Every year I would write a list of new year’s resolutions, and then forget what they were or whether I follow through with any of them by the end of the year. Regardless of whether I achieve the goals that I set out to do, I think the act of writing down those goals is important. It helps me reflect upon what is important, and what is attainable. Following Cal Newport’s suggestion: “think small, act big,” I will sketch some general goals that I would like to achieve for this year.
One cannot stress enough the importance of writing in a life of an academic. It does not matter what one writes. What matters is one writes regularly. In Write No Matter What, Joli Jensen (2017) advocates that an academic ought to write regardless of what she is interested in at that moment. One’s research is oftentimes influenced by many factors: availability of data, of advisors, research partners, time, resources, general interests of the academic community, etc. Yet, writing every day is a must. As of now, my research has not been clearly defined yet, but I do want to practice writing. This blog is an appropriate venue for me to practice this most important skill, and it is a platform for me to exchange ideas with others. Ultimately, a blog is an auto-ethnography whereby I experiment with C. Wright Mills’s idea of the intersection between public issues and personal problems, of personal biography and history.
An upper year PhD student briefed me over lunch last week that she is struggling writing another dissertation chapter because she is not confident with her writing. She suggested that I should practice writing every day. Furthermore, I should start before the dissertation phase whereby I have a final project of 100,000 words to submit to my committee. My brain could not help but entertain a scenario: If I write only 1000 words a day. Then it takes me only 100 days to finish writing. What is so difficult?
I was wrong. Writing a big project like that is not like writing blog posts, where I ramble about whatever in my mind. A bigger project takes more planning, conceptualizing, connecting intellectual dots, and executing it. Having published a few blog posts helped me recognize that I cannot write so fast. I learned that I write and edit at a rate of 200 words per hour. That means if I want to finish a 1000-word product of academic writing, it would take me at least 5 hours a day. Now let imagine my speed for academic writing is half of my blog writing. Then it takes 10 hours to write and edit the 1000 word quota. Many people do not have the luxury to dedicate 5 continuous hours to writing, let alone 10 hours straight. More realistically, I might be able to write up to 400-500 words a day during the dissertation phase, which means it would take me about 200-250 working days to complete it. Well, it is literally a year-long project.
My goal is to regularly pen a post on this blog. What is new and exciting this year is that I am looking for co-authoring with other people on this blog. Two student fellows have agreed to co-author something with me. One would reflect on the topic of name and identity, and the other is still thinking about what he would write with me. If you would like to co-pen with me about something that is burning in you, let me know. I keep a log of topics that I want to write about, and have never got time to develop them into a full-2000-word reflection piece.
Social Media & Internet Junks
Recently I listened to a podcast that interviewed Jaron Lanier, a computer philosopher, who coined the term “virtual reality.” He firmly believes that the addiction model that social media companies employ to keep users go back to check on them is harmful to an individual’s mental health, and society at large. Technocrats, intellectuals, and academics alike are increasingly advocating for us to restrict our time spending on the Internet, checking email, and checking social media feeds/ messages. For example, Chamath Palihapitiya, the founder of Social Capital, and former Facebook executive has publicly announced that Facebook is bad for social cohesion. Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, the author of Deep Work, also supports this position. Newport (2016) even goes further arguing that as a knowledge worker, which I am, should focus on doing mentally demanding tasks, which one could only spend around 4 hours a day on. The intensity of academic work makes a knowledge worker wear out fast mentally, and social media and emails do not help us to recuperate, but burden us with unnecessary information. In other words, to produce intellectual work, one ought to stay away from social media.
I could not afford to write on my website, or syllabus “I do not use e-mail” like what Alan Lightman, a physicist, and novelist at MIT does. But I can certainly delete all social media apps on my cell phone, and stay away from them on my desktop. The amount time saved would be spent on reading, writing, refining research questions, spending time with close friends, doing yoga and taking as many walks as possible.
