'When filling out RAE entry forms, the first question should be: Have you reproduced in the past seven years?'

August 24, 2007

I am still dependent on a paper diary, but not hopelessly so. If I mislay my scribbled-in Cambridge Pocket Diary I can usually reconstruct my obligations for the next couple of weeks from memory and e-mail, perhaps not with 100 per cent accuracy but near enough as makes no difference in the academic world. No one is going to miss a life-saving operation or lose a life-changing legal battle if I miss a meeting; it will just be pretty embarrassing.

I am not technophobic or especially nostalgic for the days of pen and paper, so it is probably only inertia that stops me switching to an electronic diary that could be backed up with my other files on the university's main system and never lost.

One good reason for overcoming this inertia is the distress I'm caused at this time of year by a distinctive feature of the Cambridge Pocket Diary. Across the top of the pages from June to September 28 are emblazoned the words "Research Period". That is 14 uninterrupted weeks formally set aside for scholarship after the undergraduates have gone and before they return.

In recent years, this fact about my diary has become a poignant reproach. Because I have small children whose school holidays fall inside the designated research period, I find myself pencilling in their play dates, day trips, sleepovers and so on, under the austere heading. While childless colleagues book themselves into tranquil libraries up and down the country, teasing out the nuances of little-known manuscripts, accumulating the raw material for another research-assessment-exerciseable book, I am fraught beside the paddling pool, lucky if I've read the newspaper. I'm certain it doesn't help my state of mind, as I fill the diary pages of another disappearing summer, to be reminded relentlessly that what I ought to be doing is research.

Cambridge operates a very good play scheme that aims to provide an institutional solution to this problem. The idea is that you book your child into supervised holiday care and get straight back to the library (or laboratory) as though the school holidays never happened. Like most institutional solutions, this only succeeds contingently. What, for example, do you do if your child flatly refuses to go to the play scheme because it is too like school? Override the tearful protest in the interests of cutting-edge research? Or cave in quickly because your child's point is robust?

Usually I fluctuate between these contrasting approaches, switching rapidly from hardheartedly denying that the summer holidays exist, to wholeheartedly embracing them and giving up on work for the foreseeable future. This year I've experimented by adding a third scheme to my repertoire: when at all possible, combine children and work. More stressful and high-risk than either of the other options, this has the possible advantage of teaching children something about the adult world.

I took my children with me to review a new exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, The Changing Face of Childhood . I did so aided and abetted by an editor at The Times , who thought it would be interesting to include the children's reactions to the 17th and 18th-century portraits in my review. I sold this to my nine-year-old as an exciting opportunity for her and her sister (aged four) and told them there might even be a photograph of them in the newspaper. There was, but disastrously only the four-year-old (who had been riotous in the gallery) appeared in it, with no sign at all of my conscientious and well-behaved elder daughter.

This upset her very much and made me feel very guilty (you really can't win as a working mother, whatever you do). In a desperate effort to redeem the outing I pointed out that such disappointments are intrinsic to journalism: the best things often get cut simply to fit a piece on the page. It is a hard lesson to learn at any age, and nine is probably too young.

Except on rare occasions, or in a dire emergency, children and work don't really mix, and it is unfair to all concerned to pretend otherwise. For this reason, the traditional idea of an academic "research period", overlapping the summer months is in need of serious revision. When it comes to filling out RAE entry forms, the first question should be: Have you reproduced in the past seven years? If answering yes (male or female, since this is as much a problem for fathers as for mothers), you should turn to a different coloured form where your research output can be measured taking into account the obvious fact that you have not, since the birth of your baby, spent 14 uninterrupted weeks in the library during the designated "research period".

Ruth Scurr is affiliated lecturer in the politics department, Cambridge University, and fellow of and director of studies at Gonville and Caius College.

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