Paul Kei Matsuda

How to Read Everything?

The phrase "read everything" seems to have become my mantra in advising graduate students and scholars. I mentioned this when I was visiting National Chiao Tung Unviersity in Taiwan a few weeks ago, and more than a few people said they were going to start reading everything in their email message to me or even on Facebook!

Today, I just received a comment from Joe in response to my earlier blog entry on reading everything:

I've just come across this wonderful blog. Thank you so much for your valuabale advice.

People have been advicing graduate students (especially M.A. students) to read a lot. However, hardly do they talk about how to read. I have found myself struggling with reading for graduate school and so have my friends. Would you mind sharing your thoughts or your strategies on this? Do you take notes for
everything you read? Thank you, Dr. Matsuda.

Some of my answers can be found in other related blog entries (a list of related entries as well as other pieces of advice for graduate students can be found here) and in "Coming to Voice: Publishing as a Graduate Student" (2003). But I don't think I've had the chance to talk about taking notes.

The answer is: I don't.

Most of the books and journals in my personal library are clean--I could sell them on ebay or Amazon anytime, though I rarely sell my books because I consider them to be important tools of my trade.

I've always found underlining or highlighting texts to be more distracting than helpful. (My suspicion was confirmed in the introductory psychology course I took during my first year in college, where the professor mentioned a study showing that underlining is not an effective strategy for studying.) I also don't like how those marks left on the pages actually constrain my reading the next time I read the same text--they distract me away from grasping the meaning in larger contexts and particularly in the context of my current thoughts. For that reason, I don't like buying books second hand or borrowing books from the library. Sadly, some people underline books from the library!

When I was a master's student, I used to buy lost of sticky tabs at Staples and put them by the line that seemed important. The idea was that I would be able to take them off when I was done, though I almost never did. (Some of my books from those days still have yellow tabs sticking out.)

I thought the sticky notes would help me find places that I needed to refer to during class discussion or when I cite the source. What I learned after a few years was that: 1) I put too many tabs that they became meaningless; 2) even when I didn't put too many of them, they made me feel as though I had to talk about all of them during the discussion or in citing that source; and 3) too often, what I ended up citing was in places other than those that were marked with the sticky tabs.

I have also tried to take notes on separate sheets. It was useful when I was preparing for comprehensive exams, but I also noticed that I seldom looked at them again unless there were specific and immediate reasons for taking notes. I tend to lose my notes in the pile of stuff in my (cluttered) offices. Some of the notes have survived because I filed them away with the articles I read, but I stopped doing this because the same filing strategy wouldn't work for books. (I find it important to develop a thinking system to be consistent so my distributed cognitition does not become disturbed cognition.)

Even if I don't lose them, I often can't reconstruct what I meant--not only because of my terrible handwriting but also because the notes are always already out of context and outdated. So I stopped taking notes and started to rely on my memory.

I don't regret having gone through these stages of trying different strategies because they probably facilitated the development of my reading strategies and the understanding of the contents. But at some point in my professional development, I took the leap of faith--I learned to trust my own intuition. I felt that it actually helped me read faster, read more, and understand the important points better. And those ideas would come back to me when I need them because I've already rehearsed the conversations as I was reading them. That is, I felt my knowledge became more contextualized.

Some people ask if I have what's called a photographic memory.

The answer is: I don't.

But I do tend to remember books by their color, and the visual design of the text. I often remember which part of the page I found the idea (e.g., top left corner of the page, about half way through the book).

Some people might wonder how I could do this with academic publications, which are visually not as distinct as, say, magazine articles or web pages. Well, I thought the same thing about houses in Arizona--they all looked the same when I moved here, but now I can appreciate individual differences among various neighborhoods and individual houses.

I've also learned not to worry about sticking to the same text in the reading process--I read regular texts like hypertexts. (People in the field of computers and composition seemed to be busy theorizing the notion of hypertext in the early 1990s, but even back then, I found the concept to be straight forward and intuitive.)

Sometimes I start thinking about a related topic as I read. If that happens, I often put down what I'm reading and start looking for other related reading materials. They may be something I've read before or sources that are mentioned in the text I'm reading. Or I may follow my hunch and go to a text that might have something related, and I often do find something interesting, which is really exciting. It's like a mental game--I have a lot of fun doing this.

