I don’t know whether you guys are familiar with the concept of studyspo, but I come across it quite a lot, on both Tumblr and Instagram. Both platforms have their own studyspo communities (studyblr and #studygram respectively) of people who post aesthetic pictures of their notes and schoolwork to inspire and motivate others to study — as well as to celebrate their own progress, of course.
There are some particular hallmarks of the kind of things people tend to post, though. It’s often highly stylised; there’s a trend for neatly hand printed notes with a swirly calligraphic titles. There are particular pens that people use, layouts that people share — and of course, the inevitable overlap with “bullet journal” types.
(I will never understand bullet journals. They scare and confuse me.)
I’ve occasionally contributed to studyspo, in a half-hearted kind of way. On the rare occasions that my notes are actually neat, I’ll take close-ups for Instagram. Sometimes I’ll post library selfies, if I happen to be working somewhere that fits the #aesthetic.
Okay, so the problem with taking a paper (module) from the English department in third year is that they all do Middle English / Chaucer in lower years. Whereas as an ASNaC, I have never done Chaucer before in my life, and could really use a bit of help understanding Middle English… Currently struggling through it on a plot level before I even think about themes. Not easy when my hands are super dead and both writing and typing are painful, though. #chaucer #studying #studyspo #chronicpain #middleenglish #reading #books #bookstagram #literature #medieval
Mostly, though, I find studyspo less inspiring and more dispiriting. Browsing through feeds of people’s perfect handwriting and highly organised timetables makes me anxious and miserable. I also just don’t get it — I’ve always had a policy of getting work done as quickly as possible and then moving onto other things, and I can’t help wondering why people capable of such lovely calligraphy use it to title their schoolwork rather than making use of their artistic talents to do something, well, more fun.
But it’s a reminder that even if I wanted to study like that, I couldn’t. My ability to handwrite has drastically increased in the last few years, but there are still days where I can’t hold a pen, and it would be an unproductive way to work because I’d have to stop after half an hour. I can’t work in cafes and even libraries rarely have seating that’s ergonomic enough not to result in severe back pain after a couple of hours. My ergonomic keyboard and computer setup aren’t exactly portable.
And then there’s the organisation side of things. People write long captions about how they’re organising their lives… and they act like it’s fun. Like they enjoy organisation. Like planning ahead fills them with anticipation rather than stress. Like knowing exactly how many days are left until a deadline doesn’t make their brain feel like it’s screaming constantly.
As you might be able to tell, that’s not how I feel about organisation. I can’t even cope with revision timetables because even if I’ve planned for a little bit of extra time, I’ll still start panicking as soon as I think I’m falling behind, and that will destroy my productivity until I genuinely am super behind, so it’s counterproductive.
I see advice that tells people to plan exactly what time they’re going to start working on something in particular and just reading the tips makes me stressed.
I plan my weeks on a whiteboard that hangs near the door in my room at uni. Because it’s easy to wipe things off, to move them. It lacks the permanence of pen and paper. It’s messy and changeable and doesn’t make me feel like a total failure whenever something is left incomplete.
The point is: studyspo, in my experience, reflects a very particular able-bodied way of working. I don’t think I’ve ever seen assistive technology featured on someone’s studyblr, because a modified ergonomic pen doesn’t suit the #aesthetic. It favours the kind of people who can sit in a quirky cafe for three hours, taking notes by hand.
The difficulty, then, is finding any other inspiration or motivation. How do I make myself want to do work? The products are never going to be beautiful, the experience isn’t going to be fun, and I’ll never have a perfectly curated Instagram feed. Of course I want to do well in my degree, but exam grades are such an abstract way of motivating yourself when you have no real power over what comes up on the exam. (Besides which a bad pain day coinciding with an exam might seriously screw me over.)
And how do I organise myself without trapping myself into tiny timetabled boxes that only end up imploding and filling me with more dread and nerves? How do I make studying anything other than a massive anxiety trigger?
I want studyspo in that I want inspiration to study. I want techniques I can emulate to make myself productive. I want a community I can participate in and contribute to. But studyblr and studygram aren’t that, because I don’t have the fancy stationery and I can’t use my hands and I will never put an extra hour into something just to make it look nicer in a photo. And because I’m an anxious wreck with the attention span of a gnat who seems incapable of staying focused on anything for more than five minutes. There’s that, too.
A while ago, I tried to start a tag called #honeststudyspo, one that would reflect a less curated image of studying, mess and procrastination and all. But I don’t really think that mainstream studyspo is inherently dishonest. Nor do I think it’s a bad thing; I’m sure it’s a great, inspiring community for some people. I just think it’s limited and exclusive, showing only a particular type of student.
And so I came up with #studyspoonie. Taking its name from the Spoon Theory, it’s a tag for chronically ill and disabled students. A tag to share pictures of that aesthetically unpleasing assistive technology, those wrist splints and dictaphones and a pencil case full of painkillers. For those of us who have to dictate or type; for those who can only work an hour at most before needing to take a break, a nap, or painkillers. For the anxious ones who can’t micromanage their time because writing detailed plans just stresses them out.
If you’re a disabled or chronically ill student, join me in the #studyspoonie tag. Let’s make a studyspo community that’s actually inspiring, instead of making us feel inadequate because we can’t work in the same ways as able-bodied people. Post your aesthetically unpleasing assistive tech, your messy dyspraxic handwriting, your ergonomic pens. Instead of a place of humblebragging, let’s make this a place of supporting each other. Because studying is hard. Chronic illness and pain and disability are hard. Combining the two can be nearly impossible.
Bring your mess, bring your bad days, bring your disorganisation. Bring the “it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be done” mindset, because sometimes that’s all that gets you through.
And let’s pass these exams.
"Honest studyspo": no fancy stationery or gorgeous lettering, no beautifully clear desk and rainbow props. Just me and my nonfunctioning right hand (thanks, pain, for kicking in on the first weekend of term) trying to take some notes. #studying #studygram #studyspo #honeststudyspo #notes #writing #handwriting #universityofcambridge #cambridgeuniversity #disabledstudent #chronicpain #hypermobility #spoonie #studyspoonie