Guest Post: Research Abroad

Today, we have another thoughtful guest blogger writing about the post-coursework experience. Julia, a 4th year student on a Fulbright in Paris this year, shares her tips for keeping dissertation research marching steadily along.

I haven’t always dreamed of living in France.  I don’t throw throat into my “r”s when I’m pronouncing French words in English.  “BaudelAIRR” is all in the lips for me. Which is to say a year in Paris doing research was exactly that to me: research.  Not romantic beret time.

I did get a romatic beret. Actually I found it in my absurdly expensive apartment.  Tip #1: stay with a friend or sublet for a month or even a matter of weeks, then apartment-hunt from the ground. Don’t try to set something up for the year from abroad—you have less flexibility and fewer options.

I took my exams and was on an Air Something jet 24 hours later.  My eyes hurt.  I owned two suitcases of stuff.  Like a spy, or the James Spader character in Sex Lies and Videotape: “no keys.”  Speaking of which, who has my DVD of Sex Lies and Videotape? I have no idea. Probably Ingrid. Tip #2: Have friends like Ingrid and Anna. Or a few friends like Ingrid and Anna.  Did you know that a “cohort” was a body of infantry in the Roman army? My cohort (of two, plus very generous friends) carried my sofa across Hyde Park at midnight the day I left. March march march.  Maybe you are more organized and less quixotic than I am and you will not need your friends to carry your sofa.  But you’ll need a sample curriculum, or a book PDF’d, or for the love of Tyra Banks, to banter over email in a really comfy language with people that are really good at it. Your friends—not, like Ashley from Stamford that you met at Governer’s Camp for the Gifted, I’m talking your Chicago people—will never matter more to you than when you are looking out the big glass walls of the sanitized, centralized municipal library in some flashy European capital going “remind me: where the @$&% am I?”

Which brings us to Tip #3: Avoid existential questions.  I mean it.  I’m serious.  Put yourself in that library chair and read.  And write! Write your face off.  But living abroad, away from the institutional backbraces you take for granted, will really make you focus on the psychological scoliosis you never knew you had.  A little anomie goes a long way.  Limit yourself to 15 minuts a day of asking “Who am I, so far from the relationships and institutions that have defined me?” and set a research schedule that is as regularized as a day job and, more or less, stick to it.  Take days off! Eat an hour-long lunch at Café des Musées—order the warm wild mushroom salad and you know what? Get a glass of saumur with it.  Go on. Aren’t you naughty! Yes, because spontaneity is only spontaneity with a backdrop of regularity, and it’s good-naughty not crime-naughty because you have an Excel spreadsheet grinning at you indulgently with its long uneven rectangular teeth dark with data. Tip #4:  Have a systematic way of storing your data.  Think long and hard about what this will be: what will you need to search for later? I find Excel very useful for organizing my heaps and heaps of digital photographs: I can search by journal, date, author, and content-related tags (“Delacroix,” “the nude,” “the jury.”)  Then, back up regularly. Aren’t I wonderful? Tip #5: Be nice to yourself. Living abroad can be thrilling; also lonely.  You might get sick, or not see the sun for 5 months, or accidentally tutoyer an 80-year-old war hero. You will be looking for the bathroom after leaving the Mesdag Panorama in the Hague and you will be talking on your cell phone as you absent-mindedly bust in on the trial room at the International Court of Justice, the judge mid-sentencing some dumpy terrorist who looks up at you quizzically as you try to swallow your loud phrase about how the Mesdag panorama actually made you want to barf (because the Mesdag Panorama still has a crazy somatic effect! Panoramas work! Aren’t you glad you traveled?)   You will create your own special foot-in-mouth disaster.  And when you do, remember how your cohort carried your sofa, march march march, and that you are only human, and that there is a language that you are good at.  SUPER good at!  God, you’re good at English. How’d you get so good at English? You are single-handedly better at English than this whole COUNTRY of people! Suck on some good old-fashioned American slang, send an email to your Ingrid.  Or your Ashley.  But I think Ingrid’s going to understand better.

Miscellanous tips:

-       Burned out? Trick yourself into reading serious stuff by reading one chapter of fun fiction, then switching out for Gables and Porticos 1780-1782 or whatever.

-       If you do anything at Cambridge, bring a set of formal-wear. This denimous American learned the hard way.

-       You’ve got to meet the people in your field in your country.  This is extremely important for getting letters of affiliation for later grant applications.  Also you have a lot to learn from them.  Fun fact: I am bad at this and feel like I am wasting people’s time.  You just have to do it anyway.  If you have a third-party, e.g. a professor from U of C, introduce you (e.g. via email) then this will speed things up and ensure a response.  Otherwise you might get ignored as one of the many attention-starved Tiny Tim students that come knocking, dry-mouthed and hungry for the Christmas goose of Important Scholar’s time.

-       The U.S. State Department produces something called the Blue Book for every country.  Fulbrighters get given it automatically, but if you’re on a different grant you might not. Depending on where you are, you should try to get a copy from the Embassy.  It has everything, from lists of English-speaking doctors (SO IMPORTANT), to instructions for passport replacement. Babysitting agencies. The one for France lists a support group for women who are lactating.  Don’t lactate alone. Get a Blue Book.

-       Bring a STASH of converters

-       PDF the Reg before you go. Wear a T-shirt that says “PDF the Reg” as you PDF the Reg. Those English-language secondary sources are annoying to waste time tracking down.  Sometimes they don’t have them. I’m all, “You don’t have Tom Crow?” and the Bibliotheque Mitterand is all, “Tom who?”  That’s when you get frustrated and go home and eat a wheel of Brie de Meaux.  NOT PDF’ing, in short, will make you fat.

-       Did you know that there are other little Chicagos all over? They have funny names like Princeton and Berkeley.  A great joy has been meeting the Julias from the Princetons and the Berkeleys.  Organize a reading group! Meet your kind.  Find them through online forums (for France there is H-France, run through U of Ohio, Akron), events (is there a central place for Art History programming?) and classes (sit in on some!)

-       You feel very far from the fellowship office, but keep your eye on the grant cycles for the following year.  What do you need to set in motion, funding-wise, for when you come back?

-       I’m going to say this and then I’m not going to talk about it anymore, because no one likes a pantry nag; but this is really important: POLENTA. OK I’m done.

2 Responses to “Guest Post: Research Abroad”

  1. [...] The Voice of CWAC « Guest Post: Research Abroad [...]

  2. on 15 May 2010 at 2:23 PM Carley

    Also, download the cvpn onto your laptop! cvpn.uchicago.edu
    This will allow you to access resources online from UChicago, even while abroad! (plus, then you can also watch your fav American shows on Hulu, abc.com, what have you.)

    And, definitely agreed on the keeping your awesome friends about you (in my case it’s a Callie and the occasional Ross). Great advice miss Julia! ci vediamo a dopo, cd

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