It’s been four years since I finished my PhD, and lately I’ve been reflecting on how much things have changed since then, particularly how much they’ve changed since I got my permanent position at Shimer College. There was a moment when I was looking through their promotion guidelines and was thinking, “Okay, in five years I’ll be mostly through the evaluation process” — then I paused and thought, “Five years?!” I had literally never thought on that timescale since starting my PhD, indeed, perhaps never in my life. I went semester-by-semester, year-by-year.
One of the things that can be so panic-inducing in grad school is the sense that you have to get everything in right now. It’s not just a matter of imposter syndrome giving us unrealistic expectations for how much we can and should do in our dissertations (which are, after all, intended to be our first significant contribution to the scholarship, not our crowning life’s work), but also the sense that once we do start teaching, there simply won’t be time to do any reading. For the rest of our scholarly career, we’ll be running on the fumes from this unique period of intensive research.
Looking back over the past few years, though, I’m stunned by the amount of work I’ve done — both deepening my knowledge in familiar areas and branching out — simply “along the way.” Part of it was a matter of using my courses to “assign myself” reading, but even more was a slow and steady accumulation, reading on the train or even before bed. When you’re looking at a multi-year timescale, a lot of things that seem impossible are actually quite doable. It’s been calculated, for instance, that one could read the whole Church Dogmatics in a year at a pace of thirty pages a day. If you gave yourself three years, it wouldn’t even be strenuous — you could get through the whole thing by dipping in every few days. I only use this example because I know the figures off the top of my head, but over the course of five years, a lot of things become doable: reading all of Freud, getting through all of Proust, etc., etc. I’ve always been particularly struck by an interview with Graham Harman wherein he described getting through Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe — the way he described it was as a slow accretion, where he gradually found he had gotten the rhythm of Heidegger’s German and then eventually found that he had gotten through the whole thing.
The key, of course, is to maintain continuity — a discipline that I picked up working on my research languages, out of a palpable sense that I could very easily lose all that I had so laboriously gained if I broke the chain prematurely. (By the same token, I’ve put off learning Hebrew for a couple years even though I have all the materials, because I don’t trust myself to follow through adequately under current circumstances.) I always tell my students that learning to read a foreign language is easy, it just takes hundreds of hours of work. When you think in terms of doing all those hours at once, it seems impossible. When you think in terms of doing around an hour most days, it still seems a little overwhelming, but it’s doable.
The key, it seems to me, is to bracket the larger project and focus only on the bite-sized chunks. If you can develop a reliable habit, you will be shocked by how much you will have done, looking back — but contemplating the whole as if it needs to be done all at once is a potent form of procrastination, perhaps even a terminal one. You need to be realistic. If it’s a foreign language project, you might need to let yourself do only a page or two a day at first and trust that eventually you’ll get faster — and then let that happen naturally rather than forcing it. For a major reading project, you may need to assign the project to a specific time (over the commute, over lunch, bedtime reading). The key is to make it a ritual, to let yourself be reading rather than focusing on having read.
I am firmly convinced that — leaving aside “states of emergency” like having a newborn — everyone does have time to some extent, although the amount of free time will vary over the course of a semester or a year. Even very limited time devoted to continuing research can yield huge benefits over the course of several years. The biggest obstacle isn’t limited time, it’s putting exaggerated demands on oneself so that one never gets started at all.