It may seem odd that we’ve included a section on reading here. After all, most students have tested high in reading comprehension skills. You’ve processed printed text for a very long time. If you are coming from a high school in the United States, you have been asked the question “What is the main idea of this passage” ad nauseum. We are not interested here in reading defined as “information processing.” Rather, we focus on reading as a deliberate act of paying attention to how others’ written discourses proceed point by point. We prefer you to think of reading not as something speedily accomplished, but as an action of savoring, mulling over, and spending some quality time with the linguistic, rhetorical, and aesthetic choices a writer has made. It’s one thing to raid another’s discourse; it’s quite another to read it, giving it its due. Here, we envision you reading scholarly articles, intellectual treatises, book-length investigations, and academic reports. (There are useful guides available on how to read poems and fiction, or how to “read” a painting, piece of sculpture, the behavior of a cultural group, a set of statistics, a piece of music, or a film).
We also envision reading as a productive activity since in most cases you will be reading in order to fashion a response to another’s discourse. Eventually, in planning and drafting your essay, you will make use of another’s text. Typically, you will be asked to consider, interpret, and evaluate what others have said. You’ll need to paraphrase their work and/or refer to particular terms, phrases, and passages as places of special interest in your argument.
To do this, you’ll need to develop flexible methods for taking notes, both in the margins of the discourse you’re engaged with and on files or in notebooks that you’ll draw upon when you draft your argument. First, though you may not be accustomed to marking up digital or print texts, we recommend that you do so using whatever means seem best suited to your temperament and style. Marking up a text by way of invented symbols (stars, asterisks, squiggly lines, dotted lines, double underlines, circled terms, etc.) to indicate levels of importance, kinds of evidence, key terms, or forms of reasoning is a first step toward making a piece of another’s writing your own. You may prefer to use highlighters or pencils of various colors, or sticky notes of various kinds, or fonts of contrasting color and style, but the key here is to “write back” to the text, both to provide a record of what you’ve noticed about someone else’s discourse, and to begin the process of actively responding to another’s text in your own writing.
We suggest that you develop a system that will allow you to recall your initial responses to a text so that you can quickly put your finger on terms, phrases, and passages during class discussion, and easily locate these while you compose your draft. To remind yourself of your initial response, you may also want to develop a set of notes that include not only paraphrases and quoted passages from the discourse (remember to append page numbers to these) but also your comments and questions regarding what’s been said. Some students use a “double-entry” format, with quotations and paraphrases in one font, and comments and questions in another, allowing the writer’s voice and your voice to appear as if in conversation. Such a “they say/I say” format will help you focus on responding rather than merely recording. Robust note-taking, customized to the occasion of research at hand and tailored to your own cognitive style, is a necessary step toward drafting a smart argument. Try to read, in other words, as a writer, with the prospect of making purposive use of a text foremost in mind.
Reading and Rereading
Though it may seem a luxury or perhaps a chore, rereading is one of the keys to making smart and effective use of others’ discourses. Though some discourses like phone texts, beach novels, or news reports can be understood in a single reading, most intellectual writing demands a first, second (and, at times, a third) reading. Rereading will allow you to be more discriminating, more descriptive, and even more efficient (we know that seems counterintuitive) as you determine exactly how you will make use of another’s discourse.
We recommend that you read a discourse through from beginning to end, working to get a sense of the whole, navigating the entire territory of an argument, without taking notes. If you have a highlighter in your hand at this point, you are likely to be quite indiscriminate, marking too much because you don’t know what (more significant) passages lie ahead. On a second reading, you’ll have the benefit of already having surveyed the territory, and you’ll be able to more knowingly decide what is important, and what is not, and what you find worth responding to.