Research Problems: Loneliness

When I started this blog, I imagined it would be a place where I could post short articles about topics I was investigating. I wanted it to be a means of communicating ideas to others who have similar research interests, as well as offering some insight to friends and family regarding how I work, what interests me, and why.

It hasn’t worked out that way.

Over the past month, I have been struggling with a lot of stresses–from a hectic end of the academic semester (typical) to witnessing a murder in my neighborhood (not typical). There are many reasons I feel drained of mental, physical and emotional energy. But with respect to my writing, I ultimately realized that I need to address another issue, because I was sure I couldn’t be the only writer/researcher who routinely struggles not to abandon her work because it subjects her to long periods of loneliness and isolation.

I’m not, actually. A quick Google search showed me that this topic isn’t new to bloggers: see here and here and here and here for just a handful of examples within the past few years. These are generic articles aimed at any writer, though, and I think there are a few additional dilemmas faced by researchers in very specialized areas. So I am going to elaborate on a few of those now.

My post count tells me that, at present, I have 24 half-finished drafts of posts on various topics. I tinker with one (or more) of them every day. I spend even more time on drafts of the actual manuscript, but am equally unproductive there. I have (I think) five–yes, five–actual followers on WordPress (the count looks higher due to the page being linked with Twitter, though I don’t think more than a handful of people actually read what gets posted there, either). Admittedly, I don’t have high goals for my readership, because the topics I explore are quite obscure and specialized. But what becomes problematic is when I get stuck in my work and I realize that I don’t have very many people I can turn to, who have enough knowledge of the subject themselves to offer me sound advice.

I am an introvert who enjoys solitude to a point, and writing is, by its very nature, frequently a solitary endeavour. But research doesn’t have to be. I work at a small college, and most of the faculty can go to coffee or lunch with others in their department (or even the equivalent department at other nearby colleges) and talk about their projects and get insight from someone who has more than a passing interest in what they are doing. With regard to my collections-based work, and some of my Parkinson research, my supervisor, Doug Shedd, is my go-to person. No one else at my institution has the in-depth personal interest in my projects. But there are limits to what Doug can help with when it comes to my research. So I turn to other academics in other places, many of whom I have never met in person, and each of whom has a special research interest which intersects with my own.

And that is where problems begin.

First off, most of these scholars and academics (and even the research librarians at archives) don’t reply to queries. I choose to assume that maybe my emails just get filtered into the spam folder, because surely they wouldn’t deliberately ignore an email in which I have volunteered information about a rare document I turned up in an archives and thought might be useful to them? Or one in which I thanked them for an article or book that was helpful to me? Or one asking whether I could order a digitization of a letter and if so, what might it cost? Last month, I was horrified to realize that I almost missed two queries from other researchers, for the very reason their messages got sent to my spam folder, and now I find myself checking it obsessively. (Side question: is it appropriate to follow up with a phone call to see if they received my email? I don’t want to be too pushy… and maybe my message just wasn’t of interest to them after all.)

Once in a while, someone does reply. And that’s like Christmas, because someone actually gave my message some thought and took the time (yes, it takes time!) to respond. But then I struggle with another dilemma: how to carry on a productive conversation about complicated subject matter, without inundating the poor person with a volume of reading material that wasn’t on their agenda? Much of this type of brainstorming could occupy 30 minutes or an hour if I could meet with that individual over coffee, but because I can’t, the process of intellectual discussion becomes massively overwhelming to both of us. I never know whether a phone call is–or isn’t–appropriate; I don’t want to be forward and somehow phone calls seem intrusive to me. They mean bothering someone at work or at home and both those places seem off-limits unless the person I am contacting indicates otherwise. A fellow academic in another field suggested using Skype, but when you have correspondents spread across every time zone on the planet (many of whom focus on the 18th century in part because of an innate aversion to modern technology) it gets harder to find a solution. I spend a lot of time apologizing to people for the volume of text I send them, but I haven’t found–and no one has suggested–a feasible alternative approach.

So here I am, with a thousand ideas and questions and queries bouncing through my head from dawn to dusk, and as fast as I write them down and identify who might have the answers or the insight, I find myself at a point where I hesitate to even send a message. If I am contacting someone new, the likelihood of hearing a response is very, very small. If it is going to one of the five people I know who are most likely to reply, I hesitate because I am always imposing on these same people for feedback or input and I am wary of being a drain on their time and energy. These are kind, very knowledgeable people, but they have busy lives that don’t include me, even if my own work would be so much less without them.

So now I sit, alone in the corner of a coffee shop, listening to the conversations at other tables as other professionals discuss their work projects. It’s difficult not to envy them. I am thinking about the time someone I love very much was frustrated with my intense focus on Parkinson’s work and blurted out in exasperation (in front of three other people), “No one cares about Sydney Parkinson!” I couldn’t write anything for many years after that incident. Although every writer chooses a topic that sparks their creative interest and engages their passions, it’s rare that any writer is entirely indifferent to whether or not those interests are shared by others. Sitting here, alone with my thoughts, I wonder for the millionth time whether I am wasting my time. And wondering whether anyone is out there who can convince me otherwise. At the moment, I am writing to keep myself distracted, to keep from going insane with anxiety and frustration and depression. I don’t know how long that will be enough. Or whether I will screw up with the few connections I have managed to make in the process.

