Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Reading as Productivity

Part of the reason, it occurs to me, why I've felt so unproductive lately is that a lot of my work has been reading, rather than writing; and not the whole-books sort of reading that we often ask our students to do to feel productive. It's been a bunch of other stuff.

Today, I read two chapters in a book I'm thinking about using for an article I'm revising, and skimmed another that I want to keep to read as the semester approaches, as I think it may come in handy as I design writing assignments. I re-read a play and the critical companion paper written by one of my grad students for his final project (though I've yet to write comments on it). I've read a few sections of another article, and then decided that while, yes, this article is phenomenally smart and maybe even a little revolutionary, that I don't want to rework a large section of an almost-completely-polished article just to accommodate it.

Of course, I've read some blogs, and I've read some news online, and I re-read a draft of something I'm radically revising, and I'm reading a student paper that needs to be sent off in its SASE before, you know, the student is actually back on campus... And at home I've got two novels going (Julian Barnes's History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters and Sadegh Hedayat's The Blind Owl) both of which have teaching implications.

But it really is hard to think about all of this reading as "being productive." Which is ridiculous, of course. This brings me to mind of the idea of our work being inserted more and more persistently into a capitalist logic wherein everything is measured in terms of its exchange value, where its quantifiability is most tangible and its value is clearest when it can be reproduced, or exchanged for capital.

Teaching generally has this problem--in fact, one of the chapters I read today from Elizabeth's Ellsworth's excellent Teaching Positions notes, "Pedagogy, when it 'works,' is unrepeatable and cannot be copied, sold or exchanged--it's 'worthless' to the economy of educational accountability." That may be the truest thing I've read about teaching in months, and it resonates so deeply with me that I struggle to make real sense of the reproducible artifacts of my work (writing) as even remotely approaching the value of that teaching, which, even at its best, is hard to quantify.

In fact, it's the worst part of teaching--grading--that is easiest to quantify, and which inserts student learning into that same quantifiable economy of learning and accountability--for what do students yearn most acutely? Would they exchange good grades for actual learning? Vice versa? Which one do they most often think of as the path to a paying job?

All that said, as much as I can bespeak the inherent worth and importance of the unquantifiable (even that which calls quantifiability and exchange value into question), I can say honestly that in the last 24 hours, I felt most professionally proud when looking at a list of things I had accomplished (produced in preparation for my annual report--my own accountability to the system that trades economic capital for this very labor). And much of my early summer malaise has to do with an absence of clear-cut product (be it written product or even as my weight-loss and gym activities have produced, bodily product).

I have heard the lament of many critics of the direction of higher ed about the disappearance of a certain kind of 'life of the mind," one that creates space and time for contemplation, for reading, for batting about ideas. We often tie it to the corporatization of higher ed, and I think this is among the most insidious connections: that reading is not, in and of itself, productive, or at the very least, it has no direct product. Reading, as a crucial component of this mind-life, doesn't have anything to show for itself at the end of the day. And forget about contemplation.

As for me personally, I need to think about how to imagine my reading as a thing in-and-of-itself, reading as its own value--it's why I got into this field, I'd like to think. perhaps I can preserve it. To begin, I have to find ways not to feel like reading days are ones in which I've accomplished nothing, and even more so, to imagine days in which no real reading has occurred (even if writing has) as lacking. Such a change in mindset may be dangerous, perhaps for my career, but the alternative may be just as dangerous in other ways.


Dr. Virago said...

Well said, Horace. I think this failure to see reading as productive underpins something that our annoying president keeps saying whenever he claims he "values" the humanities. Each time we point out the material things that he does or doesn't do that suggest he doesn't "value" the humanities, he acts shocked and chagrined and claims, "But of course I value the humanities! I read more literature and poetry than works in my professional field!"

But there's the rub. For him reading = *leisure*. It's what makes a professional "humane" but it's not professional and/or productive in and of itself, in his formulations. It can't be sold -- as good or a service.

