Monday, August 17, 2009

My Favorite Place to Study...

(The Immaculata, University of San Diego, image from

I attended the University of San Diego (USD), a Roman Catholic university, for graduate school in English from 1989-1991. I immediately bonded with department chair, Dr. Elizabeth Walsh, who received her PhD from Harvard. A tiny nun with a gentle voice, Sister Betsy, as she insisted we call her, was a medieval scholar of first rank, and as the medieval period was my biggest "hole," i.e., the area I had studied least at Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU), I took a whole year of Chaucer with Sister Betsy plus a couple other classes in medieval literature; in fact, because I took so many medieval lit classes, I chose that time period to be the focus of my comprehensive examinations (comps) which the USD English Department required instead of a Master's thesis at that time. Later I found out that the reason for this no-thesis policy was that so many students who had completed their coursework did not finish their thesis and thus did not receive their degrees.

(Copley Library at the University of San Diego, image from

During my two years at USD, I spent the vast majority of my time in Copley Library. Because the English Department would not accept my Spanish courses as my foreign language -- Latin, French, and German were the only acceptable languages -- I took four semesters of undergrad German while in graduate school. And because of these four extra courses, I had to take extra grad classes in the summer and during Intercession (between semesters in January). So, I rarely had a break from study during those two years. I also worked as Sister Betsy's research assistant -- USD has no teacher's assistants (TA's) as all professors are required to teach their own classes. So I spent hours in Copley Library, researching for Sister Betsy as well as studying.

(The Reading Room in Copley Library, University of San Diego, image from

The Reading Room pictured above became the English grad students' favorite place to study, especially when our comps were hanging over our heads. We spent hours each day after classes in the balcony area, spreading our books and notebooks over the large tables, sitting near the open windows that allowed in the rose-scented spring breezes. The beautiful weather, the light winds from the east tossing the the multi-colored roses on their slender, thorned stems, the occasional sea breeze from Mission Bay to the west, all called us out of the library, beckoning us to close our books and enjoy the gorgeous outdoors. But we resolutely turned away from the arched windows, concentrating instead on the list of 19th century British novelists, on the stack of medieval dates to memorize, on the poems to be read and analyzed as we spent hours each day preparing for our six hours of comprehensive exams. Passing meant we would receive our Master of Arts degrees; failure meant we wouldn't.

I still like to return to the Copley Library Reading Room when I have some heavy-duty studying or writing to do. The large, sunny room is always silent except for the whisper of pages being turned and the scratch of pens and pencils across paper. Occasionally a student or librarian walks across the room, their heels echoing on the hardwood floors between the thick area rugs, but it's the loudest sound one hears in the room. Ever.

I wrote a significant portion of my retreat talk a few years ago in this room, clicking away on my laptop's keyboard. That's a sound I'm not accustomed to in this room; when I was in grad school, laptop computers were unheard of. One might type up essays on a PC or on a typewriter, but computers were not used at all the way they are now. I took up an entire table myself -- ignoring the other five chairs and spreading out my books and notes as I composed the three talks that would make up the Lake Murray weekend retreat on contemplative prayer that I was leading. It felt wonderful to be back in the Reading Room, feeling the silence nestle into mind and soul as words began to flow so freely that my fingers blurred in my attempts to capture each thought.

Some places are just perfect for writing, for me at least. I need to get away from home, from chores and children and to-do lists and phones, in order to write freely, and the Reading Room is my favorite place to do so. When I can't drive all the way to the coast, a Starbucks or other coffee shop will do in a pinch. The Julian Coffee Company is another place I worked on the retreat talks, writing all day with a large green tea within easy reach. Writing is hard work and requires for me a detachment of place - a place where I won't be bothered and where my concentration is uninterrupted. Beautiful surroundings are definitely a bonus. And the Reading Room at the University of San Diego is just such a place.


BreezieGirl said...

I just stumbled on this blog post while searching for a library picture - and when I saw the one you used I realized that it was my picture from flickr.

Susanne Barrett said...

Yes, I **love** studying in the Reading Room. I spent a great deal of time there, preparing for my Comps while I did my Masters in English there in the late 80's and early 90's. Great photo!!! :)


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