I’m in the midst of writing a long overdue journal article, and, with the start of teaching looming ominously over me, I’m starting to feel the need for a metaphorical communion wafer to stick to my forehead. If that sounds odd, let me explain: my man Maturin was famously supposed to have fixed communion wafers to himself when he was writing in order to warn his family not to disturb him. Part of a myth of Maturin? Possibly, though Maturin certainly was well known for his histrionic eccentricities. Whatever the case, I’m very drawn to the idea of a specific sign that both attests to my concerted effort – no matter how much it might look like I’m simply dossing or staring off into space – and cautions colleagues against approaching me with unrelated work.
I’ve particularly felt the need for such a charm in the past few weeks. After attending an information session for the European Research Council’s new Starting Grants – mentioned in my recommendations for this month – I felt a growing sense of panic. On the one hand, I wondered, how could I not apply for such a significant amount of money and, perhaps more importantly, five more years of lucrative academic employment? On the other hand, when was I going to find the time to prepare such an application, especially when the instructions alone amount to a dizzying number of pages? As the wheels turned frantically in my head – how could I frame the project I had in mind in such a way as to make it more ERC friendly? Who could I contact to help me with my application? Was there anybody (preferably more senior) with whom I could forge a connection that would make the project more attractive? – I consulted a wise friend who has a habit of speaking reason to me in my (not infrequent) bouts of work-related panic. He saw the benefit of pursuing the ERC grant on top of my other commitments – teaching, conference organization, edited collection compilation, book writing, etc. Such activity is, after all, how one makes a career, he said. Nevertheless, he suggested, perhaps I should just put my head down and concentrate on the work at hand, rather than run after ‘the next big thing’. In turn, I worried that without such frenetic activity, the next big thing – the contract or position to maintain me once this fellowship is over – would forever elude me. My friend’s response was indicative of the ways in which the core of academic endeavour – research and writing – has become an incredible luxury even as its value has ratcheted further and further up in an environment of budget cuts, hiring freezes, and rigorous research assessment exercises. What we need, my friend told me, is precisely that which has become an increasingly precious commodity in the academic world – time to think.
Of course, I have more time to think than most, right? I’m in a postdoctoral fellowship designed to allow early career researchers the space and time to complete the work necessary to ensure further progress in academia. Yet, while I certainly appreciate the opportunities afforded by the fellowship, the fact is, there’s no security in a short-term contract. By nature, such contracts demand constant vigilance, continual scouting out of job opportunities, constant tweaking and adding to the cv, the writing of seemingly endless applications. It gets to the point, in fact, where the act of finding a job becomes a job in and of itself! And, that’s not even to mention teaching, progress reports, conference attendance and organization, etc. Somewhere, some time, something has to give, but, until then, it seems, we’re asked to perform incredible feats of endurance and accomplishment: yet another job application, yet another funding bid, yet another monograph proposal, yet another class to teach, etc., with the tantalizing if elusive and by no means guaranteed reward, of course, being that holy grail of academic achievement – a permanent post. It’s enough to get even the heartiest, most optimistic soul down. The only answer I’ve found is to keep plugging away, hoping for the best, and methodically carving out the time to think, research and write. Bring on the communion wafers, I say!