As the civilized world falls apart around our ears, I have been – once again – trying to improve my working practices. The aim has not been simply increased efficiency, though this is certainly a factor: I needed to learn to enjoy my job again. In recent months I have been spending more and more time feeling disgruntled about my work, even disliking aspects of it that I used to enjoy. This is in part because of increased managerialism and a sense that I no longer work in the public sector (on which more in a later post) but in larger part because of struggling to carve out enough time and headspace to do anything well enough to feel any degree of satisfaction with it or to take any pleasure in it. Over Christmas, exhausted and cross, I realized that I needed to change something or I was going to end up walking out of the profession altogether. So, in the classic response of a Humanities scholar with a puzzle to explore, I ordered some books!
My first text was The Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber (University of Toronto Press 2016), and I must say that reading it has had a significant impact on me, not least because it is full of very practical (though at times perhaps a little idealistic) guidance.
The authors had me in the opening chapter, about time-management. As the academic workload increases, the new wisdom seems to be to divide our time up into ever smaller and more carefully scheduled chunks. Even research can, apparently, be done this way; indeed many enthusiasts claim that the only way to succeed is with “daily writing”, preferably in 25 minute chunks while logged in to a supportive online community. If 25 minutes cannot be found during the working day, we are told, then early morning, before anyone else in the family is awake, is perfect. For me, this advice has too many flaws: I don’t want to work at home, I don’t want to get up any earlier than I already do, I can’t get into writing in 25 minutes, when I am into writing I don’t want to stop after 25 minutes, and I much prefer complete solitude when I do write; and anyway, I have much more trouble finding time and energy for reading than writing. This is not the solution for me. Berg and Seeber likewise reject this type of compartmentalization, and instead introduce a whole new term: timeless time, that is, time when you don’t need to worry about what time it is, and can get completely engrossed in a creative process. This ideal goes hand in hand with another aspect of their advice: reducing fragmentation.
This has already had a beneficial impact for me. I have quit Twitter (though to be fair I wasn’t really using it anyway, and it had started to make me feel a bit sick thanks to its association with a certain president) and cut down other insignificant activities. In planning my week I am trying to carve out larger chunks of time for specific tasks, and cluster related tasks together. I don’t reply to emails as they come in, but at designated times, and I have stopped them filtering through to my home devices altogether. If I have a task that requires a long period of flow – and research is not the only task that fits into that category – I try to allocate at least a half-day. I am therefore being strict with the scheduling of appointments, and working away from my office when I feel that is beneficial, despite the guilt that I feel in my increasingly “presentist” workplace. I must say it is working a treat, and the result is that my to-do list is ticking over nicely, and I am not so stressed about it anymore. In addition, I am – for once – managing to keep to a whole day of research per week, which is a boost to my energy and mood.
The chapter of The Slow Professor on teaching was also quite thought provoking, particularly the idea of a “pedagogy of pleasure”. The discussion made me realise that the reason I had stopped enjoying my teaching in the autumn was because I wasn’t really there. I may have been physically present, but my brain was half elsewhere, worrying about the next deadline or planning the next task or running around in circles about how to get everything done. This semester I am fully present in every class, completely engrossed in that wonderful exchange, responsive to the mood of the students, and – best of all – loving every moment of it once again.
The Slow Professor also has chapters on research and collegiality, which I also enjoyed, but which have had less of an impact on me in practical terms. I would heartily recommend the book, with the caveat that I don’t think blanket advice can ever suit everyone. Its value is perhaps that it is likely to provide each reader with one or two moments of realization, or a feeling of being given permission to do something that they already knew was a good idea really.
So there we go, I am slowing down yet getting more done and enjoying it more in the process. Thank you very much Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber!
And I am grateful to them also for making me aware of the work of Stefan Collini, leading me to read his fantastic book What are Universities For? about which I will say more another time…