An article a day

Intellectuals — including graduate students and professors — should read an article a day.

It’s a simple proposition: read an article a day. When you are done, make a quick note on what you have read in your notebook. Over time the notebook grows. And yet I honestly believe few people do this.

Reading regularly is the single most important thing a graduate student can do. We often tell our students their goal is to have an intellectual ‘project’ or ‘plan’ that they are pursuing, and I think sometimes our individualist, inward-looking, creativity-obsessed culture leads students astray: they think that a project comes from somewhere deep inside of them and the way to get at it is a long, semi-mystical period of introspection culminating in a moment of inspiration in which the words “global commodity chains and diasporic populations are considered two touchstones of contemporary globalization, and yet they are rarely considered together. In this theses I examine the emergent interactions between flows of people and objects through an analysis of illegal immigrants working in the landscaping industry and the international  trade in expensive and delicate decorative orchids” spring suddenly, unbidden, from their lips.

In fact you develop your own unique voice by immersing yourself in the work of others. Introspection is unbelievably overrated. Projects and plans come from conversations with other thinkers, not through contemplation of your own special snowflakedom. Someone really smart writes something. Your reading and note taking is your response.Yes: reading is a way of responding to someone, not listening to them. Because you are thinking about what you are reading. Doing a little everyday is how you keep your mind and career in forward motion. It should take you about an hour, and you should be able to do it on top of your normal classwork. One article a day six days a week for fourteen weeks is 84 articles. Wouldn’t you like to look back on one semester of work and realize you had read nearly 85 articles and had a big fat database recording what you thought of them?

The number one main job of graduate students is to read. You just have to a read an absolute ton of stuff. There is no substitute for reading. A ton. Of. Stuff.

Professors, sadly, can be just as bad as graduate students. We have more excuses since the vast majority of us are, let’s face it, paid to teach and teaching takes up a lot of our time. But it simply is not that hard to find time to read ONE article a day and write down your thoughts on it. In fact, doing so keeps you young and gets you back in touch with the wider world of scholarship (the “see — I’m not the only person this matters to!” feeling) and keeps your head in the researching and writing game.

An article a day. An article a day. You will become happier, feel less overwhelmed, stay on track with your research, and now more than the fella next door if you just read an article a day. An article a day — it’s all we ask.

(in fact if you want you could even read two)


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

18 thoughts on “An article a day

  1. Thanks. This is so true and such good advice. I am going to forward the link to the postgraduate students who I supervise and other postgrads in our department.

  2. A professor I know claimed also to read a book outside of his subject/discipline per day while he was training to be an anthropologist…

    What about doing this kind of reading during fieldwork? I vacillate.

  3. You wrote:

    “In fact you develop your own unique voice by immersing yourself in the work of others. Introspection is unbelievably overrated.”

    Steven Pinker in today’s NYT voices a similar point:

    “Accomplished people don’t bulk up their brains with intellectual calisthenics; they immerse themselves in their fields. Novelists read lots of novels, scientists read lots of science.”

  4. “Novelists read lots of novels, scientists read lots of science.”

    Ironic that Steven Pinker, who seems to be under the impression that refinement of the concept of linguistic relativity stopped with Whorf’s work, would write these words. Perhaps none of the work was not sufficiently scientific to warrant his time.

  5. @MTBradley

    Good point about Pinker. My post served merely to highlight the synchronic appearance of Rex and Pinker’s seemingly related points, but I neglected to mention that I agree with neither of them in this regard. Aside from the more general problems with Pinker’s arrogant positivism, I also think that various forms of introspective and intellectually calasthenic metacognition, such as certain (but not all) forms of “meditation”, can indeed have catalytic effects on one’s intellectual development.

  6. I think it would depend on the size of the article, since most graduate students already have to read dozens of articles in any given week. Perhaps, it would be more important to really take one’s time in reading assigned reading, rather than scanning articles or books.

    Also, being an anthropologist is more than just reading, so I think it’s important for students to put themselves in alien and uncomfortable social situations. Talk with people you wouldn’t normally talk to, or feel what it’s like to enter into a social network that you have no ties to. It’s these jarring and surreal and describable types of experiences that make field work for us different from most other disciplines.
    I feel bad for people that train to be anthropologists for many years for them to learn later on that the process of getting out there and doing anthropology is something that is something that comes natural to some and extremely difficult for others.

