Academic purity guilt and blogging

The Little Professor says:

Unlike some of the academics to whom Katherine Firth links in her post about the “Academic Purity Cult,” I’ve never received any professional pushback for blogging (well, aside from the people who don’t like something I’ve blogged, but that’s a different issue).

I have—a lot of it, in fact, at conferences and from professors. That may be in part because I’m a grad student or because of my department, but pretty much everyone in academia who has deigned to comment on the issue has disparaged blogging or any writing whatsoever that doesn’t entail peer-review. I find this bizarre because I see the primary activity of studying English being to read things, learn things through reading, write about things, and disseminate them—and the web is a very good medium for that, especially for anyone who wants to be read. Academic journals aren’t a good way to get people to read.

To me, the revealing comparison is to math, physics, CS and other fields: post to arXiv.org, say, and let the peer-review and publication catch up to the cutting-edge research. If a science-based academic learns something new, it’s imperative to get it out there as soon as possible! It’s important and treated as it’s important.

By contrast, most humanities profs appear at best indifferent and at worst hostile to those kinds of open processes, and they’re willing to endure months or years of delay between finishing a piece and seeing it published. Peer-reviewed journals won’t accept work previously published on blogs or other online forums. Evidently what we’re doing isn’t sufficiently important to others to be worth publishing in a timely manner. Instead we’re stuck in the mannerist world of journal publishing, and disdain for alternate modes of dissemination (like blogs) is part of that world. One word that keeps getting used by my professors about me is “journalistic” which they see as an insult (I by and large don’t write in deliberately obscured prose) but which I see as a quasi-compliment (I write in a way that other people can understand).

English literature doesn’t appear at all interested in “impact factors” or even readers, which I find strange given the accessibility of English, relative to, say, math proofs.

Popularity isn’t the only valuable metric for new work, but in contemporary academia it isn’t even considered. That should change.

EDIT: I’m not the only one to notice. This is from Gerald Graff’s 1979 book Literature Against Itself:

Where quantitative ‘production’ of scholarship and criticism is a chief measure of professional achievement, narrow canons of proof, evidence, logical consistency, and clarity of argument have to go. To insist on them imposes a drag upon progress. (97)

What matters is the quantity of work produced and where it is published, rather than whether it is right—or, as Graff says, “canons of proof, evidence, logical consistency, and clarity of argument.”

Links: Sibling loss, free speech, self-publishing, transfer of learning, and more

* Quora answers: “What does it feel like to have your sibling die?” HT MR.

* The Case for the Private Sector in School Reform.

* Terrifying Teen Speech in the News Again: What kind of democracy teaches its young people they’ll be punished for talking out of turn?

* The Joys and Hazards of Self-Publishing on the Web. This basically describes where I’m going.

* From Tyler Cowen, a link to “Working 9 to 12: ‘How Much Is Enough?’ by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky:”

I well remember as recently as the 1980s how shabby England was, how terrible the plumbing, how shoddy the housing materials, how treacherously uneven the floors and sidewalks, how inadequate the heating and poor the food — and how tolerant the English were of discomfort. I recall breakfast at Hertford College, Oxford, in an imposing hall with a large broken window — apparently broken for some time — and the dons huddled sheeplike in overcoats; and in a freezing, squalid bar in the basement of the college a don in an overcoat expressing relief at being home after a year teaching in Virginia, which he had found terrifying because of America’s high crime rate, though he had not been touched by it. I remember being a guest of Brasenose College — Oxford’s wealthiest — and being envied because I had been invited to stay in the master’s guest quarters, only to find that stepping into the guest quarters was like stepping into a Surrealist painting, because the floor sloped in one direction and the two narrow beds in two other directions. I recall the English (now American) economist Ronald Coase telling me that until he visited the United States he did not know it was possible to be warm.

As I said in MR’s comments, to me, the situation may not have improved that much; as an undergrad I went from Clark University to the University of East Anglia for a semester and was shocked at the condition of the latter, and of England in general. Notice too this:

There is virtually no discussion of how people, their incomes halved, might be expected to employ the vastly greater leisure that the authors want them to have. Besides the sentence I quoted about the musician, sculptor, teacher and scientist — and the description is of their work, not of their leisure activities — there is a suggestion that a good leisure activity is letting one’s mind wander “freely and aimlessly,” and a list of three recreations — “playing football in the park, making and decorating one’s own furniture, strumming the guitar with friends” — offered to refute any contention that the authors’ conception of leisure is “narrowly highbrow.”

