Creativity cruise in an ocean of photocopies

18th April 2008 at 01:00

Which is more annoying: being interrupted by a shouting child or pressing "start" on a photocopier? I find photocopiers less wearying - at least you can switch them off. What's more, a study by Cambridge University has found that some teachers genuinely miss photocopying, among other "low-level" tasks that have now been passed on to teaching assistants.

The workload agreement "liberated" teachers from these "routine and irksome" jobs to give us more "dedicated time for reflection". The trouble is, I don't get my best ideas when I'm sitting at my desk with all my pens in a row and a blank screen in front of me. I get them when I'm watering pansies or running a bubble bath.

Ideas are like cats: they don't come when you call them. But if you ignore them and do something else, they eventually come and find you in their spooky, silent way. What neither an idea nor a cat will ever do is say: "Cripes, look at the time. Must get a move on or I'll miss my slot."

Creativity comes at uncreative moments. That's why a routine job need not be irksome. The workload agreement doesn't understand this, however. Its model of human thought is divided up like the feudal system. "Ooh, I'm a teacher. I'm the king. You, lowly teaching assistant - come here, serf. You must do this boring task for thruppence an hour. I shall sit on my golden cushion and think. Your brain must snooze so that mine may soar. Here, run off a furlong of these papers for me. It is Wednesday and I must do some lofty reflection. Umm ."

Meanwhile, those of us who have normal brains instead of creepy timetabled ones find that we can't switch on the "ideas" function at two o'clock every Wednesday afternoon. We may keep that appointment ourselves, but the funky ideas bit of our brains is still having a nice long lunch somewhere and can't be found.

The fact is, our wonderful hard-working brains do need some tasks that don't demand very much of them. No big decisions, just, "Do you want A4? Double-sided?" That's enough. The brain needs its cruising time in order to soar; its unpredictable flights need to be coaxed with some coasting.

Even if you don't have a brilliant idea while you're photocopying, who cares? At least you'll have a rest. When a photocopier is working happily, it makes quite a soothing noise, like a baby robot sleeping: "Zeeeee, burf. Zeeeee, burf." At times like this it seems to accept being a lowly thing, content to serve those of us with brains.

Those three minutes of listening to its smooth mechanical breathing are often more of a break than breaktime, a small bubble of peace afloat upon an ocean of chaos. We'll soon have to plunge beneath the waves again, so we may as well enjoy it. As Jerome K Jerome said: "It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do."

Catherine Paver, Writer and part-time teacher of English.

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