I first heard this phrase from Philip Sheldrake – though he told me it was from somewhere else originally. Basically it means writing (and, I guess, saying) much that we might previously have done privately – thoughts for the genesis for a paper, notes on methods of research, business ideas, drafts of essays, problems with block or progressing in our research – in public, on a blog or similar platform.
Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Richard Martin who writes thoughtfully on contemporary work. Along with Kenneth Mikkelsen and others, he is building an interesting case for the need for generalism in the modern business world at a time when many working practices and corporate structures feel as if they are on the edge of historic change. Richard, too, talked about working out loud and said that he felt that, in a sense, this is what his blog is: a working out loud as he collects his thoughts and curates others.
I believe in this. I believe it is the right thing to do. I am absolutely in favour of the various Open Access movements and Open Science. Early on in my own journey into the brave new tech-edu-academic world (I was a late starter), I spoke, in a related vein, about the need to debunk ‘mystique‘ in academic working.
And yet I find it difficult to work entirely ‘in public’ in this way.
I am currently writing a book – maybe even two books – and, of course, there will be large parts of the books related to what I have written about in these blogs. As I said to Richard, it would be almost impossible to completely separate my thoughts of the last 4 years and what has appeared on this blog in relation to interdisciplinarity, generalism, education, employment etc from anything else I am writing. However, the books are not the same as the blog and it must be noted that I am not writing the books ‘out loud’. I am keeping the chapters, in a more conventional way, in files on my computer.
Why is this? I’m not quite sure. I feel in some way it is a failing and yet I am not comfortable working entirely out loud in the way that seems objectively right.
I see two possible reasons for my discomfort. One is simply that I am stuck in old ways of thinking. Metaphorically, I am still shielding my working from that naughty Philip Stoddart at the next desk in Form 5; he never did any work and always tried to cheat by looking at my answers over my shoulder. I was taught to guard my knowledge and that is what I will do, even now, when it seems daft, if not counter-productive. It is (was) how I got my competitive advantage. However, things are changing. There are now many very good reasons to share knowledge (everyone from Shirky to Weinberger is writing on this) but most of us are stuck with the thought that in sharing our knowledge – at least the more interesting, valuable, and original stuff – we somehow diminish our power and our prestige. I think this is wrong – it is outdated – but it is hard to shake.
The other reason is to do with personality. I’m an introvert (bit weird for someone with my sort of job, maybe, but there we are) and I can quite quickly feel ‘over-exposed’ if too much is ‘on display’ and ‘open to public’ view. Basically, I need my cool, dark cave quite a bit. And writing – any sort of writing – is of course personal. So while working out load seems absolutely the right thing to do, it also exposes elements of the person (I was going to say the ‘soul’) that one might feel need guarding, need protecting, nourishing. This part of my problem isn’t really a matter of right or wrong, of guarding knowledge jealously, or sharing it generously – it’s just a matter of personality, and no more wrong than the actions of an extravert who needs continually to socialize and talk to feel affirmed.
So while working out loud seems pretty much the right thing to do on most occasions, and openness in knowledge sharing seems the best way to arrive at solutions to many different sorts of problems, perhaps we cannot expect everyone to participate to the same degree.