academic travel story – on getting un-jammed

I’ve just been on a week’s leave in the south of France. Well yes, poor me eh. Anyway before we get into a discussion of whether this was a good or bad time to go or be away, Ill just get into my travel story.

Towards the end of our stay we decided to leave our base in Aix en Provence and spend a day in Arles. We had a car so it only took a little over an hour on the toll road to get there. We knew that we needed to find a park because the guide book said that the city was easy to get around on foot, so we headed straight into centre-ville to find one.

The car park in question turned out to be a pretty tiny affair. Only four floors, very narrow and very tightly engineered. The ramps between each floor were incredibly restricted and the curves had to be very accurately judged. And every parking space was barely wide enough for the average car and not nearly big enough for anything like a four wheel drive.

Needless to say there was an inside-the-car-park traffic jam when we arrived. Some people couldn’t make it round the turns in the ramps. Much reversing and scraping went on and very slow progress was made. The situation was even worse when it came to actually getting into the car parking spaces.

When we eventually made it up to the third floor, there were several people trying to get into the scattered remaining spaces. These last slots were even smaller than intended because adjacent drivers had either taken more room than they were allowed – or just had big cars. A motley collection of passengers were anxiously trying to guide their drivers into spaces so small it seemed likely they would be unable to get out of the car if they ever got into them.

Even though we had a very small car, we decided not to bother with this manoeuvring. We drove past two spots we could have turned into and headed off and up, eventually making it to the ramp up to fourth floor. When we successfully turned the corner onto the top of the car park, we both just burst out laughing. It was pretty much empty. Two other cars were parked there, and we had our choice of where to park – and park very easily.

Why was everyone still trying to fill up the third floor, we wondered? Why not at least drive up and see if the situation was any better up further up? Well we’ve not got an answer to this, and maybe we broke some kind of distinctive Arles cultural convention in not filling up the last available space before going on. We’ll never know.

But just coincidentally – is this ever really just coincidence? – in the very same week, and in fact the next morning, I had a similar kind of un-jamming experience – but in relation to some research I’ve been doing.

I’ve been doing a cooperative project now for about a year and the first part of it involved an intensive week long immersion in an activity run by my partners. We wrote a report which we were all fairly happy with and then moved on to a second activity which we are now in the process of analysing. However, we all felt that maybe we ought to write something about the first event/experience.

Well, we’ve had a couple of goes at things, but they weren’t what we wanted. We just haven’t been able to get past our initial set of insights. We’ve all read various bits of theory in the hope that this might get us un-blocked, but no luck. We’ve just not written anything that we are happy with. We have been doing the research equivalent of trying to park in a space that is too small and much too difficult. We’ve been forwarding, reversing and adjusting our position over and over to no avail.

Now the day after the Arles car park incident I stopped fretting about blockage and decided that maybe we didn’t have to write about every single thing we did.

I went to my note-book and wrote down the sequence of questions we had initially been asking and looked at how they had changed from the first event to the second. We had started with one question and through the week had learnt what questions to ask next time. It was learning that we needed to do, because it helped us move on. But what we understand at present is not yet at the point where we know enough to say anything that is of interest to anyone else. That, I am now sure, will come later.

Post Arles then, I affirmed that we had learnt something and that was enough. I also had a hunch that what we are working on is a book, not a paper, so perhaps no wonder we haven’t got to grips with it properly… and if it’s a book, it’s as much about how to research as it is about what we are researching.

But why did we feel we needed to write something? Why the guilt at an apparent lack of productivity? Well, I’m also now thinking that performativity in higher education is not unlike the third floor of the Arles car park. Lots of spinning wheels and doing fifty-five point turns, while our passengers look on anxiously. I kid myself a lot of the time that I’m managing the press for publication, that I really do know that things take as long as they take, particularly when it comes to making meaning – but my worrying about the lack of ‘output’ from one small, albeit very intense, project belies this belief.

However maybe the Arles car park can serve as a bit of a self-reminder about the need to just move on, find some space and stop fretting. I don’t have to write something every time, about every single thing… just as we didn’t have to fill the car parking space just because it was there.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, performativity, publishing, space, time and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to academic travel story – on getting un-jammed

  1. Monica says:

    This piece is so relevant to my academic life right now. Thank you for sharing this perspective.


  2. Kate Thomas says:

    I enjoyed your post Pat, thank you, not least because the timing is eerily perfect. I’m struggling with some doctoral writing and your phrase ‘trying to park in a space that is too small and much too difficult’ just about sums it up. The performativity issue is also pertinent..a deadline looms which is crushing the ol’ creative juices. And coincidentally I’ll be in Arles later this year so will give that car park a very wide berth!!


  3. maryann says:

    Thanks so much for this. I love the way it is possible to find sense, meaning and order in the strangest places. (A car part in Arles? Lovely!) I’m guessing that many of us will find this post absolutely spot on for where we are now (wherever that may be). I also like the point that not everything has to be written about all the time. Sometimes much deeper learning comes from letting things just rest, settle, gel or crystallise inside our heads.


  4. Kip Jones says:

    You are turning into a quite an auto-ethnographer, Pat! [emphasis on the ‘auto’]. :>} kip


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