Accelerated learning

May 23, 2013

“Art is long, life is short,” goes the old saying. Scholarship and scientific research suffer much the same condition. They are long. But art, scholarship and scientific research no longer struggle against the shortness of life: most of us will live into our eighties. The problem is speed. Art, scholarship and research are long but life is quick. And it is getting quicker.

Half an hour into my day I have already reviewed half a dozen emails, noted the “notifications” on my Facebook account, scouted the news headlines from five different websites from three different countries, read a few opinion pieces in The Guardian and The New York Times, checked the latest baseball scores in San Francisco and searched an item or two on Wikipedia. The next half-hour will be more of the same.

So much is going on, and so quickly, in so many different places: for me, for you, for people we know, for people we don’t know, for people whose lives we can’t even imagine, but about whom journalists, bloggers and tweeters are desperate to get us to worry. And of course, with so much going on, one wants to intervene. Here is my opinion, or insult, with a click of a button immortalised in cyberspace.

Meanwhile, it still takes me a couple of months to write a 9,000-word article for publication in a refereed journal. It still takes months for the journal to respond. The inevitable revision stage occupies another few months. And then, when the article is accepted, I may find out that it won’t be published for another two years. And that’s a 15-page article. Don’t even ask me how long it takes to get a book written, revised and published.

I am not saying that this is wrong. I help to edit a journal myself and review manuscripts, and that’s how it goes. Art is long, etc. I am only saying that it is frustrating.

And it makes me worried - not for art, etc, but for everything else. The world seems to be whizzing by faster than we can think about it. And all of us can feel the urge to do something about this ever-whizzing before it’s too late: before capitalism collapses, or socialism, or the world climate, or higher education, or the San Francisco Giants. We feel the urge - but we are teaching poems that are maybe 300 years old, or theories still ruling our disciplines that were devised before the invention of television, not to mention Google Glass. And we are taking years to get our thoughts in order, to ripen our understanding, or to get a 15-page article written and published.

On the other side of the coin, there is managerial and political churn: change for the sake of change, new ideas for the sake of new ideas, publications for the sake of publications (aka the research excellence framework and its ilk) and all of it NOW - that’s what we constantly hear about from our managers, experts, journalists, bloggers and politicians. Excuse me. I was about to finish a thought but I just heard an alert on my iPhone. I have to hurry off.

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