As I type this, I’m sitting beside a pile of printed articles waiting to be read, absorbed, summarised and filed away somewhere that will make sense when the time comes to look at them again. I’m really interested in what a lot of them have to say, but I just don’t ever seem to have time to read them. Each day, I receive alerts via my email and discover more gems, the abstracts of which I duly check and if they look extremely relevant (I’m getting much more discerning as this degree proceeds) I print them out and add them to the pile.
I’ve been feeling quite a bit of subtle stress as a result of this pile of paper. It sits there like a well-trained dog waiting to be fed or walked. You know the look – eyes fixed on you, motionless with quiet canine focus, apart from maybe the occasional quiver and deep-throated mutter (I swear my pile of papers mutters to me from time to time).
I like reading. In fact, I love reading. My relaxation of choice is to curl up with a book and lose myself in someone else’s ideas. So why am I finding it so difficult to get into this pile of stuff that is interesting, and relevant, and useful – in fact, of critical importance if I’m to complete my degree? What’s my problem?
As I looked at the pile again today out of the corner of my eye (trying to focus on writing a presentation for a forum this afternoon) it suddenly occurred to me – reading keeps being put off because it feels like a luxury!
As I posted last month, I’m in a writing group, because being in a group that writes together seems to help each of us individually to be more productive. No-one has ever suggested a reading group, but maybe it’s an equivalent kind of focus and motivation that I need to simply sit down and read. I have a tendency to skim, or walk around with an article in one hand while making a cup of tea or stirring the dinner with the other (I have indeed been known to walk into lamp-posts because of my reading-while-walking behaviour. It’s a bit humiliating.)
The trouble with walking and reading is that, although it’s better than no reading at all, there are some kinds of reading that need a particular degree of focus. One author I read early on in my doctoral life, whose name I can’t for the life of me remember (please remind me if you know who I’m thinking of), was clear that your physical posture when reading academic documents should be different form that of recreational reading. No couch-slouching for journal articles – these should be read sitting up at a desk, with a pencil, ruler and highlighter handy. The ruler should be used to scroll down the page, ensuring that your eye doesn’t skip ahead, feeding fragmented information into your brain.
It’s worth trying this, even if (like me) you consider that you’re a very good reader. It really does make a difference. It also means that recreational reading still feels like a different activity, so there’s some in-built containment between compartments of your life.
Now, I’m fully aware that some people find reading difficult and tedious at the best of times. I can’t imagine doing doctoral studies if this is your perspective, because both the quantity and the substance of the type of reading you will have to do (there’s no escape) is beyond anything you’re likely to encounter anywhere else. But if you’re reading this, chances are you are not a reluctant reader, because reluctant readers are unlikely, I think, to go searching blogs for more things to read.
I’m interested to hear from other doctoral students, whether PhD or otherwise – how do you approach your reading? Have you kept reading while collecting and analysing your data, or has it been pushed aside until it’s time to revisit your lit review? And what effect have your doctoral studies had on your recreational reading?
And I’m particularly interested in whether anyone’s tried setting up a peer reading group, and what you learned from that experience.