For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to establish a new habit.
I wish I could tell you it was an exciting one, perhaps involving stacks of innovative, disruptive-thinking body-painting.
But it’s not.
It’s a habit for researchers that’s bog-standard and necessary. It’s something I need to stop thinking of as a chore.
I’m trying to read.
I need to stop being scared of my burgeoning collection of articles that stare at me, unblinking, from Mendeley. At least they don’t teeter and threaten to avalanche anymore (as the hardcopies used to), but I’m certainly guilty of what Pat Thomson calls ‘PDF alibi syndrome‘: “Merely having and storing them is enough. I own, therefore I have read.”
There’s so much out there in blog and #acwri (academic writing) world about getting the words down; ‘write early, write often’; and getting ideas out of your head and onto the page. They make me feel inadequate – as so many things do, let’s be honest – and I feel paralysed about doing any writing at all, preliminary or not.
I am a believer in getting the writing going, free-form brainstorming on the page, but I don’t like putting utter crap down for the sake of it. I tend to know what’s productive, what is early text that can be worked over later on, and what’s just rambling around all the things I don’t yet know. There’s a difference, I think, between bad first-draft writing that’s coming from an emerging synthesis of area texts, and stuff that’s still too uninformed and untethered.
I can’t do free-form brainstorming with constructive purpose until I have a handle – however tenuous – on my topic (this may be a ymmv kind of thing). To use a camping metaphor, before I start any writing, I need to know where to pitch my tent. Under that postcolonial studies tree is not where it fits, nor should it be too close to the rocky outcrop of qualitative methodology research. Should the tent be on that alluringly level but vast field of higher education studies, or perhaps perched at the edge of that chasm of intercultural communication research? Maybe it’s better to cluster it with that existing encampment of work on critical race activism?
And what do I do about the foraging bear of absent demographic data on the cohort I want to research?
ANYWAY, before the camping metaphor becomes too stretched, let’s get back to me trying to get some reading done.
I read a post recently (which is now lost in the tides of Twitter) about tackling the daunting amount of research work we all set ourselves by doing something each day, no matter how small. It really struck home. I’d seen this kind of advice repeatedly, from various writers, across many blogs; it’s excellent advice. But it never clicked for me until I saw that post about two weeks ago.
Being such a spontaneous kind of person (*cough*), I decided to embed a new daily research habit.
When putting articles together, I felt hamstrung by my lack of consistent reading, which is necessary to fuel my writing. So, I started a new practice of reading at least two articles each work day.
For the past two weeks I’ve worked my way through my ‘to-read’ pile and made a significant dent. Most days, I managed two papers, sometimes three. Occasionally, only one.
Points worth noting from my work on this new habit:
1. It paid to make others around me aware of what I was doing. They were respectful of the aim and (mostly!) of the time I set aside to do it.
2. I started off with a consistent time (first thing in the morning) because I thought it would help embed the behaviour. This quickly proved itself unfeasible in the longer-term because the time I’d set aside ‘first thing’ is easily compromised by dodgy things happening with public transport (I have a 1.5 hour, relatively zen commute to and from work). I’ve now got an associated habit of blocking in ‘reading’ for a bit of time each day, even if it’s not first thing. I’ve now got it in my head and calendar as a daily task, and it works.
3. I realised I needed to do more scan-reading. Because I’m newish to reading in this area, I wasn’t sure what I needed to know yet. Even with the short time that I’ve focused on it thus far, I’ve generated a clearer idea of what’s a useful paper and what isn’t. It’ll definitely speed up my reading as I go on.
4. My recent ramped-up reading ignited connections with the other threads of literature I’d read years ago. I have strong scholarly ties to the areas of Asian Australian Studies, diasporic Asian studies, critical race theory, and cultural studies focused on heritage and ethnicity. It’s not like I’d forgotten it in the intervening years when I was in a non-academic role, but it had certainly dropped to backburner status. It’s now fighting its way back to the front.
Reading and ‘footnote plundering’ leads, of course, to an exponential increase in the number of references to chase down, but that’s all good. I’m off the blocks. I feel like I have some momentum, and critical ideas and connections have started circulating in earnest.
I’m even aiming for a writing retreat soon to write a full draft of a paper. But that’s a whole other post!