Tourists have replaced students in Dublin’s Trinity College during these summer months. Drawn primarily to the Old Library and the Book of Kells – an intricate manuscript written by Christian monks around 1,200 years ago – they teeter around on the cobblestones, snapping photos of each other while soaking up the university’s four-hundred year history. Set right in the heart of the city, the calm surroundings are an oasis from the urban bustle outside its gates. Benches in leafy squares offer resting spots to peer over maps and guides and plan the rest of the day, while the more footsore can spread out on the grassy verges of the playing field and observe the soothing ritual of a cricket match without having a clue about the rules.
The students have long departed. Summer months might include some travel or the odd music festival, but most time will be spent in that dreaded place: the “real world”. Slaving away in summer jobs, they can forget about textbooks until autumn comes around, once again offering the sanctuary of lecture halls and libraries.
As a University of London student my schedule is exactly the opposite. As a full-time musician in one of Ireland’s state orchestras my holidays are comparatively generous, so I can get chunks of reading done. Time isn’t so plentiful for the rest of the year – I’m also a part-time writer with a national newspaper and a very full-time father of two pre-school children – so I’ve planned to read some key International Relations texts in their entirety, like Bull’s The Anarchical Society, Krasner’s Sovereignty – Organized Hypocrisy? and Anderson’s Imagined Communities.
I did take a break during a family holiday in Galicia, but although the textbooks stayed at home there were daily reminders of my studies. Even in the small town of Cangas I found my politics and IR courses played out in real life, whether the complex relationship between nationhood (Galicia) and statehood (Spain) or the local encampment of “indignados”. (These were mostly young people protesting against political elitism and the Spanish government’s austerity measures. Their little tented settlement in a pubic square offered anti-establishment books, videos and discussions.)
It’s like this most of the time. Unless I switch off from the news entirely then I can’t help turning back to my studies to help make sense of what is happening in the world: the emergence of South Sudan as a sovereign state; the mechanics of the US political system revealed in the dispute Republicans and Obama over the debt ceiling; the ongoing Arab Spring; or the tension between national politics and the European ideal that has emerged through the Euro crisis.
This entwining of course content and daily events is what drew me to study politics and IR in the first place, but as an external student the relationship is even closer. Full-time students can migrate between college and the “real world”, a situation I can sometimes envy as I try to snatch an hour of reading in the middle of a busy schedule. But ultimately I find that my studies are enriched by being embedded in my day-to-day life.