On Realigning Reading

So the job search.  Searching for a job.  Helps to know what you’re looking for.

Anyway, I had this thought about reading (especially reading and responding to said readings in graduate school).  Think of it this way:

First, that in graduate school (and here I mean a program, possibly a PhD but also a master’s, in the humanities or social sciences.  I can’t speak to law school or med school or the sciences or maybe even business school because in theory they work differently.  Maybe law school is the closest) you lean to be a professional reader.  That is, you learn how to process and understand text and make meaningful criticisms of, supplements for, and syntheses from what other people have said.  You also learn how to conduct research/etc. but often this also involves careful reading.  But original research aside, part of the task is making sense of the field itself, recent developments, the major questions, what and who is “in” and why.

And second, that you have to stop reading books for information alone (at least, books with arguments to which you have to have meaningful responses).  At a certain point it doesn’t matter what the details are, more what the overall argument is:  the questions they are asking and answering,  who they are responding to, what they haven’t sufficiently said or accounted for.  Getting used to this is difficult, and it’s something like this:

Imagine you’re standing on the ground.  This is where the average intelligent adult reader would begin from (including, say, where you are in college).  Above you is a jungle-gym type structure, just barely graspable above your head (although it’s a stretch).  You can only see the underside – this is the book’s information and basic narrative.  When you read on this level, you get a pretty good picture of what it is, but it’s hard to do anything with it.   So you try to grasp the structure itself – literally and through careful reading of the text.  It’s a struggle pulling yourself up out of the information, but you get better at figuring out which bits give you the leg up, so to speak.  And maybe for awhile you’re content to just hang onto the bars/text itself, peering just over the top of the structure to see what you should be doing, but still struggling to get off the ground.  Eventually, though, you can pull yourself up on top of the structure and see the other side of the text, the underlying assumptions, the engagement with others’ arguments (often in the footnotes), and with the grounding of the text itself you can go on to move the ideas around in your head, see where to go with it, and (if you like) see that each book, each structure, is connected from above by these arguments and assumptions and disagreements.

Then, apparently, they give you your comprehensive oral exam in your field (that is, if you are on the doctoral track).

Having written this out, the metaphor seems a little more problematic than it did in my head – and I’m certainly at best still hanging onto the monkey bars, myself, just starting to see over the top.  But whatever analogy works best, it’s definitely a struggle to realign your reading method.


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