Four Things

What is it like, the day-to-day of going to Westminster?

One of the main things I do is read. I don’t go to classes all that much because you only take three at a time. They do classes here in two-hour blocks once a week—at least that’s how all my classes are. So I go to school twice a week for a class and then have an independent study, which requires I meet with my advisor ever three weeks or so for fifteen minutes or so each time; and that’s it. The rest of the time I read.

You have to like to read to do this. If you are not already a person habituated to binge reading, I don’t see how you can make it. Now, it would be advantageous for me if I were not a man in search of that which is interesting. Many of the things one has to read do not, alas, participate in the idea of interestingness. The environs are more suited to the kind of tedious person whose hobby is theology. I have found that as a general rule I am not that interested in theology, and that I am a bit outside of the loop because of that is evident. (Nor have I detected anything in which I am ahead, in compensation.) And as to the interestingness, you have to find ways, strategize, figure out what incentives you can, and keep reading.

One of the things I had to learn early on was to quit acting on curious impulses to follow various opportunities as interest arose. You can’t wander. You are always zooming in, closing off possibilities, getting at something very specific so you can exhaust the reading for it properly. That is a habit that cannot be allowed to kill your interest in things, because it can. I think that’s why my advisor exhorts me not to abandon all extra-curricular reading. It is the kind of exhortation that benefits a person like me, unlike the one’s aimed at the procrastinators which load me with frantic stress that sometimes exhibits itself in disquieting physical manifestations.

Ever since I read my Bible every day when I was young and hated it but thought it was my duty though I had no desire for it whatever, I have been able to read along in a book I was not keen on without paying attention to a single word while thinking of something else. That ability still haunts me—especially if the thing I’m reading does not participate in interestingness as much as the writing, for example, of James Boswell does.

So you read and you follow the argument, note things that are the point of your reading what you behold. I use stickies in books and write on printed material with a cheap green pen I got for free at orientation. I don’t like to write in my books, but I don’t own most of the books I’m reading right now anyway, so I have to use stickies. I like using stickies anyway, and use the higher-end plastic stickeis in the books I own. (And I like just saying stickies.) I’ve run through all the randomly accumulated stickies we’ve had for years almost. Soon I’ll have to buy stickies.

When the reading is done, then I must write. I look forward to that part too. I think I’m doing pretty well at it, and I always look forward to doing something I think I’m doing pretty well. I don’t think the quality of my writing is doing all that well, but I do think that I’m getting the argument, writing useful and succinct summaries, quoting when necessary, and interacting with my sources properly.

And you take breaks. The strategical use of your time is very important, and the strategical use of your breaks one of the most important things, I find. You have to use the best moments, you have to make the most of the coffee and not be irregular about such things or too frequent. I don’t find that a constant habitual pattern is the most conducive, but I find that a certain rigor and spontaneity in reasoned measure help me the most. I am reminded often of the idyllic life C.S. Lewis described when he would work from 9-1, have lunch, have a walk, work from 4-7, have supper and then read interesting things. I am also reminded that before he did the greatest academic achievement of his life (according to Warnie), that he took a couple of days before the culminating exam off—after having studied—in order to be rested. (By the way, the myth that he had a photographic memory is belied by the entries in his diary in which he was spending time memorizing long sections of Milton and such in order to be prepared for those exams.) Though he was a man out of my league, I realize, there is still much wisdom in the unflustered approach of congenial discipline. Reasonableness and judicious moments count. For the moment at least, that’s what I say.

At this point I’m not writing any papers, but I have three to do. The notes I write subsequent to reading something, as I have noticed, become crucial for the eventual work of the paper. I realized during the first semester I’d have to do better at that, and I am pleased to say that I think I am. These days of languorous reading will soon give way to whole days of consulting and writing, and that is the part where for me the great difficulty lies. I still cannot write as well as I’d like, not even academic things. I still produce stuff that is objected to which I am unable to anticipate in my process of proof-reading. I probably need to re-read all the stuff I’ve read on writing, but who has time for that? It is the thing that needs to be worked on at the other end; a solution will have to be found.

It gets all cyclical, you see, and that is what it is like.


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