I was asked to record a short video for the induction of the new PhD students in our School. The deadline to send it was approaching so eventually yesterday evening I sat down to do it. I had spent already a number of hours sitting at my desk in various Zoom/Team/Skype meetings and the prospect of yet another talking head video at my desk didn’t appeal much. So I decided to shoot the video standing in my home office. It is a fairly densely packed space, no neutral background available. Oh well, I thought to myself and went on to record a 5 minute long video. Yes, the one you can see below is just over 2 minutes, not everything that came out of my stream of consciousness was publishable. Afterward I showed a few seconds of the recording to my wife. ‘Too much information’, she told me. Viewers won’t know where to look. She had a point so when I edited the video I zoomed in on me, leaving out most of the background. This is why the resolution of the video is not great, but you know I’m a researcher and teacher, video editing is not in my contract or job description, and neither is the production of captions and subtitles for lectures, all things which we are now asked to do. But let’s leave this for another blog post.
Gathering ideas for the video started a chain of thoughts that took me back to when in 2005 I eventually decided that my PhD had to take priorities over my jobs as teaching fellow and research assistant on externally funded projects and I travelled to Italy for the last instalment of my PhD fieldwork. The journey down memory lane began with me digging out of a cupboard my fieldwork diaries. This quote from Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night on the first page of the diary set the tone:
When you stay too long in the same place, things and people go to pot on you, they rot and start stinking for your special benefit.
I had long postponed and procrastinated with my PhD, letting it fall at the back of the queue for far too long and now I had a lot of doubts and anxieties about getting back into it. Working on other people’s research projects offered always an acceptable escape route for my PhD. So the quote was a way to gather my forces and go. I still remember the dream I had on the plane on my way to Verona or perhaps on the overnight coach from Oxford to Stansted. I fell down from the sky. There was a big field where there were people at work. To cope with my fear of failure and anxieties I had packed the first few days with far too many meetings, talks, train journeys. I was doing fieldwork among Roma communities in Tuscany and Veneto, while also being a Roma rights activist in a collective (OsservAzione) I had set up with some friends. This meant also doing field visits and write a report on the violation of human rights against Roma people in Italy (Imperfect Citizenship). Of those initial days, I remember the adrenaline, the excitement, the lack of sleep, the restlessness and the urge to always do something because staying still was bringing back too many fears. Reading my diary of those first few days, travelling between Udine, Verona, Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples, I slept only a few hours a night, in spare beds, couches, night trains, B&Bs, 7 different places in 10 days. I was exhausted. I used to tell myself that when you are on fieldwork there is no off-time, you are always switched on, testing ideas, looking for insights, making inferences. It is a strange time fieldwork. Often you are alone, facing your own monsters and fears, it is your project, success and failure fall all on you. It is also, for many researchers, a unique time, when, if you are lucky, you have more time – this is always relative and depends on your personal circumstances- to spend on your own research rather than on multiple research, teaching and admin tasks. It is something that stays with you for the rest of your academic career. I remember it as a time of enhanced sensitivity and perception, when my antenna were always on standby ready to capture signals. What you make of all these signals and insights is matter for another blog post.