Nicole Dugan, consultant
Reading and writing are always intertwined. When asked about how they write, authors almost always mention how much they read and how it’s crucial to their process. They read for enjoyment, inspiration, and, most importantly, a purpose. In academia, it’s easy to spend our reading time searching for understanding and utility, speeding through the text with little to no enjoyment in the process. Even those of us who have histories of devouring books in single sittings can come to dread the reading part of the writing process. I currently have 36 library books sitting on my desk, and they definitely aren’t radiating enjoyment. Instead, I’ve been sneaking chapters of the books I keep buying on Amazon (even though I have no more room on my bookshelves). I spent the first few days of my spring break trying to build momentum and jump into my various research projects with very little success. Sometimes the absence of motivation is the main issue, but reading for research can also be alienating and stressful. So, as the numerous stacks of books about working-class literacy and monsters in medieval literature stare at me, I’m going to write about reading instead. Hopefully it helps me and anyone else facing the spring semester procrastination virus.
During the last few weeks, writers have been coming into the University Writing Center with assignments focused on reading and annotating sources. This is a foundational and crucial skill in academic writing as we work to weave our own ideas and voices into conversation with existing scholarship. Learning how to read is often relegated to primary school, where we learn the alphabet, spend time working through pronunciation, and take reading quizzes to assess our comprehension. When we move to college, it is understood that we know how to do all of this, even if the ways we’re expected to read are changing. The current push for teaching reading in writing courses is a necessary one, as evidenced in recent publications like Deep Reading: Teaching Reading in the Writing Classroom. This is a renewal of previous attention given to the importance of teaching reading strategies in first-year composition classes.
In 2009, Julian Hermida published a study on reading practices in legal studies; however, the findings and suggestions put forth are applicable across disciplines. Most of us don’t turn to academic texts for some fun, leisurely reading; we’re reading it for a purpose, to accomplish some kind of goal for our future projects. Knowing this purpose and remaining conscious of it is the first step Hermida outlines for “expert” reading: “(i) reading purpose; (ii) context; (iii) author’s thesis; (iv) deconstruction of assumptions; (v) evaluation of author’s arguments; and (vi) consequences of author’s arguments” (23). In the face of intimidating scholarship, those new or uncomfortable in academia often “adopt a surface approach to reading and learning” (Hermida 28). It is easy to underestimate the time and effort that reading to write requires; however, developing and using strategies that work for your needs is important and can help you to streamline your research and general reading process.
Hermida suggests several practices that can help to increase comprehension, especially in relation to employing research in writing as they encourage critical thinking and engagement. Some of these include double entry journals, concept mapping, and keeping a structured reading journal for projects. In 2015, University Writing Center consultant Taylor Gathof wrote about some of these strategies and more options in her blog post. The UWC also has a handout on writing about reading as well.
Knowing your purpose in reading and having strategies on hand to efficiently and successfully approach texts are super helpful, but even with all of this in your toolbox, you may not be very enthused about the process. If you have the opportunity to choose projects about topics you’re already excited about, this could help immensely. However, this is, of course, not always the case. One part of reading academic texts is assessing the argument and methodology. This means you have the flexibility of agreeing or disagreeing based on the rest of the research you’ve done. Who doesn’t enjoy critiquing other people’s arguments? You fit the sources into a conversation with each other, and you enter this conversation as well. It can be a little nerve-wracking to find your footing in the realm of academic writing, but practicing reading strategies helps to build familiarity and confidence within your discipline.
Something that isn’t often suggested, at least not in my experience, is the value of reading outside of academia as a way to improve academic reading skills. Make time for reading stuff you care about, whether it’s graphic novels, young adult fiction, a news article, or some think piece. Applying academic strategies, like identifying the main thesis and critiquing the author’s methodology, to these things can help you flex your reading muscles in a community in which you are already a comfortable inhabitant. While I’m stuck in the world of monsters and medieval literature, I still managed to read half of Text Me When You Get Home (my current nonfiction obsession). The semester is winding down, meaning the big research projects are imminent. As I face final projects that will bring my second semester of grad school to a close, I’m feeling overwhelmed and uneasy about it all. I’ve had quite a bit of practice in this field at this point, but I still get nervous and feel unprepared. The first step to conquering the mountains of reading is finding what strategies work best for you and giving yourself the time to do it. Everyone navigates the research process differently. Talking to friends and meeting with consultants at the University Writing Center can introduce you to new techniques to make it a little easier.
I have sticky notes in six different colors, fresh coffee, looming deadlines, and a gaggle of helpful, encouraging writing center friends to propel me forward. Honestly though, I’m probably going to finish my “fun reading” book first. I spent too much of spring break stressing about all of the things I have to do after spring break ends, which of course didn’t help much. Spend some time taking Buzzfeed quizzes or watching the new season of Jessica Jones on Netflix (it’s pretty great by the way). Above all, maintaining your sanity and coping with stress is crucial as you approach the end of this semester. Whatever you have to do to accomplish that should be first priority, and it’ll make the reading and writing easier.
Hermida, Julian. “The Importance of Teaching Academic Reading Skills in First-Year University Courses.” The International Journal of Research and Review, vol 3, 2009, pp. 20-30, https://www.mansfield.edu/fye/upload/Academic-Reading-Skills.pdf. Accessed 15 Mar. 2018.