September 29, 2011

Busy Work


So, it occurred to me the other night, after reading back over the post entitled "How to Sound Well-Read," that I may have left one and all with a false impression that I did not enjoy college.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, I loved being a university student, and it certainly wasn't because of all the parties (which I did not attend) or other unauthorized recreational activities (which I did not engage in).  We must remember that at the time, I was a good little Pentecostal preacher's daughter.  No, my primary joy in life during college was all the reading I did, because I did a massive amount of reading and research--it's just a shame that I couldn't get class credit for most of it!

Indiana State University
(my FIRST alma mater)
My favorite activity was to lose myself in the library stacks of whichever academic institution I was attending at the time (I've graduated from three), in those innocent, halcyon days before I had a cell phone, so no one could find and bother me.  I studied everything from medieval Islamic art to the Jewish Talmud, read everyone from Owen Wister to Anne Rice, and discovered British comedies like Jeeves and Wooster in the AV department.  I developed a life-long passion for research, as a matter of fact, and whenever I want to know more about a topic, or whenever I'm worried that my SuperToddler might be suffering from this or that ailment, all those hours of searching library catalogs and shelves stand me in good stead.  Probably the single most helpful thing I learned in more than ten years of university studies was how to do adequate research.  Usually, I was just setting out to satisfy my own random curiosity about a topic or a person; hour upon hour I spent in the basement or the back corner of the top floor of a library, my beloved books and I the only inhabitants of the planet, as far as I knew during those long sessions.  As I said, most of it earned me no course credits whatsoever, because I couldn't seem to find a class that was dedicated, for example, to the question of what actually happened to the famous library of Alexandria, and even if a class and my interests coincided, it was hard to fit a semester on Norse mythology into a tightly-packed degree program in linguistics.

Unknown nice librarian lady, Minnesota, 1974. 
(Thank you, Wikimedia.)

I have three master's degrees, and not one of them has helped me to eke out a lucrative career for myself.  The time I spent in the library stacks, however, continues to benefit me on a daily basis, whether I'm drawing once again upon the stores of knowledge I acquired there, or figuring out the best way to begin a major research project because I'm curious to know more about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  I have the tools to know where to begin, which authorities to consult and which so-called "experts" to blythely ignore, because of a couple of library systems that ran like well-oiled machines, and were always there for me when I needed them.  THAT was the worthwhile part of ten years of college.

I must say, the classes I enjoyed most were the ones in which I was allowed to choose my own reading materials.  Granted, these were not that common, but especially in graduate school, university departments begin to trust their students more to work independently, and they also realize that they can't tailor a class for the varied interests of every single student on campus.  Thus, the independent reading course was born.  For anyone who's never experienced it, this is exactly what it sounds like--you work out a reading list with the professor, you go away and read it all, you meet with the professor once a week to make sure that you're on track, and at the end of the semester, you present yourself to take an exam that the professor concocted based on the master list.  In some cases, you write an extensive paper as the final project, which is even better, since YOU get to control what's on the "exam" if it's entirely a treatise of your own making.  I did a couple of these independent courses, and actually quite enjoyed it.  There are days when I miss academia.

Which is why I've begun to suspect that for me, blogging has taken the place of independent studies.  Having set myself the goal of trying to post something every day, I know that I have a specific task, I know when the deadline is, and I seem never to have a shortage of things to write about.  I've even found ways to add the assigned reading component back onto my daily life; I've joined not one, but THREE review programs that give ME free books and give the PUBLISHERS in question an honest review of the book.  It's a little like writing book reports again--you remember, I'm sure: "My Book Report, by Jenny Campbell," written in pencil on that 2nd-grade paper with the blue lines on it, and the 'y' always a little crooked, much to my chagrin.  Still, it's a way to keep taking independent reading courses, since I get to pick which of the publishers' new books I want to review, and I get the textbooks FREE!  Nobody ever gave me THAT deal in college, I can promise you.  Here's an example: I find American military history interesting.  Not interesting enough that I would ever take a whole semester-long course of that and nothing else, but still interesting.  So, when a publisher offers me a free, hardback biography of an American general I'd never heard of before, but who was instrumental to our victory in one of our big wars (I don't remember which one; I haven't actually started the book yet), I'm going to happily take them up on it.  Like I said, this gives me the same opportunity to keep learning and the sense of accomplishment that attending college did, without me having to go into $20K a year of student loan debt for it.  Book reviewing, here I come!

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