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the unsung gardeners of academia
Team projects in geography come in all shapes and sizes. As team leaders we make
many decisions about how to cut the resource cloth to fit our intellectual aims
and objectives. There are many options. Can distinct bits of the broader project
be hived off as Honours, Masters or PhD projects? What about casual RA work for
students? Will it take me longer to manage them than it would take me to do the
work myself? Is it better to have a more expensive postdoc for a shorter time
but with higher expectations about the level at which they can operate
independently? At different times I have used all of the above options, but in
the Backyard Project I decided to use the available ARC funds to employ a
research assistant, initially for two years. I was fortunate that Pat Muir was
looking for a job around this time. It was notable that many of the applicants
were highly skilled women who were looking for an interesting job that was
compatible with family life.
The Backyard Project (see box below for the book that resulted) used a variety of methods, including ethnography and biogeography, to examine peopleís interactions with their backyards. We used the backyard as an analytical window onto wider debates about urban Australiansí environmental attitudes and practices.
There were two main aspects to Patís work on the project. First, the project management role. This included advertising for and organising participants; taking and making numerous phone calls; planning and participating in fieldwork; organising transcription of interviews; maintaining records of data and logistics; and supervising some casual staff. The second role,that gradually increased over the life of the project, was the analysis of data, particularly of interview transcripts. Pat was an expert in the qualitative analysis software that we used for this purpose. We estimated that she coded something like 1.8 million words of text.
For busy teaching and research academics with significant administration loads, support in the project management role is absolutely indispensable to timely and professional delivery of research outcomes. Across the country, RAs and TAs are keeping labs, teams and individuals of various sorts ticking along in this way. That important labour is arguably more hidden than it should be when we think of the research activity of the nation as a whole.
However, the intellectual input of the second role is even more hidden in many projects. Pat often described herself as working from the data up, with me working from the theory down. Our meeting in the middle was an iterative process. I would ask her to test ideas and hunches against the data. She would identify emerging themes that we hadnít initially suspected as important, and we would adjust our sampling strategy or our analysis, or write a new paper. Pat was a co-author on most of the publications, an explicit reflection of this intellectual input.
This brief summary makes it sound a much tidier process than it was. It involved day to day discussions, umpteen whiteboard sketches, many reams of paper and (occasional) flashes of inspiration or insight. This didnít work for the writing process itself, partly as our styles were quite incompatible. In the end I would lock myself away with various ideas and bits of paper and draft things that Pat would then comment on.
Patís twin brother is a well known adventurer. We used to joke about how, while he was crossing continents, we were immersed in the minutiae of suburban life and gardens, talking to people about snails, lettuce, weeds and their neighbours. An important theme that emerged from our research, however, was the richness of urban Australiansí engagements with the nonhuman world. Central to the bookís argument is that we donít have to go Ďout thereí to encounter nature; the divide between urban Australia and the natural world is a false divide. This intellectual adventure was just as exciting.
In some ways the role of research assistants in contemporary Australian universities is comparable to the place of suburban gardeners in environmental thinking and debate: in front of our noses but not always seen, and enormously productive when brought out into the light.
Pat Muir recently retired from academic life to look after her health and pursue craft and farming interests.
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