PLATE-SPINNING (MY CIRCUS ACT, OR THE UNIVERSITY AS A CIRCUS)

I was head of department for a brief stint (2005-8), a hectic time that left me with the perfect metaphor for what we, academics, do: plate-spinning. Recall the stereotypical Chinese circus artist, keeping a dozen plates furiously spinning: that’s us. Preparing and marking exercises, writing paperwork, preparing and teaching and classes, answering email (lots of…), seeing visitors at office hours, making appointments, organising and attending conferences, reading dissertations… and that’s just a typical day. Today for instance has already had a little of all this, much of it through email – and it’s only 14:00. Writing this blog entry feels actually like a break.

I realise now that doctoral students writing their PhD dissertations are immensely privileged as they can claim priority for their research, which we, tenured teachers, cannot do. This week, for instance, I need to decide whether to spend Friday marking exams or working at the library on a conference paper. Whatever is not done on Friday will have to be done on Saturday, so my guess is that the exams will take part of my weekend (either that or work during my Easter… holidays?). Then, just yesterday, I got a 400 page dissertation by one of my doctoral students; I am already reading another one sitting on my table… The problem with the plates is not just that they must be kept spinning but that unexpected ones keep falling from the sky…

What about my writing, I wonder? I do write, of course, but almost always to a deadline (conference, collective volume…). What is fast disappearing from my life as a researcher is the free-choice article, the one you embark on just because you need to say something in particular that some journal might pick up. I don’t know how I managed to write one last autumn… The one I want to write this semester is not even at the stage of basic bibliographical research. As for books, I have no idea how I have managed to publish a few, for the one I’ve been working on for the last three years has been actually on stand-by for one and a half. Maybe I need an academic wife, that’s some thought for a feminist…

I blame Oxbridge novels and films, though I couldn’t name one in particular, for the very wrong view of academic life as a peaceful, sedate oasis of intellectual cultivation. I don’t seem to find the peace and as for the cultivation… Perhaps I’m just getting old and losing the capacity to sacrifice more of my so-called free time to my job, or maybe I just can’t cope with so many plates.

End of the break…

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