Speculating on time

In the fifth session of the Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Society (PaTHES) season on slow academia, we discussed time. You can access the slides below. I’ve included a note at the beginning of the slides because I had to recreate them after the session. I somehow lost or overwrote the original file and, even with IT help, was unable to recover it. This was one example of several scary incidents after covid. I misunderstood ‘brain fog’ to mean you felt foggy. I feel fine. Losing a PPT presentation was one example, being unable to count the place settings at my dining table was another. No awareness at the time, and no doubt other examples. I’m triple vaxxed. I am hoping that I am on the mend.

This session was presented during National Reconciliation Week (with the theme for 2022 ‘Be brave, make change’). Each session started with an acknowledgement that I was on the unceded country of the Wallumattagal Clan of the Dharug nation. For a session focussed on time, with an international audience in mind, I linked to Common Ground on the Dreaming and ‘everywhen’.

A way in for me to think about these notions of time has been speculative fiction by Indigenous Australian authors. Pictured are some of my favourites over the last few years:

Author Ambelin Kwaymullina writes:

“The ideas which populate speculative fiction books — notions of time travel, astral projection, speaking the languages of animals or trees — are part of Indigenous cultures. One of the aspects of my own novels that is regularly interpreted as being pure fantasy, that of an ancient creation spirit who sung the world into being, is for me simply part of my reality.”

Our slow start was to listen to a meditative ticking clock for a minute and think about time:

We then shifted our discussion to universities, academia and time: conflicting time, uneven time, measured time, interrupted time, deferred time and student time. Here are some of the quotes that prompted discussion:

“Scheduled time refers to the accelerating pace of work, timeless time to transcending time through immersion in work, contracted time to short-term employment with limited future prospects and finally, personal time to one’s temporality and the role of work in it.“

Ylijoki & Mäntylä, 2003

“… separating those whose time [is] ‘precious’ (wage earners, the educated classes, the able-bodied) from those whose time [can] be squandered or [has] little value… Power operates to structure and condition different populations’ lack of time … There is a heterogenous and uneven response to speeded up time … What proliferates is a multiplicity of contradictory temporalities.”

Baraitser, 2017

“Amid deadlines, fear of survival, and accountability measures, time becomes an important tool for perpetuating neoliberal subjectivity. As hyper extensions of colonial time, neoliberal logics operate to measure, splice, and commodify time in ways that is affectively experienced by individuals navigating the academy.”

Shahjahan, 2015

For an excellent literature review on time in academic contexts, and a thought-provoking discussion to consider student time, I recommend Bengtsen, Sarauw & Filippakou’s (2021) chapter ‘In Search of Student Time: Student Temporality and the Future University‘ in the collection The University Becoming: Perspectives from Philosophy and Social Theory. The authors ask: “The Covid-19 pandemic is a challenge to the universities’ organisation in time and space, but do we actually want to return to the functional and linear temporality that characterised the pre-pandemic university?”

Other recommended reading included:

Our discussion of time spanned Salvador Dali’s painting The Persistence of Memory; using productivity strategies such as pomodoro; St Augustine’s notion of past, present and future in the mind; the 2021 filmThe Lost Daughter; and flow. One participant said: “I find academic time to be a mostly unhappy thing unless I’ve corralled it with pomodoros. I either feel desperate and anxious, or strangely slack, like a rubber band that’s been stretched for too long.” At the end of the discussion, we returned to the notion of everywhen, and the interconnections of past, present, and future.

Finally, we were exhorted to read Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I must say the 1,267,069 word count is daunting. Perhaps future me might have world enough and time (to quote Andrew Marvell or Doctor Who).

