Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Art of Academic Reading: Strategies and Tactics

If you’re like me, then reading will be an important part of your life. Indeed, it might just be the most important part of your life. I’m not an empirical researcher. I don’t have a lab in which to perform experiments. I don’t interview people or conduct surveys. I don’t go out in the ‘field’ and collect data. Heck, I rarely even leave the privacy of my own home. My primary form of research consists in sitting in quiet isolation, reading a bunch of stuff, thinking about it for a while, and then hopefully stumbling upon an interesting idea or argument. Reading is critical to what I do. It is the ‘field’ in which I collect my data; and the ‘laboratory’ in which I conduct my experiments.

Given its importance, it would probably behoove me to have some method or theory of reading. Methods and theories seem pretty important in other aspects of my life. When I write, or run, or cook, or clean, I don’t do so haphazardly. There is some set of defined steps, some method to my madness. I have a sense, however vague, of what I’m trying to achieve with these activities and I put in place a plan that I think will best achieve these ends. You would think that it would be the same with reading, but oddly I have found this not to be the case. Many people I know, including many academics, approach reading in a fairly haphazard and intuitive manner. I do not exempt myself from this. It is only in recent times that I have really reflected on the methods and theories behind my own daily reading. As per usual, the prompt for these reflections was the need to teach students the art of academic reading. The purpose of this post is to share some of these initial reflections.

Before I get to them, I hope you’ll indulge me for a moment or two as I consider further the need for such reflections (if you’re really only interested in my theories and methods you can skip to the next section). I think it is important to teach students something about the art of reading, but in my (limited and narrow) experience this is not often done, or if it is done it is not done well or systematically. I know that there are famous guides to reading, both general and discipline specific, but I don’t know how often those are taught as opposed to being proffered as further reading for interested students. And in my own discipline of law, I find that the efforts to teach the art of reading are woefully inadequate. The typical assumption seems to be that students already know how to read: our job should simply be to test whether they understood what they read. Indeed, I have encountered some really strange attitudes toward reading in my life as both a student and a lecturer. Two quick anecdotes about this.

When I was a student I distinctly remember, in my first ever tutorial, being told by my tutor that it should take me 12 minutes to read a 15-page case. At the time, I thought she was being serious, and I was disheartened when it took me much longer to get through it, but I later realised that this was a bizarre piece of advice. Cases are one of the bits of ‘raw data’ with which a lawyer must contend. They contain reasoned legal arguments that the lawyer can accept or dispute. Getting to grips with these bits of data is an essential part of a law student’s life. There’s no way this can be done properly for a 15-page case in a mere 12 minutes, certainly not if you are a first year law student. The tutor’s mistake came from assuming that reading a legal case was much the same thing as reading one of John Grisham’s legal novels. But these activities are not the same. One is highly engaged intellectual process; the other is passive enjoyment.

Similarly, when I was starting out as a lecturer, I remember one of my colleagues (who shall remain nameless) expressing bafflement at the notion that we should teach students how to read. She believed that this was something they would already know how to do, and that there were far more important things to be teaching them, such as the content of legal rules. Now, I admit there is some value to teaching law students the content of legal rules, but once again I was struck by how bizarre her attitude toward the teaching of reading was. Since reading is a practice that is intrinsic to virtually every aspect of the law (practical or academic), one would think that there could be nothing more important than teaching students how to engage in this practice well. Maybe my colleague didn’t really mean it — maybe if she had reflected on it for a moment she would have conceded that it is something upon which students need greater guidance — but her initial reaction is, I believe, indicative of the unreflective and intuitive approach most people have toward the art of reading.

Anyway, with all that in mind, I want to present my own thoughts on the theories and methods of reading. This is very much my first systematic attempt to get these reflections down in written form, and I hate to be overly prescriptive in what I say. There is much to be said for the notion that this reflective attitude toward reading is something that people can learn themselves over time. Consequently, I offer these thoughts merely as one way (among many) to think about and practice the art of reading. I would be happy to hear of other approaches in the comments section.

1. Why do I read?
The comedian Bill Hicks used to do a bit about reading a book in a waffle house in Fyffe, Alabama. He had just done a show, and he was hungry, so he ordered some waffles. While eating, he decided to occupy his mind by reading a book. The waitress approached him and asked ‘Hey, what you reading for?’. Hicks was surprised. He thought this was the weirdest question he had ever been asked. People might ask ‘what are you reading?’, but never ‘what are you reading for?’. Hicks thought about it for a bit and responded ‘I guess I read so I don’t end up being a waffle waitress’.

