How to create a reading habit (or any other intentional habit)

I just finished my 69th book of 2020. When I talk to people about reading, they often tell me that they’d love to read more, but that it just doesn’t happen.

You might not have a desire to read (more). 
But you might crave some time for yourself. Some quiet time. Time intentionally set aside for yourself. To recharge. 

In her book 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think Laura Vanderkam writes: 

“We don’t think about how we want to spend our time, and so we spend massive amounts of time on things—television, Web surfing, housework, errands—that give a slight amount of pleasure or feeling of accomplishment, but do little for our career, our families, or our personal lives”. 

As with anything that is important, we need to prioritise doing it—and we need to make it easy for ourselves to keep it up.

It might not be reading, for you. It might be embroidering, knitting, gardening, drawing or something else that you love. Either way, it is about intentionally setting aside time for something that fills you up.

Stack your new habit. 

Habit-stacking is adding your new habit to something you already do. Like connecting brushing your teeth to going to bed. Or, for many people, waking up and grabbing your phone. My habit-stack is to have breakfast, then settle down to read—ideally for 30 minutes, before work. 

Set a timer.

Setting a timer is one of the best ways for me to deal with distraction. Because I too get distracted by Instagram, by the thought of new email or just by the shininess of my iPhone. Setting a timer is a commitment I make to myself. And a permission slip: nothing to do for the next 15 or 30 minutes but read. 

Train those muscles.

Reading, and staying focused, is also a muscle, as is any activity that requires you to focus. The good news is that you can train it (and that doing so is good for your brain!). Every time you do something focused for just 15 minutes, it gets easier.

Make it fun. 

I don’t need to track how often I read to motivate myself, but I do love to keep track of what I read. The vain part of me likes to know how much I’ve read in a year. But mostly I track so I remember what I’ve read. I use my paper calendar for this, and my website. Other people like using Goodreads, which also hosts lots of reading challenges, and enables you to follow your friends (accountability!). 

You can make your own habit tracker on paper—making a mark every time you do your new habit—but my favourite paper tracker is the one that Elise Cripe sends out to her newsletter subscribers. I’ve also had success with the Habit App on my phone.  


What habit do you want to create? How are you intentionally making time for yourself?

Share in the comments, or come share on Instagram: it’s my favourite place to connect with people. 

New article: Flooded Futures

In this article I set out the genre of “flood fictions”, novels that use floods to depict climate crisis. I explore a few twenty-first-century British novels (Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, Clare Morrall’s When the Floods Came, and Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army) in which floods are literal and figurative consequences of climate crisis.

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A second characteristic of flood fiction is that they portray the literal submersion of the narratives themselves by means of language erosion and narrative fragmentation. Importantly, flood fictions tackle some of the imaginative and representative challenges posed by the Anthropocene. My reading of these novels provides an intervention in current debates on imagining and narrating climate crisis and presents a previously unexplored and underexplored subset of literary works.

The full text of the article is available here.

Public lecture: Climate Fiction

Clifi lecture.jpgOn November 3rd I was delighted to give the opening talk at Cli-Fi 2018, a Dutch festival on climate and literature, aimed specifically at young people.

In my talk, I discussed climate fiction as a genre, how humans have always written about climate, and how the genre has recently become popular. I focused in particular on what makes stories and literary narrative special, and compared them to the stories told by disaster films.

I enjoy giving these public lectures, both in Dutch and English. If you’d like to contact me about a lecture, you can do so through this form.

 

New publication: Ecocriticism and Jim Crace’s Early Novels

Crace WildernessAt the end of October, Jim Crace: Into the Wilderness, edited by Katy Shaw and Kate Aughterson, was published by Palgrave. It’s the first book focusing solely on Jim Crace’s novels, placing them in a broader context of philosophical, political and cultural debates. It includes essays on pastoral, gender and religion, and  focuses on Crace’s entire oeuvre.

