If At First You Fall Asleep…
During my first year in college, I feared many things: calculus, cafeteria food, the stained, sweet smelling mattress in the basement of my dorm. But I did not fear reading. I didn’t really think about reading at all, that automatic making of meaning from symbols in books, newspapers, on cereal boxes. And, indeed, some of my coziest memories of that bewildering first year involved reading. I adopted an overstuffed red chair in the library that enveloped me like the lap of a department store Santa. I curled up many evenings during that first, brilliant autumn with my English homework: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. I’d read a gorgeous passage, snuggle deeper into my chair, and glance out to the sunset and fall leaves outside of the library window. This felt deeply, unmistakably collegiate.
But English was a requirement—I planned to major in political science. I took an intro course my first semester and brought my readings to that same chair. I curled up, opened a book on the Chinese Revolution, started reading, and fell asleep. I woke up a little drooly, surprised at the harsh fluorescent light, the sudden pitch outside. Not to be deterred, I bit my lip and started over. I’d hold on for a paragraph or two, and then suddenly I’d be thinking about my classmate Joel’s elbows, the casual way he’d put them on the desk when our professor lectured, sometimes resting his chin in his hands. He was a long-limbed runner and smelled scrubbed—a mixture of laundry detergent and shampoo. He had black hair and startling blue eyes. Did I find him sexy?
Crap! How many paragraphs had my eyes grazed over while I was thinking about Joel’s stupid elbows? By the end of that first semester, I abandoned ideas of majoring in political science. I vacillated between intense irritation with my assigned readings and a sneaking suspicion that perhaps the problem was me—I was too dumb to read academic texts. Whichever it was—a problem with the readings or with me—I carefully chose my classes so that I could read novels, poetry, and plays for credit. But even in my English classes, I discovered, I had to read dense scholarly articles. By my Junior year, I trained myself to spend days from dawn until dusk hunkered over a carrel in the library’s basement armed with a dictionary and a rainbow of highlighters. Enjoying my reading seemed hopelessly naïve—an indulgence best reserved for beach blankets and bathtubs. A combination of obstinacy, butt-numbingly hard chairs, and caffeine helped me survive my scholarly reading assignments. But it wasn’t fun.
Seven years later I entered graduate school. I was also working and living on my own, cooking for myself instead of eating off cafeteria trays. In short, I had a life. My days were not the blank canvas they had been when I was an undergraduate and could sequester myself in the dungeon of the library basement. And so, I finally learned how to read smarter, not harder. Perhaps the strangest part of my reading transformation was that I came to like reading those dense scholarly articles; I came to crave the process of sucking the marrow from the texts. If you can relate to this, if you also love wrestling with academic journal articles, take joy in arguing with authors in the margins of the page, I am not writing for you. However, if your reading assignments confound you, if they send you into slumber, or you avoid them, or they seem to take you way too long, then pay attention. Based on my experience as a frustrated student and now as a teacher of reading strategies, I have some insights to share with you designed to make the reading process more productive, more interesting, and more enjoyable.
Joining the Conversation
Even though it may seem like a solitary, isolated activity, when you read a scholarly work, you are participating in a conversation. Academic writers do not make up their arguments off the top of their heads (or solely from creative inspiration). Rather, they look at how others have approached similar issues and problems. Your job—and one for which you’ll get plenty of help from your professors and your peers—is to locate the writer and yourself in this larger conversation. Reading academic texts is a deeply social activity; talking with your professors and peers about texts can not only help you understand your readings better, but it can push your thinking and clarify your own stances on issues that really matter to you.
In your college courses, you may have come across the term “rhetorical reading.” Rhetoric in this context refers to how texts work to persuade readers—a bit different from the common connotation of empty, misleading, or puffed up speech. Rhetorical reading refers to a set of practices designed to help us understand how texts work and to engage more deeply and fully in a conversation that extends beyond the boundaries of any particular reading. Rhetorical reading practices ask us to think deliberately about the role and relationship between the writer, reader, and text.
When thinking about the writer, we are particularly interested in clues about the writer’s motivation and agenda. If we know something about what the writer cares about and is trying to accomplish, it can help orient us to the reading and understand some of the choices the writer makes in his or her work.
As readers, our role is quite active. We pay attention to our own motivation and agenda for each reading. On one level, our motivation may be as simple as wanting to do well in a class, and our agenda may involve wanting to understand as much as necessary in order to complete our assignments. In order to meet these goals, we need to go deeper, asking, “Why is my professor asking me to read this piece?” You may find clues in your course syllabus, comments your professor makes in class, or comments from your classmates. If you aren’t sure why you are being asked to read something, ask! Most professors will be more than happy to discuss in general terms what “work” they want a reading to do—for example, to introduce you to a set of debates, to provide information on a specific topic, or to challenge conventional thinking on an issue.
