Ethics of Reading

Casey Boyle posted on facebook about the need for scholars to be better about reading. He followed up that brief post with an extended and thoughtful blog post on “something like a reading ethics.” His initial post on facebook had to do with scholars who aren’t actively engaging with other scholarship when they write. And as some of you may know, this happens to be one of my biggest pet peeves of all time, that is, failure to engage with the existing literature.

I told Casey if he wrote a blog post that I would follow up with one of my own. Now his moves into a larger (and smart) argument about the ethics of readings and then offers ways we can teach this method of reading in our classes. I want to go back to what started this conversation for a minute and then I’ll move into engaging with Casey’s post.

I’m really fortunate that I’m at a spot in my career that I’m asked to review things. I say fortunate because I take this role seriously and I’m quite humbled by it. To do a good review takes an enormous amount of time–anywhere from 2-10 hours. I am not the reviewer who will give you three sentences. I am not the reviewer who asks you to read things without telling you specifically why you should read it and how it could advance your argument. I am not the reviewer that reviews what I wish you would have written. This is not to say that I am perfect or that I haven’t really mucked up a review (ask Scott Graham) but I am someone who puts much thought and consideration into a review.

The thing that I find myself writing on 98% of the pieces I review is that the author(s) fail to engage with the literature. So what does this really mean? Well, it goes directly to what Casey wrote. There is a failure of reading things. I totally get that this job is hard and you can’t read everything, but I am so tired of the explanations that technical and professional communication (TPC) is interdisciplinary so it’s hard to read everything or the other one I hear a lot, there’s nothing on my topic. I call bullshit on both. If you claim to be in TPC there are five journals you need to start with. FIVE. From there you can move out to another maybe 5 or 10 depending on your topic. That’s not a whole lot so please don’t tell me you don’t have time. One of the best scholars I know teaches a 4/4 (and often an overload) and she can find the time to keep up. Because the reviewers have likely read these journals and if you’re not engaging with the literature in them, well, then, the reviewer doesn’t think you’ve done your due diligence. And just because you can’t find an article on the communication patterns of bald men in their forties who work in cubes at a tech company doesn’t mean that there isn’t highly relevant literature in gendered communication patterns in the workplace that you would need to read and consider.

So what the heck do I mean by engaged? I mean you need to give a nod (see Swales) to those works that are related so I, as a reviewer, know you’ve read them (or at the very damn least you’ve read the title and the abstract) and then you need to ENGAGE with the pieces that are directly relevant to your argument. By engagement, I mean you need to read closely and then determine how and why your argument extends or contradicts the piece. It means reading the WHOLE work and demonstrating through your words that you understand the big picture and the nuance and that you can use it to build additional knowledge for the field. It means that you have a couple or three or more big fat paragraphs that show you’ve read ethically. As Casey says, “The key here is to equate reading with response.” In your own work, you need to be responding to others, and that includes being critical where the previous scholarship fails to do what it needs to do or that includes showing how and why that previous scholarship deserves the response you’re giving it. You can’t respond if you’ve not taken the time to read the work and “to choose” (again from Casey) what parts you need for your own argument and to engage with those parts.

Engagement-the way I am using it-requires what Casey is calling a reading ethics. Without that, one cannot adequately engage–get involved and participate–in an in-depth scholarly conversation. It’s your imperative to show what the problem is that you’re trying to discuss and to bring in the scholarly voices that you want in that conversation. It’s up to you to differentiate and explain why you chose who you did. The key is explaining those moves and making transparent how you’re going to proceed and enter into the conversation with a response. (And for those of you saying, “well, I do that,” I would simply say, “probably not as well as you think.”)

The literature review is hard. Probably one of the hardest parts of writing because it’s in this section(s) where you really show what you know. It’s here that you’re placing your work and ideas into conversation with existing conversations in the field, and that’s scary and that’s hard. Casey nails it when he says, “This is also where it is important to read and understand how “lit reviews” are composed. HOW one constructs a problem IS the problem.” And the how tells me (as a reviewer and a reader) what it is that you’re arguing and why it’s important and what it means to the field. So often these connections between your idea and the existing work are left half finished or in the words of T. Kenny Fountain, “the needle isn’t threaded all the way through.”

To Casey’s framing and list of how to read, specifically if you want to include something in your own writing, I would add the next step after speculative response:

–determine if the key terms and concepts match your own thinking and if not, work on defining your term (which opens up some space for your own argument)

–make a list of what you want your argument or idea to do

–compare your questions and speculative responses to your list about your own work

–look for overlaps between the two or look for important differences between the two (these are the areas that will be key when you’re writing up your piece)

In an interesting, small world kind of a way, Casey and I are alums of the same program at the University of South Carolina. I had just left when Casey arrived. John Muckelbauer is the piece that ties us together because I have to say I learned how to read from John, too. (Should John read this, he’ll laugh out loud because I was the world’s worst student, but I have apologized for being a pain in the ass and I have thanked him for teaching me to read.) In learning how to read hard texts, you have to give them the credit they deserve, whether you agree or disagree with them, and that is definitely an ethical stance.