I’ve recently taken up a three year position as an Assistant Lecturer in Medieval History (kind of like a non-tenure-track assistant professorship for those of you in North America). It’s a wonderful, flattering, privileged position to be in, and I’m acutely aware of the many really great medievalists out there who don’t currently enjoy the luxury that is a secure position in academic employment until mid 2016. My recent visit to the UK brought home to me the value and rarity of this opportunity with such force that I’d say it took me at least four weeks until the intense sensation of ‘survivor guilt’, as one good friend put it, receded to background levels. In its wake it left me with a sense that having been given the chance I have a moral obligation to make the best use of it that I can, otherwise it’s not only a waste for me, but also adding insult to injury for those who haven’t the opportunity.

You might think this would be straight forward, but it isn’t. I certainly have lovely students, great colleagues, a nice office with a comfy chair and my name on the door (This point is much more exciting than it should be!), and a more secure income than at almost any other time in my adult life. On the other hand, as many of you already know, a full-time position in a tertiary institution comes with a lot of attendant responsibility: teaching; meetings; emails; more emails; more teaching; more meetings; induction sessions; information sessions; administration; more administration; and more emails. Most of these things are genuinely important. Many of them are individually satisfying. Some of them, in isolation, wouldn’t be too much of a problem to deal with quickly and efficiently. All of them, generally, I engage in with good will and a sense of collegial obligation. The problem is, they can easily develop into a perfect storm that gobbles up all the available hours of the day.

See the Centre for the History of the Book, University of Edinburgh

From the Centre for the History of the Book, University of Edinburgh

Where to put thinking, let alone writing, in all the resulting hurly-burly? After all, a university is a special place for teaching (and learning) because – in theory – the teachers are engaged actively in building the knowledge they are imparting. Certainly in humanities departments we’re not simply delivering information, we’re modelling the art of critical engagement with material. To do that well, I need to be practising it myself, otherwise it’s a grade A case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’. Ironically, this week I had to give a lecture on research skills to a group of undergraduates and I made a particular point of arguing that simply rushing about gathering information, downloading articles, taking notes, and ‘doing’ things, is unimportant if one doesn’t also take the time to process that information intellectually; really to reflect on it, absorb it and evaluate it. In the course of preparing and delivering this lecture, I suddenly realized just how important (and difficult) it is to make the space, and the time, in a busy academic life for this core work of academia to take place.

So this week, when I arrived at my office and for the first time in four weeks had no meetings, tutorials, information sessions, seminars or any other obligation in my calendar, I decided to take radical action. I went off-piste and turned off the computer at the wall. This simple action had a number of intended benefits, and unexpected ones. In the first place, I didn’t have email binging every few minutes, bringing with it that indiscriminate sense of something needing to be done, acted on, responded to, irrespective of its relevance to me or its importance in my life. By turning it off, rather than just closing down email, I was also protected from my own addict’s impulse to seek out the perverse validation that new email can provide of one’s existence, importance, involvement in events. The particular unexpected benefit was the relative quiet that descended in the room. It was as if the hum of the hard-drive’s fan had been subconsciously pressurizing my mind. By turning it off, I made space for thinking to occur. I read a whole chapter of a book, took notes, reflected, and drew an enormous mind-map on my white board (I have my own white board!) for the chapter I’m currently revising. It felt good. I’m going to do that again. I might even try to make it a weekly thing…

Now, how to deal with the irony of programming my online calendar to remind me that it’s a ‘no computer research day’?!