Reading, Writing, and Relaxation (They Can Go Together, I Promise)

When brainstorming ideas with the rest of the blog crew this week, we were discussing libraries and using academic resources.  I made a joking comment that you could, hypothetically that is, actually get a book out for pleasure reading.  The crew laughed and made comments about all the spare time they don’t have, but it got me thinking.

As a humanities student I spend about 90% of my time reading and writing.  While that’s allowed me to develop great skills, it also takes away the pleasure and novelty of those two activities.  It turns something that provides most people (non-students at least) relaxation and comfort, into a chore or a cause of stress.

So over my last two years here at university, I’ve mad a conscious effort to not let this be the case.  I’ve continued to find time to read and write recreationally. 

Picture of two adorable grey tabby kittens leaning their heads against one another posing on top of  large open textbooks

How could this NOT make you want to read?!

Everyone knows that reading has benefits.  Not only does it keep your mind active, but reading expands your knowledge in a natural way.  Even reading works of fiction educates you in certain subjects, or at the very least helps to inspire your creativity.

For this reason, I read every night before I go to bed.  Even if it’s just a few pages, reading a magazine or a book is one of the sure-fire ways to relax my mind and help me fall asleep.  I would have just been spending that time scrolling through instagram or tumblr anyway, and the added bonus of not being on a LCD screen means that I’m also giving my eyes a break before bed.

Picture of book that reads "The Bang Bang club by Greg Marinovich" laid out on a bed spread with a pair of reading glasses on top.

The book I’m currently reading/loving – The Bang Bang Club by Greg Marinovich. I picked up this gem used at the U of T Bookstore!

Many of the U of Libraries on campus carry fiction books, or like at the Laidlaw Library, feature a “new and noteworthy” section of books you may interested in reading for pleasure.  I also find it fun to scour through the College book sales or the U of T bookstore to see what catches my eye.

A selection of magazines stacked on top of one another. Titles include various publications such as vanity fair, vogue, and fashion magazine.

Reading magazines (even fashion magazines) is better for you that taking that last minute scroll through Instagram before bed!

While reading before bed has become a natural part of my routine, incorporating creative writing has definitely been a struggle.  This year, I’ve found two solutions that seem to be working pretty well:

Firstly, I keep a journal and pen next to my bed at all times.  I don’t give myself a schedule or force myself to write in it every night, but I do keep it there for any times I feel inspired.  Sometimes I just write a journal entry about my day, sometimes I write a poem, or other times just a lyric or phrase that’s been stuck in my head.

Picture of two paperback journals stacked on top of each other. They're sitting on a wooden dresser next to a white bed with a bedside lamp shining of them.

My trusty bedside journal and inspiration/work book! I keep it nearby at all times just in case inspiration hits!

It’s amazingly cathartic to write in a journal and realize all of the little things that my mind has been holding onto throughout the day.  Often, I’m surprised by what comes out and how relieved I am to have it on paper.

The other form of creative writing that I do is letter writing.  Every month or so I write a letter to my grandmas letting them know what’s been going on in my life lately, how I’m feeling, and what I’m looking forward to in the next couple of weeks.  My grandmas love receiving them, and love being able to write back.

Picture of hand-written notes next to envelopes and a package of Canadian stamps

For selfish-reasons it also helps me to put my life into perspective.  It forces me to look back at everything I’ve done in the month, good and bad, and decide what the highlights are.  Even better is it forces me to look into the future and prioritize what I need to get done.

Overall, continuing to read and write for pleasure has made reading and writing for school feel like less of a chore. It’s also expanded my vocabulary and now I feel more comfortable participating in conversations, because I feel like I know a little bit about a lot of different subjects.  But mostly, reading and writing has helped me to disconnect from technology and the world around me and create time for myself.

Staying Productive Over the Holidays

They say that what really defeated Hannibal Barca in his war against ancient Rome was the winter he spent at Capua. His soldiers became soft. They ate and drank and slept and relaxed, and when spring came around they were unfit for the tough demands of soldiering. I think you know where this is going . . . 

