mental health · mindfulness · reading · social media · winter

An internet vacation, and a new approach to being online

I finished the 2016 work year on December 23, and on my way home I deleted the Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Feedly, news, and email apps from my phone. I also put the browser icon somewhere really inconvenient and set up a Freedom App block that would last until the night before I returned from work on January 9. I started my holiday vowing to go completely social media and news free. I didn’t think it would make that much of a difference to my everyday life, but after weeks of feeling like I was drowning in stories of horrors and problems I couldn’t solve (or even make a dent in), a break sounded good. I knew that I was going to be spending a lot of time with family and friends, so it seemed like a good plan to take one when I knew that I was going to be pulled offline a lot anyway.

It turned out that my internet hiatus made way more of a difference to my life than I thought it would (you’re not surprised). I missed people a ton–Facebook is wonderful for that. And I missed the learning that happens on Twitter, the way it exposes me to ideas and viewpoints and lived experiences I can’t really get anywhere else. I didn’t do the work of sharing resources with PhDs looking to explore non-faculty careers that I usually do on Twitter, and that made me a bit sad. I didn’t read terrible things about Donald Trump, which did not make me sad at all.

My phone became mostly a book ingestion device, and I’d find my thumb flicking to the missing social media icons whenever I got uncomfortable or bored or sad. (It happened way more than I was okay with, and it weirded me out that this had become such a habit without my noticing). Without the internet to distract me, I read A LOT. I also did a shit ton of stuff that I wanted to do with my vacation, and I don’t think that I’d have been able to do all of that with the internet in my life. I was also less anxious, less angry, and less distracted.

Coming back from my internet hiatus, I’m trying to be more considered about how much I use it, and how I use it. I’ve reactivated an old Buffer account, and I’m spending a bit of time creating a queue of useful tweets so that Twitter is doing my resource sharing without me having to be on it. I’ve set up Freedom so that I have a short window every day to be on Facebook and Instagram. I already did a big RSS feed cull last year, but I’ve done another so that only the things I really want to read show up in my Feedly. And I’ve kept the news widgets deactivated on my phone, because I don’t need a 24/7 view of the terrible things happening in the world, a connectedness that I’m just figuring out keeps me from being active and activist in the ways I want to.

I’ve also created something like Sarah von Bargen’s gallery of goals. It hangs on the wall next to my desk, and reminds me of the things I really want to do with my time. Some are practical but dull (get my driver’s license), some are aspirational (swim three days a week), some are a stretch (finish a full draft of my novel this year). But I’m hoping that by having them there, I’ll be reminded regularly about what I’m giving up when I lose a couple of hours to mindless scrolling or, worse, to the brain fog and paralyzing anger I felt for much of the fall when I was trying to keep myself as informed as possible about what was happening in the world.

I’m still trying to figure out what a useful, considered, and balanced approach to social media and news looks like for me, so if you have any strategies, ideas, or tools that you’ve found helpful, I’d love to hear them.

advice · reading

How to Read a Book (or Anything, Really)

Right now I’m at the bottom of page two of a peer review I just started. I was seized, at the bottom of page two, with a burning urge to flip right to the back to see how many pages the article actually is. (It’s 17 pages, then another five pages of references, if you’re wondering.)

Now, this is precisely the kind of thing I used to beat myself up over: what, you’re 800 words in and already you’re dropping your red pen and trying to figure out exactly how much is left? I am a constant page flipper, self-interrupter, a messy and inattentive reader. Except I’m learning that page-checking, table-counting, section-flipping, and self-interrupting are not the marks of a messy and inattentive reader, but an active one.

I’m not doing it wrong; I’m doing it right.

I used to think that careful, attentive, smart, good readers started at page one, and, with a uniform level of complete entranced focus, worked methodically through the page the nth. This is pretty much  the opposite of how I read (flipping, in and out of concentration, stopping and starting) so obviously I figured I was doing it wrong. Do you ever feel that way too?

As is often the case, it took teaching to help me figure things out. I noticed (as you do) that my undergrads often missed the point of what they were reading. And I noticed that my grads were having real trouble getting the readings done at all. So I tried to figure out how to help them, and I came across Paul N. Edwards’ wonderful short guide, How to Read A Book. Imagine my surprise that what he proposes as an ideal academic reading strategy is what I was already doing! What I called scattered flipping he called way-finding. My tendency to look first for tables and images he called focus on the most information-dense materials. My stopping and starting reflects an unyielding fact of the limited nature of human focus.

I kept beating myself up, that is, for doing it right, because I somehow got the idea that I should be doing it differently. (I find academic life is full of these head games we play on ourselves.) If I’m honest, I will admit that I’m a pretty fast reader who’s really efficient at getting the gist. When I come back from my skim, then my fast read, and do my notes on the third (fast) pass, that’s where it all really sinks in, details-wise. And reading it three times this way is faster than trying to Read Harder in one intense sweep from start to finish.

Two things strike me as interesting in my own little anecdote here. First, while it turns out that I’m actually an effective and efficient, highly-skilled reader, for a long time I was really insecure about my practices. Second, academic reading is a non-intuitive skill that needs to be taught, and we should make sure to teach it.

Where did I get the idea that Reading Harder was the right way? Did I just conjure up a mental image of Good Reading and it looked like binging on Twilight books, only in academese and holding a highlighter? Or did I just assume, with my deeply-rooted imposter syndrome, that whatever way seemed easiest or most natural to me was obviously the wrong way?

And how many years did it take me to just sort of feel my way through to my current process? How much trial and trial and error and error it took for me to figure it out? Hint: a lot (and I still wasn’t sure I was doing it right).

Could I have been taught? I think so. The scuttlebutt in grad school when we were all crushed under the weight, in one case, of a triple-decker novel and two critical articles every week, or, in another, a book of queer theory every week was this: skim, then bullshit. Perhaps this is why we all felt like fakers: we were faking. On the one hand, the reading expectations were … out of line with reality. But on the other hand, I’ve been finding my own grad students really receptive to our using some class time to talk about the pragmatics of how to actually shift their strategies in the move from undergrad to grad, or, How to Read a Book.

So I’m posting this now for two reasons–to ask you to share whatever reading or other professional strategies you figured out for yourself the hard way, so we don’t have to; also, to get you all to read Edwards’ great how-to, and assign it to or share it with everyone you know. (See also, How to Give a Talk.)

Leave a comment with your reading strategies below, especially if you learned it the hard way 😉