Finally, there is the text—the thing that the writer wrote and that you are reading. In addition to figuring out what the text says, rhetorical reading strategies ask us to focus on how the text delivers its message. In this way of thinking about texts, there is not one right and perfect meaning for the diligent reader to uncover; rather, interpretations of the reading will differ depending on the questions and contexts readers bring to the text.
Strategies for Rhetorical Reading
Here are some ways to approach your reading that better equip you for the larger conversation. First, consider the audience. When the writer sat down to write your assigned reading, to whom was he or she implicitly talking? Textbooks, for the most part, have students like you in mind. They may be boring, but you’ve probably learned what to do with them: pay attention to the goals of the chapter, check out the summary at the end, ignore the text in the boxes because it’s usually more of a “fun fact” than something that will be on the test, and so on. Magazines in the checkout line at the supermarket also have you in mind: you can’t help but notice headlines about who is cheating or fat or anorexic or suicidal. Writers of scholarly sources, on the other hand, likely don’t think much about you at all when they sit down to write. Often, academics write primarily for other academics. But just because it’s people with PhDs writing for other people with PhDs doesn’t mean that you should throw in the towel. There’s a formula for these types of texts, just like there’s a formula for all the Cosmo articles that beckon with titles that involve the words “hot,” “sex tips,” “your man,” and “naughty” in different configurations.
It’s just that the formula is a little more complicated.
The formula also changes depending on the flavor of study (physics, management, sociology, English, etc.) and the venue. However, if you determine that the audience for your reading is other academics, recognize that you are in foreign territory. You won’t understand all of the chatter you hear on street corners, you may not be able to read the menus in the restaurants, but, with a little practice, you will be able to find and understand the major road signs, go in the right direction, and find your way.
How can you figure out the primary audience? First, look at the publication venue. (Here, to some extent, you can judge a book by its cover). If the reading comes from an academic journal, then chances are good that the primary audience is other academics. Clues that a journal is academic (as opposed to popular, like Time or Newsweek) include a citation format that refers to a volume number and an issue number, and often this information appears at the top or bottom of every page. Sometimes you can tell if a reading comes from an academic journal based on the title—e.g., do the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education or Qualitative Research in Psychology sound like they are written for a popular audience? What if you’re still not sure? Ask your reference librarians, classmates, your instructor, or friends and family who have more experience with these types of readings than you do.
There are two implications that you should be aware of if you are not the primary audience for a text. First, the author will assume prior knowledge that you likely don’t have. You can expect sentences like “as Durkheim has so famously argued . . .” or “much ink has been spilled on the implications of the modernization hypothesis” where you have no idea who Durkheim is or what the modernization hypothesis says. That’s OK. It might even be OK to not look these things up at all and still get what you need from the reading (but you won’t know that yet). In the first reading of an article, it’s smart to hold off on looking too many things up. Just be prepared to face a wall of references that don’t mean a whole lot to you.
Second, if you’re not the primary audience, don’t be surprised if you find that the writing isn’t appealing to you. Whereas a novelist or a magazine writer works hard to draw us in as readers, many academic authors don’t use strategies to keep us hooked. In fact, many of these strategies (use of sensory language, suspense, etc.) would never get published in academic venues. By the same token, you’ll use very different strategies to read these scholarly texts.
You may be wondering: if you’re not the intended audience for the text, why do you have to read it in the first place? This is an excellent question, and one that you need to answer before you do your reading. As I mentioned earlier in the discussion of the role of the reader, you may need to do a little sleuthing to figure this out. In addition to the suggestions I provided earlier, look to your course notes and syllabus for answers. Often, professors will tell you why they assign specific readings. Pay attention: they will likely offer insights on the context of the reading and the most important points. If, after all of this, you still have no idea why you’re supposed to read six articles on the history of Newtonian physics, then ask your professor. Use the answers to help you focus on the really important aspects of the texts and to gloss over the parts that are less relevant to your coursework. If you remain confused, continue to ask for clarification. Ask questions in class—(your classmates will be grateful). Go to office hours. Most faculty love the opportunity to talk about readings that they have chosen with care.
