Once academic work was collaborative and enjoyable now for many its a series of lonely billable hours
Folkore has it that the reason why the academic year is punctuated with a long summer break is to allow students to return home to help with the harvest. I suppose there must be a few students who still do this, but, frankly, it would seem to be something of a minority pursuit.
These days the main purpose of the break is to allow universities to maximise their commercial revenue through summer rentals, and to provide purveyors of stationery a second annual opportunity to market their wares, and especially new diaries.
Those academic year diaries have missed a trick, though, by not having a special page where people can list their new academic-year resolutions. Actually, they could have saved everyone time just by printing the list, as its always the same for everyone. Write 500 words a day; take regular exercise; resume playing the musical instrument you gave up at the age of 12; cook wholesome meals with local, seasonal ingredients; volunteer; improve a language; read Proust; stay in credit at the bank.
We could have a competition to see who among the countrys academics and PhD students keep up their resolutions the longest. Id wager that if we exclude those on research leave, wed be paying out in the second week of term.
Why is it that our ambitions and what we can realistically achieve are so far apart? Human beings have a poor memory for pain, its said. But perhaps its a poor memory for any negative experience. We forget that the day fills up with utterly predictable chores, even if not predicted. We forget that we get tired.
Most academics I speak to find it hard to do more than two or three hours of intensive work a day, whether its writing or lecturing. Other forms of teaching and administration are less demanding, but theres a limit to how much can be done. But a typical working day is also taken up with a lot of simply being a human: communicating with others, both for work and for sanity.
Is it possible for academics to use their time more effectively?
When my son was very young and went to the university nursery, my working day suddenly shrank from the boundless to the nursery hours of 9-5. I took some drastic steps to make better use of each moment. Conferences? Forget it. Speaking invitations? Pah. I arranged my research so I could use up any corner of the time. A student 10 minutes late for a tutorial was an opportunity for me to crank out another 50 words.
I was no longer a philosopher who lunched or, sadly, read much draft work of my colleagues. But also and I have rarely admitted this in public I set up the furniture in my room so there was nowhere for the casual visitor to sit. Impromptu meetings became terse and to the point.
As it happened, during these two or three years I produced the writing Im best known for now. But equally, time in the office was much less enjoyable. In effect, Id cut out the social and collaborative aspects by controlling my time and interactions.
This made going to work feel more like going to work, something I was more used to in my previous life as a legal clerk and which I thought Id escaped by becoming an academic. My day felt like a succession of billable hours, and I know this is what it is like for many academics as a matter of routine.
Once, the opposite was possible. About 25 years ago I visited a department where publishing was fairly rare, and if someone produced a book, it was a cause of year-long celebration. How did they spend their time if they were not publishing, I asked?
Dont confuse research and publication, they replied. We read. We write new courses. We have seminars. We talk about ideas. If someone has a manuscript, we all read and discuss it. We support each other.
Now those times are long gone. And it isnt so clear who is better off for the change.