Reading as a form of reflection and productivity

It’s one of those perfect Minnesota winter days today: a few inches of snow fell last night, snow still falling in the morning, the fluffy sticky snow that makes everything gorgeous. After getting the kids onto the school bus, I settled in to my cozy reading chair in my living room, next to the big window so that I could watch the snow fall, with a big pot of tea, a fuzzy blanket, a snuggly cat, some research reading, and the latest issue of Interactions.

90 minutes later, I’d finished my research reading and Interactions, made an extensive to-do list for my newest research project, sketched out two new Comps (capstone) project ideas, and jotted down a few new ideas for my teaching in our summer program.

Only the reading and the making of the to-do list were on my agenda for the day. The rest were completely serendipitous.

I’ve made reading a priority during my sabbatical, because I rarely make time for it in my typical work life. Reading is often a serendipitous exercise for me, particularly if I’m reading within my field but not specifically for my research. Skimming through an issue of Communications of the ACM a few years back inspired me to embark on the research project I’ve been working on for the past few years. Flipping through books that randomly show up in my office has inspired at least 3 different Comps projects over the years. Reading within my research area also leads to serendipitous ideas. While reviewing the literature for my last submitted conference paper, I identified a hole in our understanding of the problem that I wasn’t even looking for — which led to the project I’m now embarking on, an entirely new line of inquiry.

The act of reading serves as an act of reflection for me. I let my mind wander productively as I read. The ideas on the page mix with ideas I didn’t even know I’ve been carrying around, new connections form, and new avenues appear. I sketch diagrams in the margins, make lists and outlines, save quotes, highlight sources to look up later. Reading in this way becomes a form of productive brainstorming for me, except somehow the ideas come out more fully formed than when I’m just brainstorming.

So if reading broadly is such a productively creative act for me, why don’t I make more time for it? Because it’s not as urgent as the other tasks on my list. Because it doesn’t directly contribute to moving my research forward. Because if I only have a limited amount of time to devote to research, it seems more prudent to spend it on something that will directly impact my research, like coding or writing or analyzing data.

But the truth is, reading does contribute to my research — and my teaching, and my service, too. Time for reflection is vital to remaining an active, engaged researcher and teacher. And as the past few years of burnout have taught me, time for reflection is key to remaining sane and creative in my work life, too.

Even though I still have months left of sabbatical, I’ve already started reflecting on what I want my work life to look like when I return next year. Making time to read on a regular basis will definitely be part of that vision.

 

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Theme for 2017: Healthy

I used to have a tradition, before my life went completely crazy off the rails the past few years, of setting a broad intention, guiding principle, or theme for the year, either at the start of the new year or the start of the academic year. (See, for example, my theme for 2010 and the 2013-14 academic year). The idea behind a theme vs. a resolution is that a theme guides all of your actions and interactions for the year, providing a framework for how you want to operate in the world that year. It’s more holistic and, to me, feels more genuine than yet another thing to add to the to-do list.

I struggled and debated as to whether to bother setting a theme at all, and then, once I decided to do so, deciding on a theme. I spiraled into a pretty deep depression the first few days of the new year, and it took a good week for me to dig myself out to the point where I felt “normal” again and where everything didn’t feel overwhelming. I’m still trying to figure out what caused the spiral, but despair and a general feeling of hopelessness over local, national, and international events certainly isn’t helping.

Once I felt more functional, I debated over various themes. I threw around things like “take action”, “follow through”, and “courage”, which express my desire to be more politically engaged this year. But this didn’t quite address the other aspects of my life that I’d like to address this year: finding better balance between work and life once sabbatical ends, improving my mental health, working on research and pedagogy that broadens participation in computing, etc.

I kept coming back to one word, and I finally realized that this one word did, in fact, encompass how I’d like to operate in the world this year.

So, my theme for 2017 is:

Healthy.

Healthy, in the way we normally think of health: a reminder to take care of myself, both physically and mentally, so that I can be more fully present for the people, activities, and causes that matter most to me.

Healthy, in terms of only taking on what I can reasonably handle, in terms of work, commitments, and emotional caretaking. Letting go or delegating what I can’t, and not considering it a moral failing when I do either. Taking breaks and time to restore and recharge.

Healthy, in terms of improving the health and well-being of the communities around me. Continuing to work to make computing more welcoming to all, through my pedagogy, research, and service. Taking political action by making my opinions known to my representatives at all levels, a small part in being the change I want to see in the world. Serving as a role model and mentor to girls through Girl Scouts.

I’m excited by this year’s theme, and excited to explore all the different ways I can apply this theme in 2017.

Do you have a theme for the year? If so, what is it?