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The Pequod
Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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60 to 0 in A Month

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

As regular readers of this blog will know, my life during university term time can get somewhat hectic. In various states of play, at any one time I can be holding down six different jobs: I teach part time at a mainstream university and at the Open University; tutor in a residential college of a university; work in a university library; write reports for a major research institute; and do a bit of publicity work for my department. With all these cards in play, during the term time my six or seven day working week can easily equate to the 60 hours of this blog title.

The price I pay for this game of life is that I don't have much of one (a life, that is) outside of work during term times. The other price is that I have been unable to keep up with my research. I have a number of projects and papers that I might be working on, not least being editing my thesis for a book proposal, since I am unlikely to get a full-time academic post without that first publication. However, these all go on hold until the Summer.

With the vacation, my formal working hours drop to less than ten a week, with even these being done from home as and when I want. This time last year, I had grand plans for what I would do with all this spare time. I started on a leisurely little paper on empathy in Ian McEwan's Atonement, until I realised that to discuss empathy and the novel was to open a mass of existing research that I had never known existed, and that would need to be read before I could hope to do justice to my incidental ideas. Instead, I wrote a couple of book reviews. I built myself a jazzy website for my academic teaching the coming year. I filled in numerous job application forms. And then, towards September, when I was appointed to my Open University post, I found myself busy doing all the preliminary reading and administration for this new course.

Largely, though, time dripped through this fragile web of productive work. Bike rides, sorting the garden, painting the house, reading for pleasure, sprucing up The Pequod - all became reasons not to work as much as I might. I justified this to myself on the basis that, having only passed my PhD viva in April, I merited a bit of a break from four years of graft. And, of course, I could not possibly bear to do any more work on my thesis or put together a book proposal when I had so recently waved goodbye to my academic child. That could wait until next year.

Next year has now become this year, last Summer has morphed into this Summer. Over the past teaching year, in what time I could spare of my 60 busy hours, I hatched plans for research that I would definitely do in these comparatively lazy days, especially with regards to my thesis. The only trouble is, I can foresee this Summer passing me by again. Partly, this is due to a couple of quite traumatic and unforeseeable personal circumstances, which have already eaten into the first six weeks of the vacation by forcing me to spend it away from home. However, I can see that, now that I am back at my desk, I will struggle to get the necessary motivation to make up for this lost time. Partly, the stress of term is still relatively close, and I feel resentful of doing intensive, unpaid research now, when I know that September will bring a return to poorly paid, time-consuming teaching. Do I not deserve to live life at a more normal pace for at least these three months?

Anyone in the real world would say "yes." But I am not naive enough to believe academia to resemble the real world. I fully understand and am prepared for the fact that it is a beyond full time job that one does for the pleasure of it rather than for the money. So where has that pleasure of research that motivated me through my PhD gone to? In part, I think I lack a research plan. There are no meetings with a supervisor to aim for; I cannot afford to attend and present at more than a couple of conferences a year. Without these signposts through the year that were present in my PhD life, it is hard to find a direction through the next three months.

This leads me to something of a vicious circle, as I feel I have lost my inspiration - something critical to a literary and intuitive subject such as English. In plugging away at my PhD research, I'd often encounter interesting but tangential ideas, books, connections that were worth following through with a paper or conference presentation. By the end, writing my thesis became a comparatively tedious exercise to fill the day, whilst it was the shorter research questions that were not really related to it that became more interesting to explore.

With my current plan not featuring anything long term as another thesis or book, however, I find myself doing the reverse: I will plug away at a few journal articles, but because these are self-contained it's hard to see how they can lead me in significantly new, unexpected and exciting directions. Without the daily grind of a longer research project, then, it becomes harder to get inspired to write impulsively in response to other things that interest me. The loop is closed, because without some moment of excitement that I have discovered an unanswered question, I'm not going to be able to construct any proposals for post-doctoral research. This is where, I suppose, this blog becomes a bit of a writer's lifeline, because I can at least write in response to things in the media and cultural sphere, even if not really "research"; my recent article on Inception, which somewhat fits with my critical interests, is an example of this kind of excuse against sustained academic endeavour.

What I need to do is that first year PhD student's trick of setting up a nice looking timetable. It may get thrown out of the window by the end of the first week - indeed, if it did not I would be disappointed: only boring research is predictable. However, it would at least place me under some sort of necessary pressure. When I reflect on how much I am able to do during the teaching year, juggling my various commitments, I realise that I am someone who thrives on a bit of stress, who needs to feel the pressure of a looming deadline (and there is no pressure like having to stand before a class on To the Lighthouse having only read it the week before) to work to my capacity. Probably, if I were primarily a writer, I would do better in journalism, with its incessant, nick-of-time deadlines, than in academia, with its organic research agendas.

But it is the latter in which I find myself, and so I need to discover a way to respond to the 60 hours of a teaching term not by frittering it away with zero hours during a research Summer, not by reacting angrily to the amount of work I have to do during term time, but by taking the same energy and motivation that allows me to survive - even sadistically enjoy - the teaching year, into these last three months of Summer.

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Posted by Alistair at 1:10 pm


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