Hanging on to ‘stuff’

In the early part of the summer I read ‘A Year of Less‘. I was fascinated by Caitlin’s journey to having fewer things, living with less, and saving money through her shopping ban. It inspired me to do an evaluation of various aspects of our house, including the kitchen (all the plastic cookie cutters now donated to a school!), my closet (all the clothes that made me feel terrible about my body now recycled), and one shelf of books (sold to a book recycling website, £9.97 added to our holiday savings).

There was one area which hadn’t occurred to me needed work but as I went through the house, realised it was probably the one with the most emotional attachments: the office. For years now I have added to the information in my office – academic books, journal articles, data emphemera (student work, copies of coding, field notes, school documents, flyers, photographs) from different field sites – without ever really looking at what needed to be kept and what could be destroyed. The past few months, as I shifted out of research/academic work, I decided it was time to clear the space. It was a big, deep-breath needing thing to do.

The first task was to take all the journal articles, notes, and pieces of paper out of the files and boxes where they had been sitting (unopened for a long time). I sifted through my handwritten notes on Foucault, countless journal articles, newspaper clippings on school food, and printed webpages. Journal articles immediately relevant to planned and in-process writing work I kept. Articles that I thought might be useful for the future I found pdf copies of, and saved them into my reference manager. Then I recycled all the articles I wouldn’t immediately use. I went through old ethnographic journals and decided to keep them. I went through phd data, and got rid of early coding, and copies of coding I have on my laptop. I kept the physical ephemera of my work, but anything that could be kept digitally, rather than taking up physical space (like countless edited thesis and book drafts), I got rid of.

In the process I said goodbye to a particular kind of life. The life of an academic, and of a scholar. The life of a hoarder of journals. But in saying goodbye to that life, the life which hadn’t quite worked out how I thought it might, I made room for another life – that of a sometime scholar, a reader, a writer. And after so much angst and anxiety brought by the academic life, I was finally ready to get rid of it.

The act of creating space, physically crafting it out, is hugely important I think. It signifies a change that is not jut happening in your mind, but in your environment. I think it is often easy to say you are going to live a certain way, and work in a certain way, but unless you actually make the physical space to inhabit that way of being, you cannot fully embrace the change. At least, that is what I am hoping. I now have space on my office bookshelves for new reading, new journals of writing, and new possibilities.

This past week I attended my first conference in my ‘not-an-academic’ frame of mind. It was enlightening to go as an ‘outsider-insider’. I presented some of my own research work, but I also looked for connections I might make for my new job, which is focused on research outreach and engagement. I found myself thinking of the ways researchers were telling their stories, and how they engaged people in their research. There was a fantastic example of how this had worked by Dr Greg Mannion, about a community and school project that walked the ways of drovers in Scotland. It was totally inspirational, and has given me ideas of how we might work with schools and communities.

I was able to think about my own research work, and potential writing I might do from it, free from the pressure of the REF, or job application pressure (will it look right on my CV?), or needing to publish in 3 and 4* journals, or needing to publish, period. The most liberating thing about leaving academic work is the way it has freed the restraints on my writing. I write now because I want to, and I think the writing is (will be) better for it.

My mother (who visited recently) will tell you that there really is no space on the bookshelves still (I had books piled on top of books and I am not quite ready to donate all of those yet). She rearranged the shelves so that they look full again. But I know the space is there. And there is at least one file of documents which are older than five years that I can shred soon.

See? Progress.



One Comment

  1. That pressure on publishing/publishing-in-high-rated-journals/etc is quite a bit like all those closets filled with unused clothes, the drawers with paper copies of yonder, etc. I can only guess the lightness of removing so many stones from our life backpack. I also started such a “enlightening/uplifting” process a few years ago … still unfinished …
    Academic life did not feel like that at all when photocopies started being available in the early 80’s. You went to the library and spent countless hours searching and reading. No chance of making copies to burden the drawers of academic backpack. But above all, there was no counting of papers published, no economized academic research, no hurry to publish, no psychological burden on your shoulders of future in academy.

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