The Holidays are upon us! Well, soon. And over our nearly month-long break, it is tempting, tempting, tempting to throw away all cares and concerns and succumb to complete mental and physical abandon. OOH YES!!

BUT doing so tends to make returning from the Holidays much more arduous. Luckily, there is a beautiful word and a wonderful idea that relates to this exact predicament:


A healthy balance between relaxation and reasonable productivity is exactly what the Holidays call for.  Here’s what I do:

Sleep . . . in.

I sprawl in bed throughout the morning. I need the rest. But I always get up before noon. It’s a terrible crime to sleep in past noon. Everybody knows that!

Eat . . . what I want.

I eat only my favourite foods. And I eat a lot of them. My favourite foods provide the best nutrients because my body likes them so much, and I need to replenish my fluids. All I eat over the Holidays is shrimp and asparagus. Warning: This rule could make you hate all your favourite foods.

Read a book . . . that I enjoy.

That’s easy because I find every book enjoyable. Reading helps keep my brain active, but not too active. I try my best to read a book that has a higher percentage of words than pictures. Pictures books are not books, their called magazines.

Talk to someone . . . about nothing.

I try my best to avoid talking about anything over the Holidays. I like to clear my brain. But it’s hard. Conversations are so easily started, and once they get going it’s hard to walk away. The best way to talk about nothing is to eat a lot of your favourite food!

Sleep . . . more.

Once I’ve done all the other stuff, especially after I’ve eaten some of my favourite food, I find it helpful to go back to sleep. Sleep offers priceless restorative powers for both your body and your mind. In fact, most doctors say we should probably sleep at least once every day.

And if I feel like it . . . sometimes . . . I review my old study notes. But I don’t really have to explain the merit of that one. You’re a university student. You get it.


Have a great break, U of T!

- Stephen

Why You’re Not Too Cool to Read

My answer to the classic question, “What three things would you take to a deserted island?” has unfailingly remained the same all my life – books. I started reading independently at a very early age (shortly after I turned two) and spent a lot of my nights throughout my childhood sneakily reading under the covers with a flashlight when it was way past my bedtime (probably the primary causes for my appalling eyesight today). When it came to turning the final page of my novel, I felt a little lonelier – as if I had just lost a friend, or as if the lifetime of bravery and heroism I had lived vicariously through its pages had come to an abrupt end.

Accurate depiction of me in my childhood (and occasionally, me now). Original GIF by:

Accurate depiction of me in my childhood (and occasionally, me now).
Original GIF by:

Coming to college, however, changed a lot of my reading habits for the worse. I turned in fantasy and chick-lit (in my defense, very well-written chick-lit) for my Alberts’ Molecular Biology of the Cell textbook, that infamous red book beknownst to Life Sci students. I’ve had to read the Iliad in under two weeks (read: I crammed a lot of SparkNotes into two nights). Reading became a chore, more or less, and I found myself developing a mild phobia towards any body of text longer than an inch.

A lot of you fellow book lovers out there might find the same occurring to you (unless, of course, you adored books so much you chose to pursue a career out of reading them – I’m looking at you, English majors). Those of you rolling your eyes at our emotional ties towards books – you’re not any better than us. A study performed at Carnegie Mellon actually shows that the volume of white matter in brains actually increased after just six months of daily reading activity. For you non-Neuroscience students, white matter is a vital tissue that affects how your brain learns and coordinates new information. Additionally, being well-read is usually a good gauge on how well you can understand the material you’re learning and how accurately you can interpret information. This goes a long way in your academic and professional career – and subsequently, helps lot with understanding the readings you do for class. That’s why exams such as the MCATs, which are predominantly science-based, contain a Verbal Section as well to solely test your reading comprehension skills.

