The ghost of the ideal scholar


Are we seeing a new moral panic brew around reading?

When I was growing up, in the 70s and 80s, TV had been around for more than a generation, but the early 80s saw the glorious invention of the videotape machine. No longer at the mercy of the TV Networks and their schedules, my generation was able to watch whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.

It was a revelation.

Before the videotape was invented, seeing a movie, show or cartoon more than once was rare. For the first time, machines enabled re-watching, sharing and access content that was usually out of reach to teenagers, because of things like strictly applied “school night” bedtime (thanks a lot Mum). I remember my twin sister and I pestering our parents to tape “Jaws” so that we could play it during our 14th birthday sleep-over party. After some cajoling, our parents relented – we were thrilled! We even made a shark tooth-shaped cake, complete with icing ‘blood’, to celebrate the watching experience (sadly, “Jaws” proved to be un-exciting – we all fell asleep before the end).

Before the videotape machine, the act of re-watching or consuming entertainment, on demand, was only possible via books. The lure of TV was a massive worry for adults at the time. I remember my parents talking with their friends about the ‘death of reading’, clearly worried their kids would “only want to watch TV for the rest of their lives!”. My mother fretted about my ‘short attention span’, which was supposedly going to cripple me for life. Of course, it did not. I went on to be a functioning adult with an attention span long enough to hold down a job and pay the bills (something I remind myself of each time I fret about my son playing too many video games).

It seems reading is under threat still – with the lure of social media apparently about to kill our ability to read novels. There is, however, one profession where the habit of reading is entrenched: academia. If there is one PhD requirement that translates across all disciplines, it’s the need to read HEAPS. When I started my PhD, I was shocked by the sheer scale of the reading endeavour. Every time I felt like I was getting on top of it, I’d discover still more. Yet, the PhD stands out as the time in my life where I was able to read at the level that a scholar needs to read to be truly informed on a topic. I am not so sure PhD students can really achieve this aim today.

Academics, under pressure to conform to performance metrics, have produced more and more reading material. All this busy writing has resulted in the creation of a reading mountain, so large it is a sincere threat to our ability to do our jobs. I’d be lying if I said I’m as well read now as I was back then. I mostly read abstracts and skim the rest. I do this just to keep abreast of trends. It’s rare that a paper gets my whole attention for the 40 minutes or so I need to do a deep and thoughtful read.

I have felt guilty about my reading habits for years, but I was forced to re-examine my attitude when I read a paper called “The active skim: effective reading as a moral challenge in postgraduate education” by Hannah Wohl and Gary Alan. For the first time, I saw my dodgy reading practices documented, validated as ‘normal’ and even described as a form of “legitimate deviance” in academia. I’m so happy to be labelled as ‘deviant’!

In this paper, published last year in “Teaching Sociology”, Wohl and Alan draw particular attention to the practice of ‘skimming’. Skimming, or only reading a paper in part, without engaging deeply in the majority of the text, is a result of the heavy reading load that most students encounter in graduate school where “… serious students find themselves in endless webs of citations tempting them toward other texts.” this, Wohl and Alan argue, ends up with students who “find themselves swimming in a sea of words with no shore in sight.”.

The problem, from Wohl and Alans’ point of view, is the defacto standard we set for a ‘proper scholar’ is a person who reads everything deeply and reflectively. Once you become alert to this pattern, you see it everywhere. Advice to graduate students often reminds them of what an exacting reader they can expect to examine their texts – and of the consequences of failing to please this invisible person. One must aim to ‘read broadly’, ‘know the entire field’, ‘read and think for a year at least’, ‘make sure your research really fills a gap’ and so on. This kind of banal, generalised advice annoys me because it’s often dolled out with little recognition of the sheer scale of the literature students face. My own, tiny, field of research education is huge: typing ‘advising research students’ into Google Scholar gives me over 280,000 hits and the first 20 pages all look relevant.

No-one can ‘know the entire field’ even if they ‘think and read for a year at least’. Yet, in our heart of hearts we yearn to be be the ‘proper scholar’ who does ‘read broadly’ before daring to write. No wonder it’s common to experience the state Wohl and Alan describe as an ‘ideal self’ that is constantly “under siege”.

If you think about it, the model of ideal scholarship we are trying to live up to is born of a different age, when we lived as cloistered monks. If someone else is doing your washing, cleaning the house and feeding you, it’s possible to dedicate most of your waking life to being scholarly. Additionally, those early scholars had much less actual content to read. These days, with our vast online repositories, reading everything is impossible, but skim reading becomes an activity Wohl and Alan describe as “fraught with guilt” because it is always haunted by the ghost of the ideal scholar.

Alan and Wohl argue that skimming is not cheating, but a pragmatic response to the realities of the situations students – and academics for that matter – find themselves in. Wohl and Alan argue that “Active skimming is not a lazy task” and should be taught as a legitimate skill. With that in mind, here are three tips for effective skimming:

1) Work out when to skim and when not to skim – save your in-depth reading for the most important texts in the first instance. Wohl and Alan suggest students identify and read the ‘canonical texts’ in their discipline deeply. In the humanities, this usually consists of texts by old (dead, white) guys… I know some students who deliberately avoid such texts, but I feel duty bound to point out that you ignore them at your peril. In the sciences, the idea that any text is ‘canonical’ is disputable — new research continually supplants the old. You might decide, for instance, to only read papers on a topic published in the last 18 months and ask your supervisor for a few ‘classics’ to supplement this list.

2) Separate the act of downloading the article and reading as much as possible. If you get caught up in reading as you are searching, you will make the process take longer and are more likely to wander off track, increasing your anxiety at the same time. Skimming is easier if you do it in batches. I like to set the morning aside for downloading and the afternoon for reading. Try using the bedraggled Daisy diagram that I documented in this post on using diagrams as research aides to design a search strategy. Set a timer and download a whole bunch of them, making a pile to read after lunch.

3) Do a fast read through of your pile without taking any notes the first time. The fast read is just that: fast! Set a timer and see if you can run your eye over the whole thing in 5 minutes or less. If the article is well enough written, just reading the first ‘topic’ sentence of each paragraph should be sufficient for you to get a grip on the flow of arguments or ideas in the paper. You’ll find, as you practice this technique, you will hone what Wohl and Alan call the skill of ‘selective attention’. Your eye will start to pick up themes, concepts or ideas that are useful. Set aside those that pass the skim test for more detailed reading and note-taking.

I hope this post helps you be comfortable with your legitimate academic deviances! Does anyone else have reading tips or strategies to recommend?