Last week I was feeling a little down-in-the-mouth. It was just before the start of term in Oxford, and so my inbox was filling up with circulars about upcoming seminars, invitations to drinks evenings, notices about upcoming dinners… Most of which I can’t attend.
In pretty much all ways I have a very privileged life – I’m going to say that straight up now. My husband has a permanent job at a good law firm. It’s the kind of law firm where you don’t make megabucks but you do interesting work and you mostly get to leave by 6pm, which in lawyerly circles is pretty humane. I am just starting the second year of a three year fully-funded fellowship that pays a respectable salary. We now own our own home and we have a lovely one-year-old daughter. A few years ago, post-PhD, my husband struggling to find legal work during the recession and when I was just struggling to find academic work full stop, this life would have seemed like a rosy dream. I love it and am very lucky.
However, I live an hour away by train from my place of work. Factoring in getting to and from the station, it’s a two hour journey each way that off-peak costs £36.60 for a day return and over £75(!) during peak hours unless bought significantly in advance. As nursery shuts at 6pm on the dot and it’s a 15-minute walk from our house, I normally do the pick up, and my husband does the morning drop off. One or occasionally two days a week during term time (less during vacations) I come into Oxford, stuffing some teaching, meetings etc into as few hours as I can, relying on the good will of my in-laws or the ability of my husband to sometimes get out of work early to make sure our daughter gets picked up and put to bed. The rest of the time I work from home.
I mostly really enjoy working at home. It gives me a lot of flexibility, although it does require a good deal of discipline (that I sometimes lack!) to stay focused. But I admit that I do sometimes feel a bit isolated and removed from university life. Before I had a baby, I would quite often stay over one night in Oxford, taking advantage of the college’s reduced rate for members to use guest rooms – a real perk, I know. But from late pregnancy – when I was suffering from SPD and increasingly limited in my mobility – onward, this became impractical. Now it’s something I can only really do for special events like conferences.
We live in Birmingham for several reasons. First and foremost, it’s where my husband’s work is based, and given his lengthy hours in an office, it makes much more sense for us to live near his work, since I have a mostly-research job and so need to be on-site far less often. It’s also far, far cheaper – I just did a quick google and the median rent in Oxford is £1599/month. The median rent in Birmingham is £702. We were able to buy a home for well under half the price of the average house in Oxford – the median price of which is an eye-watering £485k! Finally, Kieran’s parents live only thirty minutes away from Birmingham, which is very handy when we have a small child. Moving there was a very simple decision, and I don’t regret it for a minute.
But I do get lonely sometimes. Academics have a reputation for being introverts. Quite a few are! But liking books and your own company (and perhaps, like internet photo memes, enjoying wearing sweaters and looking wistfully out of a window while stroking a cat) doesn’t necessarily an introvert make. I get a lot of energy out of social encounters. Last week I realised the only people I had spoken to that working week besides my husband and child were the nursery staff and cashiers at supermarkets. Then this week I’ve come into college twice and been invigorated by conversations with many different colleagues, enjoyed meeting new students, and felt inspired by contact with fellow medievalists. But it’s not something I can afford to do – timewise or financially – very often.
I know quite a few academics in my situation. Many people can’t afford to live in the cities in which their universities are based, or need to make compromises on location to best suit the needs of all their family rather than just themselves. Many of us, even though who live near our workplaces, can’t make events that are regularly scheduled to start at 5pm when we need to pick up our kids or perhaps undertake other caring responsibilities. I’m sure a few of you have also looked over the seminar lists and events calendar for the new semester and realised that attending any of them will take planning and negotiation with your partner/spouse/offspring. I think this is something that universities should taken in account – many assume that their employees will live nearby, and many departments still schedule their events as if it’s still 1950 and if you’re going to a seminar you’re either a bachelor or your wife will be taking care of the kids and the dinner while you enjoy academic discourse and port.
This is one of the reasons I love the internet. I will admit upfront that I fritter away too much time on inconsequential things online – but as well as providing me with huge numbers of useful resources for my work (seriously, research for me would be so much harder if I had to go to an actual physical library every time I needed a book, rather than using my Oxford login to access e-texts), it has also given me an academic community. This was really useful to me during my maternity leave, when I felt very far removed from my work and colleagues. But it’s perhaps even more vital to me now, when I’m grappling with research and I don’t have people to just pop into the SCR for a coffee and a brainstorm with. and hey, at least with Twitter you know there’ll be someone around at any hour, timezones be damned!
I absolutely hear you. I’m hopefully going to make my first trip on campus at my current uni in November, seven months after I started studying there. I’ve never met my supervisor in person (this will also happen in November!) and I imagine that I’ll get to uni once a year if I’m lucky, after this. I don’t know any other people studying in my department and sometimes, reading through the seminars and conferences on offer, I’m sometimes sad, knowing that I can’t attend. On the other hand, I’m grateful that I’m still able to study, while living hundreds of kilometres from my uni, and while working and caring for my children. How awesome is that?
I think I also feel as though coming back as a postgrad student, now I’m 40 rather than 30, is significant. Or it seems that way to me. Perhaps I’m just sensitive about my age ;P
God bless the internet, without it and the CELT project it would have been financially impossible to do my MSc, never mind work on my book.
Totally sympathise; I’ve no children but I do have a partner and two lovely dogs, and a 2 hr commute door-to-door from home to uni. I typically try to schedule campus days consecutively and crash at my folks’ place in between to break up the travelling. I don’t regret living in the country, and it makes equal sense for us as for you both financially and for various family reasons. But there are lots of times I simply can’t justify staying back for a seminar or social event, or coming to campus just for some meeting/seminar or other; despite the fact that I really am one of those extrovert people who thrive on social interaction and need the energy of academic conversation and debate to keep my engines firing each year. I realised this the one time I let someone talk me out of travelling to Leeds for the IMC in order to focus on dissertation – I actually got less work done than I would have with writing and giving a paper plus two weeks of jet-lag and a week of late nights, dancing, and too many pints. One reason I absolutely love conference time is the luxury of both the intellectual exchange and the social connection to ‘my people’ uninterrupted by the mundane – but in their own way wholly welcome – duties of family/household. Things like twitter let me stay connected at a distance, whether it’s from my office or from my international friends and colleagues. Thank goodness! (But that probably also explains my difficulty with turning it off!)
BTW – Shall be in Oxford from 10 Nov for about 6 weeks, and am very happy to schedule a cup of tea around trains/family obligations as I know the score. DM me!