How else do you think Hermione became the brightest witch of her age? Original GIF by:

How else do you think Hermione became the brightest witch of her age?
Original GIF by:

I’ve tried fitting in leisurely reading more and more these days. Instead of reading every article/GIF-list on BuzzFeed before sleeping, I try getting cozy with a book instead. Pro-tip: If you have trouble sleeping at night, this will actually benefit you – melatonin signaling, the hormone in your body that makes you sleepy, is deactivated by the light in your LED/AMOLED screens. The bonus is now you can fall asleep much earlier and still dream of being khaleesi, and planning your next tactical move (I’ve been trying to keep up with George R.R. Martin’s actual novels instead of just the show). Also, whenever I’m studying at a library on campus and feel like stretching my legs, I find myself wandering the stacks and I’ll always manage to find a book or two that catches my eye. Have you SEEN how many books there are at Robarts, let alone at the other 30+ libraries on campus?! It’s ridiculous. (Fun fact: We have the 3rd largest library system in North America, trailing behind only Harvard and Yale.) Check out this list of UofT libraries to find a subject area and read to your heart’s content.

Or in this case, your T-Card?

Put down your smartphone. Pick up a book.

I’M GOING TO DISNEY WORLD…actually I should probably study instead.

When your eyeballs feel like they are about to dry up into prunes, and your legs are achy, and your wrists hurt, and you’ve finally finished that last paper of the term you should reward yourself. What do I do? Go to Disneyworld? No, I head to the local stationary store and purchase ten to twelve packs of index cards.

I’m serious. As my classmates bound joyfully out of these last lectures of the term, I wonder if they’ve forgotten that it ain’t over yet. While some of my friends possess the ability to deflate and distress after the last lecture of the term, I cannot. Not until the last period is dotted on the last essay of the last exam I write this term will I be able to relax.

When classes are finished, I start exam prep. I am militant about this process. I kind of scare myself sometimes. I have devised a method where all subjects can be studied via flashcards. I divide content into themes, timelines, places, etc. Whatever I think will help me to best write a frantic paper in 45 minutes.

I’ve never shared this information with anyone before…don’t tease me. It’s just how I effectively chunk course content. It might not work for everyone, but it’s the only way I study.

The process of making the flashcards is long and arduous.  Often times I find that by the time I’ve finished the process, I’ve already memorized a good portion of the content. For me, the process of rewording and condensing notes actually lodges the info into my memory. It’s not deliberate, it just happens. I can’t type the information out on one of those fancy flash card maker programs. I can’t remember anything I type.

I have not data to back up this claim, but I remember reading somewhere that the messier your writing is the easier it is to remember something you’ve read. I have horrible penmanship. It’s a hybrid of printing, cursive, and my own invented short hand. It is indecipherable by most others and often I have trouble figuring out what my notes say. When I force myself to go through all my messy notes and create these beautiful little flashcards in neat handwriting, some form of memorization takes place.

Once I have all my flashcards finished for a class, I start memorizing them, removing the ones I memorize as I go along. Usually within a few hours,  I can get through a stack of 100-150 cards. I do this for a few days leading up to the exam.  I only spend twenty minutes or so at a time going through the cards…so I don’t start to gap out!

There’s lots of different types of index cards out there! My enthusiasm about this matter depresses me in some way. Regardless, there are so many options. Last April I found spiral bound index cards. One word people, REVOUTIONARY! No more lost cards, no more cards out of sequence (this matters to me for studying).  My card of choice this exam period, the Cadillac of index cards, the spiral bound double sided lined…sweet.

Now when I walk into the exam venue and pull out my mountain of flashcards, most people look at me as if I am a deranged over achiever. Let me assure you I am not.

Here’s the thing: this method works for me. It’s a hellish process, but it gives me consistently good results.  Find your own method or try mine, I don’t mind. The point is that you need a plan. Mine is insane, but it’s mine. Yours might be reading through notes, rewriting notes, meeting in a study group. I think the worst thing you can do when preparing for an exam is nothing.



Don’t fear the Procrastinator

Everyone does it, and I know for a fact that you, as a student, do it all the time. You procrastinate!

The first step to combating procrastination is to admit that you’re guilty of doing it, and also to realize that succumbing to it is inevitable. The second step is to find a solution. Easier said than done, right? For years, I tried to stave off my bad habits with remedies that I’ve found online, in magazines, self-help books, and of course, the customary lessons from my teachers and parents.

