Reading Effectively

Reading to Understand Vs. Reading to Critique

Whenever we take in information, especially complex information, we undergo a battle between understanding that information on its own terms and reflecting on how we judge and evaluate that information. If you sit down to read an essay, you have to both make sure you understand what the essay is trying to get at, as well as thinking critically about whether you think that essay is right. “Critique” here doesn’t just refer to our usual idea of being critical or saying what we think is wrong (although this is definitely a form of critique), but more broadly refers to how we react to the text. To be good readers and researchers, we need to be able to critique in both senses of the word, and identify when we’re failing to do one because we’re too engrossed in the other.

Even though this section is titled “Reading Effectively,” all of these techniques apply to any kind of research or aquisition of new information. Whether you’re attending a lecture, watching a documentary, or learning experientially out in the field or the lab, applying these ideas will help you gain purchase on your topic of study and turn what you learn from a series of facts into a nuanced understanding.

Understanding with Grace

When we read things that are new to us, it’s important to know that we’re not going to understand it all right away and to reserve judgement for a bit. One concept I use often is to approach what I’m reading with grace, that is, to assume that what I’m reading is written in good faith and is more or less worthwhile. I might reevaluate those ideas later, but it keeps me from getting prematurely frustrated at texts and helps me get the most I can out of them.

When reading W.E.B. Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folk, I was really taken aback by the idea of “the talented tenth,” his concept that the top 10% of Black people were fit for education and would lead issues of racial change. To me, this concept seemed elitist and almost had a tinge of eugenics to it. While I still don’t agree with Dubois on the talented tenth, if I had let myself get frustrated by this idea and stopped reading, I would have missed out on ideas of his that are really useful, like Double Consciousness. Even though the talented tenth isn’t something I think is valid, there’s a lot of very important ideas in civil rights that were written in response to it. I would have a much harder time approaching those ideas were I not already familiar with the talented tenth.

The takeaway here is that in your research, you need to be able to remove your own opinons and instant reactions and reserve judgement initally to make sure that you’re getting everything you can get out of your sources. This is by no means to say your opinons and reactions don’t matter, or shouldn’t be discussed, but, by placing your initial reactions or modern sensibilities on the sidelines, you broaden the kinds of information and insights you’ll be able to gain access to.

Critiquing with Wanton Abandon

It’s not enough to make sure you understand a source you come across, you also have to ask yourself how you’re going to evaluate that source. Thinking critically means putting the information you’ve gathered into context with your own thoughts and knowledge. This means asking questions like, “Do I trust this source’s author(s)?” “Is their methodology for arriving at their conclusions sound?” or “What are the implications of believing this source?”. When we start critiquing our sources, we get an opportunity to put our own brain power towards our research.

Despite the structure of this section, you shouldn’t let yourself believe that understand strictly preceeds critique or that critique strictly comes afterwards. Often our critical process, where we try to figure out how to put the information we’ve been given into a broader context, opens up new ideas that help us understand the source better. It’s a back and forth process.

Notes Are Your Best Friend

If you’re just reading a couple short articles or essays on a topic, you might be able to reasonably hold everything you learn in your head. However, as your list of sources and your sources themselves get bigger, it’ll become harder and harder to keep track of it all on your own. Taking good notes is paramount to making sure that you’re able to not only retain what you learn, but that you’re able to conveniently access it later.

It’s hard to give exact advice when it comes to note taking. Note taking strategies are very personal, and you have to find something that works for you. You should always be critically refining your note taking strategies and figuring out where they can better serve you.

First, you should pay attention to what sorts of things you tend to write down, and what sorts of things you tend to reference. Do you find yourself constantly looking back to your notes to find definitions of terms that are important to your research topic? Maybe highlighting definitions in your notes would make them a better resource for you.

One thing that I find helpful is using bullet points in my notes to understand and summarize what I’m reading, and I use asterisks to note where I’m keeping track of my critical thoughts. This practice allows me to have a clear overview of key points made in the text without having to flip through the source. However, other people I know take all of their notes exclusively in the margins of the source text, highlighting quotes and cross refrencing passages. This practice works well if you regularly cite quotes, or enjoy deep analysis of texts.

It’s helpful to experiment with different media as you refine your note-taking practice. You might work best with a physical notebook, or maybe you’ll find that taking notes on a computer is more natural to you. Maybe you do best taking notes in a minimal, distraction free text editor. Maybe lots of organizational features from a larger piece of note taking software are really useful to you. Maybe you do well with heirarchical outlines, or scattered bulletpoints. Trial and error is the best way to discover what system works for you, and keep in mind that your system might very well vary based on the subject.

