By: Zoe Strimpel
PhD, History, First Year
I had always assumed that scholars – particularly historians – were a reclusive bunch, invariably choosing archives over the pub, or an evening in with secondary sources over dinner with friends. In my former life, as a journalist constantly zipping around London in a busy round of networking and hedonism (if I didn’t sample Mayfair’s suavest new espresso martini, who would?), I looked on at my academic friends with pity. How focussed they all were – ploughing away for hours in libraries, or in the dusty basements of their institutions of interest. Very Casaubon from Middlemarch.
How curiously different the life of the scholar has been so far for me. Having quaked at warnings that being a PhD student is a terribly isolating experience, I have to say that I find it almost relentlessly social.
Archive-combing by yourself, hour after hour? Possibly, sometimes. but for the researcher using the British Library or the National Archives, it’s like being in the middle of one of the biggest social clubs in Britain. Far from being lonely in my scholarly pursuits, I’ve found I have to hide in order to get more than an hour’s work done without interruption. Don’t get me wrong: when I see someone I know in the library, I am always pleased. But when it’s the fourth person that day, I feel a spike of panic. I remember that the historian’s work is nothing without research – unlike in journalism, where chit-chat, booze and sociality are a fairly big part of the job description. And – unlike journalistic writing – you can’t just dip in and out of research: absorbed in the finer points of cultural historical critique, I must be honest. Switching to coffee and catch-up mode is easy, but getting back is extremely hard.
To help other researchers who feel as though going to the library is sometimes like going to the Groucho club on a Saturday night, I’ve compiled a few handy tips for keeping focussed.
1. While walking to and into the library, and all the way until you’re at your workspace, do not make the error of keeping your head down and scuttling. Offense is the best defence in this case: keep your eyes peeled, scanning the area at all times in panoramic sweeps. This way, YOU, not the chatterbox from your undergraduate days in Chess Club, have control. You see him first? You can redirect, or simply hold back till danger has passed. You can save valuable time and social energy this way. Had you kept your head down, he’d have called out to you and you’d still be revisiting the chess club days when you could be five pages into that essential Foucauldian counter-critique.
2. Be assertive. One recent day – due to a terribly slow start – I had done a total of 25 minutes of studying when an email popped in from an Aramaic expert post-doc friend wondering if I was about for lunch. It was nearly one, but if I stopped I’d never get into a flow (or not till library closing time), and I’d be tapping my foot and self-flagellating throughout lunch. I discarded my first impulse, which was to pretend I hadn’t seen the email, knowing this was implausible since I am clearly an email addict and this guy knows it. So I wrote back saying I simply had to work through but perhaps we could have coffee later if I had been productive. He understood, said he was off for the day soon, and I was able to proceed uninterrupted.
3. Reduce visibility. Be smart about where and when you take your water, coffee and lunch breaks. If you want to just grab a bite and head straight back, leave the building at a brisk walk and go to the cafe, or the Pret, across the street. Do not stay in whatever café/canteen the library supplies if you don’t want to get side-tracked into a lengthy and unplanned social situation – the kind where you’re nearly done when Jill or Jim from Art History sees you and sits down with a fresh and giant baked potato with more than the usual spill of beans and tuna on top.
4. Prioritise. This is going to sound snobbish, but choose who is worth your mid-day time. If there’s someone who you can’t see at other times, like an elusive professor, or someone who you’ve been saying you’ll see for ages but have been postponing, then do it. Take the chance – even if it puts you off your stride. But make sure the source of your mid-day Americano and Proper PopCorn is worth it.
5.Consolidate. Say you keep running into people, or they keep tapping you on the shoulder, or – as happened to me the other day – they literally flag you down in the reading room. Well, brush them all off with the promise of a drink later, then write an email to them ALL suggesting a pint for 8pm, when you’re tired out from all that concentrating.
To conclude, I’m not for a minute saying the life of the scholar precludes social life – in fact I’d die without sufficient socialising. I’m just saying that – given just how chatty academics turn out to be – it’s worth reigning in both their, and your, socializing impulses so that you can both make progress and be the centre of the party all at once.
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