After working for more than 20 years in academia, I was looking forward to a 6-month sabbatical in 2014 to write a major grant proposal. The plan was to go first to South Africa for a keynote address at a conference in January and then start my sabbatical. The weekend before my departure to South Africa, I got a call from my aunt in Iran that changed everything. The next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Tehran instead of Johannesburg.
It had been 6 years since I had last seen my mother. Now I was sitting next to my mom’s hospital bed in tears. A week before, she had suffered a heart attack. By the time I arrived she was no longer breathing by herself and her hands and feet were tied to her bed. It was a horrifying image for me, especially because of my mom’s unfortunate history as a mental patient. She could no longer speak, yet her eyes made her desperation clear.
Visiting hours were only one hour a day. So that was the only meaningful hour I had with her in the three weeks I stayed in Iran. I was lost. I did not know if I would survive the experience of losing my mom in this way. In the decades of my exilic existence in the Netherlands, I only saw my mother four times. I can still hear her pleading repeatedly in the last five years of her life: why don’t you come to see me? Going back to Iran was risky after the 2009 Green Movement. But when I heard the news about my mom’s condition, I did not think twice about taking that risk.
I lost my mother in 2014. And my sabbatical became a period of suspension from life. For months I felt like a zombie questioning the meaning of life and particularly the essence of all that I was doing. When I was back at the university after my sabbatical, teaching students, engaging with my research group, and meeting colleagues, I gradually regained my energy and sense of life. Losing my sabbatical to a depressive period was harsh but I soon realized how important that delayed space was for me to heal from such heavy loss
Impossible demands of academia
The increasingly neoliberal and demanding structures in global higher education (which emphasize individually based, quantified achievement) are now the prominent normalizing structures within Dutch academia. In addition, the prominence of financial rationales regarding educational programs is a serious threat to bachelor’s and master’s programs with small numbers of students. Furthermore, spaces for reflection and meaningful conversations within academia (with and among colleagues and students) are diminishing because of increasing work pressures based on often impossible expectations to perform excellently at all levels. Finally, the matteüseffect (Matthew effect) has had significant consequences in academia. The accumulation of prizes or prestigious research grants by some academics leaves behind the majority of others, who spend significant amounts of their time writing proposals without positive results. This leads to growing work pressures in which mainly young scholars feel stressed because of the unrealistic expectations they must meet to achieve tenure positions.
How can we create inspiration and necessary reflection in the hastiness and production-oriented focus that are so dominant in academia today? How can we create slow science that stimulates reflection and depth without lagging behind in the competitive requirements of academia? When the sources of exclusion work through normalized and repetitive practices of everyday interaction, the main way to resist is to create delayed spaces to reflect. The act of delaying protects us from what Thomas Eriksen (2001) refers to as “the tyranny of the moment.” “To go fast means also to forget fast,” as Lyotard argues (in Janssens and Steyaert 2001, 109).
In my research, I have been writing about the importance of delayed spaces for meaningful connections for some time, but I have not written about the importance of delayed spaces for one’s own academic inspiration and reflection. This brings me to Virginia Woolf’s idea of “having one’s own room”, by creating or claiming a necessary and desired space (physically, as well as mentally, emotionally, and spiritually). The space helps one to think and write differently.
Claiming one’s own room
I had been practicing “having my own room” for a few years without really realizing how important these delayed spaces were to my academic career and in revitalizing my work. It all started with a friend of mine who started an academic writing retreat in Greece together with a friend. Her motivation came from her own longing for space and a retreat when she was writing her own PhD dissertation, particularly during the last phase. She imagined an inspiring space filled with stimulating people to discuss her project with and get some extra coaching from (beyond her supervisors) in that final year in order to connect all the dots of her years of research. So she and her partner found the perfect place – the Magda Hotel in ancient Epidavros – where they started the Artisa academic and art retreat.
