Advice to Students
The Scholar's Checklist
Scholars during their apprenticeship rarely get advice on habits: the nuts and bolts of daily doing. And once their apprenticeship is over, whether they are in academe or working on their own, there is no time for advice. Whatever one's institutional context, one needs to manage information and its support systems, simply in order to keep going intellectually. This page contains suggestions on that subject. They are offered not as final solutions, but as reminders that it is good to solve these little things one way or another, if one is to get the most out of one's time on the planet.
- 33. You need a desktop. If you are sharing space with someone else, you need a desktop of your own. It can double as an eating surface, but not as a second-person surface.
- 34. You need a copier that will enlarge and reduce, and a high-resolution printer on your computer (for camera-ready copy). Your color printer can be a cheap one, attached to the spare computer. Use it for custom letterheads and lecture handouts. Keep spare cartridges in a drawer of that desk. Don't run out at 3 AM with 30 copies of your handout still to print, and your plane leaves in 4 hours.
- 35. A Nikor paper trimmer, the kind with a disk blade, not a guillotine blade (they don't cut straight), for your own paper, and an Acco 440 heavy duty 3-hole punch, for handling other people's paper.
- 36. Pencils tend to wander off. Buy the kind you like by the dozen, and leave them lying around. If you are reading in the easy chair and want to write a note in the margin, and reach out, and the pencil is not there, you are not leaving enough pencils lying around. Also get enough of your favorite fine-point pen, red pen, marker, eraser, and correction fluid (the kind of applicator with a chisel point is best; the dry tape kind are better still).
- 37. Books are here to stay. Protect jackets with Gaylord plastic covers (yes, private citizens can buy from Gaylord). If you will use a book heavily in future, buy a spare copy while you still can. The later reprint will cost more, and the binding will be crummier.
- 38. Evaluate houses with a view to shelf capacity. Offsite storage may become necessary as things grow; and it is cheaper than a second house but, at 2 AM, also less convenient. A library is what you can reach for, and find, at 2 AM (Napoléon, revised). All other libraries are schematic abstractions: pretty pictures in somebody else's album.
- 39. Don't reach the point where it is faster to borrow a book from the library than to find it in your disorderly house. Keep order. Keep lists of what you have, by subject, in the computer. Don't get into descriptive cataloguing, which is a costly survival of Renaissance book collecting. Author, title, date is plenty; plus their location (in the house or out of it). Include in your list any copies of articles or reviews, along with their location.
- 40. If you cite an Internet page, print it out. 2 to 1 it won't be there next year, and 5 to 1 you will need to verify your citation. File the copy with your notes for the paper you are writing on that subject.
- 41. If one of your research notes needs to be filed in two places, make a second copy on your copier, and file the copies in two places. If none of your research notes needs to be filed in two places, maybe your research is too tightly channeled. Take an hour off to review your experiment design.
- 42. To store extensive Xeroxes of primary documents or one's personal research notes, we like looseleaf notebooks, in one-inch or half-inch widths (wider ones require deeper shelves). Use computer-printed labels, trimmed to 6.5 inches long and 0.5 inches wide on your Nikor, and taped to the spine of the notebook with 3M #845 book tape (3" or 2" width) at a constant height.
- 43. It can be convenient to write references to reviews on the TP of the book. But rather than heavily annotate the margins of a book, annotate copies of its pages, in a dedicated notebook. You can then interpolate extra pages for other notes, as needed. Very nice.
- 44. Keep a regularly updated list, taped to the fridge, of books you have ordered or requested from ILL, and other things you expect to happen. Be prepared to take steps if those things don't happen on the expected dates. Secretaries call it a tickle file. We call it our "Coming" page. Call it what you like, but keep it up.
- 45. The computer may insist on usurping one end of the desktop. Beyond that, a glass for pencils and pens, a shallow tea bowl for paper clips and erasers, and a Rolodex for facts you keep forgetting (Chi conquest of Sung: 0286), ought to do it. Plus an orchestra stand (Manhasset) to hold a draft or a text near the desk, while you work on it. All else is space. A working mind needs open space.
- 46. You need a separate large surface, not a desk, on which books can be collected and left in conjunction for days at a time. A sheet of plywood with finished edges and short screw-on legs makes a table that can be stored behind a shelf on company evenings, or for mere relief. It should not block access to the shelf when it is assembled and in use. Do your geometry before you trim your plywood.
- 47. Ideally, you need a separate desk for book processing and mail preparation, preferably in its own room. Don't neglect civic routine (the electric bill), but don't let it take over the main surface.
