Byline: Gary Alan Fine and Shannon K. Fitzsimons
Academics take reading for granted. We learned to read in first grade, and those skills have served us well ever since. Like fish in water, we hardly notice the transparent medium in which we swim.
Writing is a skill that we are continuously taught, a skill that is graded. But reading is different. When academics have trouble understanding texts -- and we do -- the problem is usually with texts and with our background knowledge, not the act of reading itself. And when we do have a reading problem, we tend to medicalize it as dyslexia, suggesting that proper reading is normal and natural -- especially for advanced scholars. That tendency is not particular to higher education, however. After the elementary years, schools pay little attention to the mechanisms of reading. We read as if all texts, even the most complex, were Dick and Jane.
A quarter-century ago, the sociologist Howard S. Becker published a now classic discussion of the challenges of writing in graduate school. In Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article (University of Chicago Press, 1986), Becker demonstrated how academics should write. But the question of how academics should read is deeper, since, unlike writing, reading is considered a given. Although the words, syntax, and ideas are more complex, isn't reading in graduate school fundamentally like reading in first grade?
It isn't, of course. Not only is reading Foucault more intellectually challenging than reading Goodnight Moon (although the two have quite a bit in common, both emphasizing omnipresent surveillance), but the application of reading differs. For the most part, earlier reading is an attempt to grasp the meaning of a text so that one can repeat it to an authority, who then judges whether one "got" the ideas. At that level, reading is regurgitation.
In graduate school, reading and the ability to discuss and interpret that reading are simultaneously a means by which a student asserts an academic identity and the basis on which...