Column: Being open involves being vulnerable

By Susanna Bloem

“So, how are you doing?” my colleague asked me one Friday afternoon in the university library. Two weeks earlier, I’d delivered a lecture on ‘Life in the here and now?’ at Studium Generale in the auditorium of the University Hall, and before that I’d appeared on the radio programme ‘De Nacht van NPO Radio1’. My research is about the experience of time. I convert some of my findings into compositions, and I use this music to have conversations about psychological suffering. It was during these public appearances that I first tested, on a large scale, a new treatment ritual involving the audience. It was very successful, but in the office, I burst out in tears.

Susanna Bloem tijdens een optreden
Photo: Laurens Zautsen

Over drinks with colleagues on Friday afternoon, my crying came up in the conversation. So what had caused those tears? Had I been through a hectic period and had it all got a bit much? Was this the storied breaking point on the way to a doctoral thesis? Had I finally broken down under the pressure of money worries? It was only in the evening, at home, that it dawned on me what had happened to me in the past month. After my public appearances, my app and my email inbox had been inundated with messages and I was regularly approached at unexpected moments. For example, in the supermarket I would end up having conversations in the milk aisle about therapy, complete with tears from the conversation partner.

This, too, forms part of open science: paying attention to people and their stories.

Het abstracte leed waar ik onderzoek naar doe, kende in mijn leven twee of hooguit drie concrete gezichten, maar kreeg er nu opeens honderden; persoonlijke verhalen vol vertwijfeling en zoekend. Deze confrontatie met concreet leed maakt elke arts door, net als veel sociaalwetenschappers, maar is voor mij als geesteswetenschapper en componist nieuw. Ik besefte: naast ‘reaguurders’, negatieve en soms agressieve reacties is dit een andere, onvoorziene kant van publieksactiviteiten. Wanneer je als wetenschapper relevante en urgente problemen onderzoekt, en met de mensen die met die problemen te maken hebben (armoede, ongelijkheid, oorlog etc.) antwoorden vormgeeft, word je met het leed van echte mensen geconfronteerd.

If as an academic you study relevant and urgent problems, and you work towards solutions together with people who are going through those problems (poverty, inequality, war and so on), you get confronted with the sorrow of real people. This, too, forms part of open science: paying attention to people and their stories. If your research is about problems in society, sometimes you’ll come in for some flak yourself. At a socially committed university, crying at work is a form of academic integrity, too. May many tears follow.

Susanna Bloem is a science historian, philosopher and composer. She is working towards her doctoral degree at the Descartes Institute of the Faculty of Humanities.


This article also appears in the second edition of the magazine Close-up, full of inspiring columns, background stories and experiences of researchers and support staff. 

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