And this is a problem when applying for grant money, too. One can't write a grant applications that says "I plan to use the time the grant afford me to sit and read and think." No, one has to quantify what one will do, and tell what the time and money will produce.

I'm not sure what the solution is. Once, in graduate school, when I was a union organizer, I quantified my work as a TA and my work as a student in terms of hours spent -- that included reading. But then that *does* attempt to reduce reading to a quantifiable commodity. So I don't know what the answer is.

Emily said...

I agree with Dr. Virago about the hours spent reading in grad school -- even though I'm doing the same sort of reading that I did for coursework and for exams, I don't feel like I'm being entirely productive.

The idea of reading as productivity is particularly difficult in our field because so much of what we read is -- as Dr. Virago also points out -- a leisure activity for other people. The reading for pleasure that I do certainly blends into the reading for "work" that I do.

I'm not sure that there's an answer at all to the question -- at least I know I'm not alone in feeling like the number of pages I've read in the last three weeks somehow isn't "work." Or at least isn't something other people would consider work (partly, I suppose, because I'm not averse to going ahead and taking that nap right in the middle of reading a play. It's May in Florida, and siesta is often quite necessary.)

Excellent post, Horace.

Flavia said...

Lovely post, H, and it resonates really nicely with a book I just read for my reading group. It's in part about humanist education and the nagging problem of how we know whether our students understand: what does that understanding look like? does it consist of memorization? the acquisition of certain skills? or of something less tangible? But however we choose to define or test "understanding" necessarily restricts the kind of learning that our students actually understand themselves to be doing.

Until I got too far behind in life mid-semester, I'd been keeping a "scholarly diary" for a year or more in which I logged the amount of non-teaching work I did every day (if any), and then tabulated it by week. It doesn't have to be directed toward a particular written project--just reading journals in my field, for example, counts. I found that was a really good way of reminding myself of the different kinds of work that I am doing, and valuing it as such.

Horace said...

Thanks for the feedback, all.

The "answer" that you don't have, Dr. V. is a non-existent one I think, if the question is "how do we change this reality?". That is, I think that the late market capitalist moment we're in has the idea of "worth=exchange value" so deeply entrenched that a lot of humanities work will (as your dean hopes) simply fold into more "productive" stuff, or at the very least, we'll continue to make do at the bottom of the university pay scale. Le sigh.

Emily, I notice that you actually have a similar post up from a few days ago on your blog...so I'm glad you commented, since I hadn't seen your space before: we're coming from a similar place I think (and as drama scholars married to creative writers, we have a lot in common, I imagine).

And Flavia, I've been kicking around the idea of some sort of diary myself. Either a journal of my activity, or perhaps a more detailed set of responses to what I have been reading chapter by chapter or some such thing. I saw a book like that recently, and the idea resonated.

Anyway, thanks again for these thoughts!

Emily said...

I've long been lurking around, I'll admit. I think there's something about the beginning of summer that brings out the anxiety in all of us -- I notice that Miss Mentor is answering a similar question on The Chronicle today. I'm not usually all that enthusiastic about her columns, but I liked this one.

Andi said...

As I sit here in my pajamas at almost 1pm, and wonder what I've done that was productive with my day, I find your post perfect!
I wonder, as a teacher and a writer, how to value what I do, and I know that when I do read and write, just for the sake of those things, I am more fully myself - as I think all of us find. But that doesn't quantify, as you've all said, in terms of capital, for me or for my college. I find myself valuing my work by how many articles published rather than by even the quality of the work or thought itself. It's a sick game I play with myself and my institution. . .
but that said, today I feel more human than I have in a while because I spent the morning reading, writing, and just staring out the window in thought. It's as Anne Lamott said, we would all be better off if we spent more time lying on the couch and daydreaming.

Thanks for this great post.

Sisyphus said...

Hey, I hear that things may finally be looking up over in your area! Yay! I hope things start to go well over in your neck of the woods.