- 48. The notebook and the clipboard are your working surfaces away from home. Be ready to attend a weekend seminar on six hours' notice, four of which you will spend sleeping. Keep a bag (with wheels) packed with folding umbrella and overnight basics, including four spring clips to hold the hotel room curtains closed at night. Carry a notebook with a section of your own current work, to improve the time during any delays en route. A map of the destination terminal (from the seat pocket magazine on the previous flight), and your itinerary, go behind the slide-in transparent covers of the notebook. Pack a clipboard, an empty notebook for seminar handouts, and your laser pointer. In shirt pocket: airline ticket, passport, pencil, pen, 3x5 cards, appointment book with phone numbers. On person: reading glasses, wallet, penlight, coins, minimum keys, toothpick, Kleenex, and card case with ample meishi. That should get you there and back. If it didn't, revise the checklist for next time.
- 49. Be as unconventional as you like, but be consistent about it. Regularity is helpful to mental activity over the long haul.
- 50. If you work at night, equip your sleeping corner with darkening shades for daytime sleeping. The sleep component of Tylenol is diphenhydramine hydrochloride, available generically (eg CVS "Sleep Tablets") at half the cost.
- 51. Leave a window in the routine for counter-routine: contact with something besides what you are focusing on. Dedicate a chairside table to a book from the Hellenists or the archaeologists. Change the book every week, whether or not you have dipped into the previous one.
- 52. Know where you want to be in a year, and hold weekly staff meetings with yourself to see how far you have gotten, why you didn't get there faster, and how you plan to organize next week's campaign. Imagine the meetings attended by Clemenceau, asking hard questions ("What exactly is the problem here?"). The worst use of freedom is to drift in it, however good the direction of the drift. The erudite but planless Oxford don is the stereotype none of us wants to become. Don't become it.
- 53. Don't live in risky places or do dumb things. The hazards of research are sufficient. Other things being equal, a nonspectacular landscape is more conducive to intellect. But do give space and time for simple beauty. It restores intellectual faculties (MC 6A8).
- 54. Racket is distracting, but dead silence is unnerving. Nero Wolfe said, of the quiet room in which he did his thinking: "Yes, there is just the right amount of noise from the street."
- 55. Don't have a day job that uses the same mental faculties as your work. Don't have a day job that presumes different moral sensibilities than your work.
- 56. If you set up housekeeping, audition thoughtfully. The strain of doing a socially disesteemed thing will tend to weigh heavier on any second person. Avoid other imbalances too. One of the luxuries which a scholar can't afford is alimony. It belongs to an altogether different, and much better financed, life and mindstyle.
- 57. If you do one meal a day, it should be in midmorning (don't get tired and then catch up; stay ahead). Fry salmon filets (for the omega-3) in a skillet with a little olive oil, with the lid on (to keep the fishy smell off the books), turning only once (DDJ 60: who said classical philosophy has no practical use?).
- 58. Irritatingly enough, the British habit of a "constitutional" (a walk after a meal) has health value. Keep a 3x5 card and a pencil in your pocket, and save certain kinds of thinking for those half hours. And then don't always do the thinking. The mind at rest is one component of the mind at work.
- 59. Attend to the physical basis; it's the only one you have. Limber your hands by rolling two English walnuts around each other in your palm without letting them touch. Never reach around corners, or lift anything on one leg. Hold your finger at arm's length in front of your eyes, and slowly, while looking at it, bring it to the space between your eyes. Slowly return it. Your eyes will cross and uncross, and it's good for the focusing muscles. Tone muscles generally, especially upper arm and lower back. Sitzfleisch requires surprisingly diverse conditioning.
- 60. Some pills provide nutrients not assured in most diets: Ocuvite, E, folic acid (but don't overdo the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K; they build up in the body). Lutein (20mg, and don't forget Zeaxanthin, 2x6mg, it is even better for preserving the retina)). Lots of extra C if you feel a cold coming. Take before sleep. Tissues build during sleep. Brain tissue is a kind of tissue.
The Long Term
- 61. Don't be bored. Define your chosen subject broadly enough, and with enough internal dynamics of its own, that it can reinforce itself as you work on it. Don't commit to the insoluble, but equally, don't adopt a life problem that you are likely to reach the bottom of in twenty years. What will you do then? Handball? Bottle cap collecting?
- 62. Don't be stubborn. If you make a mistake, for example in the 3rd of a projected 20 volumes, as with Pierson's Manyôshû, don't be afraid to change it (Analects 1:8). You are responsible to posterity for your best result, not to yourself (or even your publisher) for your most consistent one.
- 63. Don't be surprised. Know how your special area works, know how people work, both ancient (see Ranke) and modern. Know how academe works. You can like it or dislike it, as you wish, but don't be caught flatfooted by it. Wastes time, looks bad.
- 64. Don't be disappointed. Don't count on being recognized (Beveridge 137f), and don't count on being liked. If you don't like the work enough to sustain you in doing the work, you don't like the work enough. Ranke's personal motto was labor ipse voluptas, and with good reason.
Meanwhile, those who are making their first contact with institutions as members of institutions rather than as students in institutions may wish to consult The Junior's Dilemma:
12 Aug 2002 / Contact The Project / Exit to Advice Page