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Fifty Shades of Grey Matter or How I Learned To Read Again by Claire Warden
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rvoegtli/5940070493/

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rvoegtli/5940070493/

In Clare’s fourth post for PhD2Published she explores how she has tried to recover what she calls ‘the lost art of reading’. In the spirit of AcWriMo (Academic Writing Month) she also makes those all important connections between good reading practice and academic writing.

For fear of sounding like a precocious child, my mother says I read from the time I could physically pick up a book. This means that I have had plenty of years to perfect this fine art and could surely claim to be fairly proficient. After all, it is not only my job to read and engage with scholarly texts, I am (like the rest of humanity) bombarded with words all day from my morning Twitter check to my evening bed book.

However, I recently came to the shocking conclusion that I can’t read or rather have forgotten how to read. This alarming realisation has been a moment of anagnorisis in what has otherwise been a wonderfully restful sabbatical term of conferences and writing. I am not suggesting, of course, that I cannot comprehend sentences (although there are certainly some mornings when this would be true) but rather I have lost the art of sitting with a book and really engaging with it. I am an accomplished skim reader and a consummate finder of useful quotes, but I am not a reader.

If November was AcWriMo then perhaps December should be BoReMo (Book Reading Month), although that acronym sounds a little more ‘street’ than I intended. December could be a four week pre-Christmas training session, a chance to regain my reading abilities. In this, my fourth article for PhD2Published, I wanted to simply share my experiences over the past few months as I have tried to recover the lost art of reading:

1)   Setting challenges: I started in relatively relaxed fashion with E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, a classic readable text with pictures! I then moved on to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature, both texts that influence my field without being central to it. I began by reading for just an hour of so and then cordoned off a couple of hours. I found that in setting myself reading challenges like this (whether time-based or text-based) I began to enjoy the power of a well-written sentence and the chance to grapple with large ideas.

2)   Reading every word: When my reading crisis first hit, I noted that one of my primary problems was that I was actually physically unable to read every word on a page, unless those words belonged to Elizabeth Gaskell (my love of Victorian literature cannot be abated). I got the general gist of the page (mostly) but didn’t really work through sentences and follow the path the author had so pain-stakingly laid out for me. There are times, of course, when this is unnecessary – perhaps you are looking for a certain idea or cross reference or are only interested in one chapter. But there is pleasure in really getting to grips with the whole argument of a book.

3)   Writing and reading: I’ve tried to develop a new habit of writing notes even for books I am not going to directly quote from. I now have an even more complicated notebook system than previously, and have acquired a book journal which makes me sound like an Edwardian lady but is extremely helpful when you want to remember what you’ve read. It is not a matter of writing quotes, but also jotting down my initial response, intertextual references or (in fear of sounding a little like a book group of one) simply noting how I feel about an idea. I’m also carving out time to go back over these scribbles, prompting my brain to remember what I’ve read and forcing me to become more active.

4)   Writing what I read: As AcWriMo has progressed you may well have found yourself once again focusing on the way you write. Through Helen Sword’s magnificent Stylish Academic Writing (Santa should carefully place a copy in every academic’s stocking this Christmas – preferably adorned with useful sticky notes) I have been rethinking the way I write, who I write for and how I might create engaging scholarly work. While reading through my sabbatical book list I’ve become just as interested in the way scholars write as in the themes they might focus on. One of the wonderful things about Gombrich, for example, is that despite being an Oxford academic and accomplished scholar, The Story of Art is as engaging and accessible as it is complex and challenging. Currently I find that the more I read, the better writer I become, challenged by the marvellous prose of many and disappointed by the stodgy syntax of others.

5)   Enjoying reading: This might seem very strange but academia often disables our ability to actually enjoy the written word. We are reviewing a book for a deadline, trawling through new books because we have to keep up with our field, searching for texts that might inspire our students or reading out of obligation. We might even feel somewhat frustrated with the reading process, particularly if we are desperate to get on with writing the next paper, book or thesis. Perhaps we feel guilty for spending hours sitting in a chair reading with a cup of tea (NB this guilt is absolutely justified if you are reading Hello or Fifty Shades of Grey but less so if you are wrestling with Adorno). Unlike writing, reading is far less easy to evaluate. We can formulate aims for the former – word counts or numbers of pages – but it is far more difficult for the latter. For when reading, one page might take us half an hour as we ponder the ideas fully (I certainly found this with Emerson) or we might crash through a book in a morning. So, I’ve been trying to learn to simply enjoy the act of reading, being rigorous about my use of time and guarding it as jealously as I guard my writing time.

As I near the end of my sabbatical, I am determined to continue on with my reading schedule as the pressures of teaching, admin and general university life return. Learning to read has been both a shocking and an illuminating process, akin to those first steps with Enid Blyton, Janet and John and the Malory Towers books. If reading is, at its heart, a quest for knowledge and a vulnerable opening of oneself to new ideas and challenges, then it is a discipline that must be vital to all academics.

Those Wonderous [Academic] Stories by Claire Warden

A few weeks ago I indulged another of my slightly off-the-wall passions by heading to Glasgow for a Yes gig. Progressive rock (at least the softer side of this movement) is one of my ever-growing interests. Before discovering these bands I only listened to classical music in the assumption that only poor musicians play rock. How wrong I was! I am always amazed by the dexterity, talent and incredible musicianship of these performers and, even as they get older, their commitment to creating challenging music. For these guys are risk takers. They do not hide behind G,D,C chords or 4/4 time signatures; their music is dangerous, unpredictable and exciting. Through all the perils of tough tempos and impossible lyrics, they strive for excellence while being aware that such risks might necessarily mean that perfection is impossible. As always, I find it inconceivable to disconnect my work from my passions and began to wonder how we might incorporate a level of risk taking into our daily academic lives.


It is certainly important to develop this strategy in teaching. Safe teaching, trudging over well-worn ground is as dull as it sounds. Risky teaching (exploring new methods of learning, asking students for feedback, incorporating new material on to the syllabus, making lectures more interactive) is exciting, though, of course, fraught with danger. Imagining the classroom/lecture hall/studio as a space of exploration, experimentation and constant learning on both sides of that artificial student-faculty divide transforms our teaching style.

Read more

Claire Warden – How to Spend the Time between PhD & Publishing

Today’s post comes from Dr. Claire Warden and considers how to spend your time while moving from PhD to published. Claire is a Lecturer in Drama at the University of Lincoln. Her first book, British Avant-Garde Theatre is out with Palgrave next year. You can follow Claire on twitter here.

While commenting on a draft copy of my book, my wonderfully generous proof-reader made me rethink my use of citation with the following soupçon of wit:

“Quite a lot of references to what other scholars are doing. Sometimes these get rather too close to the ‘as Dr Dryasdust has said, “Shakespeare lived before the steam-engine”’.

The point being, citation in a book is substantially different from citation in a thesis. Dr Dryasdust’s comment is factually correct but we do not require the good doctor to tell us! And this gets to the crux of the difference between a thesis and a book: the former is written for examination, the latter is written to be read.

The humorous comment also points to a broader issue: the PhD-to-Book process is one of learning, personal development and transforming the way you write. While I completed my PhD in 2007, my first book will only hit the shelves (or shelf on my less ambitious days) next year. This might seem like a large gap and, as I finish the final draft, it certainly feels as if I have spent half a lifetime on it! But, as the story above shows, there is merit in taking your time over this process. There is a great deal of useful material on this site about the PhD-to-Book process, so what I want to do is focus on what to do while you’re waiting. Obviously honing our writing skills and ignoring Dr Dryasdust’s unnecessary interruptions are vital, but what else can be done? Read more