All the World's a Classroom
The riveting true story of the women who launched America into space.
In the 1940s and 50s, when the newly minted Jet Propulsion Laboratory needed quick-thinking mathematicians to calculate velocities and plot trajectories, they didn’t turn to male graduates. Rather, they recruited an elite group of young women who, with only pencil, paper, and mathematical prowess, transformed rocket design, helped bring about the first American satellites, and made the exploration of the solar system possible.
For the first time, Rise of the Rocket Girls tells the stories of these women–known as “human computers”–who broke the boundaries of both gender and science. Based on extensive research and interviews with all the living members of the team, Rise of the Rocket Girls offers a unique perspective on the role of women in science: both where we’ve been, and the far reaches of space to which we’re heading.
Back in January, I shared my goal to read differently this year, which is to read for understanding and wisdom, and not pursue a statistical target. It is now the end of the first quarter (!), so I thought I’d share updates on how my reading habits change because of this goal.
In short, reading slowly has been more transformative than I thought it would. These are the 5 shifts I’ve noticed in my routines this year.
Scribbling in books
As my reading decelerates, I produce more notes on the margins and in my notebook. I have more conversations with the authors, asking questions and analyzing their arguments, essentially taking this advice to heart:
Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher. He even has to be willing to argue with the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him. -Mortimer Adler
I love the organic experience of writing down thoughts with pen and paper, which naturally pulls me towards paper books rather than their digital counterparts. Considering how costly this can be, I’ve started buying used books, though admittedly, I’m conflicted when there are already highlights and notes in them. It feels like the book isn’t completely mine. In any case, these marginal notes render the books very personal to me since they now contain the author’s and my thoughts combined, and I would be hard-pressed to let them go.
Writing more in general
As thoughts are left to simmer and sink in my mind longer, I find myself producing more materials to write as well. If you’ve been following this blog, it would be quite evident to you how certain books inspire my writing (see below). I find this incredibly satisfying: the authors’ thoughts mingling with my own and bearing fruits tinged with my individuality. This is the creative process, in essence.
The process of building mental models from reading also leads to the writing of series of interconnected articles, since some thoughts are too wide in scope to cram into one article. I’m looking forward to growing this skill further.
Taking notes while listening to audiobooks
Since I want to absorb as much as I can from the books I consume, it becomes impossible for me to listen to audiobooks casually. I have to really engage my mind and take notes during the narration to feel like I don’t miss anything. This is partly because I’m not an audio learner, so this is not the ideal format for me at this point. I’m going to keep experimenting, though, and see what works.
Once I finish a book, it now stays on my desk for a few weeks to counteract the out-of-sight-out-of-mind experience I tend to fall into. It’s nice to be reminded of the book’s key ideas just by glancing at it. But also, I skim my hand-written notes again and re-read sections that I’ve marked. This proves really helpful in deepening the book’s impress on my mind, something akin to a sedimentation process. I feel like I grasp it better on the second or third walk-through. The book also remains on my desk if there’s an essay cooking in my buzzing head, since some thoughts require a long conception time before they can be verbalized coherently.
Synthesizing multiple sources
I’m practicing the art of synthesizing knowledge in a more intentional way this year, growing, cataloging, and organizing my growing mental library. Some of you know and have subscribed to the newsletter I started in January where I share articles, books, podcasts, videos, etc., that inspire me (sign up here if you’d like to get these in your inbox). It’s an evolving project, but I’d like to curate things more thematically going forward, creating narratives out of various materials based on their key ideas.
It turns out, this reading orientation hasn’t slowed my speed too much. Surprising, but I’m going to continue to not focus on the numbers. One thing I still need to develop, though, is a system to collect quotes and notes from different books and various media. How do you integrate different sources of information and your personal notes in one location? If you have suggestions, please let me know!
That’s all for the updates. If you’re interested, I keep an up-to-date reading list on my Goodreads profile. Just for kicks, below are the connections between the notable books I’ve read in 2016 and the articles you see in this blog (click on the + signs to expand).
How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler
Gratitude by Oliver Sacks
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
God in Search of Man by Abraham J. Heschel
This article continues the series on how to be an excellent student and life learner. Read the previous article here: Before Learning: The Role of Awe in Life and Learning and After Learning: The Role of Reflection in Gaining Wisdom.
