“Women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time the very walls are permeated by their creative force.” – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own.
Studying indoors for the past 18 months, largely confined to their bedrooms and childhood homes, students have no doubt found the walls of their study spaces are permeated by, if not creative force, then certainly academic stress. As Virginia Woolf pleaded for women to be allowed to move their studies from their private domestic spheres into the public, students have been waiting for the chance to free themselves from their private study spaces to experience the joy of studying in public. This academic year has seen a return to something vaguely resembling normality and, although most people’s excitement has undoubtedly been related to the opening of social spaces, it also presents new opportunities for study spaces.
However, some people are less enthused by the concept of studying outside their houses. A combination of natural inclination to private study and the psychological impact of a pandemic that gave people no other choice has resulted in some people simply preferring studying alone in their own rooms rather than venturing out into a potentially disruptive public study space. Everyone works differently and the beauty of university is that your independent study is your own; you can position yourself in whatever study space is most beneficial. To each their own – and to each their own study space.
For those who have acclimated to the home, there are many benefits. Studying in your own space means you never have to worry about forgetting anything you may need, alleviating the risk that you make it to the library only to find that you have left your laptop charger at home and only have ten minutes’ charge left. Importantly, there is also an endless supply of study snacks lurking in the cupboards for much needed essay fuelling. A kettle is readily available to supply all the caffeine you need for a much lower price than if you choose to leave. Everyone has also been forced to adapt to this environment regardless of how natural home-learning is to them, with some students not knowing any different. Thus, rather than learning to adjust to new study spaces, it may be easier to simply stick to what you know and stay at home rather than exploring new potential spaces with the possibility of them not working out. Studying from home for many is just the most convenient method and provides everything you could possibly need, meaning that the impetus to leave (particularly as the days get colder and rainier) is not forthcoming.
However, for others, the last 18 months of being confined to home-learning environments has been hellish. Countless tales of woe from the pandemic – bad internet connection, constant distractions – mean that some feel the renewed opportunity to study outside of home is a chance for escape. Studying at home, though quiet for some, is not quite a silent haven for people with busy or cramped houses. Without a designated study room, many people were confined to their bedrooms for months on end, attempting to work in a space designed for rest and relaxation. The mental separation of home and work can be a useful tool to enable you to take breaks and rest, whilst having a designated zone for work can help kick your brain into gear. Home can also be just as, if not more, distracting than public spaces. Constant interruptions from flatmates as you all attempt to procrastinate lead to longer-than-necessary work breaks in the name of self-care; yet if you choose to avoid these breaks and shut yourself in your room, you can easily go without human contact for the day.
Therefore, as libraries and cafés re-opened their doors, those who felt confined by their pandemic study spaces were reunited with their traditional study routines. Home distractions were removed; they were able to find a sense of renewed motivation. Rather than being able to hide in their rooms being tempted by their phone screens, the judging eyes of the library silent floorers and fellow café studiers allowed their focus to return. To those for whom comparison and competition are powerful motivators, watching those around you seemingly thriving in their academic study is essential to actually completing tasks and concentrating on work.
This fear of judgement is nowhere better felt than in the library silent section in which the pressure to work can find you completing readings in half the time you ever could at home. The atmosphere means that you have little other option than to get on with what you are supposed to be doing. It is noticeable in the substantial increase in the popularity of these floors as deadline seasons loom, with the clicking of keys acting as the only form of communication of communal stress. This is accompanied by the shared exhaustion recognised in people’s lolling heads and hourly coffee runs as they try to power through in such an intense study space. Surrounded by books and other students, work is the uniting force on which everyone is focused. The library is so many people’s go-to study space and it was, designed specifically for the kind of intense study required when deadlines are approaching. Rather than requiring a room of their own, some people need a room filled with other workers.
Despite its popularity as a go-to stress study space, the library is some people’s nightmare when it comes to getting anything done. Silence can be so loud when you are trying and failing to understand a topic and, with nothing to provide distraction, you are left with only your unintelligible thoughts. In these cases, cafés can save the day. By providing a somewhat social work environment, study can be combined with socialising without the need for actual communication. Simply being in a shared space and getting on with your own work can be enough to be productive and, for some, café study can even border on being enjoyable. The smell of the coffee brewing and the ambient background noise along with the likelihood of rain gently (or not-so-gently as of late) tapping on the window can allow you to romanticise your study experience in a way that is just not quite so easy on a silent, serious library floor. On those rare occasions where you are not having to rush through work and have time to sip your pumpkin spiced latte between readings, cafés provide a much needed, multi-functional space.
There is a risk with café studying, lying in this very enjoyment. Sometimes the logging of hours studied can be enough to make you feel like you have had a successful study session, when in reality, some people were just not made to handle the distractions a social study space presents. The opportunity to eavesdrop on surrounding conversations or to glance out of the window at passers-by who are not in your position can certainly feel more relaxing than an intensive silent study zone. However, it can, in the long run, make your work take twice as long. Trying to create a study space out of a place not designed for concentration or learning is, for some, practically impossible, essentially constituting a waste of time rather than a valuable study session. Some people who claim cafés are their perfect study environment are likely living in denial; in reality they would get much more done in a more boring environment. Despite this, some no doubt do thrive with these kinds of environments, allowing them to enjoy their study time and finding the surrounding noise and atmosphere more conducive to work.
Everyone has a different conception of what constitutes the perfect study space. For some, it is, as Virginia Woolf described, “a room of one’s own” at home, where all amenities are available and there is limited distraction from surrounding strangers. For others, the fear of being judged by such strangers or the shared pressure in a communal environment is a much more useful space for study, allowing for complete focus in a zone designated for work. Loud public spaces can also facilitate work for some people by allowing their studies to be somewhat social, rather than having to shut themselves in a room away from everyone else. Ultimately, as life slowly edges towards normality, people now have the choice to tailor their study spaces both to themselves as individuals, and the types of studying they are doing. Moving between the home, library, and café, students can once again find their perfect study space.
Illustration: Liza Vasilyeva