Stand-up routines are never quite as funny when reduced to prose, so you’d need to watch the bit to get the full effect (there’s more to it than I’m letting on as well - see for yourself). Clearly, Hicks was engaging in a bit of ‘Southern-bashing’, chastising and poking fun at the backward and anti-intellectual attitudes among denizens of the South. This is, no doubt, an unfair cultural generalisation. And, as it happens, I think the waitress’ question is a good one. It is always worth considering the purpose behind our reading. When I consider this myself, I find that the purposes are threefold:

Pleasure: I often read purely for pleasure, i.e. for the subjective enjoyment I get from following a story or narrative or argument. This is mainly true for fiction reading; but I also find certain forms of non-fiction reading to be highly pleasurable.

Understanding/Insight: I frequently read for understanding and insight, i.e. to gain a deeper appreciation for why something happens the way it does, to gain practical knowledge, to appreciate something from a new perspective, or simply to learn something cool. This is mainly true for non-fiction, but, of course, well-written fiction can often help you to gain insight or understanding.

Fuel for the imagination: I also read so I can provide fuel for my own thinking and critical reflection. This might be slightly more esoteric so allow me to explain. As I mentioned above, I am not an empirical researcher. My academic work consists in combining and recombining ideas, arguments and concepts that others have presented or written about in the past. In essence, I spot patterns and connections between different bodies of ideas. The only real novelty in my work comes from the combinatorial process. To do this, of course, I need to have a storehouse full of ideas, arguments and concepts in my brain and I need to have situational prompts or habits that allow me to see connections between these ideas, arguments and concepts. Reading is essential to this because it helps me to fill up the storehouse. This is the sense in which it provides fuel for my imagination.

The three purposes are not mutually exclusive. The same text can be a source of pleasure, understanding and imaginative fuel. That said, I think the three purposes are separable, to at least some extent. In other words, I think it is possible to read purely for pleasure, purely for understanding, or purely to provide fuel for the imagination. By this I mean that it is possible to approach the task with only one of these purposes locked in the focus of the conscious mind (your mind may subconsciously and automatically combine these purposes).

Knowing why you are doing something is a good first step to figuring out how to do it better. This is where reading methods come in. I won’t focus on reading for pleasure in the remainder of this post since my concern is really with ‘academic’ reading, which falls more squarely within the purview of the other two purposes. If you are reading for understanding/insight and to provide fuel for imagination, you need to do something to ensure (a) you are fully intellectually engaged by the process (i.e. that you are comprehending and evaluating the ideas being presented) (b) you have some reinforcement mechanism (i.e. some way to remember the ideas, arguments and concepts, and to fuse them into your mental frameworks). I’ll talk a bit about how you can do this. In doing so, I’m going to adopt a military metaphor and distinguish between reading strategies and reading tactics.

2. What are my reading strategies?
In military parlance, a strategy is a general campaign plan, whereas a tactic is a specific method or step used to implement that campaign plan. That’s a first pass at the distinction anyway. A lot has been written about it and some people flesh out the distinction in more rigorous and nuanced ways. I don’t want to go into too much detail here since I’m merely using it as a rough analogy for understanding how I approach the task of reading. For me, the term ‘reading strategy’ denotes a general style of reading, with a particular purpose or set of purposes in mind; whereas as a ‘reading tactic’ is a specific step taken to achieve those purposes. You may wonder why we need a separate category of reading strategies when we have already identified a set of reading purposes, but I think the category is needed because there are distinctive reading styles that are differentiated by the amount of time and intellectual effort they involve.

I employ two general reading strategies. They are:

Broad Brush: I use this strategy when I want to read a lot of material, in a relatively short period of time, and I don’t want to critically engage with the minute details of the arguments, ideas or concepts presented in the text. Instead, I just want to get the general gist of those arguments, ideas and concepts. I mainly use this strategy when reading popular non-fiction books. For example, when reading popular science, history or philosophy books. I use these texts to expand my general knowledge, and as gateways into new fields of inquiry. I approach them in a relatively open-minded fashion, hoping to gain new insights that may prove useful in the future; I’m not really concerned with critiquing them. Hence the broad brush style seems most appropriate for these texts.

