We’re all tourists in academia. With short-term contracts being so common, it’s more or less natural to slide from PhD into hourly-paid teaching, into a Post-Doc, a fellowship, or a maternity/ research leave cover. Many of us are well into our thirties before we get the first full-time permanent job, if we haven’t succumbed to malnutrition or done a law conversion course in the meantime.
Before the job of our dreams materialises – and for some it never will – we might have worked in more different places than most people over a lifetime. This might be annoying with all the moving, living out of suitcases and never having an office to leave our books, but we also get to see the world, or at least the tiny fraction of it that is academia. So look on the bright side.
Yet, this is only one part of the academic’s nomadic existence. The other part is research travel. If, like me, you are a historian, you often have to go to archives and libraries up and down the country, and ever so often you get to go abroad. If, like me, you have chosen to study exiles, this is even more likely. So far, since starting on my project on the English republican exiles in Europe post 1660, I’ve been to Oxford and London as well as Bern, Paris, Florence, Geneva, Berlin and Weimar, tracking either the steps or the ideas and publications of my research subjects. I yet have to make further trips to Maidstone, Rome and possibly Montpellier or Agen in the south of France before I’ve spent the first lot of my research funding.
But before you’re turning green with envy, consider this: I have to spend quite a lot of time by myself in not so very nice hotels (the nicer ones would eat up my research budget), and every trip carries the risk that I arrive at the archive and might not find what I’m after – either because the leads that got me to go there in the first place have proved to be dead ends, or the material was lost (or stolen, as sometimes happens in archives too), or your sources are there but temporarily unavailable because they’re in the process of being restored and nobody bothered to tell you beforehand. Touch wood, so far I’ve always found something, even though the exploits are highly variable.
If you haven’t found what you’re after by the second day in the archive, the guilt kicks in. You wonder if you’ve got it all wrong, if you’re just incompetent, and if your funding body is going to blacklist you if you come home empty handed. So there’s no such thing as hometime during an archive trip until the archive physically closes its doors and the searchroom supervisor kindly asks you to leave while you’re clinging pathetically to a crumbly piece of illegible parchment. After your solitary dinner you return to your hotel room only to get on to your laptop once more to gather the day’s findings or skype your nearest and dearest, should the wifi signal actually be strong enough.
Eventually you return home with a camera memory full of digital photographs you will never have time to look at again (even if you magically remember what should be on them) and try to write up a short report that eventually becomes part of a seminar paper, journal article or book. You also promise to yourself that you will never start a stupid project like this again, and that from now on you will strife to become a local historian or source all material from the internet, or at least not do anything that involves flying or staying in hotels.
And then you go and do it all over again.