Robin’s Rules: Lessons on Work, Scholarship, and Life from Robin Briggs

As noted in the last post, technical difficulties prevented me from capturing all of what was an amazing conversation with Robin Briggs for The Historical Gadfly. Still, in our conversation we managed to touch on a number of interesting topics: his maturation from a student at secondary school to a nascent scholar of French history, making his way in France and trying to navigate between the personalities of the Annales School; what he valued in his mentorship relations with Christopher Hill and others during his time as an undergraduate at Oxford; and the importance of growing up in an environment with loads and loads of books (his father was a bookseller).

Still, there’s much we didn’t cover, or that was cut off due to us overloading my computer’s hard drive, and so I thought I might try to add what I thought were two of the most important lessons I took from my conversation with him. I’ve spent some of the last few mealtime conversations at Corpus and elsewhere trying to boil these down, and as such, they reflect the input of several friends and colleagues, too.

New Yorker Cartoon on workaholics

Not what I signed up for ...

1. Getting stuff done. This is, of course, a common topic for graduate students, indeed, it seems many people who live in a university environment. All too often, I find myself waking up, having resolved the previous evening (after, say, hot dogs, beer, and ice cream) to get up early, go to the gym, and have a big day working, to hit the alarm, decide that my foot is too sore for me to do … pull-ups and hence anything at the gym that day, and before I know it, it’s 11 o’clock and, well, then there’s only an hour and a half until lunchtime. Follow that with a big lunch which demands a half-hour postscript sipping tea on the leather couches in Corpus, and you’re at 2 o’clock. But by then you’re already in the middle of Oxford, and it would be absurd to go back home, change clothes, and then go to the gym – and besides, you might miss dinner! All the better to go to the library – after a quick detour to the travel books section of Blackwell’s, of course – and read through your favorite websites … and so on and so on. I think I usually stay pretty disciplined compared to most students, but even if you have some faith in your own work schedule, as a friend pointed out the other night, if you’re talking about getting bigger long-term projects (say, a dissertation) done, then there’s the question of whether you’ve adequately gauged the task at hand. You might have 60 or 90 days until the deadline, for example, but if you’re doing only 75% of what you should be doing on a daily basis, then by the time there’s a week left, there’s still a mountain to be climbed. Not only that, but there’s also the danger of “fake work” – all those times you’ve sat down in the library pledging to jam out three or four pages of that essay, but found yourself drifting from e-mail to Facebook to the New York Times to Hacker News and, before you know it, two hours have gone by. What’s a boy to do?

One of the things Robin said that I personally found most helpful was the system he had devised for himself while an undergraduate at Oxford, and which, if I am not mistaken, he still adheres to today. Start by dividing up the day into three reasonable blocks, broken off, probably, by meals:

  1. Morning (9 AM – 1 PM)
  2. Afternoon (2 PM – 6 PM)
  3. Evening (7 PM – 11 PM)

If your schedule is anything like mine (which it may not be, but you’re along for the ride now) this gives you an hour after getting up, and about an hour to wind down in the evening. The gist of the schedule is that you say to yourself: I have to do some good, honest work during two (but only two!) of these three periods, and it’s my choice which two I’m going to do on this day. (“Work” here in this context typically means writing, reading, editing existing stuff, i.e. intellectual rather than physical labor. However, the logic of at least my own high school football training camp vaguely paralleled this: two big practices in the morning and evening, one light one in the afternoon.) So if you’ve got a commitment in the evening, as I happen to this day, this means that I’m spending the morning (in theory, at least) typing this blog post, working on my essay on Iranian-Afghan relations in the 1990s, and, if I’m an especially good boy, working on some of my contributions to Wikistrat, a grand strategy competition that I’m working on with some friends and fellow students from Oxford. If I can survive the intermittent monsoons that seem to constitute Oxford summers, I’ll make it to lunch and then have another four hours or so to finish what hasn’t been done in the morning. And by the end of it, by the time I show up for my evening commitment, I’ll be free to embark on journeys to wino country, enjoy the company of friends, and see where the night takes us (probably me gorging too much and pledging, in a pledge to be broken the next morning, to get up early and go to the gym).

