An energetic quantum leap

April 2, 1999

The pace of life has quickened up so much that Sheldon Rothblatt asks how academics will cope next century

The ultimate Don's Diary belongs to Joseph Romilly, an Anglican clergyman and registrary of the University of Cambridge from 1832 to 1861. He arranged, indexed and annotated university records dating back hundreds of years.

His greatest claims to fame are his 41 notebooks and diaries from 1818 to 1864. Although a fellow of Trinity College, Romilly's duties as registrary did not include teaching or scholarship, but his diaries shed light on that past world. Enjoined to celibacy by the statutes of his college, he never tied the marital knot; but marriage would not have altered the routines of an academic gentleman of Romilly's generation.

To sample May 1832 when the Great Reform Bill was going through parliament, Romilly swore in scholars, played whist and talked politics. He flirted with a certain "Miss A. Maria" and observed at the same time that "Mrs Charles is very old, very ugly, & wears white feathers".

He drew up a BA list, attended or missed sermons, christened one child and named another, held conversations with doctors who described a procedure for nose surgery and dined in Hall with a "dull American (named Worcester)". His cash expenses for May occupied a page. He gave money to beggars (one an Irishman) and to Mrs Dodd's drunken husband, bought lavender water, had his hair cut and paid for a concert ticket. All of these mundane recordings were interspersed with whoops of joy on hearing of the happy transit of the Reform Bill.

Romilly's life, full and pleasant, was hardly the Don's Diary displayed in the columns of The THES. One of the more distinguishing features of academic professionalism towards the end of the millennium is a display of madcap energy in the pursuit of a schedule that would have stopped the amiable Romilly in his tracks.

A working week of 60 hours plus is common as dons race from classroom to library to laboratory, to another campus or abroad, attending meetings of their department, administration, profession or trade union.

Mentoring, unknown a generation ago, has been introduced into many United States universities to help junior staff. In Britain teaching and research exercises and ever-changing financial policies produce fuss, bother and instability. Administrative structures, curricular decisions and fiscal arrangements change to meet the needs of students from differing social backgrounds.

For some there are consulting opportunities, for others media appearances, visiting appointments, interminable committee assignments, as well as the responsibilities of a domestic life of which Romilly and the dons of his day were more or less relieved.

Romilly's world was no arcadia. From the diaries and biographies of other 19th-century academic worthies we learn of clouded marital relationships and career disappointments resulting in migraine headaches and assorted neurasthenic complaints.

The availability of leisure meant additional time for exploring personal deficiencies. The antidote was more work, thought some social commentators. But others, unaccustomed to a faster pace, thought the remedy was worse than the malady.

Energy levels, even among professionals, are obviously much higher today because of healthier diets, medical science and exercise. Pills mitigate the effects of jet lag and the poor circulation of air during flights. Then there is the mental or emotional change, a willingness to work hard in the belief that the multiple reward systems of professional life will produce career and recognition.

Divorce is up, but larger social causes account for that. Institutional loyalties are often questioned by critics, but usually without sensitivity either to the transformations occurring in professional career standards or campus pressures. Frequent travel and other external commitments make the scheduling of meetings, examinations and lecture hours a nightmare. (Oddly, even the likable Romilly was criticised by colleagues for often being away from Cambridge.) The rapidly changing work environments of European and American universities may well contain problems that show up with greater force in the coming century. The spread of computer technology, as with any novel technology, produces its own difficulties, leading to opportunity costs and further pressure on the hours of the working day.

Software innovations notoriously tax the skills of users, requiring the assistance of technical staff, often equally baffled by on-screen messages. The continuing rearrangement of scholarly priorities because of the demands of market and revenue has already altered the distribution of salary and benefits.

A recent survey by the Associated New American Colleges, a consortium of mostly private colleges and universities, hints at discontent at time spent in campus governance, insufficient career recognition, part-time and short-term teaching contracts that lead to frantic efforts to combine jobs and family. There is a brain drain of marketable professors attracted by outside working conditions and compensation.

Time is in short supply in today's academic worlds. Is the solution better time-management? If academic productivity is still primitive by certain measures (the numbers of students taught and degrees awarded are often meant), one problem for the next century is discovering the secret of how to make yet another quantum leap in the mysterious history of personal energy. What should we be eating?

Sheldon Rothblatt is professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, and STINT professor of history at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.

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