A new year inspires polarizing sentiment in most people – some are excited and full of possibility, setting resolutions for themselves, while others are morose and know that any goals made in January will be ghosts by February. The New Year for academics, however, functions differently. Our new year is in the fall, but January does bring a new term. It’s the time to evaluate if you’re on track with the resolutions for research, time management, and teaching set in August/September. For academics, January is a midterm assessment.
In my case the start of this term is a chance take a breath.
A hard task is figuring out what labor and projects are actually worthwhile as a PhD student. It’s easy to get excited about every opportunity you happen upon, especially as you have a curiosity for the world and a passion for your research. At the same time, you have a few tasks you need to accomplish in order to reach the next goal – the final diploma and a dissertation manuscript. Then you’re also worried about achieving all the milestones that, theoretically, will assist you on the job market. After a fall semester attempting to do and be all things, my new academic resolution is to spend time reconnecting with my research and the intense curiosity and passion that led me to the topic.
Andrew Mark Henry, of Religion for Breakfast, writes that his impetus for starting the YouTube series was to “enjoy the study of religion.” He rightfully recognized the draining experience of completing a PhD and how it can distance scholars from the reasons they pursued their research in the first place. Henry’s goal is my goal – to reconnect and to enjoy the study of religion, media, and nationalism again. It’s not that the connection and enjoyment has really been lost, but it hasn’t been nurtured.
How will I nurture and restore this relationship? The following two new term resolutions will hopefully do the trick (especially since they were made after reflecting these first few weeks of the term):
Make the time to read like I did in undergrad.
One of my fondest memories from college is getting to spend time with texts (yes, I did have a social life too). There was nothing better than settling into a chair with book and pencil in hand ready to get to know the author and their argument. Maybe it’s just due to my love of books, but it was an intimate experience. It was the first time I ever fully understood what professors meant by “being in conversation with” dead scholars.
In graduate school, it’s an unspoken fact that the amount of reading assigned is humanly impossible to complete in detail. The ritual of doing reading for courses and the special relationships built through close reading get lost to skimming, speed-reading, and figuring out the gist and what it means for your research. Sure, there are texts you spend more time with than others, but information absorption becomes a matter of quantity over quality.
This semester I’m lucky to be in three reading courses. Research projects for class don’t exist this spring (of course there are about 3-5 other projects still in progress). This means I can and should take the time to read slowly and fully. It won’t be easy with the amount of reading assigned per week for three classes, but taking the time to really, truly read will rekindle a relationship with learning.
Similarly, I was a voracious reader “for fun” in college. Fiction and non-fiction alike – I was always reading outside of coursework. That was why I had the blog Sitting in the Stacks. These days, and I know my colleagues feel the same, extra reading seems daunting. But a novel or a non-fiction book about space exploration can recreate the thrill of reading rather than trying to find and absorb what you need for class or research.
What does this all mean? This semester I am going to really get to know my class readings. I’ll find an oversized chair or a coffee shop, and with pencil in hand I am going to take the time to talk with the texts. I will also attempt to reunite with the simple joy of reading by integrating a novel or a non-fiction book on a topic drastically different than my research.
Write daily once a week.
Ideally writing is a daily activity and I’m hoping early mornings will permit me to undertake the task. However, I’ve learned that setting too high of expectations for goals only leads to disappointment, so I’m only committing myself to writing once a week and today marks Day 1, Week 1.
Developing a writing habit seems to be the advice everyone gives if you want to improve your writing, flesh out ideas, or tackle that dream novel. In my case, I want to get an article or two published and finish my dissertation. By writing at least once a week for about 30 minutes to an hour (or 500-1,000 words) ensures that I produce content rather than just absorb knowledge. It also means I’m building a practice of synthesizing my ideas and getting over the nasty habit I have of slow writing.
Seriously – I’m an impeccably slow writer. If there were an Olympics for how long it takes to write a blog post or even a 30-page term paper, I’d be medalling all the time. On the one hand, my slow writing process means I edit as I write. On the other hand, I belabor over the first draft way too much. Hopefully in writing at least once a week I can get out of my head and onto the page faster.
This blog will play a core part in the writing weekly goal. Ideally every week I’ll publish a post about some aspect of my academic life – observations about media and religion, public scholarship reflections, or brainstorming for my research. To be honest, I already have about 10 different post ideas, but I just have to write them. It’s all in the magic of getting myself in front of the screen and typing without (too many) reservations. Who knew overthinking could be an academic’s enemy?
And with that – so ends the first day of writing. Now it’s time to read.