Reading Log

Note: this is a navel-gazing post offering some reflections on my reading habits an how I keep track of what I read.

I have always been someone who gravitates to books rather than other forms of media. Many of my fondest memories involve sitting, lost in a book, and basking in the untroubled freedom that accompanied an existence where my concern at that moment was whether my seat on a rock or against a tree was comfortable enough.

Of course these days only ever exist in memory.

A funny thing often happens in graduate school for the humanities: reading for fun withers, if it doesn’t disappear altogether. You read so much for work that when you finally get a break, it is much less mentally taxing to play a video game or watch TV than it is to pick up a book. If you do read, it is entirely understandable to read familiar, comforting books. This phenomenon reached its climax for me in early 2013 during my last semester of coursework and the run-up to my comprehensive exams. These exams are designed to prove that you have a grasp of all of the scholarship in your chosen fields, usually by providing a long list of important texts (as determined by your examiners) and culminates in multiple days of written exams followed by an oral defense. I read three books that January, all before the start of the semester, and then not another book until May.

By contrast, I have had only three months total since then that I haven’t finished at least one book, each time caused by reading or attempting to read a particularly hefty book (Don Quixote, War and Peace, Infinite Jest) while also keeping up with writing my dissertation and teaching.

I started reading fiction again almost as soon as I finished my exams because it made me feel more normal, but it took me years to start reading non-fiction again on a regular basis other than what was required for work.

Now, I am a firm advocate of reading in general, but this goes double for anyone who wants to be a writer in any genre. As experts like John Warner are fond of saying, the two foundations of becoming a better writer are 1) read more and 2) write more. I might add reflective practice as a third pillar in that it helps you become a better self-editor, but the first two are both spot on. No idea, however brilliant, is worth much if it can’t be communicated, which is one of the frustrating things about reading some academic prose.

However, the point of this post is not why people should read, but about the reason I can point to specific months when I read nothing or can see how my reading habits developed.

Once upon a time I tracked all of the books I read in a simple list, but then graduate school happened and I stopped. I started this list again in January 2013, this time on Google docs, and that list has undergone several revisions until now where the list has two components, both kept in Google sheets.

Part one is a cover-sheet that shows all of the year-over-year data for (a) books read by month and a sum total; (b) monthly page-count totals; (c) averages for both categories; and (d) the information for specific categories I’m tracking (more on this in a minute). This year I also added a radar chart.

Part two consists of an annual sheet that keeps the list of books read and all of the information I’m tracking that then automatically fills in the data back to the coversheet.

I also created a separate list not yet incorporated into the cover sheet that tracks the academic books that I read in a given year.

If all of this seems overly-structured, well, it is. I find this oasis of order soothing amidst the chaos of existence, but the actual switch to sheets was largely so that I only had to enter data once and the rest of the systems could be automated (I do update the formula the calculates the monthly totals).

The change also allowed me to update and adapt the data I collect about my reading habits, which functions much like a calorie counter for anyone watching their diet. My initial categories were somewhat arbitrary: books by Nobel prize winners and number of original languages, but has expanded to better reflect my reading goals. I still keep tabs on the number of books by Nobel Laureates and the number of original languages, but I have added to these books by African and African American authors, books by women, the countries of origin for the author (English-language literature from India is going to have a different flavor than from the US), and non-fiction books.

Once I started tracking the information, for instance, I learned exactly how few books by women I was reading and so started setting annual goals, such that this year I’m at almost 50%. I still lag behind where I’d like to be in other categories, but the net result is that my reading habits are becoming gradually diversified as I make a conscious effort to seek books by people I had not traditionally read. I don’t like every book I read—that is not part of the deal—but I both enjoy hunting online for new books with interesting sounding plots and have been blown away some of the ones I found.

I might be obsessive about this sort of documentation, which I use to track my writing time and exercise information, but I cannot recommend this general practice highly enough. I appreciated seeing the anti-racist reading lists people put out over the past several months, but, to my mind, that is only a first step. Read the books that are on the trendy list if that is your thing, but building a reflective practice around reading can help fundamentally diversify a reading intake and create long-lasting change.

Notes from Corona Campus

When I received the news that I had the weekend to take my classes online, I started out reading the tidal wave of well-meaning advice for teaching online and then promptly sat on my hands other than to complete step one below. I went to the grocery store to buy cheese and flour and alcohol. Then I went again to get beans and pasta. Then I baked bread and decided that I should probably stock up on more flour, so I went back, by which time the flour shelves were empty and I resigned myself to the fifteen pounds already on my shelves.

