Observation journal: flirting with contagion, and soothing with reflection

I mentioned previously, regarding the observation journal, that I prefer to avoid introspection (see Observation Journal: Sharks Eating Stormtroopers, myths and the difficulties of artistic ritual). But the observation journal itself (as opposed to other journal techniques) has helped me when a little reflection on my thought processes is needed, so I wanted to include this page before getting back to the more obviously creative exercises.

First, though: on the left-hand page, canned goods and toilet paper were being purchased and a boy on campus was using an explanation of the mechanics of virus transmission as an excuse to touch the bare arm of the girl with whom he was having coffee.

Double page of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, 5 things seen, heard, and done that day. On the right, a mindmap of lessons learned.

But on to the right-hand page. Part of what happened in this week of the observation journal, as well as classes (briefly) starting on campus, was that a very last-minute opportunity to arose to take part in an arts residency on a boat. It would have been amazing, but also I was still recovering from hurting my back, and was behind on everything (including class preparation) as a result, and the year was in the process of falling apart.

It was exciting and gratifying and wildly stressful, and in the end it was far too short notice and everyone was in transit (and within a week it would have been overtaken by current events). But I wanted to record what the points of the worst stresses were, and what my personality was doing to make things better (or worse) in a situation like this.

A mind-map (in very tiny writing) of lessons learned

The notes came together fairly naturally around several key points (specific to me and this situation):

  • The occasion of getting the offer, and the attendant circumstances and reactions.
  • The responses I gave, and which responses were effective, given the limitations of my personality.
  • The various feelings I put myself through (I need to put this into my list of project post-mortem questions, too)
  • What would make it different.

For the notes on these, I tried to push through a few levels of thought: why I said/did that, and why that was, and why that was. Pushing questions a bit further is usually illuminating, and in my case the approach is loosely based on a combination of the “five whys” and Tiffany Aching).

On a personal level, the main things to come out of it were:

  • My extreme difficulty with saying no to anything that fascinates me, compounded by the facts that (a) so many things do fascinate me, and (b) I want to be the sort of person who rushes off at the drop of a hat to do interesting things.
  • The desire for some sort of version of a financial “opportunity fund”, but for time. I keep running up against this, because of the way work (and interests, and distractions) expands.
  • The known and increasingly undeniable principle that a modicum of organisation now will allow for a great deal of spontaneity later — or, as it says rather grandiosely here — discipline in service of opportunity and spontaneity.

But I’m including this page less as an exposé of my various angsts and anguishes, and more because — again — if I’m forced to be introspective, I find this one-page approach to considering a problem more useful than a wall of text, for several reasons:

  • It’s an adaptation of the “lessons learned” notes I usually make after big events (travel and conventions, usually), so the focus is more on recording things in order to learn from them — or at least to have the possibility of learning from them.
  • The map approach means I can pursue interesting points without losing the thread of my thoughts or getting mesmerised by my own prose.
  • I can glance back at it and find different useful (if unflattering) bits easily each time.
  • Importantly, it inclines me to summarise the main things I learned (or want to do).
    • This can appear as a topic on the page (in this case, under “what would make it different?”).
    • But also the principle of reflecting-on-the-observations, which I was building in for my students, helps me to remember to summarise conclusions and extract points to pursue or act on. Having a separate area for reflections already ruled out on the page very much encourages this.
  • And finally, even if I don’t actually work out how to resolve an issue, just knowing it’s there, and how I’ll likely react in similar circumstances, at least means I’m prepared and can plan around my habits.

I also, around this time, wished loudly and frequently that someone else would just give a blanket NO to everything on my behalf, which in retrospect is something one shouldn’t have said at the beginning of March 2020.

A pen drawing of a man sitting on the grass, talking into a phone, while from a branch above him an ibis looks down.
Ibis surveilling student on phone.

Note: I’ve put together a draft introduction to the observation journal here: Observation Journal. Comments and further questions are welcome.

Second note: I’ve mentioned Flyaway (which you can buy now), but my next book Travelogues is now available for pre-order! It’s essentially an observation journal, recording a sequence of train journeys, and is out in October.

4 thoughts on “Observation journal: flirting with contagion, and soothing with reflection

  1. Pingback: September post round-up | Kathleen Jennings

  2. Pingback: Observation Journal — a tremor in the web | Kathleen Jennings

  3. Pingback: Observation Journal: Project review and the brightness of sky in water | Kathleen Jennings

  4. Pingback: Observation journal — space and time and small epiphanies | Kathleen Jennings

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