Tips-in-Progress for Working Independently

The greatest treat in the world for me is getting up and working in my pajamas. To roll straight from bed to computer and dig into a project is a fantastic luxury for me and it is one of the prevailing parts of an academic (and I suppose freelance) lifestyle that appeals to me.

Yet I’ve never had a moment in my life where I’ve had the opportunity to indulge in this luxury every morning until now. This summer, my days are completely unstructured. I am not teaching a single class. I have only occasional research meetings to attend for my various summer jobs (I’m juggling three different research and editing gigs this summer). Otherwise, all of the work I have to do is on my laptop at home. And I can do this work whenever I want, wherever I want.

It’s glorious and it’s harder than I thought it was going to be.

I’ve always been relatively disciplined; I hate having tasks hanging over my head. Yet the complete independence to finish work with minimal supervision requires an even more intense level of discipline than I’ve had before. I’m used to working with externally-imposed deadlines and frequent face-to-face interactions with people who can keep me on top of my game. While I’m still working and meeting with advisers, I know there’s a new expectation that I will enact enough discipline to make good choices and get work done.

Perhaps the larger challenge to being disciplined, however, is simply breaking up the length of the days. Without anyone to meet with or any places I have to go to, the days and hours stretch longer than they did before. So, there’s a monotony of routine I’m forced to shake off; I refuse to let my days feel “boring,” for the moment that I feel stuck in a rut is the moment that all of my reading, writing, and research splatters. Mightily.

So, in the spirit of the blogosphere and listicles, I offer a preliminary list of ways I’ve managed so far to keep my independent working time interesting and exciting for me. I’m still experimenting and I’m still not sure what exactly works best for me, but the preliminary “tricks” I’ve developed may hopefully be useful to someone else getting up in the morning and working in their PJs:

  • Set small goals. I feel much more motivated when I have clear concrete tasks I know I have to accomplish at each portion of the day. I typically try to set goals for my mornings, afternoons, and evenings. The most important thing I’ve noticed is to keep these goals manageable. So, I won’t try to convince myself that I’ll be able to finish a 200-page book in a morning, but I will assure myself that I can read and annotate at least two chapters of some dense theory. Another goal may be to spend two hours of my afternoon writing, but I’ll break that afternoon writing goal into manageable chunks. I like to use the Pomodoro technique for this; I’ll write and revise an article I’m drafting for 25 minutes without stopping. After the 25 minute stretch has passed, I can take a five minute break to do whatever I want. So, these small and manageable goals make me feel like I’m doing a lot and the time passes by much more quickly when I know that I’m constantly ticking items off of my list.
  • Alternate between tasks. I try not to do any one task for too long. If I feel myself getting stuck or find my mind wandering to what’s in my pantry to snack on, it’s usually a sign to myself that I need to take a step back and try doing something else. Of course, I try not to change tasks every five minutes, but I find that after an hour of doing any one thing, I’m ready to try something else for another hour. Switching up tasks at every hour and alternating between reading, writing, note-taking, and editing (my main tasks these days) help each task to feel fresh and exciting.
  • Stand and stretch frequently. This kind of advice is popular in our world of standing/walking/fetal-position desksbut I find that I’m quickly refreshed by making sure that I glance away from my computer or stand up from where I’m seated for even just a couple of minutes. I’m trying to be more mindful of my back and neck health, so I’ve been stretching my back and neck as frequently as I can to make sure I’m not building up too much tension. Again, finding ways to refresh and re-engage with the material I’m working on is key to making sure the days feel like they’re moving along and that I’m in the spirit to work.
  • Switch up working spaces. I’m lucky enough to have several spaces beyond my apartment where I can work. Typically, at a mid-point in my day, I try to switch my working spot. That sometimes means a move as small as taking my laptop from my desk to my kitchen table. Other times, that means walking across town to a coffee shop or going on campus to work in my office. Having a change of scenery really helps me to think about my work differently and it puts me in a frame of mind to work again and feel productive.
  • Take a moment and think about how awesome it is to work on stuff I like to do. Work doesn’t have to be fun, but I like to remind myself that I chose the work I’m doing. It’s a privilege to have choice. Period. I’m working towards a goal to be a writer/editor/scholar-person (I feel I can only label my work in multiple ways these days) and here I am doing it! Woo!

It’s my hope that I can avoid putting on real pants in the morning for the rest of the summer. Wish me luck.

How I Read for Fun

Perhaps one of the most common questions I get asked as an English grad student is, “So, do you still like to read? For fun?”

