Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, S.W.Fuller@warwick.ac.uk
Fuller, Steve. “How to Study: Roam, Record and Rehearse.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 62-64.
Please refer to:
- Fuller, Steve. “My One Habit: Never Speak from a Prepared Written Text.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 5 (2015): 10-13.
Image credit: Jeffrey Smith, via flickr
My most successful study skill is one that I picked up very early in life—and perhaps is difficult to adopt after a certain age. Evidence of its success is that virtually everything I read appears to be hyperlinked to something in my memory. In practice, this means that I can randomly pick up a book and within fifteen minutes I can say something interesting about it—that is, more than summarize its contents. In this way, I make the book ‘my own’ in the sense of assigning it a place in my cognitive repertoire, to which I can then refer in the future.
There are three features to this skill. One is sheer exposure to many books. Another is taking notes on them. A third is integrating the notes into one’s mode of being, so that they function as a script in search of a performance. In sum, I give you the new 3 Rs: Roam, Record and Rehearse.
Let’s start with Roam. I’ve always understood reading as the most efficient means to manufacture equipment for the conduct of life. It is clearly more efficient than acquiring personal experience. But that’s a relatively superficial take on the situation. A better way of putting it is that reading should be seen as itself a form of personal experience. In the first instance, this means taking seriously the practice of browsing. By ‘browsing’ I mean forcing yourself to encounter a broader range of possibilities than you imagined was necessary for your reading purposes.
Those under the age of twenty may not appreciate that people used to have to occupy a dedicated physical space—somewhere in a bookshop or a library—to engage in ‘browsing’. It was an activity which forced encounters of works both ‘relevant’ and ‘irrelevant’ to one’s interests. Ideally, at least in terms of one’s own personal intellectual development, browsing would challenge the neatness of this distinction, as one came across books that turned out to be more illuminating than expected. To be sure, ‘browsing’ via computerized search engines still allow for that element of serendipity, as anyone experienced with Google or Amazon will know. Nevertheless, browser designers normally treat such a feature to be a flaw in the programme that should be remedied in the next iteration, so that you end up finding more items like the ones you previous searched for.
As a teenager in New York City in the 1970s I spent my Sunday afternoons browsing through the two biggest used bookshops in Greenwich Village, Strand and Barnes & Noble. Generally speaking, these bookshops were organized according to broad topics, somewhat like a library. However, certain sections were also organized according to book publishers, which was very illuminating. In this way, I learned, so to speak, ‘to judge a book by its cover’. Publishing houses tend to have distinctive styles that attract specific sorts of authors. In this way, I was alerted to differences between ‘left’ and ‘right’ in politics, as well as ‘high’ and ‘low’ in culture. Taken together, these differences offer dimensions for mapping knowledge in ways that cut across academic disciplinary boundaries.
There is a more general lesson here: If you spend a lot of time browsing, you tend to distrust the standard ways in which books—or information, more generally—is categorized.
Back in New York I would buy about five used books at a time and read them immediately, annotating the margins of the pages. However, I quickly realized that this was not an effective way of ‘making the books my own’. So I shifted to keeping notebooks, in which I quite deliberately filtered what I read into something I found meaningful and to which I could return later. Invariably this practice led me to acquire idiosyncratic memories of whatever I read, since I was basically rewriting the books I read for my own purposes.
In my university days, I learned to call what I was doing ‘strong reading’. And I continue it to this day. Thus, in my academic writing, when I make formal reference to other works, I am usually acknowledging an inspiration—not citing an authority—for whatever claim I happen to be making. My aim is to take personal responsibility for what I say. I dislike the academic tendency to obscure the author’s voice in a flurry of scholarly references which simply repeat connections that could be made by a fairly standard Google search of the topic under discussion.
Now let’s move from Record to Rehearse. In a sense, rehearsal already begins when you shift from writing marginalia to full-blown notebook entries insofar as the latter forces you to reinvent what it is that you originally found compelling in the noteworthy text. Admittedly the cut-and-paste function in today’s computerized word processing programmes can undermine this practice, resulting in ‘notes’ that look more like marginal comments.
However, I engage in rehearsal even with texts of which I am the original author. You can keep yourself in a rehearsal mode by working on several pieces of writing (or creative projects) at once without bringing any of them to completion. In particular, you should stop working just when you are about to reach a climax in your train of thought. The next time you resume work you will then be forced to recreate the process that led you to that climactic point. Often you will discover that the one conclusion toward which you thought you had been heading turns out to have been a mirage. In fact, your ‘climax’ opens up a new chapter with multiple possibilities ahead.
I realize that some people will instinctively resist what I just prescribed. It seems to imply that no work should ever end, which is a nightmare for anyone who needs to produce something to a specific schedule in order to earn living! And of course, I myself have authored more than twenty books. However, to my mind these works always end arbitrarily and even abruptly. (And my critics notice this!) Nevertheless, precisely because I do not see them as ‘finished’, they continue to live in my own mind as something to which I can always return. They become part of the repertoire that I always rehearse, which in turn defines the sort of person I am.
Perhaps a good way to see what I am recommending is as a solution to the problem of ‘alienation’ which Karl Marx famously identified. Alienation arises because industrial workers in capitalist regimes have no control over the products of their labour. Once the work is done, it is sold to people with whom they have no contact and over whom they have no control. However, alienation extends to intellectual life as well, as both journalists and academics need to write quite specific self-contained pieces that are targeted at clearly defined audiences. Under the circumstances, there is a tendency to write in a way that enables the author to detach him- or her- self from, if not outright forget, what they have written once it is published. Often this tendency is positively spun by saying that a piece of writing makes its point better than its author could ever do in person.
My own view is quite the opposite. You should treat the texts you write more like dramatic scripts or musical scores than like artworks. They should be designed to be performed in many different ways, not least by the original composer. There should always be an element of incompleteness that requires someone to bring the text alive. In short, it should always be in need of rehearsal. Taken together, Roam, Record and Rehearse has been a life strategy which has enabled me to integrate a wide range of influences into a dynamic source of inspiration and creativity that I understand to be very much my own.