#WResearcher Meme #3 How do you read to learn / learn to read: uncovering / unfolding

How do you read to learn / learn to read: uncovering / unfolding
The idea of an academic having to learn to read is counter-intuitive but resonant. Academic reading is unlike any other reading that we do. In fact – if we adopt the stance of the New Literacy Studies, it is not unreasonable to say that all reading is deeply contextual and particular  to a specific domain. This means, and I think this is true, that the reading I do for my job – reports, emails, assignments, policy papers and texts to inform my teaching, is quite unlike the reading to do for academic research – extended, exploratory, open ended texts, books, bibliographies, research reports, conference listings, chapters, published papers, my own work in the course of revision.
Becoming and remaining an academic involves a process of learning to read.
At the start of my MA I was acutely conscious of this. On one occasion, we had a session where our lecturer sat with a small seminar group and together we read a few paragraphs from a chapter. We then went on to discuss it in detail. The approach was not unlike an activity I might well have undertaken with a group of adult literacy students, although of the course the level and nature of the text and direction of the discussion was significantly different. We were reading about Bourdieu and together unpicking habitus.
I am here making a deliberate and provocative connection. The adults who come to my literacy class have a particular set of quite specific practices they have acquired in relation to reading. Joining an adult literacy class signifies a desire on their part to change, to become someone different. A changed approach to reading is part of that process. This is not unlike the aspiration to become an academic, someone who wants to be something other than who they are at the moment:  a prolifically published writer, a highly regarded academic, a quoted and referenced expert – reading is part of achieving this changed sense of self.
I am here also making a disconnection. With the adult literacy student the actual content of the text is of little importance. What matters is their capacity to explore it independently. That they can read, that I read in identification terms is as important as what I read. Oh, it has to  be interesting – but this is a loop, if it is not interesting, I won’t read it. As an academic there is an interplay between what I read and that I read. I invoke the iconic image of the academic standing in front of her books displayed decoratively in the background on rows of shelves. It is being a reader that matters.
Academic reading, reading to learn, is a very particular kind of reading.
Norman Fairclough’s Critical Discourse Analysis explicates the work that texts do. How they position readers – that is the writer constructs an ideal reader inviting the actual reader to fall in with the qualities assumed of that construct. This is what readers habitually do. Usually as readers we are unaware of this process. Once we become aware, we may question the assumptions and negotiate an alternative stance. But this still positions us; if we are not the desired, imagined reader constructed by the writer / the text – then we are forced to re/define ourselves as the actual, desired, imagined, self-constructed reader. We then have to negotiate our readerly selves into an alternative position in relation to text and relation to the text’s imagined reader. This happens with – for example policy texts. Texts that talk about education in instrumental terms, about qualification as if it were their exchange value rather than their use value that matter. When policy texts are well written, they are compulsive, seductive, they draw the reader in with warm faltering words. You find yourself engrossed and willingly accepting the stance the writers of policy texts take, the normative truth regime they create around you and them. We are seduced by such texts when we are disarmed by them, when our critical faculty is temporarily quietened and we willingly sign up to their agenda.
Doesn’t happen often and certainly doesn’t happen with anything this particular government has written
The point is that in starting the EdD I found I had to be very structured, explicit about the reading I was doing. These academic texts were not policy texts but still I was seduced. The trouble is – I can be faddy, a ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ person. I would read text (a) and I love it. I enthuse and think yes! that’s it, that’s it.  Then I would read text (b) a scathing critique of text (a) and have the same excitement and sense of gosh golly – that is so true. At some point I realise I have to fall out of line. It helped to devise strategies to enable a more distanced, less emotional reading. 
Remembering, that in reading these texts part of what I am doing is creating a new identity for myself: an academic.
We were advised by a lecturer on how to read. Advised to ask a series of questions. I had to translate these into a template. I need to fling words across paper (or screen). It’s not all in my head. I need to let it happen on paper, through my finger tips as well – otherwise too much of it disappears.
The questions – I have still have all those notes, somewhere.  
·         What is the main argument out forward by the writer?
·         How is this argument developed?
·         How well is it supported?
·         How does this connect to other things you have read?
·         Does it convince you?
·         What other reactions do you have to it?
·         What key concepts does the author develop or use?
·         Any particular vocabulary that you want to make a note of?
These questions stopped quite early – I didn’t need to be so specific, so focussed and interrogated the text in different ways. Usually in ways that was more related to the question I had in mind for a research project and paper.
