Steal my sunshine – 15 August

Writing in the summer is what we’re supposed to be doing as academics. This entry started on a quiet train plodding into Devon, I type into my laptop but these words are not for the book proposal or grant application I am supposed to be writing. Nevertheless, it seems best to begin with some kind of beginning. Mine is not particularly original. I have been bothered by a number of things over this summer that more-or-less boil down to feeling the passage of time. Our eldest child begins school in September. I am no longer, by ‘official’ measures, ‘Early Career’. I have been given a little more responsibility in my department.

I have been reading Les Back’s Academic Diary and it provides an impetus for me to mark this passing of time. This will be my own, more modest, occasional academic journal – (I hope) not for pretentious reasons, for self-promotion and so on. Rather my motivation is because I think writing (for me) is like a muscle and it needs to be exercised. Just as my physical attempts at exercise are poor and I am trying to address that, I also feel the need to create a habit of writing again. I sincerely hope I can both stick to this and get better at doing it. It is a form of learning-by-doing. Ultimately, I want to write this. I want to because I love my job and academia, in spite of it’s (or ‘our’) weirdnesses.

As Les Back wonderfully evokes in his book, academic work-life is seasonal. It has a rhythm. I think I have come to understand that I am instituionalised in that way, as I suspect many if not all academics are, and I actually like it. Being habituated can do funny things though. There is, perhaps, a habit amongst many of us to bond and to mark the progress of the year through moaning. Each season has its moans. The unspoken custom of academia is the expectation that the answer to “how are you doing?” is some form of (perhaps affected) more-or-less harmless seasonal moan or simply an exclamation: “I’m surviving!”. The summer marks, amongst the relief or trial (depending on your circumstances) of holidays and other things, the inflated expectations of productivity, with the self-delusional and overly-optimistic targets for writing, institutional anxieties about the National Student Survey, and the half-remembered, yet increasing, administrative responsibilities of deferred or referred assessments.

The summer rolls from heatwave into drizzle and the peculiar anxieties of the season – of exhaustion following the exam season, of the shift in pattern to (mostly) lone working, of the perceived urgency to write for publication. In July the bittersweet culmination of the formal academic year is graduation. The institution lavishes praise and prosecco on students and their expectant, hopefully proud, parents. Caps are ceremonially doffed, prizes are awarded, genial if awkward conversations with parents ensue and another cohort leaves. Unlike Back, it seems my institution has few first-in-the-family graduates. So far I have attended graduation only once, for various reasons – mostly childcare. It amazes me though how little we appear to know our departing graduates, aside from the alarming number of mental health issues – and this is a very partial picture. Perhaps this is a condition of scale, of larger group sizes. Perhaps it concerns the ways we now negotiate the lecturer-student relationship. It saddens me though.

Like many, in August my mind turns to the rapid approach of a fixture of the British academic geographers’ calendar – the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) annual conference. The promise, or hope, of encountering new ideas, finding inspiration and testing out the ideas that you have been working with – whether it be all year or for the fortnight running up to the conference. It is the opportunity to catch-up with friends old and new, to forge new links and alliances and to negotiate the peculiarities of intellectual (and other) disagreements or rivalries (knowingly or not). I have grown to enjoy this annual event but only relatively recently. As Malcolm Bradbury wrote of his protagonist in Eating People in Wrong: “Not too many years behind [me are] the wet and lonely days of postgraduate research”. When I was an ‘early career’ academic, from PhD into ‘proper job’, conferences were a source of anxiety and severe self-doubt. More words are needed than I can devote here, a topic for another entry perhaps.

As August wanes, post-16 exam results* mark the climax of the ‘silly season’, with the associated pictures of young women jumping in the air clutching pieces of paper, and the rehearsal of arguments about the ‘dumbing down’ of further education and the perceived (mostly financial) value (or not) of a degree. The institutional marketing apparatus bursts into a frenetic period of action and we lurch towards term with the momentum of a heavy vehicle that once going is tremendously hard to stop.

The rhythm begins to shift. Self-determined schedules give way to institutional timetables – even in advance of official term-time. For me, the RGS-IBG conference marks the end of summer. My attention turns (even more) to teaching. Like many colleagues, I must surpress a sigh as non-academic friends persist in the misconception that I have had three months off and must be marvellously rested. In the cooling air and faintly lengthening shadows, term awaits with new beginnings for staff and students alike.

* In the UK we have exams at 16 (GCSEs) and at 18 –’A levels’ mostly-upon which offers of university places are more-or-less conditional.

Steal my sunshine – Len

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