Playgrounds and serious work in academia: an essay and research agenda

The trio of curiosity, imagination and play are at the core of learning processes from earliest childhood (Görlitz & Wohlwill, 1987). However, despite the importance of learning and creativity in academia, this trio dissolves in representations of how academics continue to learn throughout their careers. The three notions are treated separately and weighted differently. Whereas curiosity is considered an essential point of departure for triggering research questions and motivating the research process, as evidenced in academic obituaries (Hamann, 2016), and imagination is mentioned as an important ingredient in some disciplines, such as C. Wright Mills’ slim volume, The Sociological Imagination, little attention has been paid to the value and role of play in the work of academics. Although the organizational behavior literature is starting to encourage managers to take play seriously as a source of creativity (Statler, Roos, Victor, 2009), activities or topics outside the immediate focus of productivity may be considered “misbehaving” in the serious world of academia, detracting from the pursuit of a sober and reputable endeavor, especially at a time when outputs are increasingly measured. This essay therefore considers the various ways in which academics may establish and use “playgrounds” for themselves in which to explore subjects or activities that are not central to their current research or teaching. It discusses possible dynamics between such marginal playgrounds and the core of academic work, and lays out a research agenda for studying and valuing the phenomenon of play in academia.

Görlitz, D., Wohlwill, J., eds. (1987). Curiosity, Imagination, and Play. On the development of spontaneous cognitive and motivational processes. Hillsdale, New Jersey and London: Laurence Erlbaum Associates

Hamann, J. (2016). ‘Let us salute one of our kind’. How academic obituaries consecrate research biographies. Poetics 56/2014: 1-14.

Mills, C. Wright (1959). The Sociological Imagination.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Statler, M., Roos, D., Victor, B. (2009).  Ain’t misbehaving. Taking play seriously in organizations. Journal of Change Management. 9/1: 87-107.

Discussant: Richard Shearmur

PLACES: Session 2