What is your most important job as an academic researcher in the arts? Is it reading? Or is it writing? And really that means publishing, right? It must mean the latter since when you give a report at the end of a study leave, it usually just has to detail what you have produced and not what you’ve actually researched. But there’s an aspect of research that I’ve left out and which I think is absolutely crucial in the creative process. And that is conversation. All my instincts on entering academia were that sitting around talking is a waste of time and should be avoided. Gradually I came round to the realisation that it’s what it should all be about.
It wasn’t an easy learning process. At my first conferences, the most striking feature was the capacity for philosophical discussion of the other attendees. I was still quite shy and not confident of my position or arguments, so I held back, but I could see deeply engaged conversations going on all around me about very detailed points of philosophy. I guess we’ve all seen two conference delegates engaged in a serious discussion in the bar late at night and gone to bed only to find the same two continuing the same discussion the next morning over breakfast.
I did my Masters and then PhD at the University of Leeds in the early 90s. I was the only Masters student enrolled that year but there was an interesting postgraduate community. The physical space of the philosophy department at Leeds was ideal for nurturing conversation. There was a central foyer with seating and the academic offices around the edges. Many a philosophical discussion occurred in that area and, even though I wasn’t one of the most vocal, I would often listen in to what was said. I now think of it as a magical time. Staff, postgraduates and undergraduates would all be involved. Leeds had some particular philosophical preoccupations back then and it all rubbed off on me. I believe the foyer space is still there.
Decades later, I am one of those who can talk for hours about philosophy. And I do so guilt-free since I see completely that this is how intellectual progress is won. It takes time, of course, and sometimes a lot of it, but I also understand that it is the most valuable use of my time, as a researcher. I sometimes meet younger academics who, like me, wonder whether talking is real work. I’m pretty confident that as they progress they will recognise that it was and will treasure some of the conversations they’ve had along the way. One pointer I’d give is to make sure you capture the gains that discussions produce. Keep a journal and make notes afterwards, if you’ve found something particularly interesting, intriguing, promising and literally noteworthy.
When I was Head of Humanities at Nottingham it was decided that we would have a new building for the whole school, which had previously been dispersed around campus. Few academics want the disruption of moving offices so the project was unpopular from the start. As Head, I had a small role in approving the building plans and one thing I was very keen on was having some open plan social space. There had to be individual offices for staff as well but I was keen on recreating for others the conducive space from which I had benefitted at Leeds. I’m pleased to say that it’s now there and I used to get a glow of satisfaction every time I saw colleagues sat talking on the sofas. They were talking the talk and what could be more useful than that?