productivity

I went to a ‘busy’ college.

I love Kenyon and of course am still so happy I went there, but the combination of rigorous academics, a small campus, and a, um, limited social scene resulted in an environment where everyone was always ‘busy’ in some fashion. There was always a paper to write or a reading quiz to prepare for or flashcards to make, or a club meeting to run or a rehearsal to go to or… you get the idea. This translated into a fixation on what was or wasn’t ‘productive.’ Doing schoolwork was productive. Participating in extracurriculars was productive. Even going to work out at the KAC was productive. Spending a Sunday watching Netflix in your pajamas? UNPRODUCTIVE! People wore their “productive” natures with pride–even if they were sacrificing free time or even their health to do it.

I never really understood why this attitude prevailed–I think many of us picked it up long before we arrived at Kenyon.

One of the things I really loved about Exeter, and the British academic system in general, was that this sort of attitude didn’t exist. Everyone worked hard, of course, but there wasn’t a guilt in spending some time doing something besides school. There are fewer assignments over the course of the term–usually just a few big papers or exams rather than lots of smaller ones. It threw me for a loop when I first arrived in Exeter–I was kind of stunned I didn’t have a paper due until well into November–but it was actually really nice to be in an academic environment where relaxing and taking care of yourself was also seen as ‘productive.’

So when I woke up this past Sunday, I realized I had a day off–I wasn’t scheduled for a work shift, and my first essay was completed and ready to turn in later in the week. I had nothing I needed to do. At Kenyon this probably would have sent me into an existential crisis and/or fear I had forgotten some major assignment, no matter how much I’d scour my syllabi.

I’m (maybe) older and wiser now, and (maybe) am better equipped to fight that must be productive at all times’ idea. So I decided I would spend my day off seeing one of my favourite museums in the city: The Museum of London.

I have a special affinity for city museums–my first museum job was an internship at the Museum of the City of New York. The Museum of London is a bit small, but it’s definitely worth seeing. The galleries take you through the city’s history from prehistoric times to the present–with collections ranging from fossils to punk memorabilia, you’re pretty much guaranteed to find something there that interests you.

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A lot of the clothing on display are donations from Londoners, with descriptions of the original owner and what the outfit was for–from a suit for a first job to a wedding dress to a school uniform. The history of the city is told in everyday objects, which adds a more powerful tone to discussions of major events in the city’s history, from the Great Fire to the 7/7 Attacks to the 2012 Olympics.

Using my work ID, I had the privilege of seeing the special “London Nights” photography exhibition for free–the photography, from all eras of London’s history, was stunning. I especially liked Nick Turpin’s “Through a Glass Darkly” collection capturing what it’s like to commute in London.

A small but powerful exhibition explored the women’s suffrage movement in Britain. 2018 marks the 100-year anniversary of women being granted the vote in Britain, although full suffrage wasn’t granted until 1928–for those first ten years, women had to be at least 30 to vote and married to a man who was a member of local government or a university graduate, pretty much ensuring that the only female voters in Britain were a select group of rich white ladies.

The exhibition didn’t try to sugar-coat this inequality and explored the work of British suffragists in-depth. They were notably more aggressive than their American counterparts–many British suffragists were imprisoned and went on hunger strike after leading public disobedience campaigns. Many were repeatedly re-arrested over the course of many years. And it took a suspension of the campaign during WWI–and women “proving their worth” by taking up jobs for the war effort–that convinced the government to start granting suffrage to some women.

See? Had I not gone to the museum I wouldn’t have gotten to learn about these amazing women. Or seen these amazing photos. Or gone outside, turned the corner, and suddenly found myself at the steps of St. Paul’s.

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London has a way of sneaking up on you like that.

Going to museums is a “for fun” activity to me, and the whole experience of having a day out in Central London just really feels like self-care. I love touring the galleries at my own pace and getting to see exactly what I want. I love walking down the street and knowing exactly where I’m going (and even more so when a tourist asks me for directions.) And even almost 2 months in, I still love the brief ‘holy crap, I live in London‘ moment when the bus drives over the Thames.

And sure, I didn’t spend the day on work for my degree, or earning a paycheck for my job. Along the way I impulse-bought a jar of vegan pesto and I spent a long time pouring over the books in the Tate Modern giftshop. But in a world where we’re always being pressured to be more productive–whether it’s through a gimmicky desk or an expensive planner or a ‘side hustle’–it’s nice to find a new definition of ‘productive’ that includes self-care as well.

If you’re also in recovery from a college ‘busy’ culture, best of luck!

Deirdre xx


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