This is a kind of uncovering, or at least an unfolding; it seeks to make bare what is hidden. Hidden: not through artifice as such. But is a natural process. We present the text not the draft and redraft that created it. We present a completed garment; the stitching is on the inside. Reading involves reminding yourself of the inherent sociality involved in learning. These are not truths being presented but biographies.  Someone persuasive attempt to persuade you – the reader –that this is how it is, a plausible account of how things might, just possibly might, be.  The inherent sociality of learning means reading is not a process of reading as such, as in decoding text and understanding what it means, it is a social process of conversing with someone, the person or persons who have written the text.
And so the final take on reading: unfolding
One that is I think at odds with what I would normally associate with reading, but which explores uncovering, unfolding. Fairclough suggests that the reading associated with critical discourse analysis is no more than what readers do with texts anyway. The process formalises, records and annotates this. We read text as social theorist and as ‘consumers’ professionals charged with implementing the policies they display. But what about reading data. How do we read data – this is surely all at once reading to learn and learning to read. What Faorclough describes as a process readers engage in anyway perhaps does not appreciate the extent to which the reading, re-reading, annotating and recording of readings changes the process. It slows it down. It compels connections. It is not dissimilar to the Rorschach ink splodge test. Do we create images from the random splattering of human life to meet a deep seated yearning for order, coherence, narrative thread?
May be so.
Reading data: what and how do we do this?
I refer here to something I posted earlier this week. I have now gotten over my anxiety about the UCET presentation. What is left is not the frustration of a paper that felt truly terrible – but the pride with having broken my self-imposed silence: good. And more – with looking again at my analysis and seeking to understand the source of my discontent.
To clarify. Last Thursday I presented a paper at a conference, University Council for the Education of Teachers (UCET). The paper presented was a background paper, a contextualising draft. The data that will eventfully shape the paper had only just been gathered and was largely not collated. I had 1 quote from research participants based on earlier interviews. I have often chosen to avoid speaking to peers in public situations –  if I possibly can. And so this presentation thing is quite a challenge to me. But mostly, when I present, the nerves and dread are vindicated: the session goes well, the feedback is good and I feel exhilarated. I did not enjoy UCET. I felt stilted and that I did not cover new ground. I felt it was simply a re-churning of what I already know and that I think those who chose to attend the session also knew. It ended 20 mins early and I missed whole chunks of the paper out. This feeling of dread – post presentation dread has stayed with me.
But once it subsided – a little. I thought again about the quotes I bought with me. The tiny bits of data. 
I was asking the data one question – reading the data with a particular focusing mind. As such I fear that the elephant in the room (far from couching in the corer trying to hide) was sitting and sipping coffee without my noticing. The text does not address the question I was asking – and actually does not do so for a very particular reason. That is the context within which the participants work does not allow them the exploration an answer to this question implies. In one instant at least, a participant is clearly deeply unhappy with his professional situation. Is distressed by it and seems to feel in something of a cul-de-sac. Mostly the qualification they achieve is a means of moving toward something, for him it is means of escape.
Research participants find it difficult to answer the question – what do I mean by literacy and how to I reconcile literacy as social practice and literacy as skills – because – any attempt to move beyond literacy as skills is curtailed. They recognise it but – as one participant has said, ‘at the end of the day, I still have to tick that box’.
In the assemblage that is a policy driven, research based literacy pedagogy – professionals are compelled to play dead: to appear as if they have committed the epistemic suicide that Taylor-Webb so evocatively talks about.
Drafted Wednesday, 09 November 2011 03:04:57
First edit Wednesday, 09 November 2011 22.17.25

ALBRIGHT, J. & LUKE, A. 2008. Pierre Bourdieu and literacy education, Routledge, Taylor & Francis: London.
BARTON, D. 2007. Literacy : an introduction to the ecology of written language, Malden, Mass. Oxford, Blackwell.
TAYLOR & WEBB, P. 2007. Accounting for Teacher Knowledge: Reterritorializations as epistemic suicide. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 28, 279-295.

One comment

  1. great post – thoroughly enjoyed it and totally see myself in it! I can also get really emotional about reading and I could still be reading today without stopping… just because I adore to be drawn in the world of ideas of others. And then sometimes I forget … that as a reader I am also entitled to an opinion, a comment, a critical point of view. That's when the transition to writing is needed … that's when it truly starts unfolding for me! I totally read you about post-presentation dread. It has happened to me. It leaves a bitter taste in my mouth …it makes me angry with myself. But we can also read and learn from such experiences…and a good lesson to acquire is probably that you should not be so hard on yourself. 😉 On a last note: most times it is in the speaking with peers be it in public or in close circles that I most make sense of my data. That's when I really start to read it …beyond what words say… xx

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