I like my work, most of the time, and would probably be bored being idle. We might be better off if we tried to do things we like, and, if we can’t, we should at least try to like the things that we do.

* “Low Transfer of Learning: The Glass Is Half Full,” which ends with this: “Instead of bemoaning American workers’ mediocre literacy and numeracy, we should be grateful that millions of Americans who learn little in school still manage to learn useful trades on the job. Seriously.”

Teaching, mentoring, and how no one does it alone

A Hacker News thread on a post called The wrong question: “I want to learn to code, what should I do?” included this bit in response to a suggestion that people who want to learn should simply consult the Internet:

don’t just point [people who want to learn how to program] at Google. Tell them YOUR story […] and […] what YOU would do differently […] Use your friends[. . .]

These are good bits of advice. I would also encourage folks here to realize just how far programming is from what most people do all day.

In the thread, you could find/replace “programming” insert any number of other activities, like “writing” (the one I’m closest too), and find a good fit for this advice. (Try it now with music, photography, cooking, or math, and you’ll get the same effect.)

Theoretically, someone who wants to learn a topic, like writing, in great depth could be a Steppenwolfe and teach themselves without any direct interaction from others—or anyone apart from the Internet hordes. But it would be so damn difficult and time consuming that they’d be better served by finding a friend—any friend—who is already at least moderately proficient and getting that friend to read their stuff. If people could simply learn on their own from non-interactive sources like libraries and web forums. But those sources appear to be a complement to, not a substitute for, real life interaction.

I try to live this by example. I’m a grad student in English lit, so when I tell people I spend a lot of time writing and they reply by saying, “I write” or “I want to write better” and are curious about what’s going on, I’ll talk about my experience and what I’ve done and so on. If they want me to read their stuff I will, provided they pass the (very low) barriers described here. I don’t think most people are going to master a skill without personal interaction / guidance and reading / working through problems on their own.

Certainly that’s been true of my experience: a lot of what I’ve learned about writing came from conversations with people. Those people often weren’t “professionals,” like teachers or professors, but those conversations were often more valuable than formal education. They became literary friendships, even when they had a mentor / mentee quality to them.

The mentor / mentee or master / apprentice or teacher / student paradigm exists for a reason. Yeah, a lot of its official manifestations in the school system don’t work real well, but they persist because they do serve real purposes for people who want to be come experts. The real world is very high bandwidth, and I don’t see virtual sources completely supplanting individual or small-group work for a very long time—if ever.

Why Don't Students Like School? – Daniel T. Willingham

Daniel T. Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom is too long a title for a book that is surprisingly good, especially given how short it is. Although the title mentions the “classroom,” the book is useful not only for teachers and students, but for anyone who needs to be aware of the cognitive processes involving in learning—which should be anyone involved in the knowledge economy, since that economy is based almost entirely on being smarter and more efficient than the next guy. The only way to accomplish that is through education—and not only the kind that goes on in schools.

Although Willingham’s book focuses on the “school” part of the equation, his advice can be translated elsewhere, to anyone who has information that must be imparted to others. He says students don’t like school in part because they’re being taught poorly. This probably isn’t news to anyone who has ever attended school. The problem is what “poorly” means and how it might be improved, both on the level of an individual teacher and on the institutional level at which K-12 education and universities operate. The two aren’t often treated as a single unit for teaching purposes, in part because K-12 teachers are just supposed to teach, while university instructors are also supposed to be doing research. Nonetheless, both obviously struggle with student (and sometimes teacher) boredom.

The problem goes beyond the classroom and into life: “[. . .] unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.” In essence, we avoid thinking more than we embrace it, on average, which makes a certain amount of sense: the more we have to think about a particular thing, the less we can think about anything else. I’ve been dimly aware of this for a reasonably long time, in part because of Paul Graham’s essay Good and Bad Procrastination, where he says:

There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I’d argue, is good procrastination.

