Two brief pieces in the Guardian caught my eye this week.
In the first, Peter Higgs – the discover of the Higgs bosun – confessed that, in today’s hyper-accelerated version of the academic world, he wouldn’t merit tenure. Higgs, the paper reported: “doubts a similar breakthrough could be achieved in today’s academic culture, because of the expectations on academics to collaborate and keep churning out papers. He said: ‘It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964.’ He became ‘an embarrassment to the department when they did research assessment exercises’. A message would go around the department saying: ‘Please give a list of your recent publications.’ Higgs said: ‘I would send back a statement: None.'”
In the second, the Guardian’s professional desk worried about the rise of mental illness among academics, a reflection, their reporter surmised, of an increasingly competitive environment, where the pace of “a heavy work loads, a long hours culture, and conflicting management demands.” One researcher, looking for a root cause, singled out “poor work-life balance as a key factor, with academics putting in increasing hours as they attempt to respond to high levels of internal and external scrutiny, a fast pace of change and the notion of students as customers – leading to demands such as 24-hour limit for responses to student queries.”
In the effort to document – to measure for quantity and assess for quality – research and teaching, much has been lost. But among the most important things might well be the capacity of people to dream, to let an idea slowly drift up to the surface. We know how to quantity productivity, and we can incentivize ambition, but we can’t leverage resources to create imagination. With Higgs’s caution in mind, everyone thinking about a book or an essay or a dissertation ought to be sure to leave time for dreaming.
I don’t mean this brief riff to be a boring, trite little intervention into debates about the struggle for a “work/life balance.” I mean it, instead, to be a caution that in prioritizing professional drive, we’ve lost the soulful experience of discovery. We’ve turned academic writing into something that – were it made into a film – might be directed by Paul Greengrass, all fast cuts and shaky-cams, with lots of running and chasing and, perhaps, an explosion or two.
Like many, I enjoy the rush of writing, Greengreass-meets-Kerouac-style, fueled by all-nighters and caffeine and a little bourbon, and illuminated by the flash and bang of daily word counts. I love the dazzling conclusion, the celebration of the end. “I want to go fast,” says Ricky Bobby. And really, who doesn’t?
But I also remember, tracing back the origins of books, that the story of each one begins not with a race but with a long pause. With dreamtime. I spent one semester of fellowship far away from my home, watching television, going for long walks and jogs, and eating too much bacon and eggs. I wrote two chapters, but gained a lot more insight into what, exactly, I was doing on the page in those moments when the laptop was closed and the books were put away.
When we look out for each other, we should remember the importance of time for reflection and deliberation, for patience, because dreams come while we sleep, and not while we run recklessly in the daylight. And when we respond to the assessors, we should remind them that ‘peace and quiet’ is a part of the job. It makes it possible for the big ideas to happen.