Deep Dive: I use this strategy when I really want to critically engage with the minute details of the arguments, ideas or concepts presented in the text. This is a much more labour intensive style of reading. It takes a long time, and involves copious amounts of notetaking and reflective interludes (I’ll say more about these ‘tactics’ below). I mainly use this strategy when reading academic articles or monographs within my current field of research. This makes sense since these texts are the primary source material for my own imaginative combinatorics and critical evaluations.

Although I describe these as two separate strategies, it is important to realise that they are not truly distinct. They represent the two ends of a spectrum. One can slide along this spectrum depending on the degree of effort and time expended in the reading process. I should also clarify that I don’t adopt these strategies on an exclusive basis. I will often flit back and forth between them whilst reading the same text. Thus, even though I said I ‘mainly’ use the broad brush strategy whilst reading trade non-fiction; I don’t do so exclusively. Sometimes I’ll find that one of the ideas or arguments presented in such a book warrants a deeper dive, and so I’ll slow down and start to engage with the text in a more intensive. The same goes for academic articles and monographs. Sometimes I’ll speed up and start reading these in a broad brush style.

I think it is important to adopt both strategies. You might think that the labour intensive style of the deep dive is optimal and that really we should employ this style for all texts we read. But I don’t think that is true. One reason for this is that I don’t think people fully appreciate how much time it takes (in my opinion) to do a proper deep dive. This was the mistake of my tutor when she suggested that we read a 15-page case in 12 minutes. In reality, something like this should take a student a couple of hours. I know it takes me at least two hours to do a deep dive on a typical 10,000 word academic article. Oftentimes it takes longer, depending on the difficulty of the piece and my level of interest. But if I constantly did deep dives like this I would severely limit the amount I could read. This is why I think it is important to supplement deep dive reading with broad brush reading. That way you get a nice balance between depth of analysis and breadth of knowledge (hence the names).

That said, I have no idea what the optimal mix of these strategies is.

3. What are my reading tactics?
Tactics are the nitty gritty, step-by-step details of the reading process. The enumeration of such details might be something that is only of interest to uber-reading-nerds, but I’ll risk joining their ranks by providing some detail about what I do. The tactics I employ depend on the reading strategy I’m following, so I’ll need to talk about both (i) broad brush tactics and (ii) deep dive tactics.

There are, however, some shared tactics and it makes sense to start with them. For example, no matter what the strategy, I always try to cultivate a consistent and diverse reading habit. By consistent I mean I try to read every day, often at set times. A typical reading routine for me is to read for 30-60 mins first thing in the morning (either whilst having breakfast or shortly thereafter); to read in the afternoon (usually between 3 and 5); and to read late at night (just before going to bed — I usually don’t read in bed because I tend to fall asleep pretty quickly). By diverse I mean both that I try read a wide range of materials and jump back and forth between the different strategies. I think it is important to read a wide range of material (from many disciplines) because this helps you to identify novel connections and combinations of ideas. And I have already given my reasons for thinking that diverse strategies are important. On a normal day, I will do broad brush reading in the mornings and late at night. I will do deep dive reading in the afternoon. Even though I strive for consistency and diversity, I often fail at both things. It is not always possible to read at the same times every day, and sometimes I get stuck in routines where I’ll read the same kind of material over and over again. I don’t beat myself up about this. In the very long run I think I manage to maintain consistency and diversity.

In terms of broad brush reading tactics, there are really only three or four things I do on a regular basis. Remember, the purpose of broad brush reading is to get the general gist of argument, idea or concept. It is about breadth of coverage, not depth. So the tactics cannot be too labour intensive. Still, you need to have some way to understand and reinforce the breadth of the material you are reading. The simplest way to do this is to pause and reflect on what you are reading. I do this a lot. If you ever watched me reading something, you’d see me frequently gazing into the middle distance and you might assume I was goofing off. But I’m usually thinking about what I have just read (usually…). I also dog-ear important pages in the book for future reference (if I’m reading on Kindle, I’ll bookmark or highlight but if I am honest, I find Kindle pretty much useless for any sort of intellectually engaged reading; I use it almost exclusively for pleasure reading). Some people are infuriated by my habit of dog-earing books, arguing that it ‘ruins’ them. I find this odd. I don’t think the value of books lies in their resale value (which is negligible anyway); the value lies in what I get out of them. If dog-earing helps me to get more out of them so be it. That said, dog-earing by itself is not hugely effective. You need to revisit and reconsider the key passages. This requires discipline and I often fail to be disciplined. That’s why, if I really want to reinforce something I’ll write short end-of-chapter summaries. Sometimes (but sadly not always) chapters end on pages with plenty of blank space. If I’m so minded, I will use this space to summarise, in my own words, the key arguments and ideas. The image below shows an example of this from a book I read about David Hume’s argument from miracles (I eventually did a deep dive on this book, though that wasn’t my original intention). Another thing I will do (though I’ve only recently experimented with it) is assemble my own book-index. So, inside the front cover, I will write down page numbers and brief descriptions of the key ideas on these pages. This is a handy guide for future reference.