I contributed a chapter on ecocriticism and Crace’s early novels, specifically on The Gift of Stones, Signals of Distress and Being Dead. Rather than suggesting one overarching reading to these novels, I place them side-by-side with the development of ecocriticism as a field. I left the role of the pastoral out of my discussion, as two other chapters in the book (by Philip Tew and Deborah Lilley) explore this. Instead I focus on two developments in ecocriticism over the past decade or so.

The first of these is the turn to the global in ecocriticism, especially since the publication of Ursula Heise’s Sense of Place and Sense of Planet in 2008. The main concern here is especially representing global climate crisis, a topic not explicitly addressed in Crace’s early novels. In the chapter I show how the global — and global crisis — is nonetheless depicted through trade networks in Signals of Distress. I also read the shock of the Bronze Age in Gift of Stones as similar to the emergence of the Anthropocene. Crace 2

The second development I explore in the chapter is that of econarratology, especially in relation to narrating the non-human. Here I focus on Being Dead, and especially the decentring of the human that takes place once the novel’s main characters are killed in the beginning.

The chapter shows that Crace’s novels provide a rich terrain for ecocritical analysis, even though they have received little ecocritical attention to date.

 

New publication: Graham Swift’s Waterland, Ecocriticism and Narratology

This month my article on Graham Swift’s Waterland appeared in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. I’d been working on this article for a while, and benefited from the comments of an excellent peer reviewer, so I’m particularly pleased to see it published. A link to the free version of the article on the Oxford UP website is available here.

waterland.jpgIn the article, I use Waterland – which has been explored by ecocritics before – to set out a framework that combines ecocriticism and narratology. It ties in with the emerging field of econarratology, which I expand by looking specifically at Waterland‘s framework narrative and use of the fairy-tale genre. I discuss how the emphasis on storytelling in the book combined with the attention it pays to landscape invites an econarratological approach. In particular, I focus on the instability of both the Fenland landscape and of stories, which is an aspect that I return to in my work, most recently in my monograph. As such, my reading reveals environmental layers in the novel that earlier readings had not uncovered.

Info about some of my other publications can be found here.

The End We Start From and the genre of flood fiction

the end we start fromMegan Hunter’s 2017 novel The End We Start From starts with an unnamed narrator giving birth to her child while around her London floods.

This novel is one of the flood fictions that I explore as part of my new research project.

In June 2018, I gave a paper on The End We Start From as an example of flood fiction at the Marine Transgressions conference in Bristol.

My presentation incl. my notes + a list of the sources I used is available here.

Disrupted narratives: Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army as climate crisis flood novel

In May 2018 I attended an international symposium on the work of Sarah Hall in Leuven. The paper I presented is part of my new project on flood fictions. As I wrote before, by flood fictions I refer to twenty-first-century works in which flood is imagined as one of the key effects of climate crisis. Floods also have symbolic value in these works, referring often to the socio-economic collapses that have taken place in the future. At the same time, floods seep into the novels, breaking up the narrative and leading to fragmentation and language erosion.

the carhullan armyIn the paper, I defined the genre in a bit more detail, placing it in wider cultural context in which flood is a recurring feature in environmental discourse and disaster films. I discussed how floods are depicted in The Carhullan Army and how this relates to the societal and political collapse that has taken place. I also talked about the importance of books to the novel’s main character, Sister, and how this is echoed in other flood fictions. Books provide a link between the novels’ first readers and their characters, but also suggest that stories, storytelling and the novel as genre are somehow particularly important in a time of climate crisis.

In the final part of the paper, I focus on the fragmented nature of The Carhullan Army, which consists of a series of records, becoming increasingly incomplete towards the end. I place this fragmentation in the context of other flood novels – especially Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From.

The full text of the paper, including the sources I used, is available here.

Starting a new project: Future Floods, Flooded Futures

My new project is on what I call “flood fictions”, novels that use floods as a literal consequence of climate crisis, but also as a symbolic image for life in the Anthropocene: unpredictable, overwhelming and quite literally engulfing. Floods become synecdoches for climate crisis as a whole, bringing the large scale developments leading to and effects of climate change into relatively small-scaled and contained environments.

