Thursday, May 24, 2007

Words and work

• A few days ago, I was writing about Isella, the Sicilian woman who ran our local milk bar for many years; six and a half days a week.

• The same day I read about Bryce Courteney, for a paper I must start writing soon about his medieval novel, Sylvia, and how he writes: "I spend 12 hours a day, six days a week, seven months a year alone in a small room looking at a blank wall where pigeons are pooping. That’s no life, so there has to be a compensation." His compensation? the pleasure of story-telling.

• We currently have builders working on our room and roof upstairs: they arrive on the dot of 7.00 am and work all day till about 3.30 or 4.00. They'll stop to talk if it's really important, but mostly, they just want to keep going. (Yes, they are exceptional builders.)

* We, on the other hand, keep typically loose and floppy academic hours: we often work late at night; some days we work at home, some days at the office; some days, since the builders began their work, I ride into the wonderful State Library. Our work is constantly interrupted by other bits of our work; and also structured by Joel's school hours. We struggle to wake around 7.00 am, and we breakfast, and then I go for my walk when Joel leaves around 8.15, and come back and shower before I think about getting to my desk, or onto my bike.

I collect these stories and images of the way people work. But it's not just about the hours. I've always loved TV dramas about workplaces, too; and thinking about the way people relate, in human terms, with their colleagues. One of the most forceful impressions for me, of being sick, was my engagement with a range of health professionals: they may be experts on our disease, but the patients are the experts when it comes to judging bedside manner or healthcare!

One of the tough things about academic work is that it is hardly ever finished. There is no easy "knock-off time": a book or an article can be years in the making; and no one ever tells you when you've done enough. There is no real end to the amount of preparation you can do for a lecture or tutorial (which is why teaching can be such a trap for graduate students). It's increasingly true that we are told how much we are to produce (in research, I'm supposed to publish an average of 2.5 refereed articles a year, for example); and the Federal Government's RQF will soon help me rank the quality and impact of those publications... Strangely, this is of little consolation. If our new system turns out to be anything like the UK's, we'll all be rushing to finish books by some artificial deadline in five years, or miss the cut till the next deadline, five years later. What this will do to the utterly mysterious way most research and writing in the humanities gets done can barely be imagined.

So much of our work is intuitive. I told Paul the other day I wanted to get a draft of my Garter book finished by the end of the year, and he asked why, fearing I was working to some such artificial deadline. But it's simply that the time feels auspicious; and that the book is starting to find its shape. There's heaps of work to do, yet, and lots of knots and problems to be unravelled first; and I do not think I am working all that efficiently on it at the moment. Yet I somehow trust, after all these years, that my work on this book is finding its own rhythm; that even as I make my way back into my badly filed notes, and consider the huge number of questions without answers, and as I potter around the garden and re-format my bibliography, I am somehow, mysteriously, Back at Work.

1 comment:

Jack said...

Great work, keep it up.....