I received in my Inbox this morning an announcement concerning the Heckman Research grants to the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) at St. John’s University in Minnesota. I was immediately taken back to my stay at HMML when I was a Heckman Scholar in the spring of 2008. The grants are available from two weeks to six months to graduate students or scholars who are within three years of completing a terminal master’s or doctoral degree. Given my schedule then as a doctoral student, I opted for the shortest amount of time, two weeks.
I remember, the first day I arrived, I sat at my desk – empty then – a bit bewildered. My guide had left me, the paperwork was done. It was just me and my laptop and a blank sheet asking what microfilm I wanted delivered. I was at a loss. I wasn’t a novice to research; I had been a graduate student for several years. I had prepared seminar papers, conference presentations, even journal articles. Yet, now, I had no idea where to begin. The possibilities were overwhelming, limitless. I was there to work, to accomplish. I had a two-week deadline to make the trip worthwhile, to take advantage of the time. The clock was oppressive.
Falling back on the familiar, my skills at organizing, I gradually put together a routine: request microfilm manuscripts in the morning, compile texts to look at later, spend time writing, examine manuscripts, take a walk to the main stacks to check out sources, return to mine them for their knowledge, and go back to the dorm, exhausted but feeling productive, in order to rest and prepare my agenda for the next day.
Slowly, the rest of the world disappeared and all that was important was the next epiphany, the next discovery. For those two weeks, I was a pure scholar. I had nothing else to do, nothing else pulling on my time. I awoke in the morning, admired the snow-covered silence of St. John’s on spring break as I walked from the dorm to the library, and spent the day hunting for medieval memory in confession manuals. The library was at my disposal. The manuscript collection was my playground. I would search their catalog, create a list of what I wanted to see that day, and, magically, it would appear outside of my designated area, ready for me to look at on the machine provided for me for as long as I wanted. I squinted, I studied, I pondered, I compared. I had a mound of books to my left and right, pulled from the stacks with my very own visitors library card, to converse with as much I wanted.
At some point, it wasn’t about working on the dissertation, although certainly that was why I was there. It was time out of time, wherein the search, following the path of the scholar, was the limit of my existence – or, I should say, the expansion of my existence. One thought leading to another…and another…and another. Other avenues of research opening up, painting images, filling in colors in what were black-and-white sketches of ideas.
In some ways, the experience was surreal. It was almost like those stories wherein the main character draws the veil back from reality in one way or another only to discover there are parallel existences beyond the mundane. Cloistered away in my scholar’s cell, I felt truly multi-dimensional during those two weeks, able to see and touch cultures and minds normally far removed from my own.
I reflect on my time at the HMML with a sense of reverence. I was enamored of the academic’s life beforehand and I have experienced similar feelings since then, but this was my first true immersion in the adventure of being a scholar. It is the memory I carry with me, reminding me of the charm of the path I walk, even when real life offers its detours and ruts.
For information on how to apply to be a Heckman Scholar, click here.