Handling Jargon

We are often held back from feeling confident in our understanding of a topic because of new jargon. Terms we don’t recognize can make us throw up our hands and say: “There is no way I can ever understand this.”

The situation worsens when we see cocky young people or grizzled older people who rattle off unfamiliar terms from psychology, electronics, chemistry, software, or any other field. We might think; “Other people get this; why don’t I?” These hot-shots will happily talk about RAM, DIMMS, and affect (as a noun), and Bayesan priors, and FMRIs, and conditional probability, and Brownian motion, and van der Waals forces, and rear differentials, and carburetors, and op-amps, and TTL versus CMOS, and FETs, and P-N junctions, and Shannon Entropy, and round robin process scheduling, and, and, and …

Until, eventually, we find ourselves completely lost in a forest of words we don’t recognize unable to see the path out.

The truth is that terminology is just a superficial part of a topic. The person who walks in to electronics class and has no trouble talking about resistors, and capacitors, and inductors might know the jargon but probably does not know how to actually calculate what happens in that circuit, or how to match it with others.

You and the rest of the class will all be learning that material together, and their head-start will be slight, not overwhelming. Knowing the jargon might give one a language to talk about the subject, but it does not neseccarily demonstrate extensive knowledge of the subject.

Suspension of Not-getting-it-ness

In theater, there is a concept called “suspension of disbelief.” This idea dates back to Aristotle, Horace, and Cicero, and the fortunate wording was formulated by Samuel Coleridge.

We willingly suspend our disbelief to enjoy a play at the theater, or a movie, or any work of fiction: we ignore the dissonance and grasp the parts that matter. We don’t see a dramatic fight scene and constantly say: “That’s not real! This is fake!” While we might occasionally think that, especially if it is executed poorly, we typically don’t make a habit of it. For if we were to do so, it would ruin out suspension of disbelief and at some level make the entertainment useless.

Just as you would use “suspension of disbelief” to enjoy the theater, you can use the “suspension of not-getting-it-ness” to avoid getting weighed down by jargon. If I run in to this phrase:

The popularity of the op amp as a building block in analog circuits is due to its versatility. (from the [WikipediaOpAmp] Wikipedia article on Op Amps)

When it comes to your appraoch, you have some choices as you read this sentence. Here are three, and there could be others.

  1. I do not know the expression “analog circuits”, so I will stop what I am doing until I have learned what analog circuits are.

  2. I don’t understand one or a few of these terms so I am give up on reading the article.

  3. I can tell myself that some circuits are called “analog circuits” (some time in the future I will look that up), and they can be enhanced by using something called an “op amp”, which I’m guessing is a clever piece of electronics.

All three are valid, but option C is most often the best use of your time. As you read further, you might decide you need to learn more about analog circuits, or you might find that the context of the article taught you as much as you needed. It’ also possible that you might discover that the article itself is a side show to a larger topic, or, that the discussion of analog circuits is a side show. Often articles used for research are used by professionals to talk amoungst other professionals, so it very well may be that that material is not needed to understand the topic at large, or even just the topic of your research. Option A gets in your way by making you go down a side path on something that might end up being irrelevant. If you keep reading and realize that you’re not going to understand your focus topic until you understand op amps better, then maybe do some research. However, you might be able to save yourself a lot of time by trying option C first. Option B makes you give up prematurely when it’s quite possible that you would have understood the article anyway, or at the very least assured yourself that the article was irrelevant to your research topic.

Your approach to learning terminology should be one of letting the terms wash over you in a relaxed and flexible manner. Picture a sushi conveyor belt, or a baggage carousel at the airport. You can watch as different terms pass by you, observing the ones you don’t recognize, and picking up which ones you want to eat, I mean, investigate further. Some terms might stick quickly, others only when you spend more time on them, but you should never feel that you do not belong. At some point, even the most brilliant of minds were in your shoes. Jargon, like any other skill, comes with time and exposure.

Focus on the essence of what you are looking up, rather than getting stuck when you see a new term. As you read or listen, flag new terms to look up later, and see how far you can keep reading without that term.

The Dream of Full Understanding?

You should not feel guilt, or not feel that you are “copping out”, when you suspend your not-getting-it-ness.

The feeling of copping out might come from the fact that back in an earlier, more innocent, part of your academic career you were able to really understand the underpinnings of everything you learned. Now, as you advance, we say to you: “Abandon that path!”

The last polymath, if polymaths even ever existed, would have lived a very, very, long time ago. It has not been possible to learn and understand everything for a long time now.

The advent of computer software, unlimited storage, the world wide web, and all the accumulated knowledge that has come in its wake, have made the world’s body of knowledge so complex that it is not possible to understand it all.

