A picture of books and headphones from Nick Byrd's blog post about academic reading. See also audiobook, ebook, and text-to-speech.

Workflow: Academic Reading

When I read visually, I tend to read very slowly. Like really, really slow! A 30-50 page text can take most or all of my workday (depending on a few things). And my job requires me to do hundreds of pages a week. So I cannot do all of my academic reading visually. Fortunately there are other ways of reading. I’ll discuss them below.

1. Visual Reading

When I have a text in front of my eyes, I am very tempted to take my time, read very carefully, and look for ways to appreciate the sections that would otherwise strike me as unimportant. Giving in to these temptations can be foolish. To explain consider a few questions.

  1. Can I finish all of my reading if I take my time?
  2. Does this allegedly important text deserve a careful reading?
  3. Is this allegedly important text actually important?

For much of my academic reading, the answer to at least one of these questions is “no.” In other words, usually…

  • I cannot finish all of my reading if I take my time…
  • it’s not clear that a text merits a careful reading, or…
  • it’s not clear that a text is important.†

Don’t get me wrong, the visual reading method is sometimes crucial for academic reading. If you really want to (try to) understand the nuances of a text (or a series of texts), then careful visual reading, with intermittent break for note-taking is probably worthwhile.

But visual reading is not well-suited for every situation. For instance, when I have a lot to read and I don’t have much time, the texts aren’t very technical, and/or the importance of the texts is unknown, visual reading is probably not the optimal method.

So I sometimes use another reading method.

2. Auditory Reading

The other method is this: listen to texts.

I can listen to texts using my smartphone or my computer. The device will read a text to me. And it can read it very quickly. While auditory reading, I can read at least 400 words per minute for long periods of time during various other tasks.

So auditory reading has multiple advantages.

A. I can read A LOT more!

I can read when I otherwise cannot read: when commuting, cooking, exercising, after I’ve turned off artificial lights for the night, etc.. And I can read very fast. So rather than 30-50 pages per day, I can easily read a 200+ pages per day.††

B. I can quickly discern the primary ideas of a text.

C. I can quickly estimate the importance of the text.†

3. How I Use The Two Methods

Notice that visual and auditory reading are both important for my academic reading. So I still use both methods. Which method I use depends on the situation.

  1. For things that are in my main area (or reading that is assigned), I do an auditory reading once, start-to-finish. I listen at a fast pace so that I move quickly. This forces me to push past the sections that tempt me to linger, take notes, or reread — this often pays off, by the way, because authors often address my distracting thoughts later on, obviating my initial desire for a pitstop. I only circle back for visual reading if I want to (i) cite a particular section of a text, (ii) to remember/clarify parts of a text that are fuzzy in my mind, and/or (iii) I want to master the nuances of the text.
  2. For things that interest me, but are not in my main area, I will read an abstract, an introductory chapter, or a review the text. I use the visual or auditory reading method, depending on my circumstances.
  3. For everything else, I don’t read it. I simply cannot afford to be a generalist.†††

4. Auditory Reading: A How To Guide

I have written more about auditory reading here: “Academic Tech: text-to-speech“. The post discusses the apps that I use, how to use these apps for academic reading, the reasons I use these apps as opposed to similar apps, and the ancillary benefits of text-to-speech (e.g., how it helps with writing, not just reading).

 


† Importance is relative to my interests, of course. I have no illusions about the fact that something can be very significant despite it’s not being significant for my interests.

†† I cannot read this much every day of course since I have non-reading responsibilities like grading, etc. This is just meant to describe the difference in reading pace.

††† After years of trying to be a generalist, I am done… or I am done until further notice. 🙂 If I am to have a chance in the current academic system, then I will not be able to stay up to date on more than 2-3 narrow topics at a time.

Featured image: by Nick Byrd, CC BY 1.0  (no title)

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog

2 thoughts on “Workflow: Academic Reading”

  1. Hi Nick,

    You’ve described a very interesting methodology. I’ve experimented with Moon+ Reader for Android’s text-to-speech feature, which works well, but I personally prefer visual reading because I find it much more conducive to skipping around (skimming), acquiring a holistic view of the article or book’s design, and connecting ideas.

    The main challenges that I face–especially when trying to gain competence in a particular narrow topic–are to identify definitions, understand minor but possibly important conceptual distinctions, outline arguments, and appreciate where in the discourse a particular article fits by analyzing the bibliography and the historical flow of ideas. I suspect that once one is steeped in the literature of a narrow topic, all of this becomes much easier, and auditory reading becomes feasible. Were I to try auditory reading on a journal article in analytic epistemology, I don’t think that I could keep up. My comprehension would eventually plummet. I’d get lost and abandon the auditory reading. I find myself wanting to stop and think, and go back and think some more. That’s difficult to do while listening to an article while commuting.

    On the other hand, when reading visually, it’s tempting to underline or highlight just about everything. I’m trying to compensate for this by developing an analytical methodology that decomposes an article into its constituents (to establish a rough, orienting map), identifies definitions, notes valuable conceptual distinctions, and outlines arguments effectively and efficiently. A critical part of efficiency involves ignoring anything that isn’t important to the specific research goal that I start out with, which includes discarding weak articles.

    Overall, my approach is:

    Input: Parse (read) the article;
    Compute: Think about it, with a particular goal in mind;
    Output: Write annotations or more fully formed thoughts.

    That, then, feeds into the writing of an article, which can initially be disordered, emerge in clear form only after many battles, and take far longer than my non-academic writing. Academic philosophical writing is challenging because it involves not just analysis, but construction–the creation of new ideas. And that comes from intuitions and ineffable cognitive and affective surprises. The thinking is the difficult part.

    In the end, I’m not entirely certain as to how it all comes together. It’s probably rather more chaotic and messy than my clean, Apollonian methodology might suggest. But despite the high learning curve and tremendous effort to produce an article that adds something to our understanding, having a final product in hand is positively thrilling. There’s nothing as exciting to me as being able to share a high-quality piece of writing with someone else in order to answer an important question or set the stage for future discourse.

    And once you’re done–once you upload an article to academia.edu and make it available to the public, or you publish an article–your work stands apart from you, ready to be discovered. Just one idea in the right mind at the right time can make all the difference in the world.

    I always look forward with great eagerness to reading your latest work (visually)!

    Good Luck,

    Steve

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    1. Thanks Steve!

      You make very good points. Auditory reading certainly doesn’t work for all texts. Aside: it doesn’t work well on texts with footnotes, which is why I prefer endnotes to footnotes.

      And I like the general outline of your method. I’ve heard of only one other person use the input/out language when referring to academic work. The first time I heard it, I found it very helpful. After all, I find that – as you say –input is much easier than output. Identifying and appreciating that has helped me learn how to schedule/prioritize my day. Also, I haven’t explicitly given much thought to the “compute” process. My thoughts often do become clearer during goal-oriented thinking about something.

      I wonder if there is another step (that I often forget about): non-goal-oriented thinking. It’s the kind of free association slash mind-wandering that sometimes leads to breakthroughs during periods of being mentally stuck — e.g., when one has a great idea while showering, hiking, driving, or doing some other thing that isn’t intentionally related to philosophy. Just a thought.

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