How I Spent My Summer or, Thoughts on Research Time

Kathleen Comerford
Professor of History, Georgia Southern University

Like most academics, I spend a good portion of my summers doing research.  None of us take “time off,” despite what the general public seems to think; we all teach, run programs, or engage in other academic work over the summer.  In past years, I have taught study abroad classes in Tuscany and in London, I have graded AP World History Exams, and I have edited a festschrift—but I am fortunate enough to spend most of the time between Spring finals and Fall classes in libraries and archives.  As part of the ACHA’s website committee, I thought that a “report from the archives” would be an interesting blog.  This is not going to be one of those postings where I give an exhaustive account of my daily activities; among other things, I have no intention of telling the world when I am not at my home.  Instead, my plan is to give some indications to up-and-coming scholars of what research is like, some helpful hints for survival on an academic pilgrimage, and some general observations on the whys and wherefores of what we do.

I would like to divide my remarks into several parts, which represent the different phases of my research this summer: travel, time management, and the public view.  Each of these, of course, overlaps with the all-consuming concern: money.  To begin with, I will say that this concern may be more acute for graduate students and new faculty, but alas it never goes away.  I would like to think that at some point I might be able to fund a research project entirely out of grant money, or that a conference which would be the perfect venue for my scholarship would be held within walking distance, but these are both very unlikely, so managing the above three includes managing finances.

TRAVEL. Research requires travel—lots of it.  Travel is, of course, more than the occasional plane ride to another country; this summer, I spent part of my time in the Washington, DC, suburbs commuting to downtown DC for research at Georgetown University, the Library of Congress, and the Folger Shakespeare Library; I interrupted that for 20 days in Italy: 10 in Rome for research in the Archivum Historicum Societatis Iesu and 10 in Florence for the Archivio di Stato and Biblioteca Nazionale.  I don’t know why it’s never struck me before, as I have researched at the AHSI and the Vatican Library in the past, but it occurred to me only this summer that I had traveled from one country (the US) to another (Italy) to stay—and that to read documents at my chosen archive, I had to travel to yet another (Vatican City).  It’s a rather odd experience, to say the least.  Vatican City is the world’s smallest state: about 100 acres, roughy half of which are gardens.  It took me about 12 minutes to walk from my flat just outside the wall near the Vatican Museums, through St. Peter’s Square, to the Jesuit Curia.  I had a similarly short walk in Florence from my apartment to the Archivio di Stato.  Hence, my biggest transportation issues were in Washington.  I’m used to commuting, as I grew up in New York City, but the Red Line in DC isn’t my idea of a good commute; it gets me from A to B, but it’s rarely pleasant.  More significantly, it’s very expensive.  Daily subway rides don’t compare with the cost of round-trip airfare to Italy, which has increased significantly in cost since my first research trip in 1993, but I was shocked that I had to pay more than $10 per day to commute from the suburbs—and that was without paying for parking or for transfering to the downtown bus.

TIME MANAGEMENT. The rarest commodity in the world isn’t saffron or platinum or uranium, or even patience: it’s time, a non-renewable resource.  Every single researcher feels this way at one point or another, and we all experience certain “wake-up calls” during our research trip.  Here are my favorites:

  1. Wow, that took much longer than it should have; I need to do other things too!”
  2. “Where do I begin—I need to see everything!”
  3. “Wait—I didn’t know this was a national/local holiday.  Are all of the libraries and archives closed today?”

I have learned, in the face of these and other crises, that the one thing I need to have with me at all times is flexibility.  If one archive has a policy of only allowing four requests per day (cf. the Archivio Arcivescovile in Florence), or one library will only allow requests in the morning (like the Biblioteca degli Intronati in Siena during July), then I have to have a Plan B somewhere in my mind.  When my requests at Archivio di Stato in Florence this summer were unsuccessful, I went to the Biblioteca Nazionale.  I would have preferred to stay at AS and read more files there; as that was impossible, the best use of my time was finding an alternate source of information.  I learned to be flexible about this over the years during the many times when I was dead set on finding something rather specific in an archive which, alas, was not to be found: I had a bad citation, or the documents had been re-catalogued, or someone else had requested it before me, or the piece had disappeared or been incorrectly shelved over the years, or some other equally infuriating reason which forced me to sit down, take stock, and open my mind to an alternative.  In this way—with a mind open to alternatives—I have found some of the most amusing, thought-provoking, surprising, and interesting avenues to consider.

THE PUBLIC VIEW. We live in anti-university times.  Even back in the 1990s, when I was a graduate student, though, I got one pretty standard reaction to my research, with a few variations: “Wow, you are going to Florence?  Such great museums, fantastic food, beautiful wine.  I wish I were going.”  I tried different responses: “Yes, I’m sure it will be wonderful.  So what do you do for a living?”  After all, the art of conversation is getting someone else to talk about him or herself.  When I grew tired of that, I would say, “You know, I’m going there to work: I spend 8 hours a day in front of old, dusty documents and don’t have the disposable income to eat out daily.”  In both cases, though, I had the abiding sense that the person I was talking to thought I was really on my way to spending months sitting on a terrazzo with a glass of Chianti constantly kept filled by someone who looked rather like Fabio, while strolling minstrels serenaded me and fabulous pizzas and gelatos simply appeared when I was hungry.

That hasn’t changed, but the general public’s attitude toward the “utility” of research has gotten worse, and I suppose in some ways I’m grateful for the early dismissals of my hard work to arm me for present critiques.  Friends who researched in Moscow or Berlin didn’t get the wide-eyed “time to play! exotic travel!” responses that those of us in Florence, Rome, and Paris did.  While this added to my annoyance, it also gave me a starting place: it doesn’t matter that I go to Florence rather than to, say, Dover, DE, which most people don’t consider romantic.  I’m going there for work, not play.  So no, I can’t tell you the best restaurants in Rome or the nicest coffee shop in Florence, since I don’t spend my time doing touristy things.  Grant agencies tend to frown on such indulgences.

So my advice to those of you who go to Vienna, or Rio de Janiero, or Lisbon, or other places known to be beautiful is to just find a way to grin and bear it: after all, I remind myself, I may be spending my time in an archive, but it’s an archive where I get to keep up my Italian language skills.  In point of fact, I much prefer to be touching and reading 16th and 17th century documents than driving around the Tuscan countryside or fighting the crowds at the Uffizzi or the Vatican Museum.  This is what keeps me going—the joy of discovery.  It’s something which many jobs don’t offer on a daily basis, yet university teaching does: one is always discovering some new way to look at the survey course (either from a new question a student asks, or from something on a news program, or from a connection you never saw before but which now seems so obvious), some new interpretation for the upper-division classes (based on an exciting book you’ve just found, or a great conversation at a conference), or some new argument to make (because inevitably you’ll read a document in a different context, and for a different reason, than prior scholars have).  I’m seriously amazed at how bad educators can be at defending our profession, because it’s a terrific one.  Most doctors and lawyers don’t have the novelty we do, and their lives are full of complaints.  This profession, which of course has its downside, is much more positive and affirming, and sometimes the best part about a research-heavy break is that realization.