“New ideas come often when I’m not expecting them”

Academic Dr Joseph Mason tells us how he is creative at work…

What do you do?

I’m a  tutor at one of the colleges in Oxford and engage in post-doctoral research when I am not teaching.

Would you describe what you do as creative? If so, how?

Yes to a certain extent. In my research (and perhaps in my teaching too), I have to think broadly to apply new ideas to pre-existent scholarship or primary material. But there is also a significant analytic component to the kinds of thinking that I do, which requires different kinds of skills!

What motivates you to think creatively in this way?

There’s an obligation to think in this way – publish or perish! I have to have new ideas that I can publish, which  are essential for an academic career.

In a couple of sentences, can you describe your daily routine?

I work at my desk in my office, mostly in silence, but sometimes move to libraries or the common room to provoke new ideas. I take breaks during which I move (walking, swimming, running, playing the piano), which helps me to think.

What do you read/see/listen to, to inspire yourself?

I listen to and read other musicologists/scholars. I especially like reading texts/listening to talks in which a new theoretical concept is introduced.

Who inspires you, and why?

Senior scholars. I am constantly amazed at their breadth of knowledge, their incisive and analytical thinking, and their ability to write and speak clearly. I aspire to be like them one day!

Where and when do you find you work best?

Afternoons in my office or in a library.

What constitutes as your ‘creative infrastructure’?

My office space needs to be relatively tidy. Natural light is helpful and I pretty much need silence. Music in the background just tends to distract me, although I can sometimes listen to very repetitive music such as Morales’ Officium Defunctorum.

On a daily basis, how do you set yourself up to succeed?

I have a list of things that I want to achieve. I avoid procrastinating by jumping straight in with a task and then revising my work afterwards. I set manageable goals for the time that I have.

How do you switch on – or off – your creativity at particular times? Or are ideas constantly running through your mind, like problem-solving?

I find it very difficult to switch on creativity. New ideas often come when I'm not expecting them, which is why I try and take breaks during which I move around. I sometimes have new ideas when I'm running, swimming, cycling or walking. Switching off is not so difficult: the critical side of thinking just kicks in. (I think that's probably the way that I've been trained to think during my masters and doctorate.)

So creativity in your every-day life means making use of new ideas/theoretical concepts in your research and when you teach, and you are inspired by coming across new ideas/theoretical concepts?

Yes, I think that's about right. The creativity comes in thinking about a piece of music or a methodological question in a new way. The critical bit comes next, thinking about how it applies and what its ramifications are.

I’m very interested by the difference between your creative and analytical thinking. Do you ever come with an original idea or kind of analysis to apply to your research? Or do you see your role as an academic to use/critique the theories and ideas of others, and to apply this to your own research?

Originality in academia is an interesting question, I think. What I try to do is look at a piece of evidence or scholarly problem in a new way, but I think this is heavily informed by things I have already read, concepts I've already encountered, knowledge I've amassed etc. It's difficult to draw the line here between analysis and creativity. As a side note, that's actually a distinction that medieval thinkers probably wouldn't have recognised. Being creative or 'invention' was thought to be a process of 'finding' (inventio from invenire, to find), searching through one's well-ordered memory to (re)construct a text, image or indeed melody. Work on this subject by the historian Mary Carruthers is well worth a read, for anyone interested! (Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).)