This is Your PhD on Lockdown

It is January 5th, 2021. Yesterday, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom announced the third national lockdown the country has undertaken to attempt to curb the spread of a deadly, highly contagious virus. Yesterday was also, technically, the first day of my PhD.

None of this is news to any of you but would have been surprising to me as a 15-year-old, first daydreaming about doing a doctoral degree. Needless to say, it’s not the most ideal set of circumstances to start a highly focused, self-led path of research. For one thing, while I’m studying for my PhD in Durham, I’m not even in Durham yet—I’m still in quarantine as I entered from the US a week ago. Secondly, to say that I formally ‘started’ yesterday is a misnomer. I’ve had to push back starting this degree from October of last year as a result of COVID-19 and starting in January while my university is basically shut down means any sort of formal orientation or, well, any clarification beyond my vague sense of what a PhD entails has been completely absent. (I write… a long book…? How long…? Pretty long, surely…?)

Image courtesy of The New York Times, ‘”This Is Your Brain on Drugs,” Tweaked for Today’s Parents’, 7 August 2016. Excellent edits by yours truly.

That being said: I am extremely happy and relieved to finally be here. It’s probably in bad taste to turn the lockdown into something positive, but I’m looking forward to finding a little flat of my own to hunker down in and starting filling with books. I don’t think I’ll be going into the university any time soon, so it’s time to build a little haven of study (and procrastination) on some Idyllic Street near one of Durham’s many industrial estates or retail parks.

There’s something weird about being an American in the UK during a pandemic. It’s always a little weird living here, feeling that marked difference when I go to a shop or when I’m at the pub and can’t say the word ‘banter’ because my vowel sounds butcher it. But it’s more pronounced now—there’s a feeling that my pandemic experience and the experience of those who have been here since March (when an expiring visa pushed me out of London and back to the US) has been radically different. I live in Texas, where, for better or worse, the virus hasn’t affected much of daily life. Arriving in the UK fresh with the news of a more contagious strain, on the eve of a third national lockdown, I feel a bit like the American soldiers showing up to a blitz-beleaguered London in World War II, interrogated by H.D. in her poem ‘May 1943’: ‘how could you know, | you did not see | what we saw’.[1]

Paradoxically, the virus is unifying. There has never been a moment in my life where most of the people on earth have faced the same threat at once, undergone the same struggles at once, known a unique pain together. By entering this third lockdown with the rest of the UK, I enter a sudden solidarity with my new country of residence and its people, as H.D. did by remaining in London during the Blitz.

This post has become more about COVID than my PhD, but these feelings seem apt for the work I am about to undergo: interrogating the literary production of women who feel both alienated from and enmeshed within multiple nations. My experience of this dual alienation and solidarity is minor, but even in my own life I find it so difficult to wrap my head around. I hope that rather than frustrating my efforts at a PhD, it motivates me to find out more about women who’ve found themselves in similar situations over the years. Stay tuned to find out more—to hear me spout about H.D. at length, but hopefully with reflections and updates on the work I’m doing while here at Durham and beyond.

I am hopeful. And my first supervision is tomorrow. The dark tunnel of the next three years of my life is ahead of me—who will I be on the other side? Impossible to say. Scary. Exciting.

And thank God my PhD isn’t lab-based…

[1] H.D., ‘May 1943’ in Within the Walls and What Do I Love?, ed. Annette Debo (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2016), 176–82.

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