Conspicuous productivity

by Philip Muijtjens, PhD candidate in History of Art at the University of Cambridge

No-one will disagree that productivity is a high virtue in academia. One outcome of this, however, is that many a student often ends a day of work wondering if it was actually ‘productive enough’. Indeed, the scholarship with which are confronted on a daily basis for our own research projects may seem rather daunting as it is easy to overlook the effort that had once gone into them. Moreover, it does not particularly help that one can fill shelves and shelves of influential works which (un)intentionally showcase conspicuous academic behaviour. This vice, as I would call it, has a long history. Already in the fifth century AD, Saint Augustine of Hippo appropriated the classical motif of the poetically inspiring night time by describing how his life as a bishop allowed him to compose his extensive, outstanding oeuvre only during nightly writing sessions. In Confessions, he took effort to conjure up the image of himself working tirelessly by scant candle light, paining his eyes and brains in order to pen down his wonderful, influential ideas. Accounts like this, I think, are not particularly uplifting for a student’s morale, because like a publication it only shows the results but not the long process of learning, polishing and improving. As Augustine’s example suggests, it is easy to reflect on your working flow when you know you have already perfected it. Consequently, centuries of scholarship and intellectual efforts have brought out a whole array of academic virtues with which new researchers juggle in order to find their own style and way of working.

Egbert van Panderen, ‘Augustine’, engraving, around 1590-1637. Source: Rijksmuseum

In some instances, this vice of academic or intellectual conspicuousness has persisted to this day in varying degrees. Not so long ago, I was drawn into a conversation on the limits of productivity. One participant brought up such questions as the amount of hours one should spend on a doctoral project or any other research project in general. Perhaps realizing the impossibility of providing a universally valid answer to that question, a well-established scholar vaguely answered that it is best to find that out yourself without looking too much at others for examples. The student did not seem particularly pleased with the answer and neither was I. Is it not logical to at least look at preceding generations of researchers in order to better understand the expanse and limits of scholarly practice? Without any real experience as an academician, how else should I try to formulate my initial understanding of a world which I might hope to make my own one day?  
            Again, many questions and hardly any answers, which does not help you rate your work at its value or give you insight into a healthy daily working pattern. In order to remedy this difficulty, academic pride should incorporate the possibility of failure which even the most capable researchers have experienced at some point in their development. By opening up on past struggles with establishing a pattern adherent to the various virtues presented by the academic traditions in which were educated, emerging scholars will learn to embrace the steps (and mistakes) necessary for learning and improvement. This, I think, is well reflected in a passage from Rudyard Kipling’s 1909 poem If which addresses the difficulty of leading a perfectly exemplary life:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;   

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools[.]

Instead of displaying only the results of fruitful scholarship and established careers, researchers can and should embrace their own fallibility in order to continue and cherish the one virtue which enables us to think beyond ourselves and approach the reality of other ages and contexts: humility.