Slow and steady

It’s been four years since I finished my PhD, and lately I’ve been reflecting on how much things have changed since then, particularly how much they’ve changed since I got my permanent position at Shimer College. There was a moment when I was looking through their promotion guidelines and was thinking, “Okay, in five years I’ll be mostly through the evaluation process” — then I paused and thought, “Five years?!” I had literally never thought on that timescale since starting my PhD, indeed, perhaps never in my life. I went semester-by-semester, year-by-year.

One of the things that can be so panic-inducing in grad school is the sense that you have to get everything in right now. It’s not just a matter of imposter syndrome giving us unrealistic expectations for how much we can and should do in our dissertations (which are, after all, intended to be our first significant contribution to the scholarship, not our crowning life’s work), but also the sense that once we do start teaching, there simply won’t be time to do any reading. For the rest of our scholarly career, we’ll be running on the fumes from this unique period of intensive research.

Looking back over the past few years, though, I’m stunned by the amount of work I’ve done — both deepening my knowledge in familiar areas and branching out — simply “along the way.” Part of it was a matter of using my courses to “assign myself” reading, but even more was a slow and steady accumulation, reading on the train or even before bed. When you’re looking at a multi-year timescale, a lot of things that seem impossible are actually quite doable. It’s been calculated, for instance, that one could read the whole Church Dogmatics in a year at a pace of thirty pages a day. If you gave yourself three years, it wouldn’t even be strenuous — you could get through the whole thing by dipping in every few days. I only use this example because I know the figures off the top of my head, but over the course of five years, a lot of things become doable: reading all of Freud, getting through all of Proust, etc., etc. I’ve always been particularly struck by an interview with Graham Harman wherein he described getting through Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe — the way he described it was as a slow accretion, where he gradually found he had gotten the rhythm of Heidegger’s German and then eventually found that he had gotten through the whole thing.

The key, of course, is to maintain continuity — a discipline that I picked up working on my research languages, out of a palpable sense that I could very easily lose all that I had so laboriously gained if I broke the chain prematurely. (By the same token, I’ve put off learning Hebrew for a couple years even though I have all the materials, because I don’t trust myself to follow through adequately under current circumstances.) I always tell my students that learning to read a foreign language is easy, it just takes hundreds of hours of work. When you think in terms of doing all those hours at once, it seems impossible. When you think in terms of doing around an hour most days, it still seems a little overwhelming, but it’s doable.

The key, it seems to me, is to bracket the larger project and focus only on the bite-sized chunks. If you can develop a reliable habit, you will be shocked by how much you will have done, looking back — but contemplating the whole as if it needs to be done all at once is a potent form of procrastination, perhaps even a terminal one. You need to be realistic. If it’s a foreign language project, you might need to let yourself do only a page or two a day at first and trust that eventually you’ll get faster — and then let that happen naturally rather than forcing it. For a major reading project, you may need to assign the project to a specific time (over the commute, over lunch, bedtime reading). The key is to make it a ritual, to let yourself be reading rather than focusing on having read.

I am firmly convinced that — leaving aside “states of emergency” like having a newborn — everyone does have time to some extent, although the amount of free time will vary over the course of a semester or a year. Even very limited time devoted to continuing research can yield huge benefits over the course of several years. The biggest obstacle isn’t limited time, it’s putting exaggerated demands on oneself so that one never gets started at all.

9 thoughts on “Slow and steady

  1. An old comment: “What I generally do is work through a grammar book (with French I took a course, but I didn’t with others), then set to work reading a book I’m really interested in. With French and Italian, I believe I really solidified things by doing a translation — that’s when I got to the point where constant maintenance wasn’t necessary and I could just pick things up occasionally to make sure I hadn’t forgotten — and one of my big regrets is that I never did a full-blown translation in German, which is probably what has held me back. I also went through a separate grammar book for French after finishing the course, which I think I might need to do for Greek at some point. Honestly, though, it’s hard now that I’m teaching — the language routine is the first to go.”

