We can spin things all we like, we can complain that the world doesn’t understand our unorthodox working year, but there is no getting around the truth. Being an academic is a great job. It is a life I love and would not change for anything. There’s an old maxim in politics: if you’re explaining, you’re losing. In other words, it doesn’t matter if the money was really just resting in your account, it doesn’t matter if the woman was genuinely “a good friend”, it doesn’t matter if someone really hacked your email account and sent those pictures. As long as the story is about you defending yourself you’re in trouble.
I feel a little like that about this article. Even my best friends tease me about “the life of an academic”. My close relatives – who know better than most the reality instead of the illusion – joke about regular sabbaticals, long holidays and only a few hours of teaching a day. The secret is not to get defensive. If I’ve learned anything from history, it’s that once you’re explaining, you’re losing. When asked to contribute this piece I hesitated for ages. Would it be possible to write something that was honest rather than self-serving? Would it be possible to capture accurately a year in the life? And could it be funny?
Yes, the teaching year is relatively short, but teaching represents only one part of the job
Well first things first. It’s probably impossible to describe a typical working year in the life of an historian without a certain amount of special pleading. Yes, the teaching year is relatively short, but teaching represents only one part of the job. There is also the research dimension, without which we wouldn’t be able to bring new ideas into the classroom, or engage with the subject with credibility and authority. And increasingly there is the administrative dimension, from College committees to duties as a College tutor. No week is ever really the same, although that’s also part of the enjoyment.
My working year also involves an external dimension. For the past 10 years, since October 2006, I have presented a weekly radio programme called “Talking History” on Newstalk radio. It runs for 42 weeks of the year, and for the first nine years was a two-hour show, only scaling back to a single hour when the weekend schedules were redesigned. When “Talking History” began it took up an incredible amount of time, between reading the books we would be discussing, preparing for the panel discussion and attempting to become an expert on the subject. Within a few months I realised I needed to be more ruthless, otherwise I would have no time for anything else. Now I leave all the preparation to the weekend of the show, doing my initial reading on the Saturday and then preparing my notes on the Sunday before heading to the studio. It means sacrificing the weekend for most of the year, but it is good fun, and often when you love something it doesn’t seem like half as bad.
In many ways, preparing for the show provides a good insight into the kind of work required to deliver a good lecture or seminar. For listeners it is only one hour. But if that one hour goes well it is because a multiple of that time went into preparing the subject, reading through the literature, becoming familiar with the views of the guests and outlining a structure for the show that is flexible enough to adapt to unforeseen changes. When something goes well it is rarely because of quick thinking on the day, it is because of something that was planned for in advance. The late, great Bill O’Herlihy made asking the right question look effortless. From working in radio I’ve come to realise that it takes a lot of expertise to look like you are not expert but still be able to elicit the right information by a simple targeted question. “The victory is in the preparation” is good advice for life as well as for radio.
The research part can be laborious and often tedious. No matter how interesting the subject matter there is no escaping the hard slog, and the level of engagement necessary for a serious analysis of an area can be immense
Over the years I’ve also enjoyed doing stuff for George Hook on the radio. One year we went through every single American president, week by week, while this year we did the same for the nine Irish presidents. A 10-minute piece usually requires a couple of hours of research and preparation, otherwise you risk being caught out by a question, or worse, you say nothing that the listener doesn’t already know. No matter how busy my schedule is I always try and make time for Hook. Partly, it’s out of loyalty. When “Talking History” began in 2006 many people thought a weekly programme devoted just to history was doomed to failure. Hook championed the show from the beginning. It’s easy to find supporters when things are going well, but what counts is someone who has your back when things are new and uncertain. It’s another lesson I’ve learned along the way.
Research usually occupies an enormous amount of time. I like to work in blocks, as I’ve never really been a great multitasker. During a teaching week I tend to focus almost exclusively on preparing and delivering classes and looking after my students and tutees. Postgraduate supervision, an area that is often forgotten when calculating workload, can be as time consuming as undergraduate teaching, so once that is factored in there can be little left over. However in a non-teaching week I like to set aside a run of four or five days in a row to work on a project. The research part can be laborious and often tedious. No matter how interesting the subject matter there is no escaping the hard slog, and the level of engagement necessary for a serious analysis of an area can be immense. Inevitably, one’s enthusiasm can wane at times, so it requires fairly strict discipline to keep going no matter what.
I remember spending an entire summer analysing the parliamentary speeches of Daniel O’Connell and not getting anywhere. There were too many of them, and gauging tone, delivery and response proved a nightmare. It was almost impossible to assess the delivery style or the response of the other MPs, except from what was recorded in the official record or occasionally in the newspapers. I knew that O’Connell was a great public speaker, but I had no evidence for what he was like in the British parliament. Just before the start of term I was searching for some material in an archive in London, and I came across a diary from a fellow parliamentarian analysing the different speakers’ strengths and weaknesses. He provided a detailed account of O’Connell storming into the chamber, wearing a ship captain’s hat (and tilting it as if he was a pirate), and how he alternated between using humour and passion to make his points. Suddenly the whole area was opened to me. One piece of evidence led me to some other sources, and soon I had constructed a framework that allowed me to reassess my previous work. It can be a lot like detective work – lots of leads that go nowhere, lots of plodding around, lots of confusion and then finally discovering something that makes it all click into place.