I started putting post-it notes all over my room, I tried keeping an agenda of all of my activities and I took breaks often when I was working and rewarded myself when I did well. I even deactivated Facebook (albeit briefly). But to be frank, most of these “solutions” felt much like putting a band-aid on a broken leg. Yes, they were all terrific habits to develop, but none of them were providing a real solution to the fact that I simply didn’t want to do the things that I didn’t want to do. Procrastination is not about forgetting to do things; it’s about replacing the seemingly boring tasks with ones that we find more enjoyable. This was my problem.

Eventually, I stopped looking at procrastination as the enemy, and embraced it as a natural habit that most fun-loving members of society take part in, no matter how bad it is for us. So I played with this idea of welcoming procrastination, and instead of trying to cut it out of my life, I tried to find ways to fit it in. I took notes of my habits while I did things that I didn’t necessarily enjoy doing, and what I quickly found out was that it wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to do something, but that I didn’t enjoy doing singular tasks for very long periods of time.

This should have come as no surprise to me, for two reasons. I’m a member of the many Y-genners who think a YouTube video longer than three minutes is too much of a commitment. And two, as I’d later discover, the average human being begins to absorb less information after a period of focus longer than 45 minutes to an hour. No wonder my five hour late night crams weren’t working out.

But then the problem became exacerbated when I was still having trouble focusing on one task for even an hour at a time. I could no longer blame the shortcomings of the human brain. Even after fifteen or twenty minutes, I’d find ways to procrastinate. I needed a solution to my solution.

So, I began making lists of things I had to do in order of priority and separated them between lengthy, more demanding tasks — class readings, assignments, etc. — and shorter, easier ones — responding to emails, exercising, making dinner, paying rent. All things that I needed to do, but all requiring varied levels of effort, focus and time.

What I’d then do was start at the top of the list with a high priority item and start working on it. If after 20 minutes, I found myself drifting, I’d stop what I was doing and move down the list, taking on a shorter, less intense task, and then once I was finished I’d get back to what I was doing before. What I soon discovered was that employing this tactic, not only would I no longer get frustrated with myself for failing to concentrate, but I was also able to work consistently for longer periods of time, and I was truly being more productive. By mixing activities up in a more natural way instead of say, studying for three hours and then running personal errands for another two hours, I was able to keep myself occupied and not get bored doing any one thing for too long.

The trick was to procrastinate by doing other things that I needed to do, and ultimately, get more done! I’d conquered procrastination with procrastination. It’s important to note though, that catching up on the latest episode of How I Met Your Mother or checking your Facebook status is not something that you need to do!

Of course, like every piece of advice, this is a bit autobiographical, and what works for me, may not necessarily work for you. But who knows, we may be more alike than you think.

In any case, here’s a fun video about procrastination to distract you from doing something else that you probably should be doing. Enjoy!

Until next time,

~ Chad

Looking for Allies In all the Right Places

Hello to all the lifeatuoft readers.  I’m Desiree, and I will be blogging about a wide variety of student experiences on campus.  As I walked to class the other day, passing by the faces of you, my fellow students, I wondered how I would write a blog that could identify with all of you. I realized that there is a common
thread that exists in all of us, the desire to see yourself in others, and I hope this is what I will accomplish in my posts. My aim is that through my writing and whimsy I can make you laugh, smile and perhaps
even discover things about yourself you didn’t already know.  Just maybe, you will see me as an ally and be inspired to seek others during your time at U of T.

We often see school as the unconquerable, the great and powerful Oz who can decide our fate, whilst we eagerly tap our ruby red slippers (or Uggs) to solve our academic problems, from a lack of time management skills to exam anxiety. But, lest we forget the tin  man, scarecrow and lion, who exist among us, masked, as the supporters we need to succeed?

Allies exist among us, truly.  But, unlike Dorothy, we need to track them ourselves, because they aren’t going to pop up when we need them most.  Students, myself included, experience a range of academic issues.  I not too keenly recall a time in my undergraduate degree when I needed allies in the form of academic supporters to help me overcome my writing problems as an English student.

