Beware the couch! Reflections on academic reading

Reading – you already know how to do it well… or do you?

This post is by Dr Robyn Mayes, Associate Professor at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia.  She has a long-standing interest in critical reading and thinking practice, and is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.  In addition to creating reading videos, Robyn is developing a series of supporting micro-tasks and is keen to develop an online critical-reader community.  Her research and publications span the socio-economic and gendered geographies of mining (in particular, community experiences/development and corporate social responsibility, and new social movements) and labour mobilities (FIFO workers, 457 visa holders, and au pairs). Her current research, funded by an ARC Discovery Grant, examines work and workers in the gig economy, with a focus on digital geographies of work. You can find out more about Robyn and her publications via her QUT staff page or email her at robyn.mayes@qut.edu.au

Over the years, I’ve learned a few things about reading journal articles. One of the most important things that I’ve discovered is that spending time thinking about how and why I read, and practicing ways to become a better reader, is time well spent.

After all, the ability to critically read journal articles—and lots of them, just think literature review—is foundational to quality scholarship.Through this reading we gain rich and incisive understandings of peer-reviewed theories, methodologies, findings, and debates in our fields.  Ideally, we then usethis knowledge to advance our scholarship and contribution.

This kind of reading, however, is far from easy. Hence the reflection and practice, which I’ve distilled into a set of short ‘how to’ videos. In these clips I showhowI read and offer strategies and tips from a researcher’s perspective. Here’s the introduction video:

A lot of us struggle at times with the sheer volume of journal-article reading required to get ‘across’ a field or topic and then to stay on top of developments. This is particularly tough when you are starting your research degree especially if you are one of the growing number of students who has moved into a new discipline or field in your postgrad study.  We might also struggle to make sense of dense text and unfamiliar terminology, or to make the most of limited time for reading.  On top of this, the research thesis journey provides many opportunities to feel overwhelmed, if not inadequate, in theface of the towering stack (or big folder) of articles you have indeed managed to read, let alone have yet to read.  Here is where practical strategies have their place. 

So, what is this critical reading and how best to do it?

I would say let’s start with: ‘where to do it?’ Academic reading is highly active, requiring energy and disciplined creativity. Such activity is not usually associated with, and is often much more difficult to do, lying on the couch or reclining in the garden—the very places where I did a bit too much of my reading as a doctoral student. And then there is the question of print versus screen reading. I would also warn against the easy fiction that we are being active readers, when in fact we are merely deferring the hard work till some later time. Here the highlighter springs to mind. Often, we are just colouring lines of text (soo satisfying!) without any real thought about why and how these chosen words are useful or meet our purposes. In my experience, it’s very important to be Reading with Purpose (click through for video link).

You are also part of a community of readers, and it’s good to know what other students are doing. Click through the links to see videos of Denise and Jacquie reflect on their experiences and learning process including the ‘strangeness’ of unfamiliar genres and, spoiler alert!, candid confessions of not liking reading. It is important to keep in mind that reading journal articles is work. Indeed it can be hard work; though I find it difficult to convince family members and friends of this. There is also the odd fact that I often don’t feel like I’ve got much done when I’ve been ‘just’ reading. For me, the solution has been to read and write at the same time. For advice on this, see my video Reading as Part of Your Writing Practice.

Journal reading has an even less-acknowledged emotional dimension. Some journal articles fill me with excitement and offer inspiration. Some make me grumpy if not outright angry and others are deeply confusing.  Some fill me with admiration and sometimes this makes me feel as though ‘I’m not smart enough for this!’.

And then there are also the emotions that we bring to the text: sometimes anxiety, sometimes boredom, sometimes excitement.  It’s important to acknowledge these emotions as part of the reading process. To my mind reading is a conversation between you and the text; between texts and other texts including yours. Thus, you not only listen to the text but also ask questions, and have something to say yourself, as in all good conversations. There’s a clip for this too: Reading as Dialogue.

To keep this sense of dialogue and purpose at the heart of your reading:  you might try writing a map of the intended conversation before you start reading.  I have done this myself, for example, before setting out to read Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s beautiful and complex work on whiteness and sovereignty (Moreton-Robinson, A 2006 ‘Towards a new research agenda: Foucault, Whiteness and Indigenous sovereignty’ Journal of Sociology42(4): 383-395). You’ll see that I have tried to articulate the exact purpose of my reading and to bring some clear questions to the text.

I plan to continue to develop and refine these videos—so your feedback is most welcome.  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below [or email me at robyn.mayes@qut.edu.au]. Who knows maybe you’ll start some conversations about scholarly reading practice: what we do and why it matters.

Full list of videos by Robin Mayes on reading:

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Reading like a Mongrel

Surviving the reading marathon

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6 thoughts on “Beware the couch! Reflections on academic reading

  1. Wow. Thankyou so much for this. I am just starting my HDR Master of Philosophy and have started to write the first chapter. This article has clarified some things for me at these early stages as I had been getting self doubt around was my writing good enough.

  2. Thanks for this. I have a question: although I am getting better at things like reading for a purpose, where I still struggle greatly is when I need to do a “full” reading of an article. I understand that, to cite an article in my own work, I need to have read it, mostly to make sure there isn’t some problem with it, or to check whether there are other parts of it that bear upon the point I want to draw from it. Can you offer strategies for the “full” reading, where unavoidable? Or, reading strategies that enable me to safely cite an article without a full reading?

  3. Hello
    I am Jetee S. Scott, from Liberia, I want to part of your reading and research community. I listened to your video keenly which get glued to your lecture.
    I appreciate you so much for creating this community.

  4. Pingback: Reading is hard – My PhD life

  5. Reblogged this on SciNatura and commented:
    I find it very easy sometimes to discount how much brain power and energy reading papers takes. I feel guilty sometimes when reading because it’s not the ‘real work’ I need to be doing, or it’s ‘just reading’. However, this mindset can be really harmful to the academic process because reading journal papers is a fundamental part of becoming (and remaining) an expert in any field. It’s how we gain knowledge and learn about new ideas and perspectives. How we find inspiration and learn about things to avoid. It’s even a form of networking as you learn the research interests and specialties of the big names in your fields, and discover people to seek out at conferences. Reading journal papers is valuable, exhausting, and important work that needs to be done regularly, and with purpose.

  6. Pingback: “Beware the Couch”, The Thesis Whisperer talks academic reading | SciNatura

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