In depth

In the last weeks, two short pieces of writing caught my attention more than others (i.e. they provoked some thoughts beyond regular procrastination). The first was a blog by thelabandfield about the lack of theatrical spirit in academia, which nicely explained how some character traits seem to be common in the arts but lacking in academia. Most people appear to have interpreted this as a “peer review is nasty” -- not quite the quintessential topic of the blog. Anyway, my immediate thought, after I started reading, was: that’s right, academics are under so much pressure that they have no time to devote to other things… like exposing themselves to artsy things. Clearly, not the quintessential topic of the blog (as I discovered by reading past the first paragraph). In fact, it was not even a minor topic of the blog, but it was enough to turn some wheels and foster the thought that many academics, and PhDs in particular (or post-docs, associated professors, professors…), don’t have sufficient exposure to the arts (please don’t even think about Triple J’s Hottest 100 now… please. For people outside Australia, Triple J's Hottest 100 is not a collection of 100 scantily dressed females -- it's an Australian people's choice of their favourite 100 songs of the year).

The second article was in The Guardian and raised some serious issues concerning the mental health of academics. This time, I think I got the message right – mental health issues are more common in academia than we think.

I then thought back to my initial misinterpretation of thelabandfield’s blog and immediately created a link between the two. This is mostly due to personal experience. I have sung in choirs, played instruments, and acted for most of my life and I have always enjoyed non-scientific writing (whether or not any of the latter actually qualifies as art is disputable; I’ll admit that). I have, however, also noticed that all these activities had/have enormous positive effects on general (mental) well-being/sanity, at least for me (self experiment #1: Get some friends together. Have some beers. Sing some songs that everybody knows). I have then reflected on the last years of my life and came to the conclusion that, compared to the time I spend in my office (i.e. the beloved tin box that has recently added rain-permeability to its range of likable attributes), I don’t dedicate nearly enough time towards creative, artsy activities (or something close to art). Maybe other people in academia find this to be true for themselves? And maybe there is, in fact, a link between this lack of practicing/performing art and mental health issues? I know that art is not everybody’s thing (might not be mine either – I’ll leave that to your judgment after reading the words below) but I’m sure that in one way or the other, everybody has a talent (liking every man and his dog’s post on facebook or sharing cat videos really doesn’t count here... nor does making graphs in Adobe Illustrator). And I know for certain that many academics have lost the sense for the world outside their field (nicely illustrated here).

Therefore, for my own sanity (mostly… I’m selfish), to be a good role model, and to maybe expose some people to matters other than their study organism and foster some creative, non-scientific thinking, here’s the non-prosaic result of my pondering. A marine-ornithological-pseudo-philosophical-academia poem. The interpretation is certainly flexible and will be quite dependent on personal thought processes – that’s the fun of it. I did, however, have very specific ideas in mind and tried to illustrate these as clearly and cryptically as possible. Clyptically, basically. Nice antithesis anyway (self experiment #2: if you just read the word ‘antithesis’ and immediately thought that I’m trying to destroy your PhD-work, than you’re definitely due for some artsy stuff outside academia. Congrats.).

In this spirit – enjoy. And here's a booby for you in case you don't like the poem.

A seabird. Coincidence? Photo taken the amazing photographer JM Casey.


In Depth

On slender wings,

Through endless sky,

Unostentatious grace.

Ascends, and flings,

Off every tie,

A whole world to embrace.


What route to take,

Which path to go,

In eager aspiration,

A fickle flake,

Of summer snow,

Temptation, hesitation.


In glitt’ring suit,

Silvery bright

An object of desire.

Worth the pursuit,

In rapid flight,

Or fly a little higher?


One daring trice,

Spirited fall,

To billows rogue and rough,

For the enticed,

Shiny and small,

Through winds that blow and sough.


A silky chill,

The ocean’s skin,

Soon soaked through to the bone,

But don’t stand still,

No fear within,

Oligophotic zone.


To deeper realms,

Would lead the chase,

As darkness closes in,

It overwhelms,

Engulfs apace,

‘Tis worth it for the win?


But by and by,

The dark depths gape,

Weary and desperate looks,

Yearning to fly,

And to escape,

The will-o’-wisps and hooks.


Remembers then,

The world atop,

Its beauty, joy, and light.

To live again,

Leaves Neptune’s naught,

Soars skywards like a kite.

 SJB, March 2014