Academic reading and the curse of staying on top of literature
So, there was a time, some years ago – I was part of the studies representatives in Archaeology, and one task of this job was student counseling before the new winter semester was about to begin. And every year again there were those people, asking me if it is necessary to read a lot when studying something like Archaeology or History. (Well, … YES?!) I never paid much attention to this fact, though. For me, it was clear. What does a student do, especially a student of the humanities? Reading. Wow, who would have thought! (And yes, sarcasm…)
Now, being at a stage of my career where people are calling me Dr. and are referring to me as their university lecturer, I am struggling with reading, because there is a lot of reading to do. Yes, who would have thought, right? (Okay, be easy on my sarcasm level, I had the whole weekend to think about this 😉 ). Anyway, now I am supposed to “stay on top of literature”. Meaning, read all the new and important stuff. As soon as possible. Thinking about all the revisions for publishing my dissertation, writing articles, papers, book chapters, thinking about preparing new courses – and if possible, about topics I am not really into, because hey, one must widen one’s expertise, right?
And I find myself really panicking, because 1) I have not read enough smart stuff and 2) I am too slow with my reading and 3) I am obviously stupid, because some papers and articles I just don’t get – which is not my fault, because some papers are really bad written and we all know them. And for all the fancy words I never heard or read before, well, thank God someone invented Google (although, it happened to me about four or five times I googled a term and Google could only give me the paper I was reading as a reference, so… yeah, thanks for nothing?)
You see, what I am doing here, right? Yes, imposter syndrome and panic talk, and we should not do that here! But we are human after all. And we do overthinking here in academia.
So, I did what every good (and doubting) academic does: looking on the internet for academic reading strategies. And wow, there are a lot of pages – I mean, I did know that. My favorite has always been Raul Pacheco-Vega and his blog on resources for academics. I have read most of his posts about academic writing, but he has really good suggestions on academic reading, too. I give you his summary of posts on reading strategies as a starting point. I tried some of them myself and I have to say, some hacks saved my (student) life.
So, why is reading that important? My German teacher back at school (boy, long time ago, I was about 14) said one important thing to me: “Well, you know… for writing, you need letters. And where do you find them? In books. That’s why those who read write the smartest things.” I had forgotten of this words for so long, but last week, when I was hyperventilating over a ton of papers on my to-read-pile, I suddenly remembered them. I mean it is a funny picture in my head – taking letters from reading books so that you can write words. But it is true. For outlining and writing papers you need a basic literature knowledge, because otherwise what would you write about? How would you have been able to define the gap in research you are now going to fill with your brilliant article?
But back again at reading strategies – I thought about my own routine. And discovered that I am switching between deep reading (that kind where books and research literature absorb me, so that I barely look up; and yes, it happens…) and active skimming and note taking. The latter might always be the right decision when I do teaching prep, because I need to design a presentation, a scriptum, a syllabus etc. But the main thing about academic reading is that it is active. You have to process the stuff you read immediately, be it by taking notes, by highlighting sections in the texts or by underlining and writing on the go while reading and doing researching. Suddenly it does seem that I am actually lacking a good routine where I read constantly every day for at least one or two hours. Because like writing, which you should do every day (at least workdays) in academia, reading needs to be practiced.
I have my days, when I am reading, but I am sometimes not processing all the stuff I read so I end up confused about some facts I know but do not know where I read them actually. And about the fact with “staying on top of literature” – how do you do that without going mad and cancel all your sleeping and eating time? Well, one big secret to this is definitely to take a step back. When I check my Citavi-projects and my research journal, there are plenty of pages full of knowledge, excerpts I wrote, citations I marked and quoted, new books and papers I came across. This is working actually, but okay, just in parts. I need my breaks, because no-one can read and write and be smart all the time. But the pressure is real and I guess, points in time like November, when we are celebrating Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo, and I wrote about it last time) and the end of the year is getting near (and some of those freaky deadlines are getting near, too), one starts about to question everything. Could I have done more this year? Well – no? Is it not enough to have written three articles, leaving two to write until the end of December, about having co-organized a conference, prepared a talk for it etc.? This year was really tough, and I am not even about getting to the fact that there is still a pandemic going on and Germany and Austria as well are in a really bad state by now…
So, I am writing this post out to you fierce fighters of Academia, and I am asking for your help. What are your reading strategies? What is working for you and how are you always on the top of the newest piece of research published? What is your way of reading academic papers or books? I want to know, what kind of academic reader you are and I dare you to tell me your reading routine and/or strategy. Let us know down in our comment section or find us on Twitter or Instagram!
Stay safe and stay healthy! <3 All the best