Berlin's Alexanderplatz and the Surrounding Areas: Not a Food Mecca (But I'm waiting to be corrected)

I might stress that the point of thinking about such rules, even if you frequently bend, break, or warp them, is just as much about protecting that third of the day where you’re “not working” as it is to structure the two where you are. I needlessly martyr myself sometimes to put it “big days,” but often times end up feeling less excited, energized, and enervated at the end of them than I would had I simply taken a break, or allowed time to cool off. While in Berlin this May, working on files at the archives of the former East German Stasi, for example, I found myself making what I think can be a classic historians’ mistake. You feel like you’re under pressure to find “the” file in everything, so you feel like you can’t waste any time. Like most archives, the BStU (the Stasi archives) operate on a normal working schedule, from around 9-5 (9-7:30 on some days), which would be well enough, but unfortunately, also like many archives, they’re located in a relatively boring part of the city: just around the corner from Alexanderplatz, the central transit hub in Berlin but also a very touristy area, with few restaurants or cafés like, say, The Missing Bean in Oxford where some combination of hipsters, trust-fund babies, and scholars meet to swap stories and numbers. The result is you end up locking yourself in the archive, as I did, often times forgoing lunch, or convincing yourself that taking a break for water is “lunch,” and by the end of the day, you’re cranky, exhausted, and hungry. It ruins what you might call your Stimmung (“mood”, but what I’m getting at is the possibility for good vibrations), and all you want to do is nap or overeat later in the day. Which sends you down the road of being an archive rat – maybe good for your work in some sense, but not for being a complete person, or a happy human being.

Wall Street Movie Poster

The only objective measure of success

Historians hardly have a monopoly on misery, of course. At a recent dinner event in Oxford, a friend was telling me about a friend who worked for a major Wall Street and Connecticut-based hedge fund that I will not name here. When invited to a recruiting event at his Ivy League College campus, he ended up seated next to a, by all appearance, vivacious and successful woman who had worked for the firm for several years, and had, at least in the internal eyes of the firm, made it. She had an apartment in midtown Manhattan, and was seen as indispensable to the firm. Whence my friend asked her: why Midtown? Why live within four blocks of Times Square, as she did, rather than somewhere a tad more chi-chi, or, well, nice? Why not the Village, the Upper West Side, or Brooklyn? The answer, she said, was simple. Some days – not every day, but only when she was called upon to do so, she would have to arrive in the office at 4 AM to help out the London office and deal with European markets opening (which of course are 5-6 hours ahead of New York City). Is it possible to maintain a healthy sense of balance if you’re getting up at 4 AM to do your work? Maybe, but I sure wouldn’t want to do it. Does forcing yourself to live in one specific location (not just a city, but a 12-block grid in that city) because of the specific demands of your work speak to a healthy lifestyle, or success? That one I’m more confident to make a statement on.

Missing Bean

Although I hardly ever go there myself, I nonetheless find myself sucked in again and again by friends ...

2. Try not to freak out or worry too much.

This one sounds incredibly vague, but that’s where its power comes from. To return to Robin after the above discourse on Berlin and Wall Street, after winning the All Souls Prize Fellowship, Robin found himself faced with both a tremendous sense of freedom (the fellowship allows one to essentially pursue their own course of study and research with few strings attached for up to seven years), but also the sense of being on a plankboard raft in the middle of the ocean, with neither map nor astrolabe. He had some sense that he wanted to work on French history after the advice and mentorship of his friend John Habakkuk, and some contacts through Habakkuk to the big names of the day like Fernand Braudel, but less precise a sense of what precisely he wanted to work on, or, for that matter, how to pursue work in a French archive in the 1960s. Meetings with Braudel went less smoothly than anticipated, as Braudel suggested that Briggs work on Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s Minister of Finances and an interesting figure, but probably not the topic of the next great work in the Annales tradition (which emphasized both close regional studies as well as histories of, for example, belief, emotion, love, or hierarchy in addition to the traditional topics of kings, wars, ministries, and economies). Seminars that tried to explain why de Saussure proved equally mystifying to Robin as well as to his French counterparts.

Toulouse at night

Toulouse, Act 1 of Our Story ...

So off he went into the wild of southern France, in particular to Toulouse, a city in southwest France whose archives he thought he would explore. At this time, one of the trends in French history was to comb exhaustively through the provincial records of regional archives, examining the relationship, say, between intendants (a complex term, but essentially central-appointed financial officers who were also part of the nobility, although even that term is complex in Ancien Régime France) and local blood nobility. This required combing through stacks and stacks of tax forms, financial records, etc., and it was the 1960s, so this was incredibly tedious work prior to, say, laptops and advanced computing. Eventually working on this sort of project began to seem small – what was the point of merely filling in the gaps of regional histories? To eventually have a total picture of … hundreds of regional pictures? This kind of work simply wasn’t exciting. Still, almost two years into the Fellowship, and not having accomplished a great deal, the sense of pressure was acute. At this point, Robin might have decided on sucking it up, devoting himself to a career of spending half the year in southern France (OK, not so bad a fate) sifting through archives, and the other half in Oxford slicing and dicing his archival notes into something he could publish or present on. The sense of anxiety about falling behind, about not having really accomplished something yet grew ever more acute.

