Academics often look forward to doing their own work in summer – the work they can’t get to during term time. We write bids, papers and books during our <break>. And one of the ways we get ourselves into the right writing frame of mind is to read – and think about the reading.
I’ve got a few reading things on the go over summer. I have a bid to write, and a few papers. Indulge me while I describe what this actually means I am doing. I hope to show you that all reading is not the same. We read different things for different purposes, and because of that, we do different things with the texts.
The bid – reading for what’s not there
The bid Im working on is with an external research partner. I have worked with her a lot. We have known each other for about fifteen years but started seriously collaborating about eight years ago. We’ve now done funded research and written together and co-supervised. This is a long term research relationship and that means I have a fair idea of the kinds of things that she and her organisation are interested in.
Recently, and without particularly trying to, I had an idea for a research project. It just happens to be something that my research partner and I have idly talked about over the years. In a tiny Eureka moment, I realised that the idle conversation was actually a research-project-in-waiting. I emailed my colleague and sketched out the idea. She was enthusiastic, as I knew she would be. But then she said that she was particularly interested in one aspect of the idea. In fact, it was something that worried her. And it was something her organisation would be interested in having investigated.
This was great feedback. This was now our idea. I let her comments sit for a while and then had another aha moment. I went back to her by email again and said “ Well why don’t we make that the research question?” And an affirmative response came back.
I ‘d begun by then to get into the literatures. I wasn’t starting from scratch here. I already knew quite a lot of the areas and texts I needed to include, and I knew some of the key writers. But as I systematically noted and mapped, I could see that there was almost nothing about the very thing we were/are looking at. (A small hooray. But there was plenty of material about related topics which tellingly left it out. So, as we thought, there was something for us to do.) I even found one person noting the gap – very helpful. We can be confident in saying that there is still a significant as well as useful contribution we can make through our proposed project.
I sent my preliminary scoping to my research partner. We then met face to face to chat, decide whether to proceed and if so, to agree a potential research design. My research partner also promised to add a few more texts for me to look at. My job now, as this IS my job, as my research partner has another job, is to write a draft by the end of August.
Writing the bid will thus involve more reading. If only half of what we read goes in the bid text, that doesn’t matter, as we have to be sure we know the fields we are straddling and say that to the reviewers through carefully selected references.
The reading and thinking I’m doing here are to kick off and position new work. We clarified an “industry” problem and then looked to see what research there already was. And here, we were looking as much for what there wasn’t – and what could be – as well as what there was.
While the bid requires quite focused reading, as does a paper I’m writing, I also want to use the summer to do a bit of tough reading about something that I would like to understand better.
Now, I routinely read several journal articles a week. I’ve talked before about the app Browzine, which is attached to my university library’s journal subscriptions. I have thirty journals in my version of the app – journals where I usually find papers of relevance to my work. The app alerts me every time a new paper is published. Courtesy of Browzine, I skim quite a lot of new papers each week, and read a few in depth. Those I think are potentially useful, I store in the app library. I generally don’t take any notes of any of these readings unless I’m going to use them straight away. This reading is simply about keeping up to date in the field.
I also usually have an academic book or two on the go on my ipad. I can pick this reading up if I’m hanging around inbetween meetings, or if I’m on the train. These are usually books associated with a particular project, or books that might be useful for teaching. So I may well take a few notes associated with these books. Quite often, as I use ebooks, I simply highlight the text and export the highlights to ipad notes where they are saved. I can add my own comments into notes as well if I want. I sometimes transfer these notes to endnote when I have an immediate use for them.
And there is a small category of books that take time and concentration. These are the tough books. Sometimes during term time, I can read tough books as I have a sliver of down-time. But summer is where I really do burrow into the more difficult texts. And often, as now, they are a cluster of related writings – they all refer to each other, and to key foundational texts. So, as it happens , a couple of those key underpinning books are on my summer list too. Reading a set of associated texts means I have a better chance of grasping a strand of work in the field. I know the cluster of researchers and their shared concerns, their reference points, and the kind of rhetoric they use to argue and explore.
Tough books are generally philosophical or dense sociological texts which I might draw on at some point in future. But they immediately help me to get to grips with wider discussions and debates in the field. They provide “fuel” for thinking, now as well as later. They allow me to think anew about an ongoing intellectual problem I’m wrestling with.
The tough books are ones I need to work with and on. This doesn’t meant making lots of notes. My reading emphasis is on comprehension – reading through and thinking in the first instance. There’s a lot of stopping and starting as I digest. I might make a few highlights on a first reading, but most probably not. I generally write a page or two about these books after I’ve finished reading them, to consolidate the ideas and argument. This page always goes into endnote at the completion of the first read. I may well then go back and revisit specific passages which I want to think about further. (Just in case you are curious my summer list is Braidotti, Manning, Winnocott and Whitehead)
A list of the kinds of reading that I do, in term time and over summer, would be organised into the following categories:
- Keeping up reading. Journal articles as they are published via Browzine. Skimmed or read in depth. Stored or not. Usually not noted unless immediately of use.
- Project based reading. Focused reading in a particular area for teaching or research or perhaps book or paper writing. If for research/writing, these texts are always noted and mapped in a doc, and end-noted.
- Casual reading for teaching, interest or potential research. These are usually ebooks which are highlighted, and these then stored in ipad notes.
- Tough reading which provides resources for difficult problems I’m working on, long-term. I might note these books but I always write some kind of summary afterward and endnote this together with the bibliographic details.
Oh, and yes I read other things too. I belong to a book club which meets monthly, and I usually also get through another four of five works of fiction a month too. I have always been a reader – but that’s another story.
Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash
She wears me out just reading about what she does.
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You are so inspiring. I love reading your methodological advice and your personal experience of the researching/writing process. Your posts happen to be relevant to my research field (law)!!
Thank you for writing this amazing blog.
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