When I was in grade four I had to find out the name of the Japanese prime minister for a school assignment. I went to my version of Google at the time – my parents – but they didn’t know. They were a little shocked by this and tried to help me find information at the local library using the back issues of newspapers. When that failed we asked neighbors and relatives. No one knew. Finally my mother had the bright idea of ringing the Japanese embassy, who bemusedly supplied the information.

It’s hard to remember that in 1979 there was no ready source of real time political information other than the mass media. If the newspaper or TV didn’t do a story about the Japanese prime minister that week you were hosed.

Nowadays of course I could find that information in less than five minutes – even if I am wandering in a park somewhere thanks to my trusty phone. This ready availability of information is both a boon and a curse to scholars. There’s just so much ‘stuff’ out there which relates to almost every topic – it’s literally impossible to process it all.

I bring up this topic because all around the country at the moment there are new PhD students starting who are probably already feeling overwhelmed already. I often meet students who are stuck in some kind of reading death spiral; crushed under the weight of all this information. Most time this problem manifests as slow writing, but sometimes the problem is so bad that people become paralysed by doubt and can’t write at all.

Their dilemma is totally understandable. It’s not only the amount of information that is daunting, but the opinionated nature of academia which can be off putting. Consider the following quote from Kenneth Burke:

Imagine you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long proceeded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is all about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that have gone before. You listen for awhile, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponents, depending on the quality of your ally’s assistance. However the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress

Burke was describing the energetic play of ideas in writing which characterises academic writing. I like the analogy he uses because when you go to a party – especially one where you don’t know anyone – it can be tempting to just stand in the corner, awkwardly holding your drink. It takes courage to find your voice in the noise of other people’s thoughts – which is what writing is.

I like the way Burke talks about ‘putting in your oar’ – it’s an active metaphor which implies you are starting a journey, not finishing it. The overwhelming temptation is to wait until you have  ‘read enough’ before you risk putting in your oar. The problem is, if you are doing a PhD in the right spirit, you will never, ever feel like you have read enough.

There there are some who think that reading and writing should never be entirely separated; this means you should be writing from day one. I am not such an extremist, but I think these people have a point. If you are writing about an author you are creating a point of view on them at the same time as you are reading. Peg Boyle’s book ‘Demystifying dissertation writing’ has a great chapter on’interactive notetaking’. She claims that thesis writers should ‘collect notes, not articles’ and points out that photocopying articles (or downloading them) is actually a deferment strategy. The real activity should be focussed on squeezing the pertinent information out of the articles you have. 

In order to do this I suggest you have to learn to read like a ‘mongrel’ as my friend John Ting says. For those who are not up with Australian slang, a mongrel is a dog of uncertain parentage who is usually ugly, but survives by being cunning and tough. Reading like a mongrel means you forget about chapter order, reading the introduction or checklists to help you do proper ‘critical reading’. You scan the text rapidly, use indexes, the search function, google books or whatever and go straight for the bit that you absolutely have to know and leave the rest for later. It isn’t pretty, but it works.

I think the key to reading like a mongrel lies in knowing what it is you need to find out. My nine year old self had a singular focus: find out the name of the Japanese prime  minister. With a PhD it’s easy to lose focus and explore the side paths because there are so many bits of information you need to assemble. A certain amount of wandering aimlessly through the online journal catalogue is productive, but too much will leave you lost in the wilderness.

When I am feeling overwhelmed I try to identify the exact problem I am trying to solve, or the missing information I need to find, and write it down in a sentence. I put the sentence on a post it on my computer monitor so I don’t forget.  This is surprisingly effective at keeping me focussed.

So what works for you? Do you have any tips for our beginning PhD students on how to deal with the firehose of information out there?

If you are an RMIT student interested in finding out more tips, come along to our On Track session “Getting things done”

Related Posts

The literature review: knowing when to stop

5 ways to tame the literature dragon

Reading like a writer 


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