this for years: teach me your tricks, slash give me a bit of whatever elixir of motivation you’re drinking. If not, this false sense of control on your life will sure to help you manage to not crash and burn as you daydream of pie baking in the oven.
2. Think of the big picture
As much as I aspire to marry rich and simply live lavishly on Malta, with a baby hippo and a fancy cocktails, it’s helpful to stay realistic. The work we are all doing now is going to help our future, so that if the million dollars that Nigerian prince entrusted you with does not actually follow through, you have some experience and good grades under your belt. This is especially important with research. With our research, there are real world benefits, people will benefit from the work we’re doing now. This humbling thought can often jump start me to be productive and get moving.
But my stomach hurts! Sirius Black is still dead! It’s too cold to function! I am famous for finding any sort of reason to halt all work, crawl into bed, and cuddle with my stuffed hippo until I lull into sleep. Excuses, as well as procrastination and improvisation, also may as well be tattooed on my skin in fancy letters. If you too are an excuse maker, don’t worry you are not alone. Taming the voices in your head that tell you to stop is a skill that is hard to master, but it is imperative that you learn as soon as possible. So much of life is mental, and if you can power through the head colds, the sadness, and the cold weather that is slowly freezing your innards, you will feel so much better about yourself, and life. Take the extra time to come into the lab and work, or make the trek to the library to do homework, and try to stop finding excuses!
4. It is okay, and imperative, to relax.
Relax! Please! Find some time! And this is coming from someone who’s anxiety resume is stronger than their academic one. If you get behind on your scheduling, or miss a homework assignment; it’s okay. The world is still spinning; the Simpsons are still on air; and the apocalypse has not yet begun. It’s healthy to be a bit stressed and to put some pressure on yourself to get work done, but within reason. Life is hard, my friend, and won’t get any easier any time soon. You’re allowed to sneak a quick TV episode or a power nap without having to feel guilty.
5. We are social creatures! Never forget
Social interaction?! My super introverted self’s stomach is already churning just thinking about it. But no really, people can be okay. Find some time to study with friends, schedule some research with a buddy, or even go get coffee (or tea) with someone you think is cute. It can be easy to feel super alone in this world, especially when you get caught up in your work. Remember that everyone is struggling, and that having someone to talk to, even if it is just every now and then, can make life a little more enjoyable.
In the thick of the mid-term, when we are all buried beneath an overwhelming amount of things (just things mind you!!) that must be done yesterday – heh! – Donald’s wise words gets to the heart of who we are above and beyond being mad, white-coated scientists slaving away over hot computers in the lab. We’re people first. People who have problems and hang ups and sadness and happiness. To be human beings, not merely human doings, we do have to think of the bigger picture, relax (and stop making excuses not to do so), interact with our fellow Earthlings – human and otherwise, and schedule in our priorities. *raises a fancy cocktail and gives a baby hippo a hug* Here’s to all of us who’ve made it through the midterm, and all the best as the steam locomotive accelerates to the end. ~JS
Our work in the KRAC Lab focuses on how people, households, and communities use their environmental knowledge to respond and adapt to environmental change. We work with rural communities primarily in southern Mozambique. However, Ronga communities are not the only communities facing environmental change, potential natural disaster, and day-to-day emergencies.
Back home, here in the United States, here in Maryland, we face potential threats and deal with emergencies big and small on a daily basis. Heck, getting into the car to go anywhere in the DMV region is like a death wish with the way most people drive.
Rebecca Alberda, a masters student in the KRAC Lab, has been working with START over the past 6 months on the social science side of Maryland and U.S. emergency issues, potential disasters, and terrorist threats. Recently, she participated in an exercise to complete her Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) certification. CERT is a FEMA program that trains local citizens to respond and assist in emergency situations. Prince George’s County has a CERT presence and soon so will the University of Maryland, College Park. It’s all part of UMD’s emergency preparedness plan.
by Maria Sharova
These first few weeks of school have been crazy—between family issues, the GRE, and my amazing new internship at the U.S. Global Change Research Program, I am finding it difficult to sit down and flush out ideas for longer than an hour at a time. But I have made some progress!
When I left off my Independent Project last semester, I had compiled a series of 10 photos from Angola and Mozambique depicting visual change over time—whether it be environmental, political, or economic. This semester, I am working on my honors thesis, which involves the same set of images, but with a different set of questions in mind. I will still be doing a comparison of old pictures to modern images, but I will be focusing on landscape photographs rather than portraits. The main idea I hope to address in my research is that of pictures being a legitimate source of information (in the way that quantitative measurements are). Can images created for non-research purposes be used as scientific evidence for identifying and quantifying environmental change? What changes can be measured based on images we have?
With this set of questions in mind, there are already several aspects of my research that I would like to identify more thoroughly. I would like to solidify my methods for comparing the images I select. What exactly will I be looking for between the old photograph and the new photograph? Erosion? Change in water? Change in crop yield? Change in crop type? This will of course depend on the images I select. Furthermore I would like to identify methods of quantifying that change. Will I be literally taking a ruler to the picture? Most likely not, but how will I quantify change in the photographs? Unlike last year, I am not confining myself to a specific country—instead I am working with the full range of images I have.
I have a few meetings set up with other faculty members who have done some visual anthropology, and I am excited to discuss their methods and projects with them. My project, I feel will be significantly different, since I am viewing my analysis as a form of citizen science, without the citizens knowing that they are participating in research. Social networks and social media can be regarded as an untapped data source. People are constantly taking pictures of the places they visit, so developing a methodology for using those photographs to analyze changing climates could be very interesting and useful to scientists. Here’s to hoping the next few weeks go well!