As England enters its third lockdown, the Prime Minister has been consistent in his dismissal of university students. We have been advised to stay where we are until at least mid-February and to continue learning online. For many, this not only means further foregoing the freedoms that university life offers, but not having access to the facilities and learning they are paying for.
I don’t mean for this to turn into a rant about the misgivings and the misinformation of the government. Rather, I’m here to provide a guide for studying at home, using online resources, and basically just surviving this post-Christmas assignment period, which is tumultuous at the best of times.
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a first year Creative Writing and English PhD student at Lancaster; not that I’ve actually ever been to Lancaster, mind, seeing as I’ve now completed a whole term online. I studied for my undergrad in English at Southampton and completed my Creative Writing MA at Durham last September. Between strikes and Covid-19, I ended up having only two seminars in 2020. Therefore, I like to think I’ve become quite adept at navigating the field of online learning, not just because I was too scared of the Billy B library to actually check any books out.
So, here are a few resources and tips to help you study at home, even if it’s just a little.
Your University’s Online Library
Recently, a lot of universities have started to make the change to digitising their collections. In my experience at the University of Southampton, a lecturer could make a request to have specific chapters or texts available online. It’s not a flawless system, and the online library still won’t hold a candle to the physical (especially in terms of study spaces and mid-morning meal deal treats you were supposed to save until you’d written 1000 words). But, there is a lot available, especially in terms of articles and reviews, and they’re more likely to be peer-reviewed, too, and therefore more reliable.
On Lancaster University Library’s ‘OneSearch‘, for example, you can limit your search only to results that have the full text online. You can also expand beyond the library collections (if, like me, you’re simply looking to beef up your bibliography).
Those of you who study humanities and social sciences will be no stranger to jstor.org, but just in case: JSTOR is an online source of journals, primary sources, and books, that most can access through their university library log-in. It has, quite literally, saved my life.
If you’re writing an essay on the use of names in African-American literature, for example, you can search ‘naming’ within the categories ‘African-American studies’ and ‘Literature’, filter to show only content you can access, and whether you’re interested in books, reviews, articles, or research reports, and bing-pot!
Footnotes and Bibliographies
This may seem a little obvious, but it is a trick that has saved me hours of searching. If you find an article or book chapter you like, it is often useful to check out the footnotes and bibliography to find more relevant material. Simply Google referenced authors and books and you may find snippets on Google books, reviews of the text, and sometimes, if you’re especially lucky, you may find it converted into a complete PDF.
Most universities post their newest research online, meaning you have access to previously unpublished theses and dissertations that can help you with your research. For example, on Durham Research Online, you can browse by year, department, author, or search for keywords. This can also help if you’re stuck with formatting your dissertation and your professor won’t answer any of your emails, for a completely-made-up-example.
Buying the Books
This is obviously an expensive option and not for everyone, especially if you’re working to a closer-than-you-thought deadline. In the past, I have refrained from buying the module texts until I was sure I’d be doing them for my assignments. I personally like having my own physical copy so that I can dog-ear the pages, write in the margins, and overall abuse it in ways you never should a library book.
With a lot of local libraries and bookshops currently closed, you can buy used books from Amazon, which I seriously recommend to save some cash, or buy them to have immediately through the Kindle app. Obviously, I resent giving Bezos any more billions, so if you have a bit more time and money, a lot of independent bookshops are now online at bookshop.org.
Sometimes the hardest task of all. A friend once told me that they hand-write all of their essays. At first, I thought she’d gone a little mad. After all, the longest thing I’ve handwritten since leaving school is my signature on my housing contract.
It is, however, extremely sound advice. You can write without being snowed-under by references and others’ opinions, and get to the bare bones of what you want your essay to be. You also can’t be tempted by opening various social media tabs alongside your research.
Some additional words of wisdom.
- Reference as you go. Future you will thank you. It also provides a form of procrastination where you really feel like you’re being productive.
- Speaking of references: Ctrl-Alt-F immediately inserts a footnote.
- Use the references tab on Word! Insert Citation – Add New Source – input all the necessary/available details from your reference – choose your style (i.e. Harvard) – Bibliography – Add Built-in Bibliography. See a brand spanking and alphabetical biblio, in the correct order with correct spacing, appear before your very eyes! The fact that this isn’t taught to every university student is a crime.
- BREAKS. If you’re on a laptop, it is recommended you take a break every 20-30 minutes. We know this isn’t possible. We know you’re in a coffee-fuelled haze and the rest of the world doesn’t feel real right now, so at least stretch out your arms and legs and blink, like, a lot.
- If you usually rely on a library to work, cut off a separate study space for yourself in the house. Whether it’s your desk or one end of the kitchen table or your parents’ bedroom, just make sure it’s not your own bed and it’s not in front of an easily accessible TV.
- Talk to people. Message your course mates and exchange ideas. I can promise you that helping each other is only going to improve both your grades, and you’re allowed to use some of the same references. A problem halved is a problem solved, after all.
- Talk to people not about work. Exchange memes with your sister. Tell your mum exactly what you made for dinner. Text a mate about that episode. You’ll go back to work after that five minute conversation feeling so much lighter.
- This list got long.
- Eat fruit and veg but also chocolate. A small sherry helps the words flow better, in my experience. A large bottle of wine does not.
- Regular sleep, regular meals. If you’re tired or hungry, don’t say, “I’m not sleeping/eating until I finish this paragraph.” Food and sleep are not rewards. You need them to function.
This time is never easy, and now, it feels nigh on impossible. Treat yourself like you would a toddler; if you’re upset, let yourself be comforted. If you’re tired, sleep; if you’re hungry, eat. If you’re restless, run, or play, or jump on your flatmate. Look after yourself, and we’ll get through it in the end.
Image courtesy of Alfons Morales.