Most of us probably spend most of our time on (a). In normal cognitive conditions, we’re probably at (b). Willingham (and teachers) want us to be at (c). He says, “Most of the problems we face are ones we’ve solved before, so we just do what we’ve done in the past.” But this does little for learning, and we have to find a space between what we already know and where we’d like to be. Too little, and we’re not really learning. Too much, and we’re likely to shut down because we don’t understand. You can’t really vector calculus to someone who doesn’t know geometry. You probably can’t teach regular calculus to someone who doesn’t.

People need opportunities to solve problems, not just be talked at. This is one reason lectures are often ineffective and/or boring: they evolved to solve the problem of paper being expensive and knowledge dissemination difficult. For their time and place in the Middle Ages, they were pretty effective. Today, however, when knowledge transmission in written form can be virtually free, lectures don’t make as much sense because in too many cases they don’t offer the chance to solve real problems. Yet teachers and professors keep using them in part out of habit.

Habit can be dangerous for both groups, unless the habit in question is the habit of breaking out of habits. Enthusiasm and boredom are both contagious. Willingham doesn’t talk about the two or how they interact, but most people like to be around those who are enthusiastic about doing something and dislike the opposite. When the person standing in front of a room doesn’t care, it’s probably not surprising that the room doesn’t care either. In my experience, better teachers have a childlike sense of wonder about the world, which makes them enthusiastic; weaker teachers don’t care. Apathy is the opposite of good teaching, and yet there are relatively few penalties against apathy in the school systems (the plural is important: there isn’t just one) operating in the United States. Willingham doesn’t discuss this, which might be a function of his method (he uses data whenever possible), an oversight, or simply beyond the scope of his argument.

He also doesn’t discuss one of the bigger problems with school: the relentless focus on GPAs and hoop jumping; Robin Hanson recently noted what might be the best advice I’ve ever read regarding studying in his post Make More Than GPA:

Students seem overly obsessed with grades and organized activities, both relative to standardized tests and to what I’d most recommend: doing something original. You don’t have to step very far outside scheduled classes and clubs to start to see how very different the world is when you have to organize it yourself.

Still, Willingham writes, “I don’t know why some great thinkers (who undoubtedly knew many facts) took delight in denigrating schools, often depicting them as factories for the useless memorization of information.” They probably did so because many schools were and are factories for the useless memorization of information. Just because one observes that, however, doesn’t mean that any memorization of facts is automatically useless. As he says on the next page, “Critical thinking is not a set of procedures that can be practiced and perfected while divorced from background knowledge.” But background knowledge is necessary, not sufficient, for critical thinking, and too many schools stop at background knowledge.

Perhaps the most useful thing teachers could to make school better is the same thing all professionals do: concentrate on ceaselessly improving their craft through incremental efforts at daily improvement. This is what we have to do for any kind of learning, and Willingham describes how we move from a state of no knowledge to shallow knowledge to deep knowledge in particular problem domains. People with no knowledge and who have some introduced tend not to retain that knowledge well; people who have shallow knowledge tend not to connect that knowledge to other knowledge; and people who have deep knowledge can fit new information into existing schemas, webs, or ideas much more effectively than those who can’t.

Books like Why Don’t Students Like School are a good place to start: I’ve changed some of my habits because of it, especially in terms of seeking feedback loops and engagement through things like polling, movement in physical space itself, and working toward asking questions that actively lead toward whatever it is I’m trying to get at—which usually involves close reading, understanding what the author is saying, or working toward analysis in papers. I focus more on the feedback loops involved in teaching, thinking, and memory. Those last two are important because “memory is the residue of thought.” This means we need to think if we’re going to remember things more effectively than we would otherwise, and this process requires dedicated practice: “If you don’t pay attention to something, you can’t learn it! You won’t remember much of the seminar if you were thinking about something else.” This might explain why I ban laptops from my classrooms: they encourage students to think about something else. But merely “thinking” isn’t enough: Willingham says “[. . .] a teacher’s goal should almost always be to get students to think about meaning.” One way to do this is simply by asking, but relatively few teachers appear to make this leap. Even that isn’t enough:

The emotional bond between students and teacher—for better or worse—accounts for whether students learn. The brilliantly well-organized teacher whom fourth graders see as mean will not be very effective. But the funny teacher, or the gentle storytelling teacher, whose lessons are poorly organized won’t be much good either. Effective teachers have both qualities. They are able to connect personally with students, and they organize the material in a way that makes it interesting and easy to understand.