Fogelin's Defence of Hume's on Miracles - Chapter Summary

Although I use all of these tactics at different times, I find that by far the most useful broad brush tactic is to listen to podcasts or watch videos in which the author of the book I am reading lectures on or is interviewed about its main ideas. This is something that has only really been made possible in the past few years but it is now exceptionally easy to do: authors are encouraged to promote their work by doing talks and interviews, and a huge volume of this promotional effort is now archived online. To give an example, I am currently reading the book Why the West Rules for Now by Ian Morris. It is a long and detailed study of the patterns of social development across the East and West over the past 14,000 years. It is full of interesting and provocative insights. I highly recommend it. To supplement my reading of this book, I have watched or listened to about 5 or 6 different talks given by Morris. I listen to these repeatedly, whilst driving or cooking or when performing other manual tasks. Doing so helps to guide my reading of the book, and to reinforce its key ideas.

Turning to deep dive tactics, these are obviously more time-consuming and labour intensive. Remember, the main goal of deep dive reading is to understand the minutiae of the arguments, ideas and concepts contained in the text, and to spot interesting patterns or connections. To do this, I need to engage in extensive annotation of the material. The precise method of annotation depends on whether I am reading the material (usually an article or monograph) in hard copy or digitally:

Hard Copy Annotation: I will underline key passages; summarise the main steps in the argument in the margins; write down critical questions or objections when appropriate (though I don’t do this too often — I tend to save the critical probing for when I eventually write about the relevant idea, if I ever do). I will also diagram the arguments in the article, or draw some other flow chart or picture that helps me to understand what has been written. I am quite a visual thinker and I enjoy representing complex ideas in more than one dimension. I have tried to give some examples of these annotations in the photographs below.
Hard Copy Annotation - Summarising key points in the margin

Hard Copy Annotation - Diagramming key concepts

Digital Copy Annotation: I use a program called Papers for the Mac. This helps me to store, read and annotate digital copies of articles and monographs. I do this by reading in full screen, highlighting key passages, and using the note-taking function to write a rolling summary of the article. I find digital annotation less flexible and less engaging than hard copy annotation. But it has some compensating benefits: it is much faster to type summaries; and there is no need to print and physically store copies of the annotated papers. I’m doing this more often than I used to, but I still like to do a lot of hard copy reading and annotation. The screenshot below gives a flavour of how digital annotation works on Papers. I’m sure there are similar or better programs out there. I just happen to like this one.

Digital Copy Annotation on Papers - Summarising key arguments with notetaking function

I like to read things once and to do so in the most intellectually engaged manner that I can. I’ll then rely on my own notes and summaries if I want to revisit the piece. I don’t like the method of reading through something once to get the general gist and then going back over it to take notes. That seems like a waste of time to me: I have enough trouble motivating myself to read something once, never mind doing it multiple times.

The main tactic I employ for reinforcing deep dive reading is writing. If I want think further about something, I will either write a blogpost about it or use it as the basis for an academic article. I can think of no more effective reinforcement method. Writing is a type of thinking. Writing blogpost summaries of an article I have just read really forces me to make sure that I understand what it is saying, that I am being charitable to its author, and that I critically engage with its contents. This was one of the main reasons I started blogging in the first place. I didn’t do so because I wanted to be read (though that is nice); I did so because I wanted to forge a deeper understanding of the material I was reading.

Anyway, that’s all I have to say (for now) about the art of academic reading. I have tried to summarise my strategies and tactics in the diagram below. As I said at the outset of this post, I would love to hear from readers about their own reading strategies and tactics. What do you do differently? What do you find most effective?

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