Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Academic Reading

I'm holding a lecture this morning about reading. What I'm going to try to do is to apply the advice I give for writing to the act of reading. I'm going to argue that just as we should be writing on a schedule, we should be reading on one too. Of course, there will be plenty of times when we read for pleasure, and this will not be the focus of my concern. What I'm going to talk about is those moments (every day) when we join the intended audience of an academic text.

Academic writing communicates the ideas of knowledgeable people to other knowledgeable people. When you are reading academically, therefore, you are confronting a text with what you know (not what you don't know); and you are confronting your knowledge (not your ignorance) with a text. I often cite Wayne Booth's description of the Oxford seminars where the only questions that are put to a text are "What does the author mean?" and "How does the author know?" These are certainly useful guides. And they are useful because they identify the epistemic content of a text and get you to notice the way the text is (hopefully) structured into paragraphs, which is to say, sequences of claims and support for those claims. Each paragraph announces a meaning (a claim) and tells you how the writer knows (support).

As always, the lecture will include a great deal of practical advice about how to structure your time. My interest here is actually in defending the writing process from reading just as much as it is in providing a stable basis for the writing. It is true that you need to read in order to become a good writer. But it is not true that you need to read before you write. Your writing is just your way of keeping yourself articulate about what you know. In your reading, you confront that knowledge with the articulateness of someone else.


Anonymous said...

Thomas, I am a big fan of your blog. I am so glad that you are about to open a series on "academic reading". It would be great if you could tell us how to systematize the literature-reviewing part of research process for someone who are just embarking on a new project. For example, how to not fall into a trap of aimless/endless reading, how 'fast' should/can one read (pages per hour), when to read taking notes and when not to, reading books vs articles, etc. I know this is a blog for writing (for someone who already knows what to say), but the biggest reason for the writing block, for me at least, is the fact that I often don't know enough about what I am trying to write. If I could systematize the process of "knowing" part, along with "writing" part, I think I could be a much more productive researcher..

Thomas said...

I'll say some more about reading next week. But, in general, you don't want to let your ignorance prevent you from writing. Writing is part of what makes you smarter ... while reading of course. Let your writing confront you with what you think you know, under controlled conditions (the composition of 30-minute paragraphs) every day. And then read with that experience in mind. That alone should focus your reading.