Becoming a Collector

by Site Author

Ronald Reagan always had a pile of index cards with him. He would jot down jokes or stories on the cards. And when it was time to give a speech, he would flip through his index cards, looking for the right material.

Indeed, Martin Anderson, Reagan’s former domestic policy adviser, says that Reagan’s system did wonders for his ability to give speeches. Reagan was able to approach a lectern with no sign anywhere of a prepared speech. Only those seated on the stage behind him could see his left hand drop into his suitcoat pocket and pull out a neat, small packet of cards and slip off the elastic band with his right hand as he set the cards down. And as for helping him in preparing the speech material, “his system was unrivaled,” Anderson remembers. “Before the speech Reagan would pore over the packs of cards, then pluck a few cards from one pack, a few from another, and combine them. In a matter of minutes, he would create an entirely new speech. The system was as flexible as a smooth gold chain.”

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Collecting material is the first step in producing material. In Reagan’s case, he needed to produce speeches, and for that he needed a solid supply of material.

I’ve learned to do something similar to prepare lectures. When I was just starting out as an assistant professor, a colleague lent me a book filled with advice for new faculty. The book recommended an approach to planning lectures that was similar to what Reagan did with his index cards.

I plan lectures months in advance. For months, however, all I do is simply collect material. I jot down references, figures, and explanations. Only the day before the lecture do I begin the hard work of writing the text.

I remember a famous faculty member telling me about how she had a great research idea while eating at a restaurant. This was during the era just before smart phones, so she had a cell phone on her, but it was not an iPhone. She couldn’t find any paper on which to jot down the idea, and so she called her office number form her cell phone and left herself a voicemail. Now that’s collecting.