But something did happen. On the one hand, while in Toulouse, and puzzling over what to do with his data, Briggs ran into a couple of intellectual historians, Yves and Nicole Castan (authors of works like Honnêteté et relations sociales en Languedoc, 1715-1780, Magie et sorcellerie à l’époque moderne, and Vivre ensemble: order et désordre en Languedoc au XVIIIe siécle), who redirected his research focus. Focus less on mining the provincial archives was the essential message, and focus more on how people thought, about popular belief, and what movements like Catholic Reform had to do to re-vitalize the Church and the faith in the eyes of common French people. This turned Robin onto an unexpected – but immensely productive direction, one which has taken him to acclaim as he’s produced several successful works on belief and witchcraft in early modern Europe. On the other hand, while on a trip back to Oxford, Robin, then, according to the press, “a man with an appealing innocence, obvious integrity and a power-blue sports car” (not bad!), met Julia, who would become his wife.  The situation was, however, complicated, as Julia had just ended a previous marriage and had a young child with the previous man. All of a sudden added to the pressure of producing on the Fellowship, and actually turning out a serious piece of work, were far more serious commitments – building a strong marriage and raising a child, all at a time (1969) when for a woman to do all of these things, and be embarking on an academic career, was, well, rather scandalous.

Stendhal's Sketch of Crystallization

A sketch by Stendhal describing the process of crystallization: at the beginning of a journey, we might view a loved one, or indeed the world, as a Bologna (normal, perhaps sort of attractive, but not glorious). But over time, as we journey over the Apennines, something instinctual happens, and we begin to "crystallize" our best wishes on the person, until they appears as a Rome in our eyes. Along with this, our perception of the world changes from the everyday to the sublime, the Roman.

And yet, Robin emphasized, it all somehow came together during that window. Things were stressful, of course. But after a year and a half in the woods, of struggling to find “the” intellectual direction, thanks to a pair of mentors and the courage not only to create something new and exciting, but also to abandon the existing project, he could stop staring up at the sky for directions from the plankboard boat, and start paddling. More personally, while marriage and an immediate family life brought its own travails, at the risk of sounding corny, he was in love. The French writer Stendhal would become well-known for describing this process. While visiting a salt mine in Austria with his friend and companion Madame Gherardi, he saw how miners would take ordinary objects from above ground – say, a tree branch – and wedge them into the walls of the salt mine. After several months of accretion in the mine, the boughs would become encrusted with salt crystals, which when infused with light would shimmer with limerence. Such, Stendhal thought, is what happens when we fall in love with someone – after some instinctive moment of decision, we begin to crystallize our wishes and best hopes in a person who might, if we are to be totally honest with ourselves, is actually just a regular bough (at least in the eyes of others). The beloved somehow glows to us, and along with us, life just seems lighter: we become more resilient and impervious to the shocks and setbacks of everyday life (like the downpour that I happily witnessed from inside my cozy room). Life just seems easier, brighter, happier.

Salt Crystals

A salt crystal, albeit with no bough inside

In some sense, I think this is the process Robin might have been describing: sure, things remained stressful and difficult, there was still work to get out, avoiding the sense of disappointment in the eyes of mentors or superiors, and yet this period of big changes (dropping the old project, building a family) was the period where things somehow came together. This, for me, is an important lesson from the conversation. Particularly those of us from a generation who grew up attending structured academic and sports programs are used to thinking in terms of deadlines, program lengths, planning the next four years of our lives to correspond with PhD, MBA, JD, and MBA programs. We think in terms of academic calendars, of the length of job contracts, rather than the calendars of emotional growth or surprises. Too often in archives and at conferences, I have seen colleagues who think too much in terms of where this article will get them in two years, how publishing this book at this point in time will get them this post-doc, which will allow them to get this and that and — well, life becomes a series of structured 2-3 year steps that have to be managed rather than a journey with, sure, themes and ambitions glazed onto it, but one where the possibility of surprise remains. Moments of crystallization – whether they be intellectual, where everything just comes together, or in our own personal lives – can’t be planned. They happen when you’re on an otherwise mundane journey out of Bologna through the Apennines, or when you’re stuck in a salt mine, metaphorically speaking, for a couple of months. The lesson I take here is that, sure, it’s important to maintain things like the regular work pattern and some sense of ambition (after all, one has to have some sense of ambition to be pursuing the project on French history, or to apply to All Souls at all), but, once you’ve embarked on that journey – structured by ambition and courage – to allow yourself the chance of being surprised, of being jolted off the track. Thinking about plans, ambitions, the 30-year trajectory – these might not all be bad things. But rigid planning can too often assume that little change will take place, that life won’t happen.

I might continue, but I’ve come to the end of my own Block 1 for the day, and with the skies (temporarily) clear, and lunch awaiting at Corpus, I am off. More interviews and posts to come, hopefully soon, although with exams approaching and plenty of other work I make no promises for a fixed schedule.

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