Just as you admit that you read a book without knowing the chemistry of ink, and you ride in a car without having calculated the heat dissipation from the cylinders yourself, you can also put up with not fully understanding the entire collection of tools that you use. You will want to do the best you can to “get the big picture” of what you’re reading, without getting stuck on jargon and details.

Building Blocks: Prefixes and Suffixes

Jargon is not without reason. Like all things, terminology is made up of smaller parts. The English language is considered a germanic language, meaning it has been primarily influenced by German grammar and basic vocabulary. However, English also borrows from many other languages, including Latin and Greek.

Throughout Europe in the medieval and renaissance period, Latin was considered “the language of the learned” or “the language of scholarship.” Tracing back to the Roman Empire, Latin was the language of administration, law, literature, and intellectual discourse. As Latin began to leave the vernacular, its roots stuck around in scientific and academic language, so too with Greek. Thus, much of the jargon you’ll encounter will contain latin and greek roots, often in the form of prefixes and suffixes.

If you have a basic understanding of some commonly used greek and latin affixes, you’re ability to make educated guesses about the meanings of different terms will multiple ten fold.

Here are some that are frequently used in scientific terminology:

Latin Prefixes

  1. Anti-: meaning against (ie. antibiotic, antifungal)

  2. Co-: meaning together (ie. coexist, cooperate)

  3. Ex-: meaning out of, former (ie. exclude, ex-president)

  4. In-: meaning not, opposite (ie. invisible, incapable)

  5. Inter-: meaning between, among (ie. interact, international)

  6. Per-: meaning through, completely (ie. permeate, promote)

  7. Pro-: meaning before, in favor of (ie. proactive, promote)

  8. Re-: meaning again, back (ie. repeat, regain)

Greek Prefixes

  1. A-: meaning without, not (ie. amoral, atypical)

  2. Bio-: meaning life (ie. biology, biodegradable)

  3. Geo-: meaning earth (ie. geology, geography)

  4. Hyper-: meaning over, excessive (ie. hyperactive, hypersensitive)

  5. Hypo-: meaning under, below normal (ie. hypothermia, hypodermic)

  6. Micro-: meaning small (ie. microscope, microorganism)

  7. Neo-: meaning new (ie. neologism, neonatal)

  8. Poly-: meaning many, multiple (ie. polygon, polygraph)

Latin Suffixes

  1. -ology: meaning study or science of (ie. biology, psychology)

  2. -tion/-sion: meaning act or state of (ie. reflection, decision)

  3. -ism: meaning system, docterine, condition (ie. capitalism, communism)

  4. -ity: meaning state or quality of (ie. integrity, diversity)

  5. -ment: meaning result or product of (ie. development, improvement)

  6. -able/-ible: meaning capable of (ie. readable, flexible)

  7. -ate: meaning to make or cause (ie. activate, educate)

Greek Suffixes

  1. -phobia: meaning fear of (ie. arachnophobia, claustrophobia)

  2. -itis: meaning inflammation (ie. arthritis, bronchitis)

  3. -graphy: meaning writing or recording (ie. photography, biography)

  4. -meter: meaning measurement (ie. thermometer, speedometer)

  5. -scope: meaning intrument for viewing (ie. microscope, telescope)

  6. -cyte: meaning cell (ie. erythrocyte, leukocyte)

Remembering this when you are the writer

The goal is not to write without jargon: that has its own set of problems. Indeed, the replacement for jargon is often a collection of heavy phrases that get in the way of the reader’s flow. Jargon was often introduced for good reasons, so rather than abandoning it we should shepherd it carefully.

One goal should be to either explain the jargon, or to craft your phrasing carefully so that its meaning becomes clear just from the reading of the text. The other goal is to not introduce extra jargon from other fields. This comes up a lot with the use of acronyms and initialisms. Acronyms are almost always specific to a certain field of business or engineering. You are not helping your readers by using them. Often you can just write out the entire expression, and many readers will be grateful.

To give an example: in the United States you could say FBI or CIA, and readers would probably not mind. But unless you are writing for a very select audience, you should not drop the expression MOSFET (which stands for “metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect-transistor”) casually. You probably don’t want to specify that level of detail at all, but if you do want to drop it into a phrase, you could give the full expansion of the initials.

For example, a phrase could look like “In 1947 researchers at Bell Labs had invented the field effect transistor - a small device that allowed an electric field to control the flow of current through a circuit. This made the field effect transistor, abbreviated as FET, capable of being both an amplifier or a switch.

