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

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Steve Jovanovic
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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… Read more »