by Cally Guerin
As I sit down at my laptop set up on the kitchen bench, I find myself wondering where all those PhD theses get written. I’m not quite certain why this is where I choose to write. Sure, it’s a bit warmer here in the kitchen during the cold, wet Adelaide winter, and I can get up every now and then to stir the quince jam that’s bubbling away on the stove. I do have a perfectly good study here at home, but when I’ve got the house to myself, I always seem to end up here on the kitchen bench to write. And I know of others who actually prefer the busy life and noise of the family to surround them as they settle into their writing at the kitchen table.
A friend confided that she really needed to go into her work office to do any serious writing and never seemed able to make much progress anywhere else. She described entering her office as ‘putting on her carapace’ and harnessing herself to the intellectual activity of writing. Trying to write while in another country on study leave just didn’t have the same soothing sense of habitual scholarly demeanor.
Laptops and wifi make it easier than ever to work in cafes with a lively buzz of activity in the background (it’s harder to fall asleep in such public places, too!). The local park might beckon in good weather. For those with busy work and family lives who choose to undertake doctoral studies part time, a lot of writing can be done in the car while waiting for children to finish their sports practice.
Doctoral students are often encouraged to establish regular habits around writing times and places (e.g., Kearns & Gardiner, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful PhD Students). This writing might take place in in brief snatches of time (snack writing) or it might be planned out in extended writing binges (Murray 2002/2011). When we talk about ‘writing as a social activity’ (Aitchison & Lee 2006), does this also call into play the social nature of those spaces at some level?
There are times when I grumpily tell students that they can’t complain about feeling isolated during their candidature if they choose to work at home alone every day and not participate in the collegial life of their discipline. But then those students have told me that sometimes the spaces provided by their university are problematic because of the noise and activity levels of open-space offices shared by 10 to 20 students. While such arrangements might be great for creating a sense of community, there is always someone chatting or taking a phone call, or entering or leaving the space, distracting and disturbing others’ concentration.
Where do you write or encourage your students to write? What kinds of writing spaces are most conducive to the kind of rigorous intellectual activity that is required at doctoral level? Are we sometimes kidding ourselves about how much writing actually gets done in those institutionally sanctioned, relatively public spaces? I’d love to hear more about where theses are written and why those spaces work so well.
Murray, R. (2002/2011) How to Write a Thesis, Open University Press.