Yesterday I was out of town to visit Winchester University. Colleagues from the Arts Faculty there invited me to come and talk to them about my work on the social impact of the arts and cultural value. It was nice to present to a group of Humanities researchers and teachers from a range of disciplines. Winchester has an interesting department of theatre and performance and a centre for arts in well-being, so there were also practicing artists among the crowd. My presentation was entitled ‘The transformative powers of the arts: the policy perspective’ and we had a really lively and interesting post-talk debate. I had great fun and indeed, I will try and blog about my presentation when my brain feels a little less tired (it’s been an intense week!). So, leaving aside the actual content of my talk for another time, I want to record here some thoughts on whether a day out at the busiest time of the year is foolishness or essential intellectual nourishment for a researcher.
If you are an academic, you are probably familiar with that behavioural pattern whereby you receive an invitation for a talk, presentation, seminar, etc. a few months in advance, and it all sounds so interesting that you – of course! – accept and genuinely look forward to the day. Then months pass, typically term starts and marking comes in, and eventually the date of the event you have committed to also comes. And then you start wondering what on earth made you think it’d be a good idea to take on such a commitment during term time: you need to prepare slides and plan a 45 minute talk, you have to plan a trip to a different part of the country, you need to actually get there, do the gig and travel back home, so the whole thing is going to write off a whole day of your working week. At a time when there are more deadlines to meet than hours in the day.
Inevitably, you end up regretting the whole thing, dreading the time on the train, the hassle of having to leave extra early to find a parking space at reasonable distance from the train station. You end up having to stay up very late to work on the slides, and then spend the whole journey completely redesigning the presentation on your laptop… Well, that is at least what I seem to do. Every time. Then, I arrive at destination. I am met by the colleague who has invited me. I ask about the work they do. I find out there are lots of interesting things they work on at Winchester. I meet their students. I meet the colleagues that teach them. I meet some colleagues working in areas very close to mine, and I meet others who work in completely different areas. My heart is warmed by the fact that they have decided to spend two hours of their life engaging with my work because it sounded interesting to them.
Then I finally load up the presentation I have been battling with all morning, and I start talking about my work. I try and explain how I got into researching the idea that arts can transform people and society and the place that this belief has in shaping cultural policies. I start arguing that my intention was to demonstrate that the Humanities have a contribution to make to policy sensitive research. I talk about things I have been thinking and writing about for the past six years. My audience nods, some smile. My colleagues look engaged. And all of a sudden I don’t care that I’ll have to work late for the rest of the week to make up for the day of the week ‘lost’ travelling the country. I don’t mind as much that I’ll have to get up at the crack of dawn to get my toddler sorted out for the day and still make an early morning ‘PGR student number planning meeting’ the thought of which is enough to make me want to die a little. It all doesn’t matter because I’m reminded of why I love my job so much. I rediscover the old enthusiasm for thinking about complex problems and for sharing my ideas with an intelligent and sympathetic audience. I remember that it is a privilege that I am allowed to make a living by using my brain and cultivating my own thinking on matters that I am passionate about.
The questions and debate that follow my talk make me think of my work in a different way. My mind is buzzing with ideas – for papers, for new projects, for new areas of teaching. I hop on my train back home feeling energised and exhilarated. I don’t mind so much the pile of marking that awaits me next week. I don’t mind so much the early morning meeting (ok, I lie, I still do, but I’m no longer quite so bitter about it). Even the emails and the admin that await me at home don’t feel quite as taxing as they usually do. Because I’m in love with my job all over again. And what seemed a day lost to work feels now like the best possible way to spend a Wednesday.