There is a fair chance that as you read this article you will be eating lunch at your desk. Or perhaps you didn’t have time today to eat at all.
This, you might think, is simply the everyday reality of life in the modern university. But an analysis of individuals’ working routines suggests that “academic hunger” plays a significant role in forming their impressions of what it means to be a scholar today.
As part of the Sharing Practice project conducted by the University of Kent, academics across the UK were invited to keep a diary of their activities on the 15th day of each month over the course of a year.
Sally Fincher, professor of computing education at Kent, studied the responses with PhD student Sebastian Dziallas and was struck by how many academics described eating at their desk, or skipping lunch altogether, because they were too busy to take a break. Participants were not specifically asked to provide information about food, but of the 1,454 diary entries collected from 249 participants, 864 – nearly 60 per cent – mentioned it in some form.
“This is not [just] one person, or strange,” said Professor Fincher, giving a paper at the annual conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education. “This is happening again and again.”
Academics were not merely opting to skip lunch because they were busy, Professor Fincher said. She highlighted several cases of “institutional collusion”, in which departments had scheduled meetings directly over lunchtime, leaving staff with no chance to have a proper meal.
But Professor Fincher argued that the fact that so many academics mentioned their disappointing dining experiences in their diary entries could not be explained by frustration with management alone.
Instead, she argued, each meal they ate was being compared with idealised notions of academic dining: the ancient college dining hall, the communal experience of the senior common room, and the university cafeteria.
Few of the academics seemed overly enamoured of the food they did eat, with diarists describing wolfing down “a nasty supermarket sandwich” or a “slice of horrible campus pizza”, or settling “for a Greggs pasty instead of something healthy”.
Each meal that fell short of academics’ hopes, Professor Fincher said, had a profound impact on their professional identity.
“The sandwiches they eat or don’t eat are more than a missing meal,” she argued. “They are the distance between the actual academic life and the idealisation of what we would like it to be.”
This made it all the more striking when academics did have a positive dining experience. One participant who examined a PhD viva at the University of Cambridge was then taken for lunch in the college and proceeded to “fill my calorific boots with as much dignity as I can muster”, followed by coffee in the fellows’ common room.
The academic describes leaving with “a sense of how the value of higher education and academic research, which I so often doubt and question, is so utterly demonstrable and taken for granted in a place like Cambridge”.
“I leave buoyed up, both about my own personal worth and that of the whole endeavour of universities,” the diarist writes.