The lone scholar

Empress Matilda, 15th century

“I’m a poor lonesome scholar, I’m a long long way from college-home. And this poor lonesome scholar has got a long long way to roam. Over conferences and over libraries. From dawn ‘til day is done. My books and I keep aspiring, with the desk light on …

I’m a poor lonesome scholar, but it doesn’t bother me. ’Cause this poor lonesome scholar prefers books for company. Got nothing against e-sources, but I wave them all goodbye. My books and me keep aspiring. We don’t like being tied.

Lonesome scholar, lonesome scholar …”

Last Thursday, I was attending an information session on funding for post-doctoral research. When I raised my hand to ask which type of funding I should apply to as an independent scholar, a whole room of scholars stared back at me as if they were looking at the final survivor of a rare breed on the very brink of extinction. “Behold the independent scholar!” The Italian representative was stumbling over his words and started stuttering when he said that was a first for him and continued to call me “special”. It’s one of those contexts where you don’t want to be called special. You want to be considered an equal, a fellow scholar, a peer amongst peers. It was one of those moments when I felt truly lonely even though I was surrounded by a large crowd. There I was … me versus them. I didn’t feel like an independent scholar … I’d become the lonesome scholar.

St Birgitta, Revelations, 1500, Nuremburg, Anthony Koberger.

As I strolled through the streets of Brussels looking for a place to grab lunch, I felt oddly at one with my country’s capital. She too had been pointed a finger at and been left abandoned. Numerous little shops, cosy restaurants, small musea that I loved had closed up shop for good. Once the rain started to pour down heavily, I took comfort in a warm cup of coffee and as I wrapped my hands around the porcelain cup it felt as if I embraced the city and told her that everything would be okay. That we would be okay. At least we have each other … the lonesome scholar in a lonesome city. And so, this lonesome scholar returned home and kept her nose to the grindstone until she had to go back into work (aka my actual daytime job).

Speaking of work, on the Monday of that very same week, I had received a phone-call at the office from a journalist of a Belgian quality newspaper who wanted a statement from me about an alleged case of sexual intimidation and abuse of power at the department of literature. He wanted to verify the information which appeared in a student’s magazine that same morning and was calling all the female doctoral students of the department of literature. Even though I am an independent scholar, my name is on the department’s list of literary doctoral students. I explained to the journalist that I wasn’t working at the department as I was an independent scholar and was unable to assist him with his inquiry. However, this case led to an overload of emails, one of which I responded to: the email of the head of the department of literature. He called for a meeting on amongst other things the alleged case of sexual intimidation and the flood of journalists contacting the department’s employees and (female) doctoral students. Unfortunately for me, the meeting would be held during work hours, so I could not attend. But he expressed the wish to contact him if you were unable to attend the meeting and if you had any grievances to speak up about them. I took the opportunity to do just that.

“I am an independent doctoral student in literature and for the past 8 years I have also worked at the University Library. Currently, I am working part time to finish writing my doctoral thesis in my own free time. I am very satisfied with the support, guidance and the excellent working relationship I have with both my supervisor and co-supervisor.

However, as an independent PhD student, I do not get that same level of guidance and support from the university and, in particular, from the Department of Literature, of which – in theory – I am also a member. I would like to take the opportunity here to raise this point with you that I feel like I take up a liminal position.”

(Excerpt from my email to the head of the Department of Literature, sent Tuesday July 14th, 2016)

Twice in the same week, I felt betwixt and between … I felt like I did not belong. I am a member of the university and, as such, they benefit from me and my scholarly work. Yet, when I reach out to them for help, I am left standing in the cold because “you are one of the very few.” I am a scholar and a researcher, yet when sitting in the Royal Library last Thursday I felt oddly out of place. When I got home that day, I felt like a freak, an outsider, … anything but a researcher and a scholar. For a moment I was really disheartened.


That is, until I realized that I am a scholar and I do belong to a “college-home.” No, it might not be a physical building or an office that I can go to. My fellow-scholars, established researchers, helpful librarians and fellow enthousiasts … though they are scattered around the world, when I need them they are there to give advice, ready with tips and ready to help, to encourage me, to talk about shared experiences or just to have a wee chat and relax a bit. I was reminded of a scene from Roald Dahl’s Matilda where the books that she reads give Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: you are not alone.

Though I might be lonesome from time to time, I certainly am not alone. That is the hopeful and comforting message I received this week.


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