An academic allowing herself to love writing, even if the future for Universities and Business Schools may be tough. How is it for you?

I am currently on study leave. Which basically means writing and quite often doing so in my pyjamas. Admittedly the first two weeks have been a bit rough, I was perhaps a bit surprised at that given how religious I had been about a Deep Work writing regime over the past year. But yesterday, the words began to flow once more. Sorry about the cliché. I was made up about this, I know there will be bad days again but getting some rhythm together certainly helps me. As I sat working at peace with the world for once I couldn’t help muse along with some things from deeply treasured friends this week. One was considering the ‘School for Business’ blog posted by Martin Parker on his last working day at the University of Leicester. As I tried to imagine the prospects of the future Business School or lack of, I was also struck by a tweeted comment in response to Martin’s post made by Jo Grady. It went along the lines of ‘University managers come and go. Collegial scholars do not. Be who you wanna see in universities’.

So, whilst my work yesterday was more solitary and not necessarily collegiate given I was drafting a sole-authored paper by myself for most of the day, I really enjoyed letting myself be a “proper f**king academic” for once. Thanks Gibson, that one always has and always will work for me. The current higher education context and climate admittedly is not all that rosey and it certainly has affected me substantially in recent months and I’d be the first to concede that I have perhaps let it consume me too much at times recently. However, as I wrote yesterday, I gave myself free rein to consider what are the most pleasurable bits of this craft? What bits help me to rekindle my love for academia?

I am writing about this elsewhere in my book but here are a few reflections about what I love about writing, especially.

…When I can write without any inhibitions, when I can speedily and sporadically put half-baked comments here there and everywhere to later join them together for a fully-fledged argument. Fixing a jigsaw I guess.

…When I can think across disciplines however outlandish the marriage might be and have the space to ponder about otherwise seemingly impossibilities.

…When I can really enjoy thinking about my broader research identity as an academic. A bit vomit worthy but essentially my elevator pitch or better, my proper academic bit. All academics have one of those even if they do not make it explicit and it certainly should not be the thing that is only worked out when one is in the labour market. It’s you, your research identity, the bit you can proudly stand up and say “This is me, this is who I am, this is what I do”. How does thinking about that on that research project connect with that other project over there? What do they compile and say about my research as a whole beyond surface level connections? 

…When I can write without the monster of the Research Excellent Framework or some other time dependent ranking sitting on my shoulders. I am not going to critique those agendas now, the whole point here is imagining the good bits, because there still are a lot. But I do like being able to say what needs to be said. Or at least what I think should be said. And if I can do that in an unorthodox fashion, even better.

…Working out something in a moment without really thinking too hard about it despite it perhaps being keeping me awake for months previously in a furor of anxiety.

…When my mind and body becomes addicted to the flow of the writing, when it wants to write and I want to write with it, rather than when I desperately want to write and my brain and fingers resist every single word.

…When it becomes even more infectious. Perhaps when I have finished at my desk for the day but find that my mind continues to run and race with ideas for hours on end. Working out the next bit of the scenario, finding a reference, building. Always growing something.

…When it allows me to be in a calm place and naturally produces creative, reflective and reflexive spaces. Specifically, in my 15 minute writing breaks I find that they offer some of my most fruitful thoughts. It’s always amazed me at just how clearly I can think when away from my mac, some might say skiving, putting the laundry on the washing line, doing the dishwasher etc.

…When it helps me to learn about myself, and as a result I find quite often that when I am writing a journal paper that I simultaneously have open my Academic Athlete manuscript draft primed for sporadic inserts. Whilst there is an argument that one should focus on one thing at a time and concentrate on it properly, I find it more disruptive to ignore these other thoughts.

So, if you sit down, free of all academic contextual and institutional ties and baggage, what do you like most about writing? What do you feel? And, how does it feel for you?

Being Allegro: Riding the waves of being an academic athlete with music and tattoos

I already have tattoos, my first an M-Dot Ironman emblem on my left wrist, the second a self-designed initial of Bradley Wiggins on my right wrist. I got my third three weeks ago. Of course, I am proud of being an Ironman that has held a world ranking, and I’ll never stop admiring Wiggo. However, this latest piece of ink is more about me, being Charlie, day in day out. It represents the interdependencies and interconnections between being an academic and an athlete via the medium of music, a very large part of my life. Whilst the design took months to decide upon, the idea and what it resembles travels back to my teenage years: when I became academically minded and began to grow athletically.

You may know I operate on two categories of noise: deafening silence to work, or ear bleeding music when I am not. Whilst I train to music often (a separate story for another day), when I am not working I will have my headphones on. I own at least ten different pairs and I go everywhere with them, including the 6-minute walk from the car park to my desk in the mornings, to make a coffee, or to walk to a meeting two minutes away (I am not kidding). Sometimes I am trying to take myself to a different (probably happier!) place but often I am thinking and reflecting in the short and long term, finding my energy and rhythm. That energy then seeps into my academic work when I return to my desk and sit quietly. Perhaps I am thinking about something I wrote that I was pleased with, perhaps a perfectly nailed set of intervals performed cycling or running before work. I also look forward, sometimes a paper I am thinking of writing for instance, my listening therefore becomes the space where the dots are connected and the final part of the jigsaw falls into place producing a coherent argument. Perhaps I just feel ropey and want to be in someone else’s world.