When I tell people that yes, I promise that studying books and words has not soured them at all for me, they’re usually a bit surprised.

I remember a common complaint from high school students I used to work with was that analyzing books “ruined” them.

This always saddened me to hear, not because I think the absorptive, entertaining power of books needs to be preserved no matter what (I don’t think that literature is only entertainment because art needs to be provocative, troubling, unsettling, etc; if you care at all about books, you’e heard this argument before, so I’m not going to rehash it), but because I think reading critically can be fun in the same way that, say, taking a run can be fun or cooking an elaborate meal can be fun.

There are parts that are frustrating and maddening. It can feel like all hope is lost when cramps start to slice through or when all of the rice in the pot bubbles over.

The first response to immense running discomfort is, of course, to double over and heave great, large gasping breaths to regain a steady heart beat and collapse on a couch. When a recipe goes awry, the impulse may be to throw it all in the garbage, pop in a frozen meal, and think, “Well, calories are calories.”

When people read critically and face a road block, not identifying anything beyond the literal or hitting a road bump in finding evidence for a particular argument, their response might be similar to the runner who has quit or the failed chef. Yet sitting often makes the running feel worse (the cramps can heighten, the dehydration can settle in and manifest) and throwing away a full meal (no matter how gross it may seem) turns into a pretty big waste. Cramps are typically alleviated by changing position, jogging with arms angled behind the head, and most botched recipes can be resurrected (haven’t you tried just pouring hot sauce on everything?).

Similarly (and I know, I know, too many metaphors here), I think most challenging reading can yield productive results. It just might require looking at a text from a different angle, taking a new passage, trying to imagine how someone else might read it, or how it might be framed within a certain critical or philosophical tradition. This is a sophisticated thing to do, but that frame of mind is, I think, what can make critical reading really fun and consistently engaging.

I wish I had concrete tips for how to do this exactly. It would make me a better teacher and probably a more interesting person if I did. But I think that learning how to think through the eyes of others is a skill that must be personally understood and that must be discovered through individual inquiry. I wish I could tell you to make things easier for you, but the process of learning how to read for yourself, of learning how to ask questions of yourself through the perspectives of others is, I think, different for everyone. Knowing how to ask questions or to imagine yourself in the place of someone else works differently for each person.

This is a cop-out answer. I know. But being able to see reading in conversation, rather than an isolated vacuum, is really what makes it fun for me.

Of course, I think it is important to shift out of the constant re-positioning and re-thinking that comes with reading critically. Reading passively and for entertainment is still important to maintain and sustain if only because being entertained and finding ways to experience leisure is an important and special pleasure in life (if you’ve got the privilege to find time to be entertained and to enjoy stories for the sake of enjoying stories. I know this truly is a privilege).

I can appreciate something like, say, The Hunger Games, much more when I’ve decided that I’ll read The Hunger Games passively. I could have never read the series in a matter of days if I had my analysis hat on; I’d have stopped at lines to read and re-read, to take notes and to put those notes in the context of other readings I’d done.

Most importantly, I read The Hunger Games passively because I wanted to read those books for the ride, the absorption, that engrossing “books-can-take-you-places” feeling upon language arts classroom posters. I was in for the absorption factor. And I had a great time.

This approach occasionally backfires. To use another popular YA example, I tried reading Twilight in this way, interested in the hype (is Twilight actually still a thing?). However, the moment I tried to get lost in the story, the analysis hat kept creeping in, and it didn’t help that the protagonist is bizarrely weak and simple-minded. In other words, I couldn’t get absorbed in the novel because the characters were so artificial; their strings were showing and I couldn’t ignore the puppet show with my attention that I knew was happening. So, that was a failure.

For the most part, though, I find that if I can put myself in the right frame of mind, the “magic” of reading experiences is not lost for me. The magic just looks a little different and it takes on other forms.

Maybe I should turn that slogan into a poster, and it would absolutely have to feature giggling children atop a magic carpet riding over a rainbow. This is the only way to portray reading’s joys, after all.

 

Software University?

When I take notes on books I’m reading, I’ve got comments and sub-comments.

The comments are of the most mundane variety: I flag down quotes, make note of important moments, and process through key concepts. The typical stuff.

The sub-comments, however, are where things get juicy. This is where I throw my font into italics and write whatever I want: curse words, exclamations, lines of punctuation (think: “!!!!!”), and emoticons abound. It’s my own inner commentary, the liberating part of note-taking. If you don’t have your own running commentary on your own book notes, it’s a practice I highly recommend taking up. Since authors don’t, you know, typically pop out of the ether and explain things to you, the most you can do is talk back.

