Slow Scholarship starts with Slow Reading

Old books

I wonder if you know the feeling: You have a few hours, or a day, to get some writing done — to get it finished, in fact! You have been longing for this for weeks, perhaps months. You sit in front of your computer, open your document and immediately find it hard to connect with where you are at in your piece. Even as you read what you have written so far, your mind is roaming elsewhere — how I need to cite Haraway, here, clearly but haven’t actually read her; whether what I have said here contradicts my other piece from some time ago; what did that participant say in the interview — I need to look up that transcript. Perhaps you give in to some of these meanderings, open your web browser, find an e-book of Haraway’s, re-read your piece from 2008, begin an NVivo inquiry into the topic from all your interview transcripts. Before long, it’s 3pm and your meeting with a graduate student looms. Which, you remember, requires you to have closely read two chapters of a thesis. You try to skim it and offer meaningful feedback with the fifteen minutes you have before the meeting begins.

I don’t entirely agree with this, but focusing is certainly a big part of writing!

I have probably convinced you already that I have real experience with this. I am relatively confident that others will too. In fact, as David Mikics describes in his book Slow Reading in  a Hurried Age, the click-click-click style of reading brought on in the age of the internet makes it difficult for us to closely engage with texts — our own and others — in sustained and meaningful ways. But although the internet enables some of my mental meanderings to be materialised before my eyes, I think the problem is much deeper than this. The slow reading Mikics is advocating is difficult even if you disconnect from the internet, because in the cases I have described in the first paragraph, the purpose of reading is to produce more text. I can read a novel for hours, in fact, I did yesterday while having a day at home with my kids. I can read a novel for hours without ever thinking to check my email, look up a fact on wikipedia, or download another book or pdf online. And for me this is because reading a novel is about savouring a long delicious meal for its own sake, not about downing a quick protein smoothie in order to perform in an imminent marathon.

I used to read academic books in this savouring way too. When I first turned up in my new office on the first day of my PhD enrolment, I remember saying to myself “How wonderful! I get to spend three years or so reading whatever I want!” — somewhat different from my previous job involving compiling material for other people’s books and projects. The most influential theorists for me where books I read during this time. I read their entire book, cover to cover, often multiple times, and usually with a pencil or highlighter or notebook to hand. Doreen Massey’s For Space; Anna Tsing’s Friction; Barbara Rogoff’s The Cultural Nature of Human Development; JK Gibson-Graham’s A Postcapitalist Politics and The End of Capitalism (as we knew it); John Law’s After Method I read others, too, of course, but these ones I particularly enjoyed and particularly struggled with. The savouring of academic books is not the same as a novel, clearly. In a novel, you can be introduced to new ideas and have new thoughts, but you keep reading to find out what happens. The longer the better! In academic books, the savouring comes in the chewing, the examining of ideas, the stopping and thinking and returning to the text. I appreciate clarity, and grace, in academic and novel writing. But clarity and grace are only worth something if there is a good idea and a good story.

What does this have to do with writing, and with slow scholarship? Obviously the savouring of the book resonates with slow food, and slow scholarship in the sense of allowing time to read and process, like Mikacs advises. Scholarship, as those of us in paid scholarship positions know, is more than just reading and processing. It is also producing — lectures, papers, books, reviews. Blogs. Slow scholarship results in better work, I believe. But in this quantifying world, the metrics for success in academia are often not so great on quality. As an emerging researcher, the number of papers I have is important, and the number of times people cite me. It’s depressing when I pour my heart and soul into a paper that is never even cited. But we all know from great artists, composers, novelists and architects that it is not about who appreciates you in the present, but how well your work stands up over time. Will my work stand the test of time?

Only if I take the time to produce good work.

Which means, only if I read. Slowly and closely, savouring the words and considering their implications. Then building on them as I write. Often slowly, often in conversation. Often iterative.

To return to my 3pm meeting with a student — it also means I need to take the time to read work in progress just as carefully, my own and others, in order to give focused and wise feedback, to be in slow conversation. I need colleagues and friends willing to read my work in progress carefully and considerately, to give focused and wise feedback, to be in slow conversation with me. This, to me, is slow scholarship, and it begins with slow and focused reading.

Further reading:

Berg, M. and Seeber, B., 2016. Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. University of Toronto Press.

Mikics, David. 2013. Slow Reading in a Hurried Age. Harvard University Press.

Mountz, A., Bonds, A., Mansfield, B., Loyd, J., Hyndman, J., Walton-Roberts, M., Basu, R., Whitson, R., Hawkins, R., Hamilton, T. and Curran, W., 2015. For slow scholarship: A feminist politics of resistance through collective action in the neoliberal university. ACME: an international E-journal for critical geographies, 14(4), pp.1235-1259.


6 thoughts on “Slow Scholarship starts with Slow Reading

Add yours

  1. Great article
    So true everything’s condensed to byte sized bits to grab attention no one has the time to read more. Further I think we are also loosing our observational and memory skills as we rely on data provided collected by others. I think of those old farmers who kept diaries observing what was going on around them with, elements, stock, pasture etc as they wrote their notes for the day probably thinking and comparing previous years etc.

    “Slow thinking” like slow cooking much better result😀

    Nick Hoskins

    Liked by 1 person

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