What Does it Mean to Read? (RA 1/2; 3/3)

I saw a presentation a few years ago by Ann Cahill of Elon University. It was a presentation at a teaching and learning conference, the type of thing I’ve sat in 100s of time and given enough times I can no longer count. But her presentation really resonated with me and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it sense then.

Dr. Cahill is a philosophy professor. In another universe I might have been her colleague. And though I can’t remember the official reason for the presentation, what I took from it is that different disciplines read differently.

We know that’s true of writing: obviously so. One writes differently for a blog vs. a science lab vs. a humanities paper. Even different disciplines within a larger category write differently (history vs. philosophy vs. english, for example). But for some reason I had not registered it for reading.

I have two main approaches to reading. One is my version of speed reading (which I now realize is probably just “reading”) and one is what I thought of as reading (which Cahill helped me recognize as “philosophical reading”). And now I realize I would probably benefit from other flavors like “nonfiction reading” or “reading in order to do scholarship vs. reading for learning.”

The way Cahill helped the audience understand what philosophical reading is was by showing a few videos. She had a selection of text and she had the student read it out loud, pausing to share out loud what they were thinking as they read, and then continuing on. The students read the paragraph with maybe two or five stops where they made commentary like “that’s funny” or “I didn’t expect that!” Then she showed a video of her, reading the text herself. She started by reading the author’s name, the speculating on why it seemed familiar. She commented on why one might select a passage of a work before she got started. The piece began with an ellipses, so she wondered aloud what was cut and why. Her video, up until this point, took longer than the undergraduates reading the piece in its entirety. Then she continued to have something to say for about every five words of the piece. The videos were useful because she could use that to help students learn what it is to read in a philosophy class, but it was also enlightening for most of the conference attendees as well. Some didn’t know you could read like that. I had no idea most people didn’t read like that.

And that’s because reading is intensely private. You can’t hear how someone reads. “To read out loud” has a specific meaning, and it’s generally to read what is literally on the page with no further commentary. I wonder what the people who taught me to read had going on in their mind as they taught me. I wonder if this way of reading is inborn or learned. (A whole research agenda in and of itself there…)

So since then I’ve worked on this idea that reading might be a big like exercising. Running, weigh lifting, bike riding are all kinds of exercise. However, they all require different types of footwear. Reading might be more of an umbrella activity, with different flavors within. Reading fiction, scholarly articles, and disciplinary non fiction might be better in different environments.

For example: at the moment, my preferred pleasure reading is on my Nook. It’s small and light, it’s eink, I can read in the dark without bothering John, the books sync with my phone. Just like the best camera is the one that’s with you, this is my best book because it’s always with me. My iPad is great for reading web content. I mostly pull it down on instapaper, and then find it to be extremely readable but connected enough to then bookmark things or share them on social media. I like the idea of reading scholarly articles on my iPad, but so far I find it easier on my laptop. The keyboard is there for annotation, I understand how to deal with files more intuitively, there’s much more storage space. For me that’s simpler. I still like paper books for my most theoretical reading. If it’s philosophical in nature, and I’m going to do the extremely intentional reading described above, I just can’t beat paper for that experience. I can do it for short stints on my laptop (which is another reason articles work well for me there), but not really in any sustained way on the iPad.

I tend to do my “speed reading” on the Nook or iPad, and my “reading” on the laptop or a paper book. I’m not sure if comprehension factors into that–another area worthy of study–though I can say I remember plenty from my engaging reading on the Nook.

My three year old specifies books by format. Sometimes he wants a “paper” book, sometimes an “iPad” one, and sometimes he requests a “phone book.” His format requests seem to be more about time of day and mood than anything. Perhaps content since we don’t duplicate between digital and paper as well.

And all of this before I even got to what I thought the main point of this post was going to be: that ebook publishers make it easier and harder to read their books. This is an entire usability endeavor all unto itself. The different platforms all have different functionality and ways of doing things and in some cases can make it a challenge to do deep reading. How does that impact scholarship? And is that trade off dangerous, or actually okay given the benefits of access to more outlined in the previous post?

3 thoughts on “What Does it Mean to Read? (RA 1/2; 3/3)

  1. So true.

    Being a math major completely hosed my ability to speed-read. I was one of those teenagers who would plow through a novel in an afternoon, and then I got to college and ran smack up against Rudin’s Principles of Mathematical Analysis — a book where, if you could read five pages in an hour and actually understand them, you had accomplished something. Math often communicates only the sparest minimum required to express the logical whole, leaving it up to the reader to elaborate the argument as to why this holds together. The signposts are the argument, because they contain by implication everything required to make it…but if you’re actually going to follow it instead of just have your eyes pass over the material, you have to do a ton of work to construct it. And every detail matters.

    I wish I could still read fast :/ But on the other hand it did rebuild me better, stronger, if not faster.

  2. You know I’m going to see this through an instruction lens: but to me, it points out a huge deficiency our students have- the ability to read, not just skim. I tell my freshmen that the 5-page scholarly article I am assigning them will probably take an hour to read, and they snort. Then they come to the next class and announce- smugly- dude, I knocked that out in 15 minutes! And then I quiz them on it. The smugness quickly disappears. There have been tears, oh yes. Then we spend the rest of the class period walking our way through the article- I love the video idea from above!- and we practice annotating the article. This is all so foreign to them. I could easily spend the whole semester just teaching them to read.

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