College is a time for profound desires, and hopefully, a steadily growing capacity to discipline and mold those desires. During my own time at college, I developed a deep desire for learning, but like many, my ability to do it well has come along more slowly. Are there any tips that would help ease the process for readers today? Here are some of the more clarifying insights I have gained over the years, offered from one student to another.
Considered as an act, study is close, focused, undistracted attention to some object of interest, be it a phenomenon, problem, person, or text. We can acquire knowledge of something in passing, lazily, by other means, but the deepest, most precious knowledge comes through study.
Good students make it a regular part of their lives by means of the virtue of studiousness, that is, a habit of attending well to the most important objects of knowledge. Traditionally, studiousness falls under the umbrella of the cardinal virtue of temperance, which concerns the right ordering of desires. Just as it is temperate to want the right kind and amount of food, so it is temperate (studious) to want the right kinds and amount of knowledge. For example, there are limits to the amount of YouTube a studious person will take in, while there might be fewer limits on the attention she gives to Plato. To know your limits is to know what is good for you, and thus what will (in the long run) make you a happier, more fulfilled person.
Attention is a finite resource: you have only so much to spend. It is common to imagine that one can flit around from this to that to the other thing, then finally buckle down to do some work. Neurologically, however, it is not so simple. The fact is, everything you attend to within a certain timespan will stay with you throughout that time. If you pay attention to five objects within an hour, by the time you get to number 5, numbers 1 – 4 will still be with you, more or less, depending on the case.
The moral of the story is that multi-tasking, while possible and attractive, is nevertheless poisonous to study. The more you do right before studying, or worse, while studying, the less focus you will be capable of.
It almost goes without saying, therefore, that surroundings are important. Pick a quiet place, alone or with non-distracting people (that rare commodity), and clear the area of all unnecessary items. Your workspace correlates in interesting ways with your mind or soul, and it is possible to bring order to your thoughts and attention by bringing order to your desk. Get out only what is necessary and leave the rest for non-study times.
As you might be able to tell by now, it will be best to leave your phone and laptop (and perhaps your watch!) in your bag, preferably in airplane mode. Why? Because, while search tools are incredibly helpful, they also present a profound temptation to distraction, and thus the fragmentation and weakening of our attention. If you need to look something up, use an old-fashioned dictionary or another source, or, if necessary, make a surgical strike into your phone for the answer and then put it straight back into your bag.
Does your work raise interesting questions, remind you of a necessary email, or make you want to buy something (e.g. a poisoned rapier) on Amazon? Curious about Facebook or Twitter? Write it down and do it later, in a time set aside for shallow activities. Thinking of listening to music? In some cases, this can help a person get into the zone, but if you find the song drawing away your focus, then kill it dead: reduce the mental clutter as much as you possibly can, and save the best of your attention for the deep work of study.
It is important to build predictable, stable study time into your schedule. If you are erratic, your mind and capacity for study will be also. Your schedule reflects your way of life and thus stands as an embodied indication of what is important to you; study deserves a privileged place in it.
Is reading hard for you? Does focus present serious challenges? Welcome to the human race: we don’t emerge from gestation as readers or non-readers, focusers or non-focusers. These things become more and more possible for us, and feel more and more natural, as we build up the habit of doing them. It will be difficult at first, even painful, but you will grow into it over time, and much happier (as well as much more efficient) for it.
A final tip: set up some kind of ritual to mark the beginning of a study period. Clean the desk, or say a prayer, or put on your study scarf — something to signal to yourself (and others, if necessary) that you are leaving the shallows and putting out into the deep.
The best students set aside time for reviewing what they have learned over the course of the week, the month, the semester, etc. How to do this? By far the most profitable way is to assume the role of teacher yourself, and re-present the material in your own words, in a way that would be clear to others. If you are able to teach the course at the end of the term, you have truly studied the material and made it your own.
Many of these principles can be found in Plato, Aristotle, and the subsequent tradition, but one recent book on intellectual discipline, Cal Newport’s “Deep Work,” has helped me think the matter through within our present context. It is always easier to talk about studying than to do it, but I hope my reformulation of some old wisdom will help us all begin the semester well and take up the loving struggle once again.
Dwight Lindley is an associate professor of English at Hillsdale College.