In After Learning, I shared what I wish I had done as a student to grasp the subject of my courses better. Here, I’m sharing tips specifically on how to be an excellent student who is not just smarter, but wiser, knowing how to contextualize and apply the knowledge to real life situations.
These are not meant to replace the usual taking notes, completing assignments, and regular studying that are given activities of a student’s life. They are, instead, ways to get the most out of those other activities, be it lectures, assignments, office hours, etc. The goal is primarily to increase and deepen understanding of the subject, which secondarily, I would think, would reflect in the grades. These are also written in the context of a high school, college, or graduate course, but the principles are applicable to other learning contexts.
Before the Course
Study the syllabus. Your instructor has put together a plan on how she would guide you through a particular subject for the whole semester. This is done with no small effort. The syllabus is the highest level of perspective on everything you will learn. It tells you a lot about how the instructor thinks and what she deems as important. I used to not pay attention to this, to my own detriment, like the table of contents of a book. But in fact, this is a roadmap that, if followed, will guide your way throughout the semester. Study it; pose questions on why it is arranged this way. You can even ask the instructor the why and how she arranges her course during office hours. Let me tell you a secret: most instructors would be thrilled to be asked these questions by a genuine and true inquirer.
Studying the syllabus also helps you to know, before coming to lectures, what will be covered on a given day. This way, you won’t be a passive recipient of information, but an engaged, active listener. And an active listener will always absorb and retain more information.
Skim the textbook/reading materials. Spend a few minutes to an hour to skim the textbook and reading materials. The purpose of this is to get an initial impression on what you will learn. Read the first and last few paragraphs of each chapter to get a sense of its key ideas, flow, and arrangement of thoughts. When the course eventually gets to each section, your brain will have some memory and familiarity to the subject, and will absorb information better. Psychologically, you’ll be more at ease in facing a more familiar topic than a completely foreign one. If you’re majoring in something that requires loads of reading, skimming will help you retain more insights on the reading materials.
During the Course
Reflect each day. Ask yourself, what did I learn today? What happened in class? Sometimes we get too busy taking notes, running from one class to another, that we don’t get to absorb what is being taught. Take a few minutes to review the day. Remember, repetition deepens impression.
Each week, ask yourself, how does this week’s lessons connect with last week’s? Where are we now in the roadmap? How does it differ or enhance the previous topics? Refer back to the syllabus to see where you are in the context of the whole semester.
Converse with classmates, teaching assistants, and instructors about the subject. Ask questions that come up during your personal reflection time, listen to what they think, and synthesize your own conclusions. I may not remember what a lecture covers, but I can usually remember good conversations.
Go to office hours. Most instructors and TAs are just waiting for you to come and talk to them. They usually don’t see many students until an assignment is due or before exams. The truth is, they would love to have conversations with students from the beginning of the class. These are people who dedicate their lives to academia. Nothing gives them more joy and fulfillment than seeing students who love to learn. So talk to them. They’re humans, trust me. Ask them about their career, why they chose to be in academia. You may be in for surprises.
If you want to take it to the next level, create your own thought process map or chart in organizing the course materials. If you were to teach the course, how would you do it?
After the Course
Once the semester ends and final exams are over, don’t just discard the materials you’ve learned and dump all memory to oblivion. Spend some time contextualizing the course in the bigger framework of your life education.
What are the key principles you learned from the course?
Connect the subject with other courses or fields of study. How do they relate to each other? How do they make you a better doctor/engineer/social worker or whatever career you are pursuing? This exercise helps you understand what relevance does this subject have in the world. Write down your thoughts to summarize the course and the whole semester.
These things don’t have to take a lot of your time; a few minutes here and there will do. And you don’t even have to do all of them. You can start implementing one thing into your daily habits, and add on later. In fact, I would argue any one item would naturally lead to the others, since this is about approaching school as a wisdom seeker. When this self-evaluation becomes a habit, it will change the way you live and learn hereafter.
If you want to learn more on how to be an efficient learner, read How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler. It has a brilliant section on how to skim a book!
Photo credit: Freekpik