I’ve always envied people who could work in coffee shops. Or in the park, or at the beach. When you spend the bulk of your time as a grad student reading, writing, or doing online research, it’s nice to vary your work environment. I learned this the hard way while I was studying for my first major PhD exam–after a solid week of reading in my bedroom and living room I had the crazies pretty bad. Luckily the occasional walk around the block or brief break at the nearby coffee shop was all I needed to break up the monotony. Nice, but I still couldn’t REALLY work anywhere but my own home–not for more than an hour, anyway.
Everyone has a study environment that works best for them–the trick is finding out which one. A lot of my colleagues have “study dates”–get-togethers with small groups of grad students in homes or coffee shops where you get a chance to interact with other human beings but have a clear study goal in mind. I hear that people who work from home have begun to set up similar networks designed to keep you working but also keep you from feeling too isolated. When you’ve finished grad coursework and are spending all your time either researching or writing, study dates can be a life saver. Good ideas rarely happen in a vacuum–getting out and talking to people, even about trivial things, can get the wheels turning. And talking to them about your research, obviously, can help you see it in a new way. As long as your study dates don’t turn into extended gab sessions.
Some of my friends can’t ever work at home–too relaxing, too many distractions (I have the same problem with coffee shops). One of my professors wrote a great deal of her book manuscript sitting by the Los Angeles River. Which might sound idyllic unless you’ve been there.
Dissertation support groups are fairly common on college campuses–they help alleviate writer’s block and serve many of the same functions as study dates. In the end, though we meet and interact through lectures, conferences, and courses, humanities research is a fairly solitary activity. And as introverted as many of us are, we still need human contact occasionally–not just for the benefit of our work but for the benefit of our sanity.
These days, as I’ve moved away from coursework and into the beginning of my dissertation, I have to constantly remind myself that I can’t do all of this alone. Sure, the actual writing and research will be done alone, but along the way I’ll exchange emails, attend seminars, have coffee, hit people up for recommendation letters, correspond with journals for potential publication, and ask for random pieces of advice from people I trust. All of which has a tendency to make me queasy, because there are times when I’d just rather do it all alone. Lock myself in a room full of books and a computer and just churn out brilliance. No need to respond to harsh critiques or gentle praise that smacks of condescension–it would be just me and the work, make of it what you will.
It’s a bullshit idea, of course. Isolating though it might be, the world of academia is a social one. All our books and papers and conference presentations really don’t mean much if no one reads them, and an idea isn’t really a great idea until it’s been challenged and picked apart by the best of the best. We may occasionally revel in solitude, but the successful among us probably aren’t going to buy a house there.
So even though I work best in my bedroom with the door closed, in the coming weeks and months I’m going to do my best to venture out. Maybe to coffee shops, maybe to lectures, maybe to study dates or dissertation support groups. Admitting you need help–lots of it–isn’t easy, but if the lengthy “Acknowledgements” pages in dissertations-turned-books are any indication, nobody gets anything done in academia without a ton of support and guidance.