I am now far more informed about the forthcoming American election, detective stories set in Nazi Germany and the possibility of a Game of Thrones spin-off series. So the faster the broadband connection, the slower the academic delivery
Writing up the research is an area I’ve always enjoyed. This is where you get to test your ideas and attempt to put shape on months and years of study. A new book is the biggest challenge of all. Some people like to write as they go along. I prefer to wait until the research is completed, the ideas processed and assessments made before starting. A three-hundred page book is about 120,000 words. Even with a good pace of writing, this can be an intense process and can consume breaks and weekends. The Christmas period, the summer period and times in between can be taken up with writing, especially if there is a publisher’s deadline looming. I’ve always enjoyed the process but find it exhausting, and it can leave you drained after even just a couple of weeks. I usually try to do four or five days in a row, take a break for one or two days and then go back to it, but finding the time (and avoiding distractions) isn’t always the easiest.
Many writers say that the best computer to work on is one that doesn’t have an internet connection. The temptation to check emails is too great. The temptation to read online news sites is too great. The temptation to look for football stories is too great. The temptation to do anything and everything except write is what kills good writing. Even writing this piece I have been led astray by some searches, and I am now far more informed about the forthcoming American election, detective stories set in Nazi Germany and the possibility of a Game of Thrones spin-off series. So the faster the broadband connection, the slower the academic delivery. As always, when it comes to writing history, somewhere in the past really is the best place to start.
So what does a typical year look like? Some months are intensive teaching months, some months are intensive research or administrative months. Many months are all three. In September a lot of work has to go into preparing each module, updating handbooks and reading lists and very often redesigning or reconceptualising what is taught. Even a successful module from a previous year can go stale, so there is always a challenge to find something new and make it better. One of my sophister modules is on Irish history in the late 18th and early 19th century. Each year we recreate the Act of Union debates from 1799 and 1800 in the old House of Lords chamber in College Green, now the Bank of Ireland. Logistically, this can be difficult to arrange, but in terms of the learning experience there is nothing more rewarding.
It may often be self-directed work, but it has to be done, and there is no way out of it
In another module the students are divided into fictional political parties, ranging from the Constitutional Nationalists to the Republicans, with Moderates and a range of other parties in between. Students can switch parties at the end of each class (when the “transfer window” is opened) and the debates can get quite heated as students compete to present the best arguments, destroy their opponents and secure enough votes to win. This particular module is always a lot of fun, but I still haven’t found the right formula for it. This year – the third year of teaching it – I plan on changing around a few things based on student feedback and my own analysis of what works and what doesn’t and take it from there. Unless you’re flexible and can adapt, a good module can quickly become a bad one.
Conference papers – and conference planning – can also take up a lot of time. Next year is the centenary of the Irish Convention, when Irish politicians – nationalists and unionists – met at Trinity in an attempt to resolve the question of the future of Ireland. The Convention took place in Regent House, and it was to be the last gathering of an all-Ireland representative assembly on this island. In my role as Vice-President of the Irish Legal History Society, I am organising a one-day conference to take place in Trinity on the Convention, bringing together academics from the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Great Britain, to debate and discuss the events of 1917-1918 when Trinity was, for a time, at the centre of political life in Ireland. These events can be very rewarding, but they take time to get right.
Administrative work can vary between meeting students and trying to resolve various issues to working on College committees. Having served for three years as Dean of Undergraduate Studies, I find myself invited to sit on a range of committees across College. Last year there was the steering committee of the Trinity Education Project, as well as a range of others to do with the Library, the four part documentary series about Trinity and work relating to the admissions feasibility scheme. But these can also be enjoyable because of the opportunity to work with people across College, not just in your own area, see different approaches and hear different ideas. Trinity is at its best when there is a collegial coming together on an issue. It’s one of its oldest values.
The next time someone makes a joke about my summer holidays or my easy life, I will continue to just smile and ignore it
The key thing every academic knows, however, is that there is no escaping the work. In many regular jobs with regular working hours people can arrive at 9am and leave at 6pm, five days a week, and then switch off the rest of the time. If you see it as only a job you don’t really care about what happens in the long term, you are just counting down the clock. An academic might have to take the morning off for family or some other commitments, but will make up that time later in the evening or over the weekend, and they know they will have to do it at some point. It may often be self-directed work, but it has to be done, and there is no way out of it. Research can be done at any time, so it is usually done at every time. Student issues or tutee problems can be seven days a week. Preparing for a class can be done in the morning, or late at night, or over lunch, but it must be done. There is no nine to five. There is no Monday to Friday. It is not a job in the traditional sense. It is a life. That is not to complain, it is a life we choose, and it is a great life, but it is a different working life to many others.
So the next time someone makes a joke about my summer holidays or my easy life, I will continue to just smile and ignore it. It really is not worth starting an argument, and in any case I’m not sure I’d convince them otherwise. And anyway, there really isn’t the time, what with classes to prepare, a book to write, tutees to look after, conferences to organise and radio shows to research. It’s all part of the life of an academic!
Patrick Geoghegan is a Professor in Modern History in Trinity’s Department of History.