Contaminated time

Following my recent article with co-authors Lilia Mantai and Vanessa Fredericks, Deferred time in the neoliberal university: experiences of doctoral candidates and early career academics, I have been noticing discussions of time everywhere (Baader-Meinhof phenomenon at work). Our article appeared in a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education on the timescapes of teaching. Here is what the editors, Penny Jane Burke and Catherine Manathunga had to say:

This special issue was conceived of and developed before the advent of COVID-19.  Yet, in writing our editorial in the middle of this significant rupture in time, we noted how COVID-19 has brought to the fore existing inequities in how time is experienced everyday by people living on the margins …

I am slowly making my way through the articles, reading some with the Idea of the University reading group (what a pleasure it is to read and think together):

In our article, Lilia, Vanessa and I positioned ourselves as researchers by referring to our contaminated time:

We come to this study as early to mid-career academics whose everyday experience of time, like our participants, is interruptible and contaminated by multi-layered tasks and conflicting demands.

Our argument is that emerging academics experience anxiety-inducing deferred time, waiting for academic careers and working conditions that are yet to come.

I have noticed this idea of contaminated and deferred time recurring in writings about the experience of COVID-19.

In a BBC article on the perception of time:

During lockdown, those isolated from friends, family and work have had long days to fill … This blurring of identical days leads us to create fewer new memories, which is crucial to our sense of time perception … [We are] forced into waiting for the future to come towards us.

Similarly, Scientific American describes the numbing sameness of days, noticing the effects of time distortion. Heidi Pitlor’s Days Without Name captures the mundane (“My son had helped organise the spice drawer”), and Trent Dalton’s Tales from the Bunker shares the anxiety:

Can’t sleep … Gonna be a long year for us overthinkers. I’ll take a thought in the early hours of the morning and turn it upside down and inside out until it has existed so long in my head and in my bones that it’s grown strength. Mutated. Negative thinking’s like a virus. Host thoughts find host thoughts. Each thought mutates and multiplies exponentially and inexplicably…

I’m looking forward to Dalton’s new book (Boy Swallows Universe was one of last year’s favourites). Many authors are writing through their experience of COVID-19. Clare Wright, author of The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (another book that made my yearly favourites list, in 2014), writes:

It’s like a living Vesuvius moment: we were all frozen in whatever material and psychological state we happened to be in on the first of July 2020. That stasis gives rise (at least in me) to feelings of both gratitude and longing. Gratitude for all I have. Longing for all I want and will never have. There is no After. Just a great yawning existential Now.

Jesmyn Ward lost her husband and her favourite place in the world, tucked under his arm. She kept writing:

My commitment surprised me. Even in a pandemic, even in grief, I found myself commanded to amplify the voices of the dead that sing to me, from their boat to my boat, on the sea of time. On most days, I wrote one sentence. On some days, I wrote 1,000 words. Many days, it and I seemed useless. All of it, misguided endeavor.

On grief and time, Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without its Flow, written after the sudden death of her adult son, is a powerful work of fragmented non-fiction: “I’ll not be writing about death, but about an altered condition of life … living in suddenly arrested time.”

In The Pandemic is a Portal, Arundhati Roy reveals of the impact of COVID-19 in her “poor-rich country” India. It is a powerful piece for the comparison of America and India, the backdrop of Muslim/Hindi relations, caste system, government denial, violence and limited preparation for lockdown. “A nation of 1.38bn people … locked down with zero preparation and with four hours’ notice.” The deep inequalities that Roy highlights are devastating. It is upsetting to read this several months after it was written, knowing that India now has the fastest growing number of cases worldwide. In April, Roy wrote:

Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists … Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

And, thinking of portals, here is last night’s distraction, upscaled video footage of England in 1901. Described as a “time travel experience”, it is uncanny and mesmerising. Check out Denis Shiryaev’s YouTube channel for footage of New York, Tokyo, Germany, France and more in the early 1900s.

I read some of these pieces for my creative writing studies, looking at non-fiction this semester, and completed my own writing exercise on the senses:

Our emotions were tumultuous. We were overwhelmed, playful, resentful, loving, annoyed and guilty—all before getting dressed. Two adults working and two children schooling from home was a challenge, but we’ve survived worse. My daughter previously missed eight months of school due to illness, so this constrained intimacy was familiar.

