Brave New Words

Laura Sefton

Laura Sefton

As a new PhD student, I’m told it’s normal to initially feel overwhelmed, to feel as though you’re going through the motions of each day, unsure what it is you should be doing but feeling like you should be doing something. I’m also told that this is the ideal time to feel lost; after all, this is the part where you get acquainted with your subject.

You may already be acquainted with your subject, but you definitely haven’t got to know each other properly. You will spend at least three years of your life together and, whilst it won’t think anything about you, it will always be on your mind.

As academics, we get to know our subjects by reading. We turn inwards and read as much of the literature as we can. It’s where we discover our interests, find the gaps, and explore originality. We engage with other scholars constantly, pouring over their words and trying to emulate their methods, all whilst carving out a tiny place for ourselves, where our own words will eventually sit and be read by others.

I have a problem with all of this: I can’t read. Or rather, I’m not sure I can read academic texts. I can sit for hours, obsessing over works of fiction, developing emotional attachment with words that have left indelible marks on my life. But academic texts, the texts that will define my own work, I struggle with those.

From the moment I open a book, I worry. What if I miss something important? What if I don’t quite understand the argument or the methodology evades me? What if I miss the bigger picture or fail to situate it in a wider body of literature? I obsess over the details, re-reading sentences to make sure I’ve understood them but then failing to understand the paragraph, page, or chapter as a whole.

I make conscious efforts not to write notes but then I spot a really important piece of evidence or a crucial stage of the argument – what if I don’t remember it? Lacking the confidence that I will remember it, I write it down. I write everything down, even whole pages. Sometimes, when I’m feeling brave, I paraphrase, but nothing I write will ever be as eloquent as the author’s words, it seems like a foolish act to translate perfection into imperfection.

It’s not easy articulating this, it’s such a fundamental part of the work we do, the work I’m being funded to do, that it feels like an admission of weakness. But I know that I’m not alone. I’ve spoken to other PhD students and staff members recently about it and each one has communicated the same fears, the same obsessive worries that keep us reading in such unproductive ways.

As a community, we are much better at discussing our working practices than we once were. Writing workshops can be found at every university, informal writing groups are constantly emerging and #AcWri is always in use on twitter. Yet we do not talk about reading enough. We shy away from discussing how we read, much less our fears about it.  Instead, we assume that everyone else is doing it “right”, that some academics have an innate ability to read, cover-to-cover, whilst retaining everything. Most problematically, we assume that anyone senior to us must have the correct interpretation.

I’m enjoying being part of the MBS reading group but sometimes feel perplexed when older members discuss books with a clear emotional attachment, as though they were old friends.  Their memories of undergraduate are anchored around the books they read there, the books that inspired them, that prompted emulation or rebellion. I have no such connection. As an undergraduate in the odd age of the student-consumer, I was encouraged to try as much history as possible; I became fixated on getting as much value from the course as I could. Books became convenient to mine for facts or figures, but that was all. My arguments came from articles, never from books.

In an attempt to enjoy books, to read them without worrying, to discuss them without fear of being “wrong”, myself and other postgraduates working under MBS have decided to set up our own postgraduate reading group. Encouraged by the emotional connection staff members seem to have with books, we asked them to suggest texts that have impacted their lives for different reasons. The next post will discuss their responses.

In the meantime, let’s start talking about academic reading. Comment on the blog, or use twitter, about your relationship with books, fears that you have about reading or the different ways you read.


4 thoughts on “Brave New Words

  1. do you write in books Laura? if not, that might help you make them your own and stop writing endless notes. You write well, so why not try blogging and writing about your reading in short, enjoyable bursts? And maybe read a few books completely outside your area so you don’t feel obliged to process it all but just enjoy the pleasure of well written history. And here’s a secret, very few of us read many books cover to cover! happy reading!


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