This is a reblog of a post written in collaboration with my classmates and Prof. Marissa Nicosia at Scripps College in our class ENGL 197: What is a Book?
Originally posted on marginal notes:
This post was written in collaboration with the students in my course, ENGL 197: What is a Book?
This course began with a desire to think about the place of the book in humanist inquiry. When we study literature we read books, but we do not always pause to consider what they are or why they are the way they are. What is a book anyway? A dense wood-pulp rectangle? A performance? A scrolling screen? This semester we have asked these questions of an array of materials in special collections at the Denison and Honnold-Mudd libraries, and at the Scripps College Press. We considered the roles of authors, publishers, readers, annotators, illustrators, book artists, and booksellers. We pursued detailed research about three case studies: the multiple texts of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the media explosion that accompanied the publication of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, and the perpetually revised editions of…
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At the end and beginning of every semester, I like to think about what I could have done better in terms of my writing habits, studying schedule, and just LIVING as a graduate student in general. When I finished my first semester in my PhD program last December, I took note of my writing habits and decided that the following need to be jettisoned ASAP.
- Hunching and/or tense shoulders: I noticed this when I started going to Barre classes that my shoulders are almost always raised or hunched over something. (No wonder backaches have been more bothersome last year.) In an effort to correct my posture and ease some of the strain, I bought myself a book stand so I can avoid the temptation to hunch over my books. Who knew grad school was so physically taxing? Bad posture isn’t sexy. On anyone.
- Writing alone: I started writing papers with a grad school buddy late last semester and I realize how refreshing it is to turn to someone and ask, “Hey, does this make sense?” and get immediate feedback. Writing can be solitary and there are times when you have to be alone with your writing (to do all the thinking, the self-doubting, weeping, screaming, etc.), but it shouldn’t always be so isolating. I’m hoping to do this more often.
- Comparing my progress to others: This one is less about writing habits but more of the mental and psychological space I inhabit when I’m writing. I’ve learned that I tend to stew on ideas for a while and that, comparatively, I’m not a fast writer (about 2-3 pages an hour, if I’m lucky). The one pitfall of writing with a buddy is that the “check-ins” you do with each other can be discouraging, especially if you feel like you’re stuck. The good thing is that, if your writing buddy is compassionate, he or she will give you some encouragement to keep going and work through the impasse.
- Rewarding myself with social media every 25 minutes: This one is difficult. I have Strict Workflow installed on my browser to block websites for 25 minutes at a time while I write. It’s supposed to encourage me to work steadily and focus on my writing for short bursts of time, followed by a 5-minute break. It has been quite successful, but I find that my “reward” isn’t to get up or stretch, it’s usually to see what’s the latest on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter. This speaks more to my own social media habits than my writing, but the intersection of both, I realize, is quite unexplored and can be improved.
- Grunting: This feels like a new discovery, but I probably have been doing this for some time. I found that I grunt whenever I hit a wall–writer’s block or just out of steam–and it rarely leads me to a productive place. I tend to grunt when I write sentences I don’t quite find right, but for the sake of moving forward, I keep (after highlighting, underlining, and changing font colors so I don’t forget to return to them). Grunting has to go, especially because I like writing in public places like the Student Success Center on campus where the free coffee attracts many students and staff. The sooner I get rid of it, the sooner I look less like a grunting weirdo writer and more like a hardworking weirdo writer. Plus, I believe that if I think positively and spin my negative responses (like grunting) to my frustrations, I will actually be able to move past them and try to be productive.
— Edna St. Vincent Millay
This is what trying to be productive in the summer can sometimes feel (see photo above). Sure, the semester is over and you’ve got a few books to read until school resumes in the fall, but that’s for later, right? Why work when there’s sunshine and beaches and picnics and trips and friends? If you’re anything like me, however, the guilt will sink in days (if not weeks!) after you’ve absconded with your sunscreen and summer playlists. The dread settles in and you are now officially behind with your work. What to do? From my experience, I found that planning, discipline, and, believe it or not, lots of breaks will help you stay sane and productive throughout the blissful summer days.
- Organize your time well. For me, this is a skill I’m always working on. It’s easy to get derailed by binge-watching Arrested Development episodes, hikes with friends, and dinners and lunches with pals you’ve lost contact with over a semester (or five…). I have learned to use my Google Calendar more effectively by creating different calendars: work, school, and social. It allows me to categorize and organize my time by helping me keep track of everything I am doing/would want to do/have planned to do. It also allows me to see if I’m doing a poor job of balancing my time between work and play. It can get especially maddening during the semester, but with a little patience and some practice over the summer (when things are less hectic), these calendars can be very helpful.
- Make yourself accountable (or get a friend to answer to). When I was an undergrad, I had a professor give me the following advice: Say what you do and do what you say. Doing so is an exercise in accountability. You’d hate to renege on something you said you would do, particularly if that someone is a professor, an employer/supervisor, or a colleague. I can be terrible at this, especially in the summer, so it’s helpful to stay connected with your network of friends and colleagues to keep you motivated. Join a writing group that meets regularly if you need to write something over the summer (or if there isn’t one, start one!). Communicate with your faculty adviser or mentor and let them know your progress so that a) they’re in the loop and b) you have someone to answer to. Sometimes all we need is a little push to not look like slackers to get us to do something.
- Take breaks (and lots of it). It’s hard to feel like you’re missing out on summer when you’re shut inside a room or the library reading, writing, researching, or whathaveyou. Work efficiently—set up a writing or reading time for an hour and a half, and when time is up, leave/go out/stand up/walk around/etc. for a good 10 to 15 minutes. Sit on a bench outside, take a quick walk in the park, have a snack. Whatever it is, take a break. Working through the summer will feel less painful if you stop for a few minutes, look around, and enjoy the moment.
*Photo of a greeting card I received from my best friend when I graduated from college.