Honest words / creativity in academia

Title stolen from this song by King Creosote and Jon Hopkins

Coveredinbees 1.0 came about after I’d found out I got PhD funding, back in April 2006. That version now exists only on the wayback machine, hit and miss on what posts it kept. 2.0 ended recently, archived as a a flat website by the awesome folks at webarchitects.

3.0 has moved to WordPress – and has been sitting here quietly judging me for four months. “Why aren’t you writing?”

Looking back to 2006, those early posts are so uninhibited – not necessarily coherent, but I wasn’t afraid to wildly speculate, to not know. Now, something has boa-constrictored all the oxygen out of me. This is true of all my writing, academic as well as here. In a job where publishing is essential to survive, this is not ideal.

So the first job for the new blog: find a way to loosen the constrictor’s grip a little, get some movement back. I suspect another period of wild speculation may be the best medicine. But it’s an eensy bit problematic. I just saw this from Richard Hall:

“It is meaningless for me to separate out my work inside and outside the university from the work I continue to undertake on myself.”

This rings true. I can’t just draw a neat line between “topics” I want to write about and what’s happening in my life, in academia, to academia, out there in meatworld.

I’ve tried to write about this before. It leads to this point, and then I’m not brave enough to post anything. That’s what feels different about this time compared to 2006: I feel unable to be completely honest. And it turns out if I’m not writing honestly, it kills my ability to write stone dead.

Obvious solution: start writing honestly? It might not be advisable. As one PhD guide book (semi-jokingly) says about getting through your viva: “don’t panic and blurt out the truth.” Honesty is maybe a bit like fire: it can thaw you out but might also burn your house down. A carefully calibrated honesty, then? Does that sound entirely honest?

I can outsource some of that honesty: this other postdoc’s lament describes well the situation faced by many.

For myself, though, let’s experiment with some gentle, non-house-burning-down truthiness. I miss the PhD and other times where I’ve been able to immerse myself so deeply I’ve gone a bit mad. While not always good for me, those periods were among the most creative I’ve ever been. (The PhD was building an agent-based model; creativity applies to quant as it does to anything else.) Something happens when you obsess. All levels of your brain get engaged, you come up with things in your sleep, ideas and solutions appear in your mind as if by magic. The subconcious gets fully involved and does some amazing things.

For various reasons, things are now quite different. Most of the time – not all, but most – I feel disconnected from that creative source. I can imagine how that sounds: “snowflake creative type is creatively frustrated by day job, shocker.” Hah. Two things: I need to figure this out to find my writing mojo again. And I also think it’s something essential we’re getting wrong, in how creativity is understood, used, supported.

That word, ‘creativity’. In academia as elsewhere, it’s lionised, recognised as absolutely essential, featured heavily in aspirational leadership quotes. But in practice it’s treated like an eccentric purple-wearing relative, liable to drink brandy and spit in meetings. Productive society would prefer creativity was a battery, something you can transmit from people’s brains at a predictable wattage over power cables, strategically direct from a control room.

I’m not saying creativity needs to be treated like a petulant, spoiled child. It can work absolute wonders within constraints. Deadline panic is a marvelous creative laxative, for instance! The constraints of academic writing structure can be equally creatively fruitful. All types of writing have their own forms and conventions. But it does have to connect. Or rather, if it doesn’t, you will not be getting the best of someone. And in some cases, like mine it seems, their ability to do something as essential as writing may go wrong.

And just to repeat: despite our tendency to assign creativity to non-science/maths subjects, all research needs creativity at its core.

I’ve been very lucky – I had pretty much total creative autonomy for a long while. Compared to most jobs, I do still have a great deal of control over my own day to day activity. My boss is brilliant. (I would say that, he might be reading this!) I don’t think the world owes me a wage just to pursue whatever intellectual whim currently has my attention. I also don’t expect the intrinsic worth of anything I’ve done up to now to somehow magically be apparent.

But. Well… in the occasional moments where my cynical old brain still lets me think utopian thoughts, I imagine a world where everyone gets to follow their deepest creativity, whatever that might be. It’s as essential to research as anything else, and everyone is capable of it. After all, what is research if not finding new shit out, setting out without knowing an exact destination, sometimes mixing ideas with others to make unexpected things, sometimes withdrawing hermit-like for months and emerging pale and unable to form sentences but clutching some new way of looking at things. (I may be romanticising it a little here…)

Other non-utopian options exist. I can carry on doing what so many academics already do: use annual leave and spare time. The recent attack on our pensions has kind of sapped my good will for handing over any more of that – oh, that’s how much we’re valued, is it? – but we’ll see. One could also imagine a world where academia gave people a Google-style 20% for their own projects. Famously, many of Google’s best products resulted from that. I wonder how many academics actually get more than 20% of their work hours for research though (not just what’s allocated in their work models)? Probably not that many. Having large enough swathes of time to dive deep? Maybe that’s impossible. (And perhaps not even healthy!)

Or it may be my frustration is deeper than that. Maybe there’s no merit in returning to old ideas – sunk cost fallacy and all that. It might be best just to grieve for them a little and move on. Maybe a radical change of direction would be best.

I’ll leave all that for future posts. As academics, we naturally look to theory to frame our own experience (see e.g. the Richard Hall link above – am I alienated from my own academic labour?) But making too strong a connection between myself and the structures around me feels a little forced, inorganic. This feels visceral, not theoretical. I’m hoping that will guide me as I attempt to write.

I’ll try to be as truthful as I can, a little bit at a time, and see where that goes. I might tic-toc between navel-gazing and writing about substantive topics. That fresh new 2006 blog – I’d like to have another writing period like that please.

This will all be as hideously self-indulgent as it sounds. But the prime directive needs to be: “post the ****ing thing”. Risk making an idiot of myself but write. The alternative – never writing anything – is unthinkable. But look, I wrote something! Honesty working so far then.

I am hoping nothing is ever really lost. As I try to get started on the new blog, this from Dougald is a fine way to end the first post:

If there’s work that you’re meant to be doing, then it won’t leave you alone. It will come looking for you – and if you’re not ready the first time, it often comes around again, in new forms, rooted in what you’ve learned in the meantime.