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Superstitious Minds
January 6, 2013 - 9:28pm

In a recent interview with Mother Jones, the author Philip Pullman admits: ‘I'm perfectly happy about being superstitious and atheistic.’ Pullman, who has been outspoken about his own lack of faith and has critiqued organised religion in much of his writing, describes a set of rituals he has around his writing: that he writes precisely three pages every day, and that he needs to write on a particular size of paper. He explains:

The state of mind which I put myself when I tell a story is one in which superstition flourishes very easily. And I welcome that because it helps me. A story, to me, has a particular sprite, like the angel of the spirit of that story – and it’s my job to attend to what it wants to do. When I tell the story of ‘Cinderella,’ the sprite does not want me to make it into an allegory of the fall of communism. The sprite would be unhappy if I did that.

Pullman and his ‘story sprites’ reminded me of one of the most reassuring pieces of advice I was given while working on my Ph.D. At one of my department’s annual welcoming drinks for research students, the guest speaker, a distinguished historian of early modern France, urged us to embrace the rituals and superstitions we developed as we worked.

I avoided guide books and lectures about the best way of pursuing a doctorate – they served usually to make me anxious, as my way of researching and writing seemed to contradict all their guidelines and checklists – but this guidance proved to be immensely helpful. I had become aware that my daily routines were becoming increasingly ingrained: that I’d begun to glare at hapless scholars who had taken ‘my’ desk at the British Library; that my day couldn’t really begin unless I’d had coffee in a particular mug; and that I could only use a special kind of notebook for research notes.

These routines weren’t unique either to me, or to my Ph.D. I had written all of my school and university exams with my special, beautiful fountain pen. And from conversations with fellow Ph.D. students, I realised that as we became more stressed, so our routines and superstitions grew more significant to us. There is a link between anxiety and obsessive behaviour – as we use routine to establish order and, seemingly, control over complex and stressful situations – but I wonder if academics more generally are especially superstitious about their work.

At least in my experience, I have had friends and colleagues who have peculiarly strict routines and superstitions around their research and writing. I think this is partly because academia can be a profoundly stressful and competitive environment. For those of us at the beginning of our careers, it is a precarious one too. I develop all sorts of strange rituals when applying for jobs and funding – and these only become worse during the often interminable wait between application submission deadline and the committee’s decision.

We spend so much time on our own, thinking, and caught up in our own, particular research interests that it’s hardly surprising that we begin to believe that the control we exert over our own projects can be extended to other facets of academic life. For historians and anthropologists interested in the shifting symbolic value of the material world, objects can take special meaning too. I was not the only doctoral student in my department who placed particular significance on the fact that my supervisor’s desk used to belong to our hero, Eric Hobsbawm.

I think it’s worth taking closer notice of our routines and superstitions because we work in such overwhelmingly rational environments. We defend our work on the grounds that we attempt dispassionate, logical analysis of problems, and yet many of us indulge in fairly irrational behaviour, specifically around our research. I wonder if – like Pullman – we were to acknowledge that we are both superstitious and rational, much of the anxiety within academic life would begin to reduce.

Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Sarah Emily Duff is an NRF Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Stellenbosch University, South Africa and is a regular contributor at University of Venus. She can be contacted at




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