Sunday, February 19, 2012

Too long ; Don`t read

Librarians, has this ever happened to you?

Have you ever introduced a student to a particular search interface, pointed out the various ways to how one can narrow one's search results by type of publication, subject matter, peer-review, author, language and various other facets, only to be stumped by the request, "So, how can I find a five page paper? All the articles I have already found are, like, twenty pages long."

What we have on our hands here is particular form of teal deer, otherwise known as "too long; didn't read" - a phrase in itself is considered too long to bother with so it's frequently shortened to tl;dr.

I thought of all the times this particular scenario had unfolded before me as I was reading Aimée Morrison's post "They still hate the textbook" which I personally read less as an indictment against textbooks and more of a confirmation of my own hunch that even our best students find long-form and/or scholarly reading difficult to do.

I'm beginning to think that this might be an issue that libraryland should be concerned about.  If our students can't read articles that are twenty pages long, then our buildings filled with books may as well be filled with teal deer.

And while I don't think I should have to say to this, I will: I (still) think the kids are alright. This post is not a diatribe about how kids today lack moral fibre. I just think they just have poor reading habits.

And I distinctly remember having the same.

I'm not sure what this says about my own higher education experience but immediately after I had graduated from library school, I know my ability to concentrate on long form reading was dismal.  I distinctly remember one of these first nights without schoolwork or sports practise and without room-mates or TV.  I found myself staring at the ceiling because I was too tired to read any further but not tired enough to go to sleep. I finally had time to read only to find that couldn't even get through a single Harper's Magazine folio article.

But, in time, I did become a person able to read an entire issue of Harper's Magazine in one sitting. And then some. And then a lot more. I became a voracious reader.

So I believe that it's not right to say that the Internet, video games and texting have destroyed the brains of our students but I think it's quite apparent that these particular technologies do, on an almost hourly basis, set and reinforce the particular habit to pursue and experience instant gratification. But the good news is that reading is a just a habit of mind and habits can be changed if the will and the work is there.

I've been thinking about how librarians could take on the cause of long, slow and deliberate reading and how to make its case to our students. I know one way not to go about it. I remember being in my second year of my undergraduate program and being assigned a particular dense scholarly article called something along the lines of  "How to read (a dense scholarly article)." I remember this episode clearly because I felt insulted that our professor didn't think we knew how to read. So, yeah, I missed the point. But years later I did learn this: assigning a long dense article on the merits of reading long dense articles is setting yourself up for fail.

Do I have any better ideas? Not at this point. But if I was to look into the matter seriously, I'd start with a couple avenues of thought to explore as leads.

The first would be encouraging the development of deep reading through  peer-sharing of reading improvement strategies. I doubt YoungMe would listen to NowMe lecture on good reading habits, but maybe, just maybe she would listen to what sage advice reddit, LifeHacker, AskMefilter, or even Wikipedia would have to say about improving one's reading skills. Maybe students would make use of a self-tracking applications like Level Me Up as they try to improve their reading stamina. Introducing them to tools like Instapaper might be fruitful as well, if just to demonstrate that most of us require being in 'another state of mind' before doing long form reading and these 'read later' apps are generally used to separate out this reading for us while we are caught in the undertow of status updates and tweets.

The other tact I'd pursue would be through the use of tools - like highlighters, post-it notes and whatever their digital equivalent are - to mark-up and take apart, destroy and reassemble a text as a means to force an engagement with words.

Before I finish this post - which I admit is beginning to feel like a forced engagement, I want to address something that seems tangential, but I believe relates somehow.

Recently I attended a library conference where I listened to a colleague speak editorially on the very delicate matter of labour issues within librarianship and, as such, had decided to read her statement. A twitter response that floated up during her talk was that it was 'too dense to follow.' This, I guess, shouldn't have been too surprising because at library conferences it is generally frowned upon to read one's presentation to an audience. And I understand the reasons why: the lecture is now generally understood to ill-suited to the retention of facts - if that is, indeed, the purpose of the talk.

But recently, I've come to understand that at many scholarly conferences, it is accepted practice that papers are read out loud because conference papers are presented as a means to workshop one's argument before peers before an the piece has been strengthened and refined enough for publication. And while the attentive listening of conference papers is challenging, this activity is understood to be the difficult and necessary work of scholars. What does it mean when this sort of presentation is actively discouraged at library conferences?

Long form reading takes concentration and scholarly reading is difficult work but the challenging work through challenging works can and does make it all worthwhile. 

So says the woman who writes blog posts? Ummm....  Look! A teal deer!

1 comment:

Lisa said...

thanks for the shout out, M.