Once you have an idea who the intended audience is for the article and why you are assigned to read it, don’t sit down and read the article from start to finish, like a good mystery. Get a lay of the land before you go too deep. One way to do this is to study the architecture of the article. Here are some key components to look for:
The title. As obvious as it sounds, pay attention to the title because it can convey a lot of information that can help you figure out how to read the rest of the article more efficiently. Let’s say that I know my reading will be about the Russian Revolution. Let’s say I even know that it will be about the role of music in the Russian Revolution. Let’s say the title is “‘Like the beating of my heart’: A discourse analysis of Muscovite musicians’ letters during the Russian Revolution.” This tells me not only the subject matter of the article (something about letters Russian musicians wrote during the Revolution) but it also tells me something about the methodology, or the way that the author approaches the subject matter. I might not know exactly what discourse analysis is, but I can guess that you can do it to letters and that I should pay particular attention to it when the author mentions it in the article. On the other hand, if the title of the article were “Garbage cans and metal pipes: Bolshevik music and the politics of proletariat propaganda,” I would know to look out for very different words and concepts. Note, also, that the convention within some academic disciplines to have a pretty long title separated by a colon usually follows a predictable pattern. The text to the left of the colon serves as a teaser, or as something to grab a reader’s attention (remember that the author is likely not trying to grab your attention, so you may not find these teasers particularly effective—though it is probably packed with phrases that would entice someone who already studies the topic). The information to the right of the colon typically is a more straightforward explanation of what the article is about.
The abstract. Not all of your readings will come with abstracts, but when they do, pay close attention. An abstract is like an executive summary. Usually one paragraph at the beginning of an article, the abstract serves to encapsulate the main points of the article. It’s generally a pretty specialized summary that seeks to answer specific questions. These include: the main problem or question, the approach (how did the author(s) do the work they write about in the article?), the shiny new thing that this article does (more on this later, but to be published in an academic journal you often need to argue that you are doing something that has not been done before), and why people who are already invested in this field should care (in other words, you should be able to figure out why another academic should find the article important). The abstract often appears in database searches, and helps scholars decide if they want to seek out the full article.
That’s a whole lot to accomplish in one paragraph.
As a result, authors often use specialized jargon to convey complex ideas in few words, make assumptions of prior knowledge, and don’t worry much about general readability. Abstracts, thus, are generally dense, and it’s not uncommon to read through an abstract and not have a clue about what you just read. This is a good place to re-read, highlight, underline, look up what you don’t know. You still may not have a firm grasp on everything in the abstract, but treat the key terms in the abstract like parts of a map when you see them in the main text, leading you to treasure: understanding the main argument.
The introduction. The introduction serves some of the same functions as the abstract, but there is a lot more breathing room here. When I started reading academic texts, I’d breeze through the introduction to get to the “meat” of the text. This was exactly the wrong thing to do. I can’t remember how many times I’d find myself in the middle of some dense reading, perhaps understanding the content of a particular paragraph, but completely unable to connect that paragraph with the overall structure of the article. I’d jump from the lily pad of one paragraph to the next, continually fearful that I’d slip off and lose myself in a sea of total confusion (and I often did slip).
If the author is doing her/his job well, the introduction will not only summarize the whole piece, present the main idea, and tell us why we should care, but it will also often offer a road map for the rest of the article. Sometimes, the introduction will be called “introduction,” which makes things easy. Sometimes, it’s not. Generally, treat the first section of an article as the introduction, regardless if it’s explicitly called that or not.
There are times where your reading will have the introduction chopped off. This makes your work harder. The two most common instances of introduction-less readings are assigned excerpts of articles and lone book chapters. In the first case, you only have a portion of an article so you cannot take advantage of many of the context clues the writer set out for readers. You will need to rely more heavily on the context of your course in general and your assignment in particular to find your bearings here. If the reading is high stakes (e.g., if you have to write a paper or take an exam on it), you may want to ask your professor how you can get the whole article. In the second case, your professor assigns a chapter or two from the middle of an academic book. The chapter will hopefully contain some introductory material (and generally will include much more than the middle of a journal article), but you will likely be missing some context clues that the author included in the introduction to the whole book. If you have trouble finding your footing here, and it’s important that you grasp the meaning and significance of the chapter, seek out the book itself and skim the introductory chapter to ground you in the larger questions that the author is addressing. Oddly, even though you’ll be doing more reading, it may save you time because you can read your assigned chapter(s) more efficiently.
Roadmaps included in the introduction are often surprisingly straightforward. They often are as simple as “in the first section, we examine . . . in the second section we argue . . .” etc. Search for these maps. Underline them. Highlight them. Go back to them when you find your comprehension slipping.
Section headings. A section heading serves as a title for a particular part of an article. Read all of these to get a sense of the trajectory of the text before delving into the content in each section (with the exception of the introduction and the conclusion which you should read in detail). Get a passing familiarity with the meanings of the words in the section headings—they are likely important to understanding the main argument of the text.