Six months in, our emotional response has flattened. There is a sameness to each day, and we crave novelty. We want the anticipation of a holiday, the shock of new sensations. Noticing an ordinary day reminds me that against the scale of collective trauma elsewhere, our banality is fortunate.

I spend the work day on my laptop, jumping between Zoom meetings. My eyes are feeling the strain. While walking the dog, I try to stretch my sight to the tops of trees, into the blue sky.

A woman is selling home-made biscuits door to door. She has lost her job and has children to support. The biscuits taste of cinnamon and desperation.

My seven-year-old sings and chatters constantly. He talks to his Lego. It is charming and annoying.

The children need more hugs. So does the dog. During a Zoom meeting she pushes her too-large body onto my lap. My fingers curl around her spoodle-soft fur.

At the end of the day, I climb into clean sheets. All the goodness and comfort of laundry powder, a hint of eucalyptus and lemon, and the wind. It smells like home, renewed.

For those seeking the distractions of fiction, these are my favourite time distortion books: Conni Willis’s Doomsday Book, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, Jo Walton’s My Real Children, Tabitha Bird’s A Lifetime of Impossible Days, and Kate Mascarenhas’s The Psychology of Time Travel. Read all those? Try Annalee Newitz’s The Future of Another Timeline, Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays, Mark Lawrence’s One Word Kill, Margarita Montimore’s The Rearranged Life of Oona Lockhart, Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes or Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter. Next on my to-be-read list comes from here.

An attentive walk

I was very taken with the methodology of the ‘attentive walk’ that Fran Kelly took in her article Hurry up please, it’s time!’ A psychogeography of a decommissioned university campus. I included some detail in my previous post: “Although I had walked the same paths before, this time I walked with intention and attention, taking photographs and making notes of objects and places and the effects of processes of time.”

Here is some more detail about the methodology in a quote Fran provides from MacFarlane (2005):

Record the experiences as you go, in whatever medium you favour: film, photograph, manuscript, tape. Catch the textual run-off of the streets: the graffiti, the branded litter, the snatches of conversation. Catch the sign. Log the data stream. Be alert to the happenstance of metaphors, watch for visual rhymes, coincidences, analogies, family resemblances, the changing moods of the street.

Fran is walking through a decommisioned university campus, which adds pathos to her noticings. She refers to it as ‘critical nostalgia’: “This moment in time—on the cusp of the faculty’s transfer and the site’s disestablishment—is opportune to critically reflect on this place and its ideas, practices and work of teaching that have shaped and infused its material form.”

The focus of my own critical nostalgia—which has “a political aim to insist on the humanity of places”—was to explore the university through my children’s eyes. My children are growing up (now 14 and 7), but I have worked at this university campus for throughout their lives in many different roles. We lived close by for many years. My mother brought my daughter for breastfeeding in the breaks between lectures. My children attended childcare on campus and had swimming lessons at the pool. On the weekends, we used the campus grounds, filled with interesting plants and sculptures, for walking, scooter riding and kite flying.

Like Fran, I am aware of the imprint of time on the university space. Many parts of the campus that my children enjoyed no longer exist—hills have been flattened to make way for new buildings, holes under buildings that housed feral kittens have been patched, trees have been lopped, and sculptures relocated. There are new spaces to explore. I took this walk alone, but had my children’s voices and histories in mind.

My son asks whether this is a machine for teleporting:

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My daughter attempts to use this staircase every time we pass:

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There is a large stick on the ground:

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This reads like an instruction:

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We all love a street library (note the feminist dystopian fictionLouise Erdich’s Future Home of the Living God):

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Along the way I bumped into several colleagues, and stopped for brief hellos. I plan future attentive walks, on and off campus, alone and in the company of others.