The orientation day for our graduate program is Monday, and I’ve been tapped to speak briefly about a topic related to the overall theme of navigating the currents of the program and the discipline. So this post is the handout that I’ll be distributing, and it’s also the first of what will probably end up being five lists of five for the August 31st issue of Rhetsy. So I thought I’d also share it here, since it may be of interest to others. Strictly speaking, this isn’t advice that applies solely to graduate students; these are things that I use myself.

Five Habits/Tools for the New School Year

Over the summer, I got around to reading Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (Amazon), less from an interest in individuality than his focus on attention and design. While the book is not without its flaws, much of what Crawford has to say about attention fits with other work that I’m doing. In his introduction he identifies one of the persistent themes of his book:

The paradox is that the ideal of autonomy seems to work against the development and flourishing of any rich ecology of attention–the sort in which minds may become powerful and achieve genuine independence….our environment constitutes the self, rather than compromises it (25).

When I reflect back on the ecology of attention that I cultivated in graduate school, I’m actually pretty pleased with how the social and interpersonal part of that ecology turned out. However, if there’s one thing I would change, it would be my approach to managing knowledge. I’ve always been a fast reader, and I’m pretty adept at understanding what parts of texts are worth underlining or highlighting. My memory for scholarship may even have been better than average. But I assumed that my brain could absorb and retain anything (and everything) that I needed to know. Now, almost twenty years out from graduate school, I’ve finally realized that neither of those functions (absorption or retention) last forever. That may seem obvious, but it can be awfully easy to ignore when you’re younger.

My point is that it is never too soon to begin developing and honing an ecology of attention. I’m constantly revising my own, but there are several specific things that are now a part of it, which I recommend that you seriously consider adopting (and adapting) to your own work.

1. Bookmarking (Instapaper/Pinboard)

As more and more of our world takes place online, some type of (browser-independent) bookmarking tool is crucial. I use two (three if I count my use of favorites in Twitter): Pinboard and Instapaper. Pinboard requires a nominal fee to sign up, but it is a very stable, no-frills bookmarking service with strong cross-application and cross-device compatibility, privacy settings, and an archiving service. I also use Instapaper, although anything I save there is also saved in Pinboard. I use Instapaper more as a reading tool for archiving things that I want to read later–it saves the link, full-text, and strips out advertising.

2. Reference Management (Zotero)

My single biggest professional regret is that I didn’t get into the habit of maintaining a tool to manage bibliographies. I hate doing them, and reference tools are precisely designed to minimize the worst parts of that activity. My recommendation here is Zotero, which is an open-source tool developed by academics for academics. It’s free, although I’ve donated money to it in appreciation. There is nothing quite so lovely as visiting a journal website, hitting a browser button, and having a full set of bibliographic data downloaded into an app which will then export it into a bibliography for you. Seriously. For someone who hates biblographies, it is the best.

3. (Reading) Notes (Evernote/Wordpress)

I’ve written on my blog a few different times about the importance of reading notes, and the virtue of aggregating them, so you end up with a database that is more than the sum of its parts. There are lots of tools that might serve for this, and I’m only mentioning 2 here: I pay for the premium version of Evernote, so that I always have my notes available to me as long as I’m near a screen. But I use that more for informal notekeeping. I think it’s worthwhile to have a space, whether it’s through WordPress, Tumblr, Google Sites, or a wiki, where you can build a stable, consistent, searchable store of reading notes. The actual tool is less important than the habit, in my opinion.

4. Conceptual Mapping (Scapple)

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more and more of a visual thinker. When I write anything longer than a page or two, I tend to use a sheet of paper or a notebook page to sketch out topics, sources, ideas, etc. The best tool I’ve ever found that gives me that kind of casual functionality is Scapple, an app from the folks who developed the word processor Scrivener. Unlike a lot of other mind-mapping tools, Scapple has very basic click-type-drag functionality that mimics (for me) the way that I work on a page. It has more advanced features that make it competitive with other, more flashy options, but it’s the only one I’ve ever found that I genuinely like to work with. It costs $15, but they offer a very generous trial version to give users a chance to try it first.

5. Personal Indexing (4×6 Note Card!)

Sometimes the oldies are goodies. When I was fresh out of graduate school, I started this habit, but I’ve only recently picked it back up again. I tend to keep a stack of 4×6 index cards handy for quick notes, grocery lists, etc., and I use them sometimes too as bookmarks. What I would do would be to use them to keep a running index of topics, arguments, sources that I wanted to be able to refer to in class or later in my work. Basically, what I’d end up with is a list of 15-20 page numbers, each with 2-3 words beside them that functioned as memory aids. Think of it as a personalized, distilled index to the book. Then imagine picking up a book 10-15 years later on a hunch, and having your own personal index available to help you find that passage you only vaguely remember. It’s worth the trouble, and helps to frame reading notes as well.


I’m sure that there are other tools I’ve missed, but these are the ones that form the core of my ecology of attention at the moment. Ultimately, it’s important to find the ones that work best for you, and that will serve you later on. I tend to prefer tools with a low participation threshhold, but whose results will benefit me five and ten years down the road.