On Momentum In Reading And Graduate School

As someone who fairly voraciously reads books, devouring them as a wolf devours prey, in the words of one Captain Crewe to his similarly inclined daughter Sarah Crewe, heroine of A Little Princess [1], it is of interest how a reader develops the momentum to finish a book. There are many types of books that one reads. Some are so gripping and well-written (whether fiction or nonfiction) that a reader is inspired very easily to read them all the way through in one sitting. Others have a steady building of material that allows for a reasonably quick read. Many books, though, start a bit slow and it is difficult to gain the momentum to see them through. How is it that we gain the momentum to finish a book?

Odd as it may seem, this is one of those areas where a knowledge about the difference between objective and subjective standards of judgment [2] apply in our lives even in activities that would seem to be objective, such as the momentum we build to finish reading a book. To start, let us assume that we are dealing with a 300 page book, making it a bit easier to comprehend the role of subjective determinations in providing the momentum to finish reading a book. A table comparing the two measures of reading is also helpful to illustrate the point:

Pages Absolute Relative
0 0 0
50 17% .20
100 33% .5
150 50% 1
200 67% 2
250 83% 5

Here we see a 300 page book where reading progress is judged in absolute standards (the percentage of the book that is read) as well as in relative standards (the ratio between the amount of the book that has been read over that part which remains to be read). Here we see the hidden power of momentum. Each page counts the same on an absolute scale, but on the relative scale each page is increasingly more important in making a higher and higher ratio between what is done and what remains to be done, which drives momentum. This suggests that it is necessary to get at least halfway, and that by the time one is two-thirds to three-fourths done that there should be enough momentum in reading to finish the work.

This sort of subjective determination of momentum is relevant far outside of there rather trivial task of reading a book. There are two schools of thought (at least) when it comes to planning sequential tasks. There are those who like to front-load hard or unpleasant work and those who like to backload it. A difference between the two is the difference between undergraduate and graduate studies in a university. Undergraduate studies use the front-loading approach, where the “boring” and unpleasant general education requires are front-loaded, and where the most enjoyable upper level courses are back-loaded after one has finished the basic prerequisites. On the other hand, graduate studies tend to be back-loaded, where fun and enjoyable courses and seminars are first, and where the thesis or capstone or dissertation writing assignments are at the end.

Do we notice a difference between the two? Indeed, we do. In a front-loaded program (like high school or undergraduate studies), most dropping out is done toward the beginning as those who lack the ability to establish momentum are weeded out of the educational system, but those who are able to make it past the halfway point are in a good place to finish, barring extreme difficulties. However, in graduate school, the problem is reversed, leading to the dread ABT/ABD problems (all-but-thesis/all-but-dissertation). Here, the ease of completing one’s coursework requirements tends to give very little momentum in finishing the last and biggest hurdles, leaving many people to drop out almost at the end, because they cannot develop sufficient momentum to finish the big, massive, scary research and writing assignment at the end.

Ultimately, the same weeding out process occurs wherever the barriers of the hard and unpleasant work appear. A particularly difficult course (like Organic Chemistry) or test (the PE exam) would serve as a barrier to momentum wherever it existed, whether at the beginning, middle, or end of a educational program. Since the BA or BS is considered these days as a mere credential allowing someone the opportunity to fight with millions of other young adults for honorable and gainful employment, it is no mystery that undergraduate studies are designed front-loaded, as a way to ensure that a student’s drive is willing and able to overcome initial barriers before being able to coast at the end.

On the other hand, many graduate studies (especially at the doctoral level) can drag on interminably long, year after year after year, with no end in sight, since the completion of such a program generally means that former students now become competition with more established ones in the search for tenure or the fight for adjunct professorships. It is therefore in the political and economic interests of graduate schools to drag on this process of gaining advanced degrees as long as possible or for professions to make their credentialing exams as hard as possible to dampen the pressures of future competition and to present the highest possible barriers to entry.

Nonetheless, there are ways that the wise reader and student can help build the momentum at the beginning to help avoid these pitfalls. For one, front-loading as much thesis and dissertation work and trying to be inspired as much as possible about reading and researching a subject allows the thesis or dissertation to be less of an overwhelming task when it finally comes to write, unless one perversely finds writing large essays to be enjoyable (some people like that happen to exist). In front-loaded situations, like reading a book or undergraduate studies, knowing about the (happy) ending one is working toward can give one encouragement to plow through less enjoyable and seemingly unimportant work toward the beginning, as long as one maintains hope and faith and confidence that the end is worth all of the toil and struggle to reach it.

Ultimately, whether one is trying to overcome the barriers of a front-loaded or a back-loaded system, one needs to count the costs and examine whether one has sufficient drive and passion to overcome the barriers. A knowledge of the process one has to take and of the materials that one needs to master, whether reading or writing or experiencing, helps one to manage this task more successfully. Whether this means flipping through a book and reading its ending before tackling it all the way once one knows it has a worthwhile ending, or whether it means outlining and defining one’s thesis or dissertation project before writing to focus one’s time and effort more effectively, the goal is the same–to give one the momentum to finish what one has started. And that, in the end, is what matters: finishing what we have set out to do.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/01/24/a-little-princess-revisited/

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/01/24/on-brackets-and-requirements-the-difference-between-relative-and-absolute-standards/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Graduate School, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to On Momentum In Reading And Graduate School

  1. Pingback: Your Questions About Esoteric Christianity | RicheousIndigNation

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