Down in the Woods

Fixed term researchers (FTRs) play an invaluable role in academia. We serve a very specific purpose, in terms of finding something out, within a defined time frame, and in harmony with the wider research culture of the institution. Such parameters of topic, time and cost demand that FTRs have a certain skill set, relating to adaptability, focus and creativity. The latter is the focus of a three-part series of events being held at the University of Sheffield over the summer, called ‘Tuning in to the Value of Research Staff’.

These events are designed to foreground the role and creativity of FTRs, and to provide both the context and the tools for FTRs to share their experiences of both the challenges and rewards of research.

The first event was held at the J. G. Graves Woodland Discovery Centre — a superb teaching facility located in Ecclesall Woods, Sheffield.

We began the day by walking through the woodland until we reached a clearing, where we took part in a series of ice-breaking exercises designed to get us to know one another, and enable us to relax within the tranquil setting. These ice-breakers led into some storytelling games, in which a group narrative evolved with each person’s input, as well as a series of smaller exercises based on turn-taking and quick thinking. Although these games seemed fun and silly at the time, on reflection they were fostering quite important skills. One game involved telling a fairytale, which changed course every time the workshop leader called ‘change’. Even though on the surface we were telling stories about indecisive pigs going to market, this exercise was encouraging us to be more confident when dealing with change, and with thinking on our feet.

In the afternoon, the workshop moved to the ‘outdoors classroom’, where we learned the various components of fire-making. This was the most enjoyable part of the day for me, as sitting around a camp fire encourages a special kind of conviviality that is hard to capture elsewhere, even if the smoke was pretty much constantly blowing in our faces!

We interacted with the fire throughout the afternoon, drinking tea with water boiled on it, drawing with charcoal made on it, and toasting marshmallows. Also, two exercises took place around the campfire — the first involved making a small sculpture out of willow that could be decorated in such a way as to represent something about our experience of research.

It was very satisfying to sit in the sunshine, quietly shaping the willow, and then searching for leaves and flowers to adorn it in a way that formed some kind of narrative.

The end result ranged from circles to wands, and each enabled its maker to share something about their perspective on research, and perhaps gain some insight into how they felt about it.

The last exercise of the day was a culmination of the skills we had learned so far, in which a series of individual metaphors for research — including images of snorkelling, chasms, rabbits lost down rabbit holes and fields of tall grass — were woven together into group narratives.

Although these stories were built from seemingly incompatible fragments, together they formed a coherent, if slightly unusual message, centred on themes of endurance and the reframing of personal goals. This was a very positive moment to end the workshop, and we left the woods feeling revitalised by the experience of talking and sharing with people who were working through similar situations.

I am very much looking forward to the next event, to be held at ICOSS on the 2nd of July. If you are a fixed term member of staff at the University of Sheffield and would be interesting in joining us, please follow this link for more details.

All photos by Anne Burns.

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