In any case, my most recent read was James J. O’Donnell’s Avatars of the Wordwhich is a pretty slim volume on the history and evolution of writing technologies. O’Donnell is a classicist by training and, perhaps most famously, taught the “first MOOC” on Augustine.

His book is remarkable for me because it offers a strange balance of nostalgia for large libraries filled with dusty stacks and an impulse to adapt the “digital world” and deem those same dusty libraries “dead” and obsolete. Authors like O’Donnell – especially in the mid-90s moment of, “hey, look, computers are not all HAL!” – tend to express this ambivalence. The weirdest moment, however, is this one:

“The image I like is that of the university as a suite of software, a front end, or what you see onscreen and interact with, to the world as a whole, chosen for its power, speed, functionality, ease of use, even for its user-friendliness. The professor turns into a kind of software icon – click on the professor and let him take you to the world that he knows” (157). 
 

So, a professor becomes the Clippy of the university? Click on the professor and he’ll guide you through your learning experience? This kind of metaphor turns the professor into a sort of bizarre escort into the university world, a packaged “guide.” Now I recognize that part of O’Donnell’s vision is a kind of historical artifact; he was speaking from a moment when online, hybrid, and MOOCs were a complete unknown. Yet I find it fun to chew on the metaphor a decade later and consider: would it be useful for the university to create a more “user-friendly interface?” What happens when learning becomes something treated at “interface value,” a glossy entree to the “professor’s world?” What does “the professor’s world” even look like in this vision of “the university as a suite of software?”

One might argue there’s a certain neoliberal, TED talk vision in this kind of statement too, a desire to make the university more like a WYSWYIG where the purposes of courses are transparent; there’s no self-assembly required to make sense of the work you’re doing. But I wonder how much we owe this transparency to our students. How much do we need to teach at interface value and what do we lose when we don’t have them assemble the parts on their own?

Noise

I’m having trouble turning off noise today. It’s all kinds of noise: cell phone noise, social media noise, inside brain noise. There’s something poetic about being consumed in this “white noise” considering I am in the postmodern phase of my prelim reading. I think my seeming inability to block out all of these dopamine-inducing noises is partially because I started today with finishing a good (well, yes, for my prelim exams, but come on now, what else am I reading?) novel and when that happens, I sometimes don’t quite know what to do with myself. When a novel has an ending that is just so perfect and final, so inevitable, it seems as though there’s nothing else to say either within or outside the world of the novel. Perhaps that’s why I’m writing now: to work out of this funk of, “How do I possibly write about or think about something that already seems so complete?”
To react this way is obviously to react to “good” writing; it is to react to writing that has communicated something surprising, thought-provoking, and insightful. And it is exactly this kind of writing to which scholarship is devoted. But it is also exactly this kind of writing that reminds me why I am sometimes intimidated by putting my voice into scholarly conversation. Sometimes, when I have a very emotional reaction to a piece of writing, I don’t know how to be critical of it anymore. Putting on a scholarly cap is easy to do when it’s a work that evokes nothing in me at all. Obviously, it is pleasurable to write about pleasurable things, but I have yet to determine how to apply an analytic lens to portrayals of love and loss and memory and all of those things that hit me straight in the emotional bits of my being.
I am perhaps feeling a bit emotionally wrought and a bit concerned with “inevitable endings” after today’s appointment of Janet Napolitano for UC President. Now I typically reserve political discussion for places offline (you know, places where my words won’t be stored forever and ever), but I just want to muse upon a few lingering thoughts I’ve had with the news: what does it mean for the head of Homeland Security to become a president of a public university? What message does this send to the larger academic community? In what ways are militarization, intelligence, and national security relevant to the role of the academy in the larger national fabric? There have been university leaders who have not been academics in the past, but never before has there been a university leader implicated primarily in national security. I’ve read a lot of angry editorials (and a lot of optimistic ones too), but I can’t sift through enough of the noise to really make sense of the long-term impacts of this kind of appointment. Perhaps we can’t know what these long-term impacts will be, but I see big changes to public perception of public education that I feel I can’t change, that I’m powerless to affect.
It’s normal to feel small and afraid and voiceless both in the face of large decisions and in front of awe-inspiring works. I’ve expressed this here before and I’ll express it again: I’m paralyzed by the not knowing of where my voice could actually affect change. But (and also again), what can I do but keep beating the oars through the water, hoping that wherever I steer this boat of mine, I’ll make it to some pretty sweet island.