No end of books

The new semester has started rolling in Australia. While the Northern hemisphere is busily gearing up for a new academic year, in the Antipodes we have had a brief break, perhaps punctuated by conferences, before rolling into the second semester. Unit guides have been published, first lectures charted out, and here we are: fresh batches of students and hustle and bustle around the office.

If you’re casually employed, throw in the two or three weeks of sorting out new contracts, orienting yourself to a new set of demands (how much teaching is enough? how much is too much?), dealing with the consequent financial adjustments, and so on.

Now those questions are settled and the classes have begun. Did you get any research done in the meantime? No. Be more specific. How much closer to publication is that article you’re writing? Do you know where you’re sending it? How much more to do?

These things actually move rather slowly in the end. ‘Research’ takes time to set up, execute, digest, and articulate. And that’s not to say anything about how long the damn thing takes to actually appear in print. The secret is to have a steady pipeline of material slowly digesting through the academic publishing beast’s entrails, so that in 18 months time, they’ll see that you were working your ass off.

In the midst of this rolling from one thing to another, and filling all the gaps you can with writing – do we ever get to ask ourselves what the point of this is? There are, after all, no end of books on the subjects we hold dear. What impact are we really going to have? What’s the point of filling a journal’s pages? What gain does it make?

If you happen to be in one of those life-changing areas, like diabetes research, or working to improve how children are taught, sure, there can be some visible impact in reasonably quick time (but still measured in years). I am not taking aim at the humanities here, as some might think. Such a problem isn’t limited to only those disciplines (and, in any case, lots of humanities research has social impact and usefulness). I am not suggesting some utilitarian framework here.

But here and there, we ought to have space to slow the juggernaut and think about where we’re headed, personally and professionally. Is publishing another article actually causing more problems than it solves? Who knows? Your research might benefit from not doing so. But in the performance-oriented culture of the contemporary Australian university, it seems that we don’t have time for this, and even more worrying, to ask such questions seems to be a bit subversive at times. Just a bit. Laugh a little, a trifle nervously, and then get back to your latest submission.



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