We need practice to learn intellectually, just as we need practice at sports and music: “It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice.” But precisely what practice entails also remains unclear.

But the problems with Why Don’t Students Like School as a book remain. It a) has an irritating habit of using poorly formatted pictures and b) often feels under-researched. But the fact that its suggestions are real, concrete, and applicable make it useful to teachers in any capacity: many if not most of us have to teach something over the course of our lives, whether work processes to mentors, cooking to spouses, life skills to children, or technical skills to people on the Internet. And it’s sometimes vague: Willingham writes, “We are naturally curious, and we look for opportunities to engage in certain types of thought.” But what types do we try to think in? He doesn’t say. There are pointless pictures and graphs, no doubt designed to somehow make us remember things better but mostly an insult to our intelligence, as if we’re in high school instead of aspiring to teach high school and beyond.

Why Don’t Students Like School? – Daniel T. Willingham

Daniel T. Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom is too long a title for a book that is surprisingly good, especially given how short it is. Although the title mentions the “classroom,” the book is useful not only for teachers and students, but for anyone who needs to be aware of the cognitive processes involving in learning—which should be anyone involved in the knowledge economy, since that economy is based almost entirely on being smarter and more efficient than the next guy. The only way to accomplish that is through education—and not only the kind that goes on in schools.

Although Willingham’s book focuses on the “school” part of the equation, his advice can be translated elsewhere, to anyone who has information that must be imparted to others. He says students don’t like school in part because they’re being taught poorly. This probably isn’t news to anyone who has ever attended school. The problem is what “poorly” means and how it might be improved, both on the level of an individual teacher and on the institutional level at which K-12 education and universities operate. The two aren’t often treated as a single unit for teaching purposes, in part because K-12 teachers are just supposed to teach, while university instructors are also supposed to be doing research. Nonetheless, both obviously struggle with student (and sometimes teacher) boredom.

The problem goes beyond the classroom and into life: “[. . .] unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.” In essence, we avoid thinking more than we embrace it, on average, which makes a certain amount of sense: the more we have to think about a particular thing, the less we can think about anything else. I’ve been dimly aware of this for a reasonably long time, in part because of Paul Graham’s essay Good and Bad Procrastination, where he says:

There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I’d argue, is good procrastination.

Most of us probably spend most of our time on (a). In normal cognitive conditions, we’re probably at (b). Willingham (and teachers) want us to be at (c). He says, “Most of the problems we face are ones we’ve solved before, so we just do what we’ve done in the past.” But this does little for learning, and we have to find a space between what we already know and where we’d like to be. Too little, and we’re not really learning. Too much, and we’re likely to shut down because we don’t understand. You can’t really vector calculus to someone who doesn’t know geometry. You probably can’t teach regular calculus to someone who doesn’t.

People need opportunities to solve problems, not just be talked at. This is one reason lectures are often ineffective and/or boring: they evolved to solve the problem of paper being expensive and knowledge dissemination difficult. For their time and place in the Middle Ages, they were pretty effective. Today, however, when knowledge transmission in written form can be virtually free, lectures don’t make as much sense because in too many cases they don’t offer the chance to solve real problems. Yet teachers and professors keep using them in part out of habit.

Habit can be dangerous for both groups, unless the habit in question is the habit of breaking out of habits. Enthusiasm and boredom are both contagious. Willingham doesn’t talk about the two or how they interact, but most people like to be around those who are enthusiastic about doing something and dislike the opposite. When the person standing in front of a room doesn’t care, it’s probably not surprising that the room doesn’t care either. In my experience, better teachers have a childlike sense of wonder about the world, which makes them enthusiastic; weaker teachers don’t care. Apathy is the opposite of good teaching, and yet there are relatively few penalties against apathy in the school systems (the plural is important: there isn’t just one) operating in the United States. Willingham doesn’t discuss this, which might be a function of his method (he uses data whenever possible), an oversight, or simply beyond the scope of his argument.