In this academic and creative space, they organized PhD weeks as well as free writing weeks for scholars, creative writers, and artists. I was already a professor when Artisa opened, but I thought it would be a great opportunity for my PhDs. So, starting in 2012, I began providing funds for some of my PhD students (those who could travel) to go to Artisa in the last phase of their writing. I was frequently asked why I did not come myself, and every time I would say: “I do not have time”. It took me 3 years of hearing my students’ wonderful stories about Artisa to realize that it was worth the time. I first stepped foot in Artisa in June 2015, and since then Artisa became my inspirational space to practice slow science with the aim of making a difference.
I went to Artisa with the plan of writing the major proposal that I was not able to write during my sabbatical a year earlier. Being there in the middle of nature, with a garden full of oranges, and a beautiful sea in front of my room, I felt like I was in paradise. I started the day with Yoga, meditation, and a swim in the sea before breakfast and then working behind my laptop in my room with a panoramic view of the sea. This had an immediate effect of delay and suspension of the challenging routines of work and life. I felt free, but was also aware of and discomfited by my privilege of having the money, time, and the opportunity to be there. This feeling of discomfort became even stronger in my later visits after the fall of 2015 with the emergence of what was referred to as “refugee crisis”. How could I enjoy freedom of my own room while knowing that so many people with a similar background to mine (I came to the Netherlands as a refugee in 1988) did not have the space to breathe, particularly in Greece. It was this feeling of discomfort that strengthened my urge to take the room of my own to produce work that makes a difference in academia and society.
Academia that makes a difference
This mixed feeling of freedom and discomfort informed an important paradox of my experience in Artisa: I have produced my most engaging and important academic texts while allowing delay to free my mind. Starting with the first visit when Artisa inspired me to write my planned research proposal on the contribution of engaged scholarship in relation to exclusionary spaces and practices for marginalized groups. This proposal received funding from a prestigious call in the Netherlands (NWO-Vici) after several efforts. The magical moment came when I got the phone call from NWO informing me that I got the grant on the anniversary of my mother’s death. I felt that my mom’s spirit had been with me all along when writing, presenting, and defending this proposal. Artisa helped me to create a kind of accelerated sabbatical, which would made writing such a proposal possible.
The act of delay and the space for inspiration in Artisa has been essential to my ability to produce academic work that is fulfilling, rewarding, and impactful without falling behind in the dominant pace of competition in academia. Being in Artisa gave me the possibility to contribute in a deeper way to society and knowledge. It made me realize that to create original academic work we do not need to lock ourselves back up in towers. Instead we need temporary spaces, windows of time, that are shielded from the hectic and stressful, and sometimes outright discouraging daily life of the academy. This is strongly captured in Artisa’s mission: to embrace the paradoxes of relaxation and production, freedom and discipline, working long hours while experiencing the pleasure of time instead of the pressure. Artisa made me realize that the hastiness and pressures of the clock (“the tyranny of the moment”) make us forget that we can always make time for inspiration and delay, which is so very essential for us as academics.
I have always hoped that academic institutions would embrace the idea of supporting PhDs and other academics to experience such inspiring environments. So, when I moved departments from Organization Science to Sociology in March 2012, I gave a goodbye gift to the PhDs of my old department in the form a prize: a two-week stay at Artisa for PhD students during the last phase of their trajectory. I had hoped that the department would take on this idea and continue it in the following years. Although that did not happen at the time, now some years later our graduate school has embraced the idea and provides funding for all our PhD students to go to Artisa if they apply for it. As with so many programs, this plan has experienced the pressure of Covid-19 restrictions and environmental issues, but I still hope that we continue encouraging ourselves and our colleagues to embrace the inspiration – and especially the delay – needed to create the kind of academic work that makes the kind of difference we can be proud of!
This blog was previously published on the website of the Engaged Scholarship and Narratives of Change-project.
Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. 2001. Tyranny of the Moment: Fast and Slow Time in the Information Age. London: Pluto Press.
Janssens, M. & C. Steyaert. 2001. Meerstemmigheid: Organiseren met verschil (Multivocality: Organising With a Difference). Leuven: Universitaire Pers.