My goal is to trim down all the Internet fat that I have been accumulating in the past decade. It’s all for a better work/life balance that I am aiming to have.
Health – Sleep
My sociologist friend, Larry Liu, over a glass of beer, confided to me, that he could not sleep without having a skeleton of his dissertation research in mind. I keep wondering whether not having a skeleton of my big research project has been the cause of my not being able to get enough sleep. Certainly, it’s not the only cause. My battle with having 8 hours of sleep has been a long struggle for the past decade or even more. It’s various kind of anxiety that has kept me awake. My anxiety would never go away, but I believe that if I’m intentional about sleeping, I will be able to get enough of it.
Frankly speaking, I do not know how to distract myself from academic work. I need someone who is not my colleague/co-worker to distract me from theorizing about human life. My interest in learning an instrument has been renewed since I started living with a jazz musician. Plus, I have been dreaming of playing the cello for quite a while. My landlord has agreed to introduce me to a jazz musician who plays bass, and cello to give me lessons. The idea sounds like fun, and I feel that the free form of jazz would free me up from thinking about music structure, and music theory which I have a love/hate relationship with.
Over the break I started learning Hindi. My polyglot friend, Kevin Fei Sun, sent me some materials to learn Hindi. I also signed up for an informal tutoring lesson with a Hindi teacher on Italki.com, and started watching Bollywood movies available on Netflix. Hopefully by the end of the year, I could visit India, get around and order some food on my own. Again, this is a hobby that brings me joy, and keeps me away from thinking about any sociological problem.
Traveling is an integral part of one’s quest for knowledge. It does not matter where one goes. What matters is what one learns from a new place. Sometimes I wonder why I have this insatiable desire to travel, and often end up going to random places like Belgrade in Serbia, or Leipzig in Germany, or Coventry in England. My winter trip to Vietnam, and Bryan Turner’s sociology of generation helped me think through my constant desire to see new places. Finally I recognized that I am a part of a generation of Vietnamese who have the quest to see the world. The Vietnamese Millennials are akin to the Baby Boomers in the Anglo-American world. They are both lucky generations.
How do the Vietnamese Millennials resemble the Baby Boomers in Anglo-American countries? First, the Vietnamese youth were born after the Vietnam War, which meant they could enjoy various kind of economic expansion opportunities. My parents could not see the world because Vietnam was closed off to the world due to the Vietnam War, and the immediate period after it. The Vietnamese Millennials dream to see the world for themselves and for their ancestors who have never been a part of the global economy. Second, because of the rapid economic integration into the world economy, this generation is observing a rapid rise in income similar to their peers in other developing countries such as China, and Indonesia (Milanovic, 2016). Third, half of the Vietnamese population are younger than 35 years old (Statista), which makes the Millenials to be the main actors who drive the consumer market, and set trends in any market. They could be bothered little about the Vietnam War because they have little social memory about it. Instead, they aspire to a consumer culture that K-pop celebrities show them how to live an American life-style within an Asian cultural framework.
All young Vietnamese are on the road. They want to see the part of the country that they have never been to. They want to see the part of the world that neither they nor their parents have never been to. National TV channels are dominated with news about new tourist attractions, with what one can see and eat in a foreign country. Everybody talks about “phuot,” or backpacking. I am not different. I transitioned to my adulthood reading books with titles like Xách Balô Lên và Đi, or Pick up the Backpack and Go [Backpacking]. I am carrying that “phuot” mentality by way of being a part of the Vietnamese “phuot” generation. We all want to acquire experiential knowledge that one ought to have as a young adult. Being the largest generation in Vietnam at this point, we have the power to decide what the tourism culture should be.
Since I am learning Hindi, the obvious next destination to visit is India. Let see how my language and travel plans work together. Planning is not as important as having some objectives, and working on them on a daily basis. These aforementioned goals are contingent to my main academic work. Yet, they make me a better academic as they help me orientate and make my life more interesting this year.