I’ve just reviewed four papers. Because the authors didn’t know their field(s) well enough, they were unable to convince me that their paper made a contribution to the journal conversation. All of the papers suffered, in my view, from their authors not having done enough reading.
But while it is easy to see who someone hasn’t read enough, it’s much harder to draw a line and say when enough is enough. What counts as ‘enough’ reading? And can you simply read too much? And can you read too much at the start of your PhD?
In my writing workshops and courses I am often told about how bad a lot of early reading makes people feel… for instance…
- Inadequate – engagement with other people’s work can leave the beginning researcher feeling depowered and depressed, unsure if they will ever be able to meet the same eloquent standards. Or…
- Vaguely resentful – too much immersion in dense and stodgy texts numbs the beginning researcher to the possibility that academic writing can be anything other than dire.
Conversation with peers and with supervisors is important if reading leaves you feeling like this. IMHO, reading ought to be interesting most of the time, if not actually pleasurable. But this doesn’t really answer the ‘enough’ question. Even if you feel good about the reading, can you actually overdo it?
Not everyone agrees that researchers should automatically do intensive and extensive reading at the start of a project. The sociologist Robert Merton argued that there was a tension between erudition and originality. It might be possible, he suggested, that originality and creativity could be diminished if a researcher was ‘infected’ by other people’s thinking. Following Merton’s line of reasoning might lead us to think that reading a lot at the start of a research project is counter-productive. We might assume that reading prevents us from sorting out our own ideas. Advocates of this line of thought might prefer then a kind of initial intellectual celibacy, a period when the researcher works solely on their own assumptions and prior knowledge in order to sort out their own position. Then, and only then, do they take on the ideas and work of others.
Others – for example Harry Wolcott, who often said he’d rather write than read – do hold that reading should come later in a research project. Engage with the literatures when you have concrete data you are trying to make sense of, they say. That’s the point at which you are trying to work out which line of analysis and argument to take. The point where you need to say whether you are adding to, contradicting, talking back to, finding problems with or finessing the work that others have already done. The point the authors of the papers I was reviewing seem to have skipped.
But it now seems axiomatic that doctoral researchers start by reading. It is interesting that institutions generally expect doctoral researchers to produce a well-worked out proposal for formal approval before they go on to field work. The proposal is largely a review of literatures and a research design and plan. (This proposal process is as much about risk management as it is anything else – the proposal approval process is meant to identify those people who will struggle to complete a doctorate. How well this works is a question that I don’t want to canvass here). So these kinds of institutional requirements assume that reading a lot before beginning the research is an unproblematically good thing, rather than something about which there has been, even if there isn’t now, some debate.
It may well be that institutions and we supervisors need to do more about addressing the potential down-sides of reading a lot. Perhaps we need to stress rather more the importance of working – at the same time as reading – on progressing your own thinking about the actual research. Maybe we should really hammer home that the reading is for good reasons, not simply because it’s expected.
I guess it’s clear that I opt for early reading, rather than taking the non-reading position. However, I do think that there are risks attached to reading too much. There’s a point at which reading becomes an end in itself. An endless pursuit of something more, something indefinable, a magic bullet leading to a new line of thinking. There is certainly a point at which doctoral researchers – indeed any of us – need to step away from the desk and get on with our own thinking.
Reading ought not to contaminate our thinking, but rather enhance it. Writing about what we are reading, as we are reading it, and writing about our reading in relation to our project, can go a long way to helping us sort out our own ideas, bouncing off the texts in our field. The literatures do have things to offer, providing we can deal with feelings of being inadequate, and don’t fall capture to the notion that all the texts are the gold standard of and for academic communication. Finding ideas for topics, refining our project, locating tools that we can use in our own research and locating prior work that we can build on – these are all in our reading. And these kinds of ‘tools’ are not only helpful in early doctoral work, but at the start of any research project.
But none of this ought to be at the expense of developing our own ideas and our project. If the reading is getting in the way, rather than assisting, or if it’s substituting for our own thinking, then maybe this is the enough already.