Being shy was certainly a hindrance to me in asking for help.  Many students face this, or might think that asking for help is a sign of weakness, but it is important to understand, as I did, that the academic supporters aren’t here to judge you, but to help you with learning and in geting the grades you want.  For example, one big issue I faced in studying English was how to communicate my ideas clearly.  While this may seem like a simple task, it was quite difficult for me to get my point across in my papers.  Thus, I began my journey on the yellow brick road to A’s at the Academic Success Centre.

The ASC, just like the lion of Oz, was intimidating at first, but turned out to be a welcoming environment.  It was here that I discovered that my writing issues were ones that a lot of students experience, and that it could be solved with practice. The learning skills counsellors taught me how to identify blunders in my writing, and how to overcome them. For example, reading sentences aloud to listen for grammatical or syntax errors.  Although it sounds simple, it truly helps!

But, the ASC is not the only hidden academic ally on campus.  Unbeknownst to me up until a few years ago were the Writing Centres that each of our colleges have, like the tin man buried in the forest, invisible to the naked eye.  The writing staff are all experienced and know what your professors want, which is very reassuring because half the time I don’t even know what they want. (Sigh)

So, next time you’re walking around campus feeling that there’s no place like home, remember, you have allies.  One way of finding allies, or even garnering the confidence to do so, is by first researching what help is out there, like through your college website, or even by asking other students.  So many people I’ve spoken with didn’t know either of the ASC or the college writing centres, and after I told them they immediately sought them out.  So, go ahead, find the allies that you need to succeed.  You might just be surprised at the outcome.



I hope everyone enjoyed their holiday! I did. The best thing about the break was that I finally had some spare time to read for pleasure. I love reading. I read all genres, whatever the book – as long as it has a few believable characters, I’m along for the ride. I usually have a few books waiting on the bench for their turn to become my latest mental feast. But this break I found myself without any new reading material.

The only book store I have been to since September is the U of T Bookstore. Which is very sad, but nevertheless was necessary to get through the term. To my delight on this holiday break, I had a great reason to go book shopping!

I have a few favourite bookstores in the downtown core but, I thought it would be great to review some of the independent book stores near campus. I tend to lean towards used bookstores only because they are cheaper, but there are some good new book stores near campus too.

I started out on the west side of campus which is quite close to my very favourite bookstore ever, Seekers. Seekers is located at 509 Bloor Street W, between Bathurst and Spadina underneath Kilgour’s restaurant. Seekers reeks of incense and it is divine. I have books from Seekers that I purchased years ago that still emit the lovely aroma of Nag Champa incense. Apart from the lovely stinkiness that is Seekers, they also have a really great selection of used fiction and non-fiction books. They are open seven days a week from noon till midnight, which is perfect if you are wandering down Bloor at night with nothing in particular to do. You can sit and read in this store relatively unbothered for hours.

The Bob Miller Book Room is a really unique independent book store that stocks a wide range of humanities and social sciences books. You may have purchased a textbook from this store for an art or history course. They stock a lot of interesting non-fiction. They are an academic bookstore yet they carry an intersting range of material that you may want to read for pleasure. The store has the feel of a library and is very quiet. Their specialty is art, history, and music. They are located on Bloor near bay at 180 Bloor Street West in the Lower Concourse. They are really easy to miss, so keep your eyes peeled.

Right near Campus on Spadina is Ten Edition Books.This an eclectic little book store filled with not only books but memorablilia. Rooting around this store is a pleasure for any bibliophile. They are located a hop skip and a jump from campus at 698 Spadina Ave. just north of Sussex.

If you are a woman, or a fan of women, you may enjoy The Toronto Women’s Book Store, located at 73 Harbord St. This store specializes in books that deal with anti-oppression, politics and feminism. A visit to this store may rekindle your inner feminist!

If you happen to get a chance to browse for new reading material try out these independent book stores. If you love reading, going to these great little book stores is like going on a treasure hunt! I may just be an enormous geek, but I think this is a great way to spend a lazy Saturday.