He also doesn’t discuss one of the bigger problems with school: the relentless focus on GPAs and hoop jumping; Robin Hanson recently noted what might be the best advice I’ve ever read regarding studying in his post Make More Than GPA:

Students seem overly obsessed with grades and organized activities, both relative to standardized tests and to what I’d most recommend: doing something original. You don’t have to step very far outside scheduled classes and clubs to start to see how very different the world is when you have to organize it yourself.

Still, Willingham writes, “I don’t know why some great thinkers (who undoubtedly knew many facts) took delight in denigrating schools, often depicting them as factories for the useless memorization of information.” They probably did so because many schools were and are factories for the useless memorization of information. Just because one observes that, however, doesn’t mean that any memorization of facts is automatically useless. As he says on the next page, “Critical thinking is not a set of procedures that can be practiced and perfected while divorced from background knowledge.” But background knowledge is necessary, not sufficient, for critical thinking, and too many schools stop at background knowledge.

Perhaps the most useful thing teachers could to make school better is the same thing all professionals do: concentrate on ceaselessly improving their craft through incremental efforts at daily improvement. This is what we have to do for any kind of learning, and Willingham describes how we move from a state of no knowledge to shallow knowledge to deep knowledge in particular problem domains. People with no knowledge and who have some introduced tend not to retain that knowledge well; people who have shallow knowledge tend not to connect that knowledge to other knowledge; and people who have deep knowledge can fit new information into existing schemas, webs, or ideas much more effectively than those who can’t.

Books like Why Don’t Students Like School are a good place to start: I’ve changed some of my habits because of it, especially in terms of seeking feedback loops and engagement through things like polling, movement in physical space itself, and working toward asking questions that actively lead toward whatever it is I’m trying to get at—which usually involves close reading, understanding what the author is saying, or working toward analysis in papers. I focus more on the feedback loops involved in teaching, thinking, and memory. Those last two are important because “memory is the residue of thought.” This means we need to think if we’re going to remember things more effectively than we would otherwise, and this process requires dedicated practice: “If you don’t pay attention to something, you can’t learn it! You won’t remember much of the seminar if you were thinking about something else.” This might explain why I ban laptops from my classrooms: they encourage students to think about something else. But merely “thinking” isn’t enough: Willingham says “[. . .] a teacher’s goal should almost always be to get students to think about meaning.” One way to do this is simply by asking, but relatively few teachers appear to make this leap. Even that isn’t enough:

The emotional bond between students and teacher—for better or worse—accounts for whether students learn. The brilliantly well-organized teacher whom fourth graders see as mean will not be very effective. But the funny teacher, or the gentle storytelling teacher, whose lessons are poorly organized won’t be much good either. Effective teachers have both qualities. They are able to connect personally with students, and they organize the material in a way that makes it interesting and easy to understand.

We need practice to learn intellectually, just as we need practice at sports and music: “It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice.” But precisely what practice entails also remains unclear.

But the problems with Why Don’t Students Like School as a book remain. It a) has an irritating habit of using poorly formatted pictures and b) often feels under-researched. But the fact that its suggestions are real, concrete, and applicable make it useful to teachers in any capacity: many if not most of us have to teach something over the course of our lives, whether work processes to mentors, cooking to spouses, life skills to children, or technical skills to people on the Internet. And it’s sometimes vague: Willingham writes, “We are naturally curious, and we look for opportunities to engage in certain types of thought.” But what types do we try to think in? He doesn’t say. There are pointless pictures and graphs, no doubt designed to somehow make us remember things better but mostly an insult to our intelligence, as if we’re in high school instead of aspiring to teach high school and beyond.

Laptops, students, distraction: hardly a surprise

This post grew out of a comment responding to the question, “What Restrictions Should Student Laptops Have?” I’m a graduate student who teaches English 101/102 and takes classes at the University of Arizona. This post also dovetails nicely with “Desktops versus laptops.”

The short version: leave restrictions or lack thereof to the teachers or instructors.

