student life

Why Read Anything

Specialization is for insects.

As a California girl, I love avocadoes. Throw them on anything and I’m happy. Avocado toast can be crafted in many different ways, and all in under ten minutes. It’s the perfect food.

“Avocadoes are expensive,” my naysayer friend complained.

Hm. How much is that bag of chips you’re snacking on? How many of those do you get per week? Isn’t that the third time you’ve cheated on a fast food “meal” this month? We’re not even halfway into July yet . . .

I don’t say that, of course. I’ve learned to keep my strongest opinions – religious, political, gustatory, or otherwise – to myself, unless I’m in among friends of an unusual bond and character.

I think we consume trash and don’t think we can afford the good stuff. The ancient Israelites were told to keep a flame burning at all times, tending to it morning and evening so that it would never go out. This, like many other Pentateuchal traditions, tends to be reinterpreted as a spiritual truth by modern Christians. To clarify, my above comment on consuming trash isn’t restricted to literal food.

I love to read. Reading is a spiritual practice, especially when coupled with prayer, meditation, and communal dialogue. It’s a means of advancing my knowledge of my own field of work – namely, biology – and “literature reviews” are a thing I am constantly edified to do (even though I look around me and see few others following that advice). It also keeps my world open; I am not confined to beakers and biohazard bins. I enter worlds daily across time and space: the slums of Victorian England, the magic forests of ancient India, the gardens of Medieval Italy, the gulags of Soviet Russia. Give me Romeo and Juliet and I’ll escape into passion both romantic and tribal. Give me a contemporary theological treatise and I’ll dwell on the beauty of Yahweh.

“I don’t have time to read.” My naysayer friend is now caricatured.

Really? How many hours did you spend on Instagram this morning? All those minutes stolen on Tik Tok added up throughout your workday – to what, exactly?

We are consuming trash by the minute and have no time for soulish foods.

On the other end of the spectrum there are the folks more like me. I am a grad student. Shouldn’t I be spending every waking moment on graduate things? I cannot count how many times I’ve had to talk myself out of that mindset. Perhaps I’m like this. Or perhaps it’s innate in the system.

Some of the PI’s around here are getting really into mentorship compacts and IDPs. A particularly amusing IDP example had a “professional” section looking towards the future and an “academic” section looking at current goals, each peppered with plenty of specific questions. The last section was “mental health.” It had a single question: “Describe your state of mental health.”

No, no – that won’t do. You can’t just say that, do nothing, and pretend you’ve fixed anything.

If you don’t care, fine. Don’t sit here and pretend you do just to get some kind of sociocultural brownie points. It’s not like I hold you accountable for my own well-being anyway.

If it were up to me, I’d add the following specific questions to the third section of that IDP:

  1. What’s the average number of hours you are able to sleep every night?
  2. How frequently do you experience any of the following symptoms of stress or anxiety? insomnia, unexplained rashes, nausea, shakiness, lack of appetite, (what am I missing?)
  3. In the past (week/month/year), have you had enough time to engage in the level of physical activity that is ideal for you?
  4. In the past (week/month/year), how often have you had to “cheat meal” because you didn’t have enough time to prepare nutritious meals for yourself?
  5. Do you have time to yourself every day, or at least every week?
  6. How often do you experience guilt when you are not working?
  7. (If applicable) In the past year, how often has your cycle been impacted by stress?

Some of these may be too personal to be able to ask in a professional environment. Maybe that’s kind of the point? But we are getting too off topic. Yes, I read because it’s a hobby outside of work and makes me happy. No, I shouldn’t feel guilty when I read on my lunch break or after work. Reading is an important part of my mental health maintenance, if that’s what we’re calling that nowadays.

But life should be richer than work, rest, repeat. I recall the only objection I took seriously about graduate school was, “You will spend the next five to seven years of your life working on a single problem.” Five to seven years. On just one thing! I haven’t spent five years of my life doing anything at this point. That’s a long time to stay interested in something.

In the end, that’s an incredibly opportunity to build breadth and specialization in something. There’s still the homeschool kid in me, however, who wants passionately to know about everything. I want my books of history and poetry and philosophy and theology. I want my lectures in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs and the geology of National Parks. I crave a few hours each week lost in flurried fingers transforming ebony and ivory into a wall of sound.

I think my life is richer because I don’t stick to just one thing. And I think I enjoy my work more when it is a facet of the prism, rather than a single pane of glass.

I idealize polymathy. I always have. And while, at times, I rue the doe-eyed naivete I can bring to my lab bench, I do allow myself to recognize how much I’ve grown there. As exciting as that can be, there needs to be more to stay appreciative of this opportunity.

Specialization is for insects. I refuse to be reduced to that.

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