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Reading Effectively

You already know how to read, I’m sure. You’ve been reading since first grade — or maybe even before. “Although the words, syntax, and ideas are more complex, isn’t reading in graduate school fundamentally like reading in first grade?,” Gary Alan Fine and Shannon K. Fitzsimons ask in a January 2011 article in the Chronicle Review.

It isn’t, of course. Not only is reading Foucault more intellectually challenging than reading Goodnight Moon (although the two have quite a bit in common, both emphasizing omnipresent surveillance), but the application of reading differs. For the most part, earlier reading is an attempt to grasp the meaning of a text so that one can repeat it to an authority, who then judges whether one “got” the ideas. At that level, reading is regurgitation.

In graduate school, reading and the ability to discuss and interpret that reading are simultaneously a means by which a student asserts an academic identity and the basis on which a student can produce new knowledge. And while assignments before graduate school are meant to be read in full, the wise graduate student must learn how to skim in order to manage impossible demands. It is the ability to not read everything—while still reading enough—that represents success in graduate school. [I recommend taking a closer look at Fine and Fitzsimons’s article.]

So, we’re going to take a little time to talk about reading effectively. This is not meant to diminish your enjoyment of reading, to spoil the experience of getting lost in a good novel or to disregard the value of engaging deeply, and patiently, with a challenging but rewarding text. Instead, what follows is meant to help you make decisions about what’s worth that intensive investment of time and energy, and what kinds of texts can be read more efficiently.

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After I locate relevant resources (see my previous lesson on “Finding Sources“), I decide what’s worth a skim, and what requires more patient consideration. I start reading by scanning the chapter titles and index or, if it’s an essay or article, the abstract and subheads. I read the article’s or book’s main introduction and conclusion, then return to the beginning and scan through, focusing on the introductory and concluding paragraphs in each chapter of the book or section of the article. As you read more and more, you’ll have a better and better sense of what you’re looking for, and you’ll start to read more purposefully and efficiently. Design researchers Carole Gray and Julian Malins, authors of Visualizing Research: A Guide to the Research Process in Art and Design, recommend developing a manageable list of keywords or research descriptors, and keeping those concepts in mind as you read to help you focus and select sections that are worth your time (p. 45). (These same keywords should also help to structure your note-taking.) You should of course scan a work in its entirety to enable to you appreciate the author’s overall argument, but your keywords can help you to identify particularly relevant sections that warrant a closer reading. If you highlight – either on hard copies, or via Acrobat Reader Pro, Diigo, or some other software – consider using color-coding to track your keywords. This color-coding system might even extend to your paper files or folders on your desktop, to help you keep track of which resources apply to which themes.

Historian Michelle Murphy, of the University of Toronto, offers other potentially helpful strategies for approaching a difficult text. First, she says, expect not to “get it” on the first pass. In your first reading, “identify what you understand about the texts, and mark what you do not understand”; “periodically pause and rephrase” your understanding of the argument; list crucial concepts, and look up words you are not familiar with (n.b.: their “theoretical meaning” might be quite different from the dictionary definition; you’ll need to know where to look to understand how these words are being used in context); and “ask yourself if the style [in which] the text is written is important to the argument.”

The second time through, pay close attention to difficult passages, reread them – and if you still don’t get them, look for secondary texts that explicate these passages, or discuss them with a colleague or advisor. Take notes, and once you’ve reached the end, make a summary or map of the argument.

“Ph.D. Reading,” via RLHyde on Flickr

There’s no substitute for working slowly and methodically through a text. But there are supplemental resources – big kids’ CliffsNotes, if you will – that you might reference after you’ve taken your best stab at a text, to confirm or revise your understanding. I find the following especially useful:

All are reputable sources, by noted scholars – which is important. See also the meta-discussion in the key media and cultural studies anthologies: Michael Ryan’s Cultural Studies: An Anthology, Meenakshi Gigi Durham’s and Douglas Kellner’s Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks, and Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s and Nick Montfort’s The New Media Reader. The texts introducing each of the books’ sections provide useful synopses of the anthologized texts – all seminal works in their respective fields. And check out the dictionaries: Raymond Williams’ Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society and Tony Bennett et al.’s revision, New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society.

But, as I’ve said, you’ve got to grapple with the source texts before any of these support texts can help to confirm your understanding. And, indeed, many academic and theoretical texts make for slow and laborious reading. Sometimes this is because the author is working through complex ideas, and occasionally he or she might be writing under the assumption that the reader is already an insider to the field, and thus familiar with the field’s linguistic conventions. And sometimes reading is hard because the writing’s overblown or downright awful (see Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language“, Gerald Graff’s “Scholars and Sound Bites“).

Peter Barry, author of Beginning Theory, offers some guidelines to keep in mind when we encounter intimidating readings:

Firstly, we must have some initial patience with the difficult surface of the writing. We must avoid the too-ready conclusion that [academic writing] is just meaningless, pretentious jargon (that is, that the theory is at fault). Secondly, on the other hand, we must, for obvious reasons, resist the view that we ourselves are intellectually incapable of coping with it (that is, that we are at fault). Thirdly, and crucially, we must not assume that the difficulty of theoretical writing is always the dress of profound ideas – only that it might sometimes be, which leaves the onus of discrimination on us. To sum up this attitude: we are looking, in [theory or other academic writing], for something we can use, not something which (sic) will use us. We ought not to issue theory with a blank cheque to spend our times for us… Do not, then, be endlessly patient with theory (pp. 7-8).

