Literatures work- find an energy saving mode


Energy saving mode. Not the same as being asleep. Still ticking along but not doing a great deal. Ready to wake up if called upon.

Computers have energy saving mode. So do new cars. So why not us?

How handy it would be to have energy saving mode when you’re doing one of those academic tasks which can easily spiral out of control. The tasks you still need to be awake for but where it’d be helpful to conserve your focus and effort until it’s needed. Like reviewing literatures.

One of the tasks that can easily take huge amounts of energy for not much return is reading and reviewing literatures. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of reading. Reading and writing are pretty well inseparable in my view. And I do like having a bit of an aimless browse around the journals just to see what I can see. I’ve certainly been known to read books and papers which appear on the surface to have very little to do with what I’m working on at the time. Reading just for interest. But I don’t always want to do that.

It isn’t too hard to spend quite a bit of time and energy looking through the literatures in search of material that is relevant to something you’re doing right then and there. You can while away days and days of searching if you don’t really know what you’re looking for.

The nearest thing to energy saving mode in reviewing texts is the purposeful question.

Simply ask yourself – Why am I reading this? What am I looking for? And then try to provide yourself with a quite specific and narrowly focused answer – or two. No more. So… The questions again..

Why am I reading this? What am I looking for?

Here’s some examples of a focused answer to the purpose question.

I might be

  • Looking for texts that are often referenced. These common citations are things I probably need to read – I can make a list of such texts that I can then follow up
  • Wanting to see how other people have used a particular theory – what have they used it for and how, and with what results. This search will help me think about what I want to do, and to locate and justify my choice.
  • Canvassing different methods that have been used to investigate topics similar to mine. This search will help me think about whether any of the approaches I find are suitable for what I want to do, or not.
  • Searching for some key concepts that I can use as building blocks to construct a research tool or an argument. If there seems to be agreement in the literatures about a particular set of stuff, then I can use that to support my case, or I can use the set of stuff to sort out my survey or interview. Ill be able to see how my participants respond.
  • Scoping out how a particular term has been used. This search will help me to work out what I really mean and I can then explain my interpretation and argue why it is OK.
  • Searching for evidence that supports or contradicts my hypothesis or proposition. Finding evidence will help me to sort out what I should do.

You can see that the question examples I have given are all pretty concrete. Not vague. They are pretty specific. And this specificity means I will have something definite when I finish. Whereas if I had started reading thinking I’m just going to see what’s out there, or I just need to get familiar with a range of literatures, then I could spend a lot of time and energy getting not very far.

It’s not unusual for academics to read a set of literatures with a specific purpose in mind. And yes sometimes you do have to go back and look again at the same set of texts if another question becomes important. However, you often do by then have a pretty good idea of what’s available and the second pass through takes less time – particularly if you have another focused purposeful question in mind.