Reading effectively: how my practice evolved from engineer to scholar

October 16, 2017 – 3:40 pm

I came across Reading Effectively via a tweet by Sara Hendren (thanks, Sara!) and it spurred me to reflect on how I read as a scholar, how I have learned to read, and how I want to continue developing these skills both for myself and those I mentor/teach. Specifically, I’m writing from the perspective of someone who was trained in a STEM field (electrical/computer engineering) and then worked in tech before returning to academia and being plunged into the world of theory.

I thought I mostly knew how to read “theory” when I started grad school. After all, I would read non-technical books (!!!) from fields like anthropology (!!! look at how cross-disciplinary I’ve become!!!) and they would kinda make sense, you know? Maybe it was slow and hard and I had to look up some words on Wikipedia, but… fundamentally, I thought I kinda got it. Wasn’t hard. I mean, I was an engineer. I just… needed to read more stuff.

Now I am pretty sure I don’t know how to “read theory,” and am fumbling my way through complex webs of thought that are larger than what my brain will ever be able to hold. It’s fun. It’s grueling. I love it. And my reading as a scholar is very different from the way I learned to read as an engineer.

There are a lot of similarities. In engineering school (and then at work), I learned that sometimes, reading was slow and hard. Whether it was code, documentation, a technical paper, or a detailed email, sometimes you had to pick through and parse, and backtrace, and look up things that were being referred to (what was that code library for, again?) and sometimes the history of things was important because this part was compatible with an earlier version of thing X, not the current version. I learned that speed was not a metric of success; I learned that sometimes, wrestling with my reading yielded fruit I’d never seen on the first skim through it. I learned to keep an eye out for boundaries and limitations (

I learned that speed was not a metric of success; I learned that sometimes, wrestling with my reading yielded fruit I’d never seen on the first skim through it. I learned to keep an eye out for boundaries and limitations; this device was only tested up to such and such a speed, this wiki page was last updated N months ago and surely the codebase has evolved since then… nobody has done A, or B, or C, and so I could contribute there. These are all useful patterns I continue to employ as a junior scholar.

However, my reading as an engineer (that’s what I’m going to call it for now, since that’s what I was at the time, although this isn’t how all engineers read nor how engineers have to read) is, at its core, different from the reading I do as an engineer-who-is-a-scholar… and specifically, who has spent time in more social-science and arts and humanities environments and methodologies and discourses, and who is super aware that she is still learning it as a new and unfamiliar world.

Here’s the difference.

As an engineer, I was working hard to figure out what the text meant, and this was a task that I could do. Because there was a meaning — singular — to be extracted. The author had thought of a math proof, noted it carefully down, published it, and now I had that in my hands and my task was to… unzip the file, so to speak — unpack and install the archive of their thought into my brain, perhaps adapt it slightly to its new environment. And later I could build upon it. But as a reader, my task was fundamentally to understand the thing (singular) that the author said. And oh, maybe that thing they said had been built-upon later, superseded, whatever… but if so, it would be a fairly simple historical march of continuous improvement towards… uh… I don’t know. Betterness!

Now, as a junior scholar… I’m still working hard, but I’m now trying to get glimpses of what the text could mean. To whom, and how, and why… and where, and how it could mean different things, and which meanings I wanted to pull out and relate to, and how things I did and said and wrote could open different possibilities for what the text could mean. Writing is part of reading. Discussing is part of reading. Breaking from the page in frustrated exhaustion, slumping into a friend’s couch, and having a random thought strike me differently while staring at their bookshelf over dinner… also part of reading.

This is not a finite task; this is not a task that I can do in the sense of completing it and being-done — but it is a practice that I can engage in, and it is a practice that mandates socialization. In my engineering-model of reading, reading-with-others was a means to sometimes get to the same end point (understanding the author) faster, but if I were smart enough and had enough time, I could do exactly the same thing alone. In my current junior-scholar-model of reading, reading-with-others is fundamentally different from reading alone. My interactions with others become part of the text we work with (yes, yes, you can make jokes about this); any “end points” I come up with are decisions I’ve made (I will stop because we’re going to submit this paper; we will stop when the semester ends etc.) — and they’re less periods than semicolons, pauses that can be picked up again at any time in the future, whether we do or not.

The article that spurred these thoughts seems to speak to the latter kind of reading, seems to assume that — well, yes, that is the kind you’re doing. But for some fields, that’s not how scholarly reading works. That’s not our practice. Maybe for good reasons, too (if the end goal is “make the device run, NOW,” you may not need to exhume the racial context of the time period during which the documentation was written in order to accomplish it). To someone with a different disciplinary practice of reading, this article feels really, really weird. And I’ve had to learn my way into it, and I will constantly be learning my way into it — I’m old enough now that new things I encounter will never become my “native” ways of being; even if the new ways become more dominant, I’ll always have had a practice (or absence thereof) for that thing before.

And the people I will teach and mentor into scholarly reading will, by and large, also be non-natives — just because of age and experience, since I teach college students, faculty… not tiny ones. And so I will be conscious of that, when I teach people how to read, and as I keep on working on my own practice. I’m not from here; I can’t assume I know; don’t get complacent, stay awake.

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