Conclusion. When writing papers, you’ve likely heard the cliché “in the introduction, write what you will say, then say it, then write what you just said.” With this formula, it would seem logical to gloss over the conclusion, because, essentially, you’ve already read it already. However, this is not the case. Instead, pay close attention to the conclusion. It can help you make sure you understood the introduction.
Sometimes a slight re-phrasing can help you understand the author’s arguments in an important, new way. In addition, the conclusion is often where authors indicate the limitations of their work, the unanswered questions, the horizons left unexplored. And this is often the land of exam and essay questions . . . asking you to extend the author’s analysis beyond its own shores.
At this point, you have pored over the title, the introduction, the section headings, and the conclusion. You haven’t really read the body of the article yet. Your next step is to see if you can answer the question: what is the main argument or idea in this text?
Figuring out the main argument is the key to reading the text effectively and efficiently. Once you can identify the main argument, you can determine how much energy to spend on various parts of the reading. For example, if I am drowning in details about the temperance movement in the United States in the 19th Century, I need to know the main argument of the text to know if I need to slow down or if a swift skim will do. If the main argument is that women’s organizing has taken different forms in different times, it will probably be enough for me to understand that women organized against the sale and consumption of alcohol. That might involve me looking up “temperance” and getting the gist of women’s organizing. However, if the main argument were that scholars have misunderstood the role of upper-class white women in temperance organizing in Boston from 1840–1865, then I would probably need to slow down and pay closer attention.
Unless the reading is billed as a review or a synthesis, the only way that an academic text can even get published is if it claims to argue something new or different. However, unlike laundry detergent or soft drinks, academic articles don’t advertise what makes them new and different in block letters inside cartoon bubbles. In fact, finding the main argument can sometimes be tricky. Mostly, though, it’s just a matter of knowing where to look. The abstract and the introduction are the best places to look first. With complicated texts, do this work with your classmates, visit your campus writing center (many of them help with reading assignments), or drag a friend into it.
Once you understand the different parts of the text and the writer’s main argument, use this information to see how and where you can enter the conversation. In addition, keep your own agenda as a reader in mind as you do this work.
Putting It All Together
Collectively, these suggestions and guidelines will help you read and understand academic texts. They ask you to bring a great deal of awareness and preparation to your reading—for example, figuring out who the primary audience is for the text and, if you are not that audience, why your professor is asking you to read it anyway. Then, instead of passively reading the text from start to finish, my suggestions encourage you to pull the reading into its constituent parts—the abstract, the introduction, the section headings, conclusion, etc.—and read them unevenly and out of order to look for the holy grail of the main argument. Once you have the main argument you can make wise decisions about which parts of the text you need to pore over and which you can blithely skim. The final key to reading smarter, not harder is to make it social. When you have questions, ask. Start conversations with your professors about the reading. Ask your classmates to work with you to find the main arguments. Offer a hand to your peers who are drowning in dense details. Academics write to join scholarly conversations. Your professors assign you their texts so that you can join them too.
- Pick one reading strategy above that you may have used in reading a text previously (like paying close attention to the introduction of a book, chapter, or article). Discuss the ways in which this strategy worked for you and/or didn’t work for you. Would you recommend friends use this strategy? (How) might you amend it, and when might you use it again?
- The author writes in several places about reading academic texts as entering a conversation. What does this mean to you? How can you have a conversation with a text?
- How might the reading strategies discussed in this article have an impact on your writing? Will you be more aware of your introduction, conclusion, and clues you leave throughout the text for readers? Talk with other writers to see what they may have learned about writing from this article on reading strategies.
Norgaard, Rolf. Composing Knowledge: Readings for College Writers. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. Print.
Rounsaville, Angela, Rachel Goldberg, Keith Feldman, Cathryn Cabral, and Anis Bawarshi, eds. Situating Inquiry: An Introduction to Reading, Research, and Writing at the University of Washington. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. Print.
- In this discussion I draw on Norgaard’s excellent discussion of reading as joining a conversation (1–28). By letting you, the reader, know this in a footnote, I am not only citing my source (I’d be plagiarizing if I didn’t mention this somewhere), but I’m also showing how I enter this conversation and give you a trail to follow if you want to learn more about the metaphor of the conversation. Following standard academic convention, I put the full reference to Norgaard’s text at the end of this article, in the references. ↵
- I draw on—and recommend—Rounsaville et al.’s discussion of rhetorical sensitivity, critical reading and rhetorical reading (1–35). ↵