July/August 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 5

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Giving Up Keeping Up

Peter J. Donaldson, President of Population Council

I am giving up the American Sociological Review (ASR). The oldest issue of the ASR on my shelf is from February 1966. Several of the articles are highlighted with a pink marker, a sign of my enthusiasm for sociology as an advanced undergraduate. My last issue is volume 77, number 6, December 2012.

For most of the 46 years between those two issues, I have worked for applied research organizations concerned with global population, health, and development issues. I have read the ASR in homes, offices, hotel rooms, and on planes, trains, and buses around the world.

I have nothing against the ASR or sociology; I am giving up trying to keep up. My urge to keep up was formed early in graduate school and has been motivated by a mixture of interest and anxiety. For more than 40 years, I have paid attention—at times excessive and unwarranted attention—to the articles and reports that crossed my desk and to the core journals in my field of population studies.

Why the Pressure to Keep Up?

I once read that only graduate students have a compulsion to keep up on the literature because they fear not knowing the answer to a question that will appear on their PhD exams, or are they afraid of overlooking a study relevant to their dissertations. If that’s true, I am still a graduate student. I worry that the consequences of my failure to keep up would be nettlesome, perhaps much worse.

I read to be a good citizen—one should know something of the work of one’s colleagues—but mostly because I think there might be something I should know in an article or report and that I’ll be asked about it and will be unable to answer. My friend Terry Thornberry, a distinguished criminologist who is more rational than I am, has told me for years to stop this unnecessary overkill. He argues that the pile of to-be-read items in my office yields little useful information and so serves only to make me feel guilty. He’s right.

Rely on Others

Henceforth I am following the example of a physician friend (a sociology major as an undergraduate) who now leads a $1 billion organization. He tells me he keeps up in the same way he once managed trauma cases in the emergency room of an urban medical center. “I relied on the triage team to direct me to the cases that needed my attention. At times, I missed something important, but basically the system worked very well.” He uses the same strategy to keep up on the literature in his field. “I tell the people who work for me to let me know what I should read and what I should pay attention to. I rely on them.” Maintaining a network of reliable human sources of information and insight is more important for keeping up than maintaining subscriptions and listservs. Rather than worry that I won’t be able to tell a colleague that I enjoyed her latest offering, I will be looking to that colleague to give me advice on what to read.

My new strategy is embodied in the opening stanza of May Sarton’s “New Year Resolve”:

The time has come
To stop allowing the clutter
To clutter my mind
Like dirty snow,
Shove it off and find
Clear time, clear water.

Of course, one could be less compulsive, rely on friends and co-workers, and still maintain a subscription to the ASR. I am not proposing that that we all stop reading. But that we accept constraints that restrict the amount of time we can devote to reading anything—no matter how important. These limits require setting priorities.

Read to Write (or Work)

John Knodel quotes Wilbert Moore’s justification for not keeping up: “You either read or write.” I read; Knodel writes. I once cornered Moore at a professional conference and asked him to verify the quote. Moore told me the aphorism wasn’t his but George Homans’. Knodel, Moore, and Homans all read and wrote. Their secret—certainly Knodel’s whom I know well—is that they read to write. Their reading had direction and purpose. Read to write is the guidance I offer graduate students or young professionals. The rubric can be generalized to include professionals in applied settings or those whose primary function is administration or teaching: read to work. That’s my plan.

Going forward I’ll have two (virtual and physical) baskets: reading for pleasure and reading for work. The reading for pleasure basket is easy for most of us to fill. It includes sacred texts, favorite blogs, and Internet sites, most fiction, hobby and leisure-related publications, and for many of us at least parts of a daily newspaper. Some things read for pleasure will be useful for work. Less frequently in my experience, some work-related material will be fun to read. There is in all our lives some reading that is neither for pleasure or work—insurance and tax instructions, for example. Put them in whichever basket you wish.

The reading for work basket includes the journal articles, reports, books and book chapters, Internet and blog postings, magazines and newsletters the contents of which are (or are hoped to be) immediately useful for one’s writing or administrative work. These are the items that we read with attention and an eye toward application in something we are writing or otherwise working on. The possible application provides a framework to organize and evaluate what we read. While reading for work ask, among other things, does the argument makes sense; is the evidence convincing? How does this change what I’m thinking, what I’m writing? How can I use this to make my writing, my class, or my administrative work more accurate and effective?

I’m not giving up on sociology. The concepts and methods of sociology still have considerable appeal and there are many opportunities to usefully apply them. I have had a photograph of Talcott Parsons in my office to show my loyalty to the sociological imagination. I also have a photo of sociologist Carle Zimmerman. I plan on keeping those Harvard colleagues in prominent spots in my office and continuing to employ sociological theory and methods. I may even read ASR occasionally. But I’m giving up trying to keep up.


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