For background, read “Why I ban laptops in my classroom,” “I Don’t Multitask,” “professor vs laptop,” Paul Graham’s “Disconnecting Distraction“and finally “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” This is not a new issue. If Paul Graham and other writers and hackers find the Internet ceaselessly distracting, what hope do freshmen have? I hear friends and other grad students say they feel like they can’t go more than a half hour without poking around the Internet, which hurts their writing time. Laptops in general and Internet connectivity in particular might cause greater problems than those they’re designed to solve.*

While I sympathize with some pro-laptop comments, I will point out that paternalism is not always bad; sometimes it’s a necessary component of developing discipline, fortitude, or tenacity. Banning laptops could help students develop the ability to focus for a sustained period of time and not get lost in class, particularly during discussions about complex material. In classrooms I’ve been in—including graduate classrooms—where virtually everyone had laptops, they were used for taking notes, yes. But they were also used for Facebook, and checking out happy hour, messaging, and messaging about the incompetence of the person speaking, checking the score, and a variety of other things that promote continuous partial attention.

The jokes are coming: you must’ve been a dumb student, gone to a bad school, had bad professors, be weak minded, etc. Maybe: but I think the bigger problem is that letting one’s attention temporarily wander is made so much easier by having a laptop and Internet connection is almost overwhelming. Sure, you can stay on a diet with a chocolate cake in your kitchen. Sure, you’d never lie on that mortgage application about your income—but, you know, you really want that McMansion, and no one is going to check it, and you just have to inflate it a little… The problem is that laptops made distraction so easy. They make it harder to separate the bad professor from the difficult material. And so on.

Students in universities succumb to the Beer and Circus mentality, and if they do, what luck will middle- and high-school students have? I teach freshmen English now at the University of Arizona and ban laptops. I’m aware of the counter-arguments and alluded to them above: if you’re not a compelling enough teacher to keep their attention, they deserve to use laptops to get around you. But what if you can’t get their attention in the first place? What if you’re trying to impart something important but that doesn’t have the immediacy of Perez Hilton? Then give them the Cs they deserve when they write bad papers. And then they whine to you about the grades they got. The Slashdot commenter would be such a strong writer or coder or mathematician that he could get by anyway: congratulations. But the other 24 people in the classroom probably can’t.

All this is to say that laptops can very easily and quickly become more a burden than benefit. For some classes they may be necessary or helpful, like programming classes. Still, not every lesson will call for them and not every teacher will want to use them.

“Here’s the dilemma — how much freedom do you give to students?” you ask. The answer depends too much on the instructor to give a firm answer, but I give the answer above in part because so many of the initial responses tend towards “let them do whatever they want.” Sure: and throw someone into an ocean a mile from shore and see what happens. If the teacher wants them to conduct a textual analysis of a Facebook profile, let them. If the teacher doesn’t want them to have Internet access, let the teacher have a kill switch for the room’s wireless router. That way, you’ll be allowing as much flexibility as the situation calls for.

Outside the school, students’ autonomy should be complete, and schools shouldn’t impinge on students’ rights to conduct themselves how they will. Many students will use computers in ways that seem wasteful, but a few will also hack them, use them for self-expression, and let the computers become assistants rather than crutches for thought.

Did you see what Randy Pausch calls the headfake in this essay? It’s partially about students, yes, but it’s really about how to create and learn. Computers can help those processes, but too often they seem to hinder. And when they hinder, they should be discarded. The real scarce resource in modern life is sustained attention.

EDIT 2015: Vox reports on a study that says “you should take notes by hand — not on a laptop.” The study claims that participants who wrote by hand had better recall, especially of complex concepts. Don’t take one study as definitive but in this case anecdote and research match.

In addition, Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World discusses similar topics. I think distraction and defeating it will be an ongoing saga for many decades.


* I haven’t gone as far as Paul Graham, who describes his solution:

I now leave wifi turned off on my main computer except when I need to transfer a file or edit a web page, and I have a separate laptop on the other side of the room that I use to check mail or browse the web. (Irony of ironies, it’s the computer Steve Huffman wrote Reddit on. When Steve and Alexis auctioned off their old laptops for charity, I bought them for the Y Combinator museum.)

My rule is that I can spend as much time online as I want, as long as I do it on that computer. And this turns out to be enough. When I have to sit on the other side of the room to check email or browse the web, I become much more aware of it. Sufficiently aware, in my case at least, that it’s hard to spend more than about an hour a day online.

And my main computer is now freed for work. If you try this trick, you’ll probably be struck by how different it feels when your computer is disconnected from the Internet. It was alarming to me how foreign it felt to sit in front of a computer that could only be used for work, because that showed how much time I must have been wasting.

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