Professor i marinbiologi, Åbo Akademi

Professoriblogissa otetaan kantaa yliopistojen ja tutkimuslaitosten ajankohtaisiin asioihin.

9.5.2022

No time to think (*)

Every spring we are obliged to compile and submit a work-plan, detailing how we will apportion our working time in the following academic year. Few of us can see much point in this, but we do it anyway, because we have to. Perhaps we dimly recognize that a bit of forward planning is no bad thing, given that academic life is so chaotic, demanding and stressful. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in one of our tasks where a deadline suddenly looms, that we forget about all the other things that are just as important. Most of us can see that 1600 and some hours per year is a gross underestimate of the time we really spend on work-related activity. Thus heightening the sense that the work-plan we must complete is just another bit of bureaucratic nonsense put in place to satisfy the beancounters. Writing down how many hours we will spend on undergraduate teaching, on supervising doctoral theses, on publishing our research findings and on fruitless negotiations to establish a startup company that will probably fail anyway, might satisfy our masters that we really do earn our salaries. Maybe it also helps ensure that burdens are fairly shared out, although that would require that someone actually reads our work-plans and acts upon the information supplied.

But, setting aside whether work-plans serve any useful purpose, I believe there is something fundamental that is missing in the current formulae that categorise our professional activity. Preparing and delivering taught courses, attending to the nuts and bolts of research, compiling our scientific results into publishable manuscripts and so on, would be pointless and almost impossible, if these tasks were, as implied, routine and mindless, like cleaning the kitchen or harvesting potatoes. We are not producing consumer products in a factory or laying pipes to supply water to a city, where our productivity can be easily quantified. The real purpose in everything we do is rather summed up in a two word job description: to think.

One could argue that the reality of our work-plans is just to parcel out the practical implementation of our tasks into a 7.25 hour day, leaving us free to do all the thinking behind them in the rest of our waking hours. Leaving us no time at all for cleaning the kitchen or harvesting potatoes. The reality most of us face, however, is that the practicalities alone take far more than 7.25 hours per day, leaving us no time to think at all.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a line in our work-plan templates that just earmarked a certain number of hours that should be dedicated purely to thinking? Some of us might use that time for a bit of not too strenuous, unofficial multi-tasking, like listening to music, reading the scientific literature, going swimming, or backing up vital research data onto a detachable hard disk that won’t be affected by the next big data hack of everything held in the university’s cloud account (digging up potatoes at the summer cottage or sanitising the fridge are probably too strenuous here). Or, alternatively, we could assign 10 minutes of every hour that is officially dedicated to something else to thinking. So we would mark down 40 hours of delivering undergraduate lectures as 48 hours and just use the extra time for thinking.

Thinking that is worth the term isn’t just about performing a bit of mental arithmetic. Academic thought is all about making connections between disparate strands of information, and extrapolating them to a new context. In other words, what I’m speaking about is predictive, lateral and creative thinking. And to do it properly we need to develop the art of mental relaxation for which all those other tasks in our work-plans need to be adjusted, so as to leave sufficient space in our brains. As of now, we are expected to compress more and more content into those other tasks, thus degrading any time that we would actually earmark for intelligent thought, even if this were allowed. Decompression, not compression, is what is needed.

All this begs the question – how much thinking is enough? How should we balance our time between doing science and thinking about it? Is a great scientist a person who thinks for 30 years about that one big experiment, then finally does it? Or one who does a huge number of experiments for 30 years then pauses to think about what they all mean? Clearly, the answer differs greatly between individuals, and no institutional template will apply to all. So perhaps it’s just as well we are not called upon to plan our thinking too rigidly. We certainly don’t wish to end up being obliged to report on some website exactly what we used all those hours for thinking about.

Acknowledgment: I am indebted to Steve Bova for stimulating my thinking on the above.
(*) Apologies to all those involved in producing James Bond #25.

Erik Bonsdorff 09.05.2022
Thanks for your thoughts! I've always felt that we need (at least) two things outside the stuff we are made to deliver, namely 'creative lazyness' (i.e. time for thought at different levels of seriousness) and 'critical discussions' (based on the thinking we try to find the time to do). Thoughts will only forward our science if they can be somehow tested and developed through critical debate both within science and with the outside world. Best wishes, Erik Bonsdorff

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