And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

onsdag 1. oktober 2014

Notes on productive procrastination

Nick, this is not life experience, this is procrastination at the zoo.
- Winston Bishop, New Girl S02E09

One day, probably in 2012 while I was in my last year of my MA studies I overheard a student telling another student about the word procrastinate, except she called it "procrastrinate", and this novel information was received with what seemed to be amusement and perhaps also recognition. I consider this to be one of the most emblematic encounters I have had with student culture and its early 2010s zeitgeist. This is not to say that I consider my fellow students not to work hard - in fact most students probably work harder than I did during my MA - but at this time "procrastination" had become an emblem of academia, a household term, as it were. This was in no small part thanks to the popularity of PhD Comics, which despite being set in the sciences also resonated with the everyday life of students in the humanities. I remember several print-outs from this comic strip taped to the doors of the cubicles designated for MA students, and Facebook was full of links and updates. In a sense, procrastination appeared to be not only accepted but also expected of someone who wished to take part in the life of higher education. To me, at least, an ambitious MA student with hopes of advancing in the system, it seemed that I was obliged to spend time not being productive, and this was adopted into my MA studies quite early on. For me this was quite easy as both some of my friends and myself had often spent time socialising while we ought to have been working on our dissertation. The first term of the MA in particular, the autumn of 2010, we usually had two-hour breaks with short bouts of research thrown in between. We were already good at procrastination, although it was not until 2011, I believe, that we started to fully embrace the concept or to put the precise word to our way of not working. Around this time, when we adopted the culture of procrastination, it seemed as if many people did the same. This is only natural, as most people will probably have experienced that when you learn a new word you find significant, you suddenly start noticing this word all around you, as if the whole world was also having the same discovery.  

Tomorrow, tomorrow! the crows cry
Woodcut illustration from Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools, attributed to Albrecht Dürer
Courtesy of University of Houston
The central place of procrastination in academia is only natural. Much of the day of an MA or PhD student is spent in a small room perusing books or writing stuff on a computer. There is a certain monotony in this that invites escapism of sundry sorts, and if the day happens to be a bit unstructured, or if the progress is hampered by things like faulty or quarrelsome technology or books that are not as helpful as you had hoped, it is easy to fall into procrastination mode. There are various ways to go about this procrastination, and it is frightfully easy to find reasons to do so. In some cases, faux reasoning does not even get a chance to play its part, as it is also easy to merely descend into ennui while staring at your computer screen, blindly giving in to postponement and letting time pass you buy. Other times, you get a helping hand from fellow procrastinators who pick you up into its fold, and with whom you pick up others to form what Jorge Cham has termed the Vortex of Unproductivity.

Courtesy of Jorge Cham
Although it is terribly easy to give in to the sweet allures of procrastination, there are also ways to avoid it, or at the very least procrastinate in a way that is not entirely unproductive. One of the easiest ways to do this if you procrastinate with others is to turn your bacchanalia of not-working into an academic discussion of some kind. Most likely it will not be entirely relevant to your current research, but since it is always good for academics to root around a bit beyond their immediate concerns, such a discussion can be a good way to engage critically with something. If you are procrastinating in your office and left to your own devices, it can seem slightly more difficult to avoid the clutches of non-productivity, but only apparently. One of the tools to escape this is Twitter, either by entering into a discussion with members of its growing academic community, or by tweeting about your latest research that you are currently not doing. As a medievalist it is particularly easy to choose this route, as the medievalist section of Twitter is full of bright and interesting people and also has an interested lay audience, both of whom might be receptive to your reflections on some medieval topic. I for my part spent some of my procrastination time today tweeting about Saint Remigius, the apostle of the Franks, whose feast day is October 1st. This led me to rediscover parts of his legend that are somewhat relevant to my work, and it also allowed me to track down a few great medieval illuminations to attach to my tweets. While Remigius is both temporally and geographically far removed from my own focus on 12th-century Northern European cult of royal saints, he is nonetheless an important figure in the religious history of high-medieval France and its mythology of kingship. Remigius therefore makes for a good point of reference in the construction of sacred kingship, and my bout of procrastination became surprisingly akin to actual research.

An even better way - and I would argue the best way - to be productive while procrastinating is simply to read. This is not to say that any reading is productive procrastination, far from it, but for a medievalist - especially - there is a vast range of literature that can in some ways qualify as research. Academics are required to read widely in order to increase their horizon, and for scholars immersing themselves in the worldview of a culture separated from ours by centuries, it is particularly important to be aware of the complexity and the cultural heritage of that period. Furthermore, a medievalist should be interdisciplinary, so if you are tired of your own part of the field of medieval studies, it is easy enough to pick up an article or a blogpost that touches on medieval history but in a way different from your own. And if this seems too similar to actual work, it's easy enough to find a medieval text that might be far beyond your immediate research interest, but that still might give you some interesting knowledge that you might be able to employ later. Today, for instance, I indulged in Jerome's highly interesting account of Paul of Thebes. Since this is one of the oldest saint biographies, and one which concerns such a central figure in medieval history as Anthony of Egypt, it is a text with which I was required to be familiar. Carolinne White's excellent translation combined with its blissful brevity made it a quick read that also opened up for some reflections of themes such as the monastic renunciation of the world, or the various forms of suffering found in Christian martyrdoms. In other words: what started out as procrastination turned out to be some kind of productivity, and I came away with a clearer conscience.  

Anthony meeting the centaur
Francesco Guarino, 17th century
Courtesy of this website

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