In 1959, again at Bell Labs, this design was improved by the invention of a smaller and cheaper device called the “metal oxide semiconductor field effect transistor”. This new device, abbreviated as MOSFET, used sandwiched layers of metal, oxide, is the basis of modern digital (computers, …) and analog (radio, stereos, …) electronics.

An Exercise

I mentioned Aristotle, Horace, Cicero, and Coleridge in section “Suspension of Not-Getting-Itness.” Pretend you have not heard of some, or all, of these writers and try reading this section anyway. Your mind could assimilate it like this:

There were some folk, Aristotle, Horace, and Cicero, who probably lived in ancient times. They came up with a way of thinking about fiction and why we are able to appreciate a story even when we know it is not true to fact.

Then another fellow Coleridge came along and coined the phrase “suspension of disbelief”, which I think I’ve heard before and I like it; I’ll remember it.

Now the author of this book is suggesting that I apply a similar idea to things I don’t understand rather than to things that are not true. He comes up with an expression that is not nearly as good as Coleridge’s phrase, so I won’t remember it. But I get his point: I need to be flexible as I learn, and not insist on fully understanding everything.

Building Connections

While sitting in the uncertainty of a new topic or field is important, you often aren’t as lost or far from understanding as you think. Over the course of your life, you’ve undoubtedly learned quite a bit about being a human being, and it would be shocking if you found a source that was entirely disconnected from that experience. The experiences and knowledge you’ve gathered throughout your life will undoubtedly come in handy as you try and approach other people’s scholarship.

For example, when I first read Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, I was incredibly daunted by the text. Heidegger essentially invents his own set of vocabulary to tackle what he saw as problems with existing Western Philosophy, which made it really hard to wrap my head around his writing. However, many of his ideas on Being reminded me more and more of my experiences of building relationships with other people. Heidegger talks about truth as a sort of uncovering, of making clear what was originally obscured. It made more sense to me when I thought about the ways that people’s character becomes clearer to me when I interact with them alone rather than in a crowd of people. I get to see their personality “uncovered,” less inhibited by a need to conform to the expectations of a large gathering. While my analogy there isn’t perfect, it helped me gain leverage in understanding Heidegger’s concept of uncovering in a way that just pouring over the text alone wouldn’t have.

When you connect what you’re reading to your own experiences, don’t think of them as being exactly the same, but think of them as analogous. What between your life and the object of study is similar? Even more importantly, where do your experiences diverge from your object of study? Once you’re able to start identifying those points of divergence, you know that you’re pushing past just your prior experiences and into the topic of study itself!

It’s also helpful to connect your topic to other things you’ve read or learned about. In any field, you will find overlap and cross applications. You should always be asking yourself if you can leverage anything from fields you already have experience with to give you some sort of new knowledge in the subject you’re studying.

In knot theory, mathematicians found that physicists were using some of the same mathematical structures as them to understand quantum fields, so the mathematicians leveraged the techniques the physicists use on quantum fields to understand more about knots.

These connections aren’t just a way to develop understandings, they can also serve as a basis for critique. When I make this connection between uncovering and relationships, not only am I learning more about Heidegger, but I’m also creating an opportunity for Heidegger to teach me more about relationships. Physicists in the quantum field research are now using the mathematical techniques developed by knot theorists to better inform their physics.

Where Is This Source Coming From?

An important thing to always turn a critical eye to is where your sources are coming from. Everyone who is doing research has some set of biases underlying their work. Some of these are benign or difficult to control for. Sometimes, however, we can know that an author might have an incentive to make a certain kind of conclusion. Any time you research a source, ask where the information is coming from and why it is being presented the way that it is.

Sometimes, when you find a connection between a source and who made it, a negative connection is clear. Famously, tobacco companies hire researchers who very conveniently report that tobacco has much lower health risks than researchers not hired by tobacco companies. The researchers have a financial incentive to make their results favorable to the companies, because if they produce research that says otherwise they risk losing funding.

Sometimes the source putting out an article doesn’t seem to have much bias, but the sources the article cites do. This article from CNN reports on hyperloop, a train venture funded by Elon Musk. CNN itself doesn’t have any incentive to promote hyperloop, but the only sources they cite are published by the company that produces the train, and the only individuals who comment in the piece are Virgin Hyperloop employees. This isn’t a piece of journalism where the journalist is critically asking serious questions of their subject. Despite being on a “news” website, this article is more of a press release from a company; an announcement made by Hyperloop on the CNN platform.

Always pay attention to where an article is getting its information, and who they are citing. Many times a political pundit or an interested party will be framed as an expert source, but they can hardly be trusted to be impartial. Always keep in mind that what might be driving the publication of an article or other source could be more than just a good faith pursuit of truth.