not reading everything

Last week was the first week of teaching. New class. New co-teacher. And for the third year running, the course has been redesigned. From a mix of online and face to face, to all on line, and now all face to face again. The class is final year undergrads. My co teacher and I decided that we would have a strong focus on reading and reflective writing, even though the students had “done this before”.

We were particularly keen in the first week to get across a few key things about reading. Apart from the fact that you had to do it and it was part of the assessment.

First, that any bit of academic writing usually has a big point to make. Sure, there might be lots of little points involved, but generally the text has something to say.

Second, it is important to try to “get” that big point. Everything else in the text is related to that big point. The context, the references to other writings, the “stuff” that the paper uses to make its point and how that ”stuff” was generated. Even the way the paper is written may relate to the point. 

Third, you can sum the big point up without writing reams and reams of notes. As in Thomson (2022) says that academic texts generally have a big point to make, something we can think of as a take home message.

And finally, putting these three things into action wasn’t as hard as it might seem. Look, we said. The title is often a bit of a give-away about where the text is going. And a well written abstract or a good back cover blurb add to what the reader can glean about the point to be made. And then simply reading the introduction and conclusion, and skimming the headings in between very often gets you to the point. You also have an idea about how the point has been developed and why. 

When reading, it might be very helpful, we said, to get an idea of the big point before doing anything else. Skim the paper. read the title, abstract, intro and conclusion and the headings in between. Then make a decision about whether to read in depth. The paper might not be that relevant to your work. Although of course, we hastened to add, in the case of our set readings the paper was important and relevant and the class did need to read more. But, we suggested, when it came to their dissertation, beginning by reading-for-the-point was a good way to sift out what was going to be useful and what wasn’t.

We went on to emphasise that it was good to see the big point before you reach for the highlighter, or start taking notes. That way, you know what you need to most take notice of. You don’t highlight or note willy nilly.

It’s fair to say that pretty well all of the students were shocked by the idea that you might not have to read all of a paper to get the drift. And even more shocked when we said that sometimes you didn’t need to even read the whole paper in detail. This was definitely new news.

Well yes, we hope this information doesn’t backfire on us. But as we are doing close reading of a small number of texts in class, the consequences of knowing about selective reading probably won’t be too bad. We hope. At worst, some students will probably come having skimmed the paper in the way we have suggested and will then get to hear the rest in class. And  because they all have to lead on a reading, and write about several other readings in a digital log, they will have to read most of the set papers in full. 

But whether the students do or don’t read in detail is not the point of this post. I’m interested in why this was new news. You see, I’d given the same message about skimming and selecting to a doctoral group earlier that day. Yes, same same. You don’t have to read each and every text in huge detail. You have to see the point the writer wants you to get before you decide to go on. And in order to decide if you need to read in detail, you have to be able to work out which papers you need to read from start to finish – and why. That seemed to be new news to some of them too. And it was kind of worrying.

I had to go on to say a lot more about choosing what to read. And how choice making was important. And that making a wise decision about reading shallow or deep, fast or slow, depends on whether you know what you are reading for. For example – Are you reading to understand a topic? Are you mainly interested in understanding the field? Are you reading to find people that have done work like yours? Do you want to find useful concepts that you can use in your work? Are you trying to find out how people have used key terms? And so on.

You don’t have to feel guilty about not reading all the things. None of us can, or do.

Why was I surprised by the responses to conversations about not reading all the things cover to cover? I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the last couple of days. Hence the post. I’m temporarily concluding that it seems like it’s secret knowledge that we scholars don’t read everything. Something you get to find out the longer you hang about the university. Yes, it may be vaguely disappointing for scholarly writers to think that every one of  their/our much revised words might not be read – and highly regarded. But really, selective reading is something we do a lot. We don’t read all of the things. We don’t read some of the things in huge detail. We skim. And we read deliberately chosen texts quite carefully. 

Getting this message across to undergrads seems pretty important. It’s as important as understanding that you need to do the set reading. And understanding that academic writing is generally an argument which you can unpick and critique. And that as a writer you make choices about how you construct your text, within scholarly disciplinary and institutional framings. (Threshold concepts anyone?) So by the time undergrads get to do doctorates, and some of them may well, it doesn’t come as a surprise to know that choosing what and how to read is integral to building their research and teaching. 

Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in literature mapping, literature reviews, reading, scan-reading and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to not reading everything

  1. Kimberly Owens-Pearson, M.Ed. says:

    This could not have come at a better time. This post entered my inbox at 3:30am and I am up doing what???? Yes, reading everything (it feels like) for my dissertation…
    Thank you so much for your informative and insightful pieces; I am truly grateful 🙂


  2. dbgnvan says:

    A writing course I took really stressed the idea of “the point.” Your post reminded me I need to always make sure that I’m clear about the main point that I’m trying to convey to my readers.


  3. M J Curry says:

    This is great advice that aligns with what I teach students in my doctoral research writing course–read like a professional. In fact, over the 19 years of teaching this course I’ve come to dedicate a week to reading at the doctoral level, something many people don’t think about. It should be strategic!


  4. Mike says:

    I wonder if this is actually easier for experienced teachers whose prior knowledge can fill in the gaps that are left by not reading the whole piece. For somebody who is new to academic reading and the topic in question I would argue that there is a case to be made for a need to read whole papers, at least to begin with.


  5. Judy Zhu says:

    Yes, not reading everything from cover to cover came to me as a shock at the very beginning. Then when I realized most academics just skimmed, I tried to do so when writing my own paper. However, I once received an angry email from an author who I quoted, immediately after I published my work in a leading journal in my field. He pointed out how I misinterpreted his point (not a big point) and painted myself as the first one to present the idea. He accused me of being unethical. I was shocked with his outrage and felt hurt with the accusation. I didn’t do it purposely, and to me, that author didn’t make his point clear enough which left rooms for different interpretations, after all, that’s not the central argument of his paper. The paper is not my most important source either. Anyway, I apologized and contacted the editor to change my claim by clearly stating my agreement with the previous author. Although the dispute has been settled, I begin to reflect: how far should I go in skimming? How could I avoid such dispute in the future? Should I resume my habit of reading from cover to cover?


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