As university teachers, we are encouraged to embrace ‘innovation’. ‘Innovation’ often boils down to adopting new technologies. I’m very much a nerd, and I love to try out new software and gadgets. But at the end of the day, in my opinion, the most effective teaching methods remain the oldest: the ‘learning-through-doing-and-imitating’ method, and the so-called Socratic method, which consists in gently questioning preconceptions, and reaching knowledge through dialogue.
The Socratic method is also known as maieutics, a word that derives from the Greek word maia, the midwife. It is a method which assists in birthing ideas, and is described as such in Plato’s Theaetetus, where Socrates is presented as the son of the midwife Phaenarete (149a). Midwives in the Theaetetus are said to be great matchmakers, to be able to tell when someone is pregnant, to speed up birth by means of incantations and drugs, to promote fertility, and to cause miscarriages.
Far less known than the description of maieutics in the Theaetetus is this take on the method by Plutarch (or Pseudo-Plutarch) in The Cleverness of Animals:
We certainly must not allow philosophers, as though they were women in difficult labour, to put about their necks a charm for speedy delivery so that they may bring justice to birth for us easily and without hard labour. (Plutarch, De sollertia animalium 7)
I really like this reference to birthing amulets, examples of which have survived in the archaeological record.
To this day, scholars do still at times compare their work to babies that they have birthed through hard labour. I know that there are very reasonable objections to the use of this metaphor – not the least that it can be upsetting to people who have lost or cannot have children – but there is one aspect of the metaphor that I still find useful: the acknowledgement that we are not supposed to love the process of birthing ideas.
It is very common for academics (myself included) to preface any complaint about our work with ‘I love my teaching and my research but…’; ‘I’m so privileged to do a job that is rewarding and that I love…’. We love our job, so we put our heart and soul into it. We love our job, so we accept to work over our contracted hours, and over the 48 hours beyond which work becomes detrimental to our health; we skip meals; we stop exercising; we sacrifice personal relationships. And then we model that behaviour to more junior scholars – after all that is what was modelled to us – all in the name of love.
In the name of love, we often cross into the territory of abuse. Well, I love many aspects of my job, but I refuse to be abused by it. A couple of years ago, I started to measure my time. This was very revealing. I have realised (an embodied realisation because I already knew there was lots of research on this) that working around 35-40 hours a week is definitely the most productive way of working. I have realised that, when I cannot, for a reason or another, fit my work into 35-40 hours a week, anything beyond 50 hours is very detrimental, both to the quality of my work and to my health.
This has led me to make choices, which at times were tough. I have had to say no. I have had to work on my negotiating skills so that I would get my time acknowledged. Will this be detrimental to my career? Honestly, I don’t think so. And if it is, so be it.
I love my job, but it is hard labour at times, and most importantly: it is a job!