The unnamed narrator of Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From (2017) hears disturbing news just weeks before giving birth to her son: “the water is rising faster than they thought. It is creeping faster. A calculation error. A badly plotted movie, sensors out at sea” (3). The waters are rising, creeping towards London – and while she’s in the hospital, the really bad news comes. London, it seems, has been lost to the water: “An unprecedented flood. London. Uninhabitable. A list of boroughs, like the shipping forecast, their names suddenly as perfect and tender as the names of children. Ours” (8). Hunter’s novel is just one of several contemporary British novels that imagine floods as a consequence of climate crisis.

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Floods are a recurring feature of the climate crisis imagination, both literally and symbolically. In disaster films floods provide welcome imagery, from the flooded planet in Waterworld (1995) to the flooding of Manhattan, leaving only the Statue of Liberty standing in The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and the breaching of the Thames Barrier in the 2007 British film Flood.

Sensationalist though these films may be, flooding is a very real consequence of climate crisis. Global warming is linked to increased flooding in most European countries, as well as in other areas around the world (Alfieri et al.). In Britain, changing environmental and climatological circumstances will make floods twenty times more likely by 2080, affecting at least twice as many people than are currently at risk from flooding. Little wonder, then, that many twenty-first-century fictions imagine a very wet future, especially for Britain.

Floods are also a powerful symbol to describe climate crisis. Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2016 documentary Before the Flood uses the image of the flood as a kind of environmental turning point, a tipping point after which broad-scale climate crisis can no longer be prevented. Similarly, the 2017 film Downsizing, in which humans have themselves shrunk in order to have a smaller environmental footprint, ends with a waterless, but no less dangerous flood. IMG_8539When the methane levels in the atmosphere reach dangerous heights, a group of idealistic environmentalists descends into a cave under the earth’s surface, in an attempt to wait out the next great extinction – of humans. The cave, the film’s protagonist realizes, functions as a kind of Noah’s Ark.

A similar extinction event is referred to as the ‘waterless flood’ in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam-trilogy, in which a scientist creates a deadly virus that wipes out a considerable part of humanity. Similarly, the deadly flu that kills off most of humankind in Station Eleven (2014) is framed as a flood: “‘The flu’, the prophet said, ‘the great cleansing that we suffered twenty years ago, that flu was our flood” (60). In a slightly different vein, Ali Shaw envisions an arboreal flood in The Trees (2016), when Britain is quite literally swamped, and destroyed, by millions of trees popping up overnight.

Eventually, my new project will lead to another monograph. Before that, I have a few conference papers planned, and at least two articles about the different dimensions of flood fictions. The list of novels that I’ll analyse is growing, but includes Hunter’s The End We Start From, The Ship (2015) by Antonia Honeywell, When the Floods Came (2016) by Clare Morrall, The Carhullan Army (2007) by Sarah Hall, The Flood (2004) by Maggie Gee and All Rivers Run Free (2018) by Natasha Carthew.

Currently: research (Jan & Feb 2018)

January

January was a good month, research-wise: I had a lot of things planned, but I was able to do some of that in December, and had a lot of energy to work on the other projects in January.

 

 

What I worked on:

  • Submitted an article on Ian McEwan and ecology – I struggled with finding the focus for this article quite a bit. While I’m happy with the article I ended up submitting, it will need more work. As the editor of the volume pointed out, it’s quite a bit under the maximum word limit. I knew that when I submitted it, but didn’t want to negatively affect the unity of the piece. Having said that, I agreed with the editor that he’d make some suggestions for expanding it, and I’ll be thinking about that too. I still feel nervous about it, so fingers crossed.
  • The other big thing I worked on this month was a fellowship application. I applied for a three-month writing grant at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich. I want to use it to really make some headway on my new project on flood fictions (more on that next month). I’ve been doing some papers on this, and a book chapter, but this year I want to write and submit two further articles and submit a book proposal for this project.
  • Halfway through the month I got the editors’ comments back on the chapter I wrote for Jim Crace: Into the Wilderness. In the chapter I apply some ecocritical approaches to Crace’s early novels The Gift of Stones, Signals of Distress and Being Dead. The editors only had a few comments, so I was able to turn around this revision fairly quickly and return the chapter by the end of the month.