  7. “I also think that various forms of introspective and intellectually calasthenic metacognition, such as certain (but not all) forms of “meditation”, can indeed have catalytic effects on one’s intellectual development.”

    There’s actually a good deal of positivist studies that say as much. I read in one article that daily insight meditation did quite a bit more for someone than years of psychotherapy. The trans-personal psychologists talk a lot about this.

  8. In fact reading is important for students to refresh their mind and avoid brain-jam. But I am thinking about the long-term reading problem. To some reading-based subjects, students may not want to read any other article after a whole day of exhausting reading, they may just want to be relaxed and do something out of the desk and the bookshelf, and it also seems unhealthy to keep on reading and writing for a whole day. That’s why reading is important but is not neccessarily beneficial to ALL students in ALL context.

  9. The post is about work, intellectuals, and creativity. Doing something else on top of the load of required reading/ teaching can be reading an article: from another field, from another discipline, a draft of your colleague’s thesis proposal or chapter from her book manuscript etc. The idea is to engage a ‘conversation’ with another scholar, peer, or person, or more (when they are not physically present). The author of the post is also pointing to a ‘habit’ a scholar has to naturalize (reading) – interacting by exposing to others’ ideas, wonderful or not. And its counterpart: writing. Making a habit of assembling thoughts, ideas, and arguments is a disciplinary technique that makes you more productive, reflexive, and thoughtful.

  10. First, I really resist definitions of anthropology that make culture shock and the ‘exotic’ central to the discipline. For this reason I think its ludicrous for Rick to suggest that anthropologists to practice being ‘anthropological’ by bugging people they’ve never met in an attempt to experience the alien, jarring, and surreal. That said, his belief in the importance of this practice does explain a lot of his behavior in the comments section of this blog which has often seemed alien, jarring, and surreal to me. If you want to ‘practice anthropology’ get deeply involved in some aspect of life, getting to know others and spending a lot of time learning to write easily and fluently, don’t go around forcing your culture shock on others.

    I was going to write up something about the Pinker/Carr ‘debate’ but they are both so focused on ‘intelligence’ as a sign of learning, and so obsessed with the brain as the sole location for mind and knowledge that I sort of think it is not worth it. It is funny to see Carr’s argument rooted, biographically, in his experience of middle age, and to see Pinker try to find a way to discuss the social configuration of learning and technology using only his narrowly cognitive/biological idiom. Maybe I’ll get around to it someday.

  11. “For this reason I think its ludicrous for Rick to suggest that anthropologists to practice being ‘anthropological’ by bugging people they’ve never met in an attempt to experience the alien, jarring, and surreal.”

    If you interpret such things as bugging people, then you’ve either never had to do it, or it hasn’t gone well when you did. Part of the anthropological difference either academic or practicing is going to involve you talking to people for no other reason than you needing to get information or data from them. This has been something at the forefront of a large body of anthropological writing for a very long time, and to say now that it isn’t something central to the discipline to recruit people or to enter into various social networks that you weren’t a member of before a study makes no sense. If you have some personal problem with me, that’s fine, but don’t think you’re gonna reinvent what it is that we do. There’s that old joke, that the four members of a Native American family are the mother, father, child, and anthropologist.

    I fully agree with the sentiment or the essay, I just felt that other things were also good practices to keep in mind. I personally set aside time every week to learn another language, or to study things like social network analysis and multivariate statistics. The learning never stops.
    If however, you’re the type of person that pisses other people off in social situations, or are too shy to do something like visit a type of church that is very different from what you’re used to, then it’s something you should know before you graduate. It’s said that about 80% of psychology is the psychology of university students, because that’s largely who gets recruited. How much anthropological research has been done with people who anthropologists already knew before the research began? My comment is extremely pragmatic.

  12. Actually I think anthropologists should read lots of novels. I mean, yes, articles in your field too, definitely – we all know the strategy of “I’m going to teach a class on topic X because I want to get/stay current in the research on topic X” – but if all I read was anthropology I would go stark raving bonkers. And then there are the following two points:

    (1) Novels are important for us as academics because they are a salutary reminder of what good writing looks like, and of how to write so that people will want to read what you write. Yes, of course there are badly written novels out there, but it is MUCH harder to get a novel published than an article for a scholarly journal, and good novelists work on the craft of writing in a way that, let’s face it, the overwhelming majority of academics do not.