    I’d recommend taking a “for reading” course for your first language project, just to get a sense of how it works — after that, you can judge whether you have enough self-discipline to go through the textbook on your own or need the superego effect of a course. It also seems to me that the faster you can get through the grammar exercises and start working through a text that interests you, the better.

  2. I have some advice for graduate students and professors, a method I used. Take conversation courses as soon as you can, and continue taking them–even the same ones. I audited many courses just to keep practicing and thinking in French, and since the conversation courses tend to by dynamic based on who is in the class, it was never stale. Plus, the professor will likely be appreciative that there is at least one more advanced student in the class as it lightens the pressure on the professor to be everywhere at once for the lower-level students. I viewed the experience as a lower-grade substitute for immersive experiences. If you are a graduate student or professor, your institution will not charge you for auditing the class, and if you audit it, then you can relax about whether you do the out-of-class work or not. Although, if you don’t come prepared for class … that professor is going to view you as a deadweight rather than an aid.

    I concur with Adam about the “for reading” course if you want to solo the language. My suggestion was meant to be a more social and relaxed counter-point, and they are not mutually exclusive.

  3. I have found that my struggle to keep active — as a part time adjunct and full time pastor — is to work the tensions of my academic work between being part of my vocation (that has a deep impact, or is a larger expression of my teaching and ministry) and being a hobby. It’s on the latter that my interests have taken me in some different directions I didn’t think I would go–such as my current project on Freemasonry and violence. Chances are that if I was concerned about a tenure application I wouldn’t go there or have the material for the upcoming book on preaching.

  4. Thanks, Adam, for such an instructive and encouraging post. It is exactly this kind of thing that us autodidacts look to these blogs for.

    Having just recently gotten over my youthful, Deleuzian “book-as-a-toolbox” mentality, I’ve begun studying philosophy and theory more seriously. Sometimes it seems that it’s going nowhere, and then there will be that “a-ha” moment that justifies days of trudging through textual jungles. Following up on references and concepts from certain texts can lead one into a schizophrenic detour that tests the limits of discipline and courage. But these are the pitfalls of turning a hobby into a way of being. I’m interested in rituals of study and reading as they are carried out by academics and professional intellectuals, but also how they are performed by the laity, the rest of us.

    The non-institutional reading group I am a part of (currently reading Zizek’s new one) was whittled down from about fifteen to five participants within the first month. The rest of us are fanatics about the book, and joke about how our social lives are suffering (gladly) from the desire to better access this text. And we’ve decided that, seeing as this is one of Zizek’s more difficult works, we will collectively write a “layman’s guide” to Zizek’s political project and have it published in one of the local art/lit rags. Of course this has sent us scurrying to a multitude of other secondary publications and commentaries, further muddling the endeavor. My question regarding this is: should we go with our version or have the thing vetted by a “subject supposed to know”, an academic who might give us much-needed clarification and critique? None of us really like or trust the professor who started the group (we question his motives) but we want to make sure our “translation” will not lead anyone astray. Is it dangerous to disseminate what could be a disastrous mis-reading? Or should we try and keep with our independent endeavor?

    Also, what is everyone’s method of note-taking while reading difficult texts? For the past couple of years I’ve been taking detailed notes during the first reading, following up on references, then re-reading the text with the new knowledge. But this seems to often fragment things a little too much, it seems to clutter the central point of a text with too many (sometimes extraneous) details. Does anyone here read straight through a text without a complete understanding of all the references or concepts, or do you stop and research them first? While performing a purposeful reading for research purposes, do you often sacrifice a complete understanding of the text in order to just get what you’re looking for?

    And is there any one book anyone has read that they can say made them finally “get” Lacan?

    Ha, is that a dumb question?

  5. These are important questions. On the last one — it’s not a dumb question, but no, there’s no single silver-bullet book. (I suspect you might find my Zizek and Theology helpful, though I hesitate to recommend it too heartily lest you begin questioning my motives as well….)