Research week:

The final week of January was the exam week at my institution. I worked ahead a bit and ended up with an entire week in which I was able to devote pretty much all my time to research. I managed to have practically no appointments that week, save for two on Tuesday afternoon. I checked my work email daily, and did some small chores that came out of that, but that didn’t take more than 45 minutes a day.

I feel really pleased that I was able to take this time: it felt like a complete luxury. I even had time to take things a little slow before the busy start of the new semester. I was so pleased with this week that I’m planning two further weeks in the middle (resit-week) and end of the new semester as well.

February

What I’m working on:

  • This month’s big project is a chapter revision for a book on literature & philosophy, due at the end of the month. The chapter is on the ethical issues raised by 21st-century British flood fictions. Back in November I received the editors’ comments, which were very supportive. The main point of criticism was that I had not included enough philosophy –  I hadn’t interpreted the premise correctly. The editors gave me some useful suggestions and I did some more research to fix that. I think that I’ve found some good perspectives to incorporate. I begun revising a few days ago and so far I feel good about how the chapter is coming along. I actually quite like revising – I like the craftmanship of it, chipping away, polishing and making it better.

What I’m thinking about:

  • I am itching to make a start on the first of two peer-reviewed journal articles to my flood project that I want to submit this year. The first article will define the genre of flood fictions. I won’t properly start on this until March, but I’m very excited.

Waiting to hear back on:

  • I submitted two conference abstracts in December. I got a positive response for the Sarah Hall conference in May (Leuven), and am waiting to hear back from the Marine Transgressions conference.
  • I expect to hear back from two editors this month, or early next month: on the McEwan chapter, and on a chapter on climate fiction for a book on ecocriticism and narrative theory.
  • In early March I’ll hear back on my application to serve as associate editor at ISLE. This sounds like an interesting position to me and fits in well with my aim to work on strengthening my academic community.

 

Looking back: teaching semester 1

This academic year I’m trying  take  more time to really reflect on my courses. I decided to delve a little deeper into the two Master’s courses I taught in semester 1. I’m using both my own observations as well as student evaluations (though I know full well how problematic these evaluations often are). I had been thinking about doing a reflection like this for a while, inspired in particular by Bonni Stachowiak’s reflections.

 

While my institution sends out standardised evaluation forms to students as well, I Dia6decided to create my own a few years ago. There are things specific to my courses that I want students’ opinions on, and I like to do these evaluations in class so that we can have a conversation about it as well (if you’re curious, these are the evaluation forms I used: Survey and LTL).

 

The two courses are a MA year 2 survey course on 19th, 20th and 21st-century British literature (mainly poetry and short fiction), which I taught for the sixth time in a row this Dia6 copyyear (!). The other is a course called Literature and Teaching Literature (LTL), a course for our first year MA-students. The programme prepares them to teach in upper-secondary education, and this course is often their first encounter with literary pedagogy. It was the first time I taught this course, which had been developed and was taught by a colleague of mine for the previous 8 or 9 years.

 

Literature Survey course
I’ve been tweaking and changing the survey course for years: it’s become more interactive, I’ve switched some texts and have incorporated more retrieval practice since reading James Lang’s Small Teaching last year. This year, we had a very small group: only 5 students, of which one fell ill halfway through the semester and attended sporadically after that. Teaching such a small group meant that I had to make my classes even more interactive: I simply couldn’t rely on ‘class discussion’ to naturally lead to interesting discussion. This is something I constantly try to develop, so I’m glad I challenged myself more in this sense.