After a few days of doing nothing, I settled down and started prepping. Work with a clear purpose calms me, so I let myself get lost in the cycle of filming, emailing, teaching, and grading until getting caught up last night. Somewhere in this process I think I found a replicable routine to carry us through the rest of the semester. Research comes next.

These are not recommendations, but documentation of the steps I took for my classes at the two institutions where I work, each with slightly different mandates and instructions.

First, I contacted my students in every class, letting them know a few pieces of information: 1) that these are extraordinary circumstances and I will be as flexible as possible so that they can both take care of themselves and complete the class; 2) establishing a timeline for additional updates and expectations; 3) letting them know that I am available to talk, including about non-class things. Then I sent them a cat picture.

This is a step I have repeated frequently since, giving updates and reiterating that I am aiming to be as flexible and present as possible and that I have an unending stream of cat pictures. One of the problems with online education is that students do not feel connected to the class and lose motivation to keep up with the work, which is one reason that communication is so important. Consider this one a recommendation.

Second, I prepared my materials to go online. My classes are reasonably well set up for a digital transformation in that I already make extensive use of LMS platforms to distribute everything from assignments to handouts to readings to collecting assignments and use OER readings to reduce the cost to students. In some courses my students keep a blog. In other words, my usual workflow for the course made this part of the transition basically painless, though I have also been building up discussion boards and other functionality for asynchronous aspects of the course.

Third, I started filming. Until a few weeks ago my Twitter bio read “eagerly awaiting the pivot past video,” and while I still hold to this sentiment, I am learning to love looking at my face on the screen because any information I would provide in a lecture is being delivered by videos that the students can watch when they have time. My videos are still on the long side, usually running in the 20–25 minute range, with two videos roughly covering the material from one lecture class, and they are very much an emergency measure: aside from checking clarity I am not editing these at all and have barely modified content to allow activities in the middle of the lecture.

There are lots of tools available for making videos and I know some intrepid professors who have made Youtube channels for their classes. For my part, I am just recording a Zoom meeting with the slides shared, saving the video to my computer, and uploading it with the slide show and supplemental readings to the course site.

Fourth, I am still holding synchronous classes. I say this with some trepidation given the wisdom of the best practices pedagogy people online, but I am doing it anyway––and only in part because one of the schools where I teach asked me to do so. (I should also note that my largest class this semester is c.25.) Here is my rationale: my students didn’t sign up to take an online class and given the very real concerns about motivation to stay engaged, some of which my students brought to me, I think there is value in continuing to hold synchronous sessions for anyone able to make it. Keeping a regular routine is something that I know helps me.

However, these synchronous sessions are not the same as normal class. As noted above, I am pre-recording any and all lectures, because I cannot think of anything more boring than asking students to tune in to watch my face talk at them real-time and, as I said, my primary concern here is engagement. Instead, I am adding a couple slides to my presentations, one that has some discussion questions for the students to prepare and another with an activity with “big scavenger hunt energy” (with apologies to the person on Twitter who framed online courses that way).

In the synchronous sessions I can answer questions about the lecture, engage students with the discussion questions, and talk about what they found or created. In other classes I have been able to use a Zoom function (that is apparently not available for all accounts) of breakout rooms to let the students do activities in small groups before coming back to the main room to share what they came up with. In another instance, I was able to invite a guest speaker whose book the students read to come in and talk to them about writing, the book, and related issues, and I rather hope that I can do something like that again.

Is any of this ideal? Absolutely not, but I am hoping that for some students our time can serve as a pocket of normalcy amid the storm and allow them to feel connected to the course. Equally, if not more, important, this change to the workflow of the course gives clear pathways to alternate participation through submitting me their answers to the questions and their activities or participation on discussion boards. in the spirit of flexibility, I am aiming for a blended synchronous/asynchronous course with the purpose of maximizing engagement while not leaving anyone behind.

Fifth, and finally, although I am adding activities and supplemental material like videos, documents, and podcasts, I am not adding new assignments. (I have heard of professors doing this, presumably in a panic-move to “encourage” engagement.) Like holding the usual class sessions, my goal is to keep to syllabus while retooling the assignments to account for the changed circumstance (e.g. no access to library books). Once again, this is made easier because of the structure of my courses where I use regular, low-stakes, online, at-home quizzes where I encourage students to do retake the assessment until they are satisfied with their grades (which also means learning the material) and assign take-home rather than in-class exams. To account for the new circumstances, I am also maintaining maximum flexibility, turning due dates into suggested benchmarks rather deadlines and giving students until the end of the class to turn in any revised material.

None of this is perfect: these are emergency measures and many of the particulars are still in flux as I respond to requests and suggestions from students. That said, one week in, I am satisfied that I now have a viable workflow on my end that will help me meet my course goals and maximize student engagement under the circumstances.