Here’s a post in preparation for the “Critical Reflection” #critlib chat moderated by Lisa Hubbell.

Lisa Hubbell’s commitment to making this chat about critical reflection more accessible to people for whom Twitter isn’t optimal inspired me enough to want to do a “seeding” blog post of my own. The topic itself seems to beg for a different kind of engagement. I’ve got a few different facets of “reflection” in mind, so I’ll try to address all of them here.

Tools for Thinking

Prompts work well for me, as do other tools for thinking.

The most basic of these prompts was drilled into me while I was on high school newspaper, if not earlier: the old, reliable “who, what, when, where, why, and how?” questions.

Here’s a few more that I believe help nuance those and make our answers more critically reflective:1

David Seah’s various productivity tools profoundly help reinforce a practice of reflection. Unlike a lot of people who write about productivity, his site and tools don’t trip my spidey sense for boosterism or selling things. He gives the documents away as free downloads! (He does sell pre-printed ones as well.) Instead, between his explanations of the various tools and his own blog about things like his “groundhog resolutions”, he seems very committed to the idea that review is a (maybe the?) path to progress.

I like Seah’s phrase “tools for thinking” enough that it’s what I call most of the relevant library handouts I make at my library: simple templates for expanding & narrowing search terms, for brainstorming keywords, that kind of thing.

My Actual Practice

For readings, I take lots of marginal notes. This semester I read Casey Boyle’s …something like a reading ethics…, and I intend to start doing something along those lines from here on out.

My reading notes—and all of my notes, really—are plain text, in Markdown format, and stored in Dropbox. That way I can always sync them between whatever computer or device I’m using. I usually use Atom on my laptop or at work, plus Editorial on my phone.

Plain text synced through Dropbox means that I don’t have to fret about leaving a notebook filled in my insights somewhere. I profoundly enjoy writing by hand, but I don’t enjoy the anxiety that builds up the more I have in a notebook and nowhere else. When I want to go back and somehow do revisions on earlier ideas in plain text, I’ll usually use Critic Markup for most of my jotting-ideas-down writing, or much more rarely I’ll track changes for more formal writing through Git.

I also have a sort of bullet journal with plain text files for each month, with the idea that I’ll go back and do some review every night as well as again on weekends. It helps, but I certainly don’t do it as consistently as I’d like.

The Pomodoro technique (and time-blocking more generally) also sometimes helps when I need extra push to focus on something that I know I also want to examine critically. Pomodoros seem to give me permission to toggle between the “make stuff!” and “wait, what’s this leading toward?” habits of mind. Beyond just each 30 minute cycle (25 minutes of GO!!!!!, 5 minutes reflection), the broader technique also invites more substantive reflection every few hours and at the beginning & end of the day. I’m not great with experiencing time, and therefore really not great at estimating time. Since pomodoros turn nicely into time tracking, it’s a practice with many interlocking benefits.2

My Desired Practice

Since Lisa Hubbell’s second “seeding” post for this critlib chat delves into broader teachings and reflective practices, I’ll mention that Buddhist thought has worked well for me since about high school. I wouldn’t claim to be a practicing Buddhist and don’t really identify as one, just as sort of a long-time beginner or appreciator; I don’t go to a regular meeting place, don’t have a consistent meditation practice, and couldn’t recall the details of the noble eightfold path or any other fundamental precepts off the top of my head. All the same, Buddhist teachings around liberation, loving kindness, and mindfulness more than merely resonate with me. They help me make sense of the world. They work for me, and they’ve worked for other people I care about deeply.

I’ve found helpful things in writings by bell hooks (that’s to her posts at Lion’s Roar magazine/website, although my introduction to her Buddhism was the “Agent of Change” article for which Tricycle occasionally lifts its paywall), Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen, and Chade-Meng Tan’s endearingly self-deprecating Search Inside Yourself.3

Years ago, when I desperately needed to hear something along its lines, the Back to Work “The Second Arrow” episode on ADD, Buddhism, and mindfulness was profoundly helpful, too.

For a critlib audience? I really, really recommend listening to this “Talking Race, Love, and Liberation” episode of the Buddhist Geeks podcast.4 The dialog between the host & Reverend angel Kyodo williams captures the sort of liberation-seeking, loving kindness practice that I’m working toward making my own critical reflective practice.

  1. I don’t recall seeing these anywhere in particular; they’re sort of a distillation of what I’ve picked up from various types of what I consider “critical theory,” ranging from Cultural Studies to various types of activism to rhetorical analysis. 

  2. If you want to get next-level geeky with this, Ugo Landini’s Pomodoro app for Mac can sync up with Growl notifications and then even to your phone with Prowl notifications. Time’s passage can follow you even when you wander away from your keyboard, as long as you carry your phone with you. If you’re like me, you’ll be humbled by how rapidly & repeatedly your monkey mind runs away from your intentions. 

  3. I feel I’m obligated to also gesture toward whatever second-hand Alan Watts books I read back in high school, but I suspect they’d strike me as pretty Orientalist if I re-read them now. Choose your own adventure with those. Looking at titles & cover images, it probably included The Way of Zen and This is It

  4. It has enough Buddhist terminology that I occasionally felt more like an eavesdropper than a listener, but I kind of feel like that’s an especially productive approach to this topic. It’s good practice to sit with not being centered by a conversation.