In fact, I’m currently writing two books. And at the same time. One is for my day job, the long-awaited academic study of Islam in nineteenth- century German culture, the other is the novel I’ve secretly longed to write for a decade. The novel, though, is all about memory, obsession, and a series of strange trans-historical experiences between twentieth-century Liverpool, Nazi-era Germany, so the two books are obviously quite separate in form and focus. How do I manage it, I am asked? How are there enough hours in the day – and what will my managers say?
There’s a whole set of questions swirling beneath this blog relating to energy, focus, and work-life balance, which seem to stem from the idea that these two projects are in competition. On the surface, they might be seen to compete for my time. In fact, my experience has been quite different. I divide my time quite strictly between daytime office hours spent on the monograph in libraries and the more leisurely hours I spend on the novel at home in the evenings. I even think the two processes are more closely aligned then we might at first think and stand to gain from each other. Both books require research, drafting, and editing, though this work is conducted differently for each. Both books need to be written with due consideration to pace and reader engagement, though the two projects speak to different readerships. Finally, both books ask me, in differing ways, to differing extents, for an investment of what I have recently started calling my ‘imaginative labour.’
Creativity is not just recreational - it is work ....
Imaginative labour represents, for me, a unity of creative work, of imagining possibilities on the one hand, and the craft of writing, making, or building, on the other. Writing and making, though, are not merely the extended, mundane phase of putting into words,into forms, or into practice the spark which inspiration has delivered suddenly and in a flash. Ideas do sometimes come as epiphanies, as did the idea for this piece on a train trip between this city’s suburbs. I’d suggest, though, that the creative and crafting processes don’t exist in binary opposition, or in a simple sequence, but are bound up in each other. They both require or, better, make possible a shuttling back and forth, such that the conjuring of inspiration and the search for words and formulations blur into each other and continue to inform throughout. This way of working is both inspired and, in a positive sense, laborious. For now, though, my point is that an element of creativity inheres within all writing and making processes, even those modes of writing and making that seem more functional or utilitarian. Both my books require imaginative labour of me, as does my public engagement work, I've come to realise. It’s something I believe we need to cultivate, harness and, ideally, build into our working practices in higher education.
Concerns over imaginative labour ...
Two things seem to deter university colleagues from undertaking public engagement. Firstly, there are the concerns about the time they will lose from working on more conventional research activities. Secondly, there are the concerns that they cannot see how the work they do, with its specialised focus and its own highly refined concepts and language, will bring benefit or even mean anything to non-specialists. At the heart of this latter concern is, I would suggest, a certain fear, or in some cases a cynicism, that some colleagues have regarding their own ability to communicate their work effectively and meaningfully outside their usual professional constituency. Over the last decade I have formed the conviction that, to overcome such thinking in ourselves and to help more of our colleagues to do the same, we need to find more space for imaginative labour. This doesn't mean engagement practitioners should be doing work on behalf of their academic colleagues, or telling them how to do it, but that universities should be paying people to create environments in which academics have time and freedom to explore how their work connects with the work of interlocutors and potential partners from other sectors. Facilitated by mentors and project specialists, I believe we need to create and run programmes and events in which our colleagues can meet representatives from government, healthcare, the arts, from industry or social services or other sectors to develop meaningful and sustained relationships with them, envision, plans, and start to deliver projects fruitful for all concerned.
Imagine, for instance, a highly experienced midwife, who is interested in working with researchers to find new ways of enhancing the experience of childbirth within a national, public healthcare system. Imagine her sitting down with an historian working on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s eighteenth-century, politically contentious writing on femininity, the female physiology and the nature of motherhood, and a film scholar using feminist methodologies to critique representations of childbirth in contemporary cinema and television. What might they have to say to each other? The very act of placing these imaginary colleagues together in a notionally shared space, of describing them and their work in the particular way that we have, seems to bring to the fore their shared interests. We might even begin to imagine what they might work together on, and how. Yet any one of those colleagues might struggle, before meeting, to see how their work might enrich the work of the others, how what they are doing together could result in a multi-modal engagement project delivering all manner of benefits to women in childbirth, how, in short, the proverbial ‘whole’ of their combined efforts would almost certainly mean more than the sum of their individual parts. In bringing these imagined practitioners together, though, I’d argue that we have already begun an (admittedly fictional) curatorial process and thus pre-invested in their work. Imagine, now, a scenario in which their line manager wants to help. She finds a way to give them time and resource to engage in more imaginative labour of their own within a workplace context.
Imaginative labour represents the resources and energy I think our fictitious colleagues could invest to get their project started. However, it also represents the kind of work I think they need to be doing, working between the established bodies of knowledge and cumulative experience each of them has to offer, the familiar language in which all of that is couched, and the more fluid possibilities of collaborative, interdisciplinary and trans-sector working, new concepts, terms and methods, which exist for each of them beyond the comfort zones of their own sphere of activity. This fluidity is explored not simply by retreating to a fantasy realm in which all things are possible, but as a dialogue between established methods and new possibilities, and involves a range of practices including presenting, listening, questioning, negotiating, flipping, perspective switching, reimagining and most likely much more. Imaginative labour is creative, yet is not merely recreational - it is a way of working that contains at least some element of play and can be hugely productive and transformative.
CO-LAB - new ways of working, together ...
Over the last twelve months, I conceived and set up a programme called CO-LAB within the Warwick Institute of Engagement. It meets in an ostensibly social context, though purposefully brings together colleagues who are working on common themes, though from different disciplines, sectors and often working with radically different methods. CO-LAB asks them to pitch, present, talk and explore in a free-form manner the work that they might have in common and where their shared interests might lead. It isn’t a space to kick back or freeload, and what is undertaken there isn’t lightweight, or even the dreaded ‘blue-sky thinking’. It is work of the imagination.
Vital to grasp is that the work undertaken here is not forced labour and that there is no pressure for immediate results. CO-LAB is not one of the ‘boot-camps’ universities like to run to hit deadlines and targets - which do have their place and purpose. Our project is rather a context for work and a way of working and is all about protecting colleagues’ capacity to engage in the sort of work I have been outlining here. Imaginative labour and the capacity to engage in it are, arguably, the first things we shut down as we head towards our limits and, eventually, into burnout. There seems to be an interest in the 'what', the 'how' and the 'why 'of CO-LAB at my university: our first CO-LAB in May 2023 was about the synergies and connections that exist between the sciences, technology, engineering, and maths ('STEM') and what happens when those subject reconnect with the arts (giving 'STEAM'). It proved a great success, the programme continues, and I know that similar things are happening elsewhere across the sector.
Done well and done smartly, this kind of work can be an extraordinarily productive and rewarding. It might even help others, as it has helped me, to engage in all manner of creative work in and around the projects you need to be getting on with – and serve to enrich both sets of activity in unforeseen ways. To invest in imaginative labour is to invest both in ourselves and in others and to recognise both the cost and the value of how we need to work now.