    (2) Novels are important for us as anthropologists because if we’re doing any kind of ethnographic writing, we need to think about how to tell a story about people’s lives. Now, novelists get to make stuff up and we don’t, but we share with them the imperative to compel the reader’s interest in the lives of people who are, to whatever degree, different from the reader’s own. Why should readers care? What’s in it for them to know these things about other people? For at least the past 200 years, the novel has been the most successful genre of writing at getting people to give a damn about other people that they’ve never met. So any of us presuming to write ethnography had better be paying attention to how this is done.

    And let’s be realistic, here. After a day of teaching/teaching prep/grading/committee meetings/grant writing, would you rather sit down to the latest offering from Current Anthropology or the latest offering from Michael Chabon? I know which one I’d pick, and I’d challenge anyone to say that the latter isn’t a good use of my limited reading time.

  13. No anthropologist here, but as a would-be historian in a non-historical job I aim to, though struggle to, obey this dictum anyway. This is partly because of fear of falling behind, but I do read one article or chapter every day if I can before cracking on with the admin. or whatever. It helps me feel as I’m still in academia when hanging on the outside. Not necessarily in my field, you understand, often a PDF of something interesting that someone linked to on the web that I saw, sometimes even fiction, but something. And I do find it helps keep me thinking and energised about scholarly enquiry.

  14. Novels are important for us as anthropologists because if we’re doing any kind of ethnographic writing, we need to think about how to tell a story about people’s lives.

    I reading novels to work on style is generally good advice for any discipline. A few months ago I mentioned Elmore Leonard’s ‘’Ten rules of writing’‘ on a thread here. I stand by the recommendation, but after posting the link then and rereading it did occur to me that Leonard’s advice is very verbocentric. That makes sense for a novelist because storytelling is all they do. But anthropologists have the option to avail themselves of other modalities.*

    I don’t in any way think reading more novels is anything but good for anthropologists, so long as they stay aware of the fact that they have more options in their writing than do novelists and seek out models for those options from time to time, as well.

    *But as an art history student who was a member of a seminar I took part in noted, material culture studies-related publications by cultural anthropologists rarely include adequate descriptions of the objects under discussion. Perhaps this is the seed for a later thread?

  15. While I haven’t read a novel in many years, over 10 years, both arguments seem valid. I know that anthropology destroyed my ability to write well for a general audience (when it seems normal to use words like “ontological” or “Foucaultian” to get across a basic idea, you’re in trouble). More than that, novels seem to be a good source of cultural nuance. Perhaps, reading novels from a particular population can help an ethnographer gain a better feel for the emic nature of a place. I’ve heard of this technique being used by post-modernists.
    The only issue here is that eventually one must write and nothing can replace writing in teaching someone to write. It’s like building rapport. You can read about it, get advice, watch others, but it’s like riding a bike, you have to do it to know it. Rapport building, writing, staying current, these are all cornerstones of the discipline.
    I really like the advice to practice meditation as well. We are taught that our data gathering instruments are our senses, but we have no practice to train our awareness, or understand that our knee-jerk assumptions don’t equal what’s really going on. Meditation is a practice designed to do just that, but again it has to be done consistently.

  16. I would not recommend the same strategies for professional growth to grad students and my peers.

    For grad students who are reading copiously already, I would advise keeping a journal of personal reactions to the readings. Are there pet peeves with writers, especially those who represent the “flavor” of the moment? Write them down in detail. Graduate school is a socialization process, a rite de passage, and the outcome is a certain sameness–even in the debates of the moment. The “naivete” and “immaturity” that are criticized by one’s faculty may hold the germs of insight that can be developed through a career. (And some will not, of course.) At no other time in one’s career will one’s readings be as fresh as at this point. Use this wisely.

    I can’t begin to advise my peers, who are no doubt far more accomplished than I am. What I can do is share what I find important: two sorts of readings. First, I try to read daily in the language of the culture that I am studying. I can’t do the second daily, but over breaks and on weekends, I try to read books and articles related to the region I study and that are outside the discpline: history, political science, economics, the arts. Anthropological writing can be weak in its work in relation to these disciplines. For example, an historian who recommended I read Hornberg and Lees, as well as Braudel, in relation to social networks and culture helped me understand Taiwan more deeply through the sorts of questions these writers brought to their own regions.

    Finally, in extension of this second activity, I think it’s essential that we engage within the academy to share our insights and questions. Too few fellow academics understand the value of what we do and how it might enrich their own work.

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