Simone Webb is a first year Gender Studies PhD student at University College London. She’s researching genre in the works of early modern women philosophers, including Damaris Masham, Mary Astell and Catharine Cockburn. Her undergraduate degree was in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and her Master’s was in Women’s Studies, both at the University of Oxford. Her research is interdisciplinary, crossing history of philosophy, intellectual history, literary history and genre studies. In this blog, Simone discusses some of the physical and practical aspects of productivity.
Today I am sitting at my desk in my bedroom, typing on a laptop keyboard, slightly hunched over what is a far from ergonomic set-up. The room is quiet and solitary. Tomorrow I may walk two miles to UCL, where I’m studying for my PhD, laptop heavy in my backpack, and work in the departmental common room. Here, the chair, desk and laptop configuration will be no more conducive to soothing my back-ache, but there’ll probably be other PhD students around to talk to and maybe grab lunch with. Chatter which is both pleasantly friendly and distracting. Of course, I could also go to the main university library, where it’s often difficult to find a seat and where there’s only one toilet, up a flight of stairs and down a corridor.
The process of academic research – in the humanities in particular – is often framed as an intellectual endeavour, characterised by a threefold process of reading, thinking and writing. My field is history of philosophy: I read the intellectual output of people who lived three to four hundred years ago, then turn my thoughts on that into my own intellectual output. This way of considering the research process, however, can fail to take sufficient account of the fact that all aspects of academic research must be physically located. We all have (or are, on some accounts) bodies, after all, and even the most dedicated Cartesian dualist must admit that we need to put those bodies somewhere while we’re doing the intellectual labour that makes up our profession. More than this, though, where we put our bodies and how we physically do our work can have a considerable effect on physical health, mental health, and academic productivity and creativity.
All else being equal, I would love to work in my room most of the time: I’m at my most productive here, and I have access to all my personal books as well as all the books I currently have out of the library. I can take a break easily to grab a cup of tea, or pop out to the shop to get a can of Coke. I am free from distractions. However, when I work all day from my room, I get achy and lethargic by the late afternoon. My mood becomes very strange from a day spent working in isolation. My back hurts. I stop being able to concentrate on reading anything. I also don’t get much thinking done: I can write and read, but personally my most creative moments come when I’m walking – in the two mile walk I take to university, my mind will often be running on what I’ve been reading or working on, and coming up with the ideas that I’ll put into words when I’m back sitting at a desk. I need to give myself the physical space away from a computer, away from the reading, before I can really come up with new ideas. Walking into university and back also gives me a good four mile round walk –important to my feeling of physical well-being, when so much of my working day is spent sitting down. Unlike a lot of my peers, however, I don’t find I work best from a library: rather than being focused by the silence and the presence of people working around me, I can find the proximity of so much material that I could be reading and feel as if I should already have read stressful and distracting by contrast to the more limited range of material I have close at hand when I work from home.
I’ve not yet figured out the ideal way to balance all the issues involved in the physical side of academic work. I’m resigned to having a certain amount of back trouble for the near future, and navigating the tension between getting good amounts of work done and avoiding solitude by being near to other people is difficult for me. I do have a few tips and suggestions, however (which, being very rooted in my personal experiences, should of course be taken with as many pinches of salt as required).
- I go boxing two or three times a week, and find it invaluable for physical and emotional well-being. It provides an environment where I’m too focused on physical activity to think about my academic work for an hour or two, allows me to be around other people without being demandingly social, and gets my body moving. My mental work throughout the day is balanced out with the focus on what my body is doing when I’m exercising. A boxing session can really transform my mood and outlook after a long and solitary day of research in my room. Which isn’t to say that all academics should take up boxing, of course (although I’m a bit of an evangelist for the sport), but I would recommend some kind of primarily physical activity to counterbalance the mental labour of academia.
- For a while I was getting stressed by the feeling that I ought to be working in libraries more, and that I was doing something wrong by working a lot from my room. I’ve accepted now that I work well from my room – I like the space, I like the ability to go downstairs and cook a proper lunch when I’m hungry, and I like being able to stretch out on my bed with a book. I do make the effort to walk into university and be around people, but my best work gets done from home and I’ve accepted that. Don’t get too distracted by where other people work and study – work where you feel best.
- Finally, and I think most importantly, don’t forget that exercise and physical breaks away from your desk and your computer shouldn’t necessarily be seen as something other than the work of thinking that forms a large component of academic research. Putting off a walk, a run, or even just a trip to the nearest coffee-shop because of a feeling that you ought to spend another hour at your desk runs the risk of failing to make space for the thinking and daydreaming that gets done when you haven’t got a page in front of you to read or to fill with words. I find I need to give myself mental space to let my mind wander and form connections between ideas – and for me, that means I need some physical space as well.