...I'm too busy multitasking

July 8, 2005

A red-faced Maria Misrajust can't seem to finish her new book. And after racking her brain for a reason, she concludes...

Earlier this month, the Sam Johnson prize for non-fiction, for which I was a judge this year, was announced at a dinner in London. The guests formed a checklist of leading popular historians, biographers and travel writers, one of whom sidled up to me afterwards to inquire about the progress of my new book - a publication that is embarrassingly late. My interlocutor went on to reel off his own impressively long list of soon-to-be-published works. Was it possible, he mused, that love of teaching was interfering with my ability to write?

This set me wondering why it seems so difficult to accomplish any serious writing during term time, when, on paper at least, there is sufficient slack in my week to accommodate at least some productive labour.

My teaching and lecturing load is quite high, but not onerously so; graduates need supervision, but are not overly burdensome. Could it be the administrative load that decimates my productivity? The numbers of committee sittings and paper-shuffling tasks are multiplying, but they are far from overwhelming. Is it, perhaps, pastoral care that swallows time? Here, too, demands are increasing but the problem is unpredictability rather than volume. Examining is a major duty in the summer and one much increased by rises in graduate numbers, but it is compressed into a fortnight and cannot be blamed for my lamentable infertility over the entire term.

It would seem, even allowing for my relatively high teaching and administrative load, that I should still have some time for my own work. So why haven't I done any of it? An answer suggested itself after reading about some recent research on the deleterious impact of e-mails on the intellect. Constant checking of and replying to e-mails, it seems, rots the mind faster than cannabis. Frequent users suffer lethargy and lack of focus. The problem, scientists hypothesise, arises from constant bombardment with "context switches" - from the important to the trivial and back again; people lose their ability to distinguish between the two very quickly.

I realise that my productivity problem isn't about an absolute deficit in time, but the sheer diversity of what I do. During term time, even on days free of teaching and administration, I often find myself too mentally exhausted to get into the book. This fatigue evaporates during the "long" vacation - usually when I am away from Oxford altogether.

Clearly, there is a serious contradiction at the heart of modern university life. Academic jobs are strikingly unspecialised, involving routine administration, teaching and pastoral tasks - a phenomenon often approvingly dubbed multitasking. Excellence in writing and research, however, is not about multitasking, it is about submerging oneself in one's subject to achieve concentration, mastery and insight - a process that underlay the original conception of the "ivory tower".

A glance at back issues of The Times Higher suggests that I'm not the only academic being pulled in too many directions. Some have argued that the only solution is to separate teaching and research - a drastic remedy about which I have serious reservations. Those who seek to increase academic productivity by driving up student "through-put" without any compensatory increase in resources need to grasp the consequences of doing so. If things continue, UK academics are less likely to become world-beating masters of the intellectual universe than demoralised jacks of all trades.

Maria Misra is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University.

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