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Lockdown lessons for the ‘Idle Scholar’

In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, I thought the global lockdown would be a chance for academics to kick back and to lie down and think of England. I was wrong.

The lockdown, instead, has unleashed a torrent of academic hyperactivity. Thanks to online video conferencing platforms, that once safe, meeting-free, haven – the home – is just a soft furnished extension of the workplace.

Not a day goes by without an email popping into my inbox inviting me to some academic-related event like a research webinar. Or there are invites to e-learning Zoom training courses, obviously necessary under the circumstances but they seem endless. And for relaxation we are invited to virtual coffee mornings. It seems the show, called academe, must go on – even with a global pandemic raging and our professional futures in suspended animation.  

The most startling example of this hyperactivity is research. One US-based academic witnessed a productivity scramble as her colleagues strived to make the most of lockdown time. And patently some academics have seized the day, according to data on submissions of articles for review from both scientific and social science journals during March and April. Stay at home, publish, save your career.

This seeming compulsion to keeping the research pipeline running is just a continuation of behaviour endemic in academia prior to the current pandemic. Academics have never been so productive as they are today, with research publications being produced on an industrial scale.

Mass research is abetted by university performance systems, where liberal use is made of carrot flavoured sticks to make sure academics produce research. Not all the blame can be pinned on managers or administrators: we academics are also the architects of our own hyperactivity. There is a competitive status envy gnawing away at the academic conscience. Status envy is not an inevitable psychological tendency or flaw. It’s rather a sign how the psychologies of individual academics are embedded in a competitive labour market.

The pressures to be research active explain a time paradox in academe, as well as the continued research productivity during the COVID lockdown. We academics enjoy a high degree of personal autonomy as employees and yet studies show that we feel under constant pressure of time: the feeling that we have not got enough done or do not have enough time to complete key jobs. What we have is an acceleration of clock time. Ylijoki and Mäntyla’s 2003 study showed how Finnish academics experience this perceived acceleration, where respondents complained about the ‘temporal prison’, or to ‘time screws being tightened’. These time pressures result in working long hours. Or as of now, by academics filling lockdown time by manically trying to complete outstanding work in progress.

To use the lockdown as a research boot camp is an opportunity missed. For we now have a government-mandated, public health necessitated, excuse to get off the research treadmill. And do what? There has to be a more satisfying and meaningful aspiration to that of being a productive researcher. That alternative is idle scholarship. Of course, the term idleness comes with negative baggage – a group of MPs in the pompous sounding Britannia Unchained policy manifesto called the British 'among the worst idlers in the world'.

Not all societies have glorified the work ethic and treated idles with disdain. The Epicurean philosophers and their followers in ancient Athens celebrated idleness as a pleasure. Later in the 1930s renowned British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote an essay in praise of idleness. As the world has become more connected and faster in the twenty-first century, idleness has become fashionable again. Leading the slow charge is British author Tom Hodgkinson, founder of the Idler magazine and the Idler Academy. Hodgkinson embraces idleness as ‘positively beneficial to health and wellbeing’.

The aspiring idle scholar is not going to become the most stellar researcher or possess the ambitious drive needed to be an academic star. But this would-be idler may become a more rounded human being and scholar. I like to think of idle scholarship as a philosophical virtue rather than professional quality – a mild restatement of academic freedom and a life of serial contemplation. But where do you start?

We should first look to the luminaries of the ‘idle academy’ and we should attempt to emulate them. We should learn from those who have not laboured under the vice of compulsive productivity. The mantra here is all about minimalism: why slave away producing scores of ordinary and pretty average publications when you can focus on a smaller body of research that is more creative and potentially more interesting?

One extreme example of this minimalist principle is American philosopher Edmond Gettier. Back in 1963, he was on the faculty at Wayne State University and had published nothing. Under pressure from departmental mangers to cough up a paper or perish, he produced an article titled ‘Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?’ It came in at three pages long – it’s more like two and a half pages. This paper became one of the most cited and influential articles in modern philosophy. Rather than exploit his new found academic fame, Gettier never got round to writing another academic paper. Why? He claims he had ‘nothing more to say’. For proof have a look at Gettier’s selected works – or should that be work – in his Wikipedia entry.

Gettier is to be admired but we shouldn’t equate idling with doing nothing. Ironically it takes effort to be a proper idler. As one journalist for the Financial Times discovered to her surprise, ‘being bone idle during lockdown has proved to be such hard work’. Idleness allows us to indulge in tasks with no instrumental career purpose. The seriously minded idle scholar will enjoy thinking and contemplation rather than doing. Bertrand Russell, in his essay on ‘“Useless” knowledge’, believes thinking is not only of philosophical value but also helps to civilise: ‘A habit of finding pleasure in thought rather than action is a safeguard against unwisdom and excessive love of power, a means of preserving serenity’.

The idle scholar will also prioritise reading rather than writing. The University of Melbourne based cultural expert Christiaan De Beukelaer claims the publication-obsessed world of academic research creates a reading paradox where in our frenzy to write more and more, we read less and less. Beukelaer admits that to read more can be costly: ‘At the risk of tanking my own career, I am trying to listen and read much more. Which means I may publish little in the future, but hopefully just enough’.

And what should be on the idle scholar’s book shelves? The idle scholar will read widely, beyond confines of an academic field, with an intellectual and literary curiosity. Just reading the major journals in your field doesn’t really count as idle scholarship – Sticking to reading the leading articles in your field Melville’s Moby-Dick does.

Sadly, the possibility for idle scholarship seems to belong to another age – another generation of scholars now going to seed. One senior academic wrote the following in his author bio for an edited Oxford handbook:

He looks back upon a time when research-led indolence marked British academic life—and was the better for it. He submitted his first academic article to a journal seven years into a Lectureship which is inconceivable today..."

There is nothing rose tinted about this outlook on the past. It’s a fair, albeit forlorn reflection, on more idyllic – or should that be idle? – times.

Dr Michael Marinetto is a senior lecturer in Public Management at Cardiff Business School, Cardiff University. 

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  1. Nick Taylor-Collins

    Really interesting read. There’s a growing body of scholarship thinking about idleness under the heading of ‘slow’ scholarship. I’m thinking of Thomas Docherty in ‘For the University’ (2011), Barbara K. Seeber and Maggie Berg’s ‘The Slow Professor’ (2016), and Jasmine B. Ulmer’s article ‘Writing Slow Ontology’ (‘Qualitative Inquiry’, 2016). I like all of the ideas, but am petrified (as an early career academic) of not publishing as much as I can …

    • Dear Nick – I understand your fears about publishing. Thanks for the references to other potential writings that are of relevance. My point in this is simple: embed yourself economically in the university (and this will mean coming up with publications from time time) but at the same time distance yourself spiritually. All the best

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