We have so many time-related expressions – we spend time, we take time, we do things just in time, we write something that is timely, we are out of time, time flies, we are racing against the clock…
I recently caught a BBC radio programme that looked at the origins of Western time-keeping. The presenter suggested that time-keeping, as we know it, was developed to make sure that monks got up early in the morning to pray but then still had enough time for a full day’s work. This monastic time clashed with pastoral time. Agriculture was organized to a different rhythm altogether and ran from dusk to dawn as the seasons dictated. Monastic time transcended seasons and their natural rhythms.
The academy is of course derived directly from the monastic system. We work away in our little cubicles developing manuscripts intended to illuminate, we teach others to learn lessons from the great books, and we lecture to the masses on ritual occasions… We are as tied to our clocks as the monks and possibly just as out of synch with seasons.
And perhaps it is this history of time-keeping which makes ‘keeping to time’ such a moral enterprise. We frown on those who are late and who seem profligate with time (idle time wasters) and/or feel guilty when we don’t manage our time according to often unsaid norms.
So what do we academics keep time about? Well apart from the teaching timetable, and the meeting schedule, there are also writing and researching deadlines. We adhere – or not – to set times when we must send texts off to reviewers. But we also impose time deadlines on ourselves – for example we develop research proposals which show when we will do what.
Now I don’t want to argue that having plans and deadlines is a bad thing. They are clearly necessary, given the way that the world in general and universities in particular work. However, there are some academic practices that have very strict time limits where restricting time just might be as much a problem as a benefit.
For example, in the UK and in Australia, we now require PhDs to be finished in three or four years full time equivalent, even though the kind of deep thinking and the getting of new ideas that are involved in research don’t necessarily follow neat linear patterns and deadlines. The aha, or organising idea for the thesis or research report, doesn’t necessarily come to order.
I wonder if the PhD temporal limit is based largely on economic concerns. I suspect it goes together with the shift in thinking about doctorates as some kind of generic research training. The three-four year deadline is about how much it costs to ensure that someone gets a basic research education and toolkit and can demonstrate that they can do a piece of research themselves. A three or four year doctorate can thus be seen to be both efficient and effective in human capital terms.
The fetishisation of the doctoral finish line is not the case in other locations such as the USA, where doctoral researchers can take much longer. This means that they can do different kinds of things in their doctorate – they can for example do the kinds of longitudinal studies that are just not possible within a three-four year time frame. However there are concerns there too, as I understand it, about the non-finishers who stay on forever doing their doctorates.
Now I don’t want to be understood as arguing for doctoral work that takes forever, and/or for people being allowed to drift around, hanging on and on without ever finishing. But I don’t think that this is an either/or situation. I do think that there must be something in between utterly rigid time frames and the drift. These are two ends of a researching spectrum.
A little more flexibility, a little more agricultural-style adjustment to the seasonal variations in thinking and making sense of inquiry could be a good thing for the quality of the doctorate. I’m not sure how this would work administratively, but I do know that it wouldn’t be easy to disrupt the audit driven notion that a short time frame is integral to a quality doctoral education.
However, I remain pretty convinced that too much monastic clock-driven behavior may well work against the production of the very kinds of quality scholarship the time-counters say they want.
Are there any patter readers who have found the time frame has seriously restricted what they are able to do?