Universities’ targets for research time are way off the mark

A year-long experiment convinced Michael Marinetto that carving out research time is a fun but unwinnable game 

January 25, 2018
Archery target
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Last year, I did something unusual. I did some empirical research – albeit with a data sample consisting of just one subject: me.

My objective was not to test any grand hypothesis though. It was simply to check whether I devote anything like the amount of time to my standard research activities that my institution expects.

I was prompted by the latest managerial innovation/craze aimed at making academic work more transparent and equitable: the workload allocation model, or WAM (not to be confused with the 1980s pop group led by George Michael). A typical research-intensive WAM stipulates a 40:40:20 per cent split between research, teaching and administration, respectively. But the results of my experiment confirmed my suspicion that this is not realistic.

I spent a total of 338 hours and 20 minutes in 2017 engaged in research activities (defined quite strictly as the writing-up of reading and thinking: not answering emails or surfing the internet). That amounted to just 23 per cent of my total work time: 262 hours short of my institutional target.

Conclusion: the 40 per cent research target needs to be revised downwards. The demands of teaching and administration in the modern corporate university make it a near impossibility to dedicate more than a third of academic time to research. Teaching is a time-consuming job that can’t be shirked – especially in the era of the teaching excellence framework.

Yet it is still necessary to somehow eke out time for the creative process of researching and writing. Kafka understood this. He once wrote in desperation: “Time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror...if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible, then one must try to wriggle through by subtle manoeuvres.” My autoethnography was a revelation in terms of prompting me to learn such manoeuvres.

Not long in, I concluded that pursuing a general target of 600 hours was completely demotivating. Online life-hackers helped me devise a more manageable alternative: the “no zero days” approach. This involves striving to do at least some difficult scholastic work every day. This is similar to the “Seinfeld strategy” (named after the comedian Jerry Seinfeld), which looks to create an unbroken chain of successive days on which some form of writing is completed.

The true value of these systems is not that they help us become more productive (despite my best efforts, I recorded 48 zero days) but that they help us become less anxious. When research focuses on unrealistic goals, stress levels invariably increase; angst-free scholastic work depends, in part, on maintaining a minimum of momentum over time.

My experiment also gave me an unexpected introduction to the ancient practice of self-help: specifically, to the Greeks’ concept of hupomnemata. This is the practice of using a journal to record and reflect on daily behaviour, as a way of replacing bad habits with better ones. I became a hupomnemata-phile purely by accident – as a by-product of my solution to the research design issue of how to accurately measure and record the time that I spent on research. I confined such activity to a fixed start and end time, and I recorded the figures in a ring-bound notepad: a separate page for each day (even the zero days). This gave me a regular feedback loop that helped me to resist “procrastination creep”.

Most surprisingly of all, the process of tracking my performance took on a significance of its own. Concerns about the expectations of employer or colleagues faded and I became my sternest judge.

Jane McGonigal’s 2015 book SuperBetter explains why. Life – including work – goes a lot better if we structure it like a game for ourselves. This approach has been much criticised, but the power of gamification is clear. As the journalist Oliver Burkeman has observed, it is what makes consumer technology so addictive.

So if you want to be a more effective academic, try to approach it as you approach your Facebook profile (how many “likes” do I have?) or your Fitbit watch (how far have I walked this week?).

Otherwise, you might just find that it is game over.

Michael Marinetto is a lecturer in business ethics at Cardiff University.

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Print headline: WAM trouble? I’m your man

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