reading like a mongrel

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 


42 thoughts on “reading like a mongrel

  1. Liz Tynan says:

    Inger – great stuff! I did “read like a mongrel” for my thesis, although I didn’t have a name for the process at that stage. Now I do! It is the best way to stay sane while keeping on top of the many things you have to read. It does actually work.

    • ingermewburn says:

      I was glad to have a name for it 🙂 John also has this whole tennis analogy which is equally amusing. Maybe I will convince him to write for us one day…

  2. Kirsten says:

    yay! the reading death spiral! more addictive than chocolate – or is that goes well with chocolate??

  3. adiemusfree says:

    Reading: goes best with a glass or two of red wine.
    I love using annotations on pdf docs – and I’ve also used OneNote (it came with my laptop) to summarise what I’ve just read and add notes and things. That way I keep track of what I’ve read instead of losing it amongst the thousands (erm, maybe I’m prone to exaggeration?) of references on EndNote.

    • ingermewburn says:

      Good idea! There’s quite a few pieces of software that can help with this task – for example, scrivener allows you to import the pdfs into the document you are writing which helps you make context specific notes.

  4. Anthea says:

    Thank you for this…made me think about the process that I used when I did my PhD. I used both techniques that are described above by the author as “learning to to read like a ‘mongrel’” and wrote in the manner referred to in the analogy where someone goes to a party.

  5. Bex Hewett says:

    I am a bit old skool and do like to have a paper article in my hands, rather than on screen so I am a sucker for printing and photocopying. That said, I think I’m getting better at reading like a mongrel! I scribble a couple of bullets on the front of each article to summarise the main points/value for my research, then I can go back to them.

    I am getting better at dipping into electronic articles though, and just skimming for the bits I need. I think this confidence grows once you feel that you have “the basics” of your topic nailed.

    Great article!

  6. rcayley says:

    Great post, Inger. I always emphasize for thesis writers that Burke identifies the stepping off point as when you have “caught the tenor of the argument”. Those five words contain two useful points: one, you are looking to ‘catch the tenor’ rather than master every detail and, two, you are looking for a single–rather than multiple–argument. That emphasis on a single argument encourages students to look at the interactions among scholars rather than focus on all the different things that different people have said.

  7. Carena Thompson says:

    Oh my goodness- why didn’t I stumble across this site two months ago?! I’m at the point where I need to beg myself to STOP RESEARCHING because I have so much information and have written so little that I’m terrified that I won’t finish my thesis on time. Refusing to have a nervous breakdown! Thank you for the amazingly encouraging words that put this task in perspective.

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  9. Karenmca says:

    Great article. When reading for my own PhD I found it helpful to keep annotated bibliography of my reading – pref just a paragraph – forced me to summarise what was most useful about what I’d just read.

  10. Binod says:

    Inger, Great article indeed! I have started ‘mongrelling’. However, wondering if I do not get the crux of the article or book while doing so. Any tips further?

  11. Dirk Porsche says:

    Yet again a very nice post. Unfortunately, I still feel overwhelmed. I still have a hard time finding a topic that’s worthwhile to tackle. I don’t just want to write some master thesis. It should have some value, despite getting me a good grade.

    There is a small glitch three paragraphs after Burkes citation:

    There there are some who think that reading and writing should never be entirely separated; this …

  12. ChrisB says:

    Your blog is always a gift that keeps on giving! Trying to up my writing/reading amount per day steadily and the techniques I’ve been using are very much like everything you’ve written. Thanks for being our Thesis Whisperer!

  13. Eleanor Judd says:

    I seriously love what you’re doing – I am only an undergraduate student so obviously have significantly less to write than many of your readers (though I have somehow lumped myself with the equivalent of 2 dissertations this year) your tips are not only incredibly helpful but it’s lovely to get information and guidance from a source that’s not so ‘formal’ as my tutors and supervisors who I’m quickly learning are too impatient to help me with personal issues about studying.

    Just, thank you for taking the time to make this

  14. John Ting says:

    This is hilarious! I was just doing a search on this website to look for reading tips for PhD students, as I had never written down any of my own approaches…. thank goodness you did it for me, Inger! I’d forgotten about the ‘mongrel’ approach……..

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