In other words, we need to be patient with difficult reading – but there’s a limit to that patience. It might take you a while – you might need to go through a few graduate seminars and write a few graduate papers – before your “crap detector,” to borrow Hemingway’s phrase, turns on: before you learn to discern which texts are worth your time, and which are not; which are difficult but potentially rewarding texts, and which are overblown hokum (see also Neil Postman on “crap detection”). It’s best to give the benefit of the doubt to those texts that are frequently cited or have achieved “canonical” status, and those that your instructors have vetted and listed on a syllabus — but you’ll need to cultivate your own criteria for discernment when you’re conducting research independently.

And particularly in regard to reading theory: you’ll eventually have to develop your own relationship with theory — how you read it, how you use it, etc. I think it’s particularly important for graduate students to be conscious of the “political economy” of theory — how it’s made, who gets to make it, how it circulates and gains traction, etc. — and to assess the consonances and dissonances between the form and content of various theoretical approaches and movements (see these posts on “Theoretical Humility” and “The Cultural Techniques (and Political Economy) of Theory-Making). Make sure to consider, too, how theory can be creative and generative — how theory’s utility, or application, can go beyond analysis and critique to inspire creation (e.g., media-making, artistic work, entrepreneurship); and how the realms of “making,” “activism,” or “practice” more generally might be a means of shaping or doing theory (see Jussi Parikka, What Is Media Archaeology? (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2012); Jussi Parikka, Interview with Garnet Hertz, “Archaeologies of Media ArtCTheory (April 1, 2010)).

Other Tips

Marc Giai-Miniet, Three machines that want to know, 60 x 45 x 13 cm, 2012

Marc Giai-Miniet, Three machines that want to know, 60 x 45 x 13 cm, 2012

  • Alex Galarza, in “How to Read a Book” (August 29, 2011), talks about identifying and using various “clues to decide your time commitment and your goals for…reading” assignments.
  • Galarza also references Paul N. Edwards’ own “How to Read a Book,” another immensely useful guide, which Galarza calls a “gem for all academics, but especially for first years who often feel anxious or confused about what exactly they need to get out of the one thousand pages they were assigned their first week.”
  • Marie desJardins, computer scientist and electrical engineer, proposes that, “to really understand a paper, you have to understand the motivations for the problem posed, the choices made in finding a solution, the assumptions behind the solution, whether the assumptions are realistic and whether they can be removed without invalidating the approach, future directions for research, what was actually accomplished or implemented, the validity (or lack thereof) of the theoretical justifications or empirical demonstrations, and the potential for extending and scaling the algorithm up.” In considering the author’s motivation, we might ask about the historical, social, cultural, or professional context from which the author is writing, and to which he or she is speaking. What other ideas or texts is the author in dialogue with? We might also ask how the author would have answered the “so what?” question; how would he or she have explained to a reader why he or she should care about the argument in the text? Not all theory has to do things in the world – but we might consider what the theory might allow us to do, materially or symbolically, with it. What does it allow us to think through, to think with? What power does it wield? Choices might refer to methods, or the sample the researcher chooses to draw from, or the theoretical framework he or she uses. What does the author identify as potential future directions for research? Are you following any of his/her leads?
  • There are lots of other online resources that encourage you to ask particular questions of each text you encounter.
  • James F. Klumpp, “How to Read Theory
  • See also the interviews with various scholars, who often elaborate on their own reading practices, in Figure/Ground.
  • J.K., an English graduate student, shares her own strategies for tackling “the impossible reading load” (February 23, 2014).
  • And what about the overall volume of stuff you feel compelled to read? In an interview with Figure/Ground, communication scholar John Durham Peters offers some words of wisdom: “Though there is too much to read, many minds will light on common truths.  So instead of angsting about how to encompass it all, find an angle and start digging and you will soon discover roots and branches that connect you with other perspectives.  Dig into Weber far enough, and you’ll be able to figure out Marx and Durkheim.  This is the wormhole principle: the key thing is to figure out how to access the network.  So instead of dictating a canon of specific titles, I would encourage people to find their scripture, their text that can help interpret the world for them, and then read and reread it.  It is essential to dig into something at great length that was written before you were born, if only to refute the pervasive cognitive bias that current thinking is smarter than old.  (Why should anyone be amazed that dead thinkers were just as smart as we are?  They are often actually smarter at least in terms of their effect, since their work often laid the infrastructures for ours.)  It is a better investment of time and effort to master texts that will remain in style.  Perhaps in thirty years people will still read Foucault (I have my doubts–I think he could be the Herbert Spencer of our time, the thinker who seemed to offer the key to our perplexities about sex and power that later generations will ignore, although Foucault is a more sympathetic figure than Spencer) but you can be sure that they will read Heidegger or Marx or Freud (who Foucault read)–or Moses, Plato, Jesus or Confucius.”