Friday, January 21, 2011

Reading better

I've spent the past few days devouring books. Not in the heedless, headlong way we usually mean that expression (reading through the night until it gets light, book propped between faucet and backsplash while brushing one's teeth), but with focused determination: I'm cramming, basically, trying to get through a stack of recent and/or semi-seminal scholarship before I revise my book's introduction.

It's not un-fun (many of the works are thoughtful and well-written, and I've included several that are more appealing than they are directly relevant), and the drunken, discombobulated, where-am-I? feeling upon shutting the book at the end of the day is the same. But it's definitely work: tape flags out, notebook open, antennae up.

I note this because it's only been in the last two semesters, teaching M.A. students, that I've come to recognize this search-and-destroy method of reading as a skill that takes time to develop. It still astonishes me when smart, perceptive students will entirely miss the main argument of a scholarly essay that I thought a model of clarity--but I know now that it's usually a forest/trees problem: they don't know what to disregard. My students don't yet know the subject area or the critical background, of course, but they also don't totally know how scholarly writing works. (The 50-something psychiatrist in my grad class last spring was by far the best reader of literary scholarship, probably because, as a doctor, she understood the basic moves of academic prose and could immediately recognize which parts were lit review, which parts were argumentative positioning, and when evidence shaded into interpretation.)

I'm not sure whether there's a way to speed this process up for students, other than assigning them a damn lot of scholarly literature. And while I'm grateful that it feels like second nature, now, to me, I wonder whether it's changed my ability to devour books for fun: it's hard to read without a pencil. And when I realize that I've completely forgotten the ending of a novel that I read and loved six months ago, I'm irritated at myself for not paying more attention or reading better.


FLG said...

It's taken me forever to learn to read scholarly writing efficiently, by which I mean getting to the main argument. And even then I'm rather inconsistent. Switching disciplines throws me sometimes. Economics and political science, I'm okay. History? More trouble.

Probably goes to the background reading.

Anonymous said...

One of the things that I do with my students is I actually teach how to read scholarly writing, which of course doesn't make it second nature for them, but it does give them a map for approaching it, as opposed to just expecting them to pick up its turns and techniques by osmosis. Basically, I took what I'd learned through teaching comp about how to take apart a piece of writing to view them as "prose models" and then I broke down my own habits of reading scholarly writing into steps, and then I produced assignments for my students that combined those two things. Basically, I give them a structure and I acknowledge that this sort of reading isn't identical to reading more "narrative" forms of writing, which it's my sense nobody ever tells them before they get to me.

So yes, I agree the "search-and-destroy" method takes time to develop, but I'd say it takes less time if we demystify it as a skill-set, both for ourselves and our students.

Anonymous said...

er, pieces of writing and view them as prose models. Yes, I understand parallel sentence structure, indeed I do :)

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

Your last paragraph reminds me of the passage in Life on the Mississippi where Twain remarks that learning to read the river's surface for signs of underwater hazards ruined its beauty for him.

Flavia said...

Dr. C: good advice. Thanks!

Brian: I suppose there's a little of that. I don't usually feel that reading professionally ruins my ability to read for fun (I remember how excited I was at the end of every day, the summer I spent studying for my orals, when after 8 hours of work reading I could allow myself an hour or so of fun reading--reading was still what I wanted to do to unwind), but fun and work are often indistinguishable now, with both carrying some sense of obligation: I should read more new fiction! I should re-read Thackeray! I need to catch up on my New Yorkers!