I recently went on a weekend camping and mountain biking trip with a friend of mine, and the experience caused me to reflect upon the importance (or lack thereof) of having the lastest and greatest gear to get done what you need to get done. We camped next to some guys who had very nice, very expensive bikes, but who didn’t seem to do any actual mountain biking, as far as we could tell. Instead, they would drive into town for pizza at mealtimes and then come back to camp and sit around their campfire drinking a lot of beer and smoking a lot of… well, let’s just say that there was smoking taking place over there.
Now I don’t have the nicest bike in the world. In fact, it’s really just an affordable commuter bike that’s been tweaked a bit so I can ride it on trails. However, I actually do ride it, although I sometimes wish I had a fancier (lighter, better equipped) bike. But this trip made me realize that the kind of bike you own only matters so much. At a certain point you have to realize that it’s not about the gear you’re using; it’s about what you do with the gear. For me, a plain-and-simple bike is really all I need to exercise and enjoy myself every once in awhile.
My realization made me start thinking about other areas of my life—and, specifically, my academic life—in which I’ve opted for simple, effective gear instead of fancier, more complex alternatives. Why? Because I think we all run the risk of chasing the next big thing instead of assessing whether or not we have a real need that our current gear doesn’t satisfy. (I was originally going to title this post “It’s Not About the Bike,” but I didn’t realize—really!—that the title’s already taken.) Herewith, I offer you 5 simple tools that are essential to my academic life:
A one-serving coffee press
The geek in me sometimes longs for something like a programmable, Internet-connected combination espresso machine and drip coffee maker that connects to a heart monitor (sold separately) and automatically creates the appropriate drink for me when it senses that my energy level has gotten too low. Instead, however, I use a small, affordable coffee press whenever I feel the need for caffeination. It’s reliable, easy to clean, and the coffee it makes tastes about as fresh as can be.
A black ink pen
Even though I’m terrible at managing paper documents and love the convenience and searchability of digital information, I’ve yet to jump fully into the habits that would be necessary to abandon paper and ink. The paper had better be college ruled (a legal pad is preferable), and the pen had better be a Pilot G2. I annotate books and articles pretty thoroughly, and I don’t have to worry about whether or not my annotations will be lost with a software upgrade or whether a student will be able to access what I’ve written on their essays.
A small notebook
After experimenting with things like Evernote, Remember the Milk, and Things, I have come to the conclusion that for keeping notes and maintaining a to-do list I prefer to carry around a medium-sized notebook. There’s just something so satisfying about drawing a line through one of the tasks on my list, and the task doesn’t disappear but stays visible under that mark, reminding me of how productive I’ve been.
A paper gradebook
I’m aware of the various software applications for keeping track of grades (as well as taking attendance), but I’ve found nothing to be as reliable as a paper gradebook. I can almost never launch (and use) the sofware in class while simultaneously greeting students, getting the class started, and trying to remember the agenda for the day. With a paper gradebook, however, I don’t have to think nearly as much about the process.
The 3-inch-square yellow sticky notes come in handy for many different purposes, from annotating a book (just tear them into strips to make them smaller), to leaving a note on a colleague’s door, to making a comment on student paper, to writing a reminder for myself and sticking it on my laptop. I know there are digital ways of accomplishing just about all of these things, but they’re sometimes just more trouble than they’re worth. The sticky note? Always works.
How about you?
What are your favorite analog tools (and why)? Let’s hear from you in the comments!