As I awoke Monday morning, I vowed to do no work. It was a holiday weekend and even if a provost’s work is never done, days off are necessary. Indeed, though I am not protected by any union – administrators don’t get that particular benefit – I recognize that my life and the lives of all of us have been improved by the hard work of labor leadership over the last century. One of those most important improvements in our working conditions is that there are days when we don’t work. Thank goodness for those efforts.
Well, despite my determination to laze the day away, I found a little task nagging at me. A dear friend has just completed a draft of her new book and she was looking for some feedback. With the day stretched out before me, I opened the draft and enjoyed a wonderful read. I won’t reveal anything abut the book here, so she has time to get to publication, but I will say it offered me all sorts of insights into the current state of our culture. As media ecologists, we always look at the ways in which our communication environments shape behavior, and she’s got some great observations about how our portable electronic universes are changing who we are.
But that is not what I am thinking about today. What I am really thinking about is how having a few uninterrupted hours to read an entire book is so wonderful. Although I did read the text on a screen, something I have come to prefer in recent years, I was able to completely ignore the endless stream of email that I usually address, and with the world around me relatively quiet, I could give the reading my full attention. It felt like a vacation.
My entire career in higher education has been about addressing things in chunks so I can manage the interruptions around me. I had my first child at the end of my first year as a PhD candidate. Even before the birth, the pregnancy was an interruption – distracting me from reading things closely and generally leaving me exhausted. After children and then with various teaching positions, I became an adept skimmer and expert at breaking projects into 15 minute intervals. It worked to keep me on track with my doctorate (more or less) and it helped me keep up with children and teaching assignments in the sanest way possible.
As an administrator, I read constantly. I start the day with email triage – addressing all the messages that came in over night to clear the decks for the day ahead. I scan the New York Times, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Ed looking for important information and potential research areas that I should follow up on. Then I drive to work and jump between reading, writing, meeting, and repeat. I write policy proposals, accreditation documents, edit proposals of all kinds in an effort to move things forward through various evaluative processes. I follow up on those morning articles, getting to the details of the research behind them and hoping to get smarter. It is important that I can do this kind of juggling and often I find it exhilarating. It allows me to jump between tasks productively, getting to various finish lines regularly. I’m never without a task ahead, but I can see progress.
But my expert skimming and juggling is nothing like sustained reading and the pondering of an idea. One can get a lot from an essay or an academic article, but to really engage an idea, book-length reading is still the best path. Don’t get me started on what doesn’t occur in video formats. I love them, by the way. Movies, documentaries, televisions programs, and little video tutorials all have their place in opening my eyes to ideas or processes that can be helpful or amusing. But watching isn’t reading. Reading is different.
I could try to dredge up some science for this essay, but you have Google, you can figure it out. No, this is really just about my experience of reading. It is slow enough to let me break down an argument as I encounter it. It allows me to back up and think without having to find the remote. It encourages me to pause and reflect, without having things run ahead of me. In book form, authors have time to layer in detail to the argument at hand, supplying new evidence and illustrations as I read on and helping me think things through. Yes, this is a kind of respite for me. I am slowing down, not deciding anything, just thinking.
In the book I read today, I was also reminded of the way an author’s voice is so important to the narrative. Now in this case I know the author, so it is cheating, but in all books there is a tone and rhythm that invites (and sometimes discourages) engagement with the tale being spun and the worldview being suggested. That invitation can help to block out the immediacy of our electronic world – helping to tune out the beeps and dings of our news feeds and friend groups, and just attend to the details at hand. The text becomes a person to whom I am giving my full attention. When I finish a book, I always feel better for having spent the time reading it. Synapses have connected and I am restored.
As I feel the wave of rejuvenation that my morning spent reading provided for me, I am thinking about education once more. It takes a holiday for me to have time to really read. What would it take for education to make room for real reading? You know we don’t make room for it now. Our current structure makes it nearly impossible. Can we come together to make the kinds of changes to the structure of higher education that will make room for that sustained engagement with ideas that we say we value? Perhaps this requires the same level of effort that our unions made to improve the quality of life for all of us. Readers of the world, unite!