Taking It Slow – Maintaining Self-Belief When You Don’t Have All the Answers
My research got off to a slow start, and I found it hard not to worry about my lack of direction. Gradually however, the way became clear.
I hadn’t save my Laidlaw application because I had been so certain I would not be given a place. One week into the scholarship, this had started to irk me.
‘Lies versus entertainment in Greek and Roman literature’, something about fake news in the ancient world? Even my initial question loomed vague in the back of my mind. I knew I wanted to read, but where to start? I showed up to the first meeting with my supervisor spouting a panoply of possible directions. She smiled calmly. ‘Why don’t you spend the first two weeks on primary sources? Then, in the next two, you can start on the secondary. That way you’ll have a framework for what you’re doing.’
I had also been about to suggest a timeframe-based approach, but nowhere near two weeks for primary source reading alone. Most of my university essays are done in a weekend, on Saturday, reading – primary and secondary, on Sunday, writing. This timescale was incredible.
On my first day, I had to resist the itch to write something down. Of course, I took notes, but not creating anything solid after so long reading was uncomfortable. A fortnight in, I had just about got used to it. The more I read, the more I realised I didn’t have to come up with some pithy judgement off the bat. I could reflect. More than anything, the ability to come to informed conclusions rather than relying on my well-worn ‘skim and a prayer’ method is luxurious. I can trust myself to begin to formulate my own theses before researching others’ work.
The more I researched, the more my plans evolved. My fortnightly supervisor's meeting loomed. On Thursday afternoon, half an hour before I was scheduled to end my day, I thought I had had my epiphany, only to knock that down for the second even more exciting one the following afternoon, just in time for my meeting. Phew!
I feel better knowing now that I have a clear direction, but these past few weeks have taught me to relax. A clear objective from the outset is not a requirement; if we know all the answers, why are we doing research? Starting the third week, I have decided to continue with primary sources.
At the end of my first week of research, I emailed my Laidlaw coordinator for a copy of my application. ‘I want to make sure I’m staying on task’ I wrote, trying to skirt over the fact I wasn’t sure what that task actually was. The response came with a suggestion of a 'leadership lesson' I could take away from the experience, to save documents rather than discard them in an act of melodramatic fatalism. While this is an elementary life skill (one I ought to have picked up long ago), it is not the foremost consideration that I took from this experience.
I need to relax, breathe, and believe all will be well. If you just keep trying, eventually, something will come up.