What Spaces Do You Need?

cross section of nautilus shellBy Maria LaMonaca Wisdom

Among so many other things, the ongoing pandemic has changed our relationship to space. This reflection springs from a series of pandemic summer conversations I had with Duke doctoral students, and a key takeaway: We need three spaces in which to do our best work.

Academics tend to cherish their spaces, and at Duke, we are fortunate to have many beautiful ones to choose from. Like me, you may have had your favorite spots for reading, writing, and meeting with colleagues—perhaps a shared office, private library carrel, bench in Duke gardens, or—somewhat removed from campus—a regular table at a local coffee shop.

In the wake of lockdown back in March, the implosion of everyone’s physical space—and corresponding disruption in work habits—was a pressing issue. As I continued to provide group coaching to students (now over Zoom), we frequently talked in granular detail about inhospitable new spaces—the hot attic where someone was trying to crank out the final chapter of a dissertation; the cramped apartment with bored children now underfoot; a childhood bedroom where one needed to navigate boundaries with parents.

As the weeks passed, people adjusted—buying air conditioners when necessary, or negotiating with partners and parents to help things work a bit better. However, as our conversations continued through a summer of racial justice protests, ongoing political polarization, and a virus raging out of control, the loss of other, critical spaces was impossible to ignore. Generally students articulated this loss as “lack of focus.” Reconceiving this loss in terms of “mental space” was often helpful, as I asked students to visualize what was cluttering the space (so often, social media and news apps), and what actions might be taken to clear and expand it.

Unlike physical space (which can be manipulated with simple things like buying an air conditioner), we know that cultivating mental space can be a lifelong project. When we envision strategies for maintaining focus, so often solitary activities come to mind: journaling, meditation, setting a pomodoro timer, or the simple (yet difficult) act of locking the phone in a drawer for a while.

Yet as our summer conversations suggested time and again, most of also us also depend on a third category of space to do our best work—that is, spaces in which we can interact and benefit from the collegiality, mentorship, and support of others. Pre-pandemic, spaces for academic community were far more visible and accessible. In addition to the formalized professional spaces of departmental communities, PhD cohorts, and interdisciplinary labs and projects, simply sharing campus space can give rise to fruitful conversation, serendipitous meetings, and new opportunities for collaboration.

In the coming months, maintaining community spaces will be more critical than ever for your continued academic and professional success. Overall, I was impressed and comforted by the resilience students demonstrated this summer. The ones who seemed to flourish, in spite of everything, also demonstrated the most intention about holding open (mostly virtual) spaces for community. In addition to joining a peer coaching cohort, some of them also took advantage of virtual summer writing groups. They made extra efforts to engage with advisors and committee members who were at once physically removed and also overwhelmed. Those who were exploring different careers kept building their mentoring networks, despite new hurdles.

The most necessary thing, as it happens, is also the hardest. I don’t mean to gloss over the magnitude of the challenges of sustaining community (safely) right now. Like many of you, I suspect, I miss on-campus life and in-person gatherings terribly. I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with the videoconference format. I’m grateful that I can still talk with students, colleagues, and friends. But in addition to the infamous “Zoom fatigue,” I sometimes wonder where the effervescence of personal interactions went, and why the more transactional nature of video meetings feels, on the worst of days, like drinking flat Sprite.

So, I can’t promise anything will be easy, but you don’t need to do it alone as you move forward this semester. To cultivate the three critical spaces of physical environment, mental clarity, and community, I encourage you to lean especially heavily on the third category. You may decide to try out group coaching (which I will offer again this fall), or perhaps you’ve got an ongoing writing group that fills many of your needs for community, support, and accountability. You might reconnect with old friends and mentors, perhaps through phone or even old-fashioned letter for a break from Zoom and Skype.

And be mindful about your community spaces—what sustains them and how they help you do your best work. Our collective situation will likely be different (and hopefully much better) next year, but the intentional work habits you develop now will serve you well for the rest of your academic and professional career.

“Nautilus Shell” by sailor_smb is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0