How to read if you want to connect the dots

The second essay in Project Information Literacy‘s (PIL) Provocation Series came out last week: “Reading in the Age of Distrust,” by Alison J. Head. I’ve been hearing from professors for years that students “don’t read” — by which they usually mean, don’t read well enough to do the work in a class. Although they might also mean, don’t purchase the egregiously overpriced textbooks, but that’s another topic. I even thought about working on a project to help students become better academic readers a while back, but the leadership I would have had to work with on it felt it wasn’t really the library’s role and also that it would look bad to point out that students struggled with what is considered a fundamental skill.

But to be clear, the issue isn’t often the mechanics of reading (although that can certainly make things even harder for a student). Head starts out by noting that PIL asked students themselves about their reading and found, “In their own words, students struggled with ‘connecting the dots,’ ‘figuring out the hook,’ and ‘discerning what to use’ from course readings and their own selections for writing research papers.” Head notes that recent research shows this doesn’t improve in college, and that these days, reading is made even more complicated by the complex and overwhelming deluge of information and misinformation that people are faced with today. The kind of deeper reading needed to “connect the dots,” and even to discern whether information is worth reading further or is, for example, political or corporate propaganda, is really a form of studying or analyzing, not just reading.

A good bit of the essay then turns to the arguments over who should teach students how to read in the ways necessary to succeed in this world. Professors, she notes, often feel they don’t have time in their syllabi to teach something as basic as reading, and if they talk about reading in their fields, they don’t usually go beyond the kind of reading that is “a performance of a role: How well can you take a seat at this or that disciplinary table and hold a conversation in its language?” Writing and tutoring centers don’t usually teach critical analysis. Librarians often get very little time beyond the information literacy “one shot” visit to a class over the course of a semester is standard on many campuses.

So what can be done? Head has four very concrete and practical suggestions, starting with,”First, educators and instruction librarians must make the invisible activity of reading more visible.” By this she means do what we want students to do, in front of our classes, so they see it in action. Read in class, and comment as you go. For me that would look like saying, “There is a word I want to look up to make sure I get what it means,” or “I wonder why the author isn’t clearer here?” Head also suggests engaging students in asking questions themselves, or even providing questions with assigned reading. Questions that help them examine how well they understand the reading as it fits into what they are reading and learning in class or with their other interests and areas of study. Questions that help them suss out what else they want to know, and what seems unclear or unanswered.

Second, Head suggests situating reading as part of research, a strategy I suggest when I work with students. Reading something a professor provides on your topic, or reading some news or background articles, helps clarify what terms are used to discuss a topic. I also talk with my classes about how background reading can help them relate a topic to the people involved — who is included or left out of what they are reading, and why? Head suggests talking about who are viewed as experts and who are impacted; I’d ask explicitly, are those the same people, and if not, why not? She also recommends research begin with “reading titles and abstracts,” another good way to get a quick overview of how the topic is covered and what is being discussed. I would also add, read works cited lists, not only to trace the claims an author is making, but also to look for authors who write frequently on a topic and read their work.

Head’s third and fourth suggestions are a balm. Third is the notion that less is more: assign less reading, spend more time on it, and create space to really dive into it. She suggests that this pandemic lesson — don’t overwhelm students — should become a new norm, because people in academia have seen that going deeper is just as good, and maybe more engaging, than trying to cover everything.

And fourth, teach empathy as part of reading. Head writes, “Empathy — seeing through the eyes of another — is an outcome of college-level reading, but it usually gets little attention in class discussions.” Wittily and resoundingly shredding an opposing view seems to be our cultural norm, or at least what we’re exposed to across media platforms. Learning to be genuinely curious and open to understanding how and why an opposing view was formed is less valued. But this curiosity, and the effort to look at an issue through someone else’s eyes, can be helpful in determining what’s important.

Head wraps up this thoughtful and provocative essay by concluding that “connecting the dots” requires understanding the information ecosystem as well as the material you are reading. She explains, “In our contentious times, students must learn to critically analyze what topics and voices are amplified and which ones are not. Literacy should not only include analyzing a single assigned reading but a deeper understanding of the technological and social forces shaping the circulation of information in society today.”