I can still keep track of who said what because I try to get to know them personally. As I read, I form ideas about each author. I also try to meet them at conferences and get to know them so I know where they are coming from. Academic reading and writing to me are really like joining a conversation with a group of people I care about.

For similar reasons, I usually don't take notes when I listen to presentations. I used to take notes to ask questions, but I stopped doing that as well. After hearing countless conference presentations, I know the genre inside out, and that helps me understand where the speaker is going. (I can also tell when the speaker is not going anywhere.) If I am the respondent, I may take notes, but mostly to outline my responses (if I have to respond, that is). They are not "records" of what I write; instead, they are part of my distributed cognition.

At CCCC this year, for example, I served as a respondent for a panel with Suresh Canagarajah, Bruce Horner, Min Lu, Catherine Prendergast, and John Trimbur. I used a small notepad (courtesy of the convention hotel) to create an outline of my response as I was listening. I started doing something similar at a TESOL academic session on writing (organized by Chris Tardy and featuring Lourdes Ortega, Meg Gebhardt, Youngjoo Yi, Ilona Leki, and Miyuki Sasaki). But in the middle of the session, I decided that it wasn't working, so I took out my laptop and start creating PowerPoint slides, which became my formal response.

I also don't take notes during meetings--I remember things better if I'm engaged. When I served as the chair of the CCCC Committee on Second Language Writing, I always asked someone I trust (e.g., Jessie Moore at Elon University and Angela Dadak at American University) to take the minutes. If I do take notes, it's usually to help organize the meeting.

If there are things that I need to follow up on, I would sometimes write them down, but if I don't act on them right after the meeting, they get lost. These days, I just email those tasks to myself (or ask others to email me) so I would actually follow up on them.

My strategy, then, has been to just read, read and read, and keep adding them to my mental intertextual map. Or sometimes they get integrated into my thinking directly as I get stimulated and start developing my own ideas. I don't even write down my own ideas, either, because if it's a really good idea (and one of my criteria for a good idea is that it responds to the particular rhetorical situation), it would come back in the context of my immediate thoughts when appropriate. If not, then the idea is going to be out of place, which is what I often see in manuscripts that I read.

I used to keep a clipboard by my bed so I can write down my ideas anytime, but I gave up on that as well. If I can't remember it when I needed it, I figure, it wasn't a good idea to begin with. If it really made sense, I would have the same thought again.

Of course this leisurely approach to reading (and thinking) requires a lot of time, but that's what my profession is about--I'm in the business of acquiring and making knowledge. If I have to know everything about my field, I might as well enjoy it. It may seem impossible, but it does get easier as my content and formal schema develop.

The key is not to wait until I have to read something for my projects. When I read as I write, my reading process becomes much more focused and purposeful. That's good, but that's different from "reading everything." Rather, it is the result of reading everything; I feel I can be more focused partly because I have already developed a strong intertextual network in my mind. I often know exactly what information I need and where I can find it.

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Anonymous Joe said...

Thank you so much.

I like the idea of intertextual network! :)

Monday, April 20, 2009 7:02:00 AM  
Blogger HK said...

Great website! I heard your website from AERA...
Thanks for good information.

Friday, April 24, 2009 5:14:00 PM  
Blogger Rachael said...

As a grad student in the field, I can attest to both how great it is to hear about the reading and writing processes of others, and how important it is to trust one's own system and experiment. I was surprised by how similar my process is to what you've described, though I've always been afraid it could be attributed to my own laziness, fatigue, or overload. When I have a few days to read a book, I underline and make notes and read very slowly. Usually, at that pace, I end up in a position where I have to speed through the rest of the book in order to finish for class. I suspect a more homogenous approach might work better...

But then when I'm reading to hurriedly write a seminar paper, or some timed task like my MA exam, I've found I can read so much more quickly, and in such a generative way, and so many texts at the same time. I think you're right about the contextual nature of reading, and I will begin experimenting with your note-free style (after comprehensive exams, that is!).

Thanks so much for this post!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009 5:57:00 AM  

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Last update: January 6, 2008