How to Organise Your Scholarly Life

I advocate effective use of technology, which may not be the latest thing. [Photo: CC0 PublicDomainPictures.net]

Back in 2012, I had reached the trough of disillusionment with social media. The Campus Review thought it was novel that I had refused to use a mobile phone from 2010 until 2015. But after moving to a regional area, the mobile phone found a real purpose. I have since worked hard to find balance in the effective use of technology, rather than technology for technology's sake. In this article, I outline what I think are the best things online, particularly for serious scholars who don't want to be distracted by time- and energy-sapping online noise.

Creating a serious library

I read books. Real books, and I prefer paperbacks. But I catalogue them and cover them. Thanks to Mortimer Adler, I have given myself permission to write in my books. Keeping a library sounds simple, but there are a few things to learn.

How should one cover one's books? I asked the librarian at the Gunning Library to teach me. The first thing is to buy decent contact. I buy mine online from The Book Cover Co

I use labels I bought from the Gunning Paper Shop - Austab WP21 labels - and I add my name and the catalogue number and the first three letters of the author's family name (I discuss this below) to the label (before covering).

To catalogue my books, I use OCLC Classify. Simply enter the ISBN or author's name and title, and find the most common catalogue records. I decided on the Dewey Decimal system, which works best for small libraries, and it has a sense of primary school nostalgia. (I remember with fondness the smell of books in the library of Parramatta Park State School.) I use BPeck's DDC list to check catalogue numbers and for books not on OCLC Classify.

I set up my library using IKEA's "Billy" bookcases and, inspired by IKEA Billy hackers, built it into the wall using mouldings from Bunnings. My shelves are labelled using inexpensive brass drawer label holders from ebay.

So that's the library. But how do I stock it? This process is intertwined with my blog. I explain below.

Buying Books

I buy books mostly from The Book Depository because the prices are good and the delivery is free. I have also found The Book Grocer at Majura Park in Canberra, among other places, to have interesting titles. But these two are my go-to bookstores. 

The Book Depository has a personal wish list function. I use this to keep track of the books I want to buy. I explain how I discover books below. But for now, here is how I develop my library catalogue.

Say, for example, I purchase a book from my wish list. When the book arrives, I immediately add it to my Goodreads "Want to Read" list, and add it as an "owned" book. Every now and again, I export my Goodreads library, then import it into Library Thing. I paid a modest donation to have lifetime access to Library Thing and it is worth it. The free account is limited to 200 books. With my unlimited account, I have a searchable, printable, shareable, and usable catalogue of my library. But it isn't finished yet!

I use Goodreads to review every book I read. This is not to critique the book as in a typical review, but to record my notes and reflections on reading the book. I then use the Goodreads "Blog This Review" code and paste it into Google Blogger, where I label and modify the review to suit my blog. 

I became a Goodreads Librarian a while back to add new books and to correct mistakes in the Goodreads data and metadata. 

Discovering Books

The best way to become an effective reader, in addition to limiting use of social media, is to remove your television (or put it in an inconvenient location in your house). Next, set up a reading program. I use the annual Goodreads' Reading Challenge to stay on track. However, note the downside of such challenges.

In addition to my long-term goal to read all of Mortimer Adler's Great Books list, I have a number of email, podcast, and literary subscriptions I use to "discover" new books. The following is my top ten:
  1. Ryan Holiday's Reading List. Ryan Holiday is my ideal student, blending the old with the new.
  2. Art of Manliness Book Club and Podcast. This list and podcast introduced me to the work of Steven Pressfield, Cal Newport, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Theodore Roosevelt, to name a few.
  3. Brain Pickings. Maria Popova's blog is how I'd want mine to be if I were writing for other people.
  4. Literary Hub. I have learnt so much from this website. It covers an extraordinary range of topics.
  5. Paris Review magazine and Podcast. It's not based in Paris, and it doesn't do reviews, but the hardcover subscription provides access to the entire archive, and the podcast, recently established in partnership with my favourite premium podcast subscription, Stitcher, is brilliant. See also the London Review of Books, but I stopped subscribing to the newspaper version, but still visit the site from time to time.
  6. Esquire magazine and Esquire Classic. The cover price is so cheap, why not? Esquire Classic is a separate (although discounted for print subscribers) subscription to everything ever published by Esquire. I discovered much of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Truman Capote's destructive La Côte Basque, 1965 in the archives.
  7. The Atlantic. I no longer subscribe to the New Yorker, but the international subscription price for The Atlantic is so low it is worth the money. Even if their prediction of the presidential election is still smarting.
  8. Lapham's Quarterly, The World in Time podcast, and Lapham's Quarterly: The Podcast. Lewis Lapham, former editor of Harper's Magazine, is still one of the sharpest intellects around.
  9. Stitcher. I host my own podcast on Stitcher. There are so many podcasts to listen to, but one of my favourites is Literature and History and, although as inconsistent as my own podcast, The Joy of Serious Literature
  10. Book Riot and Annotated Podcast. This is a recent subscription. But the podcast introduced me recently to Truman Capote's downfall (see Esquire Classic above).

