On writing-not-writing, and the ‘slow science’ of ‘Covid-time’

Guest Blogger Catherine (Cait) McCullagh reflects on ‘Covid-time’ in her final year of her PhD.

“This will be perfect for you”, one of my friends writes. They know that I am in the third year of my full-time practice-based research, with the field of my practice – and those who participated in this endeavour with me – distant now, and me in ‘splendid’ writerly isolation courtesy of the Covid-19 pandemic.

And yet, it hasn’t been easy to set the virtual pages turning. While the busyness of managing the project upon which my research was based has abated, the ‘new normals’ of queuing to buy essentials; of washing, and checking, and washing again: hands, bags, mobile devices; and of finding ways to stay close with close family, overseas, and the agonies of family bereavements, due to the virus, while we are apart and only virtually ‘in touch’.  These take time, and energy, and thought.  In all this extraordinary-becoming-ordinary there is the truth of the PhD process, itself.

Writing ‘up’ a qualitative research project apart from the relational, dialogical context that gives socially-engaged researching its dynamism also requires some thought. And thinking that thinking might make writing, and, of course, that writing helps make a thesis, I’ve turned to what this ‘time of Corona’ might bring. Overall, it is becoming what Halstead, Hirsch and Okely (2008) have called a “knowing how to know”.

This knowing includes letting the connections between what I’m living and what I’m writing find each other.  When considering my knotty ‘methodology’ I found myself thinking about what have become characteristic presentations in the Covid-concerned press conferences and media headlines as “The Science”. As a humanities student, working out of a social sciences school, I’m more familiar with a scene sometimes derided as a slower mobilisation of “The Science”. That’s a view that has never been communicated to me by colleagues and friends working in the natural sciences and with whom I shared an office and much expansive thinking.  For me; for them, and for many who are researching, trying to ‘know how to know’, our work comprises mostly: trying; making errors; sharing errors, and relying on the caring and honest appraisal of peer review; then trying again, and refining our ways of knowing. It requires plurality, and testing, and transparency.  It is deliberative, it can’t be spun.

Isabel Stengers (2011) calls this way the way of “slow science”.  It includes attending to people gathering to share their experiences; their epistemic breakthroughs; their empiricism, and how this can be transformative:

Such moments cannot be disembedded, submitted to general categories … it may well be that the knowledge they need is just a bit different, that what we can learn about them is not how to define them, rather how to foster them : what supports and sustains … something more similar to the slow knowledge of a gardener …

“Slow science” filled my thoughts, in my own garden this ‘soft’, misty morning; a common enough day-dawning here in the Highlands.  I know there are woods before us; there is a hill to the east, and a ben to the north west.  All were under the pall and their only signature was the calls of birds between them.  It took all day for the trees to de-shroud.  The hills were still un-clouding as I sat down to write this evening.  It has been a slow event.

Screenshot 2020-05-11 at 09.30.13

©C. J. McCullagh, May 2020

As the mists of the delirium around the novelty of the Novel Corona Virus start to roll, and we understand that it too is a slow event, I am hoping that learning the patience of ‘slower’ sciences is helping me to know how to interpret what I, and those who generously participated in my research, found together. This learning includes reflecting on my own lived experiences as I consider what others shared with me of theirs.  I have continued a practice of video-calling and ‘tweeting’ with some of my fellow Highlands and Islands-based PhD students. Together, in this ‘Covid-cohort’, we have been considering what of this ‘Covid-time’ (after Brit Baillie’s (2013) concept of ‘conflict-time’) has been transformative – for our theses, and also for our ways of being in the world. How we might have learned how to know the appropriate significance of those things, which seemed very small – gardens; birds; taking time-out just to reflect, or to bake bread. Or things that seem too big – the worry that in this ‘perfect’ isolation, we have not become perfect thesis writers?

In some ways, we have found ourselves, necessarily, joining the ‘slow gardener scientists’. Stepping away from the laptop screen and into our own gardens (real and metaphorical); make friends with the writing-not-writing because we know, and share, that composing a thesis, means spending time fostering and exploring; supporting and sustaining.  This too is empirical work.

In this next year, planning; planting; trying out, and letting grow will foster my garden, and applying these principles to the thesis, may also ‘grow’ it, and sustain me.   Getting the ideas planted on page requires strenuous earth-shifting, at times.  Other times are about seeing what takes root; what needs to be pruned, or transplanted – the metaphors are endless, but you can see where I’m heading.  And, helpful too is that sense, amid the apparent stasis, of heading somewhere, beyond my own thinking and writing.  Often, it is the people who will, and might, read the thesis that become my necessary ‘beyond’.  And, when I am able to look beyond this time of ‘the virus’ too, I wonder, humbly, whether having spent this time learning the way of the ‘slow scientist’: critically listening (Hurely, Kostelecky and Aguilar 2017) to and interpreting, over time, people’s lived experiences – how they make their place in the world – and nurturing this through shared learning, might be helpful towards ‘knowing how to know’ in this new world, in the making now, and for our futures.

About the Author

Catherine (Cait) McCullagh is a third year full-time PhD student, supported by a SGSAH ARC Studentship, at the Intercultural Research Centre, Heriot-Watt University. Her research – a public, creative ethnology – explores how people in fragile environments curate ‘heritages’ and the interplay with learning for sustainability.  Together with people from throughout the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland she has co-curated “New Connections Across the Northern Isles”, an online resource, sharing maritime pasts, present, and futures. Formerly a museum curator, and community archaeologist, she is writing in her home (and garden), in Easter Ross.

Research Webpages



ORCID Profile



@NorthernNousts and @kittyjmac

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