    Long experience has led me to believe that stressing out about not knowing the texts an author is referring to is a mistake and trying to take detailed notes on a first reading is a mistake. Just let go and read.

    I generally do underlining on my first reading, and if I suspect I’ll need to write over the text, I just do simple reading notes — basically transcribe the most important quotes, give some sense of why I thought they were important, and maybe do some brief annotations that will help me remember the flow of the argument. It’s a kind of digestion phase for me, but first you have to eat the whole book.

    There’s a similar principle at work with an author’s references — you’re reading the author (presumably) for the author’s ideas. You’re not reading Zizek as a commentator on Lacan, for instance, but as Zizek. So what Zizek does with Lacan is what Zizek does with Lacan. Just take his word for it on the Lacan at first. A reading of Zizek that is grounded in a firm understanding of Lacan is a different reading of Zizek — a richer one in some ways, maybe a better one, but also maybe a worse one if you’re pedantic about Lacan and close your mind to what Zizek is trying to do with him — and it needn’t be your first reading, nor need it delay your first reading.

    Basically, you have to start somewhere. So just start, rather than endlessly deferring starting by stressing out about background. Note-taking is a second-reading kind of thing — don’t try to do your second reading first. Just do the first reading. Plow. Get through it.

  6. As far as your guide goes — why not put out your understanding of it if people are interested in it? If you want someone’s opinion, ask for it. You don’t have to change your reading of Zizek because of what the person says, though. If you feel like you’d rather go it alone, that’s fine too. Plenty of professional academics have said dumb things about Zizek, and the world didn’t end.

  7. I second Adam’s remarks: I do the same.

    On my first read, assuming its important enough to mark at all, I have a simple system of markings. On the side of the page, I write “def” for “definition” and underline the word. I write a single bar if I think something is important in a passage: I mark the side rather than underline the text, since that makes it harder to read. I write double bars if it’s crucial.But I don’t write why, especially since I’ve been doing this long enough to know that in hindsight I may disagree. On a second pass, if I need seriosu notes, then I start quoting and commenting.

    My “I’m writing a PHD on this”-level notes just do all this in far more depth.

  8. Thanks, Adam, this is all great advice. I’ve often thought that it wasn’t the best idea to take notes on a first reading but forced myself anyway because so many references went over my head. But then again I remember reading Zizek’s book on Deleuze sort of haphazardly a couple years ago and it seems that this is the work that has “sunk in” the most after some backward reflection. I’ll take your advice.

    I have noticed some difficulties in staying focussed on certain lines of thought because my (and my friends’) studies are done outside of our careers; the studies are performed without any thought of future gain or recognition other than simply understanding the theories and having a better toolbox to use in order to negotiate an understanding of philosophy and capital. It’s hard not to get frustrated at a lack of imposed structure and to create for ourselves structures that help the understanding flow more easily. It’s not really a matter of a lack of time (we’re all bohemians with part time jobs and no kids) but rather it constantly feels like we’re out of our depth, like we got too late a start to go as far as we would like. And though I know that this is almost completely in my imagination, but sometimes hanging out with professional intellectuals and attempting to talk about Theory feels sort of like wearing jeans to a black tie event, or something.

    But I’m beginning to see a sort of “personal narrative” emerge for myself with my engagements with theory and philosophy, and reading of others’ narratives in this regard helps a lot. Jason, your methods of mark-making and marginalia is something that i’ve been doing for a while now. It’s kinda cool to know that these things are almost instinctual, that they don’t have to be taught. I’ve been fortunate enough to see some manuscripts and book collections of some of my favorite authors and they give a great insight into the workings of their minds. Plus, it’s hilarious to read the notes that someone like William Burroughs wrote in the margins of the crappy pulp novels he was into.

    Adam, I will get a copy of your ‘Zizek and Theology’. Your “How To Read Zizek” is one of the most accessible, humorous and enlightening texts I’ve read about the guy. I look forward to a whole book of that. I think your work will be a good influence on our little project to further popularize Zizek’s ideas in our little scene. Free education!

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