I tried out more interactive assignments, from having them make ‘intertextual webs’, for texts, to having them lead the discussion, and devising a game with questions that sent them around a quest centered on John Burnside’s poem “The Day Etta Died”.  Something I’m pleased with, and which I’m using for the second time in a row, is the image-assignment in the first week – rather than giving them a timeline of important events in the period that we cover (19th, 20th and 21st century Britain) in a lecture, I hand them a stack of images. They have to figure out what the image is of, and put the images in the correct chronological order. I do hand out a timeline after the activity to help them remember.

Literature and Teaching Literature
I taught Literature and Teaching Literature for the first time this year. Whenever I’m new to a course I keep nearly everything the same: I don’t want to make any big changes before I’ve gotten the hang of a course. There were a lot of things that I liked about the course, the peer teaching element, primarily, and the use of Deborah Appleman’s book on using literary theory in the classroom (we also use Teaching Literature to Adolescents, which is great too).

 

There were also some things that were starting to feel increasingly uncomfortable. The advance tasks that the students had to do every week, and which were tied in with the weekly reading, often felt not challenging enough, and a bit boring at times. They just didn’t seem to work with the group. I also struggled to make clear how the assignments they had to do for the course were tied in to each other. And, in the first half of the course, there seemed to be a disconnect between the classes as I interpreted them based on my predecessor’s material, and the assignments the students had to hand in.

 

This was reflected in the course evaluations. Most students wanted to get rid of the advance tasks in this form, and see other changes as well. One student made this explicit in the evaluation:

 

“In the beginning things were less well-prepared and it didn’t feel as if you were in charge of the course, but that the course was imposed upon you. That changed after the first period I think. I would like to see more influence of you on assignments and topics so that it all comes together in a course that you stand for. You did a good job and are inspiring as a literature teacher.”

 

Although I was just as well-prepared in the beginning as I was towards the end, this student did pick up on the feeling I had that the beginning of the course wasn’t great. At the same time, I wonder whether if I hadn’t made this feeling of discomfort explicit halfway through the course, they would also have picked up on it.

 

So, halfway through the course I decided to change things (see this article on the midsemester course correction by David Gooblar). I waited until I had my usual middle-of-the-course stop/start/continue evaluation, so I could incorporate some of the students’ feedback as well. While I didn’t change the syllabus radically, I did change the nature of the advance tasks, something I’d been doing gradually anyway.  I divided the second half of the semester up in weeks relating to the three assignments the students had to hand in for the final exam, and tied the advance tasks and class assignments in with that. Every week the students got time to work explicitly on their assignments, and discuss their work and progress with each other. I also build in feedback moments, so they could hand in drafts of their assignments through Canvas.

 

Other evaluation outcomes
  • In both courses, the students felt they had achieved the learning objectives. This is the first year I’m asking students to reflect this explicitly, and I like it
  • As a lecturer, I score highest on being an expert on the course subject matter, and on having well-structured classes (more so in the Survey course than in the LTL course).

 

“I really enjoyed your lectures. I really liked your clear, structured approach. Also I really appreciated the extra feedback moments for the different parts of the end exams. Thanks for the enjoyable lessons.”

 

Looking ahead
Three students noted that they missed the element of literary analysis in Literature and Teaching Literature. We spent some time on that in the first two weeks, but the focus of the course was on teaching literature – hoping that students would have enough experience already and gain experience in the other literature course offered in semester 1. I’m tempted to take out the literary analysis part completely – the course seems simply too short for much attention on in-depth analysis and teaching, and we do a lot of analysis in the other literature courses offered throughout the programme.

 

In both the LTL course and the Survey course I didn’t score very high on motivating students to prepare for class. Relevance is often discussed in relation to motivation (in, for instance, Small Teaching and in Minds Online, two books I recently read and enjoyed). Ironically, LTL revolves around ways of teaching literature, and the students are teachers who are supposed to teach literature. That should make the course feel very relevant. I might have a conversation with the students next time, about what I could do to motivate them, or what they could do to motivate themselves more, as I’m genuinely curious how that works with them. In the first class of semester 2, I’ll ask students to make explicit what they want to take away from the course, including at least one way in which they expect to implement the course in their own teaching.