(Un)learning to read

As I understand it, the bottom-line challenge of the exam process is streamlining the reading process; given such a limited amount of time before exams (our first Q will be given at the end of July), how will I demonstrate that I “understand” 40+ works, 90% of which are books? As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve read more than half of these already (some as far back as four years ago), but I have a list of 15 books I’ve never touched — and some of these are quite seminal and dense (Burke’s Grammar of Motives, Booth’s Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, and Baca & Villanueva’s Rhetorics of the Americas). The problem, of course, hinges on one’s definition of “understanding.” In my last semester of coursework I was able to take only one class — Contemporary Rhetorical Theory — where I had the luxury of reading theory very closely. I didn’t understand all of it, obviously, but I left feeling confident that I could summarize and synthesize difficult arguments competently. But it’s clear that the exam process is more about breadth and distance than reading closely; it feels like the difference between training for a 5k versus a marathon.

Adding to some of this confusion, throughout coursework different professors groomed different reading methods. Some assigned more reading and advocated robust skimming — sometimes even distributing the reading responsibilities among the class. Others assigned fewer texts, but expected students to know them well enough to explicate nearly every chapter or article. The truth is, both skills are necessary and for this reason (I think) one of my profs recommended Mortimer Adler’s 1940 classic How to Read a Book. Adler argues that because “[w]e do not have to know everything about something in order to understand it” (4) and promotes an active, inquiry-based reading strategy via four, cumulative levels. The first level, elementary reading, is basic reading — “recognizing individual words on the page” (17). The second is inspectional, where the reader must glean the most from the surface of a text in a limited amount of time using certain tools like tables of contents, indices, headings and paragraphs, and summaries. The third level, analytical reading, is thorough, active, and close reading — the kind that English majors are taught early and often. The final level is syntopical reading, a systemic approach to comparative reading: “[w]hen reading syntopically, the reader reads many books, not just one, and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve” (20); moreover, syntopical reading is transactional in that it can generate ideas from books where the topic or subject might not even be present. For example, in comparing various texts on composition pedagogy, I might notice that some address technology in a certain way while others don’t address it much at all. All levels of reading are present within the exam process and I found Adler’s advice throughout the book to be both a mix of general good reminders and some new ideas for reading strategically.

The inspectional section, for instance, recommends commonsense tips, like reading a publisher’s blurb or the table of contents, but I never actually thought to read an index. It also pushes for surface reading: “[t]humb through the book … always looking for signs of the main contention, listening for the basic pulsebeat of the matter” (35). At the moment, such advice sounds like just as obvious as reading a TOC, but after being dominated by elementary and analytical approaches for 30+ years, it’s helpful to hear it again and again. After reading Adler, I feel like apprenticing academics should permit themselves more time to read inspectionally. The chapter also recommends not stopping when reading through a difficult text for the first time. At the same time, the book argues that readers cannot comprehend a book without performing an analytical reading. Inspectional reading, it’s argued later, is for finding works relevant to a particular inquiry, which might make it seem somewhat limited for the exam process — but I think part of the process of preparing is sketching those inquiries that are fundamental to the field. So although I might not be generating my own questions, I do need to make connections across texts that are fairly general and that are generated by a deductive approach to reading. I can see using inspectional reading the first time through, and again later during practice tests or as I prewrite for the actual exam.

Adler splits the third level, analytical reading, into three stages: summary, interpretation, and criticism. In the first stage, he advises finding out what the author’s problems are and the questions necessary for answering them. I like this tip in the exam process since the exam questions themselves essentially ask us to either address, define, or explore various problems in the field. The more I can do to zoom out and map common problems the easier I imagine it will be to put them in dialogue. In the second stage, Adler advises that readers come to terms with key concepts in the books they are reading. For example, as I read, I might look at how various scholars are defining “history,” “pedagogy,” “rhetoric” or “composition” — and then what they do with those definitions, which is more important to syntopical reading. Finally, he also provides a taxonomy for criticism that might serve as a useful heuristic at some point; when critiquing authors, one might demonstrate how they are either uninformed, misinformed, illogical, or incomplete in their analysis. I’m not sure how much of this I’ll be doing in the exam; as I understand it, it’s more important for us to read generously and analytically.

The final section of How to Read a Book, on syntopical reading, was perhaps the most useful as it provides several suggestions on reading across many texts. In doing so, Adler identifies a key paradox and one that I’ve struggled with in organizing my categories for the exam: “[a]lthough this level of reading is defined as the reading of two or more books on the same subject, which implies that the identification of the subject matter occurs before the reading begins, it is in a sense true that the identification of the subject matter must follow the reading, not precede it.” (313). The important thing with this goes back to something I mentioned in yesterday’s post. Although reading taxonomically makes sense in structuring my time, it is important to think about the larger goals of the exam, which is to sketch key conversations/problems in the field. For example, if I read Berlin, Crowley, and Hawk under the “histories” topic, I might overlook or under-appreciate their arguments and thus, the implications of their work for the field; hence, I might miss opportunities to use their work in structuring arguments in the “pedagogies” question on the exam (I’m thinking of Crowley’s book in particular). And thanks to a meeting today with my cohort and the good advice of our grad chair, I’ll be taking a different approach to my reading, to privilege a more syntopical approach that has me studying texts across categories rather than siloing them. This means not canceling out any course reading, but being open to the list in its entirety. And that’s more in the spirit of the exam, as I learned today.

In sum, here’s what I’m thinking in terms of an approach:

1. Spend a few days inspectionally reading the works I haven’t read — and maybe a few that I’ve read or skimmed that are hazy. This way I’ll have a full understanding of the list. I might even inspectionally read the entire list — and with a timer (10-15 minutes per book?) — so I don’t trick myself into analytical reading.
2. Then spend the next few weeks diversifying my analytical reading across areas — perhaps reading one book from histories, technology, pedagogy, ancient rhetoric, theory, and methods each week instead of spending each week on one topic. I might try to group these based on my initial inspectional reading so they’re not grouped completely arbitrarily. Or I might simply prioritize those books I want to read first.
3. Write often. It became clear to me from yesterday’s post, I need to do a better job articulating myself. The worst thing to do throughout this process is read a lot and write nothing.