Research in Term Time : howtowhenwhywhat (and i think i found something that works for me)

Doing research in term time: myth or reality? For me, this was a myth for a long time; who am I kidding though – it still is in many ways. An oasis shimmering in the desert, taunting me whilst I try to drag a tired, parched body towards the British Library. Every year, before Week 0 in late September, I have a beautifully-organised schedule which allows me one or even two full days of research in the British Library.

In the first two weeks, though, I won’t go because it is ‘the beginning of term’ and I just accept that my workload is crazy big. In the last few weeks of term, I have so much to get through before Christmas/Easter/Summer that I write it off too. Somewhere in the middle I may get a day or two in there – but the regularity, discipline and research-driven rush I’m looking for is absent.

I kind of learned my lesson in 2016-17, and decided that I should not plan for a full day, but half a day, in the British Library, writing and researching. A more manageable timeframe meant a more achievable goal. Aside from 1 or 2 weeks, I really stuck to it. But was it efficient? At the time I didn’t feel it was very efficient. Although I could sometimes get a few more hours in during my ‘half day’, making it a luxurious full day (whoop whoop), having a week’s separation between research days was big. I felt disconnected from the material. It’s only when I came to write up my research in the December/January holidays that I realised that I had subconsciously internalised more material and reflections than I’d originally thought.

This academic year, 2017-18, I decided to repeat this schedule which had been more successful than any past attempt. Except my greediness took over again: half a day a week at the BL minimum. I had a deadline I had to keep to: the birth of my second child in mid-Jan. I had to write up my research from the summer by late December, and submit an article to a journal. I even added in some hopeful evening work – oh, the fool! That was the first to go as marking, admin and tiredness took over. Within 3 weeks I realised I had really over-estimated the time I could devote to my research. The first few weeks of term were write offs; I then had to go on sick leave from exhaustion and illness linked to my pregnancy; I then had to catch up on all the work I’d missed; I would then have to get all my ducks in a row before leaving for mat leave on 16 Dec. So the days flew by, with work piling high on my desk and by late November I felt that the BL was further away than ever.

So I decided to change strategy. Inspired by the idea of one colleague, I would spend the first hour of the work morning on my research and writing. If you stick to it, that is 5 hours a week. But could I stick to it was the question, obviously; as it turns out, I kinda did.

After dropping my son off at nursery, I would pop into the café opposite and, rather than attempt to squeeze onto public transport with my ever-growing stomach, I would sit with a cup of coffee and an almond croissant for approx. 1 hour writing up my research.

And it worked. Not perfectly – I could not do it every morning, and my article still isn’t finished – but something happened, something clicked. In the last few weeks, as I was giving myself an almost daily window of intellectual freedom and inspiration, I

  • accumulated the research hours over the week
  • felt continuity in my research work in spite of the term time workload
  • varied between 30-90 minutes, making these micro-sessions easily adaptable to my daily schedule
  • started every day in a good mood, excited by the research rush and delighted I had some ‘me’ time
My morning routine this fall/winter also consisted of drawing window art on steamy bus windows to amuse my toddler.

 

I suppose these daily micro-research sessions are is kind of like waking up and going for a jog, a stretch, a meditation session: it need not be very long, but just doing it gives you a little shot of endorphins. Physically and mentally, it did me a lot of good to have those few minutes, almost every day between 8h30 and 9h30am, devoted to my research. It also added continuity to my research routine, something which had been absent the year before.

Now I need to stop writing this blog post because I still have to finish the article I want to submit before my baby arrives. And I’m due in a few days time so I need to get a move one.

But here is the gist: this rhythm of a daily research hour first thing in the work morning did not solve all my ‘research in term time problems’ – but it did prove beneficial both intellectually and especially mentally. I became a happier lecturer as a result of this. I resented marking a lot less following my research rush of the morning.

So I’m definitely going to give it another go next year when I come back from mat leave. And who knows, maybe having a first hour of writing in the morning is a good habit to keep out of term time too.

 

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