Happy New Year!

It’s New Year’s, time for resolutions!

Happy 2011, dear readers! Hope you all had a wonderful holiday filled with fun and food and friends and family.

We all know what most people make during this time of year: the New Year’s Resolution. It’s the time of year where gyms see a marked increase in subscription purchases, and we vow to change our lives and do this and do that.

But we all also know that most people don’t achieve their New Year’s Resolution(s); in fact, most have already forgotten by the end of January!

(New Year’s Resolution postcard from 1901, United States)

So how do we keep the resolution(s) we make?

I remember back in high school guidance class, we were required to read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens, by Sean Covey. Like the rest of my class, I scoffed at the book, but after the end of the semester, it was the one textbook I kept, and to this day it’s still on my bookshelf. The one thing that I remembered from the book was about goals and habits, and it said that the success of goals depends on the formation of habits.

Forming habits is easier said than done of course; after all, you’re trying to change the way you’re used to doing things! I’ve made many goals (if you can believe it, everybody was required to goal-set at the beginning of each semester and share it with our homeroom teacher in my highschool) and looking back, I realize that the ones that were successful were the ones where I’ve learned to form new habits. Funny fact: setting goals has now become a personal habit because I was forced to do it regularly since grade 9!

I’ve found that there are several things that help me to keep my goals and form new habits, and I thought I’d share them with you. It’s not the only be-all and end-all of goal-setting of course, but it’s what I’ve found to work best for me.

1) Costs/Benefits

I think this is the most important thing to do – to know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. It’s easy enough to say “I want a better GPA!” but it’s much harder to realize that this becomes a priority commitment. This may mean having less time to go out, not doing other things you want to, studying longer hours, etc., but having a better GPA means getting into the grad school you want and the feeling of satisfaction at having done your best.

Thinking through what my goals cost me have allowed me to be realistic about what needs to be done to achieve it, and so, for example, when I have to turn down a party because I need to study, I’m already mentally ready to make the decision because I’ve prepared for it. This makes me go, “oh yeah, I need to study because getting into grad school is important to me”, instead of, “ARGH, THIS SUCKS. I HATE SCHOOL. WHY. WHYYYYY.”

(or well, it minimizes the latter thought to a faint whisper instead of the loud roar that it would have been, heh.)

2) Breaking it down

If you want to eat a pizza, you’ve first got to slice it up! Same with goals. “Getting a better GPA” is huge. I’ve found that dividing a goal into manageable chunks makes the goal less lofty-feeling and scary, and easier to accomplish. By being more specific, small goals also conveniently turn into action steps, liking plotting a route on a map to your final destination.

3) One at a time

This one I’m constantly guilty of. I feel like there are so many things I want to do that I try to do a bajillion things at once. But like there are psych studies showing that multi-tasking actually slows you down, so does trying to realize more than one goal at a time. As I’ve said, small goals are like action steps, and action steps turn into daily habits. I give myself a week deadline for each habit, and re-evaluate the habit at the beginning of the next week.

For example, my constant goal is to “be healthier!” Rather than trying to change my diet, exercise and everything else at once, I started with switching from drinking juice and pop to water and tea for a week. In the beginning of the second week, I realized that reaching for the tap has become second nature, so I started the next action step, which is to walk instead of taking the streetcar every day.

4) Don’t give up

Things don’t always go as you plan, and I realized that it’s important not to beat yourself over it. Exercising regularly and keeping up readings are two big ones that I fail at, and I try to not think negatively by looking ahead. I let myself mope for a few minutes, and then take a deep breath and analyze why I failed.

Last semester, I tried to keep up with my readings by reading during my commute. That was an epic fail, and I realized that there were several reasons. Sleeping instead of reading because I’m so tired was a big one, but also little ones, like the friggin’ textbook being a giant brick that’s hard to hold if I have to stand the entire ride long. By analyzing what went wrong, I can revise my action steps and add new ones. This semester, I’m trying to get on the train a tad earlier than normal to skip rush hour so that I know I can get a seat.

