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Those Wonderous [Academic] Stories by Claire Warden

A few weeks ago I indulged another of my slightly off-the-wall passions by heading to Glasgow for a Yes gig. Progressive rock (at least the softer side of this movement) is one of my ever-growing interests. Before discovering these bands I only listened to classical music in the assumption that only poor musicians play rock. How wrong I was! I am always amazed by the dexterity, talent and incredible musicianship of these performers and, even as they get older, their commitment to creating challenging music. For these guys are risk takers. They do not hide behind G,D,C chords or 4/4 time signatures; their music is dangerous, unpredictable and exciting. Through all the perils of tough tempos and impossible lyrics, they strive for excellence while being aware that such risks might necessarily mean that perfection is impossible. As always, I find it inconceivable to disconnect my work from my passions and began to wonder how we might incorporate a level of risk taking into our daily academic lives.


It is certainly important to develop this strategy in teaching. Safe teaching, trudging over well-worn ground is as dull as it sounds. Risky teaching (exploring new methods of learning, asking students for feedback, incorporating new material on to the syllabus, making lectures more interactive) is exciting, though, of course, fraught with danger. Imagining the classroom/lecture hall/studio as a space of exploration, experimentation and constant learning on both sides of that artificial student-faculty divide transforms our teaching style.

We can also take risks in our research, of course. This might mean stepping out of our specific field. It might lead to new collaborations with colleagues, opening up our research to another’s input. It might be the decision to present at a new conference or to send an article to a different journal, perhaps even a little outside of our field. Perhaps this sort of approach requires us to really consider the direction of our research and to think about new paths, to imagine new projects that seem impossible. It might lead to a grant application, a chance to grapple with those horrid forms and make our research vulnerable in new ways. In all this, laying aside time to think about research directions and plans is vital. So often this time is the first thing to go when term gets busy but I’ve been challenged afresh recently that without these days of experimental exploration (or shadowy “unquantifiable activities” as Thomas Docherty recently put it) we find ourselves becoming stagnant.

Perhaps there are risks we can take in our respective institutions. Are there new research groups that could be established, new cross-faculty relationships to be engendered or new potential ways of encouraging young scholars? Are there things that need to be challenged even if we are a little nervous about putting our head above the parapet?

And so, returning to Yes, here are five guys who could hang up their drumsticks, plectrums and mellotrons, opting instead for an easier pace and relying on the royalties or on churning out the old favourites. Of all the things I love most about my old proggers, it is their commitment to taking risks that I find really endearing and admirable. Even at this early stage in our academic careers it seems important to commit to a risk-taking approach now so that when the admin takes over or the thought of beginning a brand new project seems overwhelming, we can return to our first intention. All the best thinkers have led dangerous lives, willing to fail. Only then we will be able to play keys like the ever-fabulous Geoff Downes.

After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Edinburgh, Claire, one of our regular bloggers, was appointed Lecturer in Drama at the University of Lincoln in 2010. Her first monograph, ‘British Avant-Garde Theatre’ (Palgrave MacMillan) is due out in Spring 2012.

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