For real pandemic productivity, try stepping off the treadmill


As Covid-19 cases continue to multiply around the world, the prudent academic should probably be preparing for the distinct possibility of another period in lockdown.

So what can we learn from the last one? My mind instantly thinks back not so much to the “touch up my appearance” filter on Zoom as the popular “productivity” music-streaming genre. If ever there was a time for academics to turn up, log on and grind out to the sounds of Kenny Loggins and Michael Bolton, an enforced lockdown sabbatical was it.

And patently some academics’ crania did indeed reverberate to the sound of Footloose and How Am I Supposed to Live Without You. The journal Comparative Political Studies, for instance, reported a 25 per cent increase in submissions during April, the first full month of lockdown in many Western countries.

On social media, Isaac Newton was the poster boy for what is possible, having single-handedly revolutionised modern science during the Great Plague of 1665. The moral? We should all have been using the unexpected time bonus for finishing and submitting all those papers, grant applications and book proposals we’ve been putting off since our PhD.

But it didn’t escape academics’ attention that Isaac Newton was male. Pandemic productivity was gendered, with data showing that women submitted and published less than men. The Italian academic Alessandra Minello put it bluntly in Nature: “Academic work – in which career advancement is based on the number…of scientific publications – is incompatible with tending to children.”

One antidote to such inequality might be Aisha Ahmad’s recommendation that we all ignore the coronavirus-inspired productivity pressure. Ahmad, the University of Toronto political scientist who has lived and worked through war, disease and food shortages, commented that “while it may feel good in the moment, it is foolish to dive into a frenzy of activity or obsess about your scholarly productivity”, describing such an approach as “denial and delusion”.

The alternative to frenzied productivity need not be passive resignation. Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber’s slow-research manifesto lights the way. They recommend, in effect, an academic “de-growth” strategy: replacing the restricted economy of calculation with a new economy of waste – which pretty much covers anything that the corporate university and instrumental careerism do not value.

One of the most underrated forms of productivity is what Bill Readings (author of The University in Ruins) calls the “activity of thinking” – not simply daydreaming but real thinking. The likes of Kant, Heidegger and Wittgenstein all dedicated serious amounts of time to this, which inevitably ate into their writing time. In fact, Kant dedicated a whole decade to thinking rather than writing.

This might seem like an impossible luxury in the modern academy, but the academic historian Yuval Noah Harari – the broadsheets’ favourite public intellectual – dedicates two hours a day to thinking and meditating, and attributes his success with books such as Sapiens and Homo Deus to his marathon Vipassanā meditation retreats. Without them, he told one interviewer, “I would still be researching medieval military history”.

Nor need productive thinking always be structured. In their recent book, Out of My Skull, cognitive neuroscientists James Danckert and John Eastwood claim that “it is actually beneficial to have the capacity to be bored” and just think aimlessly; it is even “a spur to creativity”. The philosopher John Perry, emeritus professor at Stanford University, has a theory of structured procrastination, according to which anyone can do any amount of work provided that it isn’t the work they are supposed to be doing at that moment.

One academic figure who carved an alternative career out of structured procrastination is J. R. R. Tolkien. Despite being a world-class philologist as Oxford’s Merton Professor of English, Tolkien produced very little academic research throughout his career; his close friend C. S. Lewis described him as “that great but dilatory and unmethodical man”.

On both counts, Lewis was right. Tolkien started numerous academic projects but rarely saw them through to completion. According to his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, he dedicated much of his career to teaching, playing solitaire and creating Middle-earth. When The Lord of Rings was finally published, Tolkien reports that his colleagues responded: “Now we know what you have been doing all these years!… You have had your fun and you must now do some work.” Fortunately, he just continued with the procrastination and worked on The Silmarillion instead.

Of course, it won’t have escaped your attention that Tolkien is also a man, who doubtless contributed little to the day-to-day care of his four children. A different kind of Mordor may well have been suggested to him if the bulk of his day had been spent clearing up after his little elves, instead of smoking in the senior common room – and one he would never have had time to immortalise in print.

But whatever your domestic situation, using any future lockdown to take a step back from the treadmill of neoliberal productivity to think or daydream a little (even while changing nappies) holds the promise of benefiting humanity in some small way or another. Even if it doesn’t take us to Middle-earth, it may take us somewhere interesting or even unique.

Author Bio: Michael Marinetto is a Senior Lecturer in Management at Cardiff Business School.