Reading Academically

I love academic novels. They illuminate academic sensibilities and behaviors I found (and still find) odd upon entering graduate school. I wish I would have begun to read academic novels earlier (like day one). Of course I read other novels. I can’t wait for Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW, to appear at my door. But part of living academically is reading academically. For me, that means academic novels.

I just finished The Small Room by May Sarton and I highly recommend it. It’s short, well written, and contains lively dialogue. One of the passages that jumped out at me is on pg. 211. Lucy, a new professor at a liberal arts college is talking to her student, Pippa, about a paper she had to rewrite due to plagiarism.

Pippa’s paper on Emerson and Thoreau turned out to be more than credible and Lucy was delighted to be able to tell her so.

“I got absorbed in it, I forgot about everything else,” Pippa said, blushing to the roots of her hair with pleasure. “Though for a while it was like being in a thicket. I had so much material I didn’t know how to get out, how to make a plan; I used to sit at my desk and think my head would burst.”
“What did you do then?” The way people thought things out had always interested Lucy, how a mind works, process.

“I did what you said. I kept making outline, discarding wonderful stuff because it wasn’t necessary. You said, ‘Keep the center clear.’ And you said, ‘If you get into a panic spell things out 1,2,3.'” The solemnity with which Pippa repeated these simple pieces of advice made Lucy smile. “You smile, but all that helped. Sometimes people take those obvious things for granted, professors, I mean.”
“I suppose there’s some value in not being brilliant. I can’t take anything for granted.” Lucy was thinking aloud, at ease with Pippa now.

This passage resonates with me for a couple of reasons. As someone who has had great difficulty becoming the productive and prolific writer that I would like to become, this simple advice to make outlines, spell things out, be clear, and make a plan makes sense. I have a stack of books on my shelf about writing help, but I find that the most simple and practical advice has helped me the most. I am constantly making outlines and writing things out by hand.

As a visiting faculty member, I attended a seminar for faculty on productivity. The speaker presented her tactics and strategies for about two hours. I came away with one useful thing that has been worth it’s weight in gold for me: Make a plan that is doable. Meaning, when you make a list of “Things to do today” don’t write something like dissertation chapter 3 or book proposal. Break everything down into achievable steps for the time you have. This is so simple, but it changed my life. Now I make lists saying, “Print out latest draft of article,” “Read draft and mark changes,” “Make changes on computer draft,” “Describe data from magazine article on topic.”

I drafted my dissertation in 500 words a day. Maybe I’ll write more on this later. These simple techniques have buoyed me in the ocean of academic life, which is why this passage touches me.

Also, I like how Lucy says “I suppose there’s some value in not being brilliant. I can’t take anything for granted.” I feel that way all the time. In my grad program, it seemed like all the grad students were too cool for school and the faculty were somewhat aloof. Whenever I told my adviser that I was having difficulty managing the reading load or writing my diss she would stare at me blankly. I remember her telling me that when she has a deadline she retreats to her attic for a week to complete her task. That was not helpful. Sure, everyone is different and grad school is tough. But I realize that just some simple steps, that others appear to take for granted, would have been a great help to me. I think my adviser did the best she could, but it would have been helpful to have Lucy as well.

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