I took my dad's old office chair with me to college. It had spent years in the office of Miller Trucking. As a little kid, I watched my grandfather sit there, fielding calls that would send my dad up every last hollow in West Virginia, dragging oil drilling rigs into places that you'd need good cardio just to walk into. It fell to my dad to wind down the business following the collapse of West Virginia's oil and gas industry—a duty that he discharged from that same chair.
Dad took it apart the summer before I left for college, recovering the cracked vinyl seat, sanding and repairing the wooden armrests, and oiling the wheels. It survived four dorm rooms and a year in a fraternity house. Another new set of fabric and it was ready for its final tour in Blacksburg, VA.
The chair and I moved into an old Masonic lodge that had been retrofitted into five living spaces. My ground floor unit was packed full of second- and third-hand furniture, though perhaps none of it quite so venerable as that chair. The only new thing in the entire place was a flat-packed desk, purchased from Walmart and holding the Mac Performa 6300 that I bought with a student loan.
That chair resided proudly between the desk and a small kitchen table that had graced the homes of everyone in my family at some point. The table couldn't really host meals during its stint in Blacksburg, as it—like every other flat surface in the room—was constantly covered in dog-eared books filled with varying sizes of post-it notes. The books kept company with a handful of photocopies, their $0.10-per-page cost always a difficult choice for someone living on an $8,000 annual stipend.
The books were always held open to specific pages, using anything that was convenient to hand and heavy enough to do the job. Cereal bowls, winter coats, second-hand copies of science fiction novels. All have served double duty at various points.
And me, wheeling around the chaos in my trusty chair, picking up a book over here, a photocopied essay over there. Physically moving things nearer each other when ideas intersected. A secular intellectual take on the old Christian rituals. Stand. Read from a text. Kneel. Sit, head bowed in thought. Pace and mutter banalities, hoping for the occasional inspiration.
No calm, sedate, systematic review of a single text. It's scholarship as activity. Read a section from one book, scramble to find the underlined passage in a different text, scribble some note cards, jam something new into an outline, scribble in the margins. On a good day, maybe even write down a few sentences on your Mac.
We're more than 30 years into the web, and when it comes to lean-forward reading, it's still objectively worse than my literal, physical desktop. After all, my desk holds multiple texts at once, and holds them in a form that lets me easily flip between sections, interacting with multiple texts in the same context.
My story is neither new nor unique. It’s how I learned to conduct research as an undergraduate; how I wrote seminar papers, a master’s thesis and a dissertation in graduate school; how I wrote scholarly papers as a young academic.
I built my first professional website in 2009. I was both late to the game and a total amateur. Three years prior, I'd been a philosophy professor. In those intervening years, I was a staff writer at FactCheck.org.
Links are meant to document relationships between content. Consider a very simple type of link: a reference for a quotation, like the following which I wrestled with throughout my years in graduate school:
But leaning back in the time around intent is not how research is done. Research is a sprawling mess. It needs more real estate than a phone provides.