I never managed to write a pre-Christmas post this year. You can probably see why. According to the New Year’s Resolutions I see anxiously discussed by friends and colleagues, I’m not alone. Christmas is a disorienting time to be a woman academic. Our analogues in the Biblical texts are the Magi: old men poring over the stars and consulting prophecies, who nevertheless manage to miss the deadline everyone else met, to blab angelic unpublished material to a rival research unit, and to bring the most impractical and tediously symbolic gifts ever to grace a newborn’s crib. T. S. Eliot’s Wise Men speak in an absurd echo of Four Yorkshiremen Do Christmas, moaning with would-be stoicism ‘A cold coming we had of it/Just the worst time of the year … And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory‘. Like pampered dwellers in the Ivory Tower, they soon let slip the perks of their lifestyle (‘the summer palaces on slopes, the terraces/ And the silken girls bringing sherbet‘).
I’d like to imagine it’s only Magi – or perhaps senior professors – who presume they deserve a research lifestyle smoothed around the edges by the silent attentions of feminine bringers of drinks (and, presumably, preparers of astrolabes and wrappers of boxes of myrrh). But there’s a wider academic culture that functions on these expectations. You see it at conferences, in senior common rooms, in libraries. Sitting in Newnham Senior Common Room the other week, I overheard the tail-end of a conversation between two (youngish) men. As one made to pick up his cup and return it to the tray, the other casually instructed him ‘you don’t need to do that’ – even though a female colleague was, just then, doing exactly that piece of clearing up. After all, some unobtrusive non-academic person would soon pop by, with fresh coffee, to tidy the papers and pick up cups left on various surfaces.
The entitlement of this little episode, which casually presumes that someone else will do the clearing so long as we do the hard thinking, makes me rather uncomfortable with the trappings of academia. It also makes me think again about the reasons why hard thinking has become synonymous with freeing oneself from distractions. I have seen several articles recently that claim, approvingly, that good researchers are those who stick at a problem longer than everyone else, who become single-minded in pursuit of an answer. This concentration is, obviously, an awful lot easier with a certain kind of freedom from other obligations. The pram in the hall is the enemy of promise, Cyril Connolly helpfully claimed; Virginia Woolf equally helpfully suggested that a women needs ‘a room of one’s own’. I would find these quotations less annoying had I heard them less frequently over the last few months.
I think that, especially for women writers and academics, the rhetoric of freedom from distractions has been internalised, and has turned in on itself as a means of self-flagellation. We express guilty regret for insufficient productivity and efficiency, for too many hours spent in procrastination, too many dead-end tasks, too few publications. We need to be more focussed, more single-minded, more concentrated, say my friends and (mostly female …) colleagues. As we balk at leaving the coffee cups on the table, we tell ourselves we need to stamp down on the day-dreaming and the wasted time. While we meet with upset students or respond to distressed colleagues or pick up crying babies, we resolve to be less easily distracted.
I kept telling myself these things too, as I wondered why I hadn’t written as many papers as I believe I ought to have done. I sat down to work out where the year went. In March this year, my daughter was born. I submitted and received the contract for my first book (forthcoming from Boydell and Brewer). I had my first article accepted (forthcoming in The Chaucer Review in April 2018). I wrote and submitted my second article (Postmedieval). I organised a series conference sessions with Emma Bérat for our project on Women’s Strategies of Memory at Leeds IMC 2018. I started a new job at Newnham College as affiliated lecturer and Director of Studies while my lovely colleague is off on maternity leave, and I found a home for a third paper in an edited collection put together by the fabulous Carissa Harris, Liza Strakhov and Sarah Baechle. Before we quite get to the end of 2017, I’d like to finish writing my paper for the Gender and Medieval Studies conference in early January.
This past term, my partner went back to work 3.5 days a week. I had 12 hours teaching for my first and second-year medievalists at Newnham and Murray Edwards, which fitted into the remaining 1.5 days she was at home with the baby. My marking (22 essays, so around another 11 hours), teaching prep, admin, and all of my own writing and research, happened around the baby. She learned to stand up grabbing onto the chairs in my office, and babbled through a lot of phone meetings with the Senior Tutor in one especially fraught week. Midway through term, in November, I had surgery to remove a 20cm cyst in my ovary, and after term ended, I came back for another week of admissions interviews (and felt devoutly thankful that my colleague, the other Newnham DoS, was doing most of the admin!).
During this past term, I followed my friend Rachel Moss’s posts (here and here) as she movingly and thoughtfully discussed the ways in which our bodies and our physical circumstances shape our academic work. Her posts made me gratefully aware of how lucky I am, but also made me think about my own changing ways of being productive. In a sense, being very busy with a baby seems to be a highly concentrated state of thinking. You have no option but to focus on one strand of thought. You don’t have time to daydream. It looks awfully like what high-achieving scholars piously claim is the ideal … only, funnily enough, it doesn’t quite feel as stimulating and efficient as they suggest.
Big, speculative tangents that take you from Chaucer to the Heroides to the Middle English Dictionary to Bourdieu aren’t going to happen if the second priority in your mind is always ‘can I pin this paragraph down before the baby crawls off the edge of the sofa?’ Like the Dreamer in Pearl, more elusively rounded thoughts tended to slip through my fingers ‘from grass to ground,’ and get lost.
I thought, wistfully, about the way in which medieval dream-visions operate on multiple levels, constantly throwing up speculative possibilities and inviting us to fellow tangents and digress down unexpected paths. I thought about St Augustine, calmly dissecting the processes of his own memory as he ponders the experience of reciting a psalm, all the while conscious of the remarkable way the text winds itself through the reciting mind from anticipation to memory. I thought, and I began to doubt, somewhat, that what these ideal academics are doing when they free themselves from distractions really is single-minded, concentrated thinking.
I am not suggesting we should all equip ourselves with climbing babies, still less that we should be martyrishly positive in the face of unethically busy workloads or crises with student mental health, or (god forbid) our own health issues. But I would like to see a version of academia in which we could take the time to consider how these things shape our thoughts, where we could acknowledge that being single-minded and concentrated is, in fact, a poor way of thinking. Perhaps if the Magi had bothered to make the sherbet themselves, the break from star-charts might have stimulated a new approach to a problem. Perhaps they would have arrived on time. Perhaps if the men in Newnham Common Room had picked up their coffee cups for themselves, they would have found themselves chatting (as I have) with a chance-met colleague who offered a completely unexpected new perspective on a piece of work.
Speculative, open-ended, seemingly ‘trivial’ conversations led to some of the work I’m most excited to be settling down to for the next year. Many of these conversations were ‘distractions’ from work – chats about babies and health issues, jokes about fertility clinics or surgical wards. But they turned into serious thoughts about how the printing press changed the available ways for thinking about (queer) reproductivity, about how Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women is interested in the sterility of inherited Classical narratives; about how the pardon Langland’s Piers Plowman rips in fury is, in a sense, also the textual body of the infant Christ, both mutilated and brought to birth.
My New Year’s Resolution won’t therefore be to be more productive or more driven – but to celebrate the speculative, thoughtful, unfocussed moments we need to value more in our own work and in each other.