5) Just do it

I love Nike’s motto. Just do it. Just go, go, go. Don’t give yourself excuses to not do what you want. That’s what I tell myself when I need to kick myself into action: “C’MON. GOOO. STOP MAKING EXCUSES! YOU CAN DO ITTTTTT!”

Why yes, I yell at myself in all-caps.

Share with me your new year’s resolutions, dear readers! How do you keep your goals? What do you do to accomplish it? Tell me, I’d love to learn your tricks!

- Cynthia

Fly the coop, it’s winter break!

When I was 10 years old I had two turkeys. I named them Fred and Ethel because I was mildly obsessed with “I Love Lucy” that year. That and they kind of looked like Fred and Ethel. I used to run to their pen after getting off the school bus and study geography sitting on top of their feeder. They would peck me to say hi. It hurt, but I understood that it was a friendly hello.

We ate Fred and Ethel at Christmas that year.

I was traumatized. But I knew it was coming. I grew up on a farm and the only animals that weren’t bound for a plate were my dog and cat. Since that fateful day, every time I see a freeze-packed turkey I can’t help but cringe. I am not opposed to eating turkey. I am just opposed to eating pets.

So as the holiday season approaches, along with the winter break, I once again must remember my beloved, tasty turkeys. I only mention this painful memory because for me December and turkey go hand in hand. Just as December and exams go hand in hand.

The excitement of an upcoming break is overshadowed by ever encroaching exams. As I see more turkeys in the stores I know that the break is fast approaching and soon exams will be done. But what happens once exams are over and I have nothing to read or memorize?

I have had my school brain on for the past four months and I am very nervous that getting back into the groove after break will prove problematic. I have been trying to think of ways I can exercise my study skills over the break.

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
1. Write a critical summary of my holiday shopping plan
2. Buy all my texts for next term early and read them all on break…ya right.
3. Construct a diorama of Henry VIII’s Christmas court for extra credit in my mediaeval history course.
4. Write an essay on the roots of western holidays… just for practise.
5. Choose the most obscure research topic imaginable and then attempt to find articles about it on scholar’s portal (I’m thinking, “The hobbies of Genghis Khan’s son’s fifth wife’s sister” or perhaps “Literature of the Ancient Inca”).

I could just enjoy my break and let my brain go into hibernation for a few weeks. But I fear that the result will be a slow, lumbering emergence of thoughts in the New Year. Perhaps it will be enough to try to keep my schedule at the same pace as it is now. If I busy myself enough then I may be able to trick my brain into thinking it’s studying. I’ll let you know how it goes. Enjoy your break and do try to read at least one page a day of anything, do a crossword, or try to add something without using a calculator. It will help to keep your brain sharp and might make the transition back to school in the New Year a little less painful.

Enjoy your break!


Photo courtesy of under creative commons licence.

Assigned Readings at U of T: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Up to last week, I believed that the r’aison d’être behind studying English is good communication. Boy, was I proved wrong: for a fourth year seminar, I was assigned an article, Animal Nomenclature: Facing Other Animals, by Richard Nash, English academic extraordinaire

First sentence: 


“In Emmanuel Levians’ s “The Name of a Dog,” an essay that has justly received much critical attention in animal studies, “Bobby” is heroic because his “speech” conferred a recognition of humanity on those whom the deprivation of speech had rendered vulnerable; but the very account that valorizes that behavior will grant it heroic status only while policing the species border that figures non-human speech as silence.”


Me: “What? Maybe it will make more sense the second time around.” 


“Nope. It makes no sense. Perhaps the next sentence will be better.” 


“This is the sentimental logic of the pet- those special “domesticated” animals who function to confer upon us a greater humanity by actions and articulations that simultaneously transcend their “animal” status and accept the logic of domination and domestication in which such transcendence is recontained.”


