You don't have to read everything, just my work

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I forgot to mention that my 6-pack mustard gift box arrived today!

Which makes it doubly strange that I'm still at my office at 8:00 pm writing a second blog entry when instead I could be enjoying a sandwich. Perhaps not so strange, though, when I explain that I'm consciously getting myself back into a writing habit, and slowly (ever sooooo) trying to re-engage myself with academic work.

Anyhow, was browsing the IHE 'Round the Web, and came across an entry over at Wanna Be PhD about reading for dissertation work, wherein the writer takes issue with the advice that

When you write a dissertation, you have to prove to your readers that you have found and addressed every piece of scholarship ever written on anything possibly relevant in any way to your subject.

This isn't so much advice, I suppose, as it is hazing, and while WBP's anecdote about 2 years of reading followed by complete blockage is compelling enough, another angle on the issue suggests itself to me, particularly as I've been reading along with the Moretti fest (which you should be reading, all of it, right now, get over there).

It seems to me that, particularly in reading-intensive disciplines, we do to our graduate students the same disservice done unto most of us. Specifically, I would assume that many if not most of us loved reading--I certainly did, and part of my declaration of English as a major and my selection of Writing as a vocation related to that love. If you loved reading as a teen or college student, there's a good chance that you were fully capable of reading everything for all your classes, and then some. But that kind of binge reading, particularly at the doctoral level, just isn't possible and it's less so if you manage to complete a doctorate and profess.

So the disservice is this: because we love to read, and we do it a lot, we're slow to realize that there are different kinds of reading (this is the Moretti link for me, btw), and that different tasks require those various kinds. For example, here are four approaches that I might have taken to Latour's book:

  • read the thing cover-to-cover, as I'm doing now
  • do a power skim, reading 1st and last pages of each chapter, and topic sentences
  • read a review or two of it from relevant journals
  • wait for Clay to read it, and to review it on his site

I don't know how many of us would describe all four activities as reading, but I think I would. I might have to resort to air quotes on a couple of them, but I don't necessarily believe that close, word-by-word reading is the only kind of reading you must do when your director tells you to "read everything." In the same way that you might "read" people or "read" a conversational dynamic, for the sake of sanity, you have to "read" your field.

In a less quotey way, I'd put it like this: if you account for a 2002 essay in your project, and that essay has accounted for several articles from the mid-90s, you are accounting for the whole bunch. You have "read" them to the degree that you probably should in order to contribute to the conversation. Now, of course there is some critical faculty to be exercised as to the credibility of our 2002 author, but that's true of every single thing we read.

In a more colloquial way, I'd put it like this: just as you need to address the various "so what?" moments that inevitably arise in a project of some breadth and length, you must make sure that your project isn't vulnerable to the "what about...?" moments. This is not as much of a deal-breaker as we assume, but it is risky, especially when the "what about...?" comes from someone outside of your speciality. If I'm going to write an essay on ANT, I don't want someone to read it and ask "What about Latour?" I had better use Latour, or make sure that there isn't something there that I need to address either citationally or substantially in my argument.

But there are lots of ways to do this, and only one of them involves me rounding out the Latour section on my shelf with those books I haven't yet gotten and a stack of those essays not yet translated or bound. There are other ways, and I'd argue that they're still ways of reading, but I think each of us struggles to learn them, and we don't do such a good job of passing them on.

That is all.


I actually wrote the original piece with which Wanna Be PhD disagreed... and I should probably say that I was being kind of flip in my original posting; no one actually can read everything ever written about their topic, nor, probably, should they try, for the reasons you and she discuss. I meant to capture (tongue in cheek) that feeling, when dissertating, that there is always something else you should be reading, that your committee will never be satisfied, and just when you stop looking for stuff is when 26 people will publish seminal journal articles on the topic.

(That being said, I still argue that writing the dissertation requires a much greater level of literature review than the book does, precisely because you are demonstrating to your committee that you can find this stuff, not necessarily because all of it is crucially relevant.)

But the other thing I wanted to point out is that the original passage I wrote (quoted above) doesn't actually say anything about reading everything ever written on your subject; it says "found and addressed." I completely agree with your broad definition of reading, and those are all exactly the kinds of things I was thinking of. Review articles were gifts from the gods, because through one article you could "find" and "address" entire schools of thought. Or another example - when I was told at one point that my dissertation should have "more theory" (kind of like more cowbell?...), I was told explicitly NOT to go and tackle reading Bourdieu and de Certeau et al. on my own, but to find folks who'd used them, which would provide a much more user-friendly introduction (remember that I'm a historian, not a lit scholar).

thanks for the visit, NK. That was something that I meant to mention, but forgot to: that there's a certain degree of hyperbole that comes across in our discussions of this process, and even in the single sentence of yours that I ended up quoting.

And you're right--I'm not sensitive enough here to the distinction between reading, finding, and addressing in that quote, which is what I was trying to build on in the first place...

Not that I expect to make loads of progress in this regard, but I hope in my own supervision and mentoring that I move away from the requirement you describe--I think that we sometimes run the risk of holding our students to higher standards than we ourselves meet in our own work, and not always for the right reasons. I wince every time I hear stories like WBP's, and do what I can not to cause them for others...

When I was in grad school, I read everything cover to cover. I was afraid that I'd miss something--a complete retraction--if I didn't. Years later, my sister burst out laughing when she heard this--she "powerscanned" her readings, a term which I thought meant something technological, like a pen vacuumming (sp?)up words.

I'm glad you didn't wait for me! I just heard about the new Latour the other day and our library doesn't have it yet. Will be interested to see what you think.

Sadly, I'm still stuck in the cover-to-cover mode. It's no way to live, but I can't help myself. CS

I'm liking it pretty well, but I will continue to wonder if that's because (a) I've read a bunch of other latour, or (b) because I know next to nothing about ANT.

If nothing else, though, I feel like it lays out the implications pretty clearly, and I finally also feel like I understand why ANT is different and what makes it so.

I'll try and get a post up once I'm done, one that's a little more informational...

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This page contains a single entry by cgbrooke published on January 12, 2006 8:15 PM.

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