Here it is:

tatt3

What do the various parts mean?

Primarily it is based on Blink 182 because they are my favourite band (since a teenager), for those not familiar, fast pop punk music. The roman numerals in the middle obviously (hopefully?!) total one hundred and eighty-two (a bit late now if not). The blue and pink colours have also been mixed to match the official colours of the band. The words “A new hope” represent the title to one of the oldest Blink songs that contains one of my favourite (albeit short) bits of guitar. But, the words in themselves are also significant, you’ll see why in a moment. It is located on my right bicep, directly opposite my heart, also not insignificant as the right side is where the heart pumps blood to the lungs to pick up oxygen and function.

The aspect that connects it all together is the wave on the left side with a music note at the bottom. To some extent, it reflects the ups and downs of my character, in Blink 182 terms: “I’m a little shy. A bit strange and a little bit manic”. I wouldn’t say I am manic in the medical and strictest sense of the word but I do live my life with many roller coasters, those are a bit fun, and the troughs and quieter bits create the energy for the ups. If we deconstruct a wave then, it is something we usually understand as form of disturbance, predominantly has a moving ridge, an urge and a rush of feeling. It can move more freely and gently, back and forth or it can move as more of a sudden occurrence.

In creating that rush of feeling, another important point of the wave is the Crescendo – the crest – akin to peak performance and the euphoric moments when riding my bike. One does not do the athletic things I do without being an endorphin junkie. I can get my fixes in many ways but some examples might include a personal best of some form or winning a race, for example. So, the crest is the peak, it gradually gets louder, creates excitement, and its petering or crashing out does not have to be bad. The point is that it is a cycle, it picks up again with its rhythm.  It’s “A New Hope” but that hope does not have to derive from something gone wrong.

wave

Moving on, if we think of the composition of music broadly, beyond the single note etched on my arm, there are several elements: rhythm, dynamics, melody, harmony, tone colour, texture and form.

Lyrics are often the part that touch most people in an emotive sense, but for me, the defining aspect is the rhythm – the element of “time” in music, when you tap your foot, you are keeping time, in time with the pulse of the music. In Greek, rhythm (rhythmos) means any regular recurring motion, some form of symmetry that is marked by the regulated succession of strong and weak elements, but also of opposite or different conditions. Not too dissimilar to the peaks and troughs of the wave described above.

The rhythm is divided into two parts: how long the beat lasts, and the tempo: the speed of the beat. It is the tempo of the music that emotively affects my thinking and feeling, and I think about both academic and athletic things listening to the same tempo of music. Tempos are not specific and relative to each other but they do have some broad categories:

tempo

And they are described in the following ways:

  • Largo = Labored
  • Adagio = Slow
  • Andante = Steady walking
  • Moderato = moderate
  • Allegro = fast/happy
  • Presto = Very fast

So, how does this tempo play out in what I listen to?

I own around 700 full albums, which is a fair bit of music, but even with a few examples below and what I have explained already about Blink 182 whom predominantly sit around 125 beats per minute (BPM), there is a pattern emerging here. I nearly always listen to a specific speed of music, none of that slow and sad stuff, never, not on even the darkest of days. I’m into “Allegro”, music that is relatively “fast” and “happy”.

  • Blink 182: After midnight (167BPM)
  • Up all night (156BPM)
  • Always (158BPM)
  • Goo Goo Dolls: “Over and over” (123BPM)
  • Avicii: “Wake me up” (124BPM)
  • Train: “Working girl” (124BPM)
  • Ed Sheeran: “Castle on the hill” (135BPM)

It is also not insignificant that the BPM of the music I listen to are relatively close to the Revolutions Per Minute (RPM) riding my bike. For instance, a standard British Cycling warm up starts at 90RPM and progresses to 110+ RPM. When I am racing full pelt I’d expect to see 120RPM at least. For most of the time then when I am not training I will be listening to music at 120BPM which is not far away from an effort level of 8 out of 10 when doing my sport.

Adding these rhythms and waves together it represents a series of cycles and daily patterns that bring my worlds together and create moments of pure elation in my otherwise normal day. It is extremely telling that I listen primarily to music that is labelled “happy” and use and embrace it as a form of energising my worlds. I know our ups and downs can be caused by the chemicals in our brains, but I know for a fact that I can use music to fundamentally alter the way I think, feel and embrace the rhythms of my life. It is the space where I garner some confidence and above all else, believe. It’s also my medium of energy. Had a mediocre – ‘meh’ – day – spruce it up on the way home. Had some good news? Whack up the volume, celebrate and dream. Had a terrible day? Bad enough that you just can’t think of anything else? Put a song on repeat, lose yourself in the beat, let it carry you along.

There is so much more I can say on music in relation to both of my worlds, and if we add driving and travel to the mix it shows even more, but it’s beyond the scope of my ever-growing post here and my multiplying to-do list for a Monday night. I’ll save it for a chapter in the book. In case you are wondering, I have considered what the new ink will be like when I am 70 years old and it simply is no issue. This is me, this is it for the rest of my days, it’s my love, my drug and where I find authentic happiness. For now, I’ll sign off with my favourite race philosophy: “Let’s pick up the pace and the volume”.