Me: “Oh no. How long is this paper?” These were not really sentences at all, but abominations moonlighting as coherent thought. The article took me forever to read, mostly because I made the foolish mistake of trying to understand it. Between the first and last sentences, my initial head-scratching turned into cold indignation, and finally into calm fury. A few mental points on writing and reading:

a) Next time I see Nash on a reading list, I’ll buy a bottle of tequila to help me with the translation. 

b) Simple wording and grammar might be lowly, but they make plain old-fashioned sense. Just because you have a Ph.D. doesn’t mean you’ll succeed in trying to make yourself sound intelligent by making up words ( “recontained?”) and using convoluted sentence structure. The words are still made up and the sentences still make no sense, Ph.D. or not. 

c) Trying to squish three papers into one is not okay. 

d) If you can say it in a paragraph, you should stick to a paragraph.

There are some things in a paper that I simply cannot accept. I am not a die-hard student who believes that you should only focus on big “important” subjects, that topics like animal nomenclature are too superfluous to research – but if you’re going to write a paper, make it intelligible. I thought that was the point. The article was so frustrating that it got me thinking about the good, the bad, (and the ugly) readings that I’ve been assigned over my undergraduate career, and what made them good, bad, or ugly:

The Good:
1) Thomas of Monmouth: Detector of Ritual Murder by Gavin L. Langmuir: 

Murder mystery and academic paper? Be still, my beating heart. Here’s the story of the twelfth-century murder of William, a boy from Norwich last reported talking to an outcast, found dead in the woods near his home. A brief travel through time allows the reader to explore the murder, plus be privy to a persuasive argument based on the emergence and development of anti-semitism and anti-Judaism in medieval England, while casting light upon teleological methodologies prevalent in other historical works.

2) Candide, Voltaire. 

It’s three hundred years old, includes a ruthless critique of human civilizations, is full of the absurd and pitiful, yet still made me laugh. The book is accessible (no long-winded words) and human (i.e written by a human for other humans). I read it three times.

3) Safe in the Hands of Mother Suburbia: Home and Community, 1950-1965, by Doug Owram:

I could envision the world changing while reading this article: the emergence of the suburb, the privatization of public space, the ascent of the automobile as purported conduit to freedom and green space. Plus it wasn’t written by an automaton whose internal spell-check is on the fritz.

The Bad:
Isabel Robinet: Growth of a Religion.

A cosmological history of Taoism from the third century B.C.E to around 1500. If I wrote a paper in which I only included hand-picked evidence that supported nothing but my own arguments (and openly admitted to doing so), thus painting a nebulous impression of any kind of historical reality, I would not ask people to take me seriously. I would not ask to get published. And I certainly would not go on for 300 pages.

The big lesson I learned from this one: if you’re asked to read it, find a few reviews online, read them instead, and go, be content doing anything (literally anything), knowing that you’re not spending your time reading this. 

The Ugly:
Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth.

I don’t know where to start with this one. 976 pages of dime novel hell, and not only did I have to read it all, but also re-read it in order to write a stinking paper on how inaccurate it was. Of all the things one could have students read, it had to be this book? Twice? That’s 1952 pages! That’s the equivalent to a few classic novels, even a saga. I could have finished Don Quixote! Instead I was stuck with lurid love scenes, extreme violence, and a sensational portrayal of life in medieval England. The only redeeming quality about this book is that it took absolutely no brain power to get through it, and so went as quickly as 976 pages of smut will allow. 


And in the interests of proper form, below are listed my references, à la history paper style:


Follett, Ken. The Pillars of the Earth. New York, 1989.

Langmuir, Gavin I. Thomas of Monmouth: Detector of Ritual Murder. Speculum, Vol. 59, (October, 1984), pp. 820-46.

Nash, Richard. Animal Nomenclature: Facing Other AnimalsHumans and other animals in eighteenth century British culture: representation, hybridity, and ethics. Frank Pameri, ed. (2006), pp. 101-118.

Owram, Doug. Safe in the Hands of Mother Suburbia: Home and Community, 1950-1965. Born at the Right Time: A History of the Baby Boom Generation. Toronto, 1996, pp. 54-83. 

Robinet, Isabelle. Taoism: Growth of a Religion. Phyllis Brooks, tr. Stanford, 1997.

Voltaire. Candide. Burton Raffel, tr. New Haven, 2005.



- Mary