Scholarly Reading Strategies

While I welcome greater diversity in higher education, I recognize graduate studies aren't for everybody. More specifically, I'd suggest you think twice about a PhD if you're the kind of person who doesn't like to read. The written word is the stuff on which academia survives and thrives, and as such many more scholarly words are produced than any one person could possibly read. But yet our work depends on reading huge chunks of scholarly literature.

I was only a few weeks into my first semester as a PhD student when I realized that there were going to be times when I couldn't finish all of the assigned readings for class. Thankfully, the ever-kind Elizabeth Dutro addressed this problem in class and told us all that this was okay. Yes, sometimes there were things we'd need to understand in great detail, but other times it was enough to just gain familiarity with an article in case we needed to refer to it later. Some readings (for me, Foucault comes to mind) need multiple readings before they make any coherent sense.

I discussed this with my advisor at the time, Finbarr (Barry) Sloane. Knowing that he was a voracious reader with incredible retention and memory (Vicki Hand once told me she wished her internet connected directly to Barry's brain), I asked if he had any special reading strategies. This is essentially what he told me:

I read things three times. The first time I just read and get a sense for the article. The second time I read for details, take notes, and make connections. On the third reading, I read the article out-of-order. If I can read paragraphs or sections at random and understand them without having to re-read the surrounding context, then I know I understand it.

Now I was understanding why Barry's knowledge of the literature was so strong. Unfortunately, I was also understanding why he routinely only got a few hours of sleep every night -- all that reading and re-reading takes time. He wasn't shy about his love of reading; he said that while in graduate school in the mid-1980s, he read every single article in the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education since its first publication in 1970. That's intense.

Maybe I can't read every JRME article three times between now and my comprehensive exams, but I do need to make the most of my comps readings. So long as the quantity of reading doesn't overwhelm me, my three-part strategy will be (a) read, (b) read for detail and take notes, and (c) blog a summary. That's the approach I took with my last post and I felt very good about it. (It helped that the Clements & Sarama article was less than 10 pages long.) The written part of my comprehensive exam gives me a week to answer three questions with essays/reports of about 8-10 pages each. I figure the more I've written on my blog, the more prepared I'll be to write for comps. There's also the side benefit of giving my advisor a convenient way to keep up with my preparation while he's traveling during his sabbatical this semester. I'd love to blog about at least four or five readings a week, and you'll be the first to know if I can keep up that pace.