Vita nova (iterum)
My garden and this blog are uniting in a complaint against me: I have failed, they say, to attend to them. I have left them unloved. The garden points to the bindweed and the brambles which are competing for dominance and harangues me with how I have let it become unkempt and overgrown. ‘Overgrown?’ interjects the site, ‘if only anything had grown here, apart for the number of days when he has ignored me’. This site is like a ghost-town, its posts delapidated tenements lining abandoned streets.
They are right: I plead guilty on both counts. My mitigating circumstances may not impress them but for the past few weeks I have been preparing for this, the first day of my new life.
Three years ago today I started a fixed-term contract as Lecturer in History at the University of Essex. That contract ended last night. The Department had talked of their good will towards me and their hope there would be a way for me to stay but, as it turned out, my research — too many books — does not fit their strategic needs. ‘Too many books’ is perhaps also what my long-suffering wife thinks as she sees the piles of spines return from my office (plus interest, in the form of those I was sent in the interim and, yes, some I bought) to overcrowd our house, overflowing nearly into the garden. Perhaps, there is a solution: cut down the weeds and build a labyrinthine library in its place.
My association with Essex is not completely at an end — they have given me the honour of being an Honorary Lecturer — but I will not be making the weekly commute from Oxford to Colchester. That I will not miss, even though I found it useful time to prepare lectures and keep on top of administration. What I will miss is the friendly department, with its excellent administrative team, as well as warm-hearted colleagues elsewhere on campus, both in academic and support sections, and, perhaps most of all (though it is unfashionable to say this), the teaching. All that and, I suppose, the pay-cheques and the pension contributions — but if I had been travelling to work simply to ensure the money came in, it would have been time to leave anyway.
And Essex has changed me. First of all, it has made me more theoretically conversant. Before I started in a department which can be proud of its radical tradition, the one theoretical writer I truly respected was Michel de Certeau. That has not diminishted; I still have not learnt to love Foucault (though reading him in the original, I now realise, helps) and I am not persuaded by much of what I have read by Bourdieu. I do welcome the challenge of Bruno LaTour but, like many, finding a way to apply it coherently to my work remains problematic. With several of these, however, I would not have engaged as fully if teaching had not demanded it and if I had not been in an environment which respected the tradition with which they engage. I now realise that my empirical Oxford training had made me underestimate the continuing Marxist legacy. It has not made me more sympathetic to it — it remains too reductive to me — but the richness of the world of marxisant thinking is something I can no longer avoid, or would want to avoid.
More than that, what Essex did to me as a person — and for this I am grateful — is that it released my inner workaholic. Soon after I started, I ended my double life; that is, I stood down as a city councillor. I do not think I had appreciated how many hours it took, even when I was a backbencher. ‘What will you do with all that spare time?’ my constituents said to me — as if there were to be any. Instead, those hours were sucked into my life of teaching and research and I begin a new double life. I would spend half the week in Colchester and work twelve-hour days to ensure I was on top of the requirements of teaching and administration. I would return home and expect to do an equal amount in preparation and my own research. It was, I admit, a recipe for schizophrenia and debilitating exhaustion but, I also admit, I relished it.
What has also happened is that the demands of a university concerned about league tables and thus about ranking in exercises like the REF has affected how I work. It has made me more strategic, which perhaps is a euphemism for more brutal, prioritising and thus dispensing with other commitments. This is a skill which, in my experience, many academics, as decent human beings who do not want to say ‘no’ to colleagues, find difficult to master. A skill it is, though I cannot help thinking that it is often misdirected. For many in post in universities, it has to be used in service of the REF, or of an assumption of how the REF will be that is yet more draconian and intellectually bankrupt than the system itself — and a system which defines research only as research when it has been disseminated as the written word, and expects that research to be churned out on a five-year cycle is one which a future generation will look back upon and wonder: how could they do so damage to their intellectual credibility? How could they commit themselves to such ill-advised and over-hasty publication? It was, then, with some sense of liberation that I spent some of this summer writing a 9,000 article for a collection of essays to be published by OUP – something which I would have been told, because it was too short and not for a journal, would not be valid to be considered for ‘research excellence’.
Yet, the workaholism and the prioritising have left their trace, most evident in the decrease of posts I have placed on this site. I have found it difficult to justify to myself, let alone anyone else, what I am achieving by sharing thoughts in this format. This post, then, is my apology to this website.
What happens now? My new life begins but it is also a return to an old life, pre-Essex, in which I balanced research, often travelling abroad, with some teaching in Oxford (not as much as I would like) and some administrative duties. I actually enjoyed that existence, even if it did not provide for my retirement (who wants to retire?). I return to it a little older, a little balder (but not so bold, perhaps) and hopefully a little wiser. And next? The only promise I will make is that you will read about it here first.