What, how, and how much should I read?
This is a guest post written by Dr Dely Lazarte Elliot. She is part of the Creativity Culture and Faith Research and Teaching group in the School of Education, College of Social Sciences.
"While writing in doctoral education is increasingly visible as a focus for research and pedagogy, what remains less visible is the role of reading in the doctoral journey." (McAlpine, 2012, p. 351)
This quotation came from an Oxford professor, whose extensive writing in the area of doctoral education has influenced my thinking. After reading this first sentence in the abstract of an article, I was hooked! Not only did it make me pause and reflect but it also prompted me to read the entire paper – it raises a crucial point that is often overlooked, yet deserves greater attention.
Have you ever noticed that libraries (including our own University of Glasgow library) is filled with excellent resources on how to write? It could be for writing an essay, a thesis, a scientific paper, a report, news, an undergraduate dissertation, a postgraduate dissertation, a doctoral thesis, a systematic review, a research grant application, even a business plan and a marketing plan. I even came across a book entitled ‘How to Write It: A Complete Guide to Everything You’ll Ever Write (3rd edition)’. Doctoral students and academics alike are perhaps the first people to challenge that claim since it does not cover writing for academic publication! But the point is that there are a lot of existing resources available that aim to promote good writing.
In comparison, resources providing guidance on how scholars should ‘read’ are few and far between. One may say that this is because writing needs to be the main focus. Good writing is arguably the material manifestation of constructive, creative, reflective and critical thinking, after all. What is observable, however, is the apparent lack of recognition that reading is a requisite element of effective writing.
Image supplied by Dely Elliot.
One of our PhD students recently asked during an informal group session: ‘How much should I read?’ – a seemingly simple question to which there is neither a simple nor short answer. Can the length of the list of references serve as a fair indication of how much one has read in writing a PhD thesis? Not likely at all – for various reasons. Firstly, the compilation could be a bibliography or a list of references. Also, citing 30 books in no way implies that all 30 books were read in-depth and comprehensively. Even with much shorter articles, some were probably only read superficially, as an exemplar or a supporting case for an argument. There may not be any hard and fast rules for reading but there are certainly considerations to ensure that reading activities support one’s writing and one’s thinking.
Using Murray’s (2009) metaphor for writing for publication, writing is likened to joining a community of scholars who actively converse with each other. What this writing metaphor also highlights is the value of reading for doctoral (and further academic) writing. In agreement with both Murray and McAlpine, reading can be argued to be a valuable means to:
- stimulate our interest further, being privy to recent conversations in the area that help broaden our knowledge and keep us abreast of it;
- not just to familiarise ourselves with the literature but to understand as well how our ideas ‘fit in’ within a broader context of scholarly ideas;
- learn and adopt knowledge-making, literacy and research practices in our respective disciplines, e.g. communicating ideas, determining what is considered evidence;
- observe how others put forward a strong, reasoned and convincing argument;
- develop confidence when participating in discussions and offering critiques of other people’s work, as appropriate (supported by deeper understanding in the area);
- grow intellectually as we become fully integrated into this community of scholars.
Of course, only the author may truly know how much effort has been involved in reading. It is fair to say, though, that somehow the richness in the detail (historical background, contextual, statistical, broad and specific information), the depth of understanding of the theory and related concepts, as well as good examples of empirical studies (both old and recent) together convey to your readers how much you have read.
Additionally, and perhaps just as important, you are learning about a number of things indirectly through reading – how to articulate your ideas, how to argue, and how to ‘join the conversation’ in your respective discipline and area. It is easy to see that the various benefits of reading go beyond learning the content of what is read. Together, they contribute not only to strong and effective academic writing, but also to sharper thinking and overall academic development.
If you are still figuring out how you can strengthen your writing, can I suggest paying more attention to what, how, and how much you read?
References: McAlpine, L. (2012). Shining a light on doctoral reading: implications for doctoral identities and pedagogies. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 49(4), 351–361.
Murray, R. (2009). Writing for Academic Journals (2nd ed). Maidenhead: Open University Press-McGraw-Hill.