Friday, November 30, 2007

The Art of Reading

Harriet Swain
Nov 27, 2007, The Guardian

By the time you get to university, you should really have got to grips with phonics. The only letters you ought to be spelling out individually are BA, or BSc.

Reading is a skill that, for most undergraduates, is taken as read. This is because getting to university is all about doing well in exams, and everyone knows that the most important thing to do in an exam is to read the question. It is worth remembering, however, that no one will realise that you have read a question until you actually bother to answer it.

Reading once you start university is similar - you don't just need to do it, you need to be seen to be doing it (and acting upon it). Sometimes you can be seen to be doing it even if you're not. This is called adding footnotes. Always read at least the title and name of the author, however, because it's never a good idea to pretend you've read some thing unless you're absolutely sure your tutor hasn't written it.

Learning to read better is largely about knowing what's worth reading and what's not. Let's start with the booklist. This probably is worth reading - but only so that you can strike out most of its suggestions. Many of the others, you can probably dismiss after a quick scan through various introductions and conclusions. Gavin Fairbairn, author of Reading at University: A Guide for Students, says much of what academics write is pretentious nonsense. He says you need to use contents lists and indexes, abstracts and footnotes to help you locate the really interesting ideas.

The important thing is to think about the texts and what they might contain without actually having to wade through all of them. You want to reduce the amount of ineffective reading you do so that you can focus on the bits that are really useful. Soon you may find your essential reading for an assignment consists of just a couple of paragraphs.

While you are reading, you need to think about how the text helps to answer the question you are tackling, what argument it is making, whether you agree with it, and what other people have said. For most students, keeping dozens of things in their head like this is easy. Many find they can read a whole book while plotting an evening's pub crawl and wondering whether that cute guy who usually visits the library on Wednesdays is going to turn up.

Nowadays, thanks to the web, it is possible to do all the reading you need without ever using a book at all. Make sure you remember how one works though, just in case you have to open one in front of your lecturer.

Finally, don't forget to read critically what you've written yourself. Remember, you need to be rigorous about dismissing purple prose and pretentious theories, even if you think the person who wrote them is potentially a genius.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, especially for a student like me. I'll definitely look into reading that "Reading at University" book.

Thanks for sharing and keep it up!

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