I would love to say I have pithy advice for writers, researchers and students who are struggling with these issues, but I don’t. The only thing I can offer is a bit of honesty. If in the future I find another solution, I’ll be sure to share it.

As ever, if you have ideas or comments, you can email me at esmith@randolphcollege.edu.

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I’m now on Humanities Commons!

Last week I spent some time updating various social media accounts. (I am told this is a useful thing to do). I also added an account and webpage on Humanities Commons, after seeing that some of the people I follow on Twitter use it. My webpage is still in the works while I update my CV, but here are the links:

Profile: https://hcommons.org/members/emilysmith1768/

Website: https://emilypattonsmith.hcommons.org/

I am still on the platforms I started with: Academia.edu, Twitter  @sparkinson1768, and LinkedIn. Feel free to connect with me on any platform you choose! But do be aware that sending a direct message to introduce yourself will prevent me from scratching my head and wondering whether or not to accept your request to connect.

What’s next? An update from the author…

It’s been over a year since I posted anything to this blog, and in truth, I considered deleting it.

When I began, I was hoping the blog would become a place where I could post some of the details of my current research. The problem is, there is no current research.

When I began my research in 2005, I couldn’t imagine a more ideal project. Sydney Parkinson’s story united so many of my interests: maritime history, cultural anthropology, natural history, Quaker history, art, literature, exploration. I cared about my work, and I approached every aspect of my research with an unmitigated intensity and unfettered enthusiasm.

But not everyone was as enthusiastic as I was, and after my son was born in 2007, I couldn’t seem to keep up my correspondence with the few British researchers who were kind enough to lend ideas, information and critique. Others stopped responding to my queries, or never responded in the first place. With much of my time consumed by my young son’s care, I found I no longer had the time–or enthusiasm–to write about Parkinson. I tried to utilize some of my research for my senior thesis in 2011, but found the topics were too extensive and my energy exhausted. I shelved everything, and instead wrote my thesis on the historical and cultural significance of select avian specimens in the natural history collections at Randolph College. (You can read a copy here if you are so inclined.)

Over the years I tried, on numerous occasions, to resurrect my long-dormant interest and affection for the Parkinson project, but to no avail. I felt as if I had well and truly lost a very dear companion. No matter how much I wished otherwise, the void in my life caused by the subtraction of my writing had gradually filled with other things: motherhood, a job as a natural history collections manager, weekend archaeology. I played my violin; I tended my garden; I taught a class on botanical illustration, followed by another on drawing birds. I read lots of books on eclectic subjects, and watched the first two seasons of “Sherlock” in rapid succession when, suddenly and unexpectedly, I found myself missing London. I couldn’t afford a day trip to Oak Spring Garden Library here in Virginia, much less another research stint abroad.

Just as I found myself drifting ever further from Parkinson, I found myself at a conference in the Florida Museum of Natural History, staring into a case containing tools and weapons of the Calusa people. I was stunned by the similarity of forms between the fishhooks of indigenous Floridians and those collected in the South Pacific on the Endeavour voyage. And a hefty wooden weapon or saw, carved from native wood and barbed with shark teeth attached by plant fibers, looked strangely like those made by the Maori of New Zealand. I love unexpected convergence in cultural forms; I was reminded of the visual comparisons Parkinson made between the artifacts of early inhabitants of Britain and America and those of peoples of the South Pacific. In that moment, I had a fleeting encounter with my past self.

A few days later, I found myself in a conversation with a curator of botany from another institution, discussing the possibilities surrounding the digitization of an herbarium collected by Joseph Banks on the Endeavour voyage. (Banks collected specimens in multiples, gifting duplicates of his own herbarium to scientific colleagues; his own herbarium remains in London, while the duplicates have found their way to other institutions in Europe and America.) With increasing frequency, I found my thoughts wandering, albeit briefly, to the terra cognita of my earlier research. But still, I could not remain there long. Not long enough to write.

It has been a depressing summer. I don’t know why this is, given that it has been filled with anticipation and slow personal progress. I have spent much of the hot volatile weather in the effort and uncertainty of transition: drafting a proposal for expanding our collections program, taking a share in a painting studio downtown, teaching my son to play the cello. I have cleared our storage closets of unnecessary detritus, set myself a schedule, streamlined my wardrobe. I’ve made an attempt to learn to cook. I should be thrilled at my progress at so many of the details of living which are waylaid during the busy academic year. But somehow, something felt not just unfinished, but unstarted. If that is a word. It annoyed me.

And then this evening, as I was cutting a watermelon for dinner and thinking of nothing in particular, I suddenly set aside my knife, reached for a pen and paper, and outlined the next several posts for this blog. I hope, over the next few weeks, I will find myself going even further. But this, at least, is a start in a good direction.

A day after my initial post, I pulled out Parkinson’s Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas, and turned to the first page. It begins: “On the 22d of July, 1768, I went on board the ship, ENDEAVOUR…” It does seem remarkable that this project should find itself back in my consciousness on the very anniversary of that event! Meaning, and amusement, are often contingent upon details…