Blogging

My blog is less of a blog and more of a personal website. I have been blogging regularly for well over ten years. At first, I wrote standard blog-style articles on politics in the area of my research interest. This attracted the attention of ABC Unleashed (later The Drum), and my media engagement as an academic took off from there. 

Nowadays, my philosophy of blogging has changed. It is based on Ralph Potts' idea of travel journalling:
My [blog] is written by myself and for myself - an author and audience of one.
While this has severe limitations for those who wish to commercialise their blog, if one blogs for scholarly reasons alone, then this philosophy reduces self-censoring. It also enables me to record what I learn from my reading, rather than writing notes (or reviews) for others. I am my own audience. This may sound myopic, but I have a collection of notes that is always at hand, and I have a curriculum vitae that is perpetually up to date, and travels with me wherever I go.

To set up the blog, I registered the domain name www.politicalscience.com.au and have my email hosted by NetSpeed. The Google Blogger DNS code redirects to my domain. That way, I use Google Blogger templates (I have learnt over many years how to customise Blogger's templates), rather than full-service website hosting. I find this approach gives me complete control over my website.

I share directly to Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus using the inbuilt sharing functionality. I don't chase followers and I tend to broadcast, rather than interact. I use News Feed Eradicator for Facebook, and this keeps distractions to a minimum. The approach allows me to be visible on social media, rather than being consumed by it.

Email

A few years ago, I decided to separate my work and personal email accounts when organisations started to clamp down on the use of information technology. This has been a blessing. Setting up a Facebook page means I can share Facebook things with students, without becoming a 24-hour IT Helpdesk. I first used Facebook in my teaching in 2007 and had thousands of friends (mostly students). This was a mistake and has potential to increase the risk of burnout

My policy is to strictly follow work email protocols. Despite an initial feeling of being overly bureaucratic, there are inherent benefits to bureaucracy that create space for deep work. My student feedback improved even though I felt disingenuous. For more on dealing with email, check out BIFF. It works. Try it.

Podcasting

I have blogged about my podcasting setup previously. I host my podcast on Soundcloud, share it via Stitcher and Apple Podcasts, and add the show notes to my blog.

Academic eBooks

Although I find e-reading awkward, and I have subscriptions through various university libraries, I still find Cengage Learning's Questia the best online source for academic books. The cost of the annual subscription is less than one academic textbook.

Writing

On a recent podcast, I discovered Scrivener. For the price of a few cups of coffee, I purchased an annual subscription. The app is basically a word processor, but it enables one to organise written work, including references and images, and to keep an electronic index card system. The app enables various ways to merge and add metadata to documents, which can then be exported to MS Word or other apps. Takes a bit of work to learn, but worth the effort. Used in conjunction with Zotero's referencing app, I have solved my frustration with MS Word's inadequacies.

Teaching

Teaching is an evolving practice, and I try to balance modern employment challenges with scholarly integrity. I find the following apps and sites useful.
  1. The Hemingway App. This app helps students to write concisely and in plain language. I have trialled this successfully with an op-ed, where students were required to write to an audience with a Year 9 level of education, as gauged by the app. This is similar to the in-built apps used by a variety of media websites, and teaches students to write to a particular audience.
  2. Vocabify. I have been using this app since the beta version and provided feedback before it went live. Each time I encounter a new word, I add it immediately to the app. I can then review to my rote-learnt heart's content. This is very powerful, and sits right in the browser address bar.  I encourage students to do the same.
  3. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Plato). I am a recent convert to the "no textbook" subject. Textbooks are expensive and, I find, unnecessary. My go-to website for articles that relate to most of my teaching  is Plato. The articles cover significant detail and, after using the site for a few years, I have confidence in the content. I use other sites, too, but when I want a reading for complex theories or ideologies, this is the best place to go, and it's free.

Storage

I have a legacy subscription to Google Drive. 100GB of data for $2.49 per month. The only disadvantage is that it is inaccessible in mainland China. The new plans are significantly more expensive on a monthly basis. 

Keeping it all together

The biggest challenge is to keep track of all my subscriptions. After reading The Barefoot Investor, I subscribe to LastPass. With one master password and multi-factor authentication, I can randomly generate passwords, test my security level and whether my email accounts have been compromised, and generally have my online security house in order. Worth every cent.

I have developed the above approaches over many years, mostly through trial and error. But my system works well and I hope this proves useful for others.