…Or, ‘Wherever You lay Your Phone (That’s Your Home)’.
Do you have an office?
I do not*. Annoyingly the PhD student who asks you this question invariably has their own. It must be one of the top PhD questions along with “are you funded?”. My answer to the former is always: ‘We have a computer room’, which has some retroactive appeal in the same way that wearing a Global Hypercolour t-shirt makes people say “Oh, I remember those”. If it sounds like I’m bitter it’s because I am. I mean, I was. For a while. I felt short-changed and scattered. Having an office means you are located somewhere, that you matter to your institution, and it’s symbolic of the valuable work that you keep putting off. Or so I thought.
When I visited Russia on a research trip last April I learned a valuable lesson in working in public, which, on balance, exposes my terrible neuroses about privacy. I was doing an artist’s residency in Moscow (out of my depth as usual but going down at storm at the karaoke bars). Whenever we moved between venues I noticed that one of the other artists would work on a video project whilst using public transport (the Moscow Metro is incredible: each station is resplendent with lighting, reliefs and statues as though a ballroom had crashed through the ceiling of a Modernist museum). Her indifference to working in public challenged my own fear of strangers seeing me work or peeking over my shoulder to secretly judge my pathetic digital daubings. I realised at this point that my fears masked another problem in that I am a self-important idiot. Why should I confine work to a marked space or a privileged table in a workshop and why would anyone care anyway?
My friend was editing her video on the train just like in one of those aspirational Apple adverts you see where the user has the sleekest, newest and most expensive equipment – you know the ones I mean – usually posed awkwardly on a beach or something where they are ‘laying down’ a ‘fresh track’ on their hot tech. “Inspiration just seizes me y’know?” Yeah, yeah… Anyway, hers was a battered Toshiba – so no foul – plus she taught me a valuable lesson: she didn’t give a hoot about others seeing her work. She didn’t have a sanctified space for working because her workspace happened to be wherever she was. She did have a super tight deadline though, so that may explain some of it, but the (now blindingly obvious) point is that it doesn’t matter if you don’t have an office. When you are doing a PhD and building a thesis you are always asking questions, always thinking, and always working regardless of the context. At least, you should be (some caveats apply such as being the recipient of a deathbed confession).**
Where do you like to work? Do you have PhD office-envy? Do you judge those who don’t have an office? Do you care about ANYTHING?
*Yes, yes – I know about libraries. This shall be addressed at another juncture.
** To put my money where my mouth is I have written this post on the upper deck of the 149 bus. On my phone. With a pound coin between my teeth because nothing beats heavy-handed literalism.