My daughter remarked yesterday in one of those heart-to-heart conversations that take place on car journeys that she thought I like teaching more than I do research because I rarely discuss my research but can rabbit on about teaching (she means whinge) endlessly. Her observation rather shocked me because while I derive some satisfaction from teaching, the deepest satisfaction for me these days comes from the process of writing out research. So why don’t I talk about it much, especially not outside the environs of the university?
I’m not absolutely clear but I think part of it is because writing is a painful process. I have to lull myself into a trance-like state where the content I am trying to put into words occupy all of me. And then, it has all to be spilled onto the (digital) page and hammered into shape to reflect the result of what is, for me, still a mysterious process. None of it can, seemingly, be externalized until the writing is complete. And yet … there were many times during my doctoral studies when I could talk over tricky passages and concepts with others. This is despite the fact we were working in different disciplines within the humanities.
I think that we now believe in academia that we don’t have the space and time for such exchanges amongst colleagues. The awareness that we are competing against each other for shrinking research dollars and the never-ending reminders that while universities prefer quality research outputs over quantity, it’s no bad thing to have either one or indeed, both quality and quantity, has put paid to much of the mentoring and peer learning critical to the academic life and its achievement. Few have the time, trust and faith that such free-ranging dialogues result in concrete outcomes. And with the need now to account for the workday by the minute, collegial activities that are not part of one’s official workload become unrewarding and invisible duties that have declining value. Anxious to hold on to our jobs and more often, fixed-term contracts, we forsake seminars not directly related to our narrow specialties, shake our heads at those with time for corridor (and water cooler) conversations and work in splendid isolation from our home offices, free from distraction. I’ve been as guilty of such reasoning as many others although, much to the irritation of corridor nazis I still love to pop in for a chat at my colleagues’ offices. ;P
Apart from that Australian society holds a broad and undiscerning disdain for learning and the learned. Doubts about the value of learning and thinking over the value of doing mean those of us who do like to contemplate and mull over all manner of issues do so quietly, or suffer the possibility of ridicule, if not derision. I recall one occasion where a friend snapped at me for constantly wanting to “sit down for a coffee”. She wanted to go places and see things not sit around and talk. Life’s too short for talk!
Now maybe I am wrong and things are not as black as I’ve painted here. There is a small writing group that gathers weekly of which I am a member. We don’t always manage to write as much as we aim to but we do set aside 90 minutes each week to write in companionship and luxuriate in the warmth of that collegiality. So here’s a shout out to the members of the group, my partners in the conspiracy to write and sisters-in-academia. Thank you for taking the time each week to be there.
So, if you ever find yourself at a loose (or as is usually in my case tangled) end whilst in WA, knock on my door and come and have a coffee and chat with me but